Chicago Pagan Pride

I just got back from Chicago Pagan Pride and I am having my obligatory Pagan identity crisis.

I was pleased with the turnout at the event.  There were hundreds of people there, not all of them Pagan I think.  There were about two dozen booths.  Although most of them selling the obligatory crystals and nondescript jewelry, there were a few unique vendors.  And they had three sets of workshops running simultaneously throughout the event, with 10 to 20 people attending each workshop, although the topics of the workshops were along the lines of magic(k), crystals, astrology, and paranormal investigation — none of which has anything to do with my religious practice.  I went to hear Johnny Rapture speak about Pagan monotheism — a topic he has blogged about before.  I also went to an introduction to Heathenry, to educate myself.

The venue was nice too, a national historical landmark building set on a lightly wooded 4 1/2 acre park in suburban Oak Park, Illinois.  Somebody had actually assigned rooms in the historical building for each workshop, which showed an unusual amount of organization for a Pagan event (although the room numbers did keep moving around).  Someone had even planned children’s events to overlap the workshops — craft time, story time, etc. — but I never found the location, which was disappointing for me and for my 9 year old daughter, and possibly for a lot of other kids I saw at the event.

I was pleased to see a higher percentage than usual of people dressed in mainstream clothes — although there were plenty of goths, hippies, ren faire enthusiasts, and (worst of all) robed witches and wizards.  Hey, it was Pagan Pride Day after all!  Even I wore a black T-shirt with a Pagan theme and wore my Yggdrasil necklace outside of my shirt.  Whoa, don’t go crazy now John!  I confess to being one of those Pagans who wants to be taken seriously by mainstream society and sees fairy wings and magic staffs as an impediment to that.

So what do I have in common with all these folks?  I’m still not sure.  Not taste in attire, that’s for sure.  And not interest in discussion topics, as indicated by the workshops at the event (which is typical Pagan fare).  I remember my disappointment at discovering that a group calling itself the Pagan Academic Network, located at nearby Purdue University, busied itself with weekly meetings on subjects like divination, reiki, levitation (no shit!), stones and crystals, and “fae and magickal creatures”.

So where do I fit in?  I’m a panentheist.  I’m a Jungian (soft) polytheist.  I’m a naturalistic (non-theistic) Pagan.  I am an eclectic Neopagan.  I am a nature religionist.  And I am a Goddess (capital “G”) worshiper.  And it seems that all or most of these descriptors actually put me on the margins of what is now contemporary Paganism.

Pagans have congregated around various descriptors at different times.  “Earth-centered” was popular for a while.  But it excluded ceremonial magicians and theurgists — not something that bothers me since I distinguish what most of them are doing from what I do.  But I have to admit that my practice is possibly more self-centered than Earth-centered, and I certainly do not have the environmental chops to satisfy groups like Reclaiming that I am really earth-centered.  (I only recently began composting.)  Still, I embrace the term “earth-centered”, even though it is now disfavored among Pagans.

“Non-Christian” or “Non-Judeo-Christian-Islamic” is another term that Pagan congregate around.  But there are Jewitches and Christo-Pagans.  In addition, saying you are not Christian doesn’t say much about what you are.  Although, I think that contrasting Neopaganism with the Abrahamic faiths or the “religions of the book” is useful for defining what Neopaganism is:

1.  Neopagans tend look to pre- and non-JCI cultures, myths, and religious practices for inspiration.

2.  Neopagans generally are not monotheists.  (Johnny Rapture would disagree.)  The tend to be polytheists, henotheists, pantheists, panentheists, duotheists, animists, and even monists.

3.  Neopagans generally don’t see divinity exclusively as transcendent.  The divinities of Neopaganism are usually conceived as immanent in some sense.

4.  Neopagans are not patriarchal (at least not consciously).  Most Neopagans believe that women should share religious power equally, and, if divinity is conceived as male, then it is also conceived as female.

5.  Neopagans reject the submission/dominance model with the earth.  This is replaced with a stewardship/care model.  Although, admittedly there are some Christians moving in this direction.

6.  Neopagans reject the concepts of sin or salvation.  These are replaced with concepts of healing and compassion, and results in a pro-body and pro-sex ethic.

7.  Neopagans don’t have a concept of a fall.  For Neopagans, the primary experience of divinity is one of connection, not alienation — connection to divinity, to earth, and to one another.  T. Thorn Coyle has argued that this distinction is at the core of what makes us Pagan.

8.  Neopagans don’t see time as leading linearly to a final apocalypse or to heaven.  Instead most Neopagans emphasize the cyclical nature of time (whether or not this translates into a belief in the literal transmigration of the soul).

9.  Neopagans don’t hold any scripture or book as infallibly authoritative.

But while contrasting ourselves with Christianity and the other monotheisms is useful, “non-JCI” still not a good descriptor, since obviously there are lots of other religions that are also not JCI religions.

Another designator that Pagans have gathered around is “magic(k) practitioners”.  Now this label does seems to me to be generally accurate.  Unfortunately for my sense of Pagan identity, I do not describe myself in this way.  I have serious reservations about magic and its association with Paganism, which I have posted about before, especially if by “magic” one means energy work or practical magic.  My naturalistic bent excludes me from most Pagan groups which embrace magical practice.  I was fortunate though to recently discover a group of naturalistic Pagans at Yahoo.

Several other of my self-identifiers also exclude me from the majority of Pagans:  Jungian, Goddess worshiper, eclectic, and Neo-pagan.  All of these terms seem to have fallen into disfavor among many Pagans.  The term “Neopagan” has been criticized and is even used pejoratively now by traditionalists and recons.  Phaedra Bonewits still resists this trend and advocates for her late husband’s tripartite division of Paleopagans, Mesopagans, and Neopagans.  I prefer the term “Retro-Pagan”, in contrast to Neopagan.  (I am indebted to the Pagan Princesses for this term.)

This bring me to the term that currently seems to be the identifier du jour for most Pagans: polytheist.  In fact, many people are discarding the term Pagan for the term polytheist.  The growth of hard polytheism in the last decade or so is something that very little has been written about.  But I am finding that this trend is another reason I am questioning my identity as a (Neo-)Pagan.  It seems to be the hard polytheists who take issue with all the identifiers I mentioned above: Jungian, Goddess, and eclectic.

At Johnny Rapture’s workshop that I attended today, one woman attempted to explain how tolerant of Jungian Pagans she is, but the fact that she feels the need to be tolerant speaks volumes.  Later, when I “came out” as Jungian to the group, Johnny’s quick response was that he has lots of friends who are Jungian.  [I don't mean to give Johnny a hard time.  I understood the spirit in which his comment was intended, and it was comforting to know there actually are other Jungians out there still.  And actually one of the points of his workshop, I think, was to remind us how diverse contemporary Paganism is.  But I do wonder ...] When did Jung become the redheaded stepchild of Paganism?  All of these people have the best of intentions, but their responses only demonstrate how marginalized Jungian Paganism has become.  (Tomorrow, my essay addressing this issue, “The archetypes are gods: Re-godding the archetypes“, will be posted at the Humanistic Paganism blog.)

I asked the group at Johnny’s workshop what they think has caused the growth of hard polytheism.  The woman mentioned above referred to Janet Farrar’s (and Gavin Bone) movement in that direction, which is reflected in their latest book Progressive Witchcraft and I have blogged about previously.  This is undoubtedly significant, since Janet and her late husband, Stewart, were heavily influenced by Jung and likely encouraged many others in that direction. For example, in their boo The Witches’ Way, they wrote: “The purpose of Wicca, as a religion, is to integrate conflicting aspects of the human psyche with each other, and the whole with the Cosmic Psyche.”  So have someone as prominent as Janet, who was previously Jungian, now adopt a hard polytheistic theology is bound reverberate in the Pagan community.  I am sure there are examples of other authors and Pagan leaders moving in this direction as well.

The woman also mentioned the interaction of Paganism with the African diaspora religions of Voudun, Santeria, Candomble, Macumba, and Yoruba.  Certainly, there seems to be a fascination with these religions and with trance-work generally among Pagans.  However, I was curious whether there really is any interaction between Pagans and actual practitioners of these groups.  There was a Voudou tent at the Chicago Pagan Pride Day.  So I took the opportunity to ask the owner if there were any open Voudun groups in Chicago.  He told me there are groups, but they are quite private, and it took him years to get his foot in the door.  He is training to become an initiate, and he explained how the Neopagan appropriation of Voudun differs from the actual Voudun priesthood.  From what he described, it seems about as different as Scott Cunningham-esque Wicca 101 is from traditional, initiatory British Wicca, probably more so.

I think the growth of hard polytheism is more likely a reaction against the idea of the gods as Jungian archetypes.  Somehow, the notion of the gods as archetypes got watered down over the years so that Pagans began using the terms “archetype” and “metaphor” as synonyms.  This gave the impression that the gods were “just psychological” and therefore not real.  I think the movement toward hard polytheism may have been in reaction to this psychologization of the gods, since the gods of hard polytheism seem more “real” to many people.  It is about this subject that I wrote the essay which will be published tomorrow on B. T. Newberg’s Humanistic Paganism blog.

So, like many others, I am wondering: Is there a place for me in contemporary Paganism?  I think so, but it seems to be on the edge of the circle.  I’m not ready to take my Goddess and my Jung and quit the playground, but my corner of the sandbox is starting to feel kind of isolated.

  • http://rubysara.wordpress.com Ruby Sara

    Ah yes…the post-hanging-out-with-other-Neopagans identity crisis. :) I know it well.

    I’ve blogged about this before, but I think the split you’re describing (between those who identify as “hard” polytheists and those who are, as you call it, Jungian “soft” polytheists…which is of course, only one of the many different disparate positions located within the nebulous rubric of Neopaganism) is one of the reasons I personally object to the umbrella term at this point. I find it questionable that any meaningful community building can happen where there is no “unitive story,” theology or worldview. Since Neopaganism(s) tends to reject unitive principles in favor of categorical bullet points, which are by their nature open to an incredibly wide interpretation, yet maintains itself as a single thing (religion, collective, etc) called “Paganism,” I believe it will always be the case that general “Pagan” events will by their nature always present these exact kind of identity issues in a range of individuals, which in my mind, prevents authentic community from prospering. Because folks gathering together naturally want to gather with like minds, the pendulum will always swing towards one or two theological positions (right now, as you noted and as I also have perceived, the pendulum seems to be swinging largely towards a hard polytheistic approach, at least in the way it presents itself largely in prominent online and conversational circles), and those not falling within those positions will feel left out of the greater community and question their place in it. This is why I personally think Neopaganism would benefit more from splitting into different categories at the least, if not specific religious groupings. But, as I’ve discovered, this is not a popular notion at the moment. ;) And of course, it may be a completely and utterly wrong and ridiculous notion…it’s just the one I happen to have right now.

    I hope your experiences at Pagan Pride were good overall! I wish I could have been there to say hello. :)

    RS

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      It was a generally positive experience, and I should have said that.

      What different religious groupings or categories do you have in mind? I think that some polytheists are already discarding the “umbrella” designator Pagan. You have yourself as well, haven’t you?

      • http://rubysara.wordpress.com Ruby Sara

        That’s a great question. Cultural polytheists, Jungian Archetypalists, Goddessians, Earth-based folk practitioners, and various combinations? All unwieldy terms, but at least, IMO, descriptive. Of course, I don’t have the answer, really. Ultimately I think it would be best to lable ourselves with the more specific religion that we practice – Wicca, Kemetic Orthodoxy, Nova Roma, Thelema, etc. But I understand there exists a very large population of those who identify only as “Pagan,” which is easier to say, but requires so much explanation afterwards that I personally find it easier to say outright, “I’m an earth-centered folk magic practitioner with interests in Hellenic polythiesm, anarchist Christianity and I’m currently cultivating a burgeoning relationship to the Religious Society of Friends.” Complicated, but in my mind, more descriptive, and without the complications of tearing through the complicated mess of:

        “I’m Pagan.”
        “Oh, so you’re Wiccan?”
        “No…well…no.”
        “Oh. So what’s a Pagan?”
        “Well, it’s all these different things, but we all kind of agree on some things, except when we don’t.”
        “Oh. So…what do you believe?”
        “Well, I’m an earth-centered folk magic practitioner….”

        Johnny and I used to attend a monthly Christian/Pagan interfaith conversation and we both felt like for the first year of that conversation we mostly spent unpacking the term Pagan (for our sake as well as for our Christian friends) so that the group could begin to have a meaningful interfaith conversation from a place of mutual theological understanding.

        I know, as you’ve mentioned, that some polytheists are discarding the term, for various reasons (mostly I think because of the term’s synonymous relationship with Wicca and Wiccanate theocultural markers) and as you’ve noted, I myself have been attempting to do so. I say attempting, because I’ve been identifying with this label for 20+ years now, and discarding any identity is always difficult business. :) It has worked better for me lately to think of the term P/pagan as a cultural descriptor rather than a theological one. But since I no longer feel that I fit in with the overarching culture of paganism as I perceive it (in addition to my thoughts on the nebulous nature of the term), I try not to use it as a personal identifyer anymore…at least I try to use it a lot less.

        -RS

  • http://gravatar.com/cartweel Johnny Rapture

    You caught me! After the workshop, I regretted my “I’ve got Jungian friends!” response to your Jungian self-identification, given that it smacks so strongly of the “well I’ve got a gay uncle!” trope! Let me also apologize for my rambling answer to your question about allowing religious groups to maintain their own theological self-description: To be honest, it was a great question that I’ve never had posed, and I was thinking out my answer as I spoke it! I’ve spent most of the day mulling the question over, so thanks for that.

    About your list of descriptors for Pagans: I’d disagree with more than just one of your points. For example, I wonder exactly what it means to practice “magical religion,” since the difference between magic and religion is so very murky, and what is and is not magic is hugely controversial. I might ask, do Catholic exorcists perform magic? Do Buddhists? If so, then it would seem to me that using “magical religion” to describe Paganism is altogether very useful. Or — there are plenty of Pagan Thelemites, and they *do* have a holy scripture. What do we do with that?

    I’m glad you attended my workshop, but I’m sad I didn’t realize that it was you whom I was talking with! Thanks for posting your thoughts.

    • http://gravatar.com/cartweel Johnny Rapture

      I meant to say “then it would seem to me that using “magical religion” to describe Paganism ISN’T altogether very useful.”

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      I really should have added about that I understood the spirit in which your comment was intended. The humorousness of it only struck me later. I should also add that yours was a very insightful and interesting workshop and I’d really like to see more like that. After 30+ (or 60+?) years, I think we are still just scratching the surface of the depths of theological possibility that is Paganism. I actually only came to the event to attend your workshop, and I was not disappointed. (By the way, when are you going to start blogging again?)

      As far as the question of magic goes, personally (and I know this is not a majority opinion) I do think that a lot of Christian prayer etc. is magic, of the instrumental or practical variety. And that is part of why I object to it. At the risk of getting on my soapbox, and of overgeneralizing as well, what drew me to Paganism was the notion that, while Christianity teaches that “the human intellectual will is to have dominion over the world, and over the unruly lesser parts of the human psyche, as it, in turn, is to be subordinate to the One God and his will”, Neopaganism teaches that “we must cooperate with nature and its deep forces on a basis of reverence and exchange. Of the parts of man, the imagination should be first among equals, for man’s true glory is not in what he commands, but in what he sees.  What wonders he sees of nature and of himself he leaves untouched, save to glorify and celebrate them.” (Ellwood and Partin). It seems to me that instrumental or practical magic, whether Christian, Thelemite, or Pagan (at least as it is usually practiced by Pagans) runs counter to the Neopagan ethos described above. It seems like an exercise of “power over” (to borrow Starhawk’s terms), rather than “power with”. I have had a few online exchanges about this with Ruby Sara, Allison Leigh Lilly, and T. Thorn Coyle, who all seem have a different kind of magical practice in mind, one that is more about connection than control, and I am interested to learn more about this. But what they describe seems very different than the typical “energy” raising done by most Pagans.

      I agree though that none of these terms used to describe Paganism, in and of themselves, is sufficient — including “magical religion”. Your point that those that congregate under the Pagan banner are more diverse than any of us realize is well taken. Perhaps the emphasis on these various descriptors over the years does not actually reflect changes in beliefs, but only changes in what a vocal minority are talking about.

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