Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Nothing so plain about my Paganism

It becomes increasingly clear to me that there is nothing clear (or plain) at all about my Paganism.  I am, according to my own definition, a pagan person.  I'm just really, desperately, depressingly tired of explaining what my definition is. 

I had been operating under the belief that in order to communicate most clearly and honestly, I needed to be open about my paganism.  I thought it would be dishonest to remain "in the broom closet."  I am now entertaining the idea that by using the term Pagan (or pagan), I merely muddy the waters of communication making it far more difficult for me to assert my views in a productive way. 

I believe what I believe.  Based on my understanding of the history and theory of earth-centered and mystical spiritual traditions, I have called my beliefs pagan, and I continue to believe they are.  Unfortunately, I have found that very few people, whether Abrahamic, Pagan, or non-theist, seem to resonate with my personal experience or definition of the term.  It seems it would be better to simply communicate my beliefs and the context of those beliefs without attaching a label to them.  In this way, I need no longer argue with those who actually believe very similar things as I do, but have bad associations with the term "Pagan".  In this way too, I may communicate my spirituality without having to endlessly negotiate terms with or differentiate myself from folks who share my label, but who believe wildly dissimilar things and practice in a radically different manner than I do.  It does me very little good to keep saying, "But I'm not that kind of Pagan."  First off, it is such a waste of time.  Secondly, it sets me up as an antagonist of people who would normally be my natural spiritual allies.

So that leaves me with a blog title that doesn't quite fit.  I need to change it.  Any ideas?


Morgaine said...

Hystery's Mystery?

In the Light (and the Dark as well),


Morgaine said...

"A Modern View of Brighid: Spiritual Feminism for the 21st Century"

(I could offer ideas for renaming your blog all night. I'm not certain at all that it would change the content or how I look at it or what I get out of it.)

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery. Have you considered using one of the tags that some of the women used in the 19th century such as Lucretia Mott (whom you admire)? Or maybe just Plainly. Short. Subdued and yet open. For me I've given up on labels. None of them work but seem always to need clarification. I'm sending this via cell from the coast of southern oregon. In the light. Daniel

Lone Star Ma said...

I think it's fine. I also like the old title.

Hystery said...

I will continue to talk about my paganism whatever new name I come up with just as I will continue to talk about my plain tendencies and my Quaker spirituality. I'll also discuss how Calvinism and its offspring (Congregationalism, Unitarianism, Transcendentalism) affect me. I can't forget about Methodism or Theosophy or Spiritualism which appear in my spiritual genealogy. If I remove "Pagan" from the title, I may find that I feel more free in my writing. I may explore more widely. We'll see. One never knows.

I actually have frequently considered Daniel's suggestion of using just "Plainly" as the blog title. On more than one occasion when the Pagan part of the title was feeling too tight and uncomfortable, I simply dropped it and left "Plainly" on its lonesome for a number of days or weeks until the mood passed.

I might call the blog "Plainly" and the occasionally add another word for a short time just for fun. Plainly Spiritualist. Plainly Pagan. Plainly Nuts. In this way, I can experiment with the many facets of religious/spiritual identity. I suppose the irony is that with many of us, we aren't "plainly" anything at all. We aren't our labels. We defy definitions. We are simply ourselves.

raewytch said...

I like the old title. Its what drew me to look at your blog. Im a pagan and also like the quaker spirituality so wanted to read what you had to say.
But if you feel the need to change it then you must do what feels right.
Lots of love anyway
rachel x

naiadis said...

Part of me would be sad to see the 'pagan' title go, since that was how I found your blog and I'm not sure I would have found it any other way. It's been fascinating to read your writing. However, it's easy to understand the need for a name change.

It's funny -- when I'm dealing with other pagans, I find the term "pagan" to be so open as to be almost meaningless. Reading that you find it to be too tight a definition at times is an interesting insight from the other end of the spectrum.

Whatever you wind up calling it, I'll still be reading along.

Michael Bright Crow said...

Dear One,

I still like the original title. It suggests that, were people to pay attention to what you do, how you honor the earth and her people, they would recognize that you are plainly pagan.


You challenge resonates with me. Were you to substitute "Christian" for "Pagan," much of what you say would apply. "I'm not THAT kind of Christian."

This is part of why I became a convinced Quaker: according to the labels, I'm both Christian and Pagan, but according to the orthodoxies, I'm neither.

I follow Jesus as my spiritual master, yet I reject the body versus spirit dualism of historical Christianity.

What is important, what is sacred, is being, not words about being.

Blessed Be,
Michael Bright Crow

Hystery said...


I've started and erased my answer to your response to my post many times because I can't figure out how to write something that conveys my sense of gratitude for your words. You said exactly the right thing which is something you tend to do, but it still caught me off guard.

Johnny Rapture said...

Hystery, you have described a feeling I understand all too well, and I know it's exactly the same sort of sentiment that inspired Ruby Sara, who used to author "Pagan Godspell," to switch blogs (and titles) entirely.

Yes, I've often thought "Why do I keep using this word when all it does is cover up anything I'm trying to say in too many assumptions?"

Also, I vote "Hystery's Mystery" =P

American Neopagan said...

I have struggled with the "Pagan" identifier myself. Principally because of issue you raised: the necessity of having to explain that I am "not that kind of Pagan". No matter which identifier you use, however, if it is one used by others, then you will have to draw the same kinds of distinctions. Whether Quaker, Christian, Pagan, or whatever, we are necessarily both like and unlike each other.
The only other alternatives, I think, are to either avoid any labels or make up a label which no one else uses. Either way, I think you will end up having to explain as much or more than you did when you used a more common identifier.
Of course, you will avoid the unpleasant associations with others with whom you don't identify. But you are also giving something up: First, you are giving up the possibility of community. But also you are giving up the opportunity to help define a communal identifier that is very much undefined at this point.
I think we need to fight for the right to define "Paganism" for ourselves. If we surrender it to those who embarrass us, then I think we might find one day that we have let someone else define all the our words for us, and we have none left to describe ourselves.

kevin roberts said...

"Definingly Indefineable."

"Definitively Indefinite."

"Infinitively Definitively."

i dunno.

"The Golden Bough" is already taken.

"The Book of Quagan."

yes? no, maybe not.

you know, hystery, being a Quistian, i take a lot of heat from militant atheists about the bad aspects of some forms of christianity. and i also find myself having to recite the litany of "but i'm not that type of christian . . ."

so i guess i don't have any answers, but i understand something of your question.

Mary Ellen said...

I emphasize with the need to grow beyond the title. Pagan is only a part of the mix, though I find it a positive term and don't need to have it defended or defined. There's some seeking involved in your writing - but also some teaching and sharing of a formidable amount of insight and scholarly understanding. Hystery's - views? musing? - but these don't get at the depth of some of your exploration. Good luck - I hope the testing of titles is a fruitful exercise!

staśa said...

It makes me sad when people feel they have to abandon a term because of what other people think of it or think it means, rather than because of their own inward truth.

When you say you are a feminist, how do people react? Do most people you use that term with think it means the same thing you do?

I find there are as many misconceptions about feminism as there are about Paganism, and that when I say I'm a feminist, what I've said and what they've heard are so far apart that the conversation has just become horribly muddled. (You've seen this happen in on-line discussions we've both been part of.)

Yet I will not give up the term "feminist." Part of it is my own stubborn integrity. Part of it, I'm sure, is because it pisses me off too much to have anti-feminists win by having degraded the word so much to make me abandon it for those difficulties.

So I, myself, think (as I believe I've said before) that the question is not so much what other people think, but what the truth is in your own heart, and what words express that with the most integrity for you.

If "P/pagan" does not, then don't use it.

But if "P/pagan" does, do you really want to abandon it because of other people?

Perhaps you do; but I think it's worth teasing out those two separate strands.

Hystery said...

I also have considered my (near) rejection of the word "pagan" in light of my refusal to reject the word feminism. The obvious comparison here is one of the most compelling reasons I have to continue in my use of the word.

Certainly there are elements of feminism, both contemporary and historical, that I find irritating or even offensive. I am still able to move past those rough spots to embrace a term which I understand to signify an approach to human rights that transcends any specific mistakes that anyone calling her/himself a feminist may make. I should be able to do the same with Paganism.

Perhaps my reactive attitude is a manifestation of intellectual elitism. With feminism, even that which annoys me is ofen well-grounded within the academy. The debates between different branches of feminism are intellectual debates (or at least this is how I have experienced them). However, my experience of other Pagans often takes place outside of the academy. When I write about Paganism, I do so for a largely liberal Christian or secular audience. My defense of the efficacy and worth of Paganism is a scholarly exercise, and I am frankly embarrassed by those Pagan expressions that seem poorly grounded in intellectual discourse. I want to show my Christian feminist peers that Pagans are not silly, undisciplined people. I want Pagans to prove themselves as every bit as disciplined as other religious scholars. There are many days when this is a tough sell.

This intellectual elitism also explains, in part, my continued fascination with liberal Christianity which has such a well-established intellectual foundation. I am, in the end, still a very "Protestant" Pagan. (And here I am defining the Protestant movement not by its evangelicalism, but by its long relationship with discourse and exegesis). I see that I most react to being mistaken by others as a Pagan who is body-oriented and emotional in approach. I was trained to never trust my gut and to be suspicious of those who do, and I'm unlikely to shake that early lesson.

It is such an irony that I spent ten years of graduate school trying to understand "embodiment" and "experiential thealogy" as gifts of the women's spirituality movement. I worked hard to understand embodiment as a "way of knowing" that challenged patriarchal religious hegemony. But I learned to understand these things within an academic framework in which I studied, researched, and wrote about embodiment and experience. (Related to this is a seminar during which we spent several days talking about silence!) Isn't that funny? And guess what? When I got finished with the academic process of defending non-academic approaches, I trusted my body and emotions even less than when I began! Why? One cannot (or at least I did not)use my brain to make a connection to my body.

Do I regret this? Yes and no. I am who I am. I am a product of my training and I do believe that although I did not escape the worldview of my childhood Protestantism, I did absorb some of the lessons, at least at the intellectual level, of Paganism, and this has modified my Christian perspective in fascinating ways.

Hystery said...

Also, I note that I call myself a feminist despite the disapproval of those who reject the term. I call myself a Pagan despite the disapproval of others who embrace the term. The latter is much more difficult than the former.

staśa said...


I am reminded of Audre Lorde's "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House."

And I thought, no, that's a misuse of her essay. But then, re-reading what you wrote, I thought, No, it's not a misuse, at least not in response to some of what you've written...

Lorde's critique of the feminist movement at the time wasn't intellectual: it was experiential. It was gut-level. It was based in her experience of her life as a Black lesbian fighting for her survival (and later, as a Black lesbian with cancer fighting for her survival). It was bodily.

Paganisms, in the collective state in the West that they are today, are not an intellectual pursuit; they haven't been connected with the academy long enough to produce the kind of rigor you're longing for; and it's honestly not clear yet if many Paganisms would survive such a thing -- because the Goddess is not God in a skirt, and most Paganisms are not Christianity, even feminist Christianity, in different guise. They are something different entirely. They truly are a different way of knowing, a different way of experiencing.

It's not clear to me how Paganisms would be changed by squeezing them into a completely different box.

But there are groups that are working to see how far Pagan academe can go and work. Ritual theory/ritual studies as a cross-disciplinary field makes my head itch, it's so abstract sometimes (making ritual that abstract??), but it's there and it's pretty rigorous. There are people I could put you in touch with vis a vis Ritual Theory, Pagan Theaology, and third-wave feminism in modern Paganisms -- Grant Potts (PhD UPenn), Christine Hoff Kraemer (PhD BU), off the top of my head.

The academia of Paganisms is changing every day. I know I can't keep up with it. But I'm also clear that it's my call to be an applied theaologian, not an academic one. :)

Hystery said...

Before I read your latest response, Stasa, I was thinking about my own last response and thinking that it was very much representative of one side of my personality which is pretty linear, disciplined, etc. while the other is more mystical and open. On good days, the two sides work well together like peanut butter and chocolate. On other days, however, when my scholar self gets to be grumpy, my mystic self scampers off and hides.

Your latest comment including mention of other Pagan academics reminded me of yet another element affecting my attitude. I was *never* involved (nor tempted to be involved) with a practicing Pagan community. From my teenage years to the present, my experience of Paganism has been through the academic and intellectual world. To me, academic Paganism *is* Paganism.

I know that some will be very tempted to tell me how much I am missing, but I remind folks that I am an extreme introvert *and* that I have very rich social connections that work well within the context of my introversion, so I really don't need any help in this area. Also, I'm a Quaker so...

I don't think of intellectualism as somehow divorced from mysticism. Yes, the two become strained at times when I'm being a bit battered by some of the more androcentric elements one finds in scholarship, but I have been lucky enough to have an almost exclusively feminist academic background. That helps. The battering comes when I try to insert my feminist approach into a more traditional academic situation in which feminism and Paganism are still both marginalized. I do tend to internalize my own oppression. It is difficult to understand how I could have worked so hard for so long only to be so thoroughly rejected by my acaemic peers. When both Pagans and traditional academics sneer just a bit when I mention the Goddess feminist academic background from which I emerge, I tend to shrink just a bit.

Hystery said...

Anyway, for me, intellectualism, when left unbattered, can be mystical and experiential. The Pagan and feminist academics who wrote the texts that inform my understanding of spirituality also emphasized embodiment and experiential spirituality, but they did so within the framework of scholarship. I appreciate their thoughtful and often poetic approach which integrates mind and body and therefore seems to me to be preferable to either the aridity of atheist scholarship or the goofiness (sorry!) of Pagan ritual. (As I've mentioned on your blog, I'm really unlikely to ever hold my arms up in the air unless there is something falling down on top of me.) After the pattern of introverts from Northeastern Protestant backgrounds, I am "experiential" in a manner that may be difficult for more exuberant types to discern. But it is there.

Some of this negativity from me may actually be far more about conflicts between introversion and extroversion (another thanks to Stasa for posting an article on this very topic.) It could be that I am reacting less to thealogical differences and more to issues of expression. Extroverts embarrass me and their continued attempts to draw me into their activities annoy me. A lot. I was especially hurt when people suggested that I wasn't really understanding Paganism because my Paganism is centered in reading and silent contemplation rather than in community interaction and activity. In fact, I started to develop a more negative reaction to Paganism only after I began to spend time online in conversation with Pagans who were critical of my approach and who seemed to reject the idea that one could possibly get most of one's spiritual fulfillment through intellectual engagement with readings and study. (To be fair, my rejection of Christianity only extends to those Christians who likewise reject an intellectual approach).

But all of this is not communicating the most important point for me which is that my mysticism exists within the context of my intellectualism. I do not separate the two. Mysticism without intellect is merely emotional reaction. Intellect without mysticism is merely....grumpiness. I've been grumpy lately.