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I'd Rather Be a Pagan

There's another of the periodic discussions going on online over the word "Pagan" to describe a religious movement.  (These things tend to recur, like malarial fevers, every so often, despite the best efforts to settle them once and for all.)

As has happened before, the point has been made that Paganism, as a religious movement, is hard to define because there are so many things that can't be said categorically to define us all.  Some of us aren't polytheist (or theistic at all); others aren't earth-centered.  Some revere ancestors and attempt to follow their ways, while others don't.  And so on. 

As is probably clear, I find attempts to define the word "Pagan"--or to get us to abandon the word--frustrating.  Still, just because I keep having the same conversation again and again doesn't mean it isn't a good conversation to have.  And Scott Reimers, at Patheos, has a point when he says that, to the extent that Pagan is a label that defines us as what we are not (Christian, primarily) it is a label that dooms us to live in a certain amount of tension and distrust with our culture.  To the extent that this is true of us, it may indeed distort who are, and who we become.  I do appreciate Reimers' point that we need to focus on the inclusivity of our movement, rather than on a label that may simply hold us in tension with others.

But I like better Jeff Lilly's point, over at Druid Journal, that, while Paganism is a somewhat slippery and imprecise term, that doesn't mean that it is meaningless, or that it's only connotation is a negative one, as Reimers suggests.

In fact, Jeff sees the very process of reclaiming the word "Pagan" to describe us as part of a process of creating a community that has its own cohesion, with or without being easy to define.  And more importantly, like many words, the word "Pagan" has a "forest of meaning"--a rich, if imprecise, cluster of living and related ideas that are growing in relationship to each other, and to the community that claims that word.  "A word is a knot, a tangle of prototypes in the forest of meaning," Jeff observes, and I agree.

He continues, "In fact, the desire to hammer down the meanings of words, to draw sharp lines around concepts and say for sure who belongs in the club and who doesn’t, is antithetical to the Pagan aesthetic."

I think that he is right.  Deep within the core of meanings of Paganism, as I have lived it, is an organicity that evolves, shifts, and yet has a balance of its own--like an actual forest.  It is not static, not amenable to sharp borders and definitions, because its heart is dynamic.

I responded to Jeff's post in this way:
I, personally, need the word "Pagan."  Its meaning may be a cluster of loosely related ideas, but that's exactly why I need it--because my own religious identity is complex enough that less complex words distort it. 

Should I say that I am Wiccan, because I have trained in two Wiccan traditions?  While my Wiccan roots matter a lot to me, so do the bits and pieces of idiosyncratic ritual and lore I've accreted over the years--stray bits of shamanic practice, Hellenic traditions, rituals created by people I love, and insights gleaned directly from gods and spirits I've encountered in trance.  None of that is recognizably Wiccan to an outsider, but it's as important to me as my starting point.

Should I describe myself as a Druid, because my current theological and philosophical leanings are in that direction?  But I've never formally trained as a Druid, and I am, frankly, unwilling (at my age, but more importantly, at my level of experience) to go back to the beginning and train again in a new tradition, just to say I belong to it. 

Should I simply call myself a Quaker, and be done with it?  But I'm a Quaker who celebrates each full moon and the turning tide of every season, who leaves offerings to her ancestors and to the spirits of the local woods.  However many meetings for business I attend, committees I serve on, or Quaker journals I read, is it enough to call a follower of Herne and the Lady of the Spindle "a Quaker"?

I need the word "Pagan" the way my friend R., who married a man who later transitioned to life as a woman, needs the word "queer."  R. isn't lesbian; R. isn't trans.  But her life isn't summed up well by describing her a cis-female and straight, either.

Paths are sometimes convoluted, when you bother to explore them and follow where they lead, instead of sit down comfortably beside the roadsigns that mark them.
The older I get, the more Pagan I become.  What other word is wide enough to hold me?


Michael said…

I like the approach that River and Joyce Higginbotham take, but I don't have their first book handy at the moment to quote from.

When I refer to my "Pagan sensibility" on Walhydra's Porch, it comes down to this:

I reject the alleged separation between matter and spirit.

Blessèd Be,
Michael Bright Crow
Chadly said…
I struggle with labels myself. My Christian heritage is important to me, and Christianity does play a role in my faith. I even attend a Christian church(United Church of Christ). But much of my Christian expression is meshed in with Gnosticism, an early form of "heretical" Christianity that was primarily in existence prior to the Nicene Creed, when "Orthodox" Christianity was still developing. Yet I could also be "Pagan", as I am a polytheist (in the "soft-polytheism" vein), and I also consider myself a Druid.
Pitch313 said…
Terms used to describe or classify my spirituality are not the same as my spirituality as I practice and experience it. I find that I can give up the terms. But I cannot and will not give up the spirituality and practice.

I also find that I do not care so much about the differences among "Pagans" as about the difference between "Pagans" and those who are not.

So they can call me "Schroedinger's Cat," and see whether I'm kicking or not...
These conversations do seem to keep cropping up, don't they!? On the one hand, I understand the urge to talk about definitions and community boundaries - it's part of the whole process of identity creation, and it has definite political implications.

But like I said to Jeff, sometimes I think it's funny we have these conversations about "Pagan" at all. After all, that word has only come to be used in the past couple decades as more and more people are drawn together and recognize a common theme/sense uniting many non-Wiccan spiritualities (or, just as often, folks who started out Wiccan and moved on to something slightly different while still retaining a certain core sympathy with the Wiccanesque community, which sounds a lot like what you describe in your post).

In other words - we use the term because our community, as a whole, has recognized the need for such a term. The name "Pagan" serves a particular purpose, one that would be undermined by trying to nail it down too precisely. Just as you describe yourself as too complex for any simpler, cleaner term, I think our community is also just that nuanced and intricate - and yet, a recognizable community nonetheless. That's how language evolves naturally, as community talks to and about itself, and no amount of nitpicking is likely to change that.

Speaking as proud partner of the amazingly brilliant Jeff Lilly, I am a little bit miffed that more people don't recognize his genius and professional expertise in the matter. ;) I mean, the man has been working professionally in the field of linguistics for pretty much his entire adult life, has papers published in the subject, and even presented at a conference about his own unique theory of universal grammar. So these aren't just idle speculations based on personal feelings about the word "Pagan" - he knows what he's talking about.
Michael said…

Did you mean for your title to link to Wordsworth?

Michael: I quite like that core Paganism concept, of a rejection of the separation of matter and spirit. The idea that the World is Good seems very important to me--in terms of the Romantic spark that lit the Wiccan fuse if nothing else.

In another comment this week, I've been reflecting on the ways that the Romantic Movement is the parent of Wicca--and hence, the modern Pagan movement--perhaps to a greater extent than either pre-Christian religions or medieval witchcraft can claim to have been, despite the fact that Pagan reconstructionist religions have, in turn, eventually gone back to the older sources for inspiration. Not a new insight, as any reader of Ronald Hutton knows, but one I do spend time with.

And, yes, I did mean for my title to link to the Wordsworth poem--it has been on my mind a lot, lately, and my title is a deliberate allusion. A lot of the theological hair-splitting our community can engage in strikes me as a distraction to the real work, of seeing "Proteus rising from the sea." (Which is why I favor letting the hair-splitting go, and plan to go on and "be a Pagan," even if that creed seems to some among us "outworn.")

Chadly and Pitch, thank you for commenting. I don't think Spirit is terribly impressed with labeling and classification systems, personally. (Often and often I find myself thinking about how water really is an apt metaphor for Spirit, because, like Spirit, it gets into all sorts of basements, no matter how they are constructed, and even if they seem built specifically to keep that water out!)

Ali, you know I agree with you about your brilliant Jeff! And he's definitely among the Pagan writers I most appreciate--not least for the fun he has (never mind, for a moment, the authority with which he has it) with the magic of words!

On the matter of a "Wiccanesque core" that Pagans are in sympathy with--I think you're on to something. I also think that many of the attacks on the use of the word are actually attacks on the dominance of Wiccan perspectives in the Pagan community, which is fine to a degree--until recently, Wicca was so much larger, numerically, than any other part of the Pagan community that it tended to get a little hegemonic in its privilege.

But I'd like to see non-Wiccan Pagans developing their theologies in dialog with that Wiccanesque core, I guess, and not just with ancient history. This probably matters most to me in the case of earth- or land-centeredness. So what if ancient Romans did not have much earth-centeredness in the midst of their urbanism (those who were urban, of course). Does that mean that a modern Pagan, inspired by Religio Romanum, can't be inspired by a love of earth, simply because in the modern Pagan movement, it was voiced by Wiccans before it was adopted by reconstructionists?

Religions change, grow, and develop in relationship to the history of their own periods, and to one another. (Of course, you and I have already had this conversation, years ago, on the mutual influences of early Christianity and the paganism of the late Classical world.)
And for those who are interested, Hystery of Plainly Pagan adds her take on the subject at her blog, in the post More Questions and Thoughts Regarding Paganism: Is it a Single Religion, or Many?
thalassa said…
Though I've had some naysayers on the the term complain that "my religion isn't a game", I generally compare defining what "Pagan" is to defining what a game is. A while back I came to the conclusion that Paganism, like the word game, is a polythetic definitions--defined (at best) by a list of overlapping characteristics that are not entirely shared. Monopoly is no more like Marco Polo than Wicca is like Asatru...
I read your post with interest. I do like the term "Pagan". I don't feel able to use specific terms such as "Wiccan", with reference to my spiritual path. Well, I do use the terms, but wouldn't go as far as to describe myself as a "Witch" or "Wiccan". I feel more comfortable, in general terms, with "Pagan". I do also feel influences from religions such as Buddhism and Christianity. Spiritual paths are often complex.

Thank you for sharing. Another fascinating post. I love your blog!

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