Teo Bishop of Bishop in the Grove has a guest column on today’s Wild Hunt titled The Pagan Bubble, which I encourage you to read for yourself. It was inspired by a conversation with his step father, who told him “I read your blog, but I don’t really have any idea what you’re talking about.”
Teo describes how much of our conversation as Pagans – especially on the internet – is insular and isolated:
this talking to ourselves about ourselves is debilitating. We become steeped in our own lore, influenced by our own memetic waves, and stuck within a vocabulary and symbol system that could really benefit from a Universal Translator. We are well versed at talking about who we are to each other, but I’m beginning to think that we are (or, at least, I am) unpracticed at talking about who we are to people who do not share our vernacular.
I think Teo has a valid point that we need to be better prepared to explain who we are, what we do and why we do it to people who are immersed in a mainstream culture still heavily influenced by Protestant Christianity. But religious bubbles have existed ever since religion became a formal, organized thing, and they persist for good reasons.
The mainstream doesn’t need a bubble. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the mainstream is a bubble so large those inside it don’t realize there’s anything else. In the Wild Hunt comments, CUUPS National President David Pollard called that what it is – privilege.
Remember how the mainstream media explained all the details of the recent papal conclave (not always correctly) because even though Roman Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination, most Christians (including many Catholics) don’t understand its intricacies. Go over to the Patheos Evangelical Channel and read some of the debates on Calvinism vs. Arminianism. I grew up in a Baptist church and I still have to look up some of the terminology.
These bubbles are necessary in order to promote deeper discussion and deliberation of religious concepts. The average American (including more than a few Pagans) doesn’t know what we mean by hard polytheism vs. soft polytheism because it isn’t important to them. But for those of us whose spiritual practice centers around a reciprocal relationship with one or several deities, it matters a great deal.
We need our Pagan bubble because it’s safe space – and comfortable space. I love going to Druid camp because I know I can strike up a conversation on the nature of the gods or the spirits of the land and people will know what I mean. I know they’ll respond thoughtfully, and even if they see things differently than I do they’ll still be respectful.
The most successful religious bubble of all time is Judaism. Shortly after 600 BCE, the Hebrews were conquered by the Babylonians and many of them were taken back to Babylon – modern day Iraq – as captives. Over time, some of them became more Babylonian than Hebrew – they were assimilating. In order to maintain their identity, they not only maintained their worship but they also adopted distinctive rules of conduct, dress and diet.
It was a very effective process. A small tribe of people who held their own land for perhaps 600 years, who were exiled for 2500 years, and who have been persecuted throughout history, are still alive and well and are considered one of the five major religions of the world.
Do we need a cultural bubble? While it’s impossible to completely separate religion and culture, as the Jews have shown there is value in adopting distinctive dress, foods, music and such. But here’s where it gets problematic – we’ve all run into Pagans whose appearance and behavior bear a strong resemblance to a Halloween caricature of a witch. There is magic in putting on a uniform… but that magic will be weak unless there’s some study and practice behind it.
Teo made a comparison to the “gay bubble” that he knows well. But I don’t think that’s a perfect analogy. If the gay bubble went away, gay people would still be gay. Their culture might become indistinguishable from mainstream culture, but gay men wouldn’t suddenly start wanting to have sex with women. If the Pagan bubble goes away, what would keep you Pagan?
Our mainstream society’s values are frequently at odds with our own. It promotes conformity, consumption, and the domination of the many by the few. It offers distractions and illusions and its attraction is strong.
If the Pagan bubble goes away, what would counteract popular culture? Is your connection to the old gods and to Nature strong enough? Is mine strong enough? Is the connection of the average Wiccan, Druid, Heathen, or Hellenist strong enough? Or would we meld into the mushy mainstream? This is one of the reasons I’m such an advocate for group practice – it provides reinforcement of what it means to be Pagan.
Teo asks “might we be better served by the deconstruction of our ghettos?” I don’t think so. But while we need the Pagan bubble, our bubble needs to be permeable. We need to be able to explain the essence of our Paganism to Catholics and Evangelicals and Buddhists and the ever-growing Nones. There are Pagan ideas the rest of the world desperately needs to hear, like the sacredness of Nature, the Divine Feminine, the multiplicity of the Divine, and a proper definition of sovereignty. These aren’t exclusively Pagan concepts, but we’re in a good position to articulate them.
Our bubble needs to be permeable both ways – we need to be open to good ideas and helpful practices no matter where they originate. We’re quick to borrow from other minority religions – sometimes too quick. Most of us have a positive view of Buddhism. But a good idea is a good idea, even if it comes from an atheist or a fundamentalist Christian.
Only a few of us grew up Pagan. Most of us are Pagan because we’ve been called by something or someone: by Goddess, by a particular goddess or god, by our ancestors, or by Nature. We need the safety and the reinforcement of our Pagan bubble to nurture that call and to help us learn and grow. But we don’t need to learn and grow so we can become a big fish in a small religious pond, we need to learn and grow so we can transform the world. That’s only possible if our bubble is permeable.
Write and rehearse your Pagan elevator speech. Figure out how you’ll respond to those who are genuinely and respectfully curious. See how you can present Pagan concepts to the mainstream world, with your life as well as with your words.
But spend as much time as you need in the Pagan bubble.