Showing Up

The Council of Nicaeaphoto via Wikimedia Commons

Decisions are made by those who show up.

Every time I compare the running debates on the Pagan internet to the Council of Nicaea I get pushback.  Some of this is understandable.  The Council of Nicaea was one of the most important events in the establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion of Europe and its output has helped define Christian orthodoxy for over 1600 years.  It is no surprise that Pagans – many of whom left Christianity under unpleasant circumstances – have no desire to emulate Christian institutions and processes.

The comparison is not perfect.  We Pagans have no imperial mandate, we have no fixed agenda, we will issue no creeds and we will canonize no scriptures.  The outcome of our debates will be many varieties of Pagan belief and practice, not one catholic (i.e. – universal) Paganism.

But there is an important lesson to be learned from the Council of Nicaea, so please bear with me while I summarize what happened.

In 325 CE the Roman Emperor Constantine sent out a call for all Christian bishops to participate in a council to settle various disagreements within the still-new Christian church – the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son and the date of Easter being the most prominent.  The precise agenda isn’t relevant to the modern Pagan comparison.

What’s relevant is that 1800 bishops were invited to participate in the council.  300 showed up.  Those 300 bishops made decisions that are still in effect today.

What would the Council of Nicaea been like if the other 1500 bishops had attended?  What would it have done differently if ordinary priests had also been invited, or lay Christians?

The orthodox Christian position is that the Council was guided by the Holy Spirit and thus would have reached the same conclusions no matter who was involved.  Perhaps.  Others say those 300 bishops were a representative sample of Christian thought at the time and thus reached the same conclusions as if Constantine had polled all of Christendom.  Perhaps.  Still others argue that those who made the long and difficult journey to Nicaea (in what is now northern Turkey) were the most invested and most passionate and therefore would have carried the argument no matter who attended.  Perhaps.

What would the Council of Nicaea been like if more than 300 bishops had participated?  We’ll never know.  Here’s what we do know:  major decisions were made by those who showed up.

We can debate when modern Pagan religion began, but such a debate is impossible to settle.  What’s important for our purposes is that modern Pagan religion is a new religion.  We’re still figuring out what we want to be when we grow up.  Even if we work within the Four Centers model, there is little agreement as to what constitutes Nature-centered, Deity-centered, Self-centered, and Community-centered religion.  To use a biological comparison, we are in the middle (or perhaps even the beginning) of an evolutionary explosion where many species arise.  Over time, the less fit variations will die off and the more fit variations will continue.

The first phase of modern Paganism spread by direct personal contact, through one on one teaching and initiation.  The second phase spread by books, with writers like Starhawk, Margot Adler, and Scott Cunningham making the rise of solitary practitioners possible.  The current phase of Paganism is being spread by the internet and while some voices are louder than others, anyone with a computer and some basic writing skills can contribute to the discussion.

Jason Mankey argues that Pagan bloggers have little influence because our readership is so low.  He’s right, if you’re talking about any one individual.  But ideas spread through social media, and those that are particularly helpful (or sadly, particularly controversial) can quickly find their way to thousands of Pagans worldwide.

Who are the Gods?  What are the Gods?  How can we best interact with Them?  Why do we want to interact with Them?

What are Pagan values and virtues?  How can we best embody them in a society that seems interested only in the next shiny new distraction?

What are our obligations to Nature?  What are our obligations to other humans and other species?

How can we best learn and grow ourselves?

What stories best help us live full and honorable lives?

These are some of the many questions any religion must answer.  What answers will Pagans propose?  What answers will Pagans find helpful?  What answers will Pagans discard?

Every generation builds on the foundations laid by the previous generation.  I look at my bookshelf and I see Isaac Bonewits, Philip Carr-Gomm, and Ronald Hutton.  I see Thorn Coyle and Brendan Myers.  These and many others have influenced my Paganism – my practice starts here.

What will the Pagans of 2050 use as a starting point?  The Pagans of 2100?  The Pagans of centuries and millennia to come?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that our conversations are shaping the future of Paganism.  Slowly, incrementally, by trial and error, by consensus and by strength of will, decisions are being made and they’re being made by those who participate in the discussions.

Decisions are made by those who show up.

You say you don’t like theology?  That’s fine – we’re also trying to figure out which holidays to celebrate and how to celebrate them.  We’re trying to figure out which spiritual practices draw us closer to the Gods, to each other, and to our better selves… and we’re trying to figure out which practices are a colossal waste of time.  We’re trying to figure out what our pre-Christian ancestors really thought and did, and how much of that we should adopt into our lives.

Decisions are being made by those who show up.

You prefer a this-world, this-life religion?  We’re trying to decide how we can best change the world through mainstream politics… or if we should participate in politics at all.  We’re trying to figure out where direct personal action is needed.  We’re trying to decide what our obligations are to other people, other species, and other ecosystems, and how we can best fulfill those obligations.

Decisions are being made by those who show up.

You couldn’t participate in all these discussions even if you wanted to – you’d spend all your time debating and have nothing left for doing, for actually being a Pagan.  That’s why my favorite blogs (see the blogroll on the right) are mostly written by people who aren’t just talking Paganism, they’re doing Paganism.

These are some of the people who are showing up.  They’re showing up to do the work and then they’re showing up to tell the rest of us what they’ve done and how well it worked.

What an amazing opportunity we have.  What an awesome responsibility we have.

You don’t have to participate, but remember those 1500 bishops who stayed home.  Decisions are made by those who show up.

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.

  • Willow Polson

    What do you mean by “showing up?”

    I don’t have time to blog. I work two jobs for poverty wages. I no longer live in a metropolitan area, and other than the Internet, I have almost no contact with any other Pagans. Things are off happening without me, because I’m nothing more than one voice on the Internet, and I’ve been shouted down, bullied, and discounted. So I don’t try to participate much anymore. Why would I?

    I’m still out here, doing my stuff, exploring my path, I just don’t tell the world about it on a blog. Some of what I do is intensely personal and is not for public knowledge for a number of reasons.

    I’ve tried going to Pagan Pride Day to teach and guide and give people a safe place to discuss things, if they need it. Of the two workshops I offered in Sacramento last fall, I had exactly one person show up to one of them. In my county, I’ve found about three people I can do any work with, and they’re an hour away with difficult work schedules — none of them will come to my place, I must go to theirs. I called the West and was a guardian/dragon at a fire ritual a couple of Samhains ago at a public venue, and afterwards, everyone went their separate ways, uninterested in forming a group. I used to go to a large women’s festival and because I dared to say that women can have a male side to their spirit, as I do, I was publicly run out on a rail.

    I’m telling you all this to inform, not to criticize. It’s been 12 years of frustration for me as I’ve tried to find kindred spirits to work with, and come up empty-handed. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

    Being invited to PSG about five years ago was one of the highlights of my life. It was incredibly honoring and validating, and made up for a lot of the people who have said nasty things about and to me. But if not for their generous ability to pay for my round-trip airfare, I would not have been able to go. I’ve spoken on the podcasts of others, and written five books, and given workshops at PPD and Pantheacon, so at least there’s that.

    So what? Did anyone get anything out of anything I did? I know of one man who loves my books. Past that… who knows.

    So how does one like me “show up?” Gas is over $4 a gallon here, and the nearest town is an hour away, not that anyone there is interested in circling with me. Oakland is about 2.5 hours. San Francisco farther still. I don’t have the time or energy or will to blog about my stuff, which will either be repetition of what others are saying, or is too private to post publicly.

    I’m honestly asking what you suggest people like me do. I’ve tried, dozens of times. But here I sit alone. I can’t force people to listen, or to learn from my 35 years of experience. Maybe that’s not my path after all.

    On the Internet, where an aggressive teen has equal footing with a quiet elder, and takes great pleasure in shouting people down, who comes out the winner?

    Is that who is going to decide our community’s fate, because they “showed up” and were the loudest voice?

    Tell me what you think I should do. I’m out of ideas.

    • John Beckett

      You’ve already done a lot, Willow – you weren’t exactly the target audience for this post. I couldn’t begin to say what – if anything – you should do next, other than if there’s something in you that needs to get out, or something that needs to come through you, let it flow.

      I understand the frustration when you put your heart out there and either nobody responds, or someone picks at it for something that completely misses the point, or decides you’re “telling people what to do”

      But just so you know, “The Veil’s Edge” is on that bookshelf I mentioned.

      • Willow Polson

        I’m deeply honored, sir. Thank you. I would write a sequel, but that gets into the stuff that really shouldn’t be flapping out there in the public eye… I’d be happy to speak privately.

        I’m a teacher by nature. Before my father pulled my college funding, I was a year away from my secondary school teaching credential. I’ve never not wanted to help others learn, however they learn best for them, so I’ve done this as much as I can.

        This current location is most of my problem, and I’m working hard to change that (along with my amazing guides, they’ve literally worked miracles). It’s beautiful here, but the isolation is stifling.

        I’m hoping that I can help others and be a part of things again once I get out of here and land where I need to be.

    • Cosette Paneque

      For what it’s worth, I like your books too and have a few of them on my shelf as well.

    • Cat C-B

      Willow, as a full-time teacher, I am often as frustrated as you sound–at least to me–at how hard this “showing up” stuff turns out to be. I am mystic enough, though, to buy the notion that there are spiritual leadings I can follow that can help me be in the right place at the right time to accomplish what I’m meant to.

      Speaking for myself, I think our gods actually do have a knack for helping us to do their work–the work they can see is uniquely ours to do. It’s a funny thing, but a lot of Pagans act as though the gods have nothing to do with the day to day work of getting the work of Paganism done. I guess I’m mystic enough to buy the notion that Spirit might have something to do with who shows up… And a Quaker enough Pagan to think that for some of us, it’s going to be our lives themselves, more than rituals, books, or blog posts, that are going to be the “showing up” that speaks best.

      • Willow Polson

        I agree with the last part of your post, about it being our lives themselves that’s the “showing up” part — living a good life for Spirit or the gods or God or whatever you want to call that universal presence. That’s what I’m mostly about, improving my life and those around me the best I can, but that wasn’t what I was attempting to address in my post, which was about people shaping the community for others by making an effort to be present to discuss these things like the council he uses as an example. Thank you for raising this point.

        • Cat C-B

          Yeah, and I’m not trying to be argumentative. I truly see how we live our lives themselves as being a contribution to that discussion. Sometimes the best contribution to developing ideas is being the example of what we’re trying to say… (I know you get this. I’m just worried I didn’t make myself clear for other readers.)

  • Denise LeGendre

    Decisions are being made by those who show up.

    Yes but… Without an organization or the kind of rules that cause people to heed those decisions, how much do they matter? The internet discussions are certainly thought provoking and maybe in some quarters, consensus is being reached on some issues but that would happen anyway, if more slowly, without the internet. And Willow’s point about the aggressive teen shouting down the quiet elder is well taken. Internet discussions are interesting but also tricky. The old adage about not believing everything you read applies tenfold on the internet. There are some blogs that are helpful (this is one), many it’s best to ignore and some worth reading when the mood strikes but it all remains simply discussion and opinion. Decisions, if any, are individual. Slowly, they may become part of the fabric of our lives and beliefs but from the inside out, not imposed from on high. I think that’s what you mean but you seem to be suggesting an authority that doesn’t exist. Maybe I’m reading more into your references to Councils and decisions than you mean to suggest.

    • John Beckett

      No, not an authority. You got the point I was trying to make exactly when you said “Slowly, they may become part of the fabric of our lives and beliefs but from the inside out, not imposed from on high.”

  • Tommy Elf

    You’re right John…decisions are made by those who show up. But those decisions are not necessarily what the people who didn’t show up will follow or agree to.

    You have pointed out many times – many, many times – that the wide-arching expanse of the Big Tent of Paganism will encompass many divergent points of view. Choices of what is or is not Paganism can be made by those who show up – but its not going to meet the mark of everything that is Paganism.

    I do grok what you are saying in this post John. That people should become engaged, that we should be discussing many of the multitude of questions you are posing in here. And I completely agree. But I think where people miss the mark is in the comparative aspect with the Council of Nicea. Nicea was about creating rigid dogma that was to be strictly followed, where as the discussions you are pointing out are those that help people – in some cases – become more deeply in tune with their own beliefs, varied as those beliefs may actually be. In some manner, people are taking the comparison to be a point of saying “this is what Paganism is about” or “that is not what Paganism is about.” That position of creating rigid dogma that draws definitive lines in a framework of belief that most believe was never meant to have.

    I believe you said once (and I am far too lazy to go and look it up), that the Big Tent of Paganism even included beliefs that were not quite tucked within the structure of the tent. That those beliefs happily sat just outside of the framework of the Big Tent – and were easily noted as being a part of everything that was underneath the canvas of the Big Tent. I heartily concur. Individual Spirituality works for the individual – even structured Spirituality works for the individual on an individual level. One should not have to walk in lock-step with every single belief in this, that or the other to be a part of the label that they chose. But I am sliding slightly off-topic here (as I am typically doing in anything I write – damn tangential brain of mine), and should really end my little ramble here in your comments section. Cheers… –Tommy /|

    • Willow Polson

      Big Tent Paganism ™ is like Christianity. There are many branches of Christianity. There are many branches of Paganism. And both of these things are fine. There shouldn’t be One True Paganism and all else is voted out. It seems to me the Council should be representatives from the different branches, and experienced individuals like myself who are outside of any of them, who work together to make discoveries and share knowledge, then bring it back to their respective groups, not as The Way, but as another tool for the workshop or book for the library. Certain ethical guidelines, like not being a dickweed to others on the Internet, would be a great place to start…

      • Tommy Elf

        Completely agree. One of the things that I do not care for in all of this is the debate aspect. For me, debates are something that has winners and losers in it – too much emphasis on winning the point — not enough emphasis on learning something. I prefer simple conversations and discussions. Been a Pagan for a long, long time – but there’s plenty more for me to learn too. Once the debate gloves get put on – I tend to quietly bow out of the entire matter. Just my way of doing things…which sounds quite close to yours as well. Well met! –Tommy /|

      • AnantaAndroscoggin

        I also see nothing wrong with individual Traditions deciding upon some of the things so discussed via the blogs (etc.), and adopting as “official” for that particular Trad whatever they have chosen for their group’s theology, liturgy, organizational setup, and schedule of annual meetups, whether for conducting the business of their Trad, worship, Workings, or Festival celebrations.

        • Willow Polson

          Exactly! :)

  • Gwion

    Reminds me of the old anarchist axiom – “those that do the work decide”