Redefinitions: The Parliament and “Re-establishing” Ourselves

I’m sure a lot of folks are obsessively reading about the Pagan presence at the Parliament of World Religions happening in Australia right now. I haven’t been as caught up on things as perhaps I’d like to be, but hey, it’s Finals Week and I’ve got other things to think about!

Anyway, Ruby Sara sent me this link, which leads to the blog “Pagans at the Parliament” and an article on questions of definition and redefinition within the Pagan community. The author describes an event at the Parliament in which Paganism was defined as “a collective term that most aptly defines Indigenous cultures of pre-Christian Europe”; and then the author discusses the implications that this definition would have within the community and the community’s changing relationship to both “indigenous religions” and “New Religious movements.”

Now, this definition takes a knife to the current Pagan community, leaving out Wiccans, and Chaos Magicians, Reiki-ites, and a bunch of other folks whom identify as Pagans (or might) but whose practices are definitely not Indigenous or pre-Christian, and which have little to do with ancient European culture. This is, of course, quite close to a few things that I have proposed myself: Elsewhere I, too, have supposed that Paganism would do best to redefine itself as consisting of those pre/para-Christian (for lack of a better word) practices and belief systems and then that other folks (Wiccans, etc) would need to find themselves new labels. It’s because I don’t think Wicca or Chaos Magic or Reiki – or Chakras, Thelema, purple velvet, quartz crystals, Angel magic, the Goetia, and a bunch of other things that are now acceptable Pagan practices – really have anything to do with earth-centered spirituality, awareness of the Earth as Mother, or religious Polytheism. And so, for earth-centered, Mama-revering, polytheistic religious movements to evolve into anything worth anything, they need to leave behind this  extra baggage.

So then we’re left with at least two groups. The ‘new’ “Pagans” and the other folks; and I suspect that, if this splitting of the current Pagan community were to take effect, the Ceremonial Magicians wouldn’t hang out for too long with the Reiki-ites and the Crystal Healers, and so we’d end up with a lot of smaller communities. The question that the article from the Parliament goes on to raise, then, is how would the international, interreligious community come to identify these communities: As indigenous religious movements, or as “New Religious” movements?

While I’m not sure it’s at all very useful to try and put these movements into any of various categories – especially if we’ve only got two choices – I do think it’s inevitable that the discussion will come up, and that both “indigenous” and “new religious” are categories that would come up in that discussion. Personally (and this is where I’m disagreeing with the folks at the Parliament and the article I linkd to above), I don’t think any of us have any business identifying as “indigenous” practitioners. Why not? I have several reasons:

(We have no business identifying as indiginous:) 1) Because it would distract the entire interreligious community from the plight of already extant and, overwhelmingly, endangered indiginous religious communities. I think that it is nothing less than a further cultural appropriation for Pagans to set themselves beside groups that have struggled literally for their lives in the face of colonialism, of language extinction and the loss of cultures, and who are still struggling.

Of course I am not arguing that the ethnic peoples of Europe (or North Africa or the Middle East, for that matter) never struggled to keep their traditions alive. I am saying that those struggles were by-and-large lost, and that any reclamation of these traditions is at best a successful reconstruction and at worst a disrespectful parody. So,

2) We are not indiginous because we do not represent the survival of living traditions, but are fundamentally reconstructions. To deny the impact of this reconstructive process on our traditions today would be lying to ourselves. I think this applies equally to what we can call “hard” reconstructionist movements like the modern “Recon” Pagan traditions (Nova Roma, Norse Reconstruction, Natib Qadish, etc) as well as to “soft”* reconstruction movements like Traditional British Witchcraft or Rumova, which downplay the role of reconstruction per-se in their practice and, I think, can claim a greater degree of affinity with the past. ((Take a look at this old news report that chronicles the re-establishment of Rumova in Lithuania, and note that it takes place in Lithuania at an ancient site, with Lithuanians and not in the back room of some American occult bookstore. It’s an important difference, I think.))

So, then what are we? Personally, I have no problem being part of a New Religious movement (which is a semi-technical term used in various fields to describe religions that have cropped up over the last few hundred years, and which covers well-established New movements like Tenrikyo but also various UFO traditions like Raelianism and other things). We must admit to ourselves that all of the stuff we do now is new – otherwise, we’d already have gone through all the growing pains we’re experiencing now!

But perhaps New Religious movement doesn’t fit either, since we are so concerned with practices and beliefs from the past. Perhaps, then, to put us into one of these pre-existing categories isn’t useful at all, and maybe we should (as a community) put forward another designation. Perhaps “Re-established.” Think about it: “We, Pagans, practice re-established religions.” Here we aren’t tredding on the toes of living indiginous traditions, nor are we ignoring our link to the past. “Re-established” conveys our past and our present, and speaks to both “soft” and “hard” reconstructionist communities.

Just thoughts, my friends. Tell me what you think!

(*) Note: What I’m getting at here by making a distinction between “hard” and “soft” reconstructionism is really a spectrum, and I’m just trying to make a point that there are those among us whose primary concern is reconstruction and those who are more concerned with living in modern ethnic traditions. Though now I’m wondering whether the distinction is really one between Paganism today in Europe vs. that in America… hmm. Perhaps.

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About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

One Response to Redefinitions: The Parliament and “Re-establishing” Ourselves

  1. Pingback: Great Kerfuffalo Rising « Pagan Godspell

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