Defining Pagan Religion
The question of what constitutes a "religion" is not at all a new one for me. It became a running theme during my college studies, continually provoked and reexamined by an advisor who had specialized in the history of the Reformation during his doctorate work. To raise the objection that "Paganism" may not be a "religion" is to beg the question of how exactly we define "religion" in the first place. When I turn this question over in my mind, it seems to me that I run up against the same problem again and again. Our use of the word "religion" is almost as sloppy and ill-defined as the word "Pagan" itself; indeed, some might go so far as to imply that the whole idea of "religion" is a uniquely Christian concept that relies on a distinction between what is and is not similar to (mainly Protestant) Christianity.
I experienced this myself growing up. Raised Catholic, which one might assume is solidly mainstream and safely qualifies as a clearly-defined religion, I ran up against accusations, on the one hand, that Catholicism wasn't a religion but more like a cult, with its saint worship, relics, rosaries and far too many candles to be proper (not to mention its complicated Latin mass, only recently abandoned). On the other hand, I was also told that Catholicism was "too religious" with all of its trappings and ceremony, while a given Protestant denomination (inevitably that of the person lecturing me) was purer or closer to the original teachings of Jesus. That Catholicism could be both too religious and not a religion at all — and for almost the same reasons — fairly thoroughly convinced me to leave such questions of definition well enough alone. It was clear that when it came to counting Catholicism as a religion, a tradition of wide-spread consensus about the general but rather fuzzy meaning of the word held more weight and appealed more directly to common sense than any attempt to be more specific or strict with the language.
Yet I think there is something interesting about the fact that we continue to have this discussion, especially during "Pagan values" month (coincidentally or not). Unlike the accusations that Catholicism was deficient as a tradition in one way or another, recent attempts to wrestle with the idea of "Paganism" and the "Pagan" (or "pag*n") community do not seem to be based on power-politics or the desire to exclude. Rather, at the heart of the debate I sense the urge to be careful with our words, and to define these words in ways that respect both the deepening particularity and the fluid commonality of individuals and community traditions. This seems to me to be a value itself, and one that is quite prevalent among the Pagans I know. In fact, I believe the on-going struggle to define Paganism is actually a mark of the convergence of two kinds of values, perhaps not recognized as such: communal values, and personal values.
Personal and Communal Values
Recently, I posed a question about Pagan values on a forum discussion board, in the hopes of provoking a conversation that moved beyond questions of definition. One of the very first respondents listed one of her four values to be "religious pluralism." Unlike the other values she listed (such as courage and self-knowledge) this one struck me as particularly social in nature. It is, in other words, something that one might value about other people or a community as a whole, the fact that a group can be porous, supportive, responsive, flexible and fluid, rather than domineering, restrictive or static. Many of the stories I have heard about people feeling drawn by or attracted to Paganism feature this receptivity and openness as perhaps its biggest appeal.
But what happens when we as individuals strive to emulate a value such as pluralism or diversity? Certainly, an individual can be accepting and supportive — but can an individual person be "diverse"? What is the relationship between community pluralism and personal eclecticism? In a community, many diverse and different perspectives and traditions can function in harmony, balancing and informing each other without compromising their individual integrity, giving movement, color, texture and depth to a shared cultural or physical landscape. But when an individual works from an eclectic perspective, there is a risk of their practice becoming fragmented, disjointed, lacking cohesion and eventually becoming increasingly dissatisfying. Eclecticism can deteriorate into a "buffet spirituality" where one feels free to pick and choose only those ideas or practices that are convenient or momentarily appealing, without respect to their context or origins, and abandoning them as soon as they become difficult or challenging. Of course, eclecticism at its best can lead to an integrated and intimate personal tradition, something which is uniquely new, and uniquely itself. But this is not always the case.
On the other hand, there are occasions when groups or communities strive to emulate or embody values that are more appropriate on the individual or personal level. The value of self-knowledge, for instance, when too stringently cultivated by a community as a whole can become a pursuit of exhaustive theological doctrine, an unending delineation of orthodox versus heretical beliefs and practices that serves to render group boundaries hard and impermeable. The value of personal integrity, applied on a group scale, can give way to hierarchy, patriarchy and systems of caste and class that impose symbolically meaningful structure at the expense of community members' individuality and unique spiritual needs. Sometimes, these values expressed by communities can work well, lending a powerful cohesive pattern to community life and resulting in a resonating sense of belonging and interdependence, or providing challenging traditions of practice and thought that lead individuals to deepen their personal spiritual lives. But this is not always the case.
These considerations lead me to wonder if one of the reasons we have difficulty talking about "Pagan values" is because we are not being very clear in our distinction between personal and communal values. In other words, I wonder if there are some values which are most perfectly embodied in the individual, while other values are best embodied or expressed by a group. Some "Pagan values" are communal or social in nature, and we recognize them to be appealing or positive aspects of a group to which we hope to belong, characteristics that make this group healthy, functional and supportive in the ways that we desire. Likewise, we might discover that there are personal values held by members of this group that we appreciate and would like to embody in ourselves, while other values we come to as individuals through our engagement with the art, music, stories, ritual, holy places, social spaces and, of course, the people of a particular community.
It seems to me that there is, too, a mutual relationship of influence and exchange between those values expressed by individuals and those expressed by groups. If one appreciates communal values such as diversity and pluralism, such appreciation can provoke personal values of self-knowledge, honesty, and receptivity to other-ness or difference; if one strives to help realize community values of cohesion and organization, on the other hand, personal values such as humility, loyalty and responsibility become more important. Similarly, personal values will shape which values a community embodies, whether by drawing people to communities that allow them expression of their most deeply-held values, or by slowly evolving to reflect personal values as they become more prevalent among individuals. A personal reverence for nature, for instance, is slowly reshaping the language and theology of many Christian denominations away from domination and exploitation, while personal courage, honesty and receptivity to other-ness are carving out space for women and homosexuals within the symbolic structure of certain churches. The line between personal and communal values might not always be so clear cut, either; it seems to me, for example, that ecological awareness can be embodied on both the individual and the community level, and that these are mutually supportive of each other.
It may be worthwhile, in this discussion of "Pagan values" and the "Pagan community," to work at describing what personal and communal values we hope to see in our own communities, however we define them, and to look at how they influence each other. Are the communal values of diversity and clearly-defined boundaries really compatible, or do they demand different qualities of the individuals within such a community? Do some of our personal values contradict each other, or undermine the values we want our community to embody? Let's set aside questions of definition for now and speak in terms of the hypothetical and the experiential. We can come back to the question of what "Paganism" is, or can be, or should be, once we have a better understanding of how our myriad values help to shape and influence the formation and evolution of that potential community.
* Despite recent fascinating and well-articulated posts over at Pagan Godspell, The Great Tininess and Plainly Pagan, for now I intend to persist in using the word "Pagan" not only as an adjective (akin to "Abrahamic" in conceptual "size" and scope) but as a noun to describe practitioners of any of the myriad Pagan traditions. In fact, I intend to be so brazen as to refer to Paganism as a word that can for the time being function practically as a way of avoiding the repetitive use of clumsy phrases like "the presumed common ground held by members of the community of self-identified practitioners of modern Pagan traditions," and "the contemporary Western (counter)cultural (new religious) movement(s) centered on or drawing inspiration from an archetypal conception of ancient (and/or pre-Christian) native(/cultic/indigenous) Indo-European religious tradition(s)." See? Isn't "Paganism" so much.... shorter?