Conundrums and Kerfuffles: Clergy Language and the Pagani
by Ruby Sara
Blessings, friends and best beloveds, from the sun-and-frost-light streets of the fiercely-wild urban midwest! The light is indeed waning. Y’all – it was dark way before 7pm the other day. My heart quailed in my chest, but I soldier weirdly on into the shadows, waiting for the lessons of Samhain to pin me down, swallowing the season’s medicine. The last few posts here at PG have been generally reflective regarding the season – it’s hard to think of much else, honestly. But, I’d hate to avoid gnarly and ouchy word-wrangles for TOO long…
So and Sew. There was a quasi-recent conversation on Pantheon, the Pagan blog at Patheos.com that sparked the resurgence of some ongoing thoughts of mine regarding language. Specifically, the use of Christian language in the pursuit of Pagan culture and expression, in this case in relation to “clergy.” So…well…I thought I’d talk about that a bit. However, as these topics sometimes do, I found that it ended up touching on some larger flying-bison-sized issues that have been on my mind…so I decided to write a bit about those too. Next thing I knew, I had something rather unwieldy on my hands, and I’ve decided to post it anyway. Saints preserve us.
Now, before I pour myself into this tumbler of trouble, I have a few things to say. First, I’d like to ask you to dance. Then, when we’re done shaking a caveat tail-feather and have sat down to a glass of spicy apple cider each, I’d like to say a couple of ridiculously and probably needlessly complicated things, and then I’ll move on to some more ridiculously and probably needlessly complicated things. I may even contradict myself multiple times in the same post. It’ll be grand.
(I should warn you that this post is pretty hellaciously long. I considered chopping it into two or more pieces, but frankly, as each piece seems to me to be intimately tied up in the other, in the end I just decided to leave it as a whole. If you wish to follow me down this uncomfortable rabbit hole after the jump, then I say: welcome. Have a cookie and a glass of iced tea – it’s a long way down.)
It’s no surprise to anyone reading this blog that in addition to my happy wrestlemania relationship with contemporary Pagan religions and my devotions to Dionysos, the Mama, the Beloved, Mother Lake, my rosebushes, etc., I also have some kind of relationship with Christianity. I’ve said as much outright; though no, I don’t know what it means. But it is true that I have a personal investment in the subject.
However, in addition to my own interests, I think the subject of Christianity may be relevant to Pagans as a whole. Now, you may rightly ask me why we have to talk about Christianity at all, seeing as how we aren’t Christians and therefore don’t have to wrestle with their theological issues. And well, you might have a point. But here’s how I see it: we already DO talk about Christianity. We can’t NOT talk about it (and the people who practice it) because not only are we (as Americans…the only national experience that I can personally speak to) living in a culture that is enormously tied up in a Christian cultural and theological and philosophical matrix (among other things of course, but hugely influenced by Western Christian thought), but the very fabric of many of our own pagan traditions is historically and theologically tied up in it as well. Whether or not we are reconstructing, inventing, or syncretizing, the fact remains: contemporary Pagan/pagan religions are post-Christian phenomena, and there is a relationship there that must be explored, deeply and honestly, if we expect to grow and engage with those around us both inside and outside our traditions (even if we differ on what the goal of our growing and engaging ought to be). So bearing that in mind:
There are times that I’ve perceived (the hint of caveat tango music brushes you by) an anti-Christian bias in Pagan discourse (and towards other Abrahamic religions as well IMO, but I’m only focusing on Christianity here today), and while I absolutely and fundamentally understand the impulse to reject that which wounds (and it is a healthy impulse), I think that this impulse can become something much larger and much less healthy, and when it does it has the potential to distract us from our own growth.
Now, this is not to say that Christians do not also engage in their own bias when discussing Paganism. Uh, yeah. I was once asked, in all seriousness, if I sacrificed babies born of kidnapped women to my gods on Samhain (the answer, for all you Christine O’Donnell fans out there, is no). I mean, Chick tracts, y’all. Ignorance is a kerfuffle-maker of the highest order, and it has been duly noted that Christians, especially when it comes to Pagan religions, can fall clumsily and surely into the realm of ignorance. That ignorance, coupled with the deeply problematic “mandate” to convert others (whether by conviction, testimony, harassment or violence), a laughable misunderstanding of the religious make-up of the world (i.e. Christianity is so not the only religion in existence, yet you’d think it was the way some Christians respond when faced with reality), and a wholly warped sense of the theological Other, results in articles like this one in the UK’s Daily Mail. Sometimes the remedy for ignorance is simple education, but sometimes ignorance can run so deep and be so entrenched that it moves beyond conversation into the realm of Serious Problem (cf. religious discrimination).
And let’s be clear: I have objections to various Christian theologies, not to mention a deep-seated antipathy for certain groups of Christians operating in the world, hating Others and committing atrocities, willing and complicit with Empire. Which is why I absolutely think we ought to voice serious and critical objections to certain theologies, and loudly, but we should do so to those theologies, specifically. Me? I think original sin is a disgusting concept, and I think folks like Tertullian, Augustine and Aquinas (just as three examples) were ranting misogynists who took their rabid fear and loathing of women and injected it straight into the heart of their subsequently corrupt theologies. I think some things Jesus said were wrong: I don’t think we should operate on the assumption that the poor will always be with us, I don’t think rejecting/hating our “earthly parents” (read: embodied human life) in favor of some invisible, transcendent unearthly ones is cool, and I’m on the side of the fig tree, just for starters. I think any theology that posits the material world as corrupt in favor of some transcendent otherworld is wildly problematic (which is evident in plenty of New Age theologies as well as Christian ones), and coupled with a Cartesian mechanistic hegemony, has had grave and horrific consequences for our planet and any community coded by those in power as being too ontologically “close” to the earth, to “the flesh” / physical animal-nature / sexuality (cf. women, queer peoples, people of color, indigenous peoples, etc). I think the vast majority of interpretations regarding evangelism and prostelyzation are invasive, smug and divisive at best and oppressive, dehumanizing, and violent at worst. I think it’s hella morally bankrupt to try and justify any positive reference to slavery in the bible as valid in any way, and I think it’s totally legitimate to reject certain stories and lessons in the bible as antifeminist, heterosexist, racist, and oppressive. And I think prosperity gospel (and its New Agey cousin “the law of attraction”) is ethically suspect. And all of these theologies affect me, and you, and the planet, because they are ingrained in the dominant culture of those in power. Yes.
But, Pagans too can be guilty of ignorance when it comes to Christian history (those who claim that “polytheistic” cultures are de facto religiously tolerant versus “monotheistic” ones seem to completely gloss over the Roman Empire for some reason), and diversity of Christian theological thought (“Jesus came to abolish capitalism” vs. “Jesus came to give me McNuggets” for example), as well as the Christian, monotheist and Abrahamic origins/influence/involvment in the development and current practice of some contemporary Pagan religions and religionists (cf. Renaissance hermeticism, ceremonial magic, the Golden Dawn, Kabbalah, etc…and that’s not even mentioning Joanne Pearson’s Wicca and the Christian Heritage). And it is also true that Christianity, not unlike Wicca and other religions, is comprised of a wide variety of interpretations, some that are anathema to me, and some that are wholly in line with the liberal and radically left politics and theologies I espouse. Like, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Was he perfect? No. But he did enormous, great and incredible works, and his Christian convictions were the pillars of that work. I also happen to like the ideas of forgiveness, charity, peace and love (of course these things are not exclusive to Christianity, but sometimes they are perceived to be…by both sides). A religion that inspires people to freedom and justice is a good thing in my wee book. I think Baptism and Communion are gorgeous rites that have deep resonating themes along earth-based lines (and are themselves of course much older form-wise than their Christian incarnations). And I think the bible is replete with poetry and beauty. What does all THAT mean? I don’t know. I’m saying all this is complicated, and by painting all of Christianity with the Big-Mega-Evil-Brush, we ignore theological diversity, history, and nuance. And the actual truth about any religion is absolutely and fundamentally impossible to perceive without nuance. History is complicated. Religion is complicated.
What I’m saying is, for a bunch of reasons, some absolutely understandable (and other less so), many Pagans are pissed off about “Christianity,” and many Christians are bewildered and uncomfortable about “Pagan religions” when they’re not disgusted by them outright. And when it comes to the subject of “clergy” language (i.e. reverend, priest, minister, clergy, pastor, etc. vs. priestess, gothi/gythia, shaman, druid, witch, etc.), I think it’s possible that some of this can come into play.
But more to the point re: clergy language (and thus the issues of “mainstreaming” and pagan ecclesiology), I’m not convinced that in the world we live in right now, some organization isn’t called for. And due to a number of factors, Christianity and other organized religions are just that: organized. Yes, they’ve had thousands of years of hegemony to work on that – and in many ways that very organization is part of the problem. But on the other hand…
Look. Ultimately, I’m against civilization. I’m against large institutional religions (and states, and governments, and grocery stores, etc.), and I think (like Daniel Quinn has posited in The Story of B) that in a world that lives fully within an embodied, reciprocal, sense-oriented, animist and relationship-oriented worldview, ecclesial (and salvific) religions are obsolete. I believe that the ultimate expression of a workable (not perfect, just workable/sustainable) human spirituality and culture is perhaps most beautifully and naturally expressed in the anarchic, earth-based, reciprocal cultures of the world. However, we, being the members of an industrial, consumer-driven culture, do not operate in that cultural framework any longer. We do not live in that world. And I further believe that merely being aware of this difference is not enough to truly change our cultural way of being in the world to that of a reciprocal, community-driven, land-based worldview (what some have termed “re-wilding”). This change requires an enormous, arduous, years and decades and centuries-long process. One that may not even be possible for an individual within her lifetime…and may not be possible for individuals at all. Worldview shifts occur when whole communities and groups of people change their course. We cannot merely make intellectual rejections of civilization and think we’re quit of it. We are still culpable. We are still immersed. We are still civilized. We know our culture and our worldview is unsustainable and wrong, but a worldview cannot be changed overnight.
And given that our current worldview and the way in which we live in the world is inherently unsustainable, I believe that we will not be living in this world much longer either. The tides are turning rapidly. It is painfully possible that our world and our culture will look radically and shockingly different twenty years from now than it does today. We cannot continue to consume at the rate that we do and expect to keep it up forever. Movements like the Dark Mountain Project, Green Wizardry, Transition Towns and others are all based on this principle, and their numbers are growing. We know something is wrong.
Now, religion and spirituality exist in both reciprocal and in civilized cultures (to borrow terms from Daniel Quinn – “leaver” and “taker” cultures). Their approaches to spirit are radically different than each other, but it remains a fact that the human impulse towards spirit, towards that ineffable, ecstatic, authentic relationship (with the gods, the land, the spirits and powers of the world/universe), has been a consistent piece of human culture since the beginning of our human awareness – sitting in that chair and looking in the distance. Worldviews change through a change in culture, and if religion and spirituality are an intrinsic part of human culture, then religion and spirituality of course too must change.
Spirit dies when it is shackled to stagnation, oppression, domination, hegemony, etc. Those religions that operate under these rubrics are the religions of civilization, and as such they too are unsustainable. Yet, I personally have observed that those peoples living in civilized societies, even if they acknowledge that civilization is an untenable state of being in the world, and even if they acknowledge that institutionalized, civilized religion ultimately cannot stand, are still operating in a civilized worldview. Me. I am operating in this worldview. You. You are operating in this worldview. Worldviews are not jackets, and they cannot be shrugged off overnight. Thus, in my opinion, the attempts of those to establish new purely land-based religions and communities have been met with an enormous uphill battle. Religions that ought to embody the living traditions of the earth instead become bogged down in disorganization, physical and emotional exhaustion, rampant consumerism, and uncorroborated fantasy – all hallmarks of civilization.
So, given all that wild speculation, I sometimes wonder, sincerely, if a transitional tradition might be better suited to the project – one that combines the best of our organized church structure with living, breathing, poetic, art-based, storytelling, bioregionally land-based practices/theologies…in order to assist the civilized spiritual mind in reclaiming the worldview that comes most naturally to it, that of a reciprocal, earth-based, ecstatic, relationship-oriented way of being. At the very least, I can say that I believe that the terminologies and methodologies of ecclesia are not inherently corrupt, and may actually be incredibly useful in pursuit of a relationship with the planet this is centered on authenticity and wholeness.
Which leads me back to this again: religion is complicated. Syncretism happens, has happened, and is happening, for many and sundry reasons, some natural and organic, some violent and vile, but it remains a truth that at this point in time for sure, syncretism is happening. What is important in this syncretic world is the cultivation of theological and ethical integrity (wherein inconsistencies will inevitably occur but are acknowledged and grappled with), respect, and an awareness of history. All of which, when employed, also make clear markers between the act of borrowing/adapting from dominator cultures (that have already borrowed/adapted from earlier cultures) in order to lift up alternative cultures, and the act of cultural appropriation, which involves the ignorant and arrogant acquisition of cultures that have already been decimated by colonialism.
Thus, based on all of the above, I am postulting that it may be legitimate to adopt/reclaim terminologies, methodologies, theologies and practices from the dominator culture, and adapt them in place if they are deemed useful. (A good case in point would be ADF. As a [new] member myself, I’m not sure how I feel about all ADF theologies, and I don’t have to, but I do love much of what they do, and I deeply respect that they do up organization, and they do it well – they put a hell of a lot of thought into what they do and how they do it, and have very much adopted many of the “trappings” of ecclesia while maintaining with no doubt that they are a wholly pagan organization, and a right successful one so far at that). In this way, it might be said that I do think the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house (pace Audre Lorde), if it’s done with a keen eye fixed on honesty and awareness. I’m interested in counterculture, yes. But counterculture too is complicated, and when it comes down to the greater goal, I’m most interested in what works. And what works will be a multiple of things – never any one approach. Sometimes, what works is a complete rejection of every detail. But other times, what works involves adoption and adaptation – in other words, a living syncretism.
This is a very personal and ongoing struggle for me. It is a very valid criticism that all this may just be my creating an elaborate set of apologetics to mask my own personal callings. I have felt “called to ministry” since I was young. I struggled, and still do struggle, with the ever-present impulse to convert to organized religion due to the nigh overpowering desire to learn and bustle and groove within a system that is enmeshed in the questions and work of theology, religion, and service on a daily basis. And my time in seminary has biased me, yes. I saw a lot of rich, powerful and useful stuff there – language, methodology, thought. Not to mention a whole gaggle of engaged, hard-working, struggling and loving people grappling with their religions.
I think it takes training, immersion, and skill as well as talent and calling to minister well, to lead ritual well and provide pastoral care and support well (and in accordance with the law and ethical codes), to provide informed spiritual direction and perform informed public interfaith dialogue, and that’s why I support the ongoing work of institutions and programs like Cherry Hill Seminary, The Temple of Witchcraft, Solar Cross, ADF’s Clergy Training Program and the Earth Traditions Ministry Training Program. Yes, we have words that we have reclaimed, reshaped, adopted or created to describe our spiritual leadership and/or trained/called peoples: Druid, Witch, Priestess, Gothi/Gythia, Nisut, Helrunar, Seer, etc. But the use of the term “clergy” additionally has both deeply useful ecumenical and legal ramifications. Even as the anarchist in me wants a world in which the red tape is moot, the red tape exists in this moment, and if there are people in need, we should serve them to the best of our abilities. And the combined seasoned experiences, language, methodologies, structures and thoughts of thousands and thousands of clergy persons in many different faith traditions can help us realize that goal.
Um. Holy manifesto, batman! This was not really my intention – as I mentioned, it kind of spiraled out of control. I’ve read this whole tamale five times and I’m still not sure it’s coherent, or says half of what I mean. But for the nonce, as I spin slapdash over streets covered in the bloom of fallen leaves and think on the lessons of pumpkins, I say peace to you, friends. Peace and storytelling.
Grok mess, beloveds. Pray without ceasing.