Syncretic Electric: Communities or Movements?

Stonehenge, John Constable, 1835

Stonehenge, John Constable, 1835

Before Christmas, I wrote that Paganism could perhaps be better understood if we examined it through the lens of culture. Now, a month or so later, after a few conversations and some time for reflection, I feel that I must retreat a bit from that position. After suggesting that Paganism might be best understood as a culture, I then came to fear that perhaps my words could be understood as an attempt to silence the voices of faith, and this was not by any means my intention.

Now, I do think that Paganism constitutes more than religion at this point in its evolution, and that we are indeed building up a culture of our own. We have festivals, there are genres of Pagan music and art, we have developed codified modes of self-presentation and dress: all of this demonstrates that we have developed a culture all our own. However, I also think that it is important to remember what this culture has grown up around. The core of Pagan culture is Pagan religious practice. While I do think that great insights can be gained by looking at the culture of Paganism, I think that we will do ourselves and our community a great disservice if we disregard the religious and spiritual elements of that culture.

I am not arguing that we return to sectarian bickering regarding the nature of true Pagan belief, no. However, I do think that it is important for us, when discussing Pagan community, to remember the role that faith plays in that community, and not to disregard it because it makes us uncomfortable. Indeed, true self-understanding is rarely comfortable, and this is what makes it so important. How much more so must this experience be amplified when we are dealing with an entire community?

Discussions of the nature of Paganism are necessarily complex, because Paganism has come to represent so much. It is now necessary, I believe, for us to employ a multivalent approach to the understanding of Paganism, an approach that employs a variety of discourses and modes of understanding. However, in so doing, we must be careful not to allow any one mode of understanding to overpower and silence the other. Paganism might be best understood from a variety of perspectives, as each perspective will serve to illuminate different elements within the Pagan community. We must be careful not to reduce Paganism down to any single theme, since there are a variety of powerful and important forces all acting within the Pagan community.

Of course, it is also, important for us to consider, I suggest, whether we find much use in thinking of ourselves as a Pagan community, or if we would be better off thinking of Paganism instead as something like a movement. Part of the difficulty, it seems, in discussing Pagan community and, thus, identity, is that each individual faith group within Paganism has a different understanding of identity, as well as all of the unaffiliated Pagans who do not claim membership to any particular organization, coven, or structure. When we try and reduce Pagan identity down to just a few tenets of precepts, we unavoidably alienate some portion of the community.

Perhaps, instead of thinking of Paganism as a community of roughly similar parts, we would be best to think of it as a movement, or series of movements, sharing a common origin, but diverging along different developmental paths. Considered in this fashion, perhaps we can take a much gentler approach to understanding not only the spiritual, but also cultural and historic concerns and underpinnings of Modern Paganism. Further, by thinking of Paganism as a movement, we may be free to dispense with considerations of overarching Pagan identity. Group identity could be left to the determinations of the discrete groups within Paganism. The end result, then, would be that we are no longer talking about Paganism, but about many diverse Paganisms.

If we think about Paganism as a movement, then we are also free to discuss our various theologies without indulging in sectarian disputes over what sort of belief constitutes the truest expression of Paganism. Perhaps, in this way, we will be able to discuss spiritual and theological matters without viewing alternative views as necessarily in conflict with our own. It troubles me when I see people laying out their own beliefs by attacking or denigrating the views and beliefs of others. Further, I find it disturbing when people attempt to justify their beliefs by making totalizing statements about the nature of the Gods, divinity, or other spiritual phenomena with which Paganisms may concern themselves. It does no one any good to assert that all manners of spiritual or religious experiences are identical to our own, and I wonder, perhaps, if our implicit consideration of Paganism as a single community does not, in fact, encourage us to flatten or normalize Pagan religious experience.

Indeed, while I think that great insights can be gained by examining Modern Paganism as a culture, it is important, in so doing, not to lose track of the religious and spiritual elements of Paganism. I suspect that a multivalent approach that considers Paganism as a set of movements may be the most helpful in coming to understand how we got where we are, and what forces have shaped our development. Such an understanding, I believe, will be invaluable as we progress forward into this new century.


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About Julian Betkowski

Julian Betkowski is an artist currently living in Washington State and has been a practicing Pagan for the last ten years. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, with the intention of setting up a private counseling practice to serve the Pagan and Queer communities.

  • Eric Reber

    The experience of paganism is so subjective. I have taken to task a few who were “bible thumping” their own paths as the most “true”. I feel like this mindset is often a hold over from previous Christian experiences.

    • Julian Betkowski

      Unfortunately, Pagans can be just as rigid and controlling as the mainstream religions that many of us rebel against. I do think that this is a complex topic, though, and defies easy explanation. Particularly because, at least at the present moment, so many Pagans are converts, and the psychology of conversion, at this point fairly well studied, has suggested that once one abandons one religion and converts to another, one tends to more deeply entrench oneself in this new religious identity. Therefore, people are often much more sensitive about their new religious identity that they were about their previous one, and behave much more defensively regarding it.

      It may have less to do with Christianity, and more to do with our general societal understanding of religion and identity.

  • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

    “Further, by thinking of Paganism as a movement, we may be free to
    dispense with considerations of overarching Pagan identity. Group
    identity could be left to the determinations of the discrete groups
    within Paganism. The end result, then, would be that we are no longer
    talking about Paganism, but about many diverse Paganisms.”

    I want to know lots and lots more.

    If it’s a movement, what are its goals? And is it then defined better oppositionally (that is, what the Paganisms are that other movements/religions are not) or internally?

    And movements generally are triggered by something, either towards or as a reaction to something, yeah? If so, what incepts Paganism? Or, even better, “what’s if for” or what is it on about?

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