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The Three Centers of Paganism

[addendum: As Joseph Bloch points out in his comment, there are actually four centers of Paganism, not three.  The fourth is community. – JFB]

John Halstead at The Allergic Pagan is doing some of the best work in contemporary Pagan studies that I’ve come across. I don’t always agree with his commentary, but when he’s focused on what Pagans are doing and why they’re doing it, he’s as good as anybody I’ve read. This post draws heavily on his observations of the Three Centers of Paganism.

I have come to understand that the reason we have so much trouble defining Paganism is because defining it requires drawing boundaries, declaring some beliefs and practices in and others out. But name virtually any belief or practice and you’ll find someone doing it and calling themselves Pagan.

The problem is that Paganism is not an institution with boundaries. It’s a movement. Movements don’t have boundaries – they have a center and a direction. Or, in the case of Paganism, three centers and three directions.

I encourage you to go read John Halstead’s post from last year The Three (or more?) “Centers” of Paganism. While you’re there read the comments too – they’re also worth your time. Rather than trying to summarize all that, here are a few key excerpts:

To begin with there is what I will call “earth-centered Paganism” .. [it] would include those Paganisms concerned primarily with ecology, those more local forms of Paganism that I would call “backyard Paganism” or are sometimes called “dirt worship”, and many forms of (neo-)animism which view humans as non-privileged part of an interconnected more-than-human community of beings. The Pagan identity of earth-centered Pagans is defined by their relationship to their natural environment.

Last month I wrote this post where I asserted “We must learn to see Nature as sacred and treat her with reverence.” The strong reactions from some show that while this may be important for many Pagans, there are some who don’t agree. But a connection to Nature is one of the primary reasons I became a Pagan, and it’s probably the most common reason I hear from people who come to our CUUPS circles.

The second group is what I will call the “Self-centered” Paganism. I don’t mean this in the pejorative sense of ego-centrism … [it] includes Jungian Neopaganism, many forms of Wicca and feminist witchcraft, and more ceremonial or esoteric forms of Paganism. The Pagan identity of Self-centered Pagans is defined by spiritual practices which aim at development of the individual, spiritually or psychologically.

Halstead has had some trouble with people misunderstanding what he means, despite his disclaimer. Self-centered Paganism doesn’t mean it’s all about you. It means the focus of your religious practice is to make yourself stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more magical and such so you can then be of greater service to the world. My early attempts at learning magic were from this center, as are a good portion of my OBOD studies.

The third group is “deity-centered” Paganism … [it] includes many forms of polytheistic worship, many Reconstructionist or Revivalist forms of Paganism, including those which are closer to Heathenry, and those which borrow techniques (i.e., aspecting) from African-diasporic religions. The Pagan identity of deity-centered Pagans is defined by a dedication to one or more deities.

What drew me to Paganism was a fascination with magic and a love of Nature. Deities didn’t enter into the picture until much later. Because I had trouble making a clean break with the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood, I tried to ignore the deity-centered portions of Paganism. I did it… I just didn’t do it very well.

My beliefs during my early days in Paganism were a vague deistic universalism: there is a God or a Goddess, he or she loves us and wants us to be happy, and will take care of us all when we die, but he or she doesn’t really get involved in our day to day lives. It was nice and comfortable, but I spent eight years running in place. It was only after I developed a deity-centered foundation that my spiritual practice began to grow, and I got moving on the journey I’m still on today.

Each time I’ve felt a particularly strong pull toward one of the three centers, I’ve had feelings that I was doing something wrong because I was taking time and energy away from the other centers. I really should develop a deeper relationship with my gods but in order to accomplish anything I need stronger magical skills but none of that matters if we aren’t caring for the Earth but aren’t these gods of Nature but magic gods nature magicgodsnature…

Sometimes my head is a very noisy place to be.

This is not the monkey-mind chatter that Buddhist meditation is so effective in controlling. This is three centers, three focuses of thought and practice, all clamoring for attention – and deservedly so. All three have long traditions (though not equally long) and good intellectual foundations, and all three have proven to be spiritually helpful to individuals, communities, and the world at large. And all three are calling to me. How could I possibly devote myself entirely to one and ignore the others?

My goal for this year is to decompartmentalize my life. I envisioned this as learning to be the same person at work, at church, with family, with friends, and alone. But now I see the project is even bigger than I thought. I also need to decompartmentalize my Pagan identity. I need to combine my Nature-centered, deity-centered, and self-centered Pagan beliefs and practices into an integrated whole. I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to do this, but the first step is recognizing the source of these internal conflicts. That’s where Halstead’s work has been so helpful.

That’s what I have to do. If you identify with one or two of these centers but not another, that’s fine – and you have plenty of company. If you identify with any of these centers, I want you in the Big Tent of Paganism. I enjoy theological discussions and debates (so long as they remain respectful) – they help me refine my own ideas about the gods. But in the end the nature of the gods or God/dess or the All or however you see Divinity remains a mystery.

And that mystery will be the topic of my next post.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • Henry Buchy

    As one who responded to John’s original you linked to, and as I mentioned there, I fall into the fourth center, the center area where all 3 overlap. In terms of the above, I suppose I can identify with all three. The theological and ontological ‘isms’ aren’t as inimical to each other when reduced to their simplist expressions rather than their more fully developed sense. Pan-theist, “all gods”, poly-theist, “many gods”, monist, “one principle”, dualist, “two principles”, etc. None individually express the whole picture. I can identify with many of the isms as well.

    I am a monist, a dualist, an animist, a polytheist and pantheist plus some other
    isms/ists, and there is no “pair o’ ducks”, there is no contradiction. Each view
    fits smoothly into a whole picture.
    And it’s marvelous! and the more I learn
    about it the more I marvel. The more one penetrates into the Mystery, the more
    mysterious it becomes,lol.
    I will do some rambling outlining my own ‘theology’. I
    would think the most glaring contradiction is over the monist/ dualist thing.
    Being a dualist doesn’t preclude having a monist view. One can hold the view
    that all things are the manifestation of a single substance ( prima materia)( a
    general monism), yet still maintain there is something else besides that single
    substance.(but then a single substance can also be a plurality,heh)
    I’m an
    animist. I believe everything has “life”, and varying degrees of
    ‘intelligence/consciousness’.(based on experience)
    so by course I am also a
    polytheist, which by turn makes me a pantheist,(literal sense) because I believe
    in ALL gods.(based on experience).
    As for pantheism in more colloquial use,
    it would depend on what qualities or properties one equates with
    ‘divine/divinity’ and whether everything has those.
    I’m also an evolutionist, but more expanded than Darwinian evolution

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Thanks, Henry. This is helpful as I work through these issues – you articulated some of what I’ve been thinking/feeling but haven’t yet put into words. And I totally agree that the Mystery is mysterious, and that that’s a good thing.

      You’re also right that I have trouble fitting dualism into the overall view of things. Perhaps I’m looking at things more literally than you intended, but I don’t see how all things can be the manifestation of a single substance (which I think is correct) AND there be something else beside that single substance. If All is One then there is nothing that is not One.

      • Henry Buchy

        no worries.

        Choosing the word “substance” was probably not a great choice. Perhaps ‘principle’ would be better.

        I used to be inclined to the ‘all is one’ idea, but study and experience led me to a more dualistic view. I’ll try to express it simply.
        For me there is ‘matter’ and something else. That something else works on matter both externally and internally to give it its various forms.It is in regard to ‘matter’ that I apply a monist view. So all matter is comprised of a primal substance which has combined and differentiated to present to us a multitude of forms under an impetus from something else. it is somewhat like having a glass of water and a spoonful of sugar and you mix them together, and now the water is sweet throughout yet still a mix of two things.

  • Joseph Bloch

    I think Mr. Halstead misses an important fourth category: community-centered Paganism (or, in my case, Heathenry). There is a very strong current within the Heathen community that focuses on community; the tribe, the kindred, the theod, etc. Many rituals are done as a communication from the community to the Gods, and some have an almost purely social function (the veitsla, or feast), but are still sacred nonetheless. In many Asatru and other Heathen groups, ritual is as much about building up the community as it is about marking the passage of the seasons or honoring the Gods. Theodish Belief even posits that the Gods prefer to hear prayers and receive offerings corporately, on the tribal level, rather than on an individual level, and is thus organized in a way that puts the tribal communal worship pre-eminent to individual worship.

    We see this also in various rites-of-passage ceremonies, many of which don’t only mark an individual’s progress through the various stages of life, but also the various stages by which an individual becomes a member of, or becomes more deeply integrated into the well-being of, the group. Name-givings, weddings, adolescent initiations into adulthood, can all be seen through this lens.

    • Julia Traver

      This is also true of the Classical (Greek and Roman) religions as well. I don’t know enough to comment for the Kemetics or the Canaanites :-) . In addition, I do not believe that mantic work (omen taking, oracles, etc.) were considered to be magic. They were considered to be taken to be messages from the Gods. Most other “magic” was magic with the dead, the greatest example being Medea. Centuries later in the Common Era during development of Christianity, Proclus and Neo-Platonism were popular in schools of philosophy. Additionally, in Alexandria Jewish mysticism (Kabbala) probably had some influence as well. This mess of a stew I don’t bother with. This is why Orthopraxy in public worship makes a huge comfort zone for all. I like to talk reasonably; but, don’t tell me that I’m naïve for being a follower of the philosophers Demokritos and Epikuros.

    • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

      John Halstead, the original author of the 3-centers paradigm, actually added community as a 4th one in a follow-up post. The post is sort of a ramble but if you scroll down from the top, you’ll see that in the middle bit he returns to the idea of centers and adds Community as a 4th one.

      http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/the-role-of-faith-and-hubris-in-paganism/

      • Joseph Bloch

        Aha! Excellent. Thanks for pointing that out, dashifen.

      • John H Halstead

        The exposition on each group definitely needs some work. I suggested in that post that a core value of community- or folk- centered Paganism is “love” — I doubt that is a good way to characterize the Heathen groups Joseph refers to.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

          That would probably help, but when I read it, it clicked for me.

      • John H Halstead

        By the way, Joseph’s post here [http://witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Culture-Blogs/is-paganism-a-nature-religion.html] is a great description of community-centered Paganism.

  • Kenneth Apple

    One problem I have is always searching for “AN” answer when the proper balance is provisional. Where are you in your life and your circumstances will dictate where your center of balance lies. I always feel like I’m trying to use a physics book to walk a tightrope, which isn’t all that useful unless you’ve got one on each end of a long pole. The right balance is the one that is working right now. It might not work tomorrow, but it could work again next week. It’s the transitions that tend to be hell. Or hel, depending on your outlook.

  • http://www.walkofthefallen.com Labrys

    I am definitely a self-centered pagan with a deep love of nature.

  • http://www.mysticcomfort.com/ Mystic Comfort

    Right about the time I conclude that the word “pagan” doesn’t really fit for me, I read a post like this one that makes me think I might just fit under the big tent after all. I was raised UU and then became quite fundamentally Christian where I spent a couple of decades. Now, except for the lack of involvement, I completely identify with your vague universalism with an added goddess-y overtone. And a deep connection to nature. And a desire to develop magically and otherwise. So I guess I do sort of fit…

    • Josh Pronk

      The problem is that most of us need labels to identify to others as if that label relays everything you are to another person as a summation. So that when you say you are *blank*, they have an idea of who you are and what you stand for, which any of us can attest to is not true.

      Follow what calls you no matter the name. We all want to belong to something, but that something has to be open to myriad possibilities and individual viewpoints. This is partially why I too am a Unitarian as is Mr. Beckett.

      All one needs to be a Pagan is to fit even slightly into one of the descriptions up top, even as just an ecologist with no real spiritual leanings. Have fun trying to figure yourself out as the journey is half of the fun. =)

      • http://www.mysticcomfort.com/ Mystic Comfort

        Thanks! “All one needs to be a Pagan is to fit even slightly into one of the
        descriptions up top, even as just an ecologist with no real spiritual
        leanings.” ~~then I definitely am one! And yes, UU seems to fit me, as well. I appreciate your feedback.

  • Josh Pronk

    Thank you John. This is a good general overview of our beliefs and potential paths. Of course with anything, this isn’t a definitive end all, be all of possibilities, but a good start for those who might need a compass. =)

  • David Heard

    Labels are a human conceit, in the end I think there as many categories as there are Pagan’s.

  • Agni Ashwin

    I met this Deity-Self-Nature-centered Pagan once.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    I’m on the same page with you here; I think contemporary Paganism is in the balance of those approaches, and it seems likely to me that those who only value one of the three will end up identifying differently and having only tangential (if any) involvement. While I regret the loss of some of that diversity, the constant struggle over basic values is exhausting and probably not sustainable.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Reading the comments here and further contemplation has led me to understand that I already am in the intersection of these three areas. That knowledge will allow me to silence some of the head noise I’ve been experiencing – focusing on one doesn’t mean ignoring the others.

      I think your prediction is probably right. I just hope our wider community can retain enough commonality to keep the Big Tent up.


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