The Pagan Elephant

A Heathen, a Jew, and a Baptist walk into bar…

As many awesome jokes as I’m sure can come from that intro, believe it or not, this is the story of my life. I am a practicing Heathen who loves to pore over the Eddas and the Sagas, as well as being an active Rune reader. My wife is a devout Jew, who hopes to someday become a Reconstructionist Rabbi. Our roommate is a conservative Baptist, who is known for going to church/ church functions multiple times a week. Welcome to my household, my Kith and Kin, and that’s just the ones I live with!

The subject of interfaith dialog and interaction is both massive and complicated. My every day life is an exercise in cross cultural communication, and living in that kind of environment will force you to learn not only about your peer’s belief’s, but your own as well. Being the only member of the house from a Non-Abrahamic tradition has its difficulties; being solitary doesn’t help either. As Heathens/Pagans we often don’t have an organized collective to cite, or definitive texts to fall back on. If we want to participate in religious conversations with those outside of our community, we have to leave that “Pagan Bubble” and stand on our own.
Many interfaith organizations tend to focus on the religious “Common Ground”, treating their differences as the unspoken elephant in the room. Even in overwhelmingly Abrahamic interfaith organizations, it’s difficult enough to coordinate between paths with a common origin, how then are we ever supposed to integrate traditions which are founded on fundamentally opposing worldviews? The more inclusive you try to make the conversation, the smaller that common ground is going to get, and the less you’re going to accomplish without stumbling into that elephant.

In our house we don’t shy away from our differences. We can’t. My roommate is a young earth Biblical creationist. I’m an Anthropology major who studies human evolution. Her worldview is so PROFOUNDLY different from my own, that if we tried to stay only on common ground there would be almost no conversation at all. So how do we manage to get along and work together? The key concepts that keep my home afloat are:

1) Open Curiosity: We ask questions, and then LISTEN TO THE ANSWERS. You don’t need to agree, but it’s important to understand.

2) Considerate but Unapologetic Dialog

When I’m talking to my roommate, I understand that she’s a creationist, but I don’t hide the fact that I’m not. She is a friend and her beliefs mean a lot to her, so I would never mock her for those beliefs, but I don’t shy away from discussing my studies in her presence. I don’t make exceptions or change the way I conduct myself when around her, nor does she. She’ll talk to me about her church without fear or reservation. She asks about my faith, or my classes, and never belittles or attacks them, even though I know she disagrees with them. We are both comfortable with ourselves and our beliefs, and aren’t threatened by opposing ideas.

My wife is a Monotheist. She follows the god of her people. She doesn’t feel the need to defend this belief, nor is she threatened by the gods of her Heathen husband, or the trinity of her Christian roommate.

We all hold differing worldviews, cultures, and practices, and that’s fine. The rare nights when we are all home together often end in discussions of religion, politics, and philosophy over a glass of wine. There’s a catch 22 to this though. Everyone in this discussion is willing to participate and listen, and is secure enough in their own beliefs that they can do so without becoming defensive. The lesson here is “Choose your battles”. You can reach across the aisle, but unless the other person is ready to do the same, you’re not going to get anywhere.

The Pagan Elephant

While standing outside the Pagan bubble and working with those beyond the borders of our community is vitally important, so many forget to apply these same foundations to communication within our own groups. Wiccans, Heathens, Druids, Celtic re-constructionists, Dianics, Radical Faeries, and a hundred other groups and subgroups exist within the Pagan umbrella. Why then, do we pretend that interfaith discussion is only needed outside the bubble? Why is there a Pagan Elephant?

A close friend of mine, we’ll call her T, is a Faery Wiccan. She holds to the Three Fold Law, and emphasizes “Harm None”. She’s essentially a magickal pacifist, practicing only defense. These aren’t uncommon guidelines to be found within the greater Pagan community, but (as I’m sure my fellow Heathens are thinking) they’re hardly universal. However, they’re often portrayed as the “Common ground” of the pagan community at open gatherings. Assuming that everyone at the circle believes in these concepts is naive, and can lead to miscommunication. You can’t learn to really understand someone, their choices and motivations, by simply making an assumption about their beliefs. We’re all aware that there are those among our circles who believe differently, sometimes DRASTICALLY differently, but we don’t talk about it for fear of confrontation. We talk about our connections, we talk about the correlations between many of our paths, we pretend that we’re all fundamentally the same.

Thence cometh our great pentacle-spangled pachyderm.

We can stand together, work together, and support each other, and still acknowledge that we are different, without ending in confrontation. I disagree with the Three Fold Law, and just like when I’m speaking to my wife or my roommate, I don’t shy away from the subject when speaking to T. If we’re going to work together, we need to understand these differences, not sweep them under the rug.

If we’re going to work on how to speak to the world, make ourselves understood, we’re going to need to learn to how speak to ourselves.

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About Alyxander Folmer

Alyxander Folmer is a student of Anthropology at ASU, focused on analyzing and building religious communities. He is a devoted Heathen, and married to a Rabbi in training. Interest in Pagan interfaith relations lead him to join the committee for the formation of the Pagan Chapter at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, where he hopes to utilize his training in community building and cultural exchange. The majority of his work can be located at http://www.heathenhof.com/


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