Defining the Undefinable

While I did a lot of book reading on vacation (and I have one more book review yet to come), I’m just now getting caught up on on-line reading. I missed the explosion of yet another wave of “who’s a Pagan and who’s not.” Jason at The Wild Hunt has four good excerpts here along with links to more posts, and the comment count is up to 291 as I write this. It seems that nothing motivates Pagans and Not-Pagans to speak up like the question of identity.

I see it the argument like this:

On one side we have those who feel that since there are substantial differences in the beliefs and practices (and frequently, the politics) of various groups, it makes no sense to claim we have any common identity.

On the other side we have those who feel that since we grew out of the same ground, we share many of the same interests (namely, religious tolerance) and we share many common enemies (namely, the religiously intolerant), it behooves us to come together under the big tent labeled Paganism.

Several people including myself have pointed out that the differences between, say, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists are every bit as big as the differences between, say, Wiccans and Heathens (or Druids and Kemetics – pick your own combination). What I find interesting is that the hardliners on both sides of the Christian debate are quick to claim ownership of their label while hardliners on both sides of the Pagan debate are quick to give ours up.

This came up back in April and I said pretty much how I feel about it then. I think our common interests are more important than our theological and philosophical differences, though I understand that those differences are very real.

Another bit of catch-up reading has been the Summer 2011 edition of UU World, including this excellent article by Doug Mulder titled “Before Words.” It’s a look at spirituality from a Humanist perspective and how the attempt to precisely define something that is inherently indescribable can and will suck the soul right out of it. He goes on to offer his own definition of spirituality: “an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.”

I think this is where Paganism (in the broadest possible sense of the term) finds itself today. There is a common thread – thin though it may be – running through Wicca, Druidry, Asatru, Hinduism, UU Paganism, hedgewitchery, the many ethnic reconstructionisms, indigenous practices, and seemingly countless other systems of religious and magical belief and practice. But when we try to define that common thread we end up sucking the soul out of it, leaving us trying to blend circle-casters and non-casters, hard polytheists and soft polytheists, and perhaps most divisive of all, political liberals, libertarians and conservatives.

Mulder quotes 19th century Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, who said “all sects have been too anxious to define their religion. They have labored to circumscribe the infinite.”

The future of religion does not belong to those who can best circumscribe the Infinite. The future of religion belongs to those who dive deeply into their part of the Infinite and then join together with other people of good will to support each other, to learn from each other and to build a better world here and now.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.


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