I often find it convenient (though sadly not always very accurate) in conversation to define myself negatively by systematically excluding myself from categories and terms I perceive to be common to the understanding of other people. For instance, though I am a Pagan, I am not Wiccan or polytheistic. As a Quaker, I am not evangelical or (perhaps) Christian. The problem with this is that I have to first establish the meanings of words I exclude from my identity both within their contemporary and historical contexts and within the experience and understanding of those with whom I am conversing. Also, it becomes an exercise in drawing a circle to leave others out. Dramatic misunderstanding is often the result. Likewise, if I simply call myself Pagan or Quaker and leave it at that, similarly dramatic misunderstanding results as I then struggle with what my listeners or readers already assume about the meanings of those terms.
We Pagans have a problem because we can't really say what Pagan is. It is so much easier to begin our definition by what Paganism isn't. We aren't Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Except, when you get right down to it, even that isn't always true. My own study of Paganism finds quite a bit of commonalities and shared inherited tradition and belief between Pagans and Abrahamic folks. Sometimes, as in my case, it may be easier to find commonality with certain Christians that with other Pagans. Without a doubt, I find much more spiritual commonality with many Quaker Christians than I do with many Wiccans. Much of that has to do with a shared approach to spiritual practice which makes differences in theology less urgent. I also belong to a group of spiritual feminist authors who identify on a spectrum of religious label which include Paganism and Christianity. What we share is a focus on environmentalism, feminism, and social justice concern. We share an approach to the discussion of the Sacred that utilizes feminine metaphors whether that is the Christian Mary or Sophia or the Pagan Diana or Isis although we often don't share similarities of practice. I share practice with Quaker Christians and find them familiar. I share thealogy with Goddess feminists and find them familiar as well. On the other hand, when meeting some Pagans, people who are supposedly members of my own religion, I'm blown away by how radically different their understanding is from my own. In some cases, I can't find any belief or practice that seems even familiar to me. Even so, I concede that clearly, if mysteriously, we are both Pagans.
But why? Why are we both Pagan if we share no obviously common beliefs, traditions, or practices? Is it just because neither of us are Christian (or Jewish or Muslim)? Clearly not because there are several other categories of belief and unbelief that are non-Abrahamic but also non-Pagan. Additionally, the definition of Paganism as "not Christian" or "not Abrahamic" is not only negative, it is stereotypical and inaccurate. It excludes lots of us who are, if only nominally or culturally, quite Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) indeed.
This is an important question for me as an historian of religion. In studying the evolution of Paganism in the United States, I am often struck by the historical influences of folks who did not use the term Pagan. Transcendentalists, Spiritualists, and Theosophists all contributed significantly to the tradition that is today Paganism. But were they Pagan? Or proto-Pagan? Or what? What was the distillation process that filtered out some (but not all!) Christian assumptions from these ancestors' thinking? What was the process whereby some (but not all) Eastern, indigenous, and Romantic traditions were modified and incorporated into the contemporary practice of "Paganism"? Whose beliefs became critical and whose beliefs became marginal? Who and/or what process was behind this historical evolution and how is that evolution continuing today? Can we discern the patterns at work among us that contribute to the future of what we now call (with much confusion, rancor, and bewilderment) "Paganism"?
Similar questions can be asked about first generation "Christians" who also came from a wide variety of religious perspectives. Why is it that the Jewish Christian perspective of the Jesus Movement in Palestine and the Gnostic perspective lost out while the Hellenistic perspective gained strength? Of course, these questions lie outside this particular blog entry, but I think that the history of early Christianity may very well serve as a cautionary tale for Pagans in our own natal period.
So what is it, apart from a collective use of the label, that binds us together as Pagans?
I don't have a definitive answer to this only more and more questions. Is Paganism "a religion"? I focus on the "a" in this. Paganism is obviously religious, but is it singular? Historical Paganism before the advent of the Abrahamic religions was plural. One would hardly expect one practicing a Hellenist religion to readily concede that they were co-religionists with the Celts or with the Haudenosaunee or the Magyars, Gauls, or Hopi. We say "Paganism" as if we speak of one world religion today, but much of that is the result of the learned habit of contrasting all religious perspectives against that Abrahamic perspective. Are we therefore, in accepting a need to define ourselves as "a religion" large enough to stand up against the Big Three Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism merely copying the hegemonic impulses of the monotheistic/imperialist traditions most familiar to us? Is the desire for a definition of Paganism in the singular a holdover from Abrahamic western approaches to religion? Is God one? or plural? or a combination of oneness and plurality that defies our language? Is this conversation growing more heated with the influence of the internet which draws together Pagans of widely different stripes who might not otherwise have communicated with each other? Is it growing out of an emerging felt need for institutions of higher learning to produce practitioners and theorists who can take their place in the wider community of religious scholars and community leaders? And who is losing and who is winning in this? Why and to what purpose? Can we modify this to become more inclusive without sacrificing academic rigor and historical accuracy?
I see evidence that this discussion is growing and that the questions continue to multiply. (Cat's post over at Quaker Pagan Reflections was the immediate inspiration for that which I have written here today. See http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/) It frustrates me to be sure to not have a definite answer to any of these questions, but I also find it fascinating. I'm curious to find what the next several years bring to this debate, but I'm also fairly certain that the conversation is only just beginning and that it will not be my generation or even the next that comes to terms with it. Therefore, onward we struggle with this, round and round in infuriating conversations that seem to lead nowhere. It is enough to wear a thinker out. On the other hand, perhaps this tension is promising. Given the damage done by orthodoxy, we should not despair that we Pagans, whoever we are, will likely fail to achieve it.