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 fuzzy. Elani 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 transcendence. David 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.