Do Pagans have a basic misunderstanding of what is meant by the term “interfaith”?
“Interfaith work is often just another way for other people to try and convert us”
“No thank you. Pagans need to focus on Pagans and leave others to do their thing.”
“I’m sure at those meetings it’s rainbows and butterflies. When the rubber hits the road though here in the real world nothing has changed”
I had to wonder if the commenters would feel the same if they lived in a country constantly at risk of religious violence (like France, India or the United Kingdom, e.g.). At another, more positive, recent gathering of Pagans I heard a lot about social justice and the environment, but very little about actually getting to know people of other faiths and hearing what they have to say. Instead, the focus seemed to be on Pagan apologetics. Educating my interfaith colleagues about Paganism(s) is certainly a large part of what I do, but making that the sole focus betrays some very flawed attitudes which seem to prevail in current public Pagan discourse.
When we trash Abrahamic religions because of the transgressions of some of their members, we become just like those who claim that Pagans are evil and godless. When we think that we cannot learn anything from another religion, we forget that we have been asking them to learn from us. When we look for the worst in people, we are likely to find it, missing the parts of them which aspire to something better. When we assume — well, you know the saying.Noted 20th century anthropologist Victor Turner said, “Certain groups of people prefer to be marginal, those who are critics of the structure.” (1) Pagan scholar Sabina Magliocco, among others, has pointed out the oppositional culture of contemporary Pagans, that is, we often define ourselves by what we are not rather than what we are. (2) Okay, what I am not does give some clues about who I am, but it’s not enough. I should know, having cut my adolescent teeth on protest movements back in the day, and kept up the habit till the present.
It can be very hip to rage, but eventually we must settle down to the real work of crafting a life. Solidarity unites those who agree on one cause, but it still maintains opposition against others. Opposition can be a powerful force when channeled wisely. Sooner or later, however, opposition must dissolve when the object of resistance gives in. Then, must we seek another force to oppose? Pagans have traditionally pushed back against the Abrahamic religions, asserting our right to exist, fighting for our dignity and safety. Once those goals are accomplished we must learn how to return to the larger group of non-Pagans, confident that we will not lose our identity by engaging with them on matters that transcend religion – like social and environmental justice.
In this column I have tried to share my stories of engagement which might illustrate the unexpected joys of interfaith work. Don’t think I’m unaware of the horror stories that are out there. But it won’t get better unless we push back constructively, until we participate. What might surprise you is how you find yourself changed when you least expect it, for the better.
1. (Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. Edith Turner. Palgrave Macmillan: New York. 2012)
2. (Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America , Sabina Magliocco. University of Pennsylvania Press , 2004)