Paganism: Movement, Umbrella, Big Tent Religion?
On a few different occasions now, I have been the face of modern Paganism in a world religions course at an evangelical Christian Bible seminary in Portland, Oregon. The class, at Multnomah University, is filled with individuals who are hoping to go into leadership and missionary roles within their respective church communities. I know that they want to convert me, and all like me, but I agreed to be there because I felt that humanizing Pagans was important, especially to those who might have heavily distorted or antagonistic ideas about what my beliefs were. It’s (relatively) easy to sit down with a liberal Episcopalian, peaceful Light-loving Quaker, or questioning Unitarian-Universalist, it’s quite another thing to engage with folks who might adhere to a spiritual warfare theology regarding non-Christian faiths.
Selena Fox (with Shauna Aura Knight) at Chicago Pagan Pride.
When I step in front of that class, one of the first things I do is point out that modern Paganism is not a monolith. That we are a religious movement made up of distinct groups, traditions, and belief systems. That “Paganism” as a classification does not mean the same thing as the label “Christianity” might mean to them. If you speak to a Christian, they might have widely diverse views on a number of subjects, but there’s a central text (The Bible) and figure (Jesus) that makes them recognizable as a group. However, if you talk to a Pagan, you might be speaking to a Wiccan, a Druid, a Heathen, or one of a growing number of polytheist reconstructionists and revivalists. Of course, statistically speaking, they might also very well end up talking to an eclectic, solitary, practitioner who mixes and matches from the many definable communities that exist underneath our umbrella.
“The problem with big tents is, well, they’re big. Try to embrace the whole tent and you can find yourself bouncing back and forth between pouring libations to Zeus, protesting fracking, organizing the Beltane picnic and meditating on The Fool. Those are all worthwhile things to do, but they can lead to a personal religion that is the proverbial mile wide and an inch deep.” – John Beckett
As I move forward with my talk, I notice that I steer away from my personal beliefs as much as possible. Not to protect myself, I care little if a group of evangelical students know my views on divinity, but because I realize that I’m a filter for something incredibly vast. How do I do justice to both P. Sufenas Virius Lupus and Cat Chapin-Bishop? To Don Frew and Cara Schulz? The more I personalize, the more they’ll equate my views with the entire movement, so I try to avoid making it about me. Instead I draw diagrams explaining hard and soft polytheism, explain how there can be humanist Wiccans, and even note that there are groups who increasingly want nothing to do with the term or community that has formed around the word “Paganism” for a variety of reasons. In the end, I point out that religious discourse with a Pagan can’t be about a list of preconceived ideas about what we believe, or do, it has to start simply, as an organic attempt at friendship, or else it will ultimately fail.
“While it has been building for the last few years more and more, I wonder if we have not, at last, reached a kind of definitive “breaking point,” so to speak, where polytheism and general paganism can no longer realistically say that they’re at all related.” – P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
Paganism is often explained as a collection of “nature-based” faiths, and while that sweeping classification is both limiting and alienating to some groups and individuals within our movement, it does make for a handy metaphor. Like nature, Paganism can be, and is, endlessly diverse. It can be both embracingly populist and extremely individualistic, focused on the esoteric and concerned with the dirt beneath our feet. Pin-point local or hugely universal in its scope. The mere notion of unity can be a difficult prospect, and one that is often mired in politics. There have been times, even recently, where I felt somewhat intimidated to enter into dialog with my fellow Pagans because I wasn’t sure if my own theological views would be seen as safely within our boundaries, or hopelessly heterodox. Not in the same fashion as some of my outspoken polytheist friends, but I too have questioned the utility and usefulness of the term Paganism as an umbrella. I have even entertained the thought that perhaps we’d all get along better if the term, if not the movement, went away. Because I’ve been to the big intrafaith events, and I know that despite our immense theological and cultural diversity we can share fellowship, discuss common problems, and even mobilize around things that we know to affect us all.
Don Frew (center) at the Parliament of the World’s Religions (2009).
“I like to say that as religions seeing the Divine manifest in and as the material world, we have to expect that the Divine is both as unified and at the same time at least as diverse as is the natural world. There is one Earth, but innumerable climates and geographies, flora and fauna. It should be no surprise that our spiritualities reflect this.” – Don Frew
All of the recent debate over community, terminology, and theology, is, I think, a sign of our collective success. When our religions were under constant threat, when we truly feared jail, or worse, because of our beliefs, we huddled together for safety and solidarity. We created advocacy groups to speak for us, and empowered authors and activists to be our public face(s). We worked very hard at simple acceptance, and have gained a lot of ground in the last 30 years. Even in the ten years of doing The Wild Hunt, I have seen amazing progress, stuff that would have seemed remarkable to our founders from the 50s and 60s. With these advances comes a branching out from that place of huddled safety, where thousands now work at evaluating what they want from a modern Paganism, and if it still suits them. Margot Adler, famous author of “Drawing Down the Moon,” has publicly said on more than one occasion that had she the option back in the 1970s, she would have become a Hellenic polytheist instead of a Wiccan, but Wicca was all she could find at the time. The Margot Adler’s of tomorrow don’t have to worry about those limitations. Thanks to our ascendancy, growth, and technologies, our choices are more expansive, and at least in most Western nations, relatively safe to explore.
Margot Adler, Michael Lloyd, at Anniversary Pagan Way Lecture Series; photo by Brian Brewer
Going forward, our leaders and elders need to take seriously the need not only for interfaith outreach to religions like Christianity, Hinduism, indigenous traditions, and Buddhism, but a renewed intrafaith discussion among the many faiths that operate within our movement, who still stand (for now) under the Pagan umbrella. We can no longer assume that everyone is going to simply go along, or that criticisms are coming from an ignorable minority. A not-often discussed fact, is that Paganism is largely solitary and eclectic in its makeup. The “large” Pagan organizations have membership rolls that number hundreds, not thousands, and there’s no group that can truly claim to speak for our movement in any unified way. This means that constant engagement and re-engagement within is critical towards achieving the many movement goals we might have (infrastructure, legal rights, pan-movement activism), and a failure to see the importance of such engagement will ultimately lead to our shopworn umbrella truly shredding apart in the decades to come.
If we want a full and rich “Paganism” moving forward, we’ll have to work for it anew. We will have to respect our increasing diversity, and the changing mores of the individuals willing to stand with our movement. Alternately, we can redefine Paganism to mean a smaller number of faiths, and accept that a growing number of religious communities are going to exist apart from us. Whatever “we” want, we should act on it, otherwise time and inaction will make the choice for us.
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