Modern Paganism is a collection of religions that tend to focus on individual autonomy and freedom. Whether we are Thelemites or not, we like to quote the Law of Thelema: “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Even those of us who remember the second part of that law (“love is the law, love under will”) and who understand Isaac Bonewits’ reminder “it says do as you will, not do as you whim” usually place the freedom for everyone to live as they choose at the top of our list of values.
This is understandable, particularly for those of us who came to Paganism from religions that insist everyone must live by their rules and that threaten us with eternal damnation if we do not. Besides, one of the attractions of Paganism is its emphasis on celebrating the goodness of life and nature: “sing, feast, dance, make music and love!”
But there’s another side of Paganism we need to keep in mind – the obligations of our religion. These are the things we must do, whether we want to or not, whether they are difficult or not, whether they interfere with our immediate desires or not. Fulfilling our obligations marks us as honest and trustworthy, and it builds the good names our ancestors prized above all else. It helps us grow closer to our Gods, ancestors, and spirits, and to those Pagans, polytheists, and others who are doing the same.
There are three types of religious obligations.
Obligations we freely take. In my vows of initiation and in my vows of ordination I promised to do certain things and to live in certain ways. I promised to regularly pray, meditate, and study. I promised to tell the stories of the Gods. I promised to conduct myself with honor. No one forced me to take on these obligations. I chose them freely – I wanted to do them. You may have done something similar.
I made commitments when I joined Denton CUUPS and the Denton UU Fellowship. When I realized the damage the modern Western lifestyle was doing to the Earth, I made a commitment to reduce my environmental impact.
Not all such obligations are made formally. Cathy and I had rather traditional wedding vows, but we also had hours and hours of conversations in the weeks and months before about how we would live and how our relationship would be structured. Those informal agreements are as much of our obligations as anything we promised to each other in the ceremony.
We are taught from an early age to keep our promises – most of us intuitively understand the need to keep the obligations we freely make. But these are not the only religious obligations we have.
Obligations that are thrust upon us. Join a coven or grove or CUUPS group and before too long you’ll be asked to do something. Maybe bring donuts to the next meeting. Maybe lead the Summer Solstice ritual. Big or small, magical or mundane, sooner or later you’re going to be asked to do something. Whether you want to do these things is usually less important than the fact that they need to be done and you’re capable of doing them, to one degree or another. The needs of the group or the community or society outweigh your personal preferences.
I never campaigned to be an officer in my CUUPS group and I certainly never campaigned to be President of my UU congregation. The obligations were thrust upon me and I said yes.
Several years ago I asked Morrigan for favors – I had far-away friends who were in need of protection. After the third request, She said “I have done this for you, now I want you to do something for me.” What She asked was not what I expected, but it was something – several somethings – that needed to be done. I did them, and I’m glad I did.
These experiences have been full of learning and growth, but in no way do I think they were part of some divinely inspired career plan. They were things that needed to be done, the obligations were thrust upon me, and so I did them.
Obligations we inherit. There are some obligations we have simply because we exist. We have obligations to our families and communities. We have obligations to our ancestors. We have obligations to the land where we were born and the land where we live. Others have cared for us, provided for us, and built infrastructure and institutions that support us.
Most of this we did not ask for and some of it we may not even want, but the principle of reciprocity demands that we return a gift for a gift. This obligation increases as our capacities and resources increase, but all of us have an obligation to contribute to the maintenance of our society and to the greater good.
The limits of our obligations. None of these obligations are absolute. None of us have an obligation to support an abusive partner or family. Many of us made promises in previous religions – we abandoned them because we could no longer keep them in good conscience.
None of us has an obligation to say “yes” to every request. I served two terms as President of Denton UU. I’m proud of my service and I mostly enjoyed it, but if I serve another term it will not be for a very long time. I have other obligations that are more urgent (and I still serve on the Worship Committee).
Half of all marriages end in divorce. Most of us understand that couples who grow apart are one thing, but one partner’s desire to “trade up” is something totally different. We understand that not everyone who joins our local groups will stay for life, but there’s a difference between consciously moving on and just not showing up.
We are free to make the choices we feel we must make, but we are not free from the consequences of those choices. Break enough promises to your friends and your friends will stop trusting you. Decline to support your communities and your communities may be unable to support you when you need them most.
Break a promise to a deity and They may decide to hound you until you change your mind. Or They may simply withdraw Their presence from your life, leaving you poorer for Their absence.
Whether an obligation can be abandoned or modified or if it must be fulfilled no matter what is not an easy question. It requires careful thought, contemplation, prayer, and meditation.
The freedom of Paganism is a great thing, but let’s remember that good, strong, meaningful religion also carries obligations.