Spiritually, but not religiously, Pagan

Spiritually, but not religiously, Pagan January 15, 2012

Recently at the Bishop in the Grove blog, Teo Bishop wrestled again with the label of “Pagan”.  The question of my Pagan identity has come up frequently in this blog as well.  The fact that I have named the blog “The Allergic Pagan” might suggest that I have resolved this problem, but it has not.  And I am not alone.  Over at “Plainly Pagan”, Hystery also questioned whether to rename her blog because of doubts the applicability of the label “Pagan.”  Teo doesn’t really say what concern causes him to wonder if he is Pagan, except that he feels disconnected from the Pagan community.  I feel the same and blogged about it before.

Why do I question my Pagan-ness?  Well, it’s no so much a question of whether my practice is Pagan as whether I fit in the Pagan community.  First of all, I am an “eclectic” Pagan.  I have always preferred the term “Neopagan”, in conscious contrast to ancient paganisms and contemporary reconstructions of ancient paganisms.  While I draw upon ancient religious symbols and motifs for inspiration, they are combined with modern symbols and motifs in a new way to meet my uniquely (late-)modern spiritual needs.  As Dennis Carpenter describes it, Neopaganism is a “synthesis of historical inspiration and present-day creativity”.  I believe it is an example of what David Griffin calls “constructive postmodernism”.

But this postmodern or late-modern orientation is one of the reasons I feel disconnected from the Pagan community, which seems to be moving increasingly in the direction of Reconstructionism or Revivalism, or what I call “Retro-Paganism” (borrowing the term from the Pagan Princesses, GG and Jax).  Rather than seeking authenticity in the past, as do Retro-Pagans, I seek authenticity in the experience of what David Waldron refers to as a “Pagan consciousness”, an experience of the immanence of divinity in nature and in myself.

But this orientation has increasingly become the object of derision in the Pagan community.  Unfortunately, it seems many Pagans now equate the “Neo-” prefix with spiritual shallowness.  Much of the current interest in Reconstructionism, and the corresponding animus toward Neo-Paganism, seems to be a reaction to a real or perceived lack of spiritual depth in Neopagan spirituality which resulted from the popularization of Paganism in the 1990s and its general conflation with other New Age phenomena.

Another source of disconnection is my Jungian take on Neopagan ritual and theology.  I have written about this previously.  The concept that the gods are archetypes and thus, in some sense, in our heads, has led many contemporary Pagans to conclude that Jungian gods must not be “real”.  In reaction to this, Pagans seem increasingly interested in a kind of supernaturalism or metaphysical literalism which sees the gods as “thought-forms” or egregores.

In short, my eclecticism and my Jungianism render me rather passé or gauche in the Pagan community.

On the way home the other day, I came across the sight hundreds of birds gathered on a telephone wire.  There was a small but continuous trickle of birds flying back and forth between the ground and the wires.  It was not until I got closer that the sound of my engine startled the birds I had not seen in the field and a flock of hundreds of birds sprang into the air.  I never cease to be amazed by flocks of birds, and seeing this one so close was striking.

As it happens, I had just been contemplating the question of Pagan identity and Pagan community, and it occurred to me the Pagan community is like a flock of birds.  It is chaotic.  The movements of any individual bird are unpredictable.  Some birds join the flock while others drift away.  But all the while there is this identifiable mass, the flock.  The outlines of it are constantly changing, but no one would deny that there is something more to it than the sum of its individual parts.  There is a community.

The same seems true of the Pagan community.  Its outlines are constantly shifting, which is why it is so difficult to define.  And what was once the center may quickly become the periphery.  Nevertheless, there is a community that can be called Pagan, even though its “center” continues to fluctuate.  Terms like “earth centered” and “nature religion”, once at the center of most conceptions of Paganism, have been replaced by “polytheism”.  At the same time, Jungian “polytheism” (a la David Miller) has drifted to the periphery, while a radical form of polytheism has moved to the center.

Unfortunately, I came to Paganism with an understanding of the community that was already outdated.  This was because I first learned about Paganism from authors like Starhawk, Margot Adler and Vivianne Crowley, all of whom had a strongly Jungian take on Neopaganism, and also because I came to Paganism when this transition was taking place.  The more involved I became in the Pagan community, the more I realized that my understanding of Paganism, while it may once have been closer to the center, was now in the periphery.

I think a good example of this transition is the writing of Janet Farrar,  Janet and Stewart Farrar’s writings in 1980s were heavily influenced by Jung: The Witches’ Way, The Witches’ Goddess, and The Witches’ God.  But by 2004, with the publication of her book, Progressive Witchcraft, Janet Farrar (and her new husband Gavin Bone) was helping to deconstruct the very Jungian conception of divinity which she had helped to propagate.

There is a certain irony to my complaint that Paganism is becoming too Retro-.  Recently, some Polytheists have also been questioning whether the term Pagan applies to them.  The most conspicuous of these was Drew Jacob.  The problem for Polytheists is that Paganism seems to them to be too Neo-.  I am imagining a game of hot potato between Polytheists and Pantheists with the Pagan label as the “potato”.

The tenuousness of my connection to Paganism was confirmed for me recently, when I came across the appellation “spiritually but not religiously Pagan” used by Alison Leigh Lilly in response to Teo’s blog.  I Googled the phrase and found a comment Ian Phanes wrote in the context of a discussion about the degree to which Paganism is “made up”.  He writes:

“P.S.: I think there are a small minority of pagans out there who are truly making it all up.

“They are those who don’t acknowledge any gods, ancestors, spirits, or anything else that we received from traditional paganisms. They are usually ecologically-minded materialist atheists whose spirituality is rooted in the sacredness of nature and life. They will sometimes describe themselves as “spiritually, but not religiously, pagan.” They tend to see ritual as psychologically meaningful, but nothing more, as they don’t believe in anything non-physical. For them, the gods and elements, and ancestors, and all that is non-corporeal are just symbols.

“From my point of view, they are fellow travelers, and welcome to fellowship with us, but I don’t think of them as pagans. I see paganisms as essentially religious, not just spiritual.”

By “religious”, I take Ian to mean “a religious community”.  So, with the exception of the word “just” before “symbols”, Ian’s description of the “spiritually, but not religiously Pagan” fits me pretty well.

The question is, will I let myself be defined me out of Paganism by others?  I have two experiences with that.  On the one hand, I kind of did let myself be defined out of a religious community once.  Near the end of my time in the Mormon church, when I was grasping at straws, I settled briefly upon an identity as a “loyal dissenter” within the church.  I can’t recall where the term came from, but it was a powerful notion for me, as I felt it gave me a place within the community.  However, shortly thereafter, one of the leaders of the church opined that there was no such thing as a “loyal dissenter” in the church.  Not long after, I decided that he was right: there was no room for me in the LDS church.  I could have blown his statement off, but instead I let it be the straw the broke the proverbial camel’s back.

My other experience also has to do with Mormonism.  If you’ve been following the election coverage of Mitt Romney, you’ll know that many Christians doubt the Christian credentials of the Mormon faith.  While I do acknowledge that there are some significant differences between the Christology of Mormonism and that of mainstream Protestantism, I do defend Mormons’ right to define themselves as Christian.  But I also defend the right of Evangelicals to say that Mormons are not Christian as they understand that term.  Both groups have a right to define their own identity for themselves, and that includes the right to exclude others.

Similarly, I respect the right of Drew Jacob to define his own practice as non-Pagan if he wishes.  But I also reject the notion that others have no right to call him Pagan if he rejects that terms.  If Drew falls within the scope of that term as I define it, then I reserve the right to include him under the “Pagan umbrella”.  It’s not a question of sticking others with appellations they reject, but rather a question of different definitions of the term Pagan.  Drew’s practice is Pagan as I define the term, but it is not Pagan as he defines the term.

An extreme example of this principle would be the labeling of Paganism as Satanic by some Christians.  Pagans obviously reject that description.  But, in reality, Paganism may in fact be “Satanic” as some Christians define that term.  (More on this in a future post.)

So, while Ian may feel that my naturalistic perspective excludes me from Paganism, I reserve the right to use that term to describe myself if I so choose.  But Ian’s comments don’t just raise questions about the definition of Paganism.  They also raise questions about the nature of the Pagan community.  As John Becket wrote in response to Teo’s blog, religion is not just a question of who you are, but also a question of whose you are — Who do you belong to?  And where do you feel at home.

While Ian’s definition of Paganism need not be my own, his comments are indicative of the current trend in Paganism toward supernaturalism, a trend that I do not want to follow.  What drew me to Neopagan spirituality was its materialism — a romantic materialism perhaps, but a materialism nonetheless — a materialism expressed in Starhawk’s famous quote: “People often ask me if I believe in the Goddess. I reply ‘Do you believe in rocks?'”  According to Starhawk, Pagans do not believe in divinity; they see it, touch it, hear it, smell it, and taste it in every part of the world around them.  Paganism now seems to be moving away from this materialistic view and toward an otherworldliness that resembles that of the monotheistic traditions.  At the same time, Starhawk’s form of pantheism (or panentheism) is being replaced by a radical polytheism and henotheism.  I feel that the Pagan flock has turned toward the airy east following “egregores” and I am left flying to the earthy north.

Perhaps I am not as alone as I think.  When I drove by the birds on telephone wire, a whole other flock of birds was startled up from the field.  I had not seen them before, because they blended into the ground.  And perhaps there is a whole other community of “spiritually but not religiously Pagans” currently blending into the background.  I wonder what it will take to startle that group into flight?

After reading Teo’s blog, I also began to wonder if all of this concern with labels is distracting me from the actual doing.  Teo suggested something similar in his blog post.  And the content of my own blog lately suggests that may be the case.  The whole label question is really a cerebral matter, and a distraction from the practice which must be at the core of any spirituality.  So should I just dump all the labels?

The possibility of being label-less is intriguing.  I used to turn my nose up at those who insisted that they could not be pigeonholed.  But now I am beginning to sympathize with that sentiment.  I remember reading descriptions of hereditary witchcraft where the families did not have a name for their practice (and in fact many were nominally Christian).  According to their descendants, they didn’t have a name for their tradition; it was “just what we did.”  If I did not have a label, I would really have to define myself by my practice, and that could be a real impetus for me.  And if I shed the Pagan label, I could also perhaps stop trying so hard to fit in at pan-Pagan gatherings where I really do not feel at home.

Still, I am left with the question of: what do I tell my children?  I feel like I need a word to describe the rituals I do with my family, to distinguish them from the rituals of the Mormon church they attend with my wife.  And the label “Pagan” seems to have been very important to my children, who seem to have experienced my religious un-rootedness with a certain amount of anxiety.  I don’t think that my children would be satisfied saying “this is just what we do” without attaching a label to it.  There was a time when people didn’t even have a word for religion, and there was no need for labels to distinguish one religion from another.  But we now live in a multicultural culture, and we need these words to define ourselves.

So labels do have a use, especially when trying to communicate with others.  But I am coming to see how they can be a real hindrance personally.  So, in my own head, I am going to work on being label-less and defining myself by my practice, rather than by any preconceived notion of what being “Pagan” means.  But I am going to keep the Pagan label for when I need to communicate to others.  So for the time being, I am still “Pagan” … but maybe with a small “p”.

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  • Excellent post. I would very much like to know what would startle that flock into flying. You’ve got one flying already (me).

    If I can be down-and-dirty Machiavellian for a moment, labels do have a very practical use (and I think you’ve already hinted at this, but I’ll try to spell it out). It’s almost like a keyword in a Google search. If you don’t have a keyword to search, you can’t find anything. And no one can find you. So it makes it a bit tough for any kind of community to come together.

    The rub of that argument, though, is that you may be finding the wrong people using that keyword if you aren’t identifying with the mainstream pagan community, as you mention. I am very much looking forward to what new identifier emerges to designate naturalistic spirituality inspired by mythology, but I don’t know what it is yet.

    • That’s a great metaphor Brandon. Thanks.
      I have found that my self-definition depends largely on what I am trying to define myself against. I know many people say we should try to define ourselves by what we are and not by what we are not. But I think every definition is really about including some and excluding others. So, I am Pagan when compared to Christian. A Religious Naturalist, when compared to Supernaturalists. A Pantheist, when compared to Polytheists. A Humanist, when compared to a Theist. And an Atheist, when compared to a Monotheist. I have reservations about any one of these labels in isolation, but understood in comparison to something else I am more willing to embrace them.

      • Interesting way to look at, different things depending on what one is compared to. I agree 100%.

        >I know many people say we should try to define ourselves by what we are and not by what we are not.

        I must admit people who take that view in the case of Paganism annoy me. It is only valid if the referenced set includes all things in that set, i.e. all types of Pagans, and not just the majority type or the typical type. Otherwise, it becomes analogous to asserting that no Blacks may be Englishmen, and no Turks may be Germans. But as we know, every social grouping has its minorities. Those who try to say naturalists may not be Pagans attempt to argue that those who are not the typical Pagan or the majority Pagan are therefore not Pagan. That’s a clear error.

        Continuing with the minority group analogy, it would seem the job needed is to raise awareness of naturalistic Pagans. We need a “Naturalist Pride” movement! 🙂

  • Hi…bored at work and working my way through some of your old blog posts. I really enjoyed this one, and it resonated with me. I am not _quite_ as non-deity centered as you (I am not naturalist, I am panentheist), but almost….my experience is immanent and soul-centered, but there is also something there that answers direct appeals, something that listens….
    I was surprised to find the prevalence of the Retro-Paganism when I started to dip my toe back into all of this after not interacting with other Pagans for so many years…and at the unspoken scorn they seem to send in the direction of Pantheist pagans. It’s strange, isn’t it? I don’t understand how digging around in the dusty past is somehow more sophisticated than forging new ground. Modern gods for Modern people!

    • ” I don’t understand how digging around in the dusty past is somehow more sophisticated than forging new ground. Modern gods for Modern people!”


      “the unspoken scorn they seem to send in the direction of Pantheist pagans. ”

      I think the perception of Retro-Pagans/Polytheists is that Neo-Pagans/Pantheists experience of divinity is vague or lacks numinosity. This may be because Pantheists have failed to communicate the power of their experience of divinity, and I think this has driven many Pagans to seek what seems like a more direct and simple experience of the gods.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    I am equally curious why what some other Pagans say should other you so much? As I recall the original idea was to allow ourselves the freedom to find our own way. I happen to be an initiated Alexandrian Tradition Wiccans. Now Alexandrians have gotten known over complaining about what they consider to be real Wicca and Wiccan. However that does not mean that I as an Alexandrian have to do it as well.

    Yes I am fully aware of the hard polytheists argument about should they call themselves Pagans when others don’t see it the way they do. I have interviewed them and posted their views as a way of looking at things in ACTION my online E-zine. However that also does not affect how I have to act, nor does it require me to tell them that they are wrong. They have every right to believe and to practice as they do.

    In an interview, it is their story, their beliefs that matter. My job is to get the story out their way. I do the same with Heathens, Druids, and everyone else that I interview. My readers are capable of making up their own minds they don’t need me telling them what to think.

    As far as I can see Pagans have alway had very varied ideas in their religious belief and including some that did not necessarily believe in the gods. The point is that with their varied views, they did not go to war over their beliefs that often.

    So this need to argue and correct strikes me more as left over Christian baggage that we brought over with us from our old Christian practice. A Christian fundamentalist is likely to become a Pagan fundamentalist, an atheist is likely to become an atheist Pagan.

    As I have told my Wiccans friends, Wiccans are going to go in all directions, so get used to it and stop this silly argument over what is the right way to be Wiccan. If it does not affect me, my beliefs, and my practice what business is it of mine? If we don’t like what non-Pagans are doing, should we not make sure that we don’t do it ourselves? We are not here to tell the Christians how to practice their religion, though we have the right to say they can’t tell us how to practice our religions.

    So do whatever works for you, after all that is all that matters. Let others do the same and enjoy the many different ways we can do religion, instead of getting upset with it