November 24th, 2013

pagan

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.

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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.