(Neo-)Pagan Sensibility

I want to take a time out from my 2012 blogroll review and talk briefly about the latest attempt to resolve the Pagan identity-crisis.  No, I don’t mean Star Foster ditching the Pagan label a few of days ago — something which was not at all surprising given her attitude toward other Pagans six months ago, and even less surprising considering that, about a year before that, she abandoned the Wiccan label shortly after being initiated.  The evolution of Star’s religious quest makes for interesting reading (I think), but it’s not going to help anyone figure out what Paganism is.

What I am talking about is Jonathan Korman‘s post on “the Pagan sensibility” which was recently highlighted on The Wild Hunt.   Jonathan explains that he is a “Big Tent” Pagan — or “Big Umbrella” Pagan, if you prefer — which means that he believes there is room for everyone who wants to be included within that term.  The problem, of course, is that without a definition, terms like “Pagan” begin to be so inclusive that the term becomes meaningless.  Jonathan writes:

“[…] if we cannot describe pagan-ness, we end up with an unarticulated sense that Pagan means “Wicca and things like it”, which should satisfy no one. To sneak up on the problem, I want to resist questions as grandiose as Who Pagans Are or What Pagans Do or What Pagans Believe. (Indeed, that last is particularly pernicious; defining a religion in terms of what one believes is a distinctively Protestant move; let’s not go there.)

“Rather, I want to talk about what I call the “pagan sensibility” — note the deliberate use of the lower-case p.”

Thus, Jonathan attempts to define what he calls “pagan sensibility” by which he means what is pagan-ish, if you will.  To me, this seems like just another attempt to blur the boundaries of the definition of “Paganism” so as to make people more comfortable with the defining process itself.  The same thing can be accomplished by adding qualifiers like “generally” and “most”, ad nauseam, as in “Most Pagans generally believe …”.  Using a small “p” is an attempt to do the same thing.  It is an attempt to define the core of “Paganism” and leave the boundaries fuzzyElani Temperance wonders, after reading Jonathan’s post, “is defining the pagan sensibility more manageable than defining Paganism?”  I think I have to answer, “No.”

Still, I think Jonathan is on to something when he talks about “Pagan sensibility”.  “Sensibility”, in this sense means an acute perception of or responsiveness toward something; an ability to receive sensation. In other words, it is an experience, a bodily experience.  I see something similar in David Waldron’s attempt to define “Pagan consciousness” in his book, The Sign of the Witch: Modernity and the Pagan Revival.  Unfortunately, Waldron defines “Pagan consciousness” in terms of belief, which brings us back to square one.  But the idea of “Pagan consciousness”, like the idea of “Pagan sensibility”, are useful because they point to a shared experience which transcends belief.

Jonathan defines”Pagan sensibility” this way:

“The pagan sensibility sees the divine in the material world … and so regards the human as sacred.   The pagan sensibility apprehends the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different interconnected forces … and honors all of those forces.”

While this might still be read as a statement of Pagan belief (and using the term “apprehend” doesn’t really avoid this), it might also be read as statement about Pagan experience.  Jonathan goes on to explain that the first part of the definition means that Pagans “connect to the spiritual through engagement with the material world rather than separation from it.”  And here we really get to the heart of it, I think.  “Pagan consciousness” or “Pagan sensibility” might be defined as an experience of the immanence of divinity in nature and in oneself, an experience of immanence and interconnectedness.  I think that is what Jonathan’s definition tries to get at.

The difficulty is that this really does not resolve the problem of the multiple competing centers of Paganism.  What Jonathan has described is really the experience of earth-centered Paganism.  What about the deity-centered polytheists?  Or the lore-centered reconstructionists?  Do immanence and interconnectedness really define their experience?  I don’t think so.  What Jonathan has described is not Paganism, but Neo-Paganism; not a “Pagan sensibility”, but a “Neo-Pagan sensibility”.

Jonathan himself admits in the comments section to his post that he “would not be satisfied with a ‘pagan sensibility’ which does not describe Pagans who work to align themselves as closely as they can with the ancients after whom we have named the Pagan community.”  That makes sense.  How can we exclude from Paganism those who actually most closely resemble ancient pagans?  And it’s here that I think Jonathan stumbles on the a better definition of Paganism, one I have tried on before: “Contemporary Pagans are people who look to ancient paganism for religious inspiration.”  I like this definition because it is simple and obvious (i.e., contemporary Pagans are people who have something to do with ancient pagans).  And it includes, I think, everyone who would want to be included in the term, as well as those currently seeking to distance themselves from the term, while excluding the “kitchen sink” — like the African diasporic religions.

Note that, unlike the definition of Neo-Pagan sensibility, the definition of Paganism above is not set in terms of experience.  And this I think is key.  While deity-centered polytheists and non-theistic earth-centered Pagans share ancient paganism as a source of inspiration, we do not really share a common contemporary experience of spirituality.  Sure, we are perhaps all looking for transcendence in one form or another, but we are looking for very different kinds of experience of transcendenceDavid Dashifen Kees highlights this in his post on Pagan identity, where he tries to distinguish non-Pagan polytheists from Pagans in terms of transcendence and immanence.  And this is why Elani Temperance’s experience of deities is so hard for Jonathan to fit in his definition, as he implicitly acknowledges in the comments to his post when he says that “on the face of it, these [two understandings of the relationship of self to deity] seem completely divergent.”

So here’s my response in a nutshell:

1.  Using “sensibility” or “consciousness” instead of “belief” or does not make defining Paganism any easier.  Neither does using the small “p” or qualifiers like “most” or “generally”.

2.  Focusing on “experience” over “belief” is helpful.  While it does not make defining Paganism any easier, it does make it easier to define Neo-Paganism and to distinguish it from other forms of Paganism.

3.  Defining Neo-Paganism in terms of experience (of immanence or interconnectedness) highlights the fact that the experience of other kinds of Pagans is different from that of Neo-Pagans.

Admittedly, people have reservations about identifying as Neo-anything.  But the term has the advantage of being accurate: Neo-Paganism is a very young religion by any standard.  If earth-centered Pagans embrace this term, then I think that would free up the term “Pagan” so that it could continue to be an umbrella term that would include those deity-centered polytheists who want to distinguish themselves from the Neo-Pagans.  We could have our Big Tent and our differences too.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/dashifen David Dashifen Kees

    With respect to your short-form definition (i.e. “Contemporary Pagans are people who look to ancient paganism for religious inspiration.”) are you concerned that non-Pagan polytheists (NPPs) who also look to ancient paganism for religious inspiration are lumped in? In my conversations over the last 4 or 5 days, this is a primary complaint of that group. Admittedly, I came into the conversation disagreeing with them (i.e. I felt they were Pagan even if they claimed otherwise) but I’m no longer comfortable with that point of view, personally.

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

      Great question. I think that if we limited the term “Pagan” to the definition above and *also* distinguished it from the Neo-Paganism that so many NPPs are fleeing from, then I would hope that those NPPs would feel comfortable stepping back under the Pagan umbrella. I know … Dream big, right?

      • http://www.facebook.com/dashifen David Dashifen Kees

        When you say that they might step back under the umbrella, though, many I think would respond that they don’t want to. Would this be more of a “saving you a seat” sort of mentality? I’m worried that it’ll seem like either (a) we’re forcing a label on them or (b) that we’re patronizing them in some way.

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

          I would say I’m highlighting what we have in common and seeking community or solidarity on that basis.

          • http://www.facebook.com/dashifen David Dashifen Kees

            Gotcha. Thanks!

  • http://alisonleighlilly.com Alison Leigh Lilly

    A thought-provoking post (though I can’t help but feel these conversations about Pagan identity will continue indefinitely no matter how articulate or thorough we try to be)…. A couple of points worth mentioning, though:

    (a) I do not think that Jonathan or anyone else is “blurring the lines” or creating fuzzy boundaries with their attempts at definition. Just the opposite: the lines are blurry (this is not just a fact about the diversity of the modern Pagan community, but a fact about how language works — and neuroscientists have recently even uncovered evidence that this is how the brain is physically structured). Any and all attempts at definition or description of communities is an attempt to take what we inherently perceive as being a fuzzily-bounded set and clean up those boundaries a bit so we can get a clearer picture of what’s going on. Definitions can be better or worse at doing this, but if we don’t appreciate the incredibly fuzzy nature of what we are trying to describe in the first place, we can’t appreciate just how difficult the task is that we’re trying to do, and why we seem to be so bad at it.

    (b) I think the primary problem with Jonathan’s offered definition of the pagan sensibility as one that “sees the divine in the material world … and so regards the human as sacred [and] apprehends the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different interconnected forces … and honors all of those forces” is that it is in no way specific or unique to paganism/Paganism. This is another challenge in trying to define Paganism — I think many modern Pagans are not actually all that familiar with the vast diversity to be found in other religions. My degree is in comparative religious studies, with an emphasis on ritual theory, and I did several years of field research on that topic before leaving academia. The fact is, most if not all religions include some form of the above-described sensibility. Not all of them place it at the heart and center of their community-identity, and many religions also include a focus on transcendence, either held in balance with this view or held in a way that serves to downplay it. But the fact is, there are hardly any religions in the world that do not include at least some “apprehension” of interconnection and the sacredness of the material/mundane world, for the simple reason that most religions are composed primarily of what we would call “laypeople” whose primary cares and concerns are grounded in the material/mundane. A religion that did not embrace that sensibility to at least some extent would not survive very long. There’s no reason to think that this is a particularly “pagan” (or “Pagan”) way of seeing and experiencing the world. (I just get a bit annoyed when I see Pagans trying to plant their flag of ownership on what is actually common ground; it’s as annoying to me as when Christians assume, out of ignorance or arrogance, that the theological concept of a dying-resurrecting god is specifically or uniquely Christian.)

    (c) I’m still just not a huge fan of the “neo-” prefix, in part because while you and I might know what it’s meant to imply about the difference between (reconstructionist) Pagans and Neo-Pagans, it is not immediately obvious to anyone else who might be less familiar with the whole complicated history of Paganism as a NRM. Adopting qualifiers like “modern,” “earth-centered” or “reconstructionist” seems to me far more useful, since it’s obvious how a “reconstructionist” Pagan probably differs from an “earth-centered” Pagan, even to people who are not themselves in the Pagan community. Plus, like I’ve said before, we avoid the various extra connotations (and baggage) that “neo-” brings along with it, while being more usefully descriptive. But if people want to call me a “Neo-Pagan,” I hope they don’t mind if I start calling them “Retro-Pagan.” 😉

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

      “The fact is, most if not all religions include some form of the above-described sensibility. Not all of them place it at the heart and center of their community-identity, … it’s as annoying to me as when Christians assume, out of ignorance or arrogance, that the theological concept of a dying-resurrecting god is specifically or uniquely Christian.”

      Very true, but I think you nailed it with the “heart and center” comment. How many religions other than Christianity have the dying-resurrecting god as the heart and center of their religion? A few maybe? Not a lot, I would hazard. And how many religions other than Neo-Paganism place honoring the divine in an radically interconnected material world at the heart and center of their religion? Are there others than Neo-Paganism? Maybe, but again I would hazard that it does make Neo-Paganism unique, especially in the West.

      “… if people want to call me a “Neo-Pagan,” I hope they don’t mind if I start calling them “Retro-Pagan.””

      As you know, I like “Retro-Pagan” as a term too. But since I have not seen anyone use it to describe themselves, I don’t use it. “Neo-Paganism”, in contrast, was *the* term which was adopted by our community as a self-descriptor in the 1970s. It fell out of favor, I think, due to an (1) increasing interest in reconstructionism (to which I would not apply the term) and (2) the naive belief that a religion that is a few decades old is not “new”. One of the things that drew me to Neo-Paganism was that (at least some of) its adherents were very comfortable with its newness. As you have said previously: “… like it or not religious communities invariably have a habit of citing their ancientness as proof of their legitimacy, especially in the absence of doctrinal consensus”. I came from one such religion (Christianity/Mormonism), and a religion that admitted that it was not centuries old, and was made by and for people in the late 20th/21st century was very appealing. I think we should advertize it. But, that’s just me.

      • Dave

        I think a large part of why “Neo-Pagan” was replaced by “Pagan” is that as you correctly note NRM are fighting against the impulse to view older religions as somehow more legitimate. We don’t need “Neo-Pagan” to be honest about our “newness” though. We already say “contemporary Pagan” or “modern Pagan”. Many of us capitalize “Pagan” primarily to distinguish it from ancient pagan religions and of course to assert our validity as well. I think that “Neo-Pagan” has a much higher potential, compared to “Pagan” for being used by religious opponents because of that impulse to view older=better.

        The common argument I hear said is, “well if they’re the “new” pagans then obviously they’re making it up, just pretending, and/or don’t really have – anything – to do with the “old” pagans”. You see the latter argument a lot, I know I’ve seen Catholics compare the “good-but-not-as-good-as-Catholic-old-pagans” with the “not-even-as-good-as-the-old-new-pagans”. That’s not to say those comments are fair but I think it’s a motivating factor in why we’ve collectively ditched the term “Neo-Pagan”.

        Of course there’s also the case of the current generation of “Neo-Pagans” who are embarrassed by the foibles of the older generation of “Neo-Pagans” or those who most associate “Neo-Pagan” with unprincipled eclecticism or the far fringe of New Age eccentricities. I know that when I hear the word “Neo-Pagan” I think first of the stereotypes you described in your writings on “Pagan embarrassment” and only upon further reflection consider that it may accurately describe less, um, colorful(?) people.

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

          Yeah, I see what you’re saying. The only person I found advocating a return to that term was Phaedra Bonewits, and she is of the older generation, and her husband articulated the Paleo-, Meso-, and Neo-Pagan schema.

          • Dave

            I thought you were advocating for it as well?

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

              I meant “the only *other* person”.

  • http://youngflemishhellenist.wordpress.com J_Agathokles

    A post that may be of interest in this regard by Tess Dawson: http://tessdawson.blogspot.be/2011/06/two-winding-rivers-changing-face-of.html. It discusses the differences between recons and (neo-)pagans, and why they seem to clash so often, which is related to the whole “meaning of paganism” which you wrote about.

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

      Thanks for drawing my attention to Tess Dawson’s post. It deserves an entire post in itself to respond. But let me touch on a couple of points.

      First of all, I agree with Tess about the relationship between Romanticism and Neo-Paganism. (This is explored well in Philip Davis’ *Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality* — although Davis’ book is a bit polemic.) But I do think the relationship between Romaniticism and individualism is more complex than she suggests. In actuality, it was the Enlightenment that was responsible for the hyper-individualism that Tess describes. The Romantics were arguably more communal — there’s a dark side to that too (which found expression in the Volkisch movements). Anyway, I also think it is naive to suggest that pagan reconstructionism is not Romantic (capital “R”) or is unrelated to Romanticism — you really don’t get any more Romantic than trying to reconstruct an ancient Pagan religion. (Note, I am distinguishing Romanticism from romanticizing. Neo-Paganism does probably romanticize the past more than Reconstructionism.) “Not that there is anything wrong with that.” I have never understood why being associated with Romanticism or labelled “Neo-Romantic” is supposed to be a bad thing.

      The larger issue I have with Tess’ piece is that she places all the blame for conflict between the two groups at the feet of Neo-Pagans, who are largely ignorant of how different Reconstructionism/Polytheism is. She may be right about Neo-Pagans (myself included) needing education, but the conflict is not one-sided. I think the victim mentality of a lot of the Polytheist community contributes to this conflict. Tess’ piece is itself a good example of this persecution complex. Consider her choice of the phrase “majority Pagans” to describe Neo-Pagans.

  • Dave

    The problem is Pagan means Neo-Pagan in common usage and Neo-Pagan is arguably second only to Christian in terms of what words inspire seething hatred in many Pagans. Your fondness for it notwithstanding. Additionally, the Pagan and polytheist-but-not-Pagan sensibilities differ in an important way while both drawing inspiration from pagans.

    Pagans draw widely from many cultures and their religious customs are often pagan inspired contemporary innovations. PBNP’s draw from one or two, and sometimes more, specific pagan cultures and route their religious customs in the cultures they draw from. Many Pagans use similar methods but retain their modern customs, to the extent they adopt pagan custom they often become polytheist Pagans. Sometimes they become PBNP.

    ADF, in spite of being fundamentally Pagan, has many PBNP members. They’re a great microcosm of the whole discussion that way. Their non-Pagan members participate for a variety of reasons but often private practice completely differently.

    A lot of the confusion comes from not understanding the different orientations Pagans and PBNP have toward pagans. Further many PBNP consider polytheism to be solely synonymous with “hard” polytheism causing hurt feelings from polytheist Pagans. Additionally, many PBNP disagree about the wisdom of reclaiming ‘pagan’ when they feel cultural terms or adjectives better describe them. For example, Irish polytheism or hellenismos. Confusing matters even more are religions which are neither exclusively Pagan nor PBNP as in British Traditional Wicca or Druidry but which may have adherents who identify as either Pagan or polytheist, both, or neither.

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

      “The problem is Pagan means Neo-Pagan in common usage …”
      That’s what I would like to change. Word usage can change through collective intention.

      ” … Neo-Pagan is arguably second only to Christian in terms of what words inspire seething hatred in many Pagans.”
      Perhaps, but I would venture that those Pagans would not be the people who would identify as Neo-Pagan. The Neo- prefix most bothers those who are more reconstructionist, to whom I would not apply it.

      “the Pagan and polytheist-but-not-Pagan sensibilities differ in an important way while both drawing inspiration from pagans. …”
      Yes, and your whole second paragraph above kind of proves my point. I’m not suggesting that we eliminate distinctions, only that we recognize similarities too. Catholics and evangelicals are very different, but neither has a problem using the same umbrella term of “Christian”.

      “Confusing matters even more are religions which are neither exclusively Pagan nor PBNP as in British Traditional Wicca or Druidry but which may have adherents who identify as either Pagan or polytheist, both, or neither.”
      I’m not suggesting anyone need identify *exclusively* as “Pagan” or anything else.

      • Dave

        I agree with you that words can change. I think there are enough non-recons who hate “Neo-Pagan” to give you rather a lot of trouble, but I wish that project well. I see what you’re saying re: recognizing similarities and I agree with you to a degree. I think that given the realities of the current definition combined with the fact that a lot of non-Pagan polytheists just don’t have any use for the word – at all – it may not be the best umbrella.

        That’s less an vote of no confidence of it’s potential to describe – I personally am very sympathetic to a broad based definition of “Pagan” revolving around taking inspiration from “pagans”. But it is an observation of the probable impracticality of applying that understanding. Influencing the definition of “Pagan” won’t do much to encourage people who don’t believe in using the word “pagan” to self-describe to start doing so. But maybe you’re not talking about those people?

      • http://creekofconsciousness.wordpress.com vikingrunnergirl

        “Catholics and evangelicals are very different, but neither has a problem using the same umbrella term of “Christian”.”

        While this is true, one of the problems coming up lately is the Pagan equivalent of the fact that many evangelicals have a BIG problem with Catholics calling THEMSELVES Christian, and vice versa. I came here because I’m currently trying not to go completely off the deep end on poor Teo Bishop’s facebook page. 😛

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

          Of course, this is closer to Evangelicals abandoning the term “Christian” because they don’t want to be confused with Catholics.

          • http://creekofconsciousness.wordpress.com vikingrunnergirl

            Heh, I actually said that on Teo’s facebook page. Felt like I was repeating myself to use it again.

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

              I’m bound to get flamed for saying that.

  • http://ladyimbriumsholocron.wordpress.com ladyimbrium

    I also direct you to Steve Tanner’s post on the subject. His remains one of my favorites.