Hills of the Horizon: The Problem of Community

Hills of the Horizon: The Problem of Community June 29, 2016

One of the tricky bits for a lot of people about the reconstructionist paganisms is that they were, in their original formats, the religions of an entire community. There is very little out there in the historical record for people on their own, because that is not how religion actually functions; the idea of the solitary practitioner is so very much a modern construct. In ancient times, the formal official cultus, the home practice, and the individualised paths were all part of the same sort of system, a flow and interchange that was simply a part of living.

Obviously, this is not something that is easy for people to pull off these days. We don’t have the great temples built by our entire communities, richly decorated and full of meaning; we don’t have, for that matter, more than a handful of people we know who are even working in polytheistic systems, let alone our co-religionists.

a hieroglyphic series of Egyptian figures performing acts of worship
This is the sort of thing we don’t much have access to these days / Temple of Hathor at Dendera / Photo by Olaf Tausch – Own work, CC BY 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

So it’s no real surprise that one of the most frequently asked questions I encounter from other practitioners of minority paganisms is “How do I find people to practice with?” Often, it comes with, “All I can find is something Wiccish and I’m not into witchcraft” or “The one grove in my area is a two hour drive away” or, occasionally, “There’s nothing in my area, I looked.” And, unfortunately, the odds are that if you’re specifically looking for a community comparable to what ancient people had, the answer is, “You don’t.”

You find other things instead.

I’ve seen so many people holding out for the community comparable to an ancient village, more or less, and missing all the things that they could use to build something that works in their lives. Something, even, that might be amazing.

The sorts of things people are often looking for are, generally:

  • interaction with a community
  • contact with co-religionists
  • people to practice with
  • support for Your Thing

A lot of people want to find all of that in one group. Some people are lucky enough that that’s something that they can manage. Most of us – especially in minority paganisms – aren’t.

The first and most important thing to remember is that the communities that the progenitors of the modern reconstructionist religions were in were not, generally speaking, co-religionist by specific design. These were the people living in this area, this town, this community; they happened to more or less follow the same ways because those were the ways of the people living in that area.

That is not the world we live in; it has not been for a very long time. And, bluntly, the idea that the world was made up of pure and isolated communities is likewise counterfactual; amber from the Baltic coast made it to Egypt, as did lapis from Afghanistan. The bit of The Thirteenth Warrior that was far-fetched fantasy was not the bit with the Arab travelling with a party of Norsemen. The Roman Empire, additionally, facilitated flows of people to other locales, leading to stuff like the famous note from a North African soldier posted near Hadrian’s Wall on the border of Scotland asking for more warm socks. Further, where people traded their stuff, they brought their gods, they sometimes resettled; when they settled they adapted Their Thing to something that fit in the community in which they lived.

Everyone lives somewhere. That somewhere is not part of a community that shares a religion, but it shares other things, other local concerns, the local infrastructure and environment. I see a number of people talk about the importance not behaving in a way that would be alien to the ancients, but I suspect that one of the things that the ancients would find particularly baffling is this habit of first looking to find common cause with co-religionists rather than our actual neighbours.

The ancients did not live in religious communities; they lived in communities, and those often happened to share a religion. Their mutual support of the people in their community might have rooted in shared values that were partially derived from that religion, but that was not why it was there. I may disagree with my neighbour on everything from politics to yard care (and oh, gods, do I) but there is no escaping the fundamental truths of our circumstances: if my neighbour starves, it is likely that I will also not have food; if my neighbour’s house is on fire, the risk to mine is immediate. The condition, the concerns, the worries and fears, the joys of my neighbour will affect everything about their lives, including the shape of their contribution to my shared community.

Then there are the more voluntary communities, which start to fill in the gaps. My immediate local community is not going to supply me with a religious community, co-religionists, or shared practice; I have to go to some effort for that.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of different things for contact with co-religionists: I’ve joined organisations, I’ve done meetups, I’ve joined mailing lists, I’ve joined web-based forums (general pagan, general reconstructionist, and Kemetic all). I’ve stepped up to help build those resources or maintain them where they exist. I’ve gotten advice and help from others, and I’ve paid that forward with my own research and ideas. It’s not having someone to share rituals with, but honestly, since I’m not a temple priest, I don’t have the sort of ritual responsibilities that could really use a whole lot of assistance. I could do with a more regular practice, but that’s sort of a perpetual thing for almost everyone I know.

And I’ve done things for sharing religious space and time, as well. I know a number of people who have joined groups, not because they expect to share the religion, but for the shared ritual space. Some people do religious witchcraft open circles just to get some with other pagans; some join ADF groves; some do other things. Others join more mainstream groups – I have a dearly beloved Unitarian Universalist church which I have finally re-started attending regularly, but I’ve known people who went to other churches or temples that were compatible with their practice and connected to their communities.

A group doesn’t have to share an individual’s beliefs or practices in order to provide something valuable, whether that’s for an event, a regular cycle of major festivals, or for a more routine connection. And the mainstream groups do things that many pagan groups fail to do: provide meaningful connection and support in times of grief and difficulty. I spoke with some people after 9/11 and one of the topics of discussion was the number of churches and synagogues and mosques and mainstream religious groups who offered support and community and ritual to help people with their trauma and how essentially none of the pagan groups managed to do a thing. At least there’s the Wands up for the Pulse, Orlando project that I know about.

I have commented, more than once, that one of the things I love about going to my church is that it’s fantastic to just go somewhere with other people and listen to someone give a lecture on applied ma’at. Usually a funny one; the senior minister there is good that way. (He gave a Christmas Eve sermon about zombies once.) Being alone is hard. Being alone with a religious ethic that focuses on connective justice, on right relationship with others, is hard. So it’s a tremendous relief to me to go somewhere and find someone speaking about the same sorts of things, whether it’s one of the regular ministers or a guest speaker. (That’s a great sermon, by the way. If you want a video instead of the text to get a fuller sense of the effect, I found one.)

Of course, all of this kind of lacks the personal touch – the localised, individual community that has some engagement with a person’s own individual path. And that’s possible too – and doesn’t have to include people who share a religion. It has to include people who are willing to help each other with Their Thing, even if That Thing is not the Thing that they, personally, do. And one can find those people anywhere. I mean, one of the people in my personal ritual group is running the Star Wars game that gave me deep ponderings before.

I’ll be coming back to talking about ecumenical ritual groups later. Watch this space.

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