Saturday, April 30, 2011

More Questions and Thoughts Regarding Paganism. Is it a single religion or many?

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  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.


Cat C-B said...
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Hystery said...

I've begun to accept that I understand community differently than others. I may not see the forest for the trees, but since I find each tree so fascinating, it doesn't bother me too much...although I'm fairly certain it bothers other people around me.

Hystery said...

I also am not part of a Pagan community. If anything, my community has been an interfaith community in which I am usually the only Pagan present. My people, therefore, are generally Christian, and I suppose, in the end, that I see my conversation with them as the conversation I was meant to have.

Cat C-B said...

Hey, Hystery!

Interesting post. I'm perhaps less concerned than you about academic rigor in applying a label to my practice, because I have been a practitioner for so long I no longer have the sense that I need to justify my identity to the academics... it is, instead, up to the academics to make sense of where I find myself standing. (It helps, too, that, unlike yourself, I am not a member of the academy in any meaningful way at this point--I am not a scholar, however fond I may be of scholarship.)

It helps, too, that my sense of the legitimacy of the syncretism and multiplicity of Paganism is grounded in about a quarter-century of practice in community. I have not only my own experiences to draw from, but knowledge of the evolving and deepening practices and beliefs of dozens of very different Pagan friends I've known for decades. I know that there is an underlying unity amid the apparent, intellectual disharmony, because I have experienced it, and often, in large and small rituals, and in the many small and tender encounters of life in spiritual community.

It is in part because those experiences have been so formative of who I am as a religious being that I need that word, "Pagan."

Hystery said...

Cat, I see that we have been Pagans for a similar length of time, but under very dissimilar circumstances. Your community, both your Quaker meeting and your Pagan friends, sound like such a blessing and source of strength.

Solitary Pagan said...
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Green Eclectic said...

Thank you for this post, and everything I've read thus far. This post prompted me to write a post of my own, which was a bit too long to post as a comment here... so if you're interested, it's at

Greg said...

Interesting post. It might be possible to leave things unresolved with generalities like - as Quakers might say - the Spirit moves us all diversely - or as I have heard Pagans say - we are all one in the Goddess. And these things are well said.

But in the end 'interfaith' communication supposes something distinct in each and every case for the 'inter' to operate between. So we need our firm bases of spiritual understanding. As the great Welsh Quaker poet Waldo Williams said "all any of us, of whatever religion, have is our own experience to go by", otherwise faith is blind. My experience is that paganism is a spark that ignites my spiritual life and I cannot do without it. But I have also found much value in Quaker social witness and much personal support and satisfaction in the attendance at Quaker meetings and the community of people within them. Whatever the philosophical or theological problems, which I acknowledge, this tension defines my spiritual life.

forrest said...

"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?"

--Because rural religious movements tend to be conservative: even if there's a full-force peasant rebellion going on, it'll happen under a traditional rationale. Jesus could appeal to the peasants of Galilee in terms of defending the Torah as remembered and understood by local underdogs rather than by overlords.

Once outside of Israel, any religion that could actually spread had to have appeal to urban people. "Pagan" apparently derives from a word abt 'people out in the countryside', those who were the last people in the Empire to change their religion. The urban population was thoroughly Hellenistic, and naturally understood Jesus through the mindset they brought to him. This made for serious distortions... but then, "Distortion is development; development is distortion."

Hystery said...

Thanks, Forrest. I think you do a good job summing up the history, and I always appreciate your perspective. The multiple Christianities that existed in the first century were each "real" in their own way. What Jesus would have thought of any of them, including the variety that grew up in Palestine, is really lost to us. Nor would it really matter if we knew with any kind of certainty. "Religion", as someone once told me, "is for the people. People are not for the religion." Certainly, although the Johannine version is way more Hellenistic, I kinda like it anyhow. It is gorgeously written for one thing, and appeals to me far more than the Markan text which is older. Certainly Friends have derived much good from it.

sta┼Ťa said...

With respect to terms and different Pagan theaologies, a course I took with Christine Hoff Kraemer really helped me grow a lot intellectually and spiritually, and sort myself out some spiritually. I learned a lot intellectually, and came to see some of my own blind spots intellectually and spiritually. It helped me get unstuck in some good ways.

It also helped me realize just how... arbitrary... a whole lot of this stuff is, including many of the intellectual terms.

But it certainly helped by positive, rather than negative, self-definition.

Paula Puddephatt said...

Thank you for sharing this. Your blog is a source of inspiration to me personally.

I do feel that sometimes I try so hard to define my faith and I have been doing this for so long, and every time that I feel that I am "there", it slips away. I don't think that I will ever "be" a particular religion, but at the same time, will I ever lose the need to try to belong, or wish that I could belong? I really don't know. But when I let go of the need to label myself or my faith, and just feel my connection with The Divine, it all falls into place so beautifully.

It is so strange, as when I was involved with the LDS (Mormon) church, they kept insisting that I had to either accept that The Book of Mormon was true or not, and I was never happy to declare that it was "true" in the sense of it holding all answers, as they were meaning - but yet, I do believe in The Book of Mormon, The Bible, The Qu'ran, all of the holy books. I believe that all came from The Divine. I believe that one day we will make sense of all the seemingly contradictory aspects between the different religions. A woman went to the church who was a practising Spiritualist, and she said that God gives us all religion in a form that we can understand. I would add words such as embrace, strong and positive words.

I am kind of tired - haven't been sleeping too well - but hope that I am making some sort of sense. Please visit:, my personal spiritual blog. I don't update as often as I should, though. Blessed be. x