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

(Continued from Part 1 of 2)

So, from the moment I felt the first stirrings of the Spirit of Peace within me, my easygoing relationship to polytheism was under threat.

It would all, from a Pagan point of view, have been so much easier if I had only been called by, say, Pugsley the Peace God. No problems accepting a Quaker Pagan whose god was one among the many! But it is not Pugsley I follow, and that does complicate matters.

There are, after all, Pagan gods whose interests are those of the warrior, and many Pagans have personal codes which more closely resemble Bushido than the peace testimony. One of my favorite Pagan scholars and writers, the courteous and peace loving Brendan Cathbad Myers, has just written a book, The Other Side of Virtue. I'm looking forward to reading it; I have listened to the chapter he read aloud at Deo's Shadow, and I found it fascinating how he drew the connections he did between heroic cultures, their literature and history, and a possibly system of honor and ethics for modern Pagans.

I also found it chilling and depressing, and frequently had to shut off the audio and set it aside to recover my equilibrium, because, lovely and well-worked as it is, Myers' ethics are those of a warrior culture.

I don't care a lick for Christian teachings of heaven or hell. I have no use for salvation, I cannot see nature as "fallen" (though I'm not too wild about influenza, old age, and death, to be honest) and I've got no understanding of "sin," whatever that is.

But I know that there is that within me that can no longer bear to settle for the ethics of the warrior, however honorable. And I think that holding up and glorifying these myths is a mistake, and a dangerous mistake at that. I don't know what to do with that painful sense of wrongness about this lovely book by a writer I admire. I suspect that I'd better listen very, very closely to the Light, and not go haring off on a crusade, outrunning my leadings in response to my personal sense of pain.

But I am clear that my relationship with the Light, and with the peace testimony that has come out of that relationship, has already set me in opposition to at least one important cultural and ethical current in the Pagan world.

This is highly inconvenient. I would really hate to begin to define myself as not-Pagan, after all these years.

Well, why?

Because all of my oldest friends are Pagan. Because I identify so strongly with my Paganism. And because so much of how I see the world, from the form of a hillside against the sky to the history of our species, has been shaped by my Pagan sensibilities. I feel part of something larger than myself, larger than the group of Pagan friends and family I see from day to day... something that feels meaningful and important to me.

Pagans are my people. If I could no longer call myself Pagan, I would feel homeless inside myself.

But is that enough of a reason to consider myself a Pagan? We've all known those who like hanging out with Pagans--like the drumming, maybe, or are in love with a Pagan--but aren't Pagans themselves. "Symps," I remember calling them, for Pagan Sympathizers. At one time in my life it seemed like I knew a great many such people--folks who didn't know a horned god from a Hershey bar, but who floated around the edges of any community event. New Agers who showed up at Pagan events to market a book, or to give Tibetan flower essence massages, or what-have-you. Paganism Lite.

By saying that one of the primary things that makes me consider myself a Pagan is the draw I feel to my Pagan people, am I saying that I'm a Symp, or that mine is now Paganism Lite?

No. Not only is my knowledge base deeper than the New Age dabblers who sometimes float along within the Pagan community, but so is my commitment to my people as a people.

Peter and I once spent a fair amount of time discussing what the difference was between the New Age movement and Paganism. I think it was Oberon Zell who once said, "a decimal point," meaning that an event or a service that would cost $50 from the Pagans would sell for $500 from the New Agers... and that's part of it. But it's the reason for the decimal point that's telling. The New Age movement is about marketing spiritual experiences; the Pagan movement is about being a people who have spiritual experiences with one another. There are things that you give away, or sell at cost, because you're providing them to your community. The emphasis on building up a community, on relating to one another as a people, as a tribe... to me, that's a defining element of Paganism. Not that our techniques for building and maintaining community couldn't stand work... but the aim, that we will be a people who belong to one another as we belong to our gods, that is a good and worthy aim.

And I still share it. I am a Pagan because Pagan people are my people. We are not a religion of the book--we are a tribal religion, a word-of-mouth religion, and a religion of shared experience. This is the Pagan community I belong to: many of us, holding hands, sitting together at a shared hearth-fire. I'm still Pagan because I still feel and feed that communal hearth.

I'm also still Pagan because of what I know of the nature of that hearth: it rises from the spirit of the landscape and the earth. It's more than an intellectual appreciation for bio-diversity that motivates me; it's that hills and trees and rivers are a kind of people to me. The soul of nature is just that--a soul, a spirit, and, at the risk of sounding like a total nutter, I believe it speaks to me. I hear it in an inner voice: deep baritone rumblings of mountains; warm, catlike purrings of contented maple trees; the sudden, breathtaking trumpet of a herd of deer glimpsed at twilight. These things have a mana, a numen to them, that I treasure the way I treasure my husband or my child. And there exists a language with which I can speak to them and hear them reply--the language of European mythology.

It is in the faery stories of the Celtic and Germanic world that I hear what a Native American medicine person might hear in the stories of his people. It's in the Arthurian mythos, and in Appalachian ghost stories that the spirits of the natural world speak to me, and in the fragments of Greek, Norse, and Finnish mythology that have made their way down to me, through the strata of Victorian romanticizers, and into the layers of Wiccan and Druidic teachings that have drawn from them. My dreams and my subconscious are products of my Western culture and upbringing; I am not culturally fluent in Siberian or Meso-American or Asian mythology and archetype. But I am in European-American, and it is in this language that, for years and years, the holy spirits of this world have reached out to me. This is how I know them.

(Can one know these beings, and love the land and its spirits this deeply, from a Christian or Jewish tradition? I would simply have dismissed the idea once. Now, all I can say for certain is that I do not know them in that way. Hills and rocks do not speak to me in Hebrew or in New Testament Greek, and I do not think they ever will.)

I may not know what, exactly, a "god" is; I have more than a little sympathy for the non-theistic, animistic Paganism of Andras Corben Arthen, for I suspect that my need to filter my encounters with the divine in nature through the medium of gods and god-stories limits me. But however confusing the idea of a "god" might be, the stories of European mythology touch me in places that are deep enough that I can feel the movement of spirit from them. It is a great gift, and I cannot imagine repudiating it.

Every now and then, I look up into the eyes of the universe, to discover that a god I know is looking back, loving and recognizing me as I am loving and recognizing them. It's a joyful surprise, every time.

I might be a monist, but I'm no monotheist. I might be a Quaker, but I find I cannot be satisfied by a god who lived once, over a short enough span to be fully described in the pages of a single book. God, to me, is too big to fit into the Christian package, and too hard to understand to love without the aid of the myths and stories that, somehow, got woven into my RNA when I was still very, very young.
Certain hills painted our feet
Colors of growing, colors of birth.
Certain springs drank us into them,
Watered our children and made them strong.
Certain rivers asked us questions
We answered according to season.
Certain seasons taught us the songs
We sang to our little ones
Bare-painted by the hills at our feet.

--------Penny Novack


Anonymous said…
I'm glad you've finally written this post. I had read with interest the "Cat's Spiritual Journey" series, but then it stopped too far short to understand where you were now. I'm not sure what I feel yet, but as I write this, an answer may come.

So, there is an Artemis from Greece who is virginal and quite good with a bow and certainly a mistress of animals. And there is an Artemis from Asia Minor with a whole chest full of breasts and then there is Diana in Rome and you could force them all into one entity. But the probability is that each one is really different and holds some bit of truth - perhaps universal or perhaps local. So what motivates the choice to force the reading of their mythologies into one form or another?

A spiritual sensibility might figure this out by looking at relationships. Which Goddess seemed to be present, what gifts were exchanged and where is the relationship going - looking at the relationship with honesty as well as with admiration and love. If there are three Goddesses at the end of the process, or one Goddess or (Goddess help us) a Trinity of Goddesses separable and yet the same, so be it. All that matters is the integrity of the process. It seems to me that you've followed an honest process and you have a primary spiritual identity through it. And from this understanding, you say that all other true spiritualities emanate from that Light - sort of like the Light being electricity and the Gods and Goddesses, the soul of the Earth and a friend's love are like a tungsten filament - all glowing, but from an external power source not their own.

Is the real evil in the world from damaged filaments or filaments that were not properly manufactured in the first place? What are the surgical tools to repair a soul?

If I were pushed into a corner and forced to declare my own theology, it would go something like this. The Earth and everything around it has a rich layer of souls. Some of them are human, some of them are animals, some of them are plants, some of them are none of the above and some of them are currently alive in a corporeal body. Each soul has its own Light and glows under its own power.

Souls interact and in that interaction their individual Lights strengthen. Some interactions are harmless and support goodness and beauty - no other Lights are dimmed. Some interactions strengthen their own Lights by dimming other Lights. Other interactions are so complex as to not be interpretable until a few thousand years after the fact and could go either way. Uncountable numbers of simultaneous interactions - exchanges of energy and other gifts.

While I'm not wiccan, I can appreciate some of the depth of the wiccan Rede and the Charges. Find pleasure in this world and harm no one. Work towards the first type of interactions - harmless and supportive. Avoid the second type of interactions, using no weapon (material or spiritual) except in the extremes of self defense or defense of your loved ones.

I don't believe in one Light, not since the Big Bang anyway. Belief in One of anything has a tendency toward the second type of interaction. What I do believe in is the possibility of seeing Light in another and sometimes being able to nurture that Light. If I were forced to interpret the Quaker understanding of Light, it would be through that lens and not through the definition of a separate Power.

So, I find your exceptions interesting. The soul of the Earth itself and your Pagan community. The exceptions fit my model, but that is from my outsider's perception.

Anonymous said…
I agree that listening to The Other Side of Virtue was a bit jarring, but for me that happened because I follow Hellenic Polytheism. We already have systems of ethics based on the ancients -- the Delphic Maxims (without the misogynistic one), the Tenents of Solon, the Golden Sayings of Pythagoras, Aristotle's Ethics -- all which come after Homer's heroic era. Some of what Myers said rings true for our reconstruction of the ethical system, and some of it does not because he draws from a lot of Northern mythology.

Then again, Asatru, Religio Romana, Hellenismos, Kemeticism, and CRP have deviated enough from Neopaganism to have our own grouping on Beliefnet now, which is very exciting. Still, I encourage you to look at other ways of interpreting Virtue if his way does not bring you peace.

In the Gods,
Hystery said…
Some of your thoughts about what it might mean to be a Pagan would clearly exclude me from being a Pagan. Yet, I clearly am a Pagan and have been for my entire adult life (though I have never been a member of any Pagan coven or community and would have no desire to be) and everything I have read from you (even the stuff that sounds monotheist) sounds pretty darn Pagan-ish to me too. Of course, we are too diverse to be defined so easily.

What makes a Pagan, in my book at least, is the profoud sense that the Universe is en-souled. That's it. Lay aside gods and God. Lay aside polytheism, monotheism, even pantheism. These are only metaphors and word-systems to help us articulate (awkwardly) what remains Ineffable. We have no easy way to define our beliefs. We cannot, as a theo/alogically marginalized group easily rely on the old theological tools and jargon. We did not write those rules and the words come first from others' lips.

There are those among the Pagans who would like nothing better than to define us into little compartments and begin the process of determining a kind of Pagan orthodoxy. Definitions betray us and hollow the Meaning each of us carries. But we know it in our hearts. We feel it in our marrow. We are One and that's what makes us Pagan.

Using the Abrahamic terms, there is no God apart from Us. There is God with us, God in Us, God of Us. God as Us. (And of course by "us" I do not limit "us" to human beings but to all of "creation.") The Christians have always had a bit of the Pagan in them, both historically and theologically. The Johannine text hints at it. The Pauline texts struggle with it. The mystics played with it. And in the United States (and perhaps in other nations too but I only study the U.S.) the Pagans have always had Christianity in them too.

Paganism did not spring Athena-like, fully formed and ready for battle in the mid-twentieth century. Long before Gardnerian Wicca or Starhawk, or Gimbutas, or Bonewits, there was an already-there Pagan tradition. Perhaps they did not use the term but look to Margaret Fuller and to Matilda Joslyn Gage or the non-Christian Theosophists and Spiritualists. And look who the first Spiritualists were who maintained that all souls can communicate with the dead and that the spirits are all around us. The first Spiritualists were Friends! There is a reason for that. Not all of us have to acknowldge it or feel it but some of us do.

I am a Friend for the same reason that I am a Pagan- because I see the world the way the mystics do, with my heart wide open. From what I read in your blog, so do you.
iona said…
as far as i can see, the point of paganism is to allow the multi-view. some pagans are warriors, some not--for example the dhali llama (who, yes, i understand might or might not be considered pagan, but it is telling that paganas would include him; paganuism is inclusive). if being part of this diversity is uncomfortable to you, you might explore that as an issue. one of the dangers of monotheism is the demand that all follow the same path. you seem to wish to be free of certain didactics of monotheism, and especially some of the specifics associated with christianities trappings. i think we need to separate our yutopias and individual choices from separatism. best, iona
The rest of the Spiritual Journey series is still in the works. I'm at the "Witch war" installment--the conflict within Pagan community piece--and that's very hard to write in a way that is honest and read, and yet does not make the reader feel as though I'm drowning them in the minutiae that make up all community rifts. Then, too, it's a time in my life where, looking back, I'm not entirely proud of my own actions; I want to share what it has been like to wrestle with things I found morally challenging in myself, in a way that I hope will be honest enough to allow readers who have experienced the pain of their own community breakups and reconciliations to recognize. And I also want to bring my newer, Quaker sensibilities to the story.

In other words, the next chapter is a bastard to write. But Version 6 or 7 or whatever is saved--probably it will go up reasonably soon after the end of my school year, when I have time to write it. But getting the series finished is a goal for the summer. (And maybe compiling an anthology--that's a hope of mine, anyway.)

I think you and I are at the "interesting campfire discussion" stage in exploring the differences in how we see the gods. Happily, this is something that, in my experience, the Pagan world is very comfortable with. For years, I've routinely circled with Pagans whose theologies are radically different from my own. Never seems to be an issue: we're all secure enough in ourselves not to need everyone to have the same interpretation of events, and as long as the gods show up and interact with us in worship, we are all happy to worship together.

Pagans do a good job of accepting the things that work, whether we fully understand them, or not. (And can you imagine a cosmology that seemed to say we understand the gods???)

Annyihra, thanks for stopping by. I am not about to stop calling myself Pagan because a Pagan writer I admire espouses a code of ethics that makes me uneasy. But I do think that Paganism is not a peace religion, and given the centrality of the peace testimony in my current spiritual understandings, that is likely to remain a point of tension in my relationship with Paganism. That's OK--I often feel I learn and grow most when I have internal tension and conflict to wrestle with.

My experience of Hellenism is that it varies a good deal, depending on what periods of history or locales in Greece are the focus of a group's attention--Athens, of course, is the most accessible, because of the level of documentation, but other "flavors" do seem to exist. And I imagine that how definitive Homer is taken varies from group to group as well...Though my understanding is that Homer was taken as authoritative in a way that other sources were not, though most of the Classical period. Mind you, I'm an outsider when it comes to Hellenism, so it's possible I'm distorting things. But I'm aware that different groups see things differently. Hellenism does not speak to me, personally... though, as with Brendan Cathbad Myers' work, I enjoy learning about it and reading about it for the ways it stimulates my thinking.

Hystery, I hope you did not take my personal soul-searching as an attempt to draw a line for other people around what is or isn't acceptable Paganism! But I think it's important that I ask myself these questions. One of the things that Paganism has taught me is the importance of trusting the validity of lived experience, whether or not it is what I think a valid Wiccan/Pagan/Quaker/fill-in-the-blank
ought to be experiencing.

It's important, from my point of view, to give my allegiance to the experience of Spirit, not the names for it. And that's where I was coming from in this post--a personal examination of my integrity in applying the name Pagan to myself, when so much of what Pagan often is taken to mean doesn't fit me as well as it once did. The thing is more important than the name for the thing--and the integrity needed to challenge myself is important to me in lots of other ways, too.

I'm not implying a lack of integrity on the part of any other person who shares some of my points of difference with "generic Paganism" who doesn't feel the need to do this reflection. It's just work that I was led to do.

Iona, I don't see multiple views as the point of Paganism so much as an inevitable result of trusting the experience of it. Pagans show a great deal of diversity not because, in my view, we're a "do what you want" religion--an accusation non-Pagans often make--so much as because we allow lived experience to be primary, and our experiences differ. We accept that, because we know none of us holds the whole truth...and because we understand that, as in an ecosystem, diversity is a good thing, likely to bring completion and balance that no monoculture can have.

I am not wishing to be free from or bound by monotheism or certain religious ideas, then. I am tracing out the implications of spiritual understandings that change and evolve as I live my Pagan and Quaker life. Experience shapes my ideas, and then reshapes them. Every so often, I think it's important to sit down with the new shapes and think about what that may mean in terms of how I explain myself to the world. But it's about the experienced spiritual life, not the wished-for Utopia or idea.

Hope that makes it a bit clearer... and thank you for stopping in.
Hystery said…
I did not think you were in any way being exclusive and I did not feel excluded. Your are ever-gentle and clear which I appreciate. I was only musing with you- adding to and not countering your words. I appreciate your wrestling and understand its value. So important and so helpful for others (like me)to witness this process. We who are "hyphenated" must do this to maintain honesty and integrity in our journey. An experiential spiritual practice cannot remain unexamined. Blessings.
Anonymous said…
Well, some day, I do hope to share that campfire discussion in person.

Grian said…
Love this line: "The New Age movement is about marketing spiritual experiences; the Pagan movement is about being a people who have spiritual experiences with one another." and I'm gonna quote you one day soon on my blog. :)

Great work. These two posts are really insightful.
Anonymous said…
Hi Cat,

Thank you for these remarks on my discussion of heroic virtue. The ethics described in ch.2 of OSV are indeed the ethics of a warrior culture. Personally, however, my ethics are those of a philosophical culture, more so than that of a warrior culture. I think you may appreciate the chapter in the book where I discuss "The Immensity", the deep logic which I think is present in the concept of virtue itself, whatever the culture it emerges from.

Anonymous said…
I've read your blog with interest for some time, and while I too miss the Spiritual Journey series continuation, I too understand.

One of the reasons I first stopped by was because my parents are both Quaker. My mother says often that she would have made a good pagan and I tell her that she IS a good pagan. Jumping the fire at Beltaine with my quaker pagan mother is a memory I will always cherish.

Thanks for visiting me too.

Bright blessings,
Anonymous said…
Responding to the point raised in part 1, about the difference between the Quaker and Pagan ethos with respect to self-aggrandizing, ego-gratifying behaviour, I am reminded that the fundamental Quaker commitment is to the Truth. If your truth is that you see self-aggrandizing behaviour in yourself, the truly Quakerly response IMO is to recognize that truth and accept it as part of yourself, lovingly bringing the Light of God/dess upon it. Indeed, in Britain Yearly Meeting there's an A&Q to that effect. We must recognize that some historic Quaker attitudes and behaviours were shaped by antiquated theories of psychology. I have seen, felt and read about true humility among Quakers; but I have also seen and read of false humility, probably arising from a sense that the self is inherently unworthy, or not wanting let others see the self as it really is. I honour you for the ministry you offer to the Quaker community by speaking honestly and authentically.
So good to see you're still up to challenging us with your provocative reflections.

Love & blessings,
It is almost embarrassing to have so many thoughtful and kind responses to this post. :)

I'm flattered just to have Brendan Myers stop by. As I think I mentioned (and if I didn't, shame on me!) I'm really looking forward to reading his book, challenging and provocative as some of his ideas are for me.

In fact, I've noticed over time that I often am drawn toward writers who choose perspectives that challenge mine. Come to think of it, it's something I cherish in a friend, too--I really like the growth that comes when different perspectives interact.

Guess it wasn't such a stretch to go dual-faith, when you think about it. *laughing at myself*

Cynthia, I've become a regular reader of your blog, and I really appreciate the background on your life you give here.

Robert, your use of the word "ministry" to describe my blog made me go all quiet at the center. I know that I hope, at least, that the best of my blogging rises to that level--what Quakers term ministry. And one of my current struggles is around how much I need to focus on that sense/hope, and whether or not to invite some oversight from my monthly meeting.

At the same time, I'm aware that, in a sense, the community of bloggers provides a kind of ad hoc oversight committee, and that I rely on the blogosphere for clearness quite often. While unconventional, I think that this practice has been mostly good--at least for me.

But the idea that my words can sometimes be received as ministry--well, that's sincerely humbling, in a really good, shivers-down-the-spine kind of way. Thank you.

Macha--thank you for reading. Thank you for being a friend. Blessed be.
RichardM said…
OK, now that the comments on this have died down I feel free to quietly slip mine in.

First and foremost, you report on hearing a voice telling you that you are Quaker and you seem to understand that it means the unhyphenated kind. Well, is it authentic or not? That's the only real question here. You can psychoanalyze yourself about motives from now to doomsday and it doesn't matter. If that is God's voice you need to obey it. If not, then who cares?

And, by the way, I don't read your blog because of the Pagan stuff. When I first found it I followed the links to other Pagan sites out of curiosity but rapidly formed a pretty negative impression of paganism overall. I probably did find the blog indirectly because of the Pagan connection. That is to say, that was the reason it was featured on QuakerQuaker, but the reason I come back from time to time is that you write well and honestly.

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