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Is There Still a Pagan in Quaker Pagan Reflections? Part 1 of 2

Sometimes, as I'm posting yet another reflection on yet another interaction with the world of Quakers, I'll ask myself, "What's so Pagan about Quaker Pagan Reflections?" Once or twice, doing some completely unrelated thing--folding my socks, for instance, or making soup--I'll hear a tiny voice saying, "You're a Quaker." As in, unhyphenated, plain ol', stop-being-so-bloody-precious-about-it, Quaker-style Quaker.

Regular readers may have noticed that I drop the "G" word around here with some regularity. God--as a word, at least, capitalized and used as a singular proper noun--makes regular appearances in my writing. My weekly and even monthly routines revolve around my Quaker meeting, to an extent that they no longer do around the local Pagan community. I no longer run a coven, teach classes on Paganism, or even write about it, as something separate from my Quaker life, all that much. I may very well attend no Pagan gatherings beyond a local Beltane in the Backyard this year; I've severed my last ties with Cherry Hill Seminary; and I feel no need to introduce ritual or formal Paganism into any Quaker settings where I worship.

So it becomes a reasonable question--What is it makes me think there's even a "Pagan" left in Quaker Pagan Reflections any more? I'm clear that I'm Quaker. What makes me think that I'm Pagan, too?

Let's play devil's advocate for a minute. What bad reasons might I have for continuing to style myself a Pagan?

Well, duh. There's the one my mama accused me of, when I first told her I was Pagan: shock value. And though my Paganism was never the rebellious phase my mother hoped it was, there may be some truth here. Oh, not in the adolescent, Craft-watchin', goth-stylin' way of some Teen Witches out there. I am a bit more grown up than that.

But if I were to drop the "Pagan" from the title of this blog, who would be interested in reading it? Who would be interested in a "Quaker Reflections" blog?

Not only would I immediately lose the Pagan portion of my readership, but I bet I'd lose a little cachet among Quakers, too. I'm not a weighty Friend, and I'm aware that some of what draws readers to this blog is the novelty of it. Or, to put it a bit less diplomatically, the wierdness factor of our offbeat theology.

Of course, Real Quakers don't worry about things like that. We're all about ministry and God, and have no secret, deep dark desires to be famous or the center of attention... If I were a good, Quakerly sort of Quaker, the fact that my hyphenated identity makes me stand out in a crowd would be a matter of perfect indifference to me.

I'll admit it.

I'm not that good a Quaker.

, I like the fact that Friends I think are really cool know who I am because of this blog! Damn, I like the sense of specialness that comes from standing out in a crowd!

And it's interesting--this is one of the places where Quakers and Pagans are quite different. I do not think that any Pagan would think less of me for wanting to stand out and be taken seriously in myself. But, while Quakers certainly do have writers who are more authoritative than others, more recognized and even famous than others, there is a very different mindset about it all. Weightiness really is supposed to derive more from a track record of following clear and specific leadings from God, and less from personal charisma or, um, marketability.

In all honesty, part of the attraction of continuing to style myself Pagan is that it has proven to be--and I am blushing as I say it--a very marketable brand name.

This is not a good reason to call myself Pagan. To the extent that I do so in order to draw attention to myself, I'm doing something rather venal. (Dammit.)

OK. So acknowledging that the unworthy is mixed in with whatever other motivations I've got going on, why do I still feel that it is important to continue to call myself a Pagan? What is, and what is not, still Pagan about me?

What is not Pagan? I'm a Quaker. What's more (and worse, from a Pagan perspective) I'm able to speak about a single spiritual source of all things, and call it God. And in some lights, I'm beginning to look a lot like a monotheist. And whatever else Pagans may be, we're not monotheists.

What's a nice girl like me doing in a religious twilight zone like this? I started out as a polytheist. Honest.

Well, never as a "hard polytheist." You could never sell me on the idea that Thunor is not the same deity as Thor. And though I never thought that Zeus was the same God as Thor because all thunderers are the same, neither did I believe that either Zeus or Thor had distinct and separate identities the way two chairs--or even two people--do. I always had a sense that there was a oneness that underlay all the different names we give to the spiritual beings we interact with... And that our understandings of those beings have always been imperfect. Though there are clear cut ways that Zeus and Thor were understood and worshipped in their historical contexts, I never thought that the human definitions and understandings defined them. Or rather, I always saw the Pagan gods as interactions of natural and spiritual forces with our human understandings of and traditions about them. Not as archetypes--never as simply human projections onto the formless face of nature. It is not that they aren't there without humans to be in relationship with them--but that the forms they take come from our relationships with them.

Try saying that in the midst of an invocation. It's just not very catchy, you know?

So my polytheism has always had an emanationist edge: I was a kind of quiet Neoplatonist. I saw the gods--and humans, animals, and nature--as emanating from a far off, unifying source, and thought that the closer a spirit is to that unifying source, the harder to understand or define it would be. None of which was very threatening to anybody's polytheism, since there have been polytheist Neoplatonists since they invented the term. It was fodder for campfire discussions--nothing more.

And then came the peace testimony.

Quakers say that the testimonies are the result of waiting upon Spirit; that they are a compilation of leadings of Spirit that have risen for many Friends over many generations of patient listening and discernment. They aren't a creed--they're the natural result of minding the Light.

In my case, the peace testimony was my first clear, undeniable experience of the Light. I've written of that recently, so I won't go into more detail here. But I will say that the moment I was convicted of that testimony was the moment of my convincement as a Friend, though I'm still sorting out all the ramifications. And there were a lot of reasons why I immediately was drawn to worship with Quakers--one of which was the practical one, that there weren't enough Pagans in my area who also held something like a peace testimony to meet with regularly.

However, a deeper reason, that it was a long time before I was able to put into words at all, was this: I did not experience the Spirit that sent me the peace testimony as simply a god among many gods. I have since come to believe that that Spirit of Peace is not yet another of the many Pagan gods, but is the source from which both we and the gods derive. I believe, in other words, that the Light of Friends is either the Source of Neoplatonic thought, or is close enough to it as to make no practical difference. I believe that it is set over the Pagan gods, in fact: that the Pagan gods hold parts of deep spiritual truth, but that the Light is the Truth.

This kind of thinking makes me not much fun at parties.

Historically, polytheists have managed to get along very well with one another. There are remarkably fewer bitter theological disputes among polytheists, in comparison with monotheists, given the wild diversity of deities and practices we embrace; the bitterest disputes are nearly always the result of misplaced nationalism rather than religious differences, per se.

And one of the ways we get along so well is our ability to shrug our shoulders and say, "Well, I certainly don't worship a three-headed goddess of chaos and microprocessors. But if that's how you interact with the world of spirit, more power to you!" Unfortunately, by coming to believe that my god--the Light of Friends--is more complete or in a greater authority than other people's gods--the traditional polytheistic gods of Paganism--I throw the whole system out of balance. What is there to keep religious animosity from breaking out?

The fact that mine is a God of Peace and Love? Please. Pagans have heard that kind of talk before. It's remarkably ineffective at heading off pogroms.

The only defense, in fact, against the Light of Friends being yet another Inquisitionist's inspiration is if I (by implication, if Friends) really mean it about there being no Way to Peace, but about Peace being the Way. Only by minding the Light, listening to it carefully, and practicing the disciplines that allow us not to outrun our leadings can we avoid being yet another form of religious zealotry, casting down other people's temples in order to erect our own.

That is not the way of the God of Friends. But it is the way that, historically, many Christians--including Quakers--have advanced what they saw as the interests of that God, and it is the way many Christians advance it still. Only real faithfulness to the Light will prevent it.

A lived peace testimony may be compatible with membership in a community of polytheists; one to which I give lip service may not be, at least for me.

(To Be Continued.)


Yewtree said…
To be honest, I'd say that characterising the Light as the Neoplatonic divine source was still fairly Pagan.

Also, if, as you mentioned in an earlier post, you're a Pagan because hanging out with trees fulfils you spiritually, and a Friend because you feel the Light among Friends... if that still stands, you're a Pagan.

My crisis of last year was partly caused by a polytheist saying that floods were caused by water wights demanding sacrifice. This offended me so much on so many levels that I really didn't want to share the Pagan umbrella with that person any more (but then they probably don't want to share it with me either). One reason I like hanging out with Unitarians is that they are more rational than that.

I find the Buddhist notions of dharma and sangha quite helpful in these matters. Dharma sounds like a truth zone with fuzzy edges; sangha like a community with fuzzy edges. Sangha implies refuge, shelter. If you like the Quaker campfire, it doesn't mean you can't also warm yourself at the Pagan campfire. Perhaps campfire is a better metaphor than umbrella - you can't stand at the centre of the campfire cos it's too hot.
Grian said…
Holy deep inner reflection Batman! This is a really nice detail of your experience. Can't wait to scroll up for part two.

I think some Pagans are monotheists and that's being a monotheist doesn't necessarily make you a non-Pagan. Monist may be a better word. I'm not sure. I believe all faces of deity are facets of a oneness. I'm still fitting under the Pagan umbrella though.
Hystery said…
Like Yvonne, I am occasionally offended by the nonsense I hear coming from other Pagan lips. Once a pagan told me that I shouldn't wear a necklace that had spiritual meaning to me because the faeries would be offended. Please.

There are certainly times when I hold much more in common with liberal Christians than with Pagans. I especially appreciate the careful methodology employed in biblical studies and am saddened by the great need for more serious scholarship among Neo-Pagans. (There are some great Pagan scholars but too few!) But then again, there are certainly plenty of things that Christians have said that offend me too! lol

It comes down to this for me: All people can be pretty silly at times and most of us are just whistling in the dark. Even in our brightest moments, we're probably a far cry off. I guess I'll have to be responsible for my own labels and continue the process of exploring and defining those as I grow.

Btw: I'm a panentheist rather than a monotheist or polytheist. I believe the Divine is in process with and One with the Universe but that it also transcends it.

Love your words, Cat! Thank you so much for them.
cubbie said…
i like you. the love and honesty that i find in your posts is of the sort that i find in the best parts of all religions, and i like so much that you are able to hold two faiths lovingly... and honestly. it's very rich.
Anonymous said…
So, as I was reading this very interesting post, I began to have a couple of very interesting thoughts (at least to me). Then I got to your next to the last paragraph and saw that you had anticipated one of them to some degree. That one was that it would be a very good excercise for Christ-centered Quakers (like me) to reread the post with "Christian" at least in the historical or religious sense substituted wherever you put "pagan." I would hope that we would come to the same nest to last paragraph from the other end. The other thought was about the clear disdain recently expressed by a "mainstream church" blogger that Quakers of ANY stripe would include pagans, and how much his tradition misses by being so exclusionary.
A third thought occurs to me: who sez yer not a "weighty Friend?"

In His Love,
Nate Swift
Lone Star Ma said…
I think I feel very much like you feel - though I don't think I could put it as well.
Thank you for your comments! Each giving me more fullness of heart than the last.

Yvonne, I remember well how much I admired the courage and the integrity of your own reflection last year. Again, and always, thank you for sharing.

Grian/Lee--Just the words, "holy deep inner reflection, Batman," made me laugh out loud. I was thrilled to (re)discover your blog through this comment, and I've been happily chewing on posts over there ever since.

Hystery, sometimes I think part of my commitment to Paganism has to do with trying to keep the culture from being swamped by those who speak easily in dismissive and judgmental ways. The best of the Pagan community is so good... and the bad is so embarrassing. I think part of what makes me self-identify so clearly as Pagan is my desire to model what I want our community to be/become. Our best never seems to get as much air time as our worst, does it? But I've seen so much growth and change just in the time I've been Pagan, that I can't help but be hopeful, and want to add my little bit.


It may not be logical, but it is true.

cubbie... Do you have any idea of the weight of your words, I wonder? At least with me. You say, "i like you," and I want to weep. Your own openness and willingness to be present with the Spirit and with your Ffriends has moved me so deeply and so often, that good words from you leave me just glowing.


Nate, I had not even thought of a reading such as the one you describe--but I can see how, yes, the Christians I've come to love and respect among Friends probably could read the post in the way you describe...

And, as for what we lose through being exclusionary, well, it comes naturally to Pagan me to think in environmental metaphors. And the richest ecosystems are the liminal zones where different ecosystems meet and interact. I find it no wonder that my spirit is enriched by the company of those whose theologies are strange to me--and I would like to hope that the relationship works both ways. It's not that we must change one another's theologies, but by interacting with each other and looking at ourselves from slightly different points of view, I do think we naturally will see more and learn more.

Mind you, that's just my notion... but it's often on my mind among Christian Friends.

Lone Star Ma, if I have found words for an experience we share, that's the finest praise a writer can hear. Thank you for sharing it... (And, fwiw, I really enjoyed my stop by your blog, too--especially the "Colonialism Bad" post. As one teacher to another--what a moment! *laughing*

Blessed be, y'all. And thank you so much for stopping by.
Tmothy Travis said…
There is that still small voice among all the voices and I can't tell you its nature or what it's about. But you know the voice. Everyone does.

I heard it at Olympus this last December--in the ruins of both the temples and the church there. It didn't tell me who it was, it just told me what to do.

I was struck while there, and at Delphi, that what I always thought was...well, never mind what I thought it was...people took what they did there, what happened to them there, seriously because that voice spoke the them, too, and they made of it what they made of it. The same voices spoke to them as it is written spoke to Adam and Eve in the garden.

I have struggled for a long time with naming these things I cannot prove, things of which I cannot explain the purpose. I still do, although it doesn't get me anywhere, really.

There are a lot of voices out there and they say lots of different things but I have to go back to the fruit of what's being talked up. If it ends in an inquisition (or I can see it leading to one) then it's probably a voice that shouldn't be heeded. Don't ask me why or how this works. I don't care. It does.

By the way, the ripping into shreds and the creation of domains within the Society in the 19th Century (and the maintaining of them in the 20th and into the 21st) shows that such spirits can live and thrive among Friends.

And there are lots of notions about what God is about and why H/She/It/he/she/it's about it. That's all virtual wood for a virtual fire (I mean, like, what if it was purple?) and doesn't keep me warm. Standing by the fire, feeling the heat, that's it.

Remember, Timothy,it's the fruit, I say every day, as I listen to the voices. I don't care to identify who's talking to me, or why, I care about what it is I am being led to do, or not do.
Robin M. said…
Our best never seems to get as much air time as our worst, does it?
I think the same could be said for Christians and Muslims and Jews, etc. etc.

I always forget who said the unexamined life is not worth living. One of the things I like best about Quaker blogs is that I like to read other people's examinations too.

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