Pagan Interfaith, Pagan Ecumenicism, and Pagan Intrafaith

When we talk about Pagans and interfaith, there are many different layers to consider, and different challenges inherent in each one. Because modern Paganism is a movement, an umbrella term for a number of distinct faith traditions, we have to expend almost as much energy on building relationships with each other as we do with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists. For modern Paganism as a movement to effectively interface with the rest of the world’s religions, we have to be conscious of how we are progressing with Pagan ecumenical and intrafaith initiatives.

Considering the fact that many non-Pagans still have a hard time understanding that Wicca isn’t Druidry, and that neither of those are Asatru, and that all of those are distinct from the many reconstructionist faiths, every Pagan involved in the global interfaith movement must be, to some extent, a default representative for all of us. This is not an ideal situation, but one that many individual Pagans find themselves in when they attend an interfaith gathering. Gatherings often predisposed to only focus on Abrahamic concerns.

Don Frew at the Parliament of the World's Religions

In the latest edition of The Interfaith Observer, Don Frew, an official Covenant of The Goddess (COG) interfaith representative, talks about how 9/11 refocused interfaith efforts on peace, and on the dominant Abrahamic religions, making it harder for Pagans, indigenous traditions, and other minority religions to have their concerns addressed.

“The events of 9/11 had their roots in ancient conflicts among three Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It was natural that the solution would be sought in dialogue among those faiths. The rest of us – some without any history of perpetrating religious violence – were shunted to the side. We watched what we had entered with optimism and enthusiasm about a fully inclusive movement, focused on issues of truly common concern, become ever more narrowly focused on one issue, rooted in in-fighting within one family of religions, the descendants of Abraham.

Where was the focus on economic justice, the environment, the concerns of women and indigenous people? Where were the representatives of the non-Abrahamic faiths? Repeatedly we were told that peace was now the highest priority for time and resources. Other program concerns have to wait. Repeatedly we were told that panels were full or that because the focus was on Abrahamic issues, other representatives were not as needed.”

Despite this attitude, which Frew says has started to subside somewhat, Pagans have made impressive strides in the global interfaith movementPagans currently serve on the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, play important roles within the United Religions Initiative (URI), and participate in several smaller regional interfaith councils. While some Pagans are skeptical of these interactions, they can make us important allies in our own struggles, and help change misconceptions. Further, we are only enriched when we pursue greater fellowship, cooperation, and alliances with religions that do share some of our values.

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about Pagans and interfaith, and at that time I pushed not only for greater engagement with the global interfaith movement, but for Pagans to use the skills learned in that context towards strengthening our own community.

Thorn Coyle, photo by Greg Harder

Thorn Coyle at a Pagan ecumenical gathering. Photo by Greg Harder.

“Interfaith can not only humanize us to the ignorant, but also create powerful bonds with those we can learn much from. In addition, I believe that those of us who are engaging in interfaith need to take those skills and bring them back to practice them within our own movement, to bring better communication between faiths and traditions that have, at times, chaffed under the crowded “Pagan” umbrella.”

This would be Pagan ecumenicism, a word normally applied to relations between Christians, but one that, at its root, is very Pagan. It doesn’t seem immediately apparent, but a large proportion of Pagan events are in fact large ecumenical gatherings in which we humanize one another, seek common ground, and build a common vocabulary. PantheaCon, Pagan Spirit Gathering, Starwood, and Pagan Pride days, are all manifestations of Pagan ecumenicism, and are vital to making the term “Pagan” mean something. Many pan-Pagan initiatives are born at these events, and they represent those rare instances when Pagan leaders and clergy are able to mingle, socialize, and learn from one another. Without these events, we not only have a hard time relating to other Pagan faiths, but it becomes impossible to sometimes answer even basic questions that may be posed to us at the interfaith level.

Diana Paxson leading Seidh ceremony at a Druid (ADF) gathering. Photo: ADF.

Diana Paxson leading Seidh ceremony at a Druid (ADF) gathering. Photo: ADF.

Another vital element to both Pagan interfaith, and Pagan ecumenicism, is Pagan intrafaith, how relations are handled within a single religious grouping under our umbrella. Covenant of the Goddess is an excellent example of an Wiccan intrafaith effort, one that creates coalitions and empowers individuals like Don Frew, Rachael Watcher, and M. Macha Nightmare in their larger interfaith activities. Their yearly MerryMeet and Grand Council a chance to not only conduct business, but to strengthen bonds that have lasted for decades. Another example of a Pagan/Heathen intrafaith organization is The Troth, which seeks to build fellowship between practitioners of the pre-Christian religion(s) of the Germanic peoples. They, like COG, also hold a yearly meeting, called Trothmoot. Steven Abell, part of the Troth’s leadership (Rede), recently wrote about Trothmoot, and how best to deal with theological tensions that arise within Heathenry/Germanic Paganism.

“Each of these viewpoints [concerning the god Loki] significantly affects how people practice their Heathenry, but The Troth is not a sect. Somehow, we have to get all of these people drinking peaceably from the same horn at Trothmoot’s Grand Sumbel. If we can’t have frith, grith will do. [...] What should our policy be? It needs to be based on the fact that The Troth is not a sect. It needs to pay attention to a wide range of strongly felt sensibilities. If you belong to this organization, don’t base your membership on any kind of belief that everyone here thinks just like you. This is religion and that’s not how it works. Furthermore, this is The Troth and that’s not how it works.”

Abell speaks to the important work of building fellowship at a basic level, between individuals who share (comparatively) large amounts in common, and how even that can be fraught with complications, challenges, and heated emotions. It may not seem like disputes between Heathens (or Wiccans, or Druids) are as important as working on the global stage, or even on finding common ground at the large Pagan ecumenical events, but the process Abell speaks to is vital in making our collective community “work”. If we are to collectively ask the world to pay attention to what we find important, vital to our survival, and our planet’s survival, we must do the sometimes frustrating work of building coalitions and understanding among ourselves.

As Pagans, we understand that we must tend to the microcosm in order to influence the macrocosm, that we must align our Will in our own lives if we ever hope to influence the wider world. In some circles this is called “As Above, So Below,” but the ethos transcends any one tradition’s teaching. Pagan interfaith is vitally important, but it rests on a foundation of Pagan ecumenicism and intrafaith work. Without that, our efforts to transmit our common values would fail, and our efforts on the global stage undermined. So let’s remember to do the real work of understanding those we already assume are with us, to build bridges among those we think we already understand, so that we can better communicate with those who don’t understand us at all.

About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Xfact51

    In the same Interfaith Observer issue that you mention Don Frew’s article, there is also an article from another Pagan Interfaith rep. – Rachael Watcher – Bridge-building – the Hard Lessons – where she discusses her working with indigenous people in South America in an interfaith environment. 
    Yesterday Rachael  was also the guest  on the ” Open Minds Open Hearts” Interfaith  blogtalk radio show out of Atlanta  - http://www.blogtalkradio.com/openmindsopenhearts/2012/06/19/open-minds-open-hearts–radio-with-a-purpose. 

  • LeohtSceadusawol

    A very much overlooked part of Interfaith dialogue does seem to be the non-Abrahamic spectrum that many call ‘Pagan’ (quotation marks used as I know that some traditions dislike the moniker.)

    I’d go so far as to argue that there are more fundamental differences between certain ‘Pagan’ traditions than between certain traditions and certain traditions of Abrahamic religion.

    I worry that ‘Pagan interfaith’ could easily get mired over proprietary rights of deities (the internet classic “You’re doing it wrong!” springs to mind), rather than seeking to advance common goals.

    This is where the typically ‘Pagan’ lack of structure becomes a double-edged sword. One the one hand, without that structure, it is very difficult to be taken as seriously as the more organised religions out there. Yet, at the same time, it avoids the dogma and politics those same religions seem mired in.

  • PaulChaffee

    Kudos, Jason, on a fine piece that I hope Pagans everywhere get to read. One of the themes in this arena is how learnings from interfaith dialogue can be useful in intrafaith and ecumenical settings. In India, United Religions Initiative leaders managed to be  reconciling facilitators in a long and complex conflict within the Church of South India, India’s largest Christian denomination. 

  • Deborah Bender

    I appreciate this thoughtful essay. Your final sentence bears rereading.

    Pagans who actively engage in interfaith or intrafaith work usually take its value for granted. There are a good many other people who identify as pagan in part because of bad experiences with whatever form of organized religion they were exposed to. These people simply want to be left alone, and don’t see the point of engaging with any religious community beyond their own friends. Between these poles are the majority of pagans, who don’t have strong opinions about inter/intrafaith and don’t know much about it. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Cosimano/613012064 Charles Cosimano

    To the outsider, the question of “Where was…” followed by the usual litany, (I was tempted to write “boring litany” because it really does have a sort of “there they go again” aspect to it) of course begs another question?  Why would there have been?”

    Of course people are very polite and it is unlikely he would have gotten the honest answer of, “We don’t give a damn about those things.  Why would you think we would?”

  • Kilmrnock

    I agree we must learn to play well with each other  before we try to play with those outside the Pagan community. This is why i attend our local pagan meetups . To represent and answer questions about my particular brand of polytheism . Most Meet ups and Pagan gatherings in this neck of the woods [Mid Atlantic East Coast] are Wiccan Dominated , i try to represent Polythiestic views at these small and large Gatherings . A large Wiccan Group known as Assembly of the Sacred Wheel is big around here , has many Covens . There are a few ADF groves nearby , I am a member of one , but Sacred wheel tends to dominate pagan events around here .  I want to be perfectly clear i have no real problems w/ them i just want ppl to know they aren’t the only game in town .I have no ill will torwards Sacred Wheel or any other pagan , actualy i am seeking fellowship and freindship w/ them . So as Jason amoungst others here have stated we, the pagan community as a whole , can become stronger , better accepted and known in the society at large.

  • Gareth

    There is a not unfounded suspicion amongst  Pagans that some (i.e. Christians) use interfaith as a means of understanding and reach out to Pagans with the ultimate goal of converting us. Another is the Patronising “we all believe in the same God (my God) but in different ways (but my way is better than yours) “. I did some interfaith stuff when at uni (Wales, UK) that involved giving a 10 min talk about our religion; they had a representative for the Anglicans, a representative for the Catholics, a representative  for the Methodists and a representative for the Christian Union. They had just one representative for the whole of Judaism, one for atheists, one for the whole of Islam and just me for all of Paganism.   

    • LeohtSceadusawol

      Did you mention the error in thinking of Paganism as one religion?

      • Sunweaver

         That’s the approach I take when giving the “10 minutes about Paganism” talk. I do my best to convey the wide diversity within what’s referred to as Paganism. We’re going to have to have this talk over and over again before it finally natches amongst the monotheists that it would be useful to have a Wiccan representative, a Heathen representative, a Hellenic representative, and so on. Growing numbers will help this, I’m sure.

        As for the “Interfaith dialogue as a way to convert the Pagans,” I’ve only come across that a couple of times. After a while, when it becomes clear that I’m as strong in my faith as a preacher or imam (being a clergy person myself), the real dialogue begins and some good learning can happen on both sides.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ALynnThomas Amanda Lynn Nielsen Thomas

    I,  (an ADF Druid),work as an officer for the Interfaith Council of Topeka. Our current President is Wiccan, and we also have a representative from the local Native Spiritual community.  While the majority are indeed Christian, I have never seen any attempts to convert and use the presentations that we give about our faiths as a way to understand how to convert us.

    That having been said… the majority of the types of Christians that would have used this group to that end, exited long ago.  I tend to think that to be common to these types of groups.  The ones who most need to interact with Pagan and indigenous faiths, are the people most likely to not be involved.  

    I still that it is extremely important for us to interact with those groups left. The more we are out in the open and showing who we are the better. The others around the table see that I am a human being, and can share  what they know about what an ADF Druid is (although I sometimes hate representing my religion as the sole example many will see).  In a place like Topeka, this is of vital importance as our Pagan population grows (and it is growing).  It is inevitable that we will be rubbing elbows more openly in the next couple of decades with the abrahamic faiths.  The more people who know about us now, the easier it will be to not have to go back and deal with misconceptions later.

    • Sunweaver

       I’m a founding member of our county Women of Faith group and, in a place like Middle Tennessee, interfaith dialogue is hugely important – mostly because so many of us are broom-closeted.
      There have been a couple half-hearted conversion attempts, but nothing serious. Mostly, we’ve learned from each other and that we have more in common than not.

      The funniest thing is that sometimes when our Muslim neighbors learn that I’m a Pagan, the first thing they say is that “In the Qur’an, it says we left you guys alone” (I’m paraphrasing, of course). I think it’s their way of saying “DON’T WORRY, I’M NOT GOING TO TRY TO FORCIBLY CONVERT YOU! (Also, our book is full of good things if you’d like to have a look, but if you don’t, that’s okay, too.)
      I find it amusing because it’s SO different from the Christian approaches.

  • http://profiles.google.com/plaidcat Kayla Luckey

    Excellent essay. It is difficult sometimes to ford the waters of interfaith dialogue as a Pagan representative when there is a lack of ecumenicism within our own infrastructure. In my area, it seems that we also suffer from a lack of community and internal dialogue which makes reaching out to the interfaith community especially challenging. 

  • Sophie Gale

    I joined the local chapter of the Interfaith Alliance  two years ago.  I’ve been on the program committee for two years, and I’m on the board of directors.  The Christians in the group are older professional types, progressive in their causes, and curious about other faiths.  In 20 or so programs, we’ve had a Muslim professional woman, a Zen practitioner, a Wiccan, a Druid, and I spoke this spring about the 30 Days of Advocacy against Witch-hunts.  We had program on religion faiths in China and on indigenous rights.   The other Pagan in our group will speaking about Humanism in August, and
    in September we have a gentleman from the local native community
    speaking about his book “Honoring in a Good Way:  A Guide to Native
    American Cultural Understanding.”  And we put on a big tolerance-oriented program every year.

    This summer our Central Illinois Agency on Aging announced a 7 week course “Connecting with Congregations:  Information and Assistance Coordinator Training.”  The idea was to have these trained coordinators embedded within church congregations where they could inform and assist seniors and caregivers who needed services.  Well, I signed right up, waltzed in, said, “Hi, I’m your local Pagan.  My ‘congregation’ is scattered across the state; we mostly keep in touch by email and Facebook, but we need this information, too, so here I am!”  Me and the church ladies are enjoying the classes.

    I’ve been involved with the local Peace and Social Justice movement for 10 years, now Interfaith Alliance, and this Connecting with Congregations class, and I find interfaith work productive and far easier than ecumenical work within the Pagan community.

  • Sunweaver

    Thank you so much for writing on the importance of Pagan efforts in interfaith dialogue. I’m one of those working on a local and regional level and while it sometimes feels like swimming upstream (especially in a red state such as this), these small efforts can make a huge difference. 

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    Don Frew: ” …. The rest of us – some without any history of perpetrating religious violence – were shunted to the side….”

    One of the main things that has been “shunted to the side” since 9/11 is the simple truth that there are really only two religions responsible for the vast majority of religious violence. This is so vital not because of the what it says about those two religions, but because of what it says about everyone else, including us. Religious violence is not the norm. It is not some deeply rooted, ancient problem that besets all religions.

    Violent, intolerant religions are an aberration. That should be good news, but it is very unwelcome to some.

    • LeohtSceadusawol

       Yet it is the two most (temporally) powerful religions that have embraced/perpetrated violence.
      What this tells me is that it works, if you want temporal power.

      No idea why you’d want that kind of power, though.


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