This past weekend, the Wild Hunt ran a column entitled Institutions vs. Counterculture in Modern Paganism. I highly recommend reading it, it’s both thoughtful and thought provoking. But, in summary, it explores the tension in our community between the wild and the mystical and the more staid and sedate. Some in the comments, myself included, proposed possible resolutions or middle grounds. John Becket, another author here on the Patheos Pagan Channel, shared some of his thoughts in his essay, Visions of a Pagan Future, where he touches on some additional points that weren’t quite discussed in the Wild Hunt column.
I would like to touch on something else, but the above-linked pages give you the background for today’s topic. I desire institutions. Like John said, I’m not really much of a radical, or at least I don’t think of myself as one. And, I tend to be more administratively minded than mystical so perhaps my personality lends itself well to institutional thinking. Regardless, I think that for our community to grow into something that can last over time, we’re going to need the stability and the centralizing influence that only institutions can bring.
But, I also know that the wild and the mystical are necessary parts of our Pagan equation. We won’t be fully balanced without those elements. So the question that Jason at the Wild Hunt posed remains: if we are to grow institutional foci, how can we also maintain the counter cultural influences that are so important to so many of us? Perhaps there’s another question: is it even possible to do so?
I have no answer to that one, so I’d prefer to assume the answer is yes (because doing the opposite is to choose stagnation) until proven otherwise. Therefore, we’re back trying to figure out “how” to move forward. And that’s where I think we have a leg up on other community organizational efforts: there’s a lot of other people out there who’ve been doing this sort of thing for quite some time, and rather successfully to boot. Even better, some of them are doing so right now!
Here’s the thing: we don’t have to do this alone. The Hindu community, for example, represents another group with diverse, pluralistic theological ideas that has been building a community with shared ties despite internal inconsistencies. My own experiences with Judaism and Buddhism lead me to think that there are things we could learn from these communities to help enhance our own, too.
I’m not necessarily talking theological growth. I think that’s for us to handle. But there are techniques of community organization and building that other communities–communities of faith or otherwise–have tried and tested and we can learn from their mistakes and from their successes. From Jews we can learn about how to create and nurture a family or personal practice while also becoming a part of larger community, for example. I still remember my mother leading my family in prayer when Sabbath services began in our home on Friday night before we ever visited the synagogue on Saturday morning.
I mentioned non-faith communities above and there are interesting things going on in the wider atheist and humanist communities. To summarize, there’s a movement towards so-called “atheist churches” which has begun to gain momentum under the name The Sunday Assembly. Starting in London (if I understand correctly) and growing quickly to include over thirty assemblies throughout the UK, USA, and Australia, these “atheist mega-churches” have been popping up in many major cities. Perhaps, it was inevitable that those within the atheist community who disagreed with the direction and choices made by those driving the Sunday Assemblies broke with that organization to form one called the Godless Revival. Patheos Atheist author, Hermant Mehta, shared a vital point of view over at the Friendly Atheist that is, I think, particularly important for us to keep in mind: there were likely very few people interested in both of these organizations.
In other words: there wasn’t necessarily a break between these groups because they weren’t necessarily tightly bound in the first place. Like Witches and Heathens or Kemetics and Qadishuma, there are certainly similarities between the Sunday Assembly and the Godless Revival, but they have different ideas, different goals. And, as Mr. Mehta also points out: there’s a lot of people in the atheist community that likely care about neither of them and are happy doing their own thing.
For all of our differences, atheists and Pagans have a lot in common. Consider this quote and tell me you couldn’t probably substitute “Pagans” for “atheists” within:
For most atheists, the response has been a collective, “meh.” Organized-anything doesn’t sound very appealing to a lot of us, but for those who might like that sort of thing, these groups are helpful.
And that, in the end, is the point. There are going to be Pagans, like myself, who are like that subset of the atheist community. We’re interested in “that sort of thing.” And, those institutions provide, I think, a gateway to the large mysteries within any community as well as the multi-generational security that John Beckett touches on in his essay (linked above).
We’re a plural community, and that means probably having to deal with the tension between institutional forces and grassroots efforts for some time to come. My hope is that we find a way to have both so that our smaller, wilder groups can orbit the institutions comfortably and they will exert their own influence within that relationship. Finding that balance is key, but we’re not the only community dealing with these questions.
Maybe it’s time we started talking with others who share similar goals, even if they’re grounded in different theologies (or the lack thereof).