Vision of a Pagan Future

In yesterday’s Wild Hunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters had an excellent essay titled “Institutions vs Counterculture in Modern Paganism” where he asked if our efforts to “move towards infrastructure and institutions” are in conflict with our efforts to embody and promote values that are very different from the mainstream culture.  That’s a very deep question and Jason gave it a deep exploration.  Here’s an excerpt:

Jason Pitzl-Waters

I’m not arguing for institution or counterculture, I’m arguing for conscious decision making. Many of us believe in magic, in Will, in shaping our own futures. As such, if we are going to be a part of this religious movement, then we should be clear-eyed about what we ultimately want to become. We are at a point in our growth and success where we’ve allowed ourselves a moment’s reflection on the future. I believe this is why we are having so many fundamental debates over who we are, and if we want to be a part of this movement. This question isn’t even necessarily an either-or, but the way in which we “lean” will shape our collective future. Eventually, some part of us will be seen as the fringe, as not representing the heart of our culture, and I want to make sure we are comfortable with the direction of our forward lean.

The original essay is good and the conversation that took place in the comments was even better – I encourage you to go read it for yourself.  I don’t intend this post to be a critique of either Jason’s ideas or of the follow-up conversation, but rather an expansion of my thoughts on the subject.  Those thoughts began with my first comment:

I want it all – which is why I continue to advocate for a Big Tent approach to Paganism. I want the multi-generational stability that comes from institutions, and I want the wild mystics pulling those institutions toward our ideals.

As I’ve discussed before, I’m not a radical in any sense of the term.  But I recognize how badly dysfunctional our mainstream society is, and more importantly, how badly its values are at odds with my values and the values of many Pagans.

If you’re paying the least bit of attention you know something is badly wrong:  a dragging economy, growing income and wealth inequality, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, resource depletion, endless war, domestic spying, a record prison population, and a Congress that refuses to govern.  You don’t need a master’s degree in divination to see that where ever this is headed, it isn’t any place good.

It’s not enough to be against the mainstream culture – you have to offer a viable alternative.  Otherwise you’re simply a troublesome voice on the sidelines that’s easy to ignore… or if you become too loud, to forcibly silence.  The modern Pagan movement spent its first few decades too small to be anything more than that troublesome voice, and a refuge for those of us who felt called to magic, Nature and the Gods.

Jason says things changed in 1983 when a group of Wiccans led by Selena Fox purchased the land that would become Circle Sanctuary.  Modern Paganism took a major step on the path to becoming an institution.

I’ve heard it said that conservatives believe people are inherently bad but are redeemed by institutions, while liberals believe people are inherently good but are corrupted by institutions.  As a description of what people believe I think that’s fairly accurate.  As for me, I see institutions as an extension of the people who found and support them:  a few are good, a few are bad, and most are a little of both.

The primary benefit of institutions is that they bring multi-generational stability.  How many covens die when their high priestess dies or moves or loses interest?  How many independent churches wither when their pastor moves on?  How long will Apple last without Steve Jobs?  Institutions survive because they aren’t dependent on one or two key individuals.

Part of the universal (or very nearly so) religious impulse is the desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves.  We know that when we die our bodies will return to the elements and we can’t be sure there even is such a thing as a soul (I’m convinced there is, but we can’t be sure).  But even if I don’t live on after death, my Druidry will.  The individual dies but the tribe lives on.  By creating and maintaining multi-generational institutions, we can achieve immortality.

One of the problems with institutions is that they are inherently conservative.  Not in the political sense of the word, but in the sense that their mission is to conserve – to preserve, to maintain – its values and traditions.  That’s mostly a good thing – by the time a movement starts to think and act institutionally, it usually has worked out what values and traditions are helpful and thus worth conserving.

But does the third or fourth or tenth generation realize that the compromises made by the founding generation were trade-offs born of necessity and not some perfect way things were done back in a golden age?  Does the institution remain a living, growing, changing entity?  Or does it become a plastic replica of the reasons it was founded?

I think of the Catholic abuse scandals.  The suffering of innocent children could have been minimized if the abuse had been recognized and abusive priests removed immediately.  Instead, the abuse was perpetuated by cover-ups intended to protect the institution.  Instead of asking “what values has the Catholic church preserved that we can apply in this horrible situation?” bishops asked “how can we protect the institution of the Catholic church from bad publicity?”  The institution became more important than the values and traditions it was created to conserve.

As Paganism becomes more and more institutional, let us never become so arrogant as to think this crime of misplaced priorities can’t happen to us.

And this is where we come to the second part of this vision:  while I want the multi-generational stability that comes from institutions, I also want the mystics and witches and prophets pulling those institutions toward our ideals.  Jason Pitzl-Waters worries that “some part of us will be seen as the fringe, as not representing the heart of our culture.”  He’s right.  Movements have centers, but they are pulled by those on the fringes and the edges, by those who are willing to take the risks those charged with conserving the institution cannot take.

So yes, I want to build temples to the Celtic gods, and I want advocates for the homeless reminding us to build houses for humans too.  I want the turning of the seasons to be celebrated everywhere, and I want tree-sitters reminding us that Nature is more than something pretty for us to enjoy.  I want Pagan libraries and seminaries, and I want devotees of Cernunnos running through the forest in ecstatic communion with the Lord of Animals.

There are some who fear we’re trying to make Paganism “respectable,” that we’re trying to show it’s no threat to a mainstream culture that doesn’t care how many species go extinct so long as nobody interrupts Dancing With the Stars, that doesn’t care if 300,000 people have their water poisoned so long as the lights never flicker.  But it’s not about making Paganism “respectable.”  It’s about instilling Pagan values in “respectable” people and thereby changing the mainstream culture, little by little, soul by soul.

Jason calls for “conscious decision making” and I agree.  Paganism needs institutions if it’s going to become the societal force our world needs it to become.  Let’s leave room in our Big Tent for the mystics and wild witches who will not let us forget why we became Pagans in the first place.

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.

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

    > Modern Paganism took a major step on the path to becoming an institution.

    I would say “having” institutions, not being one…? But I agree with the main point about conscious decision-making and have expressed similar thoughts myself. :) Look at Agora on Thursday for an interview that touches on this subject.

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

      Fair point on the word choice, Christine. I’ll look forward to the Agora piece.

    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94rcOVJBMYQ Winston Blake

      Thomas Hobbes once said that the papists and presbyters were nothing more than ‘ghosts of the deceased Roman Empire sitting crowned upon the grave theoreof.”

      Hobbes had to flee for his life to France while Oliver Cromwell laid waste to the British Isles proving it…

  • Y. A. Warren

    I’m not sure that the institution is what is important in passing on values, unless the “institution” is family in the same sense that blood families operate. This is from the Jesus story: “Wherever two are more are gathered in my name, there am I.”

    I must have a bit of pagan sensibility in my beliefs because I believe our energy goes on in everything we touch with our life spirit, be that good or bad touch. I encourage you to simply touch as many as you can in a positive manner to pass on your positive energy. This will be your immortality and the immortality of the pagan values. (I believe the bad eventually disappears into a black hole of nothingness as we work to overcome its effects.)

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

      And that’s another form of immortality.

  • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

    On the question of defanging and respectability, I ask what is more of a threat to mainstream culture: Paganism with institutions or without? I say with, because without we are barely even noticeable.

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

      I completely agree. Do you want to scream at the mainstream culture or do you want to actually change it?

      • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94rcOVJBMYQ Winston Blake

        The idea “thou shalt marry and be given in marriage” is corrupt and degenerate, which is an impossible immortality of a kind (i.e., eternal love), but not of the persons of men. The government of men’s external actions by religion, pretending the change of nature in their consecrations cannot be esteemed a work extraordinary, it is no other than a conjuration or incantation, whereby they would have men to believe an alteration of nature that is contrary to the testimony of sight and of all the rest of the senses.

        The praeterpolitical power of the churches to institute monogamy as an ecclesiastic rule of law enabled them to determine the legitimacy of the succession of the pagan kings, abrogate the natural rights to property and self-defense, as well as gave them power of ecclesiastic censure for divorce.

        These gay ecclesiastics would have men believe they will receive condign punishment for their contumacy of monogamy, as opposed to the freedom of the polygamy found in nature, which is inherently pagan and heterosexual.

  • kenofken

    I still think the current debate poses a false dichotomy which says we buy into the mainstream Christian business model wholesale or else we have to be wild-eyed anarchists or discordians of some sort.

    It’s not an “either/or” question. We have institutions, and they’re growing. Unfortunately, the wording and tenor of the debate always seems to suggest that we’re at some fork in the road. Either we “grow up” and become the Pagan Catholic Church or Church of Latter Day Druids, or else we slip into oblivion as soon as all of us pre-Millenials kick the bucket.

    I’m not buying the paradigm, and I don’t think a majority of today’s community will either. I support a number of fine pagan institutions in word and patronage and in hard dollars when I can. I’m very privileged to live within a half day’s drive of some of them – PSG, Circle Sanctuary etc. I love what’s going on with Cherry Hill and the New Alexandrian Library and any number of other worthwhile community efforts. In my own way, I’ve even argued for more professional management of them. More “institutional-ness”, in a sense. I will continue to do so, but I have no interest in encasing my personal spiritual practice within steel and concrete and professional clergy and doctrinal governing bodies. Ain’t gonna happen, ever.

    My stand is not based in some inherent desire to be a contrarian or wild pure conscience of the movement. I simply find that these elements would add nothing of value to my spirituality, and detract much from it. No architect will build a temple half as majestic as the open night sky and a field, or even a home temple infused with the daily intimate contact of human and deity.

    Does that mean I simply don’t care about continuity of my tradition? I suppose in a way it does. I find much of beauty and power within my tradition of eclectic Wicca which has some very specific conceptions of deity and which has drawn a wonderful little core and larger outer circle. It is a tradition that could serve any number of people in the future, but it’s power and worth don’t lie in anything that could be transmitted in writing or indoctrination or rote retention of the words and form of our rituals.

    It lies in the immediacy and intimacy and joy of experience and relationship with our gods and goddesses. It’s not something we can bottle in pure form for posterity, and it’s nothing that the average person could not re-discover on their own 30 years, or 300 after we pass. We have this idea of paganism as some ephemeral technology like the Damascus steel of legend, which can be irretrievably lost if the chain of master-student is ever severed.

    Pagan religion is the natural default spirituality of humanity. It is as accessible and normal as breathing and sunlight and rain. 15 Centuries of conquest and cultural genocide could not destroy it, and what we “recreated” is more alive and relevant than anything we would have if someone found a perfect intact record of Iron Age Celtic practice and declared it canonical.

    Nor is pagan religion a vehicle of salvation for the human race or something that should be proselytized. It is a fine mode and model for intentional and conscious living, but not the only one out there, nor one which will work well for all or even most people.

  • kenofken

    As one other addendum to an already long-winded rant, I think we’ve tended to consider the question of institution too much in the abstract, at least where temples and paid clergy are concerned.

    We pose the question “are WE” as a community willing to support this? The real question is are YOU willing to set aside 10% of what you make, each and every month to have such a resource? That’s the real nut of what it takes to have that infrastructure, and anyone telling you otherwise is selling you farmland in the Atacama. On an individual basis, that number can vary if you have a few millionaires and a solid professional class kicking in large dollars. If you have centuries of accumulated ill-gotten loot like the RCC, you can beat the curve for a while, but they’re finding out that’s not sustainable.

    We’ve done some amazing things with crowd-sourcing blitzes of late, but running a church doesn’t happen with the one-off nationwide indie campaign, and it certainly won’t happen with the historical pagan funding model (the occasional fiver in the love offering bucket at a pride day). You need to be willing to come up with an extra car payment or at minimum, a very solid utility bill, every month. If you want a pagan K-8 school, plan on another $3,500 to $4,000 a year. Ten grand a year if you want a high school program.


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