There’s an aspect of modern paganism that has always puzzled me and recently I think I’ve started to understand a bit about why. It’s not a judgement, just an observation about how different formative experiences create different approaches to things. I often see the wider pagan community looking for and to spiritual leaders and texts as if they are ultimate authorities. And that has always puzzled me somewhat. I was raised without any spiritual or religious structure but as someone who often had what might be described as mystical experiences and this led to me accepting very early, I think, that what worked for me might not make sense to other people and what I believed might not hold true for other people. And that was okay.
Of course I questioned myself as much as I think anyone does but I never felt like an outside authority could give me all the answers; even at an early age I could see that there were multiple versions of different stories and what one teacher taught as fact another teacher would ignore in favor of a different idea. I looked for information in books and for people who could help me understand things better of course but the idea of a spiritual leader, of a person who I would follow in spiritual matters, that never made sense to me. Maybe it’s just me that feels that way and that’s okay too.
I see a lot of talk in the wider community right now about problems in paganism with abuse of power and those abuses are very real and very concerning issues that need to be addressed. I think though that some of what allows those abuses to happen is this idea of investing a person not only with necessary leadership in a group but also with a sense of spiritual leadership, the idea that the individual has spiritual power that is greater than other people. When we start to give up our spiritual autonomy to any other mortal I think we’re getting into dangerous territory. Maybe it’s my chaotic neutral showing here but while I can respect another person’s wisdom or experience I don’t believe any other human being is inherently more or less able to have spiritual authority. If it’s true that witches are all supposed to be our own priests/priestesses then I think we should also all be our own spiritual leaders. Because what I see is a pattern of abuse of spiritual authority in religion that really concerns me and seems to some degree at least to be rooted in people misusing the idea that they are spiritually better or more authoritative than other people.
Finding My Own Way
I came into paganism when I was 11 years old and I had no older role models for my new religion. I learned, as so many people I know from that era did, from books. These books didn’t present a unified image of what witchcraft and paganism where though – quite the opposite. I had Buckland telling me it was old school Wicca, Sybil Leek talking about a kind of 1970’s version of traditional witchcraft, and Cunningham taking a more generic approach. From the beginning this gave me a sense that there was no ultimate true way or correct version of witchcraft or paganism. No, it became clear to me even as I branched into reconstructionist methodologies that the opposite was true, that so much of this spirituality was about adapting and finding what worked within a larger structure.
Yes, of course, the tradition or religion you are following in itself will have an inherent structure that provides a basis to follow and rules to adhere to, whatever those may be for that tradition, but beyond that there was always a sense of pragmatism and adaptability. I’ve recently realized that this, more than anything, may be why the idea of unquestionable spiritual leaders are so antithetical to me. When there is no one true way, no single person speaking for the multitude of Gods and spirits*, then how can any one person ever tell me as an individual how to live my spiritual life or judge the correctness of my spiritual choices**?
Necessary Leadership and Teachers
There are situations where leadership is necessary. If you belong to a specific tradition or organization then someone or a group of someones will have to be in charge of it. If you follow an initiatory path then there will be people with more knowledge and seniority than you have who guide other people forward. Groups, even small ones, need leaders or the group will tend not to do anything or to stagnate. Good leaders will act as facilitators and will see their role as one of service to the group rather than the self. A good leader can also set necessary safe boundaries for a group and ensure that in runs smoothly and that the people in it act cohesively. Good leaders can also handle any possible issues that arise within the group that require mediation and deal with issues relating to membership inclusion or exclusion. A leader can and should deal with problematic behaviors or people causing disruption even to the point of removing people from groups, but no one should have the power to judge or revoke another person’s spirituality.
I do think that teachers can be important and we have to acknowledge there’s value in learning from other people. Much like a good smooth running group needs leaders, when we are trying to learn something new relating to a spiritual or particularly a magical practice it does help to have guidance along the way. But I will always differentiate between the sort of unquestionable spiritual leaders I see some people seeking, following, or trying to be and a good teacher. A teacher or mentor should be able to impart knowledge and help other learn or grow because they are knowledgeable and experienced, not because they are claiming some greater spiritual authority or connection. For me the source of their authority and how much we are allowed or expected to question them is very important.
Leadership and degrees of secular authority are necessary in groups, and while that can be abused as well it seems less insidious and toxic when spirituality is not directly invoked. We are more prone in my experience to question our leaders and call out bad behavior when the mantle of spiritual authority isn’t added to group leadership or teaching. There is a sort of inculcated belief that it is wrong to question people who are perceived to be or present themselves as spiritual leaders and this ingrained obedience to spiritual leaders is a dangerous thing that can be and is abused. Whether you love or hate the new Chilling Adventures of Sabrina show on Netflix I think it does a good job of pointing out this very danger***. When we are in a situation where we are simply expected to trust a person’s authority or expertise because its Gods given then I think we have a problem.
Leaders Versus Guides
When it comes to matters of spirituality I think what we need is not leaders – not people we are expected to follow behind – but guides. To me anyway a spiritual leader is someone who has all the control and responsibility and who is invested with a spiritual authority that at least implies they are closer to the source and able to speak in ways that impact my spirituality. A guide on the other hand is someone who helps me find my own way and shows me the general direction I need to be going in. For me a key difference is that a spiritual guide doesn’t have that inherent divinely invested power that a spiritual leader does, and I think that’s a good thing. If I make a mistake then hopefully I learn something along the way, but its my lesson to learn and I don’t think any other human should have the power to punish me in the name of or speaking for the gods. They can do that themselves if they want to. If I respect someone it should be for their words and actions not for a claim to a close tie to a deity or spirit.
I don’t have any spiritual leaders and I don’t want any. What I do have is many guides and mentors. Some of these are people I know in real life, some are people I know online, and some are people whose writing has been especially impactful or formative for me. These are people whose words and actions have helped me find my own way and shape my own spiritual practices and that is invaluable. I consider them wise, or experienced, or good at telling necessary stories, or particularly talented at connecting the Otherworld to this world. These spiritual guides and mentors are essential to my own practice, too keeping my ego in check, and making sure my focus stays on genuine spirituality, but I would never see them as leaders because I am not striving to follow in their footsteps but rather to take inspiration to find my own way. And while they may be able to call me out if I get out of line with anything I am saying or doing or become caught up in my own personal power trip I don’t believe they have authority to judge me in a spiritual context. I can learn from them, I can respect their knowledge, I can even shape my own spirituality from them, but I don’t ever lose sight of the fact that we are all flawed people.
Be Your Own Spiritual Leader
Ultimately I think we must all become our own spiritual leaders. Maybe that’s a frightening idea but it’s also empowering. We can look to others as guides, we can have mentors (indeed we should if we are following an existing tradition), but we shouldn’t seek any person – or book – expecting them to give us all the answers. Even within individual traditions and paths never be afraid to question why things are done or where traditions come from. Always be open to new ideas and new information and never see anything as written in stone. And never see any other human being as infallible, spiritually unassailable, or above criticism. Maybe there’s a comfort in following another person’s lead in spirituality, or having a single text that you can look to for all the answers, but there’s a freedom and a beauty in knowing that you are just as whole and valuable without those things. You don’t need any other human to mediate your spirituality. You can find everything you need yourself, if you look.
*indeed history makes it clear there has always, at least, been a chorus of voices and they don’t always sing the same song at the same time.
**obviously here I’m talking about the sorts of minutia that witches and pagans love to argue over, not things that would cause other humans direct and irreparable harm. I wish I didn’t have to clarify this but I know if I don’t say it I’ll get someone commenting about not judging abusers so – predators and people advocating harmful ideologies open to judgment; what I privately choose to use as offerings or wear in ritual not open to judgment.
***the episode ‘Feast of Feasts’ is a good example in particular
Photos by Morgan Daimler.