The Three Centers of Paganism

The Three Centers of Paganism June 17, 2013

[addendum: As Joseph Bloch points out in his comment, there are actually four centers of Paganism, not three.  The fourth is community. – JFB]

John Halstead at The Allergic Pagan is doing some of the best work in contemporary Pagan studies that I’ve come across. I don’t always agree with his commentary, but when he’s focused on what Pagans are doing and why they’re doing it, he’s as good as anybody I’ve read. This post draws heavily on his observations of the Three Centers of Paganism.

I have come to understand that the reason we have so much trouble defining Paganism is because defining it requires drawing boundaries, declaring some beliefs and practices in and others out. But name virtually any belief or practice and you’ll find someone doing it and calling themselves Pagan.

The problem is that Paganism is not an institution with boundaries. It’s a movement. Movements don’t have boundaries – they have a center and a direction. Or, in the case of Paganism, three centers and three directions.

I encourage you to go read John Halstead’s post from last year The Three (or more?) “Centers” of Paganism. While you’re there read the comments too – they’re also worth your time. Rather than trying to summarize all that, here are a few key excerpts:

To begin with there is what I will call “earth-centered Paganism” .. [it] would include those Paganisms concerned primarily with ecology, those more local forms of Paganism that I would call “backyard Paganism” or are sometimes called “dirt worship”, and many forms of (neo-)animism which view humans as non-privileged part of an interconnected more-than-human community of beings. The Pagan identity of earth-centered Pagans is defined by their relationship to their natural environment.

Last month I wrote this post where I asserted “We must learn to see Nature as sacred and treat her with reverence.” The strong reactions from some show that while this may be important for many Pagans, there are some who don’t agree. But a connection to Nature is one of the primary reasons I became a Pagan, and it’s probably the most common reason I hear from people who come to our CUUPS circles.

The second group is what I will call the “Self-centered” Paganism. I don’t mean this in the pejorative sense of ego-centrism … [it] includes Jungian Neopaganism, many forms of Wicca and feminist witchcraft, and more ceremonial or esoteric forms of Paganism. The Pagan identity of Self-centered Pagans is defined by spiritual practices which aim at development of the individual, spiritually or psychologically.

Halstead has had some trouble with people misunderstanding what he means, despite his disclaimer. Self-centered Paganism doesn’t mean it’s all about you. It means the focus of your religious practice is to make yourself stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more magical and such so you can then be of greater service to the world. My early attempts at learning magic were from this center, as are a good portion of my OBOD studies.

The third group is “deity-centered” Paganism … [it] includes many forms of polytheistic worship, many Reconstructionist or Revivalist forms of Paganism, including those which are closer to Heathenry, and those which borrow techniques (i.e., aspecting) from African-diasporic religions. The Pagan identity of deity-centered Pagans is defined by a dedication to one or more deities.

What drew me to Paganism was a fascination with magic and a love of Nature. Deities didn’t enter into the picture until much later. Because I had trouble making a clean break with the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood, I tried to ignore the deity-centered portions of Paganism. I did it… I just didn’t do it very well.

My beliefs during my early days in Paganism were a vague deistic universalism: there is a God or a Goddess, he or she loves us and wants us to be happy, and will take care of us all when we die, but he or she doesn’t really get involved in our day to day lives. It was nice and comfortable, but I spent eight years running in place. It was only after I developed a deity-centered foundation that my spiritual practice began to grow, and I got moving on the journey I’m still on today.

Each time I’ve felt a particularly strong pull toward one of the three centers, I’ve had feelings that I was doing something wrong because I was taking time and energy away from the other centers. I really should develop a deeper relationship with my gods but in order to accomplish anything I need stronger magical skills but none of that matters if we aren’t caring for the Earth but aren’t these gods of Nature but magic gods nature magicgodsnature…

Sometimes my head is a very noisy place to be.

This is not the monkey-mind chatter that Buddhist meditation is so effective in controlling. This is three centers, three focuses of thought and practice, all clamoring for attention – and deservedly so. All three have long traditions (though not equally long) and good intellectual foundations, and all three have proven to be spiritually helpful to individuals, communities, and the world at large. And all three are calling to me. How could I possibly devote myself entirely to one and ignore the others?

My goal for this year is to decompartmentalize my life. I envisioned this as learning to be the same person at work, at church, with family, with friends, and alone. But now I see the project is even bigger than I thought. I also need to decompartmentalize my Pagan identity. I need to combine my Nature-centered, deity-centered, and self-centered Pagan beliefs and practices into an integrated whole. I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to do this, but the first step is recognizing the source of these internal conflicts. That’s where Halstead’s work has been so helpful.

That’s what I have to do. If you identify with one or two of these centers but not another, that’s fine – and you have plenty of company. If you identify with any of these centers, I want you in the Big Tent of Paganism. I enjoy theological discussions and debates (so long as they remain respectful) – they help me refine my own ideas about the gods. But in the end the nature of the gods or God/dess or the All or however you see Divinity remains a mystery.

And that mystery will be the topic of my next post.

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