The Complexity of Public Religious Exploration

Reading in the MountainsThere has been a lot of commentary already about Teo Bishop's spiritual journey, with widely varying opinions about what this does and doesn't mean for the Pagan community and the Christian community and for Teo himself. I'm not going to get into that debate. Instead, as someone who shares about his own religious and spiritual development online (albeit in a much smaller pocket of the universe and far less frequently), I wanted to reflect on the method by which this story came to be a story.

A friend of mine asked why we, the Pagan community, give places of prominence to people who turn out to be fake Pagans, or to those who rise quickly and fade fast.  I can see exactly where she was coming from with this, because there is a lot of ire from minority religions toward Christianity as a dominant overculture, especially here in America.  As a minority religious movement we do want to be cautious about who rises to positions of leadership. But I also feel that this is an unfair criticism, because I don't really see this as being about Pagans giving credence to "fake" Pagans.  Rather, I think that this is indicative of a new media phenomenon of open living and global public inquiry coupled with normal changes in personal spiritual growth.

New Communications

The only difference in between Teo Bishop and any other spiritually conscientious explorer is that Teo's changes happened in public.  We can thank the Internet for this experience.  Blogging platforms and social media give individuals the opportunity to easily share personal thoughts and reflections, and there are hundreds of blogs where people share and record their spiritual journey.  There is clearly a market for this, and a desire for people on spiritual journeys to find other people who may be like minded out in the blogosphere.  When an article resonates with one of us, we share that article with our networks and communities, spreading the voice far and wide, and rippling out along those chains of communications.  With our overlapping circles of friends and spheres of influence these voices begin floating to the top.

Nobodies become somebody because we live in a world with unprecedented levels of communication.  I watch random daily video blogs of a gay couple in California whose lives revolve around driving around Los Angeles, playing with their dog, and going to Chipotle.  I read and follow a journal of a single father raising his child who just a year ago came out as bisexual.  I don't know these people from Adam, but their lives are so open, and their stories so relate-able that I find myself compelled to keep reading/watching. I found them because someone I know posted a link and I followed a link, and that lead from one thing to another until I started following the original content directly and then sharing it out among my friends.  This is how we get to viral videos and memes, a rippling fractal of shares and re-shares that leads us back to the origin point and the heat from that source creates a star.

Spiritual Inquiry

Every person who leads a spiritual life has varying degrees of reflection and change over the course of one's life.  Sometimes those changes lead us to higher levels of public prominence, and sometimes they take us further away from our spiritual practices. Sometimes we may find ourselves changing our perceptions of what is and isn't important to us spiritually, sometimes we have breakthrough experiences that lead us to new insights and visions, and sometimes we go through dark nights of the soul that leave us feeling bereft and distant from the divine.  These experiences happen to everyone who walks a spiritual path, even the most devout and fundamentalist follower of a religious tradition will at sometime find himself in doubt.  I find this comforting, because this means that there is always room for growth and change.

The problem comes when we have those turns in our spiritual path while living a life in public.  The public persona that has been constructed no longer seems to fit.  And so the writer is faced with the choice of being true to himself and his spiritual journey or pleasing the audience for his writing and maintaining an old, outdated persona.  In a world where personal branding is everything, this is a very thorny issue.  In the long run, you know that your personal spiritual growth, if it is meaningful to you, needs to make that change, and yet there is that pull to care for the people who you have built up as your audience.  That is a terrible position to be in.

I appreciate Teo Bishop's candor about his spiritual experience.  I have been moved by profound moments in my life as well, and I understand the power in those deep places.  I appreciate that he is following his heart.  The world is a pretty chaotic place, and if we can find those moments to help guide us to our spiritual home, then all is for the better.

Coda - Where I'm At

As someone who was raised in an agnostic household, I am often grateful for the spirit of open inquiry that my parents instilled in me.  In the Pagan community I do feel that I have feet, and when in ritual I feel connected.  It took me a lot of time and exploration to get where I am, and I have made a lot of twists and turns on that road.  In my personal life I wonder how much I truly connect to my Radical Faerie self any more, and if my connection to the pantheon of Rome still is meaningful.  I wonder what direction my spiritual practice may take.  I look at my service to the Open Hearth Foundation as a well of meaning and something that I wouldn't trade for the world.  And yet I feel distant from the Pagan community at the same time.  My own introversion has me collapsing back in upon myself and wondering what I am and what I will do next.  I have no idea where I'm going.  And I am grateful that I haven't got thousands of people reading my blog on a daily/weekly/monthly basis.

I just want to keep reading, thinking, and having experiences.  That's what I've always done, and that's what I plan to keep on doing.

The picture at the top of this post is from a vacation I went on last week into the mountains of western Maryland.  That's me reading a book in a big leather chair in front of a view of Deep Creek Lake.  My friend Jim Burnell took this photo of me from the second floor balcony of our lodge.  It was a quiet and beautiful day and I can think of nothing I would rather do with every day of my life than to be in that moment.

Evidence-Based Religion

flameThis morning a friend of mine shared an article from the Johnson City Press about a local pastor who is running a "judgment house" for Halloween.  This concept is nothing new, as the "Hell House" stable of Christian horrors has been a staple in American Evangelical reactions to the secular Halloween since the 1970's.

For those unfamiliar with this practice, the "hell house" is a religiously motivated version of the typical "haunted house"; however, the focus is more on the moral implications of life choices and the afterlife consequences of those choices.  Where the typical haunted house has murderers, ghosts, and monsters, the hell house has abortionists, gays and lesbians, occultists, and drunk drivers as those who are damned to hell for their sinful lives. It is a living tableaux of a Chick Tract.

However, in thinking about the Hell House phenomenon afresh, I am struck by how similar in practice it is with the suite of scare tactic programs that were developed in the 70's and 80's to frighten kids away from committing criminal acts, doing drugs, and having sex. Those programs such as "Scared Straight", "D.A.R.E.", and "abstinence only education" have been reviewed to have either statistically insignificant impact or adverse impact in achieving their goals (crime avoidance, drug avoidance, teen sexual activity respectively).  The U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice Research in Brief from July 1998 focused on a study by Lawrence Sherman (and others) entitled "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising."  In the "What Doesn't" box on page 7 and the narrative text following they list "Scared Straight" programs where youth in juvenile corrections visit adult prison facilities, and "D.A.R.E." which was a high school and middle school drug abuse program.  In fact the Scared Straight program had directly adverse effects and actually had an increase in criminal behavior in comparison to a control group that did not attend the program.  Abstinence-only education has been proven repeatedly to not only be ineffective in reducing teen sexual behavior, but also to lead directly to higher rates of teen pregnancy.

This criminal justice research came out 15 years ago, the teen pregnancy research in 2007.  None of that is really news.

The question of punishment as a deterrent in general is another one that has real-world correlations as well.  Paul Robinson in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies published "Does Criminal Law Deter? A Social Science Investigation" and found that "in most cases criminal law does not foster deterrence."  While the increase in capture rate can deter crime, the increasing severity of punishment does not succeed.

It's no surprise really to see evangelical churches still producing "hell houses" today.  They are a religious alternative and with well over a thousand people coming in it certainly can be a lucrative product.  But I wonder if they question the effectiveness as method of instructing children in avoidance of sin.  My initial guess would be, probably not.

The question I have then, is why should any church push hell and damnation?

The afterlife is something that certain religions focus on far beyond any other topic.  People want to go to Heaven and be with their loved ones.  They want to be good people and do the right thing.  So, the incentive to be better is in there already.  It's the disincentive of eternal damnation that is the harder sell.  Given the evidence above as to whether punishment and the consequences of ones actions serve as a deterrent to committing crime, the same could easily be said about the commission of sin.  Hell is not a deterrent to everyone.  If life imprisonment, or even capital punishment are not reason enough to deter a criminal action, then the eternal damnation of a soul is no more or less reason to avoid sin.

The Hell House is a product of a time when many people felt that programs like Scared Straight, D.A.R.E., and abstinence only sex education were believed to be effective means of prevention.  Evidence has proven that thinking to be wrong and counterproductive.  So, regardless of however lucrative the Hell House may be as a product, churches shouldn't delude themselves into thinking that their message will be taken to heart and that children will live more moral lives in accordance with biblical principles.  In fact, they may want to rethink their entire "hell and damnation" strategy of preaching entirely.

If the church's business is in leading souls to salvation, then this is a losing strategy.


Amazingly I'm Moved to Write About This

It has been an incredibly long time since I've written on this blog, or any of my blogs, and of all things I'm coming out of my hidey hole to write about Miley Cyrus.  It's been written to death, but I've spent a lot of time thinking about this performance and really what I feel that people are missing as they criticize her 2013 VMA appearance.

If you haven't seen or heard about it yet, the 20 year old former Disney star is breaking out of her America's Sweetheart image and getting a little rebellious these days.  Hey, she's earned the right to mature into whatever kind of adult she chooses to be.  The cognitive dissonance of this has been freaking people out, and she's been roundly criticized for her new look and feel.  She's released some videos to bolster this new image and the feedback has been mixed.  But the resounding chorus of distaste broke loose after her performance at the 2013 Video Music Awards last week.

Miley did a medley with Robin Thicke and 2 Chainz, which included her song "We Can't Stop", and Thicke's "Blurred Lines" followed by his number with 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar "Give It 2 U."  Everyone has been criticizing everything about this performance.  Is Miley Cyrus accessorizing with black people?  Is she appropriating twerk culture?  Why is she grinding up on Robin Thicke in that flesh toned plastic bikini?  What the fuck is up with the foam finger?

All of this What-The-Fuckery can be easily explained by two factors.  1) MTV is no longer the king of videos, and is trying to revive it's prominence in that venue with this constant conversation, and 2) Nobody is actually watching music videos any more if they have no idea what the hell is happening in this performance.

Let's start with the videos, because it's easiest to explain.

First off, This is Miley Cyrus's video for "We Can't Stop."  The whole thing is about being young and rebellious, and doing what you want to do.  It shows her doing goofy artsy shit with her friends.  Twerking with some girls with this giant teddy bear backpacks.  And basically being an in-your-face young person.  This is youth culture, and if it's alien to you, you're not looking at what the hell is going on with kids these days.  One of the lines is "We'll fuck who we want."  Yup.  She's just gonna do that, and she's an adult.  Good for you!  These are the connecting threads that lead us into Robin Thicke: sexual choice, and sexualized youth culture (via twerk).  Unless you're really following Miley Cyrus's career, you probably never saw this video.

Robin Thicke's song "Blurred Lines" has been probably one of the two biggest hits of the summer.  (The other being "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk and Pharell Williams.)  Blurred Lines has a kind of soul-funk feel, with lyrics about trying to break a woman out of her "goody two shoes" type of life, knowing that she's really an animal in disguise.  But more than the lyrics, which are a minefield, the video has also been roundly criticized because all the women in the video are nude and all the men are in suits.  It has sparked feminist analysis galore and pushed a number of parody videos as well.  But yeah, nude women dancing up on Robin Thicke, that's pretty much the video.  Now, a lot of people have seen this video on YouTube, because it is so crazy controversial.  So, there is at least a modicum of more understood cultural context for this portion of the show.

The third part of this trio medley is another Robin Thicke song "Give it 2 U," which I had neither heard nor seen until this very afternoon.  Given that the video dropped on August 24th, this is not terribly surprising that when it was performed a mere 24 hours after it aired that people wouldn't know the song.  In fact I thought 2 Chainz's performance at the VMAs in that medley was HIS song.  But nevermind.  This video has Robin Thicke, 2 Chainz, and Kendrick Lamar performing the song on a college football field surrounded by college football cheerleaders, in all their college paraphernalia (some in cheerleading uniforms, with foam fingers, and cheer signs) and some in some twerk dance clothes with choreography from the J-Settes.  Again the gist of the lyrics are about how Robin Thicke is well endowed and you really need to get up on that.  Well, lots of songs are about sexual prowess, and with a name like "Thicke" I'm sure he's got something to prove.  But again we get to sex and twerking with a college feel.

So this medley performance at the VMAs should not be so shocking if you put all the pieces together.  Miley Cyrus is a college age young woman, who is exploring her sexual freedom, participating in youth cultural trends and she was cast in this role to emulate pieces of each of these videos.  She is actually the glue that holds the entire performance together.  When she was presented with this possibility I have every reason to believe that she jumped up and down to say yes.  It is everything she is trying to push in her new persona.  The fact that people had no idea what was going on betrays the reality that we're not really watching music videos as much these days.

This is where we get to MTV.

For at least a decade now people have bitched about MTV never playing music.  It's always reality shows and game shows and more reality shows and bullshit.  Maybe every once in a while they'll do a video, or they'll do that top ten show where people call in and say why they like a song, but about 97% of programming on MTV is not music.

Now, this does not mean that there are no music video channels.  They exist.  But MTV was the king of music videos.  And alas it is no longer.  Now YouTube has that honor, more than anything else.  When an artist drops a new video, they drop it through YouTube.  Videos get hundreds of thousands of hits.  Some of them crack a million, some go as far as a hundred million views and counting.  There is no way MTV could ever compete with that.  So, in my mind, the VMAs on MTV is a relic of their historic prominence.  And as a television channel they can still host an awards show spectacular, like the VMAs.  And this was MTVs chance to keep holding onto the reigns of that idea that they are still relevant in the arena of Music.  By making a spectacle, and having everyone talk about it ad nauseum.  But at least the macros are fun.

There will probably come a day, in the not too distant future, when YouTube will probably host or co-host the VMAs.  It'll be live streaming, without a cable subscription, and maybe they'll be pulling the same ridiculous stunts as this.


Marriage =/= Monogamy

The last two days have been embroiled in the gay marriage debate both in the Supreme Court, on every news media outlet, and also across Facebook.  But I want to take a moment to talk about something that's been bubbling up across my friends list that I want to address.

Gay marriage does not spell the death of sexual liberation.

I have read two separate articles this morning lamenting the fact that if gay marriage becomes legal that it will be great for civil rights, but that it will force everyone to conform to heteronormative relationship dynamics.  See Megan McArdle's piece, and Scot Nakagawa's piece.

That is the biggest crock of shit I have ever heard.

Of all the gay married couples I know, and I know a good number of legal ones, there are plenty of non-monogamous, open relationship, polyamorous, and especially kinky people.  Being married hasn't changed their relationship dynamics, because it hasn't redefined who they were as a couple.

Marriage is a legal contract, presented by the state, and with that legal contract it confers upon that couple a host of rights via a legal shorthand that we have culturally defined.  But what marriage does not do is preclude you from defining your relationship structure.  There is no legal obligation from the state that requires you to be monogamous to your partner.  The state is not going to tell you that you can't be Mistress Mandy and use your riding crop on your five submissives because you're married.  The state is not going to tell you that you aren't allowed to fall in love with people outside your legally sanctioned marriage*.  The state is not going to tell you that you can't fuck half of Iowa and sell the video footage because you're married.  Marriage does not preclude you from being sexually liberated.  Marriage does not make you the property of your spouse.

There is no ball and chain.  You forged that when you bought into the idea of a ball and chain.

Marriage is only heteronormative if you allow it to be heteronormative.

* The issue of polygamy, or plural marriage, is one that is always on the tip of people's tongues.  Usually from the conservative argument as a "slippery slope."  It tends to go something like "If gay people can get married, then what's going to stop polygamists?"  To them I say, Absolutely Nothing.  Polygamy is something that needs to be revisited and readdressed culturally, and the sexual liberation movement has done wonders to get us there.  The kinds of discrimination that polygamy faces is just as real and just as devastating to people who love and care for each other.  This will come up, and in the end poly people will win too.

Spectra of Religion and Magic

Every man and every woman is a star.
-- Liber AL vel Legis, Ch. 1, Line 3

This has been at the forefront of my mind of late.  And it's terribly late and I am just going to slapdash this together.  It is at this time an incoherent thought that is moving me, and I have spent the last two days plotting the diagrams you are about to look at.

Over the course of the last several months the Pagan community and the Polytheist community have been at a continual proliferation of definitions of who is here and who is there, and the whole thing I'm sure was covered at length at Pantheacon which just ended, as well as the numerous blog posts that have been fueling the debate.  However I kept feeling like there was a bigger picture that was missing, and that picture had to do with notions of identity.

In many of the discussions online I have raised the point that this process of defining ever more granular labels for communities of practice in many ways mirrors the same process at play in other communities of identity such as the LGBTQIAA community.  Ever more granular definitions of sexual orientation, gender identity, biological sex, and gender expression have led to the queer community developing talking tools to explain this coalition of sexual minorities.  The best example of this is the GenderBread Person.  This visual aid places all of these categories on a spectrum, and for each category your place within the scale is determined by you.  It is not set in stone, and can vary over the course of one's life.

This got me to thinking.  Could we develop a similar tool that places our personal practices and our theological leanings within a similar model?

So, I sat down and played around with it.  What follows are examples of my attempt to do this. They are not intended to be comprehensive, but illustrative.

The Theistic Spectrum
This diagram represents a clustering of religious traditions within a broad based definition of their level of Theism clustered by their core focus.  I have identified three broad areas that theses religions tend to fall into: Human Focused, Material Focused, and God Focused.  Human Focused traditions look at the human condition as their primary need.  The existence of Gods is irrelevant to the work that must be done for the individual and for society.  These include Transtheisms (where Gods if they exist are unnecessary or irrelevant to the work of developing oneself), Atheisms (Where Gods are not believed to exist), and Agnosticisms (Where the existence of Gods are questionable, but unknown or unknowable).  Material Focused traditions look at the world, the universe and see something holy there.  The difference that separates them is whether that holy thing is discrete from other holy things (Panentheism) or if all things are holy because they come from a unified divine source (Pantheism).  God Focused traditions have at their core some level beyond humanity and beyond this earth.  The questions that separates the God Focused traditions are 1) the number of Gods and 2) if one is more important than the others.  Monotheisms espouse the belief in a singular God. Henotheisms acknowledge the existence of other Gods but places one before the others.  Polytheisms believe in the existence of multiple Gods and their importance among each other may be roughly equal or highly variable.

I've placed a few examples of religious and irreligious traditions in here just to start us thinking about this.  And yes, I know that some of these things are not exactly accurate.  Someone can be a secularist and a theistic person.  And some Christian traditions believe in intercessory messengers other than Catholics and the Orthodox.  The point I'm getting at really is that among these clusters, individual people who may also identify as Pagan may find themselves in a different category.  Brendan Myers blog entry on how the worship of the Gods doesn't matter is a great entry point into someone who defines himself as Humanist Pagan.  By appending that label of Humanist he identifies his focus as being here and on this earth working to improve the lives of people outside of the realms of any God based faith.  And yet, he does occasionally leave devotions.  So, perhaps he is more Transtheistic than Humanistic... But labels are for people to apply to themselves.

Now, Richard Dawkins developed a scale that places Atheism at one end and deep Theistic belief at the other end.  I felt that was far too limiting and honestly I felt it was disingenuous to the transtheistic people.  Their spiritualities may have Gods, demons, and other sorts of magical creatures, but they are no more relevant to them than they would be to an Atheist.  And so I placed Transtheisms first as an example of how this scale kind of loops around back upon itself.  In fact I did an entirely separate model with it all as a wheel.  I also snuck in "Deism" on the wheel diagram to try and even it out a bit because it was crazy lopsided.


But I felt that this left something out that needed to be discussed beyond the issues of the Gods and that is Magic.  I feel that Magic (however you choose to spell it) is just as equally an important spectrum for us to define in our relationships among each other as our level of Theism.   So, here's a chance at it. Again, not comprehensive, but illustrative.

The Magical Spectrum

This diagram shows a similar clustering of magical practices, though because of the hour and my desire to push this out faster I didn't include examples on this model.  The three large clusters of magical focus are Material, Natural, and Spiritual.  Materially focused practices range from hard science (no woo woo, just the facts), to Alchemy which is a root of scientific practice but bleeds into the level of magical practice with its aims, to Divination which is a sort of parascience focused on prediction from things like natural phenomena but without any necessary spiritual significance (Astrology, Geomancy, Tarot, etc.).  Natural Magics are focused on this world and the magical properties associated with the physical world.  Witchcraft as I'm defining it here would be like herbalism, folk magic, spell craft and energy work.  Shamanism is the borderland between physical practices like Witchcraft and Spiritual practices like talking with the spirits of the dead.  Shamanic work may involve speaking to plant or animal spirits, or doing spirit work to heal someone.  Spiritual Magics involve the invocation or intercession of spirits or divine beings.  Goetic works would be the invocations of angels or demons for various purposes (Yes, I know that Goetia is not exactly as I am describing here but work with me).  Thaumaturgical works would be something along the line of miracles performed by saints.  Theurgy is the actual invocation, evocation, or intercession of a God in order to accomplish a magical act.

Now, a lot of you may be saying that you do any number of these things, and that may well be true.  These are not intended to be mutually exclusive categories, nor are they intended to be seen as some kind of sequence of progressive steps.  Most people have a tendency to lean toward one method or other.   Also, coupling the magical scale with the Theistic scale and a definition of one's tradition leads us to more precise understandings of who we are in our respective paths.  Knowing where you tend to fall both in the broad clusters and the smaller definitions helps you more clearly understand yourself and helps others more clearly understand where you're coming from.

So, for me I am on the border between Polytheistic and Transtheistic.  I have had experiences that I cannot doubt, and that have changed the path of my life in ways I cannot begin to count.  And yet, I question where this is all going and why.  So I focus on the here and now and doing good for the greater Pagan community.  Living a life of service.  In terms of Magic I tend to fall into a more Theurgical place.  When I work magic it is to communicate with divine forces.  I don't blend sachets of incense or boil Aqua Fortis to make the Chemical Wedding.  I know of those things, but they are not my focus.  My love is learning and I speak to beings who I believe know more than I do.  And I don't discount science, I firmly believe in evidence based inquiry, and Uncle Al, who wrote those opening lines would say the same.  Magick is both Science and Art, it is just how you look at things.

And now that it's approaching 2:00 a.m I will go to bed.  I look forward to your comments.

Who Owns Your Tradition?

 photo phoenix-1_zps39812d4f.jpgOne of the things that we deal with as a community is the rise and fall of small groups that we have built up over the years.  The Pagan community of DC is not the same Pagan community it was ten years ago.  We have seen a number of groups start, dissolve, sputter, start again, dissolve again.  And each time it happens we learn new things from the experience.  Having observed this, and been through this process more times than I care to count I wanted to share some things that I think should be a part of the discussions you have with your covens, groves, traditions, etc.  Both for the sake of group cohesion, and the carrying on of wisdom from one group to the next.  And just to be clear, these are not just for Pagan groups, but I feel like our volatility as a burgeoning religious movement makes these questions all the more prescient.

Who Leads Next?

One of the most heart wrenching problems comes with the loss of a charismatic leader.  Whether through death or separation, a group formed around an individual can fall apart without that lynchpin.  Many Pagan traditions don't have a formal hierarchy, especially if they are formed around the spirit and passion of a singular leader.  But leadership takes it's toll on people, and they will eventually be lost.

  • What has your group done to ensure that your tradition could survive the loss of it's leader
  • Do you have legal incorporation documents and by-laws that determine a manner of succession or elevation?
  • Do you have a process by which members can nominate a new leader?

Who Has The Keys?

When a tradition has property, whether physical space or virtual space online, it's important to know who has the keys to that property and what will happen if that person is gone.  Physical property can be the subject of unbelievable disputes, especially if it is not the property of the corporation, but of an individual or a couple.  Divorce, death, or the fickle whim to sell a property could destroy long standing traditions.  Similarly, online real estate such as websites, list serves, Facebook pages, etc. are often left to the whims of a single webmaster.  If that person flakes out, your whole trad could just decay on the vine because no one would be able to communicate with you.

  • Do you have physical or online properties?
  • Who controls those properties, and is there a plan to revert them to the tradition?
  • Have you established any kind of legal protections, if everything goes haywire?
  • Do you have backup plans (and backup files) to reconstitute your tradition in the event of a loss?
  • What happens to the paperwork, ritual books, and all of your assets if it does go belly up?

Who Owns These Works?

Next to nobody I know in the Pagan community is talking about intellectual property rights unless they're an author who's published under one of the major presses.  Usually the context is "don't pirate a scanned copy of my book."  And that's a legitimate concern.  But there is another layer to this, and that has to do with the intellectual property of your tradition.  Did a single individual construct all of your ritual or liturgical texts?  Do you have songs or chants that you use in your rituals?  Do you have logos or a tradition name that is trademarked?  If the answer to any of these is yes, you should probably start exploring who owns the rights to the use and reproduction of those materials.  If all of your liturgical texts were all written by a single individual that person may try and stake a claim or issue a cease and desist if they leave.  Witch Wars gone legal can get super ugly.  And if someone lays a claim to all your ritual source material, you may have to start over from square one.

  • Have you incorporated and listed the name of your tradition as a distinct corporate and legal entity?
  • Does your tradition, as a corporate body, own the text of your ritual language, song, and other intellectual property?
  • Have you registered a trademark for your organization?
  • Have you explored making your material open to the public domain or licensed for creative non-commercial purposes such as Creative Commons?
  • Do you know how to defend your trademark and copyrights against infringement, or false claims of ownership?

Ask yourself and your group these questions, and hopefully in a time of crisis your group won't be stuck trying to figure out what to do.

Purpose in Paganism

Early last year the OHF Book Club that I moderate read "God Is Not One" by Stephen Prothero.  It's an analysis of several world religions, and it begins with an interesting conceit.  Prothero is opposed to the Perennial Philosophy, which posits that all religions are one, or that they flow from the same source.  His position is that this kind of thinking glosses over some fundamental differences that actually define each religion.  Without understanding those central conceits we are always kind of talking around one another. 

Prothero outlines a very straightforward approach using four bulleted points to outline how each religion differs from another.

* There is a problem.
* There is a solution to that problem, which also serves as the religious goal.
* There is a technique from moving from the problem to the solution.
* There are exemplars who chart this path from problem to solution.

He goes on to define these terms for two very easy to define faith traditions.

Christianity sees the problem that humanity faces is sin.  We are all fallen short of the glory of God.  The only path to redeem ourselves of sin is through salvation through Jesus Christ.  The techniques of salvation vary from tradition to tradition, though certain things like baptism, confession, and communion have a tendency to crop up among different facets.  Exemplars would be saints, charismatic leaders, Jesus himself, etc.

Buddhism sees the problem that humanity faces as suffering. We are born into a world of pain and suffering and only death releases us, but reincarnation brings us back into this world and the cycle repeats over and over again.  The technique is to achieve enlightenment and break free from the wheel of rebirth.  Buddha and Bodhisattvas have given us different techniques to achieve enlightenment if we would follow their example. 

And ever since I read that I feel like I have floundering for an answer for Paganism, and to be perfectly honest this is probably my biggest hangup when people drop Pagan and say Polytheist.  To say you're a polytheist doesn't actually say anything meaningful other than you have loads of Gods.  But WHY?  That's what I want to know.

Perhaps this is why we're all kind of wandering around and wondering what the hell our elevator speech is.  Without being able to define the purpose of these devotions we just are doing things because they're done.  Empty ritual serves no purpose, and doesn't really lead anyone anywhere.

Other polytheisms can look at their function and explain why we do these things.  Hinduism has the concept of moksha which is similar to the Buddhist attempt to break free from continual rebirth.  You either obliterate, or you become perfected and like unto a God.  It's kind of a tossup really until you work your way there by cleaning out the karma closet and doing all that Bakhti to the God(dess) of your choosing.

But why do NeoPagans do what we do?  What is our problem?

Can we point to a fundamental flaw with humanity and say this is our problem, and these practices are our solution?

I go back to Michael York's comment that paganism tends to be "spiritually materialistic."  The purposes of ritual actions are for favor from the Gods for something right here on earth.  Because this is where LIFE is.  The Religio Romana has a very strong emphasis on the individual's place within all these layers of superstructures (Home, Family, City, Nation, etc.), defining the ripple of influence should the devotee receive favor.  The purpose of doing devotions to ancestors, on the surface of it, is the hope that the same is done for you when you pass over and so that you are not forgotten among the living. The dead are 99.99999% of the time just shadows.  A few, very rare, and exceptional people are ever exalted to the status of God.  Most of us poor saps are just right here living to live and trying to make something of ourselves.  Perhaps the problem is that life is brief and death is so long, that we seek to make what we can of this life and progress ourselves and our families through the favor of the Gods.  Is it enough to be performing rituals for the sake of maintaining a personal legacy?  Who will pour wine on your grave?

Then again, that's not everything.  That's just a kind of Neo-Classical worldview.  Wiccans would probably say something entirely different.  That our problem is that we are not connected to the cycles of life and death, and that by living the wheel of the year we come closer to living in harmony with the world.  But what does living in harmony get us?  Recycling back into our families?  Happy smiles in a summer land?   

I think of all the traditions I know Thelemites are the most developed to answer these questions.  They would say that the purpose is to understand your true will and purpose here in this life to accomplish the Great Work.  Though from there it kind of goes fuzzy.  What happens once you start living in concert with your True Will?  Where does that whole business wind up going?  Is there an ultimate end goal beyond KCHGA?  Perhaps I just don't know enough to answer that question.

So, What is the purpose of your faith?  What's the problem, and how does your faith fix it?  Is that even the right question to be asking?  Perhaps this is all too personal, and that each person's rituals serve a purpose unique only to her.  I don't have answers here, and I think it bears raising the questions.

Defining Paganism

I've spent the last few days combing through Michael York's book "Pagan Theology."  York is firmly of the opinion that we can construct a coherent superstructure to look at Paganism, if not as a religion, but as a "religiosity."  This is the same position that Jonathan Korman attempted to define in his post on The Pagan Sensibility.  Though York's definition is more all encompassing.
[Paganism is] an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by the individual or community with the tangible, sentient, and non-empirical.
Now, that's kind of a mouthful really.  Let's break it down. 

Affirmation: This is a recognition of some sort.  This could be a ritual, a devotion, a prayer, etc.  It is something that builds a connection between the participant and the subject of the devotional act.  York goes on to posit that Paganism is more than anything a religion of celebration.

Interactive: The Pagan is not a pawn, but an actor within a network of various forces.  This is material and/or spiritual forces.  Those forces that act upon us are also subject to our actions.  It is a matter of give and take, and in there is no distinction between the importance of either side.

Polymorphic: This goes back to my previous post where I posit that Paganism does not have any singular truth.  There is no canonical literature.  There is no spiritual hierarchy.  There is no one pantheon that is correct.  Pagan faith takes different shapes dependent upon the individual actor, and the communities of faith that have developed a practice.  No one tradition is any more or less relevant than any other tradition.  We can learn from wherever, bring back wisdom from wherever, and there is no universal orthopraxy.  Though I will say that the NeoPagan community has tried to maintain distinctions between tradition boundaries and recognize and respect cultural heritage.  Though we may participate in a ritual from another faith tradition, this does not necessarily mean that we are now of that faith tradition or can claim its titles. 

Sacred: One of the very important things that York points out is that paganism as a worldview is "spiritually materialistic." (63)  The realm of the sacred is continually contextually defined as part of this physical world, and ourselves.  While there may be a numinous other realm, the focus of Pagan practice is quite often on the here and now.  Valerie Warrior in her sourcebook "Roman Religion" states that "the aim of cultus was to gain the favor of the gods (pax deorum) and avert their anger."  The purpose of Polytheism in this case, and in many other cases was for material action here in this world.  York also makes a very specific distinction between Paganism and Gnosticism.  Where Gnosticism sees the world as illusion, a fallen state from the pure spiritual; Paganism sees the world as real, and equally as sacred as the spiritual.

Relationship: Paganism is very much a two way street.  To go back to Warrior's book, she identifies a principle of Roman Religion that is actually common to a lot of Paganism, do ut des, I give in order that you may give.  While in the Roman context this is fairly explicitly contractual (though never a certainty as the Gods benevolence cannot be taken for granted), this same principle is used in Isaac Bonewits "Rites of Worship."  Bonewits sees the Neopagan ritual structure as being an exchange of "mana" or a spiritual energy between the divine force being worshipped and the congregation.  It is a mutually symbiotic relationship.  Now, this kind of relationship is not explicitly Pagan, as Christian prayer bargaining is not substantially different, and as TM Luhrmann has explained in her book "When God Talks Back" that developing a personal relationship to deity is something that Christians can engage in as much as the Pagan.

Individual or Community: Paganism is not a faith that is necessarily bound by any particular church.  We have a strong history of solitary practitioners, who work within any number of traditions or no tradition at all.  Part of this is the cultural context of contemporary Paganism.  In the Western world Paganism is a minor player within a much larger body of faith traditions.  Christianity and Islam being the two largest.  There are very few places where there exist a substantial number of Pagans who can band together in a sense of shared community.  These tend to be urban areas, where population density enhances diversity of faith.  However, developing a relationship between oneself and the sacred is something that anyone of a pagan religiosity can do on one's own.  In today's world of global communications we are able to develop virtual communities of Pagans, and experiments in solitary practice in communion with a virtual group (such as the Solitary Druid Fellowship) are beginning to take root.

Tangible: This goes back to being spiritually materialistic.  The Pagan religiosity does not denigrate the physical world, or see it as illusory.  It is the world in which we live and operate.  Whatever comes of us after death, we are still a part of this place here and now.  We must eat food.  We must work.  We must develop connections between other human beings in order to survive.  The human body requires touch, and a human touch helps infants develop deeper neural connections.  The physical world is just as real and just as important as the spiritual world.  Our actions in the material world have consequences of which we must be cognizant.  Our place in this world is mutable, and through conscious (or subconscious) action we change the world. 

Sentient: There exists such a thing as sentience.  There is awareness in ourselves.  For some faiths there is sentience in animals, plants, rocks, and for some sentience in disembodied entities.  We talk to these things.  We build relationships with these intelligences individually, communally, and sometimes on behalf of others.  Shamanic practitioners tell us they develop relationships with the spirits of plants, and of animals.  They speak to them and tell them how they heal, or how they kill.  People undergoing a trance possession may become able to channel a voice beyond themselves.  The community can speak to that spirit, and the individual may never know or understand what he or she did.

Non-Empirical: These would be the Gods you never see, but whom you know exist.  They have no tangible form, and you may never see them manifest in the body of a channeler, nor do they embody any particular idol or icon.  They are numinous, and yet we still develop relationships with them.  Great Goddess, Horned God, any number of divine beings with many representations.  York makes a point though to state that  while "polytheism is a common corollary to paganism, as a feature it is neither necessary nor sufficient," meaning that Paganism may have a strong thread of polytheistic faith running through, one can be Pagan without polytheism, and similarly, polytheism alone is not enough to identify a faith as Pagan. Christine Hoff Kraemer deftly explained this in her Three Legs of the Cauldron essay on Patheos.

I believe that York's definition of Paganism as a religiosity can lead us to a position that we may be more cohesive than it appears at first glance.  We are a part of this world, and this world is real.  We develop relationships between ourselves, the natural and the supernatural world.  The purpose of those relationships is expressly for actions that will take place in this world, and hopefully to the benefit of the devotee.  There is no right or wrong way to develop these relationships, nor do we seek one.  We recognize and respect others relationships that they have built, and may learn from them as they learn from us within each other's ritual and mythological paradigms.

Pagan vs. Polytheist

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.

British Traditional Wicca
Gardnerian Wicca
Alexandrian Wicca
Seax Wicca
Dianic Wicca


Shamanic Paths


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


Reconstructionist Faiths
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.

Funeral - Family - Friends

Being back in Cincinnati is weird and comforting at the same time.  In many respects nothing has changed.  There's still a fountain in fountain square. There's still a slew of restaurants and coffee shops and German sounding antiques dealers downtown.  But being so distant from my family means that I'm missing all of these major life changes going on constantly.  One of my younger cousins is a full grown young man, and I've only ever seen him as a baby.  Cousins who I talk to on Facebook are still sometimes muddled in my head when I see them in person.  Of the five of us who all grew up together, we're all of us married now, and three of five have children (2-5 of them each).  The only who don't have kids are the queer ones of us, so I guess we get a pass yet. 

There are entirely new babies.  Babies are adults, now.  Adults are growing into seniors.  And the seniors are crossing over one by one. 

I feel so far away. 

I don't come back home often.  I have a lot of conflicting emotions about it.  Not the people, just the experience.  I love my family, and they are the coolest people who anyone could ever ask to grow up with. I love my friends out here, because they continue to amaze me by being totally awesome.  And yet my life pulls me in so many other directions. 

This time I came back for my grandfather's funeral.  We were probably closer to my dad's side of the family than my mom's, if only for the fact of proximity to each other. So, his passing was meaningful, because it had so many memories of growing up attached.  I remember him going fishing with my dad.  Grilling steaks for everyone.  Laughing like crazy, and the daily little squabbles between him and my grandmother.  At the service the minister said that they had a "special" relationship, and everyone busted out laughing.  60 years together, and they still had a fire under each other.  When we were kids we would go have breakfast with my grandparents on Saturdays (and some other days), because they were right there next door.  There was always a Sunday dinner after they got back from church, and everyone would pile into the house. 

And now a piece of that is gone. 

But I remember what he put on those steaks. 

I got to see a ton of my family at the funeral.  They came from all over, and almost every one of them family.  Only a couple of other folks from the neighborhood and family friends dropped in.  Some folks looked so different that I didn't even recognize them.  A great aunt of mine has been struggling with cancer, and she's dropped so much weight she looked like her sister.  I couldn't even remember her name until I saw her with her husband, who hasn't changed a day.  I'm sure I looked very different to a lot of them too, because I used to be whip thin with long hair, and now I'm balding and grown into a weight that makes me look just like my mom's dad.

I finally got to meet my youngest niece.  I just haven't been home in so long that this two year old girl comes running in the house and I have to ask what her name is.  The older of the two of them is three now and she's tall as a five or six year old.  She's going to be an Amazon.  And they were a whirlwind together.  And still, I didn't introduce myself.  I just talked to them.  They're young yet, and I've got time to get to know them better.  But man, it feels weird to be related and yet isolated.

I think that's been the theme of this journey.  So close, and yet so far. 

I've spent half of this trip with friends.  Same as my family, the friends I left behind in Cincinnati are growing and changing and there are so many things that I just don't have on my radar.  New children, marriages, new relationships, and the same old same old.  Hopefully I'll get to see some more of them over today and tomorrow.  I've got at least three different visits lined up today, and I'm hoping to squeeze in one or two more in tomorrow before I go back to DC. 

Part of me wants to spend the rest of my life visiting with friends.  Traveling the world and seeing all of these people that I love.  Spending days with people and doing beautiful things together.  Hugs and drinks and hours of conversations and off the beaten path excursions and sharing in heart space with people.  Too much of my life is bound up in head space, and work, and daily grinds, and I don't take enough of the time I'm given to slow down and just be with the people I love.

Perhaps that should be my resolution.