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Pagan vs. Polytheist

pagan
maypoleThe Pagan sections of the internet have been ablaze over the last week or so due to the pronouncement of a prominent blogger that she is dropping the moniker of Pagan for the more accurate label of Polytheist.  A lot of really thoughtful commentary has come out of this discussion about what is Pagan and why Polytheism is important.  Here's a stack of articles in response:  
Genderqueer is to Trans and Polytheist is to Pagan
Bringing Back The Gods
Big Tent Syndrome (Or Running to Pagan)
Three Legs on the Pagan Cauldron

But I want to look, rather, at the cluster of what we have been labeling as Pagan faiths, and think a little bit more about whether or not it makes sense to maintain that cluster as a viable umbrella for this vast number of very different traditions.

The term Pagan itself is a reclaimed word.  Like any number of other identity communities who turn a pejorative word into a term of pride or power, people of certain faith traditions have adopted the term Pagan.  In their pejorative context, Pagan faiths were anything other than Abrahamic faiths, though Islam was often questioned as to whether or not it was Pagan as were Catholics quite often considered suspect for their devotion to the Virgin Mary or in their reverence for Saints.  The defining point that made something Pagan was that it denied or "confused" the "truth" of the One True God and his son Jesus Christ.  Anything that cluttered up that reality was anathema, and therefore a Pagan practice.  Sidenote: This is one of the interesting things about fundamentalist Christianity today, in that there is a tendency to reject public holidays like Christmas, because it incorporates traditions that have nothing to do with the celebration of the birth of Jesus.  Trees, wreaths, gifts, lights, all of these elements are elements of Germanic winter solstice traditions that were incorporated/assimilated into the church in order to try to spread the influence of Christianity.  By rejecting the Pagan trappings of Christmas, the fundamentalist Christian reaffirms her purity in her devotion to Christ. 

Now when we come to the question of what we have heretofore called contemporary Pagan faiths, we have to ask if there is any kind of evidence to support classing all of those faith traditions in this way?  Clearly not, because to define anything that was Non-Abrahamic as Pagan is overly broad.  Buddhists, Hindus, and Native American religious traditions would be incorporated into that kind of definition, and those traditions have not been explicitly incorporated into what we have known as the Pagan community.  So, perhaps that's where we should start looking. 

The Pagan community is made up of hundreds upon hundreds of smaller faith groups and also a wide array of individual practitioners that have no formal tradition or group.  Let's name a few in no particular order.

Wicca
British Traditional Wicca
Gardnerian Wicca
Alexandrian Wicca
Seax Wicca
Dianic Wicca

Witchcraft

Shamanic Paths

Druidry

Arn Draioch Fein
the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD)

Magical Lodge Traditions
The Golden Dawn
Ordo Templi Orientis
Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn

Gnostic Traditions

African Diaspora Religions

Vodoun
Santeria
Ifa

Reconstructionist Faiths
Asatru
Greek Recon
Roman Recon
Celtic Recon
Slavic Recon

Going to any kind of Pagan conference or gathering would most certainly bring out people from all of these different traditions.  There is an element of synergy in all of these faiths that brings them together in a positive and productive way.  There is also an element of respect, information sharing, and overlaps in praxis between these different traditions that reinforces their synergy.  But they are each unique in their methods and their devotions.

Jonathan Korman was attempting to construct a definition of what constitutes a "Pagan sensibility" on his blog. If you just look at the surface details these systems are not entirely like each other.  They have entirely different mythos, ritual, end goals, concepts of the afterlife...  There's a lot of difference.  However, one thing that they share in these moments of convergence is something that is very much like classical Pagan faith: There is no one truth. 

In the classical world, you may live your life in service to a particular deity if you are a priest of that deity, but most everyone would go to the God that was needed at the moment.  People would participate in rituals to the Magna Mater one day, and go bathe in a river for Venus the next, and sacrifice animals on the altar of Jupiter the next, etc. etc.   Foreign cults were a part of the fabric of daily life, and new religions sprang up as circumstances dictated.  The classical Pagan was someone who held no singular creed, though oaths may be made and deals struck in service to a God, there was no one true way. 

The contemporary Pagan has been criticized roundly for constructing his faith a la carte.  But this is nothing new, and in fact, I believe it's at the heart of what Paganism has always been.  The belief that we need to have a well defined and carefully constructed faith comes from the world of church doctrine and orthopraxy.  The idea being that if we're just going with the flow that it can't possibly be a religion, or even constitute a religious movement.  Instead what is happening now is exactly what happened before.  A cluster of people found a truth, and they shared it. And then some other people found a truth, and they shared it.  Someone spoke with a God and they were told to perform a rite, and they shared it.  And all of these elements started to form this big eclectic patchwork quilt of tiny cults.  Some of them gained prominence by having famous backers.  Some of them gained prominence because they worked miracles.  Some of them gained prominence because they were so spiritually transformative and so emotionally powerful that the word spread and so did the religion.  But many of them were small.  And none of them really ruled the others. 

We will never be able to link all of these different faiths into any kind of unifying doctrine or creed or find links between their ethics or ritual systems.  Nor do I think we should ever try to do that.  However, I think that Korman is absolutely right that there is a "Pagan sensibility," and that sensibility hearkens back to that original derrogatory definition.  I think that the Pagan Sensibility is that no one has "The Truth," and that there is spiritual wisdom to be gained from many places.  We may devote ourselves to a particular tradition, and dive deeply into that tradition.  However, we do not exclude or deride the spiritual experience of others. Rather we seek to learn great truths from other traditions within their ritual and mythic paradigms, and then sincerely incorporate the insights gained from these experiences into our personal understanding.  Paganism is not any particular faith or creed, it is an interconnected web of cultic experiences that brings us into communion with deeper forces.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Christine Hoff Kraemer
Jan. 13th, 2013 03:11 pm (UTC)
A common approach to the question of "What Is Paganism?" is to try to draw boundaries around the outside of the group instead of looking for the elements in the middle, the things that we hold in common, which has been my strategy in answering that question. I appreciate your similar thinking here.

I would be careful about automatically including the African diaspora traditions (for example), as many practitioners of those paths are firm about not being Pagan (some are Catholic, in fact). Similarly, some Golden Dawn practitioners are Christian and Jewish.

To me, the baseline answer for who gets included under even the "big tent" definition is the fact that they use the label of themselves. If we want more of those who are conflicted about Pagan identity to join us there (for the purposes of diversity, community, and just plain fun), what I'd recommend is this:

1. framing "Pagan" in positive terms, not in terms of what it is not
2. having a consistently welcoming attitude to those who don't have a Pagan identity but enjoy the company of Pagans
3. using labels to communicate about expectations and shared values, not to include or exclude, and applying them more to beliefs and practices than to people
4. attending to problems in our community that drive people away, such as commercialism, cultural appropriation, religious bigotry, lack of ethical accountability, and poor interpersonal skills

If we want "Pagan" to be a word people are proud of, it's up to those of us who already feel unconflicted about it to make it so.
fritterfae
Jan. 13th, 2013 06:16 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for responding to this. I get where you're coming from about not automatically including African Diaspora and Lodges. I think the main reason that I did include them is because past experience at ostensibly Pagan identified events brought them out. So, where they feel they are a part of the Pagan community, and when the Pagan community embraces them I feel it's appropriate to say that they are of a "Pagan Sensibility," without explicitly saying they are Pagan. Though that's not how I worded it above.

Again, it's not to identify any particular doctrinal position, but rather about a mindset of open spiritual inquiry. I guess in a sense this could be said also of Unitarians, but the distinction there comes from working within each group's unique cultic paradigm. When we go into any tradition's ritual, it is on their terms and within their norms that we immerse into the experience. And that practice is something that I see as deeply active in the Pagan community. The UU assimilates the teachings of many faiths into their own liturgical format. Whereas the Pagan community retains the diverse ritual and experiential component that is unique to each group. It is a journey, and not something you can easily rein into any one place.
kitten_goddess
Jan. 16th, 2013 03:32 pm (UTC)
Christine, your recommendations are on target. Another problem that may drive people away is the lack of common sense in the community. Too many of us are willing to swallow anything idiotic that comes down the pike, whether it is David Icke's lizard people conspiracy theories or the latest rant against vaccination. We need to be more critical and rigorous thinkers so we can shed our reputation as flakes.
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