Pagan Orthodoxy (and the Wife of Jesus)

You’ve probably already stumbled across the New York Times article making the rounds about a papyrus fragment containing the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’” It’s an exciting discovery, not because it proves that Jesus had a wife (it doesn’t), but because it speaks to the diversity in the emerging Christian movement 1800 years ago.

When I talk to my Evangelical friends about their faith they always describe it as “unchanged” since the time of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, but that’s simply not true. I’d argue that the religion of Jesus is only marginally similar to the religion of Paul, and that both of those gentlemen carried distinct and different messages. In antiquity there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different and competing Christianities. It took nearly four hundred years before there was anything approaching an Orthodox Christianity, and much of what was declared party line emerged as the result of violence and councils held by Roman Emperors.

Yahweh and his Asherah

Orthodoxy in any religion takes a great deal of time to develop. The ancient Hebrews shared a belief in one Supreme Male God, but many of them also worshipped his wife Asherah (and perhaps other deities as well). It took centuries for the worship of Asherah by the Hebrews to wither and die, and again, much of that came as the result of violence. As the book of Exodus says “Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.” Delightful.

I’ve always been fascinated by early Christianity and it’s development. The Church (or probably more accurately “The Churches”) of the year 100 has almost nothing in common with most Christian groups in 2012. Some of that is certainly cultural, but a lot of it is because beliefs and orthodoxy had yet to develop. In the year 100 of the Common Era (seventy years or so after the death of Jesus) there was no “New Testament” and the Gospel of John might not have even been written yet. Coincidently, the Modern Pagan movement is only about seventy years old.*

Periodically you’ll hear shouts in the Pagan blogosphere for some sort of “orthodoxy.” It would be nice if we could all agree on the definition of “Pagan” (or even agree on whether or not it should be capitalized), let alone orthodoxy, but give it some time. We’ve only been using the word “Pagan” for about forty years. Mormonism is similar in age to Modern Paganism and that faith continues to go through growing pains (African-American males weren’t allowed to be priests in the Mormon Church until 1978), why should we be any different? If history is doomed to be repeated, we are a long way from any sort of orthodoxy.

That doesn’t mean it’s not coming. We have become more orthodox over the last forty years, though it’s not always painfully obvious. Star wrote an insightful little post last week about The Problem of Personal Experience. Buried in the comments section were some brilliant insights that spoke of the lack of orthodoxy in Modern Paganism and how we are growing towards it, even without realizing it. Decades ago, before rituals were really printed in books, people “called the quarters” in configurations that might seem odd to many of us today (think Earth in the West), but with the availability of ritual material that has changed. In some ways, books have made us less eclectic, because the majority of us agree on a certain system of correspondences. Even if you hold onto an alternative construction in private ritual, doing anything outside of that basically requires you to equate East with Air.

Eclecticism (and especially Eclectic Wicca) has brought a certain orthodoxy with it. Before there were 1,194 (not the real number) books on the subject, different “Wiccan Traditions” could conceivably use dozens of different ritual structures, techniques, deities, and correspondences. I’m sure that the explosion of Eclectic Wicca has done little to change those things inside actual traditions, but outside of those traditions, it has given lots of Pagans (but certainly not all) a language and a system that’s generally agreed upon in public and large group settings. Due to Eclectic Wicca** being the most dominant form of Western Paganism, it’s a system that is at least familiar to most Pagans. Go to a “Pagan Festival” and you’ll get an opening ritual with someone calling four quarters, casting a circle, invoking a Goddess and God . . . . . . ya know, Eclectic Style Wicca.

While some Pagan groups have moved away from the “Gardnarian Magnet,” they still speak in language familiar to most Pagans. I can walk into a room full of ADF Druids and have more than enough in common with them that we are capable of arguing talking for several hours about a common belief system. Sure, we don’t do the same types of rituals, and we may not worship/honor the same gods (and the deities honored in ADF vary from grove to grove, no sweat there), but we read the same books and blogs, and go to the same festivals. That’s all a part of the move to some sort of orthodoxy within the Pagan movement as a whole.

It’s true that we are basically a bunch of smaller self-sustaining groups, but that doesn’t mean our demise is imminent, or even likely to happen anytime soon (or far in the future). Christianity began roughly the same way, with people meeting around a kitchen table sharing wine and bread, there was no church structure seventy years in, and just as many people thought Paul was a jackass as thought he was an apostle. The fact that we can band together to send Patrick McCollum to Italy speaks to how far we’ve come in a very short period of time. Yes the National (or International) Federation of Pagans is a long way off, but we are starting to get to a place where we at least recognize a good spokesperson.

It often feels like Modern Paganism is rapidly moving away from any sort of orthodoxy, even as I argue that it’s not. Ten years ago I probably would have argued that most Pagans were polytheists, now there are a lot of Atheist Pagans, even as some things change, I still think that we are continuing to find common ground amongst ourselves. In the last few weeks I’ve witnessed two civil conversations that I thought would become heated, but our community was able to rise up and discuss Humanist Paganism and Are Satanists Pagan? with grace and civility. Much of that is because of the shared languages and experiences common to so many of us, the things that pave the way towards some sort of orthodoxy.

Does the idea of a Pagan Orthodoxy frighten me? If our recent past is any indication, not particularly. As we move forward defining Modern Paganism, my guess is that we will do it without violence or shouting, and we that we will figure out a way to make Modern Paganism a very big tent. I also have a hunch that we won’t be arguing the marital status of our gods 1800 years after the fact.

*I tend to date the official start of Modern Paganism to 1939, the year Gerald Gardner was initiated into a coven of witches in New Forest England. Were there people doing things we might recognize as Modern Pagan before 1939? Most certainly. There were also groups that looked a lot like early Christianity before the birth of Jesus. Nothing just emerges out of a vacuum, and religious movements are often the result of impulses that have built up over time, Paganism, like Christianity, is a good example of this phenomenon.

**I have no numbers to back this up, but I’m going to bet it’s true. Even initiated Witches often participate in large group rituals, which generally involve Eclectic Wiccan Style ritual.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Xot

    It does make me want to put together a ritual for event unlike anything anyone has ever seen. But I think the confusion would prove your point. Maybe something based on Platonic solids…

    • MadGastronomer

      Ritual constructed around Platonic solids aren’t “unlike anything anyone has ever seen.” There are Neo-Platonic — and indeed Pythagorean, and it was the original Pythagorean cult that Plato’s work was based on — pagans. I’m not even one of them, and I keep a set of Platonic solids on my altar, and use them as a portable altar from time to time. I don’t need to place them in quarters, because they have their own structures I can use instead. It won’t be what most people are used to, sure, but “unlike anything anyone has ever seen” is kind of a stretch.

  • kat

    so if you consider the initiation of gardner the start of paganism…what about the person that initiated him? doesnt their years of training and working and teaching count?

    • JasonMankey

      That’s a good question. I think the folks that initiated Gardner practiced a variety of magical traditions (some hereditary, some from the school of Ceremonial Magick) and that after his initiation Gardner built upon his experience and added to it. I don’t think that the rituals Gardner was doing in 1959 were the rituals the New Forest Group were doing in 1939.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      You missed an important word out: “…the start of *modern* Paganism…”

      What the New Forest Group were doing was different enough to what Gardner made for a distinction to be valid without necessarily denigrating one or other system.

  • Stifyn Emrys

    Definitions are necessary, but they also raise an inherent tendency to categorize “us vs. them.” If something is defined as orthodox, things that don’t fit that norm become labeled heterodox and unacceptable. Then judgmentalism creeps in. It’s a fine line. Solid judgement is necessary to keep profiteers and charlatans from using spirituality as a means of enriching themselves at the expense of the gullible. But on the other hand, consolidation of power in the hands of an orthodox “in crowd” also raises the specter of profiteering on the part of the power brokers. I don’t mean to be cynical, but I like the idea of having hundreds of different Christianities – and Paganisms. It allows broad competition in a marketplace of ideas that stimulates new ideas and inspiration. Orthodoxy tends to set things in stone and label new ideas as unacceptable. I’m wary of that. I don’t know whether the big-tent concept you mention is compatible with the concept of orthodoxy. I suppose time will tell.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      You don’t need a monolithic orthodoxy over all of Paganism. You mention the comparison to Christianity. There is no real monolithic orthodoxy throughout Christianity, but there are plenty of smaller orthodoxies within each subcategory.

      In the same way, it would be entirely appropriate to suggest an orthodoxy for Gardnerian Wicca or Anglo-Saxon Heathenry (as examples), but not one that covers both simultaneously.

      I must say, I dislike the comparison between Christianity and Paganism. It is flawed. Christianity could be compared to Wicca – one term that contains many categories but is, itself, a category within a larger umbrella.

      Paganism is more like Abrahamism, as a term. It encompasses a lot of related traditions, but these traditions are varied almost to the point of being impossible to compare.

      What Abrahamism has as an overriding designator is the acknowledgement of the teachings of the god, YHWH. Paganism has yet to have a firm overriding designator.

      Paganism doesn’t need orthodoxy in the way that Catholicism has it but, I do think that orthodoxy does have a lot to offer the individual traditions. We just need to be aware that having orthodoxy does not mean that we must negatively stigmatise heterodoxy.

  • MadGastronomer

    When I lived on the east coast of Florida, it seem utterly absurd to call water in the west, when the ocean was fifteen minutes east from my front door, so I always swapped water and air. Worked well, too. But when I told people about it, the amount of chaff I got was amazing to me. *shakes head*

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I’ve always thought that location has an impact on what element corresponds to which direction.

      Good to see I’m not the only one.

  • Dáire Hobbs

    I agree that eclectic paganism in general is coalescing into a sort of orthodoxy, something I often call Wicca-ish. I am wondering where this leaves reconstructed religions like Asatru, Theodism, Sinnsreachd, Hellenismos, etc.? Some disagree with me, but I consider reconstructed religions to be Pagan as well. So, I would not say that Paganism is developing an orthodoxy as much as Wicca-ish is. Or maybe if all of Paganism is thought to be Wicca-ish, perhaps we recons need a new name for ourselves?

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      What’s wrong with ‘reconstructed theism’?

      Alternatively, the reconstructionists could be considered a branch of Paganism just as Wicca(ish) is another.

      There are common traits between the two branches, after all. Even if those traits are argued over.

  • Ian Phanes

    I would like to propose a positive pagan orthdoxy:

    “Diversity is good.”

    it. One tenet only. I would like this to be the primary standard by
    which intra-pagan ecumenicism is judged. Let this be our ethos.

  • Samuel Smith

    “(African-American males weren’t allowed to be priests in the Mormon Church until 1978)” Just for context on this, they were also the first Christian church in America to allow all races to worship in the same chapel at the same time.
    As to your larger point, I don’t really trust a quest for orthodoxy beyond a few very broad principles. I prefer the freedom to follow my own spiritual experiences and my own reason. Orthopraxis (right behavior) and orthofidelity (right faith) are worth exploring, though.

    • JasonMankey

      Joseph Smith shared his priesthood with several African-American males early on in the LDS Church. Mormonism started out with relatively good race relations (though there are many things in the “Book of Mormon” that scream racism), but things got worse over time.