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.