A Druid in the Marketplace of Religions

I used to have a boss who’d get upset when I’d qualify my answers.  “Yes, we can have that job finished a week early, if a key supplier gets their parts here early, if the engineer’s design doesn’t require any modifications, and if the assemblers work more overtime than we have a right to require.”  He wanted an enthusiastic “yes!”  I felt I owed him an honest assessment of the situation.

I’ve tried to carry that honesty into my religious writing and speaking, partially because it’s the right thing to do and partially because I’ve been harmed by false certainty.  The fundamentalist preachers who insisted “God wants this” and “God hates that” and “I know I’m going to heaven and those folks over there are going to hell” had me living in confusion and fear until I was old enough and until I learned enough to realize they didn’t know much of anything.  I try to make it clear what I know and what I believe – and when I’m guessing.

As a UU and a polytheist, I’m part of two traditions that don’t tell people what to believe or what to do.  UUs recognize that each of us has the right to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, while polytheists understand that different people are called by different Gods in different ways to do different things.  While I try not to water down my message with endless disclaimers, I try to be clear about my limitations and about your freedom.  Here are some recent examples.

I am the only person bound by these ideas – if your Gods tell you to do something different, by all means do so.

I have no need to convert anyone.

Paganism has many varieties and variations and I couldn’t speak for them all even if I tried.

And if none of it seems to fit you, that’s fine too.

Apparently, though, this isn’t good enough for some people.  Some knowledgeable, experienced Pagans have decided I’ve crossed a line and that here on this blog I’m dictating what people should do and what they should believe.

I think they’re wrong.

There is a strong anti-authoritarian streak in modern Paganism.  Many of us left religions where people were telling us what to do, on pain of banishment and hellfire.  Others are social and political radicals who are wrongfully and tangibly oppressed by various authorities.  To the extent this causes the Pagan community to handle authority with great care, it’s a good thing.  But to the extent it causes some of us to reject not just arbitrary and misused authority but also the authority of competence, experience, and reason, it’s a very bad, very limiting thing.

There’s also the idea that all teaching should be indirect, that we can teach methods but not content, that every person has to discover every bit of truth on their own.  Now, there’s certainly a place for this kind of teaching.  If you come to me in a one-on-one setting and ask for spiritual guidance, I’m going to start by asking about your spiritual background and what you’re looking for.  Based on your answers, I’m likely to recommend a book or two to read and reflect on, and perhaps some spiritual practices to try.  I can’t tell you what to believe and what to do because I don’t know, and I wouldn’t take responsibility for your spiritual life if I could.

But that doesn’t mean I have nothing to say to the Pagan community and to the wider world.

Although Paganism has roots in the occult movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries, modern Pagan religion is no longer hidden.  It is an active, growing, and public participant in the marketplace of religions.  I think this is a good thing.  My Pagan journey has been helpful and rewarding – why wouldn’t I share that with others?

The loudest voices in the religious marketplace scream there is only one God and they know exactly what he wants.  Others scream there are no Gods and religion is a waste of time.  There are more voices, some advocating religions of compassion and service, others advocating religions of me me me.  In this competitive din, we need people who will say “how about a religion that honors the Gods of our ancestors?”  “How about a religion that honors Nature?”  “How about a religion that helps you become the best you can be, so you can be of greater service?”  “How about a religion that considers the community and not just the individual?”

This religion isn’t for everyone.  Some are satisfied with the religion of their childhood.  Some are called to follow the larger religions.  Some aren’t interested in any religion.  And that’s fine – we don’t need everyone to become Pagans and we have no mandate to evangelize the world for Dagda and Morrigan.

DFW Pagan Pride Day 2013

I don’t participate in this competitive marketplace because I need to “win” – in whatever meaning of that word you like.  I participate in it because there are people who are searching in the religious marketplace for something some of us already have.

I want everyone to know Paganism exists, and I want them to know what it is and what it isn’t.  I want those who feel the call to this path to be able to find it in minutes, not years.  I want those who have started on this path to learn the difference between crap and not-crap.

I want those who are well down this path to know that deeper experiences are possible.  I want those who have had those deeper experiences to know they’re not alone and they’re not delusional.

Beyond that, we’re debating the future of Pagan religion here and now.  Our version of the Council of Nicaea is taking place every day on blogs, websites, and social media.  I want to be a part of those discussions.  I want my ideas heard, critiqued, and refined.  That won’t happen if I don’t present them.

I think these are legitimate desires.  And I think I have an obligation to make them a reality.

Ultimately, all I have to offer is my own experience.  This is what I’ve done, this how I see things, this is what’s been helpful to me – maybe it will be helpful to you too.  If so, great.  If not, that’s great too – now you have one less thing to consider on your religious quest.  In the end, I’ll judge your religious choices based on how they help you live a good life, not on how closely your choices match mine.

If you find my thoughts unhelpful, ignore them.  If you’re called to a different flavor of Paganism, great.  Share your thoughts and we can all learn something from you.

If you think I’m wrong, then say so – I have a very liberal comment policy and I’m pretty easy to find for private conversations.  Make your case and if you’re convincing, I’ll change what I think and do.  If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, you can go back through six years of this blog and see how my beliefs and practices have changed in response to new information and new experiences.  I expect that evolutionary process will continue for the rest of my life.

This is why I blog, and speak, and teach.  If after all this you still think I’m telling people what to believe and what to do, you have a very different concept of “telling people what to do” than I do.  And you’re giving me credit for far more power and influence than I actually have.

As I say about so many things, the proof is in the results.  Traffic on this blog has been growing steadily since I moved to Patheos early last year.  Feedback – both public and private – is overwhelmingly positive, particularly from Pagans (I don’t expect atheists and Catholics to agree with me, though several atheists liked my Reasoned Defense of Paganism).  While popularity is no judge of rightness, it is an indication that what I’m doing is meaningful and helpful to others.

In the end, though, both the positive feedback and the unsupported criticism don’t matter.  This is who I am.  This is what I am.  This is what I’ve been called to do.  To do otherwise would be dishonest to myself and unfaithful to my calling.

I hope you all find the Paganism you’re looking for, where ever you end up finding it.

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://saracamis.blogspot.com/ Sara Amis

    “to the extent it causes some of us to reject not just arbitrary and
    misused authority but also the authority of competence, experience, and
    reason, it’s a very bad, very limiting thing.”

    TELL IT.

  • Chad Martin

    Excellent, I especially like the comment about how we are forming our own council of nicea every day…. very interesting point. Keep it up!

  • Beth Shorts

    You speak Truths! Never let anyone’s opinion ever silence your voice!

  • Joy

    THANK YOU! I am interested in community and making the Pagan community better, yet in order to do that we must honestly and patiently examine what is broken in order to fix it. Some people don’t want to look and immediately dismiss the thought as pearl-clutching. They see that some of us are aiming for SOME kind of very basic common-sense, common-ground tenets and conclude that because we appreciate a LITTLE bit of structure, we must not want them to have poly relationships or do a little partying. That isn’t the case at all! I for one just want to have a community that is safe and socially healthy (and all other kinds of healthy as well, but that’s the main focus right now).

  • Docrailgun

    It wasn’t that long ago (or actually, it was – the ’80s and ’90s) where there WERE a lot of pagans who happily would tell others that other pagans were DOING THINGS WRONG – there was a time when one could not be taken seriously as a pagan (which mostly meant ‘witch’) unless one was a strict Gardnerian and the more impressive the lineage you had the more important you were.

    Some of our most important post-millenial writers were scoffed at because they were self-initiated or self-taught – didn’t they know that it was impossible to be initiated without a coven and a high priest/priests to do these things for them? Didn’t they know that only knowledge passed on by word of mouth from Gardner himself was the only truth? That’s only slightly hyperbolic.

    We know now that this was wrong-headed and was mostly led by people who wanted to hold on to power at any cost. We got over that sickness as a community and are stronger for it. Those groups still exist, but for the most part they’re insular and fading because there’s no reason to live one’s religious life under someone else’s thumb when one can follow one’s heart.

    So, there’s really no reason to talk of a ‘Council of Nicea’, because that suggests organizing a creed and other theological issues – which we don’t need. The idea of a ‘pagan religion’ is a mental artifact of early Gardnerian thought. Our strength as ‘pagans’ is our ability to come together in an overarching umbrella, but we’re certainly not one religion – the difference between an Alexandrian witch and any flavor of heathen (by which I mean a German neopagan) is a lot greater than a mainline Protestant Christian and an Orthodox Christian. ‘Paganism’ is a lot more like the umbrella term “Christian” which now encompasses Catholics, mainline Protestants, various flavors of Orthodox, and the many many Evangelical and Charismatic groups which I have to look very hard to find anything ‘Christian’ about them (that is, they don’t seem very ‘Christ-like’ and appear to me to be mostly some sort of Old Testament-only religions).

    ‘Paganism’ is a mature thing now, by which I mean we don’t HAVE to compete in the marketplace of ideas to attract people. Our groups grow every day and new groups grow and flourish. But we don’t agree on even basic things like magic, if magic should be part of religion, or if religion should be part of magic. We don’t even agree on cosmology. So, we’re not a unified religion and shouldn’t be. Diversity is our strength. Attempts to be the public face of paganism has always failed, especially in the mainstream media.

    So, by all means keep teaching, keep writing, keep getting your ideas out there! But let’s be clear – there never was and there never will be single pagan religion. ‘Pagan’ is a state of mind and a label – not much more.

  • Docrailgun

    Certainly NOT one religion. *sigh* Blah. :)

  • Denise LeGendre

    Our version of the Council of Nicaea is taking place every day on blogs, websites, and social media.

    Is it? Or is it all just more of the age old social drama that humans seem to relish so much? I read a number of Pagan blogs and magazines and have belonged to various Pagan groups over the years. All are (or were) interesting from time to time and all say things that are just silly from time to time. None of them has any authority beyond what an individual might assign them. The Council of Nicea had authority to impose its decisions on others and used that authority to the detriment of many who did not agree. There is no comparable Pagan body (and not likely not be one in the foreseeable future) yet we argue and worry about it endlessly. Maybe it’s simply toxic residue from our various pasts, something we can’t or won’t leave behind. Until we do – until we really internalize our freedom to be true to ourselves and to our Gods, it will continue to haunt us and we’ll continue to bicker over “issues” that are little more than ghosts of the past.

    • kenofken

      The Nicea reference doesn’t fit because we’re not proposing to resolve the many issues of paganism into one authoritative consensus. We are, however, engaging those issues, and I think we often underestimate the power and value of that engagement. We’re talking to (and sometimes at), each other about what paganism means to US individually. That simple and raucous act of using each other as sounding boards helps us define and articulate our own beliefs and practices. It also opens our eyes to the staggering diversity that has blossomed within the “pagan movement”.

      We have also come to consensus on more than we realize sometimes. One consensus is that we are never going to have a consensus on theology or pagan identity, nor should we. That’s big evolution in thought. We went from the notion that pagan=the right sort of British Traditional Wicca to maybe solitaries are OK to the Witch Wars over who has the “real” craft to today’s realization that pagan is so much more, and that many pagan-esque folks don’t want to own the pagan label anymore.

      Without ever putting it into a written canon or doctrine, we’ve come to some broad agreements on cultural values. Starting as we did from the same deep seated homophobia as the overculture, we became some of the earliest and strongest supporters of LGBT rights. Much more recently, we’ve had some powerful conversations and evolutions on transgender issues. We’re engaging the issues of sexual harassment and abuse. We’re a long way from solving it, but we’re engaging it with a depth and seriousness which quite frankly a year ago I would have never thought possible.

      We have done and are doing a lot of experimentation and thinking about what kinds of institutions modern pagans need or want. Again, very much a work in progress, but that discussion is much more nuanced than the old dichotomy which offered us either anarchism or a carbon copy of Judeo-Christian hierarchies and physical infrastructure. We’ve discarded some models of institution after much trial and error. The “build it and they will come” pan-pagan hangout community center is pretty much extinct, for example. We don’t (mostly) want full-time clergy and congregational churches, but we have found ways to bring professionalism to ministry in certain ways.

      We’ve found common interest and come together quite effectively for overarching issues of equal treatment in the military and other arenas. We still come in for harassment, but Christian fundamentalists are realizing that we’re not easy marks. Their “Satanic Panic” narrative is also finding much less traction in mainstream society, in large part because we’ve been willing and able to articulate what we really believe and practice.

      If I may, I would suggest that this sort of meta-discussion in the movement is less like Nicea and more like the discussion that happens around “what does it mean to be an American?” From the moment the British surrendered and got back on their ships, we had to move from defining ourselves as something more than “not the Crown’s subjects”. That discussion of course has never been settled and never will, but it has, through fits and starts and a great deal of noise, made us better.

      These deliberations within paganism are meaningful, even though (I would argue because), they will not define what pagan identity and religion mean for everyone.

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

        Ken, we disagree on the Nicaea comparison, but other than that I’m in strong agreement with this comment. Thanks for elaborating.

  • Autumn Pulstar

    What line did you allegedly cross? As I recall, you have always been a huge fan of… this is what I think, but follow your own heart, follow your own gods

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

    A couple of the comments show I need to clarify my thoughts about the Council of Nicaea. Doc and Denise are correct that there is no single Pagan religion and there’s not going to be one. They’re also correct that unlike the historical Council of Nicaea, our debates on Paganism, polytheism, magic, Nature religion, and such will produce no creeds and no canonized scriptures.

    But we’re still working out what modern Pagan religion(s) is/are going to be. Much of that debate is taking place on the internet, in our daily exchanges. That’s not the same thing as a group of bishops with a specific agenda to resolve specific issues, but it’s close enough I think the comparison is meaningful.

    What’s most important is this historical fact: 1800 bishops were invited to the Council of Nicaea. 300 showed up. What would Christianity have become if the other 1500 bishops had participated in the deliberations? We’ll never know.

    Decisions are made by those who show up. I’m showing up.

  • Michael Eric Berube

    “In the end, I’ll judge your religious choices based on how they help you live a good life, not on how closely your choices match mine.” – John Beckett

    That may just be the best (and clearest) explanation of effective comparative theology that I have ever read. Brilliantly worded.