Thursday, December 17, 2009

Musings on News(ings): Quacks Like a Pagan

The holiday season is busy busy busy, in the Mr. Krebbs kind of way. (Ten points to whoever can name that reference.) And so, I find myself with lots to say about certain bits of news and kerfuffles in the blogosphere, and no time in which to say hardly anything, between the decorating and the shopping and the handicraft-making and the gift-wrapping and the seeking-for-sanity that happens all down in the dark inbetween bits. In past years this has been my winding-down time, when I sit back and note the utter soul-shunting solitude in which I usually dwell, while others are running around pleasing and appeasing family and friends with offerings to the shopping mall gods, all to escape the lengthening night. This year, I have kids in my life, and what for lack of a better word might be called "in-laws." And a tireless kitten who likes to stalk my hair while I'm trying to sleep. So the following two posts are brief summaries of my thoughts on two major issues being tossed around the interwebs at the moment, fashionably sleep-deprived and cursory as they are.

Quacks Like a Pagan: Self-Definition & Community Identity in Modern Paganism

First is the debate raging in the Pagan blogosphere right now about Corban-Arthen's "(re)definition of Paganism" at the recent Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne, Australia. I know that careful thinking and discussion about topics of self- and community-identity are not only vital for the on-going, thriving evolution of any religious movement or community, but also one of the main reasons why Paganism in particular appealed to me so greatly from the very beginning. I also know that if it looks like a duck, and smells like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and when it quacks it says, "I'm a duck!" — well, it's probably a duck. Or an insecure, feather-bedecked, shaman-esque white suburban teen trying her best to reconstruct the ancient initiatory mysteries of Duckery in her parents' basement from poorly-translated, forgery-riddled manuscripts (with diagrams!).

courtesy of spratmackrel via flickr.comWhen it comes to definitions for words like "Pagan," "Druid," and even "Christian," (or "atheist" or "anarchist" or "spirituality" for that matter) I've grown increasingly laissez-faire in my approach. Not because I think these terms are meaningless or unimportant, but because it seems to me that the conversations and deep self-reflection that such ambiguities provoke are far more important (and more interesting) than reaching some definitive conclusion. But what I think we lose sight of in these debates, too often, are the reasons we as human beings choose labels or names for ourselves, why we identify ourselves to begin with as belonging to this or that community, this or that tradition or culture.

Here we have a religious community that is willing to acknowledge that perhaps there is no single, universal, omnipresent God acceptable and believable to all people, and yet continually struggles to define its own name in terms that will be universally acceptable and applicable to such vast diversity. A community that celebrates the gods and goddesses of many traditions as existing in the startling, powerful, liminal realm between psychological archetype and spiritual reality, and yet shies away from embracing the same ambiguity and complexity for the names we choose for ourselves. In a way, it's almost endearing. We overlook the essential fact — so apparent in our theology, what little we have of it — that when we choose names for ourselves and our communities, we are primarily identifying with and investing in archetypes.

Of course, I can only really speak for myself. But looking back at my own struggle to find a name for my spirituality, it seems clear that it is the archetype that made the difference. I identify with the archetype of "Druid" the way I never could with that of "Witch", which never fit quite right, despite there being so many similarities in practice and belief between the two. And once the archetype had its hooks in me, it became a guiding influence on the direction my spiritual life took, what particular aspects of ritual, philosophy, poetry and praise stood out as important and worthy of study and emulation. But archetypes are ideals, not exhaustive definitions, and they provide a guiding influence, not a set of restrictions. Beyond my ever-deepening roots in Druidry, for instance, Buddhist philosophy continues to fascinate me; yet I admit that my personal experience of this Eastern religious tradition is almost entirely Western in flavor and focus, and what aspects I might adopt into my personal spiritual practice will remain "American Druidic" in the same way that we can identify the unique intricacy of Celtic knotwork despite its heavy African and Indian influences, or the classic clean lines and simplicity of a bodhisattva statue as Buddhist despite the influence that Greek sculpture had on its development.

So is it right, or accurate, to say that Paganism is "pre-Christian European"? I think it is. While Eastern and African influences have played their parts, the core of the modern Pagan archetype has its roots in ancient Europe, and many of its practitioners today are firmly Western both in lifestyle and cultural heritage. Remove what other influences you like, but take away this foundation and what you get isn't really "Pagan" anymore in any readily recognizable way. Which is not to say there aren't exceptions; only that as an archetype, as a name to which people feel drawn, the earth-centered spiritual culture of pre-Christian Europe remains the underlying concept. Then of course there is the word "indigenous," which for plants and non-human animals has the pleasant meaning of being rooted in the local landscape and native to the area's unique ecosystem. And if this were all it meant, I would say that yes, Paganism is and should be indigenous, should be earth-centered and deeply connected to the land. But, for we human animals, the word "indigenous" has become super-saturated with political and cultural implications that need to be handled very carefully and respectfully, lest we callously overwrite the history of suffering and struggle that non-Christian non-white non-Europeans have undergone. Still, one day I hope that we can all aspire to be indigenous, without identifying that word with marginalization, and without that aspiration implying a kind of selfish cultural misappropriation.

In conclusion: time for lunch.

Photo Credit: / CC BY-SA 2.0

1 comment:

  1. I was reading through your blog from most recent to less recent, and I love your thoughts, arguments and beautiful writing style.

    But I have a question about how you see Pagan as pre-Christian European derived. Personally, I could agree with you if you took the "European" part off the end, because I think that the modern usage of Pagan, in terms how the community is both seen and sees itself, is much more broad. Many modern pagans base their spirituality in African, North and South American-based pagan traditions that don't derive from European practices but do share similar qualities to it. And I do like your mention of "indigenous" because I think that there's a clear connection between Paganism and spiritual traditions that have evolved from indigenous populations. But I wonder why you identify Pagan as European? I think it's an interesting distinction that perhaps I haven't explored myself, and I'm wondering if it has something to do with how the "Pagan Community" as a political entity (your article is about the Parliament) chooses to identify itself, rather than, perhaps, how individual practitioners might define their belief.