(Repost) Pagan Values and Flying Bison
by Ruby Sara
This is a repost. The original post sparked a great deal of comments, which due to my technical bumbling in an attempt to take a breather from some very emotional wrangling, have now been deleted, and I really apologize for that! This repost is for posterity, and to preserve my evolving thoughts on an ongoing conversation regarding the usefulness of the term “Pagan.” New comments are welcome.*
June, beloveds, is Pagan Values Month. I think this is a great idea, and I’m pleased to participate this year. But I have to admit, friends, it’s been enormously difficult formulating my thoughts on the matter. See, every time I sit down to talk about it, I am immediately overwhelmed by another issue peering intently over my shoulder and casting its enormous shadow over my desk…I encourage you to imagine it as a large flying bison a la Avatar the Last Airbender…and it’s growling at me in its best Chewbacca voice. Y’all, this issue-bison has been looming over me for months. But I’m feeling spry today. It must be all the rain. So…after a few brain push-ups… let’s start with that and just see where we end up.
It’s been no secret that I’ve been struggling with my identity as a Pagan for a while now. This personal fact, coupled with some excellent posts and kerfuffles the Pagan blogosphere regarding definitions, has led me to consider on more than one occasion the efficacy of the term “Pagan,” the way we use the term in our communities, and indeed, whether an umbrella term is warranted at all.
In my travels and travails through the mystical magical world of Paganism, I’ve found that the word “Pagan” seems to mean a LOT of different (sometimes completely opposing) things to a LOT of different people, and, like a friend of mine, I’ve pretty much come to the personal belief that it therefore has no concrete meaning as a religious identifier. In other words, I do not think Paganism is a religion. Some of us say it is a set of religions, but we still use the term to refer to a religion, or as a religious identifier. BUT, since we Pagani as a collective have yet to a. come up with either a solid definition or Unitive Story for “Paganism,” or b. choose an equally solid alternative identifier, or c. agree to abandon the term as essentially meaningless and start identifying with terms that have theological/definitive meaning but will also have the effect of breaking us down categorically into smaller groups (and maybe we won’t ever do any of these things…who knows), I believe that the word “Pagan” is really more of a placeholder for that (large and evolving) floating archipelago in the cultic milieu that we all hang around on or near, rather than any kind of substantive religious designation/identity. The word may still be useful as a reference to a group of people or communities, but not, in my opinion, necessarily a group of ideas, like theologies or values.
Choosing to change how I use the term allows me to talk about values in a way that I find more personally meaningful, because given the above-mentioned enormous, decentralized and often contradictory nature of existing Pagan religions, I’m not sure that it’s possible to talk about Pagan values, Pagan ethics, or Pagan theologies. Yes, we can agree on some basic ethical principles, and I fully believe in that work (I am in full support of the recent Pagan statement against sexual abuse for example). But I also plan to discuss sometime this month the fact that I believe feminism to be an absolutely critical value in the formation of the Pagan religion I practice, and it is no secret that there are those who also identify themselves as Pagan that will disagree a thousand percent with me on that. There are many more examples: our disparate ideas about divinity (monothesim/pantheism/panentheism/polytheism [both syncretic and "hard" polytheism]/henotheism, etc. etc), positions on personal lifestyle, politics, ethics, cultural traditions, rituals, liturgical theologies, etc. Given that, I sincerely ask – how is it that we can call ourselves co-religionists? We may loosely occupy the same fringe space and identity as group foil to mainstream religious and cultural norms, but our praxis, ethics, values and theologies can often be so deeply different, and are even sometimes so completely at odds with each other, that I am baffled as to how we can consider each other fellows in faith (or spirituality or religion, or any other moniker you choose to code the worldview/framework/orientation human beings embody/choose/enact/practice in order to order their world).
So, in order for me to talk about religious values with any specificity, I find myself speaking more and more from the reference point of my own specific tradition/religion. What is that, you might ask? Well…that’s a longer story, and another flying bison all its own. For now, let’s call it Gospel Paganism, or maybe Rootwater religion, and let’s supposed that Rootwater religion is a syncretic, animist/polytheist (with a side of monism), critically earth-centered religion that posits embodied theology, sensate epistemology, story-centered liturgical theology, justice-oriented and ecofeminist ethics, a praxis steeped in storytelling, poetry, art, ritual and folk magic, and has inspirations in land-based witchcraft, Feraferia, Hellenic paganism, Gnosticism, and protestant Christianity. (Hystery has posited that it may be possible to say that feminist, earth-centered spiritual systems together may be considered one religion, and I find that supposition additionally intriguing.)
Now, it’s a deep truth that I go back and forth on this and related questions weekly. The same questions in my post last fall stand – I am still wrestling the same angel…for instance, I’m pretty squirrely about positing yet another uniquely idiosyncratic Pagan religion/tradition when I think radical individualism is still an enormous cultural problem. So bear with me, friends. Old Coat could show up at any moment and hit me over the head with Nerf thyrsus he borrowed from Dionysos. There is no perfect theory, and it’s all mess. Holy mess! But I guess it’s best to start with what I have, and this is it.
So, given all that mess, I’ve been pondering deeply what I might want to talk about in keeping with the meme of values, and I suppose specifically feminist, earth-centered or Gospel Pagan or Rootwater values, especially in light of something I wrote in an emotional rant of mine that appeared briefly over the weekend:
This is what I want:
Functional people, whole and encouraged. Communities, support structures. Art, ritual, harmony. As best as it can be done. I want the Earth to be reverenced and loved, and I want ecosystems to thrive and for human systems on Earth to be sustainable. I want compassion to be the general rule, and for justice to be restorative. I want people to be unafraid and strong and full of creativity and reason, born out of solid, loving and loved lives. I want loneliness to be mitigated by love. I want pettiness to be massively outweighed by wisdom. I want people to give food to other people. I want people to be simply and justly fed, simply and justly clothed, simply and justly housed. I want there to be an awareness of the Other as Self while still Other. I don’t want Eden – some farcical innocence that never existed and will never exist. I just want the best we are.
A lot of my thoughts about values can be found there. And in light of the Deepwater Horizon British Petroleum disaster, unfolding as I type this, I think about how our values are challenged and defined by our reactions to crisis. And how much in recent memory we’ve had opportunity to do that kind of thinking. Mine have certainly been galvanized this year by the BP spill as well as other personal and national events. So for the month of June, I hope to explore a few of these values in depth.
In the meantime, beloveds, grok the rain. Unlike the snow, which muffles the world in its heavy blanket, rain illumines, tricking out the details of tree bark, and making the road seem a path of diamonds through the green grass. May you find meaning in the rosebushes, friends. Meaning in the great gray sky. Meaning in the sparrow.
Grok Earth. Pray without ceasing.
Edited to add: For a tremendously awesome post regarding the spill and what people can do in response to it, please read Elizabeth Vongvisith’s post on her blog Twilight and Fire.