I wrote a post on Storify, a website which helps its users tell stories by curating social media. Not only can you read and embed (usually) Storify posts, but you can Like, Comment, or Share any of the individual messages inside a Storify post.
High-tech, no? It takes dialogue to a micro-level.
Give the post a read, engage in some dialogue, both inside the post and in the traditional comments, and then pay a visit to my Indiegogo Campaign, Sacred Electric Grove.
Ever since I took the name, Teo Bishop, and made it my own — both in a religious sense and through the proper legal channels — I’ve had cause to explain what it is that I do on this blog. My writing, as well as my deepening engagement with my own spiritual work, are both major influences on my decision to undergo this transition.
Identity is interesting, and something that often goes undiscussed. What we are, how we identify, is often more experienced than it is questioned. That is, this seems to be true for many people I know.
Then there are people like me, my queer compatriots, and my Pagan brethren who appear to always be in a rich, complicated, and often conflict-laden dialogue about what it means to be us; always debating which words are right to use, and which are out-of-bounds. In fact, it was my little inquiry into identity with publicly not-Pagan, totally world-adventurer, Drew Jacob, back in May of last year which led to his firestorm-post, Why I’m Not Pagan, and my followup piece, Pagan is the New Gay. The whole back-and-forth put my lil’Druid blog on the map.
When I started writing Bishop In The Grove, my intention was to have this blog be a place for me to document my studies through a training program offered through the American Druid fellowship, Ár nDraiocht Féin (ADF). This was going to be my Dedicant Journal, a series of writings that charted my progress on the Dedicant Path. But, it wasn’t long before my focus shifted, and questions of identity began to surface.
How was I to reconcile the Christianity of my youth with this burgeoning practice of polytheistic Druidry? What, exactly, did it mean to be a “Druid?” How could I avoid falling into the trap of allowing this new religious expression to become a kind of role-play? How was I to remain authentic, both to myself and to my community? (Dig through the Post Archive and you’ll find evidence of all of this….and more.)
The conclusion I’ve reached, which is still very much an idea to be examined, is that my spiritual and religious life is intended to be more of a dialogue than a single state of being. Any religious moniker I take, be it Christian (as it was for two decades), Druid, Neopagan, or Pagan, it is most important to me that this title is representative of an ecosystem of practice as well as serving as an introduction to a discussion on belief. The latter may not be paramount, but it is important to me. Practice also means more than how I approach my home shrine; it also extends to the way I navigate my internal world, the world of ideas and emotions, and which methods and approaches I use to engage with my thoughts and inquiries.
Druid, then, is not simply a title which connects me to ancient Celts, or to other Indo-European peoples; it is a word that is representative of a very modern, very immediate, and very personal religious expression which is influenced by a variety of modern, and possibly ancient religious technologies, some Irish, others American, and some completely unique to me; and at the same time, the word points to a practice of deliberate and persistent inquiry, introspection, and contemplation.
This resonates with me personally, and so this is how I intend to use the term.
But would you say that I have, what a friend recently called, “a Druid’s perspective?”
In an interfaith setting, where individuals are often called to speak as ambassadors for their religious or spiritual traditions, how does my definition hold up? Patheos is an interfaith blogging website, and my blog is the lone Druid’s Grove on their servers, but what I’m talking about is real, person-to-person, interfaith work.
How does the description I’ve offered of Druid resonate with you? Does it make sense? If you use the word to describe yourself, does it feel accurate to your experience? If you reject the word altogether, could you explain why?
Second, could you imagine a situation in which a modern Druid is acting as a representative for the wider community of Druids within an interfaith setting? How would you feel about there being an “Ambassador of Druidry” to other faith traditions?
Last week I asked, “Where does compassion belong among Pagans and Polytheists?” Beneath this first question there is another, more relevant question; one that has been nagging at me for several days:
What is the point of your religion?
I think this is a valuable inquiry, and no one has asked me this just yet. Yesterday I enrolled at Marylhurst University, the first step in a course of study that I hope will one day lead to a Masters of Divinity. I trust that during that course of work someone would be inclined to ask this question.
Why do we do what we do? What does our tradition provide us in the way of making the world we live in, the communities we build, the people that we care for, better? More importantly, how does it inform our capacity to love, our ability to experience joy, or, for that matter, our willingness to stand with the full spectrum of human experience? Is our religion pacifying us, or challenging us to go deeper?
Many people responded to my post about compassion with the statement that they, too, felt this subject had been missing from conversations in their community, which leads me to wonder what people are talking about. I think about the Christians I’ve known, and the Christian communities that I’ve been a part of, and I remember countless times when the conversation would move toward a closer examination of the meaning of compassion, the power of our intentions, the relationship between our choices and the well-being of those around us. These conversations, as I remember them, were not laden with guilt, judgement or biblical references, and they had a kind of immediacy that I was electrifying to me. Our religion was, for us, a call to full presence in the world; being a Christian was a call to accountability to the world I was living in.
And now here I am, a Pagan, no longer a part of Christian community, still searching for that same sense of immediacy, that same urgent need to be present to the world and accountable to something larger than myself.
I can only conclude from all of this that there is some undercurrent of morality, or ethics, or a need for “right action” that is pulling at me, and that it matters little whether or not I call myself a Christian, a Pagan, or a Druid. There is something human about this quest. I heard the Dalai Lama on the radio today, and he said that first and foremost he was a human being. He said that, and I think that if someone who is as revered as him can recognize the value in placing ones humanity first and their cultural and religious framework second, then perhaps I should be willing to do so as well.
I feel like there has to be a greater purpose to our religious traditions than providing us with a sense of security, comfort, and personal or cultural validation. We get trapped in our identities, and we build walls around ourselves. I think we want clarity around whether we are Pagan, Polytheist, Christian, or some other such invention, in order to better insulate ourselves from one another. We want to be right, we fear being vulnerable, and we use our religions to protect ourselves.
But what if our religions encouraged us to reach outward, to seek commonalities, to see less distinction between human beings? What if our religions began with the premise that we were all connected, and that we were all worthy of respect, compassion, and love, and that we were each capable of providing those things to one another? What if there was a way to approach this kind of universality without any need to squabble about whose deity is best, who’s laws are true, and who’s cosmology is most relevant?
I wonder what that religion would look like.
My hope is that through the dialogue on this blog, and hopefully during my course of study at Marylhurst, that we might take a closer look at our human experiences, and in the process of doing so uncover something universal within our singularity; that we might dig into our own sacred subjectivity, and throw aside our need to be right. There is no reward in having all the answers; there is only value in learning how to ask better questions.
So with that, I begin.
What is the point of your religion? What tools does it provide to you? Does it equip you for defense or for outreach? Does it lead you to question, or does it encourage you to rest in your knowing?
I look forward to hearing your insights, your experiences, and your perspective!
I’m not sure why I’m a Pagan. I type those words, and I know I’m taking a risk by making this admission, but it’s what’s going through my head.
My Paganism, as well as my Druidry, is feeling more like subject matter for this blog rather than a way of living my life. Being Pagan doesn’t feel very immediate to me. It feels like a construct. It’s a bit like drag; like something I’m putting on, or that I’m trying to assume. I wrote about being a convert. Perhaps this feeling is an extension of that process of conversion. But I’m still not clear on what I’m converting to.
The Pagan Community feels more like an idea to me than anything else. There are Pagan gatherings which I attend from time to time, and groups to which I’ve paid membership dues. But for the most part, the Community lives in the ether, and I’m not exactly certain that I fit into it, or what exactly I should call myself. The labels come with baggage.
I never felt comfortable calling myself a Christian, either. I always told people that I was an Episcopalian. Somehow, identifying with my denomination was easier for me to explain. For me, being a Christian wasn’t as much about what I believed; it was about what I did. I think my Christianity was very Pagan in that way.
By being an Episcopalian, I was liturgical, rational — as much as any “person of faith” can be — and unwilling to accept fundamentalism. I sought out a balance of intellect and emotion, listened for the subtle, soft voice of the Spirit, and opened my awareness to the unexpected ways in which God might be present in the world. That’s what being an Episcopalian was for me, and so, by extension, that’s how I was a Christian.
But there were squabbles within the Christian community about which denomination was getting it right. Christians are constantly arguing amongst themselves about what is the best or most correct way to be a Christian (similar to the arguments between Revivalist and Reconstuctionist Druids on who is actually a Druid, or the talk about which Witch among us is a genuine Witch). Episcopalians were often viewed as too liberal, or sometimes too formal. Some Christians viewed them as too affluent, and too white. Gays had a home in the pews and behind the altar, and for many Christians that was a sure sign that Episcopalians weren’t actually Christian.
It was a hot mess.
My present conundrum is partly rooted in questions of identity, but also in experience. Christmas left me feeling confused. I opened myself up to certain aspects of it, and now I’m wondering what it was that inspired me to leave.
Do I think Christianity has it all right? No. Is God a man? No. But neither is God a woman. God is a metaphor. I’m not sure my Christian or Pagan brothers and sisters think of it that way. I reject the doctrine of original sin (as did many of the Christians I knew back in the day), and I understand how the religion has historically been a breeding ground for greed, power mongering and institutional corruption. But even still, there are discussions happening among more progressive, less institutional, “Emergent” factions of the Christian community — discussions about greed, power mongering and institutional corruption — that have an immediacy and potency that I’m not hearing in other places.
I guess what I’m wonder is — What does being a Pagan get you. Personal freedom? The ability to put together your own tradition? Or, perhaps the chance to structure your life around an ancient tradition? In a way, Christianity offered that to me, too. So how is Paganism different?
I feel hesitant to post about this because I’m concerned with what kind of response I’ll get. I feel like Pagans want to read about proud Pagans, or Pagans who are firm in their identity, and that those of us who are engaged in a discernment process should just get with the program already. There is a streak of militant activism among some of the Pagans I’ve read online, and I’ve been reticent to subject myself to their criticisms.
But, this is where I am. I’m not sure that the direction of this blog can be anything but an honest exploration and examination of my perspective. I’m not an ideologue. I’m not here to push a Pagan agenda. I’m here to unpack my perspective. I’m here to engage in respectful dialogue.
The truth is, being alive right now — being a modern, Western, American human being — is very confusing. It would be simple to say that all one needs to do is firm up their religious identity — be a better Pagan, Witch, Druid, Asatru, or Christian — and then everything would be easier. But I don’t think it works that way. Identity and religious expression are much more complicated than a single word would imply.
Am I alone in this experience?
Pagans sang Christmas carols at the Yule ritual, and it totally caught me off guard.
The song sheets handed out to the attendees contained three classic, Christian favorites, re-written with Pagan, mostly Wiccan-themed lyrics. We Three Kings, Away in a Manger, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen were retitled and reworked as Moon of Silver, Away From The Harvest, and God Rest Ye Merry Paganfolk, respectively.
Perhaps Pagan re-adaptations of Christian hymns are not big news to my readership, but I was completely taken aback. Shocked, even. After all of this discussion about needing to keep Pagan traditions distinct from Christian traditions, and hearing Pagans emphasize the importance of defining ourselves outside of the Christian paradigm, it seemed bizarre–almost absurd–to hear Pagans sing these melodies as though there was no Christianity attached to them.
When I lived in Nashville, the Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) capital of the nation, there was nothing that made my skin crawl more than to hear a Christian band assume a style, a look, or sometimes an entire genre of music that had been originated in the secular, “non-Christian” world. The tactic was rampant in the CCM industry. It happened all the time.
If a secular rock band topped the charts with a new, unique sound, you could bet good money that there would be a Christian look-alike band performing a similar song within six months. But their song would be sprinkled with Christian theology and dogma. Instead of being in love with a lady, for example, the singer would be in love with the Lord. Or, there would be a subtle mention of salvation, or heaven, or how great it felt to be saved.
No matter how well styled the recordings were, the songs ended up sounding, to me (a liberal, Episcopalian Christian at the time), like little more than generic-brand, Christian propaganda. It bothered me to think that my fellow Christians, by and large, were not producing music that would stand up on its own, while at the same time being theologically relevant. So, Christian or not, I preferred to listen to the music of an original sinner over a saved sinner rip-off.
With all that in mind, imagine how strange it felt to stand within a circle of Pagans, candles in hand, incense burning in the cauldron, and to hear everyone sing, to the tune of We Three Kings,
Maiden, Mother, Ancient Crone
Queen of Heaven on your throne,
Praise we sing Thee, Love we bring Thee
For all that you have shown.
It was like Nashville all over again.
The CCM performers lacked a genuine, authentic, artistic identity; something which made them distinct, gave credence to their message, and was thoroughly memorable. After my experience at the Yule ritual, I question whether Pagans are experiencing a similar absence of definitive and relevant identity.
If we are not clear about what we are, on what we believe, and on how those beliefs inform our actions, we borrow. We borrow because it’s easier than doing the hard, creative, introspective work. We borrow We Three Kings instead of actually writing Maiden, Mother, Ancient Crone. We borrow instead of innovating.
But if we don’t have enough fire and passion for our religious traditions to create something new, to fashion something from nothing in order to express exactly what it is that we’ve encountered in the quietest, darkest, deepest recesses of our soul, then why are we doing this? Have we encountered something worth writing a new melody for? Or, are we just performing ritual theater? Are we just engaged in religion role-play?
I need something more than that.
Pagans can make a different choice than the CCM artists did. We can take the spiritual, ecstatic experiences and encounters with nature, with our Gods, Goddesses, Spirits and Ancestors, and channel those experiences into new, thoroughly original and relevant songs — songs that don’t sound like Medieval dirges or Protestant hymns — and breathe some much-needed life into Pagan ritual, Pagan worship, and Pagan celebration.
Religion can lead to beautiful, brilliant art. If it isn’t doing that, there’s reason to pause and take a closer look at what the religion is truly offering its adherents. The creation of art is, after all, very much connected to the experience of worship and unity with the Sacred. The two are closely related.
Are our traditions inspiring us to create? To sing out loud? To rejoice at being alive? If the answer is “no,” or if we are in any way ambivalent, what does that mean for the future of Paganism? And, what can we do to ignite a creative fire within our circles and groves?
While this Pagan was in the middle of the most Christian part of our country, singing “Silent Night” to rooms full of cheery Jesus-folk, a small group of vocal and well represented Christians took up arms in a supposed “war on Christmas,” and now my Pagan brothers and sisters across the internet are all in a tizzy.
Facebook is littered with defensive posts about Saturnalia and Winter Solstice, and as I write these words a boldly entitled essay, Christ is NOT the Reason for the Season, is the most popular post on all of Patheos.com. Many Pagans are spreading the good news that Jesus is simply a stand in for an older and thereby (as their logic would suggest) more relevant deity, and their antagonism is serving well as ammunition for the angry, Fox News sponsored, Christian artillery.
But everybody’s missing the point. And, as with many historical battles, both sides are much more alike than they’d be willing to admit.
Too many Christians and Pagans are making an idol out of historicity.
Our religious and cultural narratives are relevant because they speak to something true about the human experience, not because they are historically accurate. Fundamentalists, be they Christian or Pagan, willfully ignore this point.
The story of Christmas is metaphor. For that matter, the very word “God” is metaphor. As Matthew Fox writes in his book, The Hidden Spirituality Of Men:
Metaphor is the proper language for the Sacred, for that which is bigger than our controlled world of words. It is also deeper and more grounding, more primeval, more child-like, and more bodily than the literal.
The function of mythological stories is not to mandate the way we live our lives. That’s where fundamentalists and literalists get it wrong. And, ironically, that is the mindset which motivated so many of the most vocal, and sometimes historicity-obsessed Pagans to leave their Christian congregations in the first place.
Rather, these stories are meant to help us approach the mystery of the Divine. If they aren’t doing that, then either they aren’t worth telling or we aren’t making ourselves open to their deeper meaning.
The literalist Christians who insists that the Bible is a divine instruction manual which provides the faithful with a five to six-thousand year “historical” record of the life of this planet are misguided. They’re trying to fashion science out of poetry, and they’re botching the beauty and power of the language in the process.
With that said, the literalist Pagans who will hear nothing of the symbolism and metaphor found in the stories of the Bible, or who insists on pointing out every last historical inaccuracy found in the Christian tradition, are also misguided. They are allowing themselves to be blinded by the same, insistent rationalism that their Christian fundamentalist counterparts tout as proper piety.
The problem is not in the story. The problem is in the way we tell the story.
The Christmas narrative need not be about an actual birth of an actual person. Christmas is just a starting point for people to explore the idea of the coming together — the bodily cohabitation — of the Divine and the human. And, it doesn’t have to be about some singular, historical moment when this divine cocktail first was mixed and shaken in the little baby body of Jesus; Christmas can be about this union taking place in every, single human being, at every moment, across all traditions and all religions.
Incarnation is a universally applicable metaphor. The Christmas myth is archetypal. It belongs to all of us, because it speaks to something human, not simply something Christian.
To quote Matthew Fox again,
The archetype of Christmas also speaks to just what a child is. Who is a human child? Not only the son of a king, the son of a president, the daughter of a rock star—not only the identity of a well-known or well placed child, but the “every child,” including the poorest of children born to the poorest of parents in the poorest of circumstances—in a stable, a barn, a ghetto, or a peasant village. What about that child? What is his or her worth?
This can be the meaning of Christmas, and this is a message that is approachable by all people.
Myth — Christian and Pagan alike — is a gift available to all of us, and can be a starting point for a deeper level of engagement with our own humanity. Christmas need not be a time of anger at fundamentalists, or of becoming, ourselves, fundamentalist. Christmas — even for the non-Christian — can become a metaphor for our own expanding compassion. It can come to represent our decision to hold up the worth of every person, of every child, of every moment of this precious life.
It can be that if we are willing to let go of our anger, to release this need for historical accuracy, and to open up to the fragility and strength of our own human hearts.
In the midst of this Christian extravaganza, standing beneath the red and green blinking lights, and surrounded by the sound of Jesus followers singing hymns and secular Christmas classics, I’m rediscovering the act of forgiveness.
I didn’t expect forgiveness to be a theme of this brief caroling experience. I thought my time singing Christmas songs might offer me more chances to make theological comparisons; a kind of anthropological experiment, if you will. I, the Pagan and Druid-in-training, would stand before the Christians and make a beautiful noise, using their myths and traditions as source material, and in doing so I might walk away with a keener understanding into how we are different.
Instead, I’m discovering that forgiveness, a word that many of us associate with the Christian doctrine of “the forgiveness of sin” (a concept most all of my readers reject), is being offered to me as an early Christmas gift.
Forgiveness, it turns out, is mine to experience because it is mine to offer to others.
See, I’m a person who gets burned rather easily. When someone hurts me, I retreat (sometimes geographically) and I rarely look back. When we’re done, we’re done. That’s been my approach to relationships for most of my adult life.
This has been true in personal and professional relationships, with family, and even with religion. I left the Church, and that was it. No more Jesus talk. No more redemption, salvation, forgiveness — any of that. I lumped all of those words and ideas into one big, Christian box and stored it away in the dusty-attic recesses of my mind. I had no intention of exploring how these themes were still present in my life. They were Christian, so I didn’t want to think about them.
We’ve touched on salvation as a concept that can exist outside of the Christian paradigm, and I believe there’s still more to be explored in that conversation. But for now, it appears that forgiveness is the theme of the moment. Set aside the belief that humanity must seek forgiveness from God, and there can still be a way for us to approach this utterly human, utterly necessary act.
We don’t forgive, or seek forgiveness because to not do so would result in our eternal damnation. Forgiveness isn’t a Divine mandate.
We seek to forgive others and be forgiven because it allows for us to continue to write the story of our life. Forgiveness restores a sense of continuity between the past and the present; a continuity which is broken by our own resentfulness and heartache.
Forgiveness belongs to all of us, and is not wrapped up in any one, religious tradition. The Christians talk a lot about forgiveness because it plays a large role in their understanding of Jesus, of God, and of their beliefs regarding humanity’s role in a “Divine plan.” I’m not taking issue with that here. There’s no need to. If a Christian processes forgiveness through that lens, it does me no direct harm. They’ll learn the lessons they need to learn.
But for me, I’m seeing forgiveness more like an essential component of our human life which transcends the myths we hold up as sacred, and even the identities we work so diligently to construct and defend.
By embracing Christmas as I described in my last post, I am discovering that I’ve become resentful and defensive about other people finding joy in the Christmas holiday. I’ve felt spurned by the sleigh bells, put off by the tinsel and the incessant jolliness. There was something false in it, I was certain. Christmas was, after all, just a Pagan holiday in disguise. How dare people enjoy something that wasn’t, in fact, what they were claiming it to be.
But what did I gain from that experience?
Not much, really. The feeling of being spurned, perhaps?
I never passed the “true Christian” test that some Christians subject other Christians to, because I was never willing to accept wholeheartedly the belief that there was only one way to the Divine. Some might suggest that I don’t pass the “true Pagan” test because I still believe that Christianity, and the other monotheistic faiths, can be very effective at providing people with a rich spiritual life and deep connection to the Great Mystery.
Tests are silly. I didn’t care for them in grade school, and I still don’t know. You can test a kid from 7AM to 3PM every day of the week, and still not get a real sense of what she knows. Marking the right boxes is very different than having a deep knowledge of the world you live in.
I’m more of an in-the-world learner.
So, in the same way, I don’t need to pass anyone’s religious test to determine what I am. I am complicated, and textured. In my voice you’ll hear remnants of my old Christianity; out of practice, but not completely forgotten. You’ll also hear me rediscovering the enchanted world, which is a direct result of my opening up to Druidry, and to the Pagan community. It’s all here; all a part of the whole.
I embrace forgiveness and, in the process of doing so, calling back to myself each of my disparate parts, each of my forgotten persons. Those things which seemed disharmonious are each forgiven, each accepted as holy mixtures of the beautiful and the ugly.
I forgive both, and in the moment of my forgiveness I encounter the most unexpected sensation of love, and of being loved.
I’m in Nashville, home of the Christian Contemporary Music Industry, home of LifeWay Christian Stores, and home of the Southern Baptist Convention. This week, in a kind of radical re-immersion into Christian culture, I’m going to spread the message about Jesus to Jesus-people, and I’m doing so in the most subversively effective way imaginable: through catchy melodies and rhyming lyrics.
Caroling. This Pagan is going to sing Christmas carols to Christians.
I’m going to sing songs about the Virgin Birth, the upbringing of a Messiah, and the ascension of their Lord and Savior into the cloudy realms of Heaven (which is really a theme more suitable for Easter, but which often shows up in the more Jesus-y Christmas songs). I’m also going to sing about snow, which wasn’t a part of the original Jesus birth-narrative, but which is pretty, and white, and threatening to fall at any given moment from the cloudy, Tennessee skies.
Why am I doing this?
Don’t think I haven’t asked myself that question a few times.
I feel like this is my karma; I am called to engage with what feels uncomfortable or unreconcilable, both in the world and within myself, so that I might find ways to bring those disparate parts into a state of peaceful balance.
It’s kinda my thing.
I’m hoping to create harmony even while experiencing internal dissonance. This is a radical approach to reconciling my personal conflicts, I know.
It would be easier for me to dismiss Christianity altogether, as some of my fellow Pagans have done, and in the process negate all it teaches about compassion, forgiveness, and kindness, focussing on instead on the faults of its adherents and the limitations of its theology.
It would be easier to proclaim that my current expression of Paganism is superior to my former experience of being Christian. Anyone can claim superiority, and many do. I could say–quoting some new, scholarly, archeological tome–that mine is a more historically accurate, perhaps even culturally relevant religion. Mine is older, rooted deeper in the sacred dirt of human history, and therefore I have greater insight into the inner workings of the spiritual world.
But, I’m not taking the easy route. Instead, I’m going to have a hand at being a Pagan who helps Christians be Christian.
I’m kind of obsessed with interfaith dialogue, and the thing I’m discovering is that the real challenge in it is not what happens when you are in conversation with others; it’s what happens when you are in conversation with yourself.
Can you hold up your current beliefs and practices against seemingly contrary ideas without feeling threatened, or broken, or like you made some mistake in becoming who you’ve become? Can you sing about Jesus to people who believe something different about him than you do and still remember who you are?
These are the question I’m asking myself as I’m rehearsing songs about Little Baby Jesus in a manger.
Before we can have any kind of meaningful dialogue with another person, we must first spend time reflecting on our own ideas and beliefs. For me, a convert of sorts, this act of reflection can feel quite conflicted. The term I used to describe the process in my post, On Converting a Christian to Paganism, was inner-interfaith, and I think there may be no better two words to explain what’s going on with me right now.
But rather than letting this dialogue only take place in my head (or on this blog), I’m bringing it out into the open. I’m allowing my inner conflicts to become incarnate in the world, and I’m doing so in a way that forces me to be a little kinder to them. Perhaps, too, I’m working through a new understanding of the Christian narrative and what it offers Christians and Pagans alike.
We forget about the Divine, about our sense of wonder, mystery and magic, and through that act of forgetting we experience an absence of the Sacred. It was always there: immanent, ever-present, ever-willing to be known and experienced. But we forget, and when we do we feel alone.
Transcendence, then, means less that the God of these Christmas carols is distant from His creation, and more that the very idea of “distance from the Divine” is illusory. With that in mind, Christmas, and my singing of Jesus songs to small crowds of Christians, becomes an affirmation of a value that Pagans can and do affirm; that in the moments when we’ve forgotten that the world is holy, that our lives are sacred, and that the Great Mystery is woven into the fabric of all things, it still is.
It is, it always was, and it always will blessedly be.
So I say, “Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas, Jesus folk. The Sacred is as close to you as it is to me. Call on it, and welcome it into your hearts. Let it come to you through the melody of your favorite Christmas song, and inspire you to be a kinder, gentler, more compassionate human being.”
Then, when the singing is done, I’ll return to my little hotel room, light my candle, close my eyes and experience the sanctity of my own breath. I will worship in the Temple of the Gods, which is this body: this house of Spirit.
The conversation born out of my last post has been, by far, one of the most stimulating dialogues to take place on Bishop In The Grove. My mind is a flurry with thoughts of Gods and Goddesses, mysticism, my own need for a deeper and more engaging practice, and — for the first time in several years — Jesus.
The “J” word may freak out some Pagans. In fact, I know it does. Jesus is a trigger. He brings up a lot of old hurt for many in our community. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is. I relate to those feelings, for I’ve experienced a great deal of alienation and discrimination in the name of Jesus. Often it’s his followers that make him so unsavory to Pagans.
So, it seems amazing to me that our dialogue about conversion from Christianity to Paganism would lead me to feel more at ease in talking about Jesus. I’m not rushing back to the Church — don’t get me wrong. But, I am willing to talk about theological subjects that were the mainstay of my previous religious life without feeling like they’re infringing on my identity as a Pagan. It’s liberating, really.
In the midst of this dialogue, I read a post on the Patheos Pagan Portal called “Is There Salvation in Paganism?,” which was timely, considering our conversation. In the post, Star Foster writes:
Religion provides the solution to something. It identifies a problem, prescribes a method by which to resolve that problem. That resolution in religious terms is known as salvation. While the concept of salvation is almost exclusively identified with the Christian religion in our culture, it actually predates it. Savior is an epithet given to many old Gods, such as Hecate. Salvation from death was the main purpose behind rites such as the Eleusinian Mysteries.
As I’m trying to absorb Gregory Shaw’s Theurgy and the Soul into my incredibly dense brain, I’m finding this ancient Pagan preoccupation with the salvation of the soul troubling. I think what it is I find troubling about it explains the clearest and most obvious difference between ancient and modern Paganism.
When I read the post, I paused at the line, “I’m finding this ancient Pagan preoccupation with the salvation of the soul troubling.” Something about it struck me as curious, and somehow connected to our dialogue about conversion. I found myself asking, why would this be troubling and not inspiring?
Many modern Pagans shout “Syncretism!” whenever Christians talk about Christmas (which is actually Yule), the concept of a Jesus as savior (who is, himself, actually just one of many sun/son gods to have been sacrificed) or any number of modern Christian practices and beliefs which are actually something other than what they’re portrayed to be.
But in this instance, when salvation may actually be a Christian tenet with Pagan origins, the response is discomfort. I can only deduce that this discomfort comes from our own inability to disassociate salvation from its Christian definition. The connection between the word “salvation” and the belief in “original sin” is so deeply engrained in our individual and collective psyche that we can’t conceive of the former existing apart from the latter, even if our Pagan ancestors could.
Now, I’m not a reconstructionist, but I do find myself wanting to explore what salvation may have meant before and outside of the Jesus paradigm. I want to know how we can conceive of salvation, as Pagans, and not feel as though we’re participating in a religion to which we do not belong.
But more than that, I want to know what this revelation says about the possibility that salvation may be more of a universally human experience. If the idea of “salvation of the soul” pre-dates Christianity, and it shows up in multiple cultures and time periods, we Neo-Pagans may want to explore what our ancestral Paleo-Pagans thought on the matter, and to reflect for a moment on what it might already mean to us.
So I turn to you, my insightful and very bright readership. I want to know what you think.
What does the word “salvation” bring up for you? Is there a way to conceive it as a return to wholeness instead of a solution to the problem of sin?
For example, do you think you could describe your affinity for the natural world, and your movement toward it, as a kind of salvation? For many people who commented on my last post, it was through nature that the Gods spoke, so if that is how you feel could you also say that it is through a return to nature that you experience salvation? Perhaps salvation, in this context, is something that has to do with this world, and this life.
The forum is open, friends. Please share your thoughts and ideas, and be kind enough to share the post on Facebook, Twitter or your social network of choice.
I’m a convert to Paganism.
I was born into a Christian tradition, and spent most of the first 25 years of my life identifying as a Christian. I’ve written of this before, but the subject keeps coming up for me. There’s something about how we arrive at our tradition that seems worth reflecting on, especially for a convert.
We hear much about conversion to Christianity, and I understand what that looks like. As I explained it to my husband, becoming a Christian involves accepting a certain set of beliefs about Divinity, specifically related to the God of Israel, Jesus -his humanity and his divinity- and about the role of the Divine in the course of human history. It also involves a certain engagement with Christian scripture, and a whole series of adjustments to whatever worldview you had before. For true conversion to take place, every part of you needs to change, or evolve (depending on your perspective). Your entire being needs to be made open to the development of a “relationship with God.”
But what does it mean for a Christian to convert to Paganism?
At first, this question seems problematic simply because Paganism is not a unified religion. There is no one form of Paganism; no core belief system. And, as anyone who’s paying attention will tell you, most Pagans aren’t fond of having their religious identities, with all of the diverse expressions and cultural lineages associated with them, roped into one, overarching religious title.
And yet, a Christian can become a Pagan, and in the process of doing so experience the inevitable inner-interfaith dialogue between what they believed before and what they believe now, or at least what they are moving toward believing. Those beliefs, old and new, must be in conversation with each other inside of the convert in order for that person to truly become what they’re becoming.
I’ve heard about the ills of Christianity — I’ve spoken about them, myself. I’ve heard reasons why the patriarchy is broken, why the “Big 3” are monopolizing most of the religious landscape in this country and around the world, and why Pagans would do good to let go of the damaging perspectives and social structures that they believe to be the direct product of a Christian worldview.
Those things are all arguable, but not really interesting to me right now. Conversion is more than just letting go of the beliefs you’ve had before. It has to be more than that. After all, being a Pagan is more than just not being a Christian.
What I want to know is – How does a Christian become a Pagan, and how do Pagans help Christian converts through that process?
With conversion to Christianity, the convert must engage in a process of developing a relationship with their God, with Jesus and with (in some sects) the Holy Spirit. The relationship is key. It’s where it all begins, and – as the belief goes – it’s where it all ends, too.
What, then, with Pagans? Are we not to develop relationships with our Gods and Goddesses, too? That seems like a natural parallel. But, how do we do that, exactly? What do we reference to teach us about how our Gods and Goddesses are working in the world — TODAY.
Christians have the Bible. It’s a useful tool in starting the conversation about how their God engaged with humanity in the past, and it can springboard Christians into an exposition of how their God is interacting with humanity in the present. There are inconsistencies in the text, yes, but it’s a starting point.
Why don’t Pagans have these kind of stories?
From what I’ve learned, there is literary fiction, poetry, historical record, and ample text on ritual practices. That’s what Pagans are working with. But, we don’t have a book, a volume, a testament which says — “This is what (insert god or goddess) said to me about the nature of reality, the place of humankind in the larger scheme of things, the will of the Divine. This is an account of my God/Goddess interacting with humanity. These words are holy, because they come from the Being whom I worship.”
There are the old myths, and these myths do much to inform our knowledge of ancient cultures; cultures which have been replaced many times over with new cultures, and new myths. They allow the Reconstructionists in our midst to have a go at forming something that resembles the “Old Ways.” But what do these old myths tell us about those Gods and Goddess as they exist in the world today?
This is what it boils down to for me. These very old Gods and Goddesses must be working in the world — this world — if they’re worth building a religion around. They have to be real in order to be deserving of altars, shrines, devotees. They have to be doing something in this place, otherwise they’re just characters in old stories, no different from Captain Ahab, Don Quixote, or Robin Hood.
Clearly, having been enculturated into Christianity, I have a need for finding some immediate relationship with the Divine, and perhaps Pagans reading this will tell me that this sort of relationship is unnecessary, or distinctly Christian. If that’s case, perhaps I’m not cut out to be a Pagan after all.
But, for the moment, I’d like to ask my fellow Pagans — especially those who, like me, didn’t start out as Pagans — the following question:
If the Gods and Goddesses are real and present in the world, where do we turn to hear their voices? Do they speak, as does the God of the Christians? If so, are we listening?
I’ve yet to find a Pagan perspective being voiced in books or blogs that speaks to these questions of conversion from Christianity to Paganism. If you have, please share them with me in the comment section, and share any insights you’d like to offer. It would be nice to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.
Then, feel free to share this post with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or your network of choice.
I’m having a difficult time identifying the right place for belief.
I was brought up a Christian. Episcopalian, to be specific. Belief, for me, was connected to creeds. If you’ve never recited a creed, it goes like this:
I believe X, and X is this. X did this, was this, is going to be this.
I also believe in Y. Y is this relationship to X, and Y is this.
I believe in Z, too…
It’s a little math-like, when you remove all the personal pronouns.
Creeds are useful in the way that they unify a group, but they do little to inform the individual about beliefs. I didn’t really come to the believe in “One God” through any mystical experience. There just always was One. It was the first line of the creed, after all.
This morning I had a somewhat spirited conversation about the commonly held belief in certain Christian sects that the world is somewhere in the vicinity of 6-8000 years old. The notion raises my hackles a bit. An Earth timeline is nowhere to be found in the creeds of my youth, and it wasn’t something that ever came up in a sermon, either. We didn’t use the Bible to determine the age of rocks.
But, my resistance to this Christian belief was called into question. How could I, someone who has encountered a god that I believe to be Arawn, the Welsh god of the Underworld — which is quite specific an assessment for something so illusive as Deity — take issue with anything that someone else believes? Where exactly do I draw the line between empirical thinking and magickal thinking?
Schooled On Belief
I’m taking a class right now through Cherry Hill Seminary, a Pagan Seminary in North Carolina, called, “Why Magickal Thinking Isn’t Crazy.” The class is being taught by a Harvard schooled physicist, who is also a Wiccan. It’s a four week course that’s open to anyone, regardless of your level of education or experience.
We’ve been engaging a lot with the principles of scientific thinking in the first two weeks, looking at how information is gathered, calculated and researched. Magickal thought and practice, as we’re examining is, can be understood to encompass phenomenon that exist inside and outside of Pagan culture, including Meditation, Prayer, Remote Viewing, Psychokinesis, and Channeling.
The purpose of looking at things scientifically is to show that these phenomenon are real. They are measurable — at least, most of them — and they should be given legitimacy.
I’m mostly having an easy time with this class, but I’m running into some issues with reconciling imperial thought with magickal though. It turns out I’m more inclined to be a binary thinker than I would have guessed.
I want to say, without reservation, that the world is older than 8000 years. I also want to accept, whole-heartedly, that people can communicate with gods. I resist thinking that the world is 8000 years old because there is empirical evidence that speaks to the contrary. Yet, there is little to no empirical evidence that speaks to the existence of Deity in any form — singular or plural — and yet I have no problem with accepting my own personal experience.
Belief as a Catylst
Belief informs action. We believe something about the world, and then we relate to the world based on what we believe. If we believe that the world is constantly being held together by super-strong, invisible, winged and sparkly creatures, then we might live our lives giving thanks to those creatures. We might be on the lookout for them. Our actions, in many situations, would be informed by this belief.
I’m ok with that, even though I don’t hold that belief. I don’t see the potential for immediate harm done to me by another person holding that belief either.
But then I start thinking about the belief that some have the Deity bestows power, and that that power is being directed to a certain end. I’ve seen this in Christian circles (as has anyone been paying attention to the media these days), and I’ve seen it in Pagan circles, too. I was at a Full Moon ritual where the group raised energy and directed it to the universe in order to “bring to justice” a person who had inflicted harm on another person who was said to be “one of our own.” The working wasn’t explicitly malicious, but it had some ugly undertones.
People who do magick, who direct energy in a certain way, are operating on a set of beliefs about how that energy works in the world, and how it should work in the world. So, belief and action are connected there, too.
But should they be? What are we to do with belief, especially considering that belief has proven to be much more a divider than a uniter among peoples?
Should we throw belief to the wind, or can we imagine engaging with belief in a way that still allows for us to live in the world with people who believe something completely different than us?
I want to know what you think about belief. Do you see your belief influencing the way you interact with others? Did you come to your belief through a religious upbringing, or did you construct your beliefs outside of religion? Do you experience personal conflict when you encounter someone whose beliefs are radically different than you own?
Leave your thoughts and beliefs in the comment section. And, if you’d like to expand the conversation even further, share this post on Facebook and Twitter!
Pagans hate generalizations made about Pagans (he writes with a smirk).
That’s one generalization I feel confident in making.
In my last post I made some bold statements about the unwillingness of Pagans to accept the existence of the Christian god, knowing full well that those statements were not completely accurate (or, perhaps even close to accurate). I did so in order to get the conversation started, and I recognize that there are better ways to initiate dialogue. Many of my readers let me know as much. I’m grateful to those of you who spoke up, and I thank you for your willingness to call “bullshit.”
What I also failed to mention was that my post was informed by the current controversy around Dominionism, and its corresponding backlash from the Pagan community. If you aren’t already familiar with what’s got the Witches, Druids, and Asatru abuzz throughout the blogosphere, click here, here or here for some backstory.
All of my literary shortcomings aside, there were some interesting ideas written in response to my post, and I’d like to unpack a few of them now and gauge whether you are in agreement with them or not. Let’s see if if we can keep the dialogue going, shall we?
“It is impossible for an unreasonable person to be a reasonable person.”
I asked my 16 year old step-kid if this was a true statement during a mind-breaking batch of geometry homework.
“Um… if it’s a given that the person is unreasonable, then yes — that’s true,” the wunderkind said with one lifted eyebrow and a shrug. Silly stepdads and their philosophical questions.
I wonder what we might consider to be “reasonable” when it comes to theology and religion. Some would argue that the whole subject is a bunch of hooey. Others, like the Dominionists, might argue that only their particular viewpoint is reasonable, and if you don’t believe them just ask their god… he’ll totally back them up.
Themon goes on to write,
“I think the only real prerequisite to interfaith dialogue is mutual respect. It’s reasonable to ask to be treated with respect. It’s reasonable for them to want to be treated with respect.”
This seems fair to me.
Mrs. B. Confesses
Mrs. B., the beloved blogger at Confessions of a Pagan Soccer Mom chimed in with a statement about the way that she perceives Deity:
“I work under the idea that all Gods are one God and that s/he comes to everyone in the guise that is best for that person at any given moment. I can say that my Catholic husband feels much the same way.”
Fascinating idea, really. So relational. I find the though of divinity this fluid and accommodating, this concerned with where I am at the moment of contact, to be very comforting.
Mrs. B. isn’t the only one who’s struck a theological balance in an interfaith marriage.
Literata writes about her Catholic husband,
“My spouse’s way of understanding polytheism is to think of different deities as different metaphors for what is fundamentally the same thing. It’s rather like the idea of aspects – “All goddesses are one goddess,” in Dion Fortune’s words.”
I know that many Pagans hold a different view; that each God or Goddess possesses his or her own individual consciousness. To some, the idea of “aspects” betrays something true about the individuality of the Gods. Personally, I lean more in this direction, but I also am attracted to the idea of one god with many faces.
Perhaps somewhere in between these two polarities exists some common ground between Pagans and Christians.
“There is no midway point in beliefs between paganism and Christianity.”
Perhaps the strongest tone found in any of the comments came from Kenneth, an active contributor to the conversations at various Patheos blogs. If what he says is true, I’m not sure where that leaves me – a person who feels compelled to find a thread of continuity between the tradition of my youth (Episcopal Christianity) and the tradition that resonates with me now (Neo-Pagan Druidry).
“We will not create a good space for dialogue by looking for commonality of beliefs. What we can do is to try to respect the depth and authenticity of each other’s beliefs.”
I appreciate this statement. Ultimately, I think that’s what I’m striving for in the dialogue created on this blog. I would like to see more Christians voicing in about the way that their perspective of Deity informs the conversations they have with Pagans. I’d like to hear how a polytheist conceives of “spiritual unity,” or if that phrase is too ambiguous or not resonant in any way. I’d like to hear from folks outside of these two categories, too. I’m interested — fascinated, really — by the spiritual experiences of human beings, and I’m seeking to synthesize what I learn from you with what I feel in my heart, in my head, in my body.
The intention I’ve set for Bishop In The Grove, a blog initially started to chart my course through the ADF Dedicant Path, is to create a space for dialogue. We each bring our unique voice to the conversation, and we are all both teacher and student for one another.
If any of these ideas have inspired you, or if you’d like to weigh in on what I’ve written here, please do so in the comment section. If you’d like to help me broaden the discussion even further, you can share this post on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or by e-mailing it to a friend.
Pagans don’t want to accept the possibility that the Christian god is real. Doing so might open us up to a diatribe about salvation, our inherent sinfulness, or our “need for conversion”. We’ve had that talk a time or two, and – thank you – we’ll pass.
Christians are of the “One and Only God” camp. Not two. Not many. Not Columbia (probably not a god) or Thor (totally a god) or any of the other “false” gods. They aren’t having the conversation about how their god relates to other gods. It’s just God. Just the One.
This may not be a problem, except we’re all sharing space; physical and virtual. We’re walking the same streets, paying the same taxes, trolling the same Internet.
We just don’t know how to talk to each other.
A Math Problem
If Pagans or polytheists could concede that God, the Christian god, did in fact exist, but that this god was a part of a much more diverse and populated pantheon than what the Christians imagine, think how that would that affect the conversation. It would be disarming on one hand, and completely challenging on the other. The “One God” could have a place in the conversation — perhaps not at the head of the table, but certainly in the room — but there would be a new context; a new forum for telling our stories.
The problem here is that the emphasis on the “One” is so central to the Christian faith. Well, except when it’s 3-in-1, or One with a side of Mary. (No hate, Catholics. I think Mary’s pretty swell.) Christians can’t engage with Pagans in a dialogue about deity without first denying the primary tenet of their faith, the first line of their creed — “We believe in One God.”
I may be wrong, though.
My post, The Christo-Pagan Conflict, continues to stir up comments from Pagans and Christians alike, the most recent of which was from an anonymous writer who said simply,
I’m a progressive, emergent Christian with many pagan friends whom I enjoy and respect.
So, there are some Christians who have found a balance; who have discovered a way to respect their Pagan friends, and presumably their expressions of faith and practice, while still preserve their own Christian identity.
Of course, a self-identified “progressive, emergent Christian” is a far cry from a Dominionist.
Oh Bloody ‘ell.
There is value in drawing a distinction between the progressives and the crazies. I’d imagine the friendly Christians would appreciate if. There are Christians out there who aren’t chucking Bibles or Jesus Blood from behind the bushes, and who really don’t feel the need to thrust their god onto you, me, or the local High Priestess. Their understanding of their god may inform the way they talk about the mysteries of life (i.e., the soul or the spirit, where we come from, where we’re going to, how we are all connected), but they’ve got a grip on the basics of civility. And isn’t that enough for us? Do we need them to believe in many gods, or just to respect and make space for our inclination to do so?
Perhaps there are concessions to be made. Maybe Pagans could accept the Christian god, but recontextualize him (either just to ourselves or in dialogue with others). Maybe we could be open to the mystical, mythological person of Jesus — deity or human — who unlike the blood font that’s presented by the Dominionists actually serves as an example of compassion, kindness and restoration from brokenness. The question is, can we do that without feeling that our own cosmologies and belief systems are being threatened?
If you’ve got an answer to any of these questions, please share it in the comments. I’d love to get some feedback on this subject. And, if you think your Facebook or Twitter friends might have something to say, I’d be grateful if you shared the post with them, too.
Last night, after our Full Moon ritual, I wound up in a conversation with a Wiccan Priest about Christo-Pagans.
“Those two things are mutually exclusive,” he said adamantly.
Something about his tone drew me in. I’m not a conflict junkie, but I felt like this was territory I should explore.
The ritual, which he had partly officiated, was focussed on the idea of being “in balance” or “out of balance,” with an emphasis placed on communication. This opportunity to explore how some people bring elements of Christian and Pagan spirituality into balance within themselves felt like an appropriate extension of our rite.
[A disclaimer: I do not consider myself to be a “Christo-Pagan,” but I did spend the early part of my life and much of my late teens and early twenties identifying as a Christian. I don’t feel any trauma around that. Some of the most important spiritual experiences of my life took place in the safety and familiarity of an Episcopal worship service, even if at the time I couldn’t align with the beliefs laid out in the creeds or doctrines. There is a line of continuity which runs from my early experiences as an acolyte all the way to this morning’s ADF-styled ritual before my very pagan altar, and I’m ok with the existence of that line. I’m not a Pagan who feels he must make a clean break with his past. In truth, I believe that one never makes that sort of clean break; the past is always with us.]
The conversation rose steadily in tone and intensity, but it did not become hateful or mean. At least, I didn’t feel any meanness directed my way. Christians, on the other hand… well, it was probably good that there were none of them with us in the courtyard.
“Christian” was, for my Wiccan friend, synonymous with Christian Institution, or Christian Doctrine, or any number of Christian atrocities that have been dealt out over the centuries. The terms, for him, seemed to be inseparable.
This troubled me.
An unwillingness to see any distinction between the damage done by the Christian Empire and the revelatory, mystical experiences of a Christian sage seems intellectually weak to me. I wouldn’t want my Druid traditions to be painted over in such broad and careless brush strokes.
There is talk in Pagan circles about the decline of Christianity, the role of Christians in Western society (some pointing out rightly that Christians have little room to claim “minority” or “victim” status in America), not to mention the responsibility that some would say that modern Pagans have to resist the influence of Abrahamic traditions at all costs. I’ve heard a few of my Pagan kin even using war language to describe how Pagans should approach Christians.
We are in a battle, they affirm. Take up your spiritual arms.
This, too, troubles me.
In the conversation, I tried to justify and defend the validity of a person finding spiritual sustenance from both Christian and Pagan traditions. I was seeking to have a discussion about the inner realms and their inherent mystery. It does seem paradoxical that a person could find a way to identify as both Pagan and Christian. But, paradox aside, these people exist.
The more we spoke, the more it became clear that my friend wasn’t having a conversation with me about anything spiritual. We weren’t two mystics talking about the Invisible, or the Mystery, or the Divine in any of It’s manifestations. I was reaching for that place, but he was talking to me about the social and the political components of religion, and very little else.
There are plenty of reasonable arguments against Christianity’s dominance in the social and political landscape. Any religion that claims itself to be the sole authority on all-things-spiritual, or that it is the only “True Religion,” is dangerous. Pagans have cause to be on alert about the growing movement of politically backed, hard-core fundamentalist, far right-wing Christians making inroads into office. One of them could end up in the White House before long, and that would mean bad things for American Pagans.
But again, I wasn’t making those arguments, or countering them. I was just suggesting that it would be a mistake for us to dismiss the spiritual experiences of any person — even a Christian.
I may turn out to be a Unitarian Universalist before it’s all said and done. A movement that is built around the principal that all of our spiritual traditions have validity, and that none of us can claim supremacy over the other, speaks to me.
I should be able to explore the ways that my study of Druidry and Paganism through OBOD and ADF have informed my perspective about Deity, Nature, and our interconnectedness without shutting myself off to the ways that Christianity informed my attitudes toward charity, love, and forgiveness.
I worry that Pagans, in our quest to gain equal footing in society, will employ some of the same exclusionary techniques and tactics used against us by the fundi-Christians. I see us speaking out defensively, and I don’t think we can have constructive dialogue with people of other faith traditions when taking that approach.
Of course, there are some in our midst who have no desire for dialogue; some who would have monotheism wiped out completely if they had the power to do so. In my opinion, this is reckless and shortsighted thinking, and it adds nothing to the movement towards a truly pluralistic society.
The victims can become the victimizers, if given the power and opportunity. I feel we must avoid making that mistake.
I recognize that this is a hot-button issue for many Pagans. Please know that I have respect for those of you who feel that you’ve been damaged by Christians, or the Christian Church. I’m in no way invalidating your experience.
I am, however, hoping that you might engage with me, perhaps in the comment section, about what this subject looks like from your perspective. I ask that you be as respectful as you can of the thoughts and opinions of others, and that you feel free to be open and honest about your concerns.
I look forward to reading what you have to say, and if you feel this post was worth reading please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.
She skipped around the circle, waving sparkers in the air and laughing like a toddler. It was a non-conventional way to cast a Fire Circle, I suppose. But then again what’s convention to a mis-match gathering of MeetUp Pagans holding ritual behind a Unitarian Universalist church?
Could you imagine a more anti-convention convention?
The Fire Circle was a sub-circle, if you will, of an even larger elemental circle. It was intended to provide the participants with some Wicca 101 on the relevance of the element of Fire, and I found the whole thing to be a little boring. I could have been at home reading Cunningham if I’d have wanted some simple fire metaphors. I’d hoped for a Full Moon ritual that dug a little deeper. Instead, I got sparklers.
But then the Fire Priestess began talking about Gods. My ears perked up. Maybe this will rekindle the embers.
Apollo’s good to use… or you could use Isis… or for creative things you could use Brighid… There are good Gods to use from just about any pantheon…
Huh. What an interesting use of the word “use”, I thought. Using Gods to cure what ails you. Using Gods to get what you want out of life. Huh. How consumerist. Pill popping deities; making use of them in order to – what – be pain-free, blissful, satisfied?
It got me wondering – Is that what the Gods are? New Age Prescription Drugs?
Pick Your Poly-Pleasure
Polytheism, by nature, seems to create less pressure for the believer than monotheism, because polytheists have options. If something sours in the God/human relationship, the polytheist can go elsewhere. There’s a pretty big Deity Dating Pool for the modern polytheist, especially if you’re not particular about your pantheon.
Like yoga? Think Vedic. Love Loreena McKennitt? Call on the Celts. Perhaps you’re feeling a bit in the mood for something spicy. Google Santeria. Its all there of you. Grab a shopping cart. Go God gaga.
The monotheist, on the other hand, has a single choice, and if it doesn’t work with the big One, to Hell with ya’.
Admittedly, I’m being a bit flip with my characterizations. There are probably plenty of polytheists whose practice is eclectic and sincere, and plenty of monotheists who don’t feel trapped in their “personal relationship with God.”
It just seems like there are an awful lot of Deity options for the polytheist, and its a popular approach to make use of those options as we see fit. I don’t agree with that approach. I don’t think the Gods should be in service to me. It should be the other way around.
I Like My Gods To Be Big And Powerful
Call me an old fashioned Pagan, but I like to think that Gods & Goddesses are bigger than me, more powerful than me, worthy of respect. They’re here with me and inside of me — yes — but they are also outside of me and expansive in ways that stretch the imagination. This is why they are worshipped. This is why offerings are made to them.
I either believe that, or I believe that the Gods aren’t real. They’re just devices of psychology. They’re fiction. Narrative. They’re all in my head. And, if that’s the case, I should pick and choose which god I want to use. I should let my god or goddess serve me.
But I’m in the “Gods Are Real” camp, and in light of that I feel that I should be very deliberate about how I approach them in speech, action, and even in my very intention. Am I trying to get something from them? If so, am I offering anything in return? How do I speak to them? At a recent ritual I attended, the Priest commanded –literally commanded the spirits to be present.
I don’t have years of context for how most Pagans approach Deity. As I’ve written before, I grew up in the Christian church. To a great degree the Christian God was supposed to remain a mystery. Any attempt to fully understand him was futile, because unknowability was part of his deal. The best thing you could do was learn how to relate to the portrait of him that was presented in scripture, as well as whatever part of him was experienced and expressed through group worship and tradition.
But there’s no common pagan scripture, and in the case of the Fire Priestess I’m not sure I really care to join her in commodifying the Gods.
So what then?
Bring Back The Mystery
I’m not sure what Gods are for certain, and I appreciate that mystery. I think participating in something that is impossible to fully undertand (like science, for example) leads to amazing things. You discover a lot about the world you live in, and the world that lives in you.
In suggesting that Gods are more than just salve for the soul, I’m also not suggesting that they be treated like just any another person. I don’t really desire a BFF relationship with the Gods, nor do I want for them to be my therapists. I do seek out guidance, and I look for signs of their presence in my life. But I think it is a misstep to treat Gods as though they are human, just as it is a misstep to treat them like designer drugs. They are not human. They’re beyond human.
How do you wrap your mind around that? You don’t — I don’t, at least. I just have reverence for the very idea of there being something which exists in that way. Worship, then, is an attempt to further understand where my humanity intersects with that mystery. How do I, a human being, come into contact with a God; with a raw, powerful, mysterious, creative force? How will I know when its happened? What will it feel like?
These are the questions that inspire me to attend these rituals, even after a disappointing encounter with a sparkler. This is why I approach my altar in the morning to make my offerings. Seeking the answer to these questions fuels my religious life.
I Do Really Like Sparklers, Though
We do the best we can, us religious folk. Sometimes we hit on something deep. Other times, we just look a little silly. But, we try.
Perhaps I should cut the Fire Priestess some slack. Maybe she’s got a deeper connection to Deity than I’m giving her credit for. Maybe her sparkly wand and fiery voice did exactly what she’d intended them to do — start a fire inside of me. Inspire me to forge something new — like this blog post.
If what you’ve read here started a fire in you, share your thoughts in the comments. Start a wildfire by tweeting this post, or Facebook sharing it with your friends!
Now that we’re nowhere near consensus on how to use the word “Pagan”, how’s about we wander through an even hazier meadow…
What are our Pagan Values?
I’m jumping the gun a bit, being that the Third Annual Pagan Values Blogging and Podcasting Month is scheduled to begin on June 1st. But I thought it might be useful to spend a minute trying to understand what exactly a “Pagan Value” might be, and to ask the question, What makes a Pagan Value…pagan?
Before I go there, I’m going to get a little “101” with it. Sometimes it’s best to start with a simple question.
What exactly is a value?
My American Heritage Desk Dictionary app, the default resource I use when typing with my thumbs, lists this definition:
A value is a principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable.
Using this as a starting point, what happens if we add in the word “Pagan”? How does it change things?
A Pagan value is a principle, standard or quality that Pagans consider worthwhile or desirable.
Is this statement true? Can we imagine such a value?
Consider the following questions:
Do all Pagans have shared principles? If so, how do these principles differ from those shared by people who would not choose to identify as Pagan? What happens when they don’t differ much, or at all? Is it possible, for example, that there is overlap between Pagan principles and Christian principles? Were such a thing to happen (as I think we will find it does), can the shared principle be truly claimed as either Christian or Pagan?
Maybe a question to ask is, Who came to the principle first? If the Pagans beat the Christians to the principle, do they get to claim it? What’s the motivation behind that kind of race? A quest for superiority? Thirst for the truth? Dunno.
Do all Pagans have shared standards? Are we talking standards of behavior? Standards of academic integrity? Standards of social accountability or etiquette? There is no central Pagan dogma, so there is no standard set of beliefs. We’ve seen evidence in the last week that there isn’t even a singularly acceptable title for the whole group, nor an agreement that the group is even a group at all. How do you arrive at group standards when the group is sort of a non-group?
Do all Pagans have shared qualities? This may be the easiest of the three to approach, but we might also fall into a trap of describing the qualities of Pagans we’re most exposed to, unaware that these qualities may not be universally applicable to all Pagans. Again, we find qualities that are both specific and universal. Still not sure what to do about that.
Double Edged Values
What else happens when you tack on the word Pagan – or Christian, or American, or Family, even – in front of the word “Value”? Does the new group-specific phrase serve a entirely different function than the word might on it’s own? What is the purpose of distinguishing one group’s values from those of another group?
I’m going to nudge forward here and suggest that drawing value-borders around a group allows people within the circle to judge the behavior, the actions, the worth of the people outside the circle. When that judgment is paired with a given or assumed authority to condemn, the opinion can become a tool for victimization and oppression.
This might look something like:
I hold up this Group Value, and by doing so I assert not only what is good and right about my worldview, but what is not good or right about yours.*
*Insert religious debate/argument/war here.
People sensitive to the Christianist, Islamist or any other Fundamentalist assault on…well…anyone who doesn’t share their Group Values might recognize the behavior I’m describing.
It Must Begin With The Individual
I don’t have the answers to these questions, nor am I certain that they’re the most useful questions to be asking. I’m not a trained philosopher by any stretch. But, I think I’d be foolish to go charging ahead into philosophical territory without at least trying to get clear on a few important concepts.
I think my approach to this June’s blogging assignment will be to describe, as best I can, what my values are first, and then see where else these values might be shared.
If these questions sparked an idea, please share your thoughts in the Comments section of the post. I’d love to know what you think about this notion of Pagan Values, or about values in general!
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Over the past few days I’ve taken great pleasure in reading and re-reading the posts of the Rogue Priest, Mr. Drew Jacob, who describes himself as,
Priest of many gods. Freelance author, nonprofit professional, and full-time adventurer.
I like Drew. He’s intellectually rigorous, but not snobby. He’s thoughtful and respectful of his readership, and he challenges us to think broader and deeper.
I think I’d end up a regular at his Temple if it weren’t 900 miles away.
Drew doesn’t identify as a Pagan, although I took him for one. I asked him how exactly he wasn’t Pagan, and he did a mighty fine job explaining that in this post, “Why I’m Not Pagan“. Give it a read.
In response, I’m writing to explain my relationship with the identifier, Pagan, and how it sometimes fits and often does not fit my sense of religious identity.
An Acolyte’s Primer
There’s no better preparation for becoming a liturgist, Pagan or otherwise, than to train directly with a priest in the Episcopal Church. They do liturgy well. I discovered a love of ritual at a very young age. Eight, maybe? The smells of incense, the white robes and rope belts, the ringing of bells and the chanting… it was heavenly.
I loved church. I loved being a part of a community. My priest taught me, directly and by example, that my actions, be they ceremonial or mundane, helped to created something vibrant and meaningful for myself and for others. Liturgy can be truly transformative magic, and the magic took root in my soul. But more importantly, the magic had context within the community. It served a greater purpose than my own personal fulfillment.
Did I love Jesus? Was a Bible thumper? No, not exactly. I didn’t not love Jesus. It just wasn’t really about him, blasphemous as that may have seemed. It was more about all the stuff that surrounded Jesus; the myth made manifest through our actions. That’s what made me feel good about being Christian. That, and the community of people who cared about me.
The Beauty of Ruin
I had my hard times with the church, don’t get me wrong. But I always returned because I believed in the magic that happened during the services, and between the people who showed up. I believed in an incarnate Spirit, and that She wasn’t just some idea for theologians to parse out. The Spirit was real, and moved through a place. God was a mystery, but the Spirit was the the source of the most amazing, moving, meaningful magic.
For a brief while, I was a youth leader for the Juniors and Seniors at my Cathedral. I was tattooed, queer, and unwilling to allow them to rest on dogmatic laurels. I challenged my kids’ assumptions about God, about faith and about the strange and often uncomfortable intersection of the two. I opened them up to the idea that there was more than one way to connect with the Divine. I told them that I didn’t really care what they believed. I just cared that they sought out something deeper. I wanted them to experience the magic I’d felt in my heart.
In time, I came to realize that the Church was not concerned so much with magic. The Church is a business, a bureaucracy. Ultimately, it all boils down to belief, and due process. Jesus is God, and God is Love, and saying that Love is the Law is legalism, eventually.
So, in spite of all the joy it brought me, I left.
From That To This
Being Pagan is much more than simply not being Christian. You don’t walk away from the Church and just – poof! – you’re a Pagan. At least, this has not been my experience.
Two years ago I found OBOD, The Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, and I thought that their expression of Druidry might be a good fit for me. They hold up creativity as sacred, and their understanding of Awen (a Welsh word meaning, literally, inspiration) felt very much like my understanding of the Spirit. I sent off for their correspondence course.
OBOD isn’t a religion, per se. They are a Druid Order, and they approach Druidry more as a philosophy. You don’t have to be Pagan to be a Druid, they posit, and their stance was important to me at the onset of my new quest, because I didn’t know if I was Pagan. I just knew I was seeking something mystical, magical and communal. I was seeking an immediate connection to the Source — the Awen.
OBOD’s study course was interesting for a while, but I slowly lost interest. I had no community support, and the absence of religious structure left me feeling aimless in my studies.
I found religion and structure in ADF, or Ár nDraíocht Féin (Our Druidry in Irish). ADF also offers a study course, but it leans more towards the anthropological and less to the philosophical. ADF is much more like a Reconstructionist tradition, placing high emphasis on building a religious practice the approaches the traditions of the Indo-European people. Accuracy is paramount. ADF is also explicitly Pagan.
Pagan as Pre-requisite
I joined ADF and decided that I might be able to find the magic by participating in the religion. Rather than chase the Spirit, I would build the Temple. creating a home in which the Spirit could dwell.
And I’ve done that, at least on a small scale. I have an altar, and I worship daily. I’ve taken to reading books on polytheism, Indo-European tradition and Celtic deities. I have a personal religion now, albeit one I still don’t completely understand, and it satisfies my need for fragrant, candle-lit, ceremonial liturgy. What it doesn’t do, however, is provide any real sense of community.
A Context of Communion
It comes to down to is this: I believe that a solitary, Pagan/Druid practice is not a viable substitute for communal worship. Not for me, at least. The work I do alone should prepare me for work I do in community. Magic requires context in order for it to be valuable to anyone other than just myself, and community creates the context.
I think Pagans – and for now, I include myself in that category – would do good to sit with the idea of Communion, as it relates to community. Set aside the Christian connotation for a moment. I’m not talking about the consumption of body & blood. I’m talking about the something more universal.
See, communion is more than just a Christian sacrament. Communion is a human birthright. We commune with one another so that we might catch a glimpse, experience a moment of kinship with the spiritual forces that create our world, and with whom we work to create the magic in our lives.
Communion, as an extension of community, creates the context through which our personal magic is imbued with purpose.
So, for now, I’m a Pagan in search of Communion. This is my new starting point.
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The snow is falling outside my house. It doesn’t want to stop. It’s the light, lingering kind of snow, and it makes me feel a little bit slower than usual.
This morning, during my daily devotional, after my offerings had been made to the Kindred, I sat down to write a blog post. Sometimes writing seems like the natural form of meditative work to do. I started to write about an experience I had last night, during which I was approached by an acquaintance and asked if I would be interviewed about my religious beliefs. I politely declined, informing him that I was in the middle of a process, and that sometimes in order for a process to remain sacred, it has to be kept secret.
It may seem strange that I write on Bishop In The Grove about the desire to keep my beliefs private. This is a publicly viewable blog, after all. But, to the best of my knowledge he is unaware of the work I’m doing here.
What struck me as interesting about his request, and what sent me into a bit of a tailspin, was how he framed the proposed discussion. My beliefs were what mattered to him, not my practice. When I thought to myself, “What do I believe?” I was reminded of an earlier time in my life; a time when I could have told you exactly what I believed. I recited my beliefs quite clearly every Sunday morning.
As a child, I was indoctrinated into the Christian church, and by extension, the Christian worldview. This isn’t some deep, dark secret, nor was this morning the first time the thought had occurred to me. But, for whatever reason, today it felt like a revelation.
Indoctrination happens to the best of us. Most every child who grows up in a creedal church learns what they “believe” through the rote recitation of someone else’s words. Some grow up to continue to believe those words, to allow them to forever shape the way they see the world. And others, like me, grow up to discover that they are drawn to something different. The words become hollow. Mechanical. Devoid of any magic whatsoever.
ADF’s widely accepted beliefs, as explained by ADF’s founder, Isaac Bonewitz, make sense to me. I can accept them, at least as a starting point. But I am still a novice when it comes to talking about those beliefs as my own. In a way, they aren’t my own. They aren’t creedal, or doctrinal. They are descriptive, not prescriptive, if that makes sense. They describe the loosely held, collective beliefs of a body of people, to which I belong. They are not prescriptive of how I must believe in order to belong to that group.
I was made a Christian, and all of my “I Believe” statements were handed to me. I learned them, loved them at times, and was resistant to them at others. But, they were core to my experience of being a Christian. I was what I believed.
Now, I think I’m being called into a different process.
This is a process of discovery; a process that is all about the “doing”. In searching for a practice that is spiritually fulfilling, that, as my husband pointed out today, gets at the deep, deeper-than-Christian roots I’ve always been connected to, and in working with forces, movements of being, that are very old, (like, capital O, Old), I will come to understand with great clarity what it is that I believe. I will be able to explain my beliefs, my worldview, to others, perhaps in a way that is universal, completely ecumenical. My beliefs will be a natural extension of my practice.
And, it will take time.
Patience is a virtue, the Christian adage goes. But, as you may know, patience isn’t on ADF’s list of virtues to study.
Perseverance is, though.
Perseverance, which I’ve not written about before, may be a current running beneath the surface of this post, and of my life as a whole. My vision may not be perfectly clear, and my path may be fog-dense at times, but the only way for any of that to change is by me continuing to do what I’m doing. Now may not be the best time to explain my beliefs, but if I persevere that time may soon come.
The ADF Yule Ritual I attended this past weekend was the second High Holiday ritual I’ve recognized, publicly. The celebration was informal – more communal than liturgical – and it left me longing a bit for the smell of incense and the dim, candle-lit ambiance of Samhain.
Yule does not invite the same somber, solemn tone that one might find at a festival honoring those who’ve passed, but it is High Day where we recognize the annual point of greatest darkness. For me, the rebirth of the Sun is only relevant when I am encouraged to rest with the darkness; to genuinely remember and honor the darkness. There is cause for celebration because we are in the act of surviving the long, cold Winter.
There was a moment during the Yule ritual where this type of remembrance became manifest. A participant in the ritual, holding up the horn of mead, payed her respects to (and I’m paraphrasing) “a really awful year”. I heard these words, and my heart ripped open. Her darkest day was felt, and through the very act of raising the horn in a toast she was calling for the light to return, to bring renewal and rebirth to a weary soul.
I don’t wish to sound dire or morose. I’m not suggesting that Yule be akin to group therapy, or that we all must poster our ritual space with signs of our pain and suffering in order to be joyous. I’m simply seeking a balance of light and dark, and sometimes that balance falls more on the dark side.
When I was a child, and very much surrounded by and nurtured in the Christian tradition, I did not understand why there was such an urgent need for a Savior. Sin, a cornerstone of the faith, was more than my little kid mind could grasp. Now, I’m less a little kid, and sin is still problematic. The concept does not really belong in the Pagan paradigm, but I’m reminded of it as I think about this idea of acknowledging the dark as we await the coming of the Sun.
Perhaps there is a parallel.
Our darkness – the pain and suffering we experience, the regret we feel over poorly made choices – it is real. We may not see it as a result of some original mistake by our mythic “first parents” – that myth may mean nothing to us. But, all people, regardless of creed or tradition, are subject to the darkness.
We are all in need of the Sun to return.