My (Neo-)Pagan Elevator Speech

Jonathan Korman (whose post I can’t seem to talk enough about) recently described an awkward interaction he witnessed at a Pagan festival:

I was at a public Pagan festival a while ago and a passing non-Pagan asked one of the people working at the information booth who we all were and what we were doing. The person in the booth provided an unhelpful, incoherent non-answer with the gods and nature and magic bobbing about in a froth of words, and the questioner walked away puzzled. I don’t blame either of them; Pagans just don’t have this thing down.

It is odd. Any Christian stands ready to explain God, sin, and redemption through Christ in 50 words or less. Any Buddhist can tell you quickly about suffering, illusion, meditation, and releasing attachment. Pagan inability to do something similar presents a problem both in talking to non-Pagans and within our own community.

I used to be Mormon and I was a Mormon missionary for two years in Brazil — yeah, I was one of those guys (no, not the Jehovah’s witnesses — the other guys).  Anyway, one thing I have always hated about Paganism (I need to add this to my list) is the aversion to proselytizing.  That’s an issue for another post and another subject that I never get anyone to agree with me about (like the subject of embracing the name Neo-Pagan).

But let’s set aside the issue of proselytizing.  Can we all agree that we ought to be able to respond intelligently to the question what we aredoing being Pagan?  I don’t mean defining Paganism for anyone else.  I mean, if we are asked what being Pagan means to us we ought to be able to answer … intelligently and succicntly.

Rhett Aultmann responded to Jonathan’s post in the comments:

This does speak to something I find interesting, which is the idea of the “elevator pitch” for your religion. There’s an oft-discussed schema for religions: (1) posit an ill (2) offer a means to correct it. Even not-wholly-religious ritual systems such as chado (Japanese tea ceremony) have been described under this rubric. Even joke-religions like the Church of the Subgenius employ this model to good effect.

The idea of an elevator speech for Paganism got me thinking.  I’ve had to think about this before.  How do I briefly explain (my) Paganism to someone who wants to know just a little, but not too much — like a prospective employer who Googles my name and finds my blog, or a family member or friend who I haven’t talked about religion with before?  My from the hip response was this:

For me, Paganism is about finding God in nature and in myself.

If they want to know a little more, I would add that “God” for me is plural (soft polytheism), feminine as well as masculine (Goddess), and a verb (process theology).  Then my 30 seconds would be up.

Let me reiterate that this is not my attempt to define “Paganism” writ large, just my attempt to explain what I am doing when I am doing Paganism.  Of course, this explanation doesn’t really say anything about what I do.  It’s a statement of belief.  But that’s generally what people in our (predominately Christian) culture are looking for when they ask about religion.  And the response above is nothing else if not aimed at making others feel comfortable with my religion.

But a good elevator speech doesn’t aim at making people feel comfortable.  It tries to hook them.  To make the want to know more.  As Rhett says, it needs to (1) posit an ill and (2) offer a means to correct it.  The way you sell a product is to sell the problem your product is designed to fix.  For a lot of Christianity, the problem is the Fall and the solution is salvation through Jesus Christ.  For Mormons (at least when I was a missionary), the problem was unanswered questions (Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?) and the solution was what Mormons call the “Plan of Salvation“.  Or maybe the problem was unhappiness and the solution was the Mormon lifestyle.  Both are common Mormon “sales” tactics.  Anyway, you get the idea.

For a long while, the Pagan sales pitch was structured in reaction to Christianity.  The problem was the Christian Fall — not the Fall itself, but the belief in it.  And the solution was immanence: the belief that God is not radically separate from the world, but in it, perhaps even identical with it.  I still like this sales pitch, but it’s not going to work for everyone.  For one thing, not everyone is fleeing from Christianity anymore.  Some people just never took the idea of a fallen world seriously, so they don’t need to react to it.

That got me thinking about what “problem” I would propose for Paganism to be the solution to.  I think I would say that the problem is one of disenchantment.

Our natural state is one of connection, not alienation: connection to divinity, to earth, and to one another.  However, we often experience alienation or “rootlessness” or “homelessness” in our own psyches and in our culture, which is the inheritance of modern humankind.  This is manifest in social injustice, patriarchalism, and neurosis.  This alienation can be healed through reconnecting with the sacred dimension of nature and our own selves.  Ritual and myths can be used to choreograph a re-sacralization of our experience, our lives, and the world.

This elevator speech needs some work.  For one thing, it uses a lot of terminology that needs to be explained.  It’s a work in progress.

My elevator speech is based on what has been called, somewhat derisively, the “California Cosmology”, a phrase which Ronald Hutton uses to describes Starhawk’s influence on the Neopagan Witchcraft.  He attributes the phrase to Alston Chase (Playing God in Yellowstone, 1987).

“This was a development of nineteenth-century American pantheism, that strain of thought associated with writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, which relied on the twin propositions that God is good and that God’s spirit is inherent in the natural world. To these thinkers, therefore, humanity could be brought closer to God by a closer relationship with that world.

These thinkers agreed upon “the immanence of the divine in nature, as apart of a sacred interconnected wholeness in the cosmos” and “that humans had somehow become disconnected from nature”.  “What Chase has characterized as the Californian contribution to these ideas was made in the 1970s by academics based at Berkeley, Stanford, and the various divisions of the University of California”, including Theodore Roszak, Alan Watts, and others.  (If anybody can find me a copy of Christopher Chase’s paper, “Building a California Bildung : Theodore Roszak’s and Alan Watts’s Contributions to Pagan Hermeneutics”, I’d be grateful.). The common belief among these writers was

“that everything in the cosmos is both sacred and interconnected; that humans in the developed world have become tragically – perhaps fatally – disconnected from the cosmos; and that reconnection is possible given only a change of attitudes.”

I would replace the phrase “change of attitudes” with “change of consciousness”, but the rest of it fits well with my understanding of re-enchantment.

Now, what should jump out at you is the similarity of my elevator speech to the Christian one.  Is saying that “humans in the developed world have become tragically – perhaps fatally – disconnected from the cosmos” any different from saying that humans are “fallen”?  (I seem to remember a debate about this in the comment section to one of Star Foster’s posts where she wrote that there is not sin, fallenness, or grace in Paganism.)  Anyway, there’s definitely a similarity there (although there’s a difference too).

I think I’ll stick with the first elevator speech about beliefs for most people, when I am trying to normalize Paganism.  But for those people I really care about, I would save the second speech about re-enchantment.

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  • thalassa

    I wrote about this idea a while back…I think the trick to being successful in an explanation is to keep it simple, make it as relevant as possible to the person’s personal experience, and to skip the jargon and the drama. Sometimes that means being imprecise, and going with generalities…but then again, its been my experience, that most people only want generalities anyhow.

  • http://druishinthedesert.wordpress.com wilderquill

    It’s always been a simple thing for me: “Nature, Truth, and the mythology of my ancestors.”
    Anymore than that and people yawn.

  • Dave

    How do you be a Pagan? Respect nature, honor the Gods, and live well by doing right.

  • http://endlesserring.wordpress.com/ Treeshrew

    It’s a bit different for me, because I don’t do ‘gods’, but I would say that my path, Druidry, is a philosophy, spirituality and way of life that aims to foster awareness of our connection to all of nature. If there were follow-up questions, I’d go into more detail, or else simply reccommend the OBOD website!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jmankey Jason Mankey

    I know this quote was not yours, “but It is odd. Any Christian stands ready to explain God, sin, and redemption through Christ in 50 words or less. ” I don’t know what Christians he knows, but ask a Christian to explain the trinity or original sin or any concept unrelated to “I love Jesus” and you’ll get as many goofy answers as you get from a lot of Pagans.

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

      You’re right of course, but I do suspect that there is a higher percentage of Christians with practiced elevator speeches. That may just be a function of 2000 years of group practice, but I’m confident the “great commission” has something to do with than as well.

  • http://freemanpresson.wordpress.com freemanpresson

    I wrote about “defining Paganism” before the current flap, and I still like my definition, but I didn’t get into the whole “big tent” thing because I naively thought it obvious: http://freemanpresson.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/defining-paganism-last-try/

    I say “it gets better” even though I have the distinction of having been one of the first polytheists turned into a non-person by the (then Wiccan) Star Foster.

  • http://freemanpresson.wordpress.com freemanpresson

    OH, and your opening statement definitely resonated with me. I got into the “defining Paganism” business in the first place after listening to some of the drivel that certain people put out, which is usually a definition of eclectic neo-Wicca and not much else. And the elder Gods protect me if I ventured to correct them!

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

      For me, it was “The one thing that all Pagans agree on is the Wiccan Rede and the Three Fold Law of Return.” Uh, no! [My hand goes up.]

      • http://freemanpresson.wordpress.com freemanpresson

        Yes, that! Plus, much as I like a good walk in the woods, my actual religion is not “earth-based.” I respond to that with “I am a cosmopolitan Pagan. Kind of like a citizen of Alexandria in 100 CE.”

  • http://freemanpresson.wordpress.com freemanpresson

    OH, and your opening statement definitely resonated with me. I got into the “defining Paganism” business in the first place after listening to some of the drivel that certain people put out, which is usually a definition of eclectic neo-Wicca and not much else. And the elder Gods protect me if I ventured to correct them!

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

      For me, it was “The one thing that all Pagans agree on is the Wiccan Rede and the Three Fold Law of Return.” Uh, no! [My hand goes up.]

      • http://freemanpresson.wordpress.com freemanpresson

        Yes, that! Plus, much as I like a good walk in the woods, my actual religion is not “earth-based.” I respond to that with “I am a cosmopolitan Pagan. Kind of like a citizen of Alexandria in 100 CE.”

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

    Here’s my speech without all the jargon:
    You know that sense that there is something larger, something that makes life meaningful, but that it is just out of reach? Paganism, as I understand it, teaches that what makes life meaningful is what is called “sacred”. We find it in nature, in our relationships with other people, and within ourselves (which is what we call our “souls”). But we have become disconnected from what is sacred, both as individuals and as a society. We experience this individually in symptoms like depression and anxiety, and as a society in social injustice and environmental destruction. Paganism teaches that we can heal the connection to the sacred. We do this, in part through rituals and myths that are designed to reconnect us to nature, to each other, and to the parts of ourselves that we have lost.

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

    Here’s my speech without all the jargon:
    You know that sense that there is something larger, something that makes life meaningful, but that it is just out of reach? Paganism, as I understand it, teaches that what makes life meaningful is what is called “sacred”. We find it in nature, in our relationships with other people, and within ourselves (which is what we call our “souls”). But we have become disconnected from what is sacred, both as individuals and as a society. We experience this individually in symptoms like depression and anxiety, and as a society in social injustice and environmental destruction. Paganism teaches that we can heal the connection to the sacred. We do this, in part through rituals and myths that are designed to reconnect us to nature, to each other, and to the parts of ourselves that we have lost.

  • Courtney

    I know this is an old post, but I’ve been looking through some of your older stuff today and this one resonated with me because recently I’ve been reconsidering the idea of “fallenness”. For a long time I rejected it because it implied to me that humankind was inherently evil, that each child born already had the mark of original sin on them, and that we were only given worth through a god who was kind enough to redeem us. I still disagree with all of these things.

    But while I’m not a misanthrope (anymore), when I look around I do see such pain and misery and disconnection and suffering and cruelty that deep inside me, I know “this isn’t right.” This isn’t how human life could be, or should be.

    Recently I came across an article that posited the Eden story as myth-as-memory, a tribe lamenting the interconnection with nature (God) and each other that they enjoyed before developing civilization (mythologized as eating of the tree of knowledge, becoming ashamed of their bodies, etc.) and it really resonated with me. Lao Tzu had a similar idea, and I’ve always been a big Taoism fan. I’m not about to accept out of hand the idea that humans used to wander around in perfect paradise (there were, after all, diseases, natural disasters, and so on) before we mucked it up for ourselves. But human beings HAVE been around for so much longer than recorded history, and I reject the idea that we weren’t happy before settling down. I mean, we did evolve for certain ways of living and then force ourselves into others.

    The way I’m starting to see it, is that maybe humanity is going through some tremendous growing pains; that recent ages of our history have been the ugly puberty in between living happily on and with the Earth, and exploring the stars – and either we will survive as a more peaceful people fit to carry life to other planets, or we won’t and we didn’t deserve the honor.

    Developing my own ideas about what it means to be “fallen” or disconnected helps me connect better with the Christian worldview while not accepting all of the implications. Bizarrely, it gives me more hope than just saying that there’s nothing wrong with humanity, or that humanity “just is.” Because with that kind of worldview, there’s an invisible ceiling, but things that are fallen can get back up. (“Why do we fall, Master Wayne?”)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/ John H Halstead

      (I love comments on old posts.)

      Yeah, I think there is some truth in the Fall narrative — it speaks to our experience of wrongness about the world — but there are both healthy and unhealthy implications of the Christian version of the Fall. On the flip side, I agree that the Pagan notion that everything is hunky-dory about human nature seems Polyannaish.


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