That Troublesome Term…Again
by Ruby Sara
Greetings, friends and beloveds, from the STILL EFFING COLD streets of the fiercely wild urban midwest. I’ll admit to you, I’m peeved by this lingering cold here. Of course, I won’t have to put up with it for much longer, which is both a happy and sad thing. I refer to the fact that in just a couple short months, the intrepid spouse and I will be packing up our not-so-meager collection of possessions (oh…books…oh…moving books…oh…oh hell) and heading for the gorgeous mountain country of Tennessee, where I will be pursuing a second masters degree in Storytelling. I am tremendously excited about this news, y’all, yes indeed, but also naturally sad to be leaving the friends I’ve made here. But more about that later.
To the business at hand.
I’ve been busy as a badger these last few weeks and it’s not really getting any less busy. I said I’d be on PG sabbatical until the end of July, and so I shall be, with possibly larger changes then…still to be determined. But deep within the busy-ness, I’ve also been busy a-pondering, and much of those ponderings have to do with who I am and what I do and who I’d like to be…you know, the business of being human. And seeing as how it’s one of my favorite subjects, I’ve been musing rather a lot on the matter of “Paganism,” and my place in it. It should come as no surprise to those reading PG for the last couple years that I’ve been squirrelly with the term, wrestling with its efficacy, attempting to eschew it from my vocabulary, and proffering terms that better suit me. Which is why it’s always interesting to me to see that others have or are asking the same questions, which inevitably cause some kerfuffling. For example, Star Foster at Patheos has made a call for folks to weigh in on the subject based on a post by Drew Jacob about his own rejection of the term for various reasons.
…And I find that I have a couple of thoughts about it, helter-skelter and badger-chewed as they may be. So you know, taking a little sabbatical from a sabbatical can’t be a bad thing. The badgers have promised to at least chew at a slower tempo than normal for a few minutes. Generous creatures.
So…the first thing is that I think the whole conversation represented by the two links above is pretty much precisely why I think the term is a problem. The minute someone claims to either be or not-be pagan, they are asserting a definition for it. A definition which is then *immediately* contradicted by several people at once, saying that the definition is either too limited or too broad, followed very closely by the people asserting that labels are a. silly, b. useless, c. so five-minutes-ago.
Of course, my belief is this: labels are important. They are important because they create communities. In the realm of the individual, labels may not be that important. If, alone, I want to call myself a Psyluminous Kerflammawaffle (and…I think I do), then I get to be the sole arbiter of what defines that term, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. But, if I want to use an identifyer that links me to a group of people, that has use. People can band together under that label and work for the rights of that group if the group is well-defined (not fixed or immutable, just well-defined…as in, the majority of people in that group generally agree on the characteristics/stories of that group). I can have a conversation with a person outside the group about our similarities and differences. The group can work together under a common vision/story to organize services and events for the group or to serve others. These identifying labels assist in making that possible. If I didn’t believe labels were important, ultimately all this fusting over whether to remain Pagan or whether the term is useful is admittedly stupid. But, I think it is important. And I think it’s important because I think communities are important. Insert rant about hyper-individualism (where, interestingly, I make an argument for a general Pagan culture in order to criticize it, before I asserted that there wasn’t one, and am now back to believing there is one…ah, the radical pendulum of thinkiness…I think Walt Whitman had something to say about that).
There are real instances where the term “Pagan” certainly qualifies as a useful label. Case in point: Peter Dybing’s recent successful fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders in response to the crisis in Japan. Dybing raised over 30,000 dollars for Japan under the rubric of the “Pagan community,” and those who identified as Pagans donated money to the cause. If Dybing had decided to raise the money without appealing overtly to Pagans, he may not have been able to raise as much as fast, as I think the matter of personal and communal pride in one’s label and community was a factor in that fundraiser, as it is in many other areas where religious and other groups participate in giving and service oriented activities.
I have said before that the term Pagan doesn’t have any meaning. Well, I maintain that to some degree, but partly I was wrong. I think the term does have meaning, insofar as it seems to connote a particular culture (a fringy one), one that uses a particular vocabulary and that possesses a number of cultural signifiers. If you were out strolling through the park, and you noticed a group of say 20 people standing together, with someone drumming nearby, and they were wearing a motley assortment of cloaks, animal skins or antlers, amulets, medieval or viking wear, with a large array of t-shirts (tie-dye, silk screened, some with various pithy religious statements on them) and the like in the mix, you might readily say that they were Pagans. If they were standing in a circle all facing one direction, you’d feel even more sure. And at some point, if you overheard them having a friendly chuckle over the nature of some friend of theirs from an astrological or “totemic animal” perspective, you’d be even MORE sure. Now, it may be that these elements seem derived from various eclectic Wiccan or Wiccanate milieus, and that’s because they are. Frankly, if all of Pagandom could just come together to assert that the term PAGAN meant Wiccan and/or Wiccanate and/or Wiccan-derived culture/religious milieu, then I think that would be fine (a bit redundant, but fine). If we agreed to define ourselves as “earth-centered,” we’d have at least something to really start arguing about. But we don’t assert that. We insist that “Pagan” also covers Druids , non-Wiccan witches of various varieties (being themselves a whole kettle of argumentative fish when it comes to definitions), Kemetics, Hellenics, Celtic Recons, Natib Qadish, Asatru, Thelemites, Renaissance Hermeticism and Qabala and Ceremonialist magic, Chaos magic, etc…not to mention the folks who attend Shinto rites, belong to African Diasporic Traditions like Vodou and Santeria, or worship Hindu deities, etc., or combine or practice 2 or more of any of these. No religious identifier is going to encompass all these disparate faiths. (Some folks insist that we need the umbrella term because we need the numbers in order to battle discrimination. But if that’s the concern, then I think we would do better to drop the label Pagan, assert ourselves within our smaller more defined groupings, and team with others like Hindus and Buddhists and Vodouisants and Santeros and American Indians to work for the religious rights of all “minority” religions in the United States. Then we could stand as Heathens, Wiccans, Earth-Centered whatevers, Druids, combinations thereof, etc., alongside all other religious persons who suffer discrimination, without the confusing baggage of the term Pagan, and work for change with that larger group.)
So I think Pagan does encompass a kind of cultural language and aesthetic, mostly Wiccanate in nature. I think this cultural aesthetic and language is what Drew chose to no longer be associated with (according to my interpretation of his post). And that choice resonates with me, because I too have not felt like I belong in that cultural milieu any longer. My personal pondering regarding my own spiritual journey is not over, and I won’t speak too much to that at the moment. But ultimately, I believe that the term, as it’s come to be used in our communities, is so deeply flawed, so vague, that what use it has is extremely limited and, in my opinion, heading towards obsolescence…unless the vagaries of human linguistic and communal movement deem otherwise, and it becomes redefined in more specific and concrete ways, which is certainly possible.
I don’t know. I just fust and burn and wonder and try to hold myself together as best I can. The badgers have made it mid-shin, friends and beloveds, and I limp away, still pondering, and still praying for sunshine, and the promise of a week of warm days…preferably sometime before midsummer.
Grok earth, friends. Pray without ceasing.