[Editor's note: This post was submitted as a response to this month's writing prompt, "As Pagans, what do we hope to build?" Julian explains his contribution as being not about building per se, but rather about constructively re-orienting the idea of Paganism. Read on...]
All of this talk of metaphors for spiritual experience has put me in mind of a book I recently read that has been very influential to my understanding: Jorge Ferrer’s Revisioning Transpersonal Theory. In it, he reexamines the metaphor of the great spiritual ocean:
The ocean shared by most traditions does not correspond to a single referent or to “things as they really are,” but perhaps, more humbly, to the overcoming of self-centeredness, and this a liberation from corresponding limiting perspectives and understandings. (Ferrer, 2002, p. 144)
If we are all traveling down tributaries to some great spiritual ocean, what will we find there? This ocean may not refer to truth, or shared experience at all. In fact, it may be best to think about the ocean as representing a way of being in the world, a way of relating to ourselves and others, that has nothing at all to do with any transcendent truth.
To recapitulate, the common ocean to which most spiritual tradition lead is not a pregiven spiritual ultimate, but the Ocean of Emancipation, a radical shift in perspective that involves the deconstruction of the Cartesian ego, the eradication of self-imposed suffering, and the rise of selfless perception, cognition, and action. The entry into the Ocean of Emancipation, however, is not necessarily the zenith of spiritual development, but may rather be the starting point of genuine spiritual inquiry. Furthermore, although this access may be ushered in by the emergence of transconceptual cognition, there are a variety of transconceptual disclosures of reality, some for which the spiritual traditions are vehicles, and others whose enaction may presently require a more creative participation. (Ferrer, 2002, p. 149)
What if the ocean was where we started, and in fact we were journeying outwards, some of us following the stars, sailing known routes, and others just exploring, meandering toward whatever shore awaits them? What if the ocean was simply the surface upon which we sailed, if, as a metaphor, it was the medium and not the message? Perhaps we are all simply explorers, and the destination is entirely of our choosing. What if there are many shores, many lands, many unique and wonderful opportunities?
I honestly didn’t purposefully come to Paganism, I just kind of arrived here one day. There was a point on my spiritual journey when I realized that everyone I was talking to, everyone whom I respected and with whom I could relate were Pagan, and I thought, “Well, I guess that means I’m Pagan, too.” I really didn’t think about it much, and for the vast majority of my time in the Pagan community, it never even occurred to me to identify as anything other than simply Pagan.
I would like for us to be able to, collectively, think of ourselves as Simply Pagan, for Pagan to be enough. I don’t think that we can really speak of Pagan community when we are constantly in the process of trying to define ourselves against each other. Indeed, I don’t know that Paganism should be define as against anything, in particular.
What if we could think of Paganism like the ocean in the above metaphor? What if Paganism was not a object, but an orientation? Maybe if we could conceive of Paganism as a way of being in the world, as a way of understanding our spirituality and our relationships, then we could think of ourselves as simply Pagan. Maybe if Paganism is somehow less and somehow more than a set of doctrines, or centers, or trends, but instead a way of being, of understanding, of relating, we could release our personal attachments and approach Paganism anew.
I think that the basis for this kind of understanding is already present. Many of us have an intuitive understanding of what is and what is not Pagan. I think that if we spend some time really examining those intuitions that we will learn some fascinating things. I think that if we sat down and reflected on how we are Pagan rather than what makes us Pagan or why we are Pagan, we might learn something really profound about the way we relate to the word, as well as the community. Perhaps from there we would find ourselves better equipped to return to community, and to return to communal understanding. Indeed, I believe that such an endeavor will allow us to find a truly expansive and inclusive understanding of Pagan and Paganism.
And yet, in my last essay here, I defined myself as a Polytheist. I felt the need to publicly modify my Paganism, and my place within the community. Part of my motivation for doing so was to make it clear that I am often speaking from a very particular theological perspective, but also because I have come to understand Polytheism as being a potentially more inclusive term than Pagan. Paradoxically, I find that the inclusivity of Polytheism relies on its precision. Many Gods to me implies many religious and spiritual experiences, each potentially unique and different. From my understanding of Polytheism springs a respect for the manifold variations and complexities of spirituality.
I grow uneasy when I see Paganism set itself up in opposition to other religious groups. Indeed, I feel that part of the great strength of Paganism is in its adulation of personal spiritual experience. Surely, then, all spiritual and religious experiences should be respected in some way, regardless of the tradition they emerge from. When Paganism plants itself firmly against the Abrahamic faiths, for instance, I feel as though Paganism is, in fact, working against itself. I am not saying that Paganism needs to embrace or incorporate these other traditions, merely that it should be capable of respecting them and their place in the greater religious milieu.
By focusing on doctrines and traditions, I fear that we are often working against the community project. If we are seriously committed to building and maintaining Pagan community, then we need to examine the way we relate to our identities and the communal ramifications of our identities. I feel that Paganism has the potential to be incredibly inclusive, but also remain founded in practicality. I believe that a reexamination of our relationship to Paganism and Pagan identity is absolutely vital, and that perhaps approaching Paganism from another direction will open who new vistas of personal and communal possibilities.
I would love for us to be able to think of ourselves as simply Pagan. I would love for us not to move past our differences, but to revel in them, and for our differences to be the things that make Paganism really special, really worthwhile. I think we can achieve this if we think of Paganism not as the place where we live, but as the journey we are taking, each of us together with the rest. If we can conceive of Paganism as an orientation, then I believe that we will soon come to find our differences to be intoxicating rather than alienating.
Ferrer, J. (2002). Revisioning transpersonal theory: A participatory vision of human spirituality. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.