Tuesday, March 21, 2006

What Do You Mean, Quaker Pagan?

"What do you mean, Quaker Pagan? You can't possibly be both!"

Every now and then, we do get a comment on the blog that, if politely worded, does drive at basically that point. Usually the critic is a Quaker and a Christian, though I have certainly heard similar points raised by Pagans.

Let me state a few things up front. Peter and I both do consider ourselves Pagan. Neither of us considers ourselves to be Christian--I never was one, and Peter hasn't been for decades. And we do consider ourselves to be Quakers... as does our monthly meeting, which extended us membership after the normal clearness process.

We consider ourselves Quaker Pagans. (Why not Pagan Quakers? Pure aesthetics; we think the word order sounds better with Q before P.)

Here's the argument for why Peter and I can't possibly be both:
1. Paganism is a non-Christian religion.
2. Quakers are a Christian denomination.
3. ERGO...

Yes. We've considered that argument, oddly enough. It (and the peace testimony) kept us out of the Religious Society of Friends for years after we discovered that, unlike in our early twenties, the worship worked for us.

Here's the thing. The premises that the argument above is built on are oversimplifications. Let me break it down into a little bit more detail in order to show what's wrong with the argument as it's given above.

1. Paganism is a family of religious traditions, including Wicca, Druidry, Celtic, Hellenic, and Khemetic reconstructionism, Asatru and various shamanic, animistic, and indigenous faiths which recognize the immanence of Spirit. It takes its inspiration from modern, post-modern, Romantic, Classical, and other strains of religious thought, philosophy and practice, and tends to favor experience over creed.

Most Pagans are polytheists; some are "hard polytheists" who see each deity named by humans as a distinct being, with little or no overlap with other deities. Thor is not Thunor, let alone Zeus being Jupiter or--shudder to think it it--Thor!

On the other hand, some Pagans are monists, believing, for instance, that "All the gods are one god; all the goddesses one goddess; and there is but one great initiator." This is somewhat similar to the Hindu teaching about Brahma, for instance.

Then there are Pagans who are animists, who do not necessarily attend at all to gods or goddesses, but rather commune directly with the life of each plant, each stone, each bird or beast or wild place in the world.

Finally, there are Pagans who are non-theists and agnostics, whose juries may be out on whether or not gods or even spiritual beings exist, but who find it somehow "works" for them to act as though they did, in ritual or in meditation, or to whom the central truth of Paganism--that the here and now is sacred enough to be worthy of all the reverence and love we can show--is so compelling they need no supernatural elements of their faiths at all.

Two truths are the only core I am emphatically sure of in Pagan theology: the earth is sacred, and the feminine is as important and sacred as the masculine. Beyond that, there is great diversity of belief.

A non-Pagan, or a Pagan whose experience of all this diversity has been limited to one or two narrow segments of it, might be excused thinking that such diverse theology would never be able to mesh in a spiritual community. They would be wrong. This is because Paganism, as a family of religions, puts little stock in elaborate creeds and theological debates. Oh, we love to talk about our beliefs--but we do so from the perspective of our experiences. A Pagan is far more likely to be interested in creating rituals that work--that create powerful and transformative experiences for their participants--than in settling permanently rulings on "correct" belief.

From where I sit, that's great. Because I've met no one thus far in this life, who has claimed to understand entirely the nature of God/the gods and everything, except for a few raving nutters.

Is a god we can completely understand, define, categorize, and pin down in human language really a god worth worshipping, I wonder?

So Pagans are impressed by what works. And one of the things we note, when we look at the natural world, works quite well, is diversity. An ecosystem with only one or two species is generally an unhealthy one. Diversity, not uniformity, is the hallmark of a healthy natural system.

Though it sometimes takes a good deal of tact and diplomacy to find ways of worshipping together that will be satisfying and meaningful for all of us, it is very, very common to find members of several Pagan religious traditions gathering together in spiritual community. We understand that an Asatruir will have a different sense of who the gods are and how we might best honor them than will a Wiccan or a shaman. But we can often find ways of collaborating and honoring our differences.

This means that, over the past twenty years, Peter and I have celebrated with worshippers of dozens of different gods, from dozens of different religious traditions. It works out, most of the time, provided we listen closely to each other and to our gods/spirits.

So, can a Christian be Pagan? Pagans can worship Thoth, Cernunnos, Hera, Hel, Amaterasu, Ogun, Aradia, Tiamat, or nothing at all. Worshipping Christ or his God? Well, I'll admit, it's a bit more controversial than worshipping Athena (though less so than worshipping Tiamat). This is because many Pagans are recovering Christians, on the lookout for ways that Christianity is trying to kidnap their communities and reconvert them to a religion that alienated them at some point in time... and because, well, Christianity, as practiced for the past 2000 years or so is an agressively imperialistic monotheism that denies other gods room to exist, save as deceiving demons.

Mind you, that's a caricature. Lots of Christians do not have that kind of theology. But plenty do. So there's a reason why Pagans get hives when somebody mentions Jesus. Yes, we've heard of him. More than once. More than enough for one lifetime, in many cases.

However, if Jesus were willing to quietly enter the circle, play nicely with the other deities, and not attempt to forcibly baptize those who were uninterested in joining his club, the majority of Pagans would probably be willing to shrug their shoulders, say to themselves, well, he's not my deity, but whatever, dude, and get on with the business of building community.

There is nothing in Paganism that is immediately antithetical to Christianity, save that (some forms of) Christianity insists it is antithetical to Paganism.

So, to the extent that Quakers are Christian, there is nothing in Paganism that is antithetical to Quakers, either.

2. Which leads me to the next fallacy: that Quakers are a Christian denomination.

This one is going to get me into all kinds of trouble with other Quakers, many of whom believe that the Religious Society of Friends absolutely is and always was Christian. And, in fact, Quakers do have their origin (like many another Christian group) in an attempt to revive what its founders thought of as the early Christian church.

If a group's boundaries are defined by its origins, then all Quakers are Christian.

However, many members of what is called the liberal branch of Quakers today do not identify themselves as Christians. In some monthly meetings (the small, local organizational unit of Quakers) non-Christians are the majority.

Still, the truth remains that in three out of four of the branches of modern American Quakers, all Quakers are indeed Christian; however in that fourth, liberal branch, many are not. They may self-identify as universalist Quakers (though universalists may also be Christian Quakers), as Jewish Quakers, as non-theist Quakers, or as a number of other kinds of Quakers, including Pagan Quakers... but not necessarily as Christians.

There is a good deal of controversy within the Religious Society of Friends--including in many liberal meetings--over this point. In many cases, Christian Quakers within the liberal branch of Quakers feel a bit beleaguered by the sometimes dismissive attitudes and statements made by non-Christian Friends within their meetings. I'd like to go on record as joining with them in that concern: though I'm obviously happy to be in a liberal meeting that has a universalist enough view of theology to allow me to be a member, it does not follow logically that I want my Christian sisters and brothers to be silenced.

As a Pagan, I have a sense that Whatever is out there fits but badly into human language for it. As a Pagan, I am used to a religious discourse that has many names and myths and metaphors in regular use, all attempting to reflect some small facet of the human experience of the sacred. I'm used to them not matching one another, as if ideas were a set of matching silverware.

And I know how hard it is to fit experiences of God into language at all.

I would be ashamed to deprive anyone of the language in which they can hear and understand deep truths about God. And I know from experience, as a Friend of some years now, that Quakers can and do hear the voice of Spirit couched in the words of the Bible. So, when a Friend has centered down deeply into Spirit, and been moved and stirred into vocal minstry that comes clothed in the words of Christian tradition, I try to open myself to what that message is trying to say: to me, to the gathered meeting, or to the world.

Prior to becoming a Quaker, the Bible was a dead book to me. In the years since then, I've watched as a verse here, a verse there, has bloomed into life for me, given vitality by the direct action of the Spirit moving through the Friend who spoke with its words of an immediate encounter with God.

Nothing, in my opinion, would justify my stopping the mouth of such a Friend. As someone who has given vocal ministry, I know how vulnerable it feels to let Spirit wash through you in that way. Even if the mythology and truths in which a Christian Friend's ministry is rooted is alien to me, I want to support that Friend in their faithfulness to a Spirit which, somehow--and it is less strange to me, as a polytheistic Pagan, than to them, perhaps--speaks to us both.

I feel that it is my job, as the old Woolman story has it, to "listen where the words come from," and not be frightened away by the sound of the syllables themselves, and whatever cultural baggage may come with them.

More than that, however: Quakers have evolved a practice and a set of traditions which are rooted in the language of that book. Though I can never accept a literalistic, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible as the (and the only) Word of God, I have come to understand that the Bible is at least the Poetry of Friends. Since my conversion to the peace testimony and to Quakers, I have worked to learn the practices of deep listening and communal discernment Quakers rely on to find the way forward into peace. Those traditions and practices have been communicated in Christian language for over three centuries now, and whatever feelings I may have about imperialist Christianity, I am teaching myself to listen to what the poetry of the Bible is saying in the mouths of Friends about living in peace.

Is peace the central message of the Bible itself? Taken literally and as God's biography, I can't conceive how it could be interpreted in that manner. But that is not the Bible of which I speak; I am speaking only of the Bible that, as Christian Quakers might put it, has been read and understood "in the Spirit that gave it forth."

The Spirit that gave it forth...

This is the final, hard core for me of the whole Quaker/Pagan/Christian/non-Christian nut. What is a Christian, anyway?

I have come to believe, based on my experiences in worship, that the Spirit which I encounter in Quaker meeting is the same Spirit which my Christian Friends encounter and name "Christ." I don't call it that; I've never been prompted to by Spirit. But I do attempt to live my life faithfully in accordance to its leadings.

So perhaps there is a way in which I could be termed a Christian after all. I don't use that word, and I honestly don't want to. (It's one thing for a Christian Quaker friend to associate themselves with all that triumphalism and monotheistic hegemony; I've got a hearty distaste for that set of connotations for myself, however inaccurate they may be for the Spirit which I actually encounter in meeting on First Days.)

Of course, that explanation will not satisfy the evangelical Quakers out there. And perhaps my logic will leave a certain number of Pagans dissatisfied, too.

3. So the best place to end this little essay may be with something beyond logic.

After all, one of the great commonalities between Paganism and Quakers is that it is lived experience of Spirit that matters most:

I am a Pagan because, when I look up at a hillside at twilight, my womb warms with an answering fire. I feel Earth and the old gods in my belly and in my heart. I love them, and I have felt their love for me.

I am a Quaker because the Spirit of peace grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, picked me up, and plunked me down in the midst of Friends. And I'm a Quaker because the Spirit that spoke to James Nayler and to Quakers halfway around the world from me, and across the meeting room floor from me, speaks to me too.

I am a Quaker and I am a Pagan because that's how the Spirit has led me. I'm just trying to keep up, dancing as fast as I can.

22 comments:

melissa said...

So glad to find your blog! It's great to hear someone speak a language that I understand when it comes to spirituality. I look forward to exploring the site :-)

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Melissa, thank you!

If you are specifically drawn to that place where Quaker and Pagan meet, you may also want to explore the Quaker Pagans group on Yahoo.

There are links to a number of other Quaker Pagan bloggers on the right side of the blog, too. Two of my favorites are Hystery's Plainly Pagan, and the blogs Wallhydra's Porch and The Empty Path, both my Michael Shell.

I am always glad to know when anything Peter or I have written here speaks to someone's condition!

Blessed be.

Sue said...

I just found your blog and found your perspective refreshing, as someone who practices the Episcopalian denominational type of Christianity--and was led to Christ through shamanic practice--and who finds both Christianity and Shamanism to be vital parts of her spiritual walk!

John said...

WOW! I loved your blog. I am a christian but in the last 2 years I would have to cal my self an out of the Box christian. 2 years ago I would have been the one that said you are just listening to deomons. Not anymore. Simply because you put it right when you said "Is a god we can completely understand, define, categorize, and pin down in human language really a god worth worshipping,"
The more I learn abouyt christ and God the more I see that there is so much I dont know and the more i learn from others and commune with others the more I see their beauty. Beauty that I can learn from. Spirit the we share. God created people different so we can learn from each other and so he can see different aspects of his face in each other. And so I call you sister and goddess. Made in the image of the divine. Thank You for your words. Hope you dont mind if I copy some of them to my face book page. :)

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Thank you for your kind words, John! Of course I do not mind in the least if you share my words, and I'm more than contented to know that something in them "spoke to your condition," as Quakers often say of something that speaks to what the Spirit is laboring to help them understand.

I suspect that Jesus was an "out-of-the-box Christian," too, and I'm often codswallopped to learn how little some of the things that seem most important to me about how humans can learn humbly to learn to walk with and listen to God Christians already know.

The difficulty, I think, is that a certain fairly narrow sect of Christian has attempted to hijack that term and to use it to mean only men and women who fit their narrow understandings of the Spirit of God--much as a certain narrow-minded sort of American has attempted to kidnap the flag and other symbols of America, and make them mean only their form of xenophobia and boosterism.

But the more I learn of Quaker Christians and other liberal Christians in the world today, the more I am coming to see that as a disservice to the religion Jesus himself seemed to be concerned with: one more focused on healing the sick and reaching out to the poor than with legalism. I'm coming to see that there is another Christianity I think he would be proud of, of men and women more concerned with spiritual hospitality than with self-righteousness.

Whether you find Spirit speaking to you in the ways of Jesus or the Goddess, may you be filled with joy. Thanks for stopping by!

christine said...

This was beautifully stated! I am a Christian Witch/Pagan and have come across many many many arguments against my beliefs... interestingly enough, more so from other Pagans than from christians. Telling me that I'm just trying to "hedge my bets" or "sitting on the fence", which of course is rediculous. It's nice to see that I"m not alone in trying to get people to see that Pagan & Christian beliefs can co-exists.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Thanks for your comments, Christine.

I would definitely say that Christian beliefs and Pagan beliefs can co-exist; syncretism seems to be a natural human instinct.

It's perhaps worth noting that, depending on what you mean by "Christian beliefs" I might or might not be accurately described as having both.

But I take your word that you are. Blessed be. *smile*

kevinredpath said...

Dear Cat,

That has to be the clearest ministry I have ever heard about being a Quaker Pagan. Thank you so much for publishing such an articulate post. I want to link it to our own blog that has grown out of a pagan Quaker weekend we have just run at Woodbrooke Quaker Study centre:

http://greenquakers.wordpress.com

In friendship

Kevin Redpath

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Kevin, thank you! I'm really honored--and excited to read more about your retreat over on Green Quakers.

Bright blessings! *smile*

Anonymous said...

Thank you thank you ..

I've been looking and soul searching ..
Baptist for most part of my life..
Pagan/Heathen for the last 15 but not fitting n with quite right because my spiritual didn't fit in even Paganism..
Its closer to Native American.. but still not right..
Then I found your web site and this post.. and it's like " duh"
Lots to chew on .. more looking within.. but thank you for letting me know that I'm not nuts..

Denise in TN

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Denise, I'm so glad this post spoke to something in you that needed words. It's what I'm happiest about, as a writer, when it happens.

And I know the deep relief of finding someone else's words really, finally, "speak to my condition" as the Quakers put it, too.

I take it you found something resonant around Quakers? If so, don't forget that you can meet more of us via the Quaker Pagans group on Yahoo... Or that being Quaker is "caught not taught"--so you'll want to find a Quaker meeting near you. Try Quaker Finder.org to find a local meeting or two... and remember that Quaker groups, like Pagan groups, can vary quite a bit, so do feel free to shop around a little for the group that feels like home.

Paganism is, and probably ought to remain, a small subset of Quakers even in the most liberal of meetings. But the importance of immanence rather than transcendence in our view of where to seek Spirit; the stress on the importance of immediate personal experience of Spirit; and the ability to read the Bible, where it is read, in very much the way Pagans read myths--evocatively and in relationship with Spirit, rather than literally and prescriptively--is at the heart of liberal Quakers as I have come to know them.

Blessed be... and good luck in your search. *smile, hug*

Falkenna said...

Thank you, Cat, for such an inspiring statement, and an incredibly succinct yet accurate description of Paganism. My "slash" is Pagan/Taoist, but I am immediately going to send your link to my sister, who I think perhaps is working to find the clarity to tell herself that Quaker Pagan is what she is.

Flo Fflach said...

"I have a sense that Whatever is out there fits but badly into human language for it"
perfectly put
I suppose I follow christian teachings in some why but have no way to comprehand the resurrection, some would therefore say that i am not a christian. finally this weekend i think I have come to understand what th "christ" may be and that means i am easier in the company of those that use that kind of language.Quakers is where I belong but many would notice my pagan/pantheist leanings if they spent time with me. land speaks.

Shawn said...

I have learned a lot from reading your essay. I pretty much don't agree with any of it, but we all are free to believe as we wish. I grew up in the Quaker Tradition, probably the exact opposite of you, I'm sure you understand. Conservative, Programmed, ect.
Although, I do believe there needs to be a balance with transcendence and immanence. Either extreme is unhealthy, although to go to one more than another is a human tendency. If we have to much immanence, then we start to worship the creation rather than the Creator. Cat, I hope the best for you, Shawn

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

@ Falkenna: Thank you for stopping by. I will be very pleased if what we've written here is helpful to your sister--and I'm glad to meet another "both/and" Quaker, as well.

@ Flo: I suspect that Spirit cares much less for orthodoxy than it does for our faithful listening and seeking to live into the Truth we're all given. And I'm grateful that, among Friends, I've come to feel more care for that than for testing each other's theologies. *smile*

@ Shawn: There are some significant differences between how liberal Quakers and Conservative and programmed Quakers see the world, as I'm sure you know. And I am very clear that there is no place within either programmed, Christ-centered Quaker meetings or Conservative meetings for me or for my theology.

As for the split between immanence and transcendence, one term that is important to many Pagans--though not all--is the concept of panentheism--the sense that the sacred is at one and the same time immanent and transcendent.

If this idea strikes you as unthinkable or absurd, then I think that is a testimony to something you have said yourself: our experiences may simply be very different. This is the concept that best fits my lived experiences, both as a Pagan and a Quaker.

Shawn said...

Cat,
thank you for your response. I am going to do a little study on panentheism. Thank you for the link. I know that when I go for walks in nature I sense and feelthe presence of God through his creation (nature). I don't believe that nature is God, but that it is part of his work. By looking at nature, I can get a better understanding of who God is, what his character is like.
I enjoy this conversation with you, and am thankful you are allowing me to come into your space. I am learning to open up my little conservative Quaker box, and I suppose this is part of that process. Thank you, I'll try to get back to you. Shawn

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Well, thanks, Shawn; I'll look forward to hearing more from you, perhaps.

And I hope that whatever opening of your Conservative Quaker box you do only brings you closer to Spirit--to God.

I'm sure that is what She wants for us. *smile*

The Morning Star said...

I think you just saved my sanity. I've been a practising Pagan for 13 years, and over the past few months have been called (if not dragged) to anything I can find involving Quakers. Strangely enough it all started with the call to begin "head covering", which I've yet to find a "reason" for...it's not because of that much touted scripture in Corinthians. I've been having a bit of a Spiritual Crisis over this call to The Friends. So thank you, from the deepest wells of my heart and soul for this.

Cat C-B said...

Pleased to help, Morning Star...

If you are interested in meeting more people with some of the various leanings, Quaker and Pagan, that go to make up the Quaker Pagan, Pagan Quaker, Quagan or however termed agglomeration of us, you might want to check out the resources section in the right hand column of the page, or visit the Yahoo group for Quaker Pagans, where there's a pretty active listserve community you can join.

Many blessings!

Elle said...

i know this is an old post but somehow, i happened upon it today and i LOVE THIS POST!

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

I too just happened across this today and love it.

As a Pagan who thinks Jesus was a real cool dude (but has little time for the churches) I don't think I've ever encountered a better description of Paganism. I'm now planning to put a link to it on my 'witchy' blog, Cronewyze.

I often think, if I wasn't Pagan I'd probably be Buddhist - largely because of the focus on peace. I am actually happy to remain just Pagan, but I do understand your attraction to Quakerism too.

My husband identifies as Pagan, and wouldn't consider himself Cristo-Pagan, but he does hold Jesus as his Patron Deity. I myself, as an energy healer, was once told that Jesus is my 'Master of Healing' and can accept the truth of this.

Anonymous said...

:-) Glad to have found your blog.

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