Fighting Fires and Building Systems

In the past week or so I’ve seen several Pagan bloggers and other writers saying our first religious priority should be personal growth and empowerment. Other say our first priority should be honoring and serving our gods and goddesses, while still others say it should be creating ecstatic religious experiences, caring for the Earth, caring for our fellow humans, or building lasting religious institutions.

All these writers were passionately advocating for their views, some calmly and some with an evangelistic zeal.

When your house is on fire you don’t care that the bathroom needs to be cleaned and the carpet needs to be replaced and oh, yeah, you need to make dinner. When your house is on fire all that matters is getting the people and the animals to safety and putting the fire out.

When you convince people their house is on fire they jump into action. They start reading ancient lore and going to meetings and raising money and riding bicycles and and all the things we wish everyone would do. There’s a crisis and they’re doing something about it! They feel good and we feel good and some small improvement starts to happen in the world.

But sooner or later two things happen. First, people get tired. Running around in crisis mode – or in new religious convert mode – is exhilarating, but it’s also draining. You can only keep it up for so long before you get burned out. And second, eventually you realize your house isn’t on fire.

We have some serious problems in our world (climate change and social justice being at or near the top of the immediacy list), but none of them demand we stop everything we’re doing and devote all our efforts toward fixing them now. The Huns are not at the gates. An asteroid is not bearing down on Chicago. Barack Obama is not Chairman Mao and Rick Santorum is not Savonarola. Zeus is not threatening to destroy our cities if we don’t resume proper sacrifices. “Important” and “urgent” aren’t synonymous.

What should be the primary focus of Pagan religion and Pagan practitioners? In February I discussed eight “channels” of Pagan practice: areas of interest, emphasis and expertise. They are all important and we should be knowledgeable about all of them, but we cannot be experts on all of them. Pick one or two that call most strongly to you and explore them deeply… but understand that other intelligent, observant, compassionate Pagans have other callings and will make other choices.

This is more than just respecting each others’ choices and callings. It’s about building structures and systems that support the kind of world we want to have and the kind of lives we want to live.

Let’s say you want to minimize your contributions toward climate change and decide (or are convinced) you need to stop driving a car. If you don’t already live in a walkable neighborhood with a nearby grocery store, it’s going to be difficult. If you don’t live near public transportation, or if your job isn’t either very close or also located near public transportation, it’s going to be difficult. If your friends and family all live in the next town, it’s going to be difficult. There are structural and systemic decisions made years in the past (some by you, some by local communities, and some by society at large) that must be redesigned, reworked, and rebuilt before getting rid of your car becomes a practical alternative.

The same kind of supporting systems and structures need to be built around our religion. They typically aren’t as tangible as transportation infrastructure but they’re every bit as important. Want to serve the old gods? We need historians to help us understand how they were worshipped in the past. We need artists to create representations of them and tributes to them. We need priests and priestesses to help us connect with them. We need mystics to commune directly with them and help us understand what they need here and now.

None of this stops you from going into the woods and opening yourself to the god of the forest. If he’s so inclined, you can have a deeply meaningful unmediated experience of wonder and awe. But if you want to identify which god or goddess spoke to you (they don’t wear name tags and they don’t always broadcast who they are), you’re going to need some help. if you want to interpret your experience, you need some help. If you want to check your experience against those of others, you need some help.

Want to take what you learned and put it into action to make the world a better place here and now? You’re going to need some help.

How do you get that help? You turn to the historians and artists and priests and priestesses and other practitioners. Hopefully there’s one near you – or at least one you can find.

But they won’t be there if they’re all fighting fires. They won’t be there if they’re burned out and give up. They won’t be there if the systems and structures they need for their own support aren’t there for them.

What should be the primary focus of your Pagan practice? Whatever calls to you, where ever your passion lies. That’s where you’ll do the most good – that’s where you’ll make the biggest contribution.

Recognize that others are doing the same thing in other channels.

And together, we’re building a strong, deep, vibrant, resilient Pagan religion – from the ground up.

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  • Thank you so much for writing this, and I completely agree. This sort of thing is something that is often overlooked in our traditions or, sometimes, even disdained. Everyone wants to commune with the forest! Ok, great, and then what? How do you integrate that experience into your life? Usually, they don't have an answer, or they just want to go back into the forest. But there is a limitation to that sort of thing. Anyway, in my own practice, I'm feeling more of a confirmation that I'd like to help other people integrate the mystical into the mundane. Maybe that role is one of a priest, or maybe it's something more like writing or even counseling. We'll see. Thanks again for pushing us all toward a deeper and more fulfilling spiritual practice!