Looking back over decades spent contemplating religion is a curious thing. With few exceptions, the bulk of the modern Pagan and polytheist movement is made up of converts. There are many different types of converts. Some hear the base message of a movement and hop on board without further thought. Some have an epiphany, wherein the mysteries of life are opened to them. Some eventually settle in happily to their new faith and never view themselves as converts. Some struggle with their faith and never quite feel at home. There isn’t any value judgement to be placed on any of these experiences, but I seem to fall into the latter group. The group that seems to take conversion as a process a little further and a little harder, which may or may not be a good thing.
A friend of mine was recently described as “having been called back to a life of faith” upon leaving Paganism for Christianity. The phrase momentarily shocked me, because I had always considered them a person of faith. The faith just changed. One faith was right for them and another faith was not. They were seeking and embracing and trying on different expressions of belief until they found themselves at home. Like many people, they found they had to leave home to appreciate it. I certainly understand that, because my spiritual journey hasn’t been simple either.
So I have been thinking about this concept of “being called back to a life of faith.” A wanderer being called home. Troops called back to base. A bird called back to nest. A child being called in to dinner. A refugee returning home. The prodigal son. Odysseus.
In my own spiritual journey, I can see myself in that phase. Being called back to faith. While raised Evangelical, I converted at 17 to modern Paganism. In two interludes into Christianity afterwards, I found myself each time coming back to my conversion choice at 17 like a bird to the nest. While both interludes were partially driven by spiritual loneliness and hunger for a worship community, the second was perhaps the most traumatically illuminating. The Gods had a very hard and difficult lesson I needed to learn, that all my efforts directed towards “Pagan community” were as irrelevant to them as any efforts in a Christian church.
Obviously, your mileage may vary, and I recognize the irony of publishing such a statement on the “Pagan channel” at Patheos. But this shook me to my core, liberated me, and made me once again examine what it means to be a convert and a person of faith. Since this experience I’ve tried to gain a new perspective, slowly, to really consider what I value and believe and how to express that authentically. I’ve dropped out of a lot of things. I don’t read blogs or books or follow current events. I’m making really clear choices about how to spend my time and on what is important to me. On who is important to me. Where my bright lines are drawn. Where compromise and, yes, even tolerance are not acceptable. To stop giving myself away to that which does not feed me, nurture me, or make me whole.
Maybe one of the brightest of bright lines to be drawn between Pagan and polytheist movements (yes, I know the semantics are questionable but there is a schism and this is the most readily understood way to delineate it) is the concept of reciprocity. The notions of service, tolerance, universalism, selflessness, selfishness, theology, spiritual love, temporal need, and many others color and nuance our view of reciprocity. In a severe simplification, reciprocity is about exchange and the value of the exchange itself. Not merely what is being exchanged, but that exchange is happening on some level. For it to be a valid and noble spiritual question to ask, not only what do I have to give, but what is in it for me?
I don’t read blogs or articles very much anymore, but last night I read something by a leader of a group that has chosen to drop out of the larger Pagan movement, or perhaps was never in it, because it does not serve them. It was a post about the value of good will, sincerity, and honesty from their religious perspective, and I barely understood it. The language and concepts used to describe the perspective were unfamiliar to me, to the point that I felt I needed to translate each sentence despite it being written in English. For a moment I was annoyed because I was inconvenienced. This should have been written so I could more easily understand it as an outsider, I thought. Then I realized it wasn’t written for me. I have nothing to offer this person, and this person owes me nothing. They are not writing for the “community” or the convert or the curious. They are writing for the faithful.
So, isn’t the whole point of being a convert to become one of the faithful? Conversion may be a long process, but at some point you move on to being one of the converted, right? At some point this checking out different traditions and being a spiritual tourist resolves itself into being rooted and secure within a tribe of like-minded folk, right? The end of the journey is death, but conversion surely isn’t the whole of the journey.
For many people this process is simplified. They encounter mainstream Paganism and it serves them well. They look no further. For others it is a step in sorta the right direction, but not quite comfortable. Like going to Vegas when you were looking for Reno or Atlantic City. Like going to San Jose when you are aiming for Portland. Like ended up in Brussels when your destination should be Amsterdam. Except you don’t actually know the name or location of your destination, so you keep going to different cities. This one is a bit too rainy, this one is a bit too totalitarian, this one has too much anarchy, this one is overrun with geese, and so you keep traveling hoping you find a place that is home. Sometimes finding places that feel like home but turn out to be quite different. Sometimes backtracking in hopes the answer lies in your past, only to turn around and begin searching again.
The conversion journey can be exhausting. Finding people who worship the same Gods as you, but they all turn out to be assholes or have wildly different morals. Finding people who share your spiritual values, but they are all skydiving nudists. Making compromises in order to find your tribe, until it becomes obvious you are making yourself smaller and inconsequential to fit in. And then becoming so wary, cynical, and jaded that you no longer trust that the search is worth the effort until the Gods kick you off the sofa.
The journey is made more difficult by making obfuscation a virtue. By stating tolerance for such a wide group of beliefs and individuals and making inclusivity and openness a virtue that you don’t stand for anything. There are no bright lines, until suddenly there are, and you find yourself on the other side. In the effort to understand yourself you begin making distinctions, clarifying and honing your beliefs, who you are, and who you want to be. This involves making judgement calls about moral and ethical issues, which will eventually put you at odds with people, even people you care about. While this is good and necessary work for you, it can put you at odds with the mainstream Pagan movement, which abhors bright lines that don’t correspond with it’s own paradigm. How do you find your faith and your people in a movement which frowns upon discussing differences and making judgement calls about ethics and morality?
I am cautiously hopeful that my wandering is near an end, that I will cease to be on a conversion journey but rather setting down roots in a faith community. The most difficult part of this transition is the realization that in articulating this experience I find myself making some clear judgement calls. About who I will associate with and to whom I will give my time and energy. About what I expect in return for my offering. I’m listening closely to the Gods, striving more and more to meet them on their turf, and speak their language. I’m paying attention to spiritual pollution, and to what steals my energy without giving me anything in return. I am becoming aware of all the blessings that have poured forth since I made the choice to change faiths at 17, and all the hard lessons my spiritual wandering has provided.
It is rather exciting to move past what it means to seek, and to immerse myself in what it means to be faithful.