If you aren’t listening to the Standing Stone and Garden Gate podcast, you should be. It’s done by Brendan Myers – a Druid and philosopher, and his partner Juniper – a hedgewitch. It is the most intellectually-oriented Pagan podcast I’ve come across. Brendan and Juniper approach Paganism very differently, and the interplay between them is excellent.
The most recent Episode 28 is titled “Reasonable Doubt.” I’ll have more to say about doubt in a future blog post, but today I want to talk about their opening conversation on Pagan unity.
Brendan begins by discussing his admiration of the way Islam builds unity through three simple but highly meaningful practices.
The first is the Shahadah, the method by which a convert becomes a Muslim. It consists of reciting a statement of faith in the presence of a Muslim, and can be translated as “there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” It is a simple, straightforward, unambiguous way to declare your decision to become a Muslim. Brendan contrasts that with what it takes to become recognized as a Wiccan: study, trials, collecting tools, and initiation. He wonders if Pagans could have a simple, unified way for dedicants to declare themselves Pagan, and offers The Charge of the Goddess as a suggestion.
The second is the Islamic practice of daily prayer facing Mecca. Here Juniper suggests that most (though not all) Pagans are already doing this – praying to (or at least praying while facing) the Sun and the Moon.
The third is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim is asked to make once in his life. Brendan offers several options for Pagans, including Stonehenge. Here the discussion between Brendan and Juniper gets strong, with Juniper insisting that what’s sacred is Earth below and the Sky above, and Brendan insisting that’s too vague to be of use.
As Brendan and Juniper agree, Pagans tend to be very individualistic – when people talk about “unity” we fear that someone is going to dictate what to believe and how to practice. When someone suggests using the Charge of the Goddess as a Pagan statement of faith, inevitably a hard polytheist insists that he can’t do that since it implies that the Divine is One and his gods and goddesses are all distinct, individual beings. A Kemetic sees no value in a pilgrimage to Avebury.
Ritual unity such as practiced in Islam has value, but it isn’t a cure-all – it hasn’t stopped the Sunni and the Shia from trying to kill each other. The Nicene Creed hasn’t stopped Christians from splitting into Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, and sola fide hasn’t stopped Protestants from splitting into as many variations as Pagans.
Contemporary Paganism is an organic religion – it is growing from the ground up, not from the top down. Paganism is a living thing, and as with any living thing it is subject to the process of evolution. Paganism is mutating constantly. Most of these mutations are harmful – from witch wars and coven splits to solitary practitioners whose insistence on doing their own thing keeps them from becoming part of something larger than themselves. But some are helpful – those mutations will grow and thrive and reproduce.
Over many years (and most likely, many lifetimes), I expect Paganism to coalesce into three distinct forms: a hard polytheism (which will be practiced in many ethnic flavors), a soft polytheism (“all gods and goddesses are aspects of one God/dess”), and a Pagan naturalism (which reveres the Earth but rejects gods and magic). Some small traditions will survive independently, and there will be ongoing mutations (some of which may go in directions none of us are thinking about right now), but in general I think that’s how the religious scholars of a couple hundred years in the future will see us.
The real question is whether or not we build the religious institutions necessary for Paganism to continue over many generations and not die out when the current leadership is no longer with us.
As much as I’d like to see a Universal Pagan Profession of Faith or a Worldwide Pagan Covenant, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But I do see areas where Pagans of all flavors come together. We come together to work on issues and causes (particularly religious freedom and environmental concerns) and we come together for festivals and conferences.
Pagan unity will always be about what we do, not about what we believe. Our unity centers on our mundane actions, not our spiritual practices.
And if that’s true, then what we need most is a robust communications network – a way to keep up with who’s doing what and how we can all participate. Modern technology makes this very easy, and projects such as Jason Pitlz-Waters’ Pagan Newswire Collective need our support.
That’s how I see it, anyway. Go listen to Standing Stone and Garden Gate and see what big ideas come to you.