Tension and the Big Tent of Paganism

Tension and the Big Tent of Paganism January 11, 2013

Yesterday I started a blog post on the most recent internet dustup over the label “Pagan.” I got a page into it before I decided I didn’t really want to stoke this particular fire again.

Then today I came across this piece by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus titled “Bringing Back the Gods.” He referenced Sam Webster’s call to rebuild the cult of the gods, then asked “why are so many Pagans leaving them out of their theology?” As a hard polytheist who’s on speaking terms with several goddesses and gods, I think including them in our theology is a good and necessary thing.

But then he denigrated the idea of Nature worship and said “I think that any definition of ‘Paganism’ that tries to make the gods less important, irrelevant, or anomalous is entirely wrong.”

And there’s this piece by Alison Lilly, who described herself as a “natural polytheist who finds her gods in the rivers and mountains” and compared theology to vivisection. She said “The challenge is to delve into theology without killing its subject, to try our hand at analysis and critical thinking without pretending that the numinous divine is a dead thing that will hold still beneath our careful knives.”

I think Alison is on to something.

First, I’m in favor of “Big Tent” Paganism. When someone says “Pagan” I want that to include hard polytheists, humanistic Pagans, Nature worshipers, hedge witches, shamans, ancestor worshipers and anyone else with similar beliefs and practices. That doesn’t mean I want us all doing the same Wicca-lite ritual at the Solstice. It means I want us talking to each other, cooperating with each other, and learning from each other.

If that makes it impossible to draw clear lines around what is and isn’t “Pagan” so be it. The idea that if a term can’t be precisely defined then it doesn’t mean anything simply isn’t true. “Pagan” means something – we’re arguing about what that something is. I’m advocating for as loose a definition as possible.

That’s all I want to say about the label “Pagan.”

Back to Alison’s comments on theology. I like theology. I’m infinitely curious and I’m particularly curious about these beings we call gods. I want to apply all my powers of observation and reason to my experiences of the gods. I want to read the works of great philosophers and theologians of the past and present and see how they compare to my own thoughts. I want to build a model of the Universe so I can better understand my place in it, and I want to continually refine that model.

I like theology. But theology is a matter of belief and while belief is important, practice is more important. What we believe should not get in the way of what we do. I want people to honor the gods, whether they believe the gods are individual beings, aspects of the Divine, the personification of natural forces, archetypes or metaphors. I want people to care for the Earth whether they believe the Earth is the Goddess or a goddess or part of a goddess or if they just think we need to take care of our home. If you come to one of Denton CUUPS’ Egyptian Summer Solstice circles I don’t care if you want to worship Ra or acknowledge the changing seasons or if you just think attending an Egyptian Temple Ritual in 21st century Texas is a fascinating way to spend an evening.

Obviously some of those options strike me as more likely and some are more meaningful to me than others. But if you’re standing there beside me I’m not going to insist I’m right and you’re wrong.

This is the challenge of liberal religion – the tension of faith and uncertainty. In order to grow past a very basic level, much less advance the state of the art of our still-new religion(s), we must act with certainty.

I have to pray, meditate and make offerings as though I have no doubts Cernunnos is a real, distinct, individual being. I have to approach a Drawing Down ritual as though I have no doubts he will share my body with me. I have to interpret my experiences and order my life as though I have no doubts he is a god and that he wants me to be his priest.

But I’m a child of the modern and post-modern West – I do have doubts. My task isn’t to pretend they don’t exist. My task is to do what I need and want to do despite those doubts.

And because I acknowledge my doubts, I can also acknowledge that the humanist or the soft polytheist standing beside me in the circle might be right… or perhaps just less wrong than me. If nothing else, the debate and discussion forces me to continually re-examine and refine my own thoughts and beliefs.

In her follow-up to PSVL’s essay, Patheos Pagan manager Christine Kraemer says “in the circuitous route I took to my current religious practice, I’ve assumed a more and more polytheistic worldview … because in my spiritual explorations, polytheistic practices produced deeper, more transformative, and more ecstatic experiences.” This has been my experience as well. I didn’t start out to become a polytheist, but the more and deeper I practiced the more the old goddesses and gods interacted with me as individual beings.

This has been very meaningful and helpful to me. I’m going to continue working to deepen and strengthen this practice. I’m going to tell write about it and tell anyone who cares to read what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and what results I’m getting. I hope more and more of you will try similar practices and get similar results. I really do want to rebuild the cults of my goddesses and gods.

But if you see things differently, I still want you in the Big Tent of Paganism. Have a seat in whatever section appeals to you, and say hello to some of the folks you don’t already know.

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  • Hooray for the big tent!

    One thing I need to say more clearly, and in more places, is that I think the attempt to "define" Paganism is wrong-headed. Rather than trying to draw boundaries around the outside, I think it's more helpful to look for the areas of maximum overlap in the middle.

  • I started out the other way–as a polytheist, and moved more towards pantheistic belief on the basis of my practice and interaction with divinity…but my practice is still polytheistic. Either way, this is the best statement I’ve read yet in the latest round of this ongoing kerfuffle:

    “I want people to honor the gods, whether they believe the gods are individual beings, aspects of the Divine, the personification of natural forces, archetypes or metaphors. I want people to care for the Earth whether they believe the Earth is the Goddess or a goddess or part of a goddess or if they just think we need to take care of our home.”

    Thank you!

  • celestineangel

    Can I just give a big “This!” to this entire blog post?

    I have issues with anyone who tries to tell me that I am or am not Pagan based on what I do or do not believe. Isn’t it my place to decide what label, if any, I feel comfortable with?

  • Another hit! I LOVE this article. And it is something that was a blessing to have read at this time. I had been thinking a lot lately about my Spirituality, and how Paganism fits into it.

    I was going to share a few of my thoughts. But as usual with great posts, it inspired a much longer response. And I’ve put that reponse in a post on my blog here: http://www.allisbrahman.com/2013/02/why-i-think-paganism-is-perfect-for.html

    Here’s a part:

    I don’t how to describe myself in religious terms. In shorthand, I just call myself a spiritual eclectic. But, since I am a polytheist, and have a strong tie to the earth and seasons, I sometimes consider myself as just Pagan. And I know some would only consider people that worship deities outside the mainstream religions Pagan. But, in my personal conception, I see Paganism as just an umbrella term for anyone who not only accepts all religions, but prays to many of the deities within those religions.

  • Is it weird that I don’t care if the Spirits I work with are separate entities or different facets of the same thing? I mean, that we interact and have a relationship is the important thing! I much rather embrace the mystery than try to dissect it. If Catholics can believe that God is both one and three, and that Jesus is both God and man, can’t Pagans believe that the gods are both separate and not? Why does it have to be a “pick one” scenario?

    • Martha, I totally agree. In the end, we can’t _know_ exactly what the spirits are. I treat them as separate entities because that’s how I experience them, but the main thing is that I do experience them.

  • Nicole Youngman

    Perfectly said. Thank you. I actually say something similar about doing environmental work when I’m teaching or discussing the issue–it really doesn’t matter if the person planting trees next to me is doing it because they think the Earth is sacred because it’s a goddess, or if they think it’s important because God made it, etc….the blasted tree still gets planted. 🙂

    • That’s the good thing about Paganism in particular and liberal religion in general – we don’t expect each other to believe the same things. As long as we do the right things, why is of minor importance.

  • UU’s seem to be good at bringing people together who ascribe to different religious approaches. It would be nice if that model could be promoted within the pagan sphere.

    • I’m not sure how successful the UU model would be with Paganism. It does well in taking the best of a bunch of traditions and applying them toward a universal spirituality with strong emphasis on this-world action. It doesn’t do so well in encouraging and enabling deep spiritual exploration… which is why there are so many UU-hyphenates.

      I happily and whole-heartedly support Unitarian Universalism. It’s a great spiritual home, filled with some great people. But without CUUPS I never would have walked in the door, much less stayed for 10 years.

  • cj stone

    Looks like I’m late to the party by 14 months. Sorry about that.

    I’d like to suggest that Pagan is not our word. It’s “their” word. “They” have turned the bag inside-out, where their religion has put all of humanity’s religions under one of their concepts (personified evil). Rather, “Pagans” should be “all the religions of humanity that aren’t Abrahamic”; that is, the everything-else.

    You know what? I’m good with that. From now on, I’m telling people I’m “everything else”.