Toward A New Paganism
September 21, 2009 29 Comments
(This is only a draft; please read it as such, given its relative length and complexity. The following stems from several revelations I have had during this past summer, all of which concern critical issues that are becoming increasingly visible within contemporary Paganism.)
Paganism lacks a culture. Without such a culture, self-identifying Pagans will never succeed in developing a rich religious experience nor a spiritual tradition worth exploring. Indeed, this lack of culture is Paganism’s greatest and most fundamental failing.
So, what is a culture, and why must one develop among Pagans?
Culture is community writ large, and communities are groups founded on unitive stories. A unitive story is the animating force behind any group of people that moves that group in a unanimous direction, much like the instinct that allows a flock of sparrows or a school of fish to fly or swim as one. These unitive stories can take many forms, but the most easily detectable are those which issue forth from a recognized source of authority, such as (in the case of Abrahamic faiths) the founding prophets, texts, and laws. One might say that the unitive story of Islam, for example, might be the revelation of the Holy Qur’an to Muhammad and the injunction of that text for Muslims to surrender to Allah, who is One. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ the Logos, in conjunction with the force of the Sermon on the Mount, might serve as a simple rendering of Christianity’s unitive story. Of course, unitive stories wed to empire and states become troublesome; still, one cannot maintain a community–a culture–without a unitive story, even if that story is unnervingly simple: “We eat together,” for example.
A religious tradition can hardly exist, and certainly cannot flourish, without being rooted in a culture; that is, a religious tradition cannot flourish without a unitive story. This is the case because depth of spiritual experience occurs only in a context wherein the repercussions of a unitive story are played out, fought out, and delt with amongst co-culturalists. One individual cannot build a basilica by themselves, and the same is true of the architecture of deep spirituality. This is to say that, the religious endeavor, if it is to grow in complexity beyond the ability of an individual, requires that the endeavor be taken up by a community (a community of “builders,” so to speak, to continue the architectural analogy), all of whom work from a single blueprint (the unitive story).
Paganism is often described (and sometimes praised) as an “unorganized” religious tradition. In actuality, “Paganism” is something that does not exist as a tradition. “Paganism” is merely a term used to describe and collect a set of disparate movements (made up of groups, ideologies, practices, calendars, and aesthetics) that are generally thought of as being “earth-based” and “pre-Christian” in nature, and these various movements must all be organized in their own way, or else they would not exist as such. Modern Wicca, for example, IS organized: There are the various branches of the “traditional” covens, the rather mercurial start-up covens, and the solitaries, all of whom interact with each other on one or more levels. Covens have a general shape and are organized with at least a nod toward Masonic lodge structure.
Wicca, then, has at least the beginnings of a culture, since such organization as that just described largely on the existance of a unitive story. But Wicca is Wicca, not Paganism. Heathens are somewhat organized and there is a culture brewing. The same can be said of Druid groups. “Solitary” Pagans organize themselves along the lines designated by these organizations.
Nontheless, Pagans continue to identify as such. As Pagans. Why? Because there is strength in numbers: More people have heard of Pagans than have heard of Natib Qadesh or OBOD, and so it’s easier to get legal and friendly recognition as “Pagans”; also, it’s easier to have bigger parties at bigger festivals, and festivals themselves (those potential and neglected breeding grounds for unitive stories) cannot happen without reaching a certain critical mass of interested participants.
And so we come to a necessary decision: Either we, Pagans, decide to unite under a single unitive story and work towards the cultivation of a Pagan religious experience, or we, the various traditions currently identified under the umbrella of “Paganism”, go our separate ways and devote our time to developing our separate unitive stories. Otherwise, there is no hope of any of us experiencing a deep Pagan or “Pagan” spirituality within our lifetime nor within the lifetime of our children, I dare to say. I prefer the choice to unite under a single unitive story.
And here is how I would restructure—indeed, revolutionize—Paganism:
I would give Paganism a unitive story; actually, I would activate a story that Paganism already pays lip service to, but that is all but lost in fact.
The story I propose is one that all “Pagans” have already heard, and one which appears on any of the innumerable web-pages that seek to answer, “What is Paganism?” These definitions of Paganism will always touch upon two points: an earth-centered spirituality and a pre-Christian orientation. All I ask for in a Pagan unitive story is that Pagans actually take these two points as cornerstones of their religiosity, since, in fact, much of “Paganism” today has very little to do with the earth, and an unnerving amount of “Paganism” is of a decidedly post-Christian nature. I want Paganism to be “Revivalism of extra-Christian, earth-oriented theology and praxis,” and for Pagans to mean that when they say it.
Obviously, this unitive story will not unify several ‘districts’ of present-day “Paganism.” Many people who might now identify as Pagan would, if the above became the animating force of a new Paganism, be forced to found their own unified communities, ones which would support their particular spiritual inclinations. This, of course, includes the Ceremonial Magicians and the Thelemites, the UFOlogists and (surprise!) the Wiccans, given that “The Craft” has very little to do with Witchcraft and quite a lot to do with post-Crowley occultism. I do not hope here to denigrate these traditions—but I do hope to call them what they are, and that is this: Not Pagan.
And so, after this “return to center,” who is left? Who are the New Pagans? To restate, these would be individuals who espouse an earth-centered, extra-Christian religious attitude. I suppose next I must define both what it means to be earth-centered as well as what it is to be extra-Christian.
Earth-centered spirituality does not mean a poorly defined veneration for “The Earth,” which is the norm among most Pagans today. Earth-centered spirituality is a spirituality that is fundamentally oriented toward both the ecological health of the actual, living planet—I mean grass and wheat and mountains and fjords and oceans and the biospheres living therein, not pop-psychology—and, importantly, those concepts that spring forth from a radically ecological worldview, namely communalism, hospitality, peace (read: anti-war), feminism, sensualism, and an appreciation for human sexuality and human bodies of any color, shape, age, or other variable. Pagans, being earth-centered, could not support war, they could not support the preservation of degrading gender expectations (“femininity” and “masculinity”), they could not maintain adherence to the whim of the capitalist monoculture, and they could not support the subjugation of any unprivileged group—plant, animal, or otherwise. Pagans would be forced to recognize humanity as one animal species among many living on and with planet Earth.
By extra-Christian, I mean that the New Pagans would practice and cultivate beliefs held by peoples predating the advent of hegemonic Christianity, or those practices which existed in Christian lands but which existed outside of the hegemonic sphere. Witchcraft, though as such defined I believe as a post-Christian phenomenon, would then be a fertile field for the cultivation of New Pagan theology and practice, given that Witchcraft was the child of pre-Christian elements which then syncretized with Christianity while maintaining a primarily extra-Christian theology. Since, though based on pre-Christian philosophy and practice, Ceremonial Magic adapted to and now requires a primarily Kabbalistic worldview (which is based on Judeo-Christian ideas involving a separation between the divine and the mundane world) could not be counted as extra-Christian. Of course, given the fundamentally syncretic nature of any religious tradition, and especially of Christianity given its nativity at the temporal and spacial crux of the world in the first century C.E., this is all a grey area open for productive debate.
Indeed, such debates are those same trials that give depth to any culture–that is, these debates expand one’s understanding of a unitive story, giving depth to a cultural and religious tradition. Similarly, one might instantly recognize that the two primary assertions of this New Paganism, eco-centrism and extra-Christianity, are themselves at odds in many ways. For example, I have asserted that an earth-orientation would necessitate Pagans’ discarding any philosophy centering on gender essentialism (the maintenance of an inherent gender dichotomy), while at the same time most pre-Christian traditions maintained the privilege of the male-gendered and prescribed certain practices and beliefs for males and for females. How New Pagans would cope with this and other differences remains to be seen. Still, I maintain that for Pagans to return to those ideals which run counter to an earth-centered philosophy will be doing themselves a disservice and, essentially, backpedaling in terms of social understanding. Cultivation of the inherent disparity between earth-centered and extra-Christian worldviews as I have described them is again that very struggle that will add theological depth and rigor to a new Pagan tradition.
I believe that those groups and individuals currently identified as “Reconstructionist Pagans” come the closest to what I am proposing, and that these Recons will constitute the foundation of this New Paganism. However, Reconstructionism as it exists today is highly fractious, and this quality would make for poor building materials if indeed those disparate communities were to become cornerstones. We cannot have the Hellenes and the Nova Roma and the Celts and the Norse Recons existing as separate entities; Instead, I propose that all of these groups unify under the New Paganism by shifting their efforts toward a living syncretic revivalism, not a dry and overly academic reconstruction, of pre-Christian practices and beliefs. This revivalism will acknowledge the fluidity of Ancient belief across Eurasia both in time and in space. Pagan Revivalism depends not upon the static re-doing of past practices, but the re-application of those fundamental religious concepts that gave rise to the Eurasian religious milieu of several millenia. That is, The New Pagan Revivalism will be syncretic and polytheistic, allowing for the changing and reinterpretation of ancient practices in a modern (though not necessarily capitalist and post-industrial) context while remaining in accordance with the general nature of pagan syncretism in the past. The polytheism emerging from this revivalism will be at once “soft” and “hard”. Individuals participating in this Revivalism will, like our Pagan ancestors, participate in a dynamic and physical religious continuum that, I believe, is entirely compatible with the Pagan unitive story proposed above.
These changes—this revolution—this congregation around a unitive story, one of eco-spirituality and revivalist polytheism, this would indeed constitute the creation of a Deep Paganism, which I have called the New Paganism. Revivalist polytheism would constitute the exoteric thrust of this movement, while radical ecology would, I believe, form the core—the esoteric center—of a new Pagan mysticism.