Paganism is a long way from universal acceptance, but we’re well down the path of becoming mainstream. The fact that there’s a Pagan channel on the world’s largest religious website is one sign of our progress.
While I’m happy to see our concepts and values make their way into the wider culture, I’m much less happy to see mainstream concepts and values influencing our Pagan and polytheist traditions and practices. Considering the size difference between Paganism and the mainstream, it’s not hard to guess which one will have the greater effect on the other. The same thing is happening in vastly larger religious traditions.
Over on the Patheos Progressive Christian channel, there’s an excellent essay by Robert Hunt titled The Real Schism, It’s Not What you Think. It deals with a very specific issue within one Christian denomination, and as such most readers of this blog are not likely to be interested in it. I’m going to quickly frame a few key quotes and then get into why it’s relevant to Pagans and polytheists.
First, the schism in question:
The United Methodist church appears to be following other major Protestant denominations into the throes of division. The issue is same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons living in same-sex relationships.
The author’s main point:
The real schism and the future of schism was determined in the Methodist church back in 1939 when lay persons were given an equal vote with clergy on all matters of church discipline and doctrine.
The laity in any popular religious movement will have a worldview and self-understanding shaped far more by their social context than by their religious community…
The inevitable result is that the authority of the clergy has come to fall effectively under the authority of the laity. Nothing related to the practical outworking of doctrine in the life of the church can be implemented without the laity.
And the outcome:
In matters of doctrine Christianity has no uncontested reading of its authorizing sources. If it remains popular then Christianity will remain deeply influenced by popular culture.
What does this have to do with Paganism, whose most popular variant (Wicca) was intended to be a religion where everyone is clergy, and whose phenomenal growth has largely come from solitary practitioners only loosely affiliated with a specific tradition, much less an established institution?
Unless you think we’re special snowflakes, everything.
Now just to be clear, it has nothing to do with accepting and embracing LGBTQ persons. With the exception of a few outliers, the Pagan community settled that debate a long time ago. It has nothing to do with establishing orthodoxy (we haven’t and we won’t) and not much to do with hierarchy.
It has everything to do with the fact that like the Methodists, we draw our members from the mainstream culture. And so like the Methodists (and pretty much every mainstream religion), Pagans and polytheists have “a worldview and self-understanding shaped far more by their social context than by their religious community.”
The modern Pagan movement began as a response to the excesses and inadequacies of industrial society and the Christian church. Cut off from the land, people began to seek spiritual relationships with the land and the spirits of the land. Cut off from their heritage, people began exploring the religions of their pre-Christian ancestors. And with half the population excluded from the priesthood and from direct identification with their God, people began searching for a religion with Goddesses as well as Gods.
When the Golden Dawn was founded in 1888, these were radical ideas. When Gerald Gardner published Witchcraft Today in 1954, these were mostly radical ideas. But by the time Starhawk published The Spiral Dance and Margot Adler published Drawing Down the Moon in 1979, these ideas weren’t particularly radical any more. In 2016 they’re thoroughly mainstream.
Which is not to say they’re accepted by everyone. Clearly they’re not, or we wouldn’t have problems with fracking, religious discrimination, and misogyny. But when it comes to how we live our lives, the mainstream has caught up with us and most of us are pretty mainstream, to one extent or another. And that’s not entirely a good thing.
In a 2014 Dr. Kimberly Kirner, an anthropology professor at California State University Northridge and a fellow Druid, surveyed 800 self-identified Pagans about their spiritual practices and actions related to environmental sustainability. She found that “Pagans’ overall household ecological footprint in the United States is statistically similar to the American average on multiple measurements: house size, meat consumption, transportation use, and other key factors related to a household’s contribution to ecological sustainability.”
This is one example – I’m sure you can think of more. Pagan ideas have found their way into the mainstream society, but the mainstream society has found its way into Paganism too.
How do we retain – and in some cases, regain – what makes us unique as Pagans?
Modern Paganism has no long tradition of clergy authority. Having seen its abuses in Christianity, we have largely tried to avoid it (sometimes to our detriment, but that’s another post for another time… that I probably won’t write). We used to have respect for the expertise of Pagan authors, but now there are so many authors – not all of whom know what they’re writing about – that respect has been diluted into insignificance.
Any living religion needs a healthy tension between the past and the future. It needs some people calling us back to our core values and foundational principles, to the ways of our ancestors, and to the beliefs and practices that make us unique. It needs other people pulling us forward, making sure we’re continually learning and growing and that our religion remains relevant in the lives of its followers.
Neither of these roles require clergy to fill them. I’ve seen Christian denominations where the clergy has tried to persuade the laity to keep the faith and I’ve seen others where the clergy has exhorted the laity to move into the brave new world. I’ve also seen clergy afraid to challenge their parishioners for fear of losing their income…
Maintaining our Pagan identity does not require clergy. It does require people who are intelligent, educated, experienced, and dedicated to their religion and to its long-term success. And it requires the respect of the practitioners – not to follow the “experts” blindly, but to carefully consider what they have to say, especially when dealing with challenging issues.
How do we help Pagans and polytheists have a worldview and self-understanding shaped more by our religious communities than by the mainstream culture?
To start with, we need to have actual religious communities. Despite the disdain some of us have for them, there is no substitute for good, healthy, local Pagan groups. If you are unwilling or unable to participate in a local group, then find a virtual community. But not just any virtual community will do – as with our face-to-face groups, we need virtual communities that are centered around our Pagan traditions and are not simply a collection of people we like. If your community doesn’t challenge you at least as much as it affirms you, it’s not going to counterbalance the effects of the mainstream culture.
We need religious specialists. Many Pagans enthusiastically embody the ideal of the Renaissance Man, but none of us can be experts in history, archaeology, linguistics, theology, philosophy, ritual, music, visual arts, pastoral care, political action, and magic. There is only one Master of All Arts and it’s not you or me. But many of us have some skill in one or two of these areas, and some of us are legitimate experts in them. Let’s listen to the specialists in our wider community. We don’t have to always agree with them, but we need to carefully consider what they have to say, even when they make us uncomfortable. Especially when they make us uncomfortable.
And we need a commitment to regular spiritual practice. There is no substitute for daily meditation, prayer, offerings, and other individual practices. There is no substitute for weekly, monthly, and seasonal celebrations, whether we observe them in local groups, virtual groups, or by ourselves.
Few of us live a monastic lifestyle – our days are busy and hectic. But that only emphasizes the need to carve out a few minutes every day to remind ourselves of who we are and what we want to be.
The mainstream world constantly bombards us with its values and priorities. Most of the time it’s trying to sell us something… and the price is often far more than money. Our Paganisms, polytheisms, witchcrafts, and other religious and spiritual traditions can help us resist the influence of the mainstream, but only if we practice mindfully and diligently, and only if we are committed to a healthy tension between the foundations of the past and the dreams of the future.