Thursday, June 10, 2010

Personal Values & Communal Values in Paganism

Pagan Values Month '10For the second year running, June's "Pagan Values Month" has seen quite a bit of discussion... not about values per se, but about Pagan self- and community-identity. Eloquent and compelling arguments have been made by not a few of my favorite writers making the case that "Paganism" as a single religion may not exist,* and that continuing to speak and think about the so-called "Pagan community" in this way might not be helpful or conducive to... well, whatever they're hoping religious community is conducive to, I suppose. And what is that, exactly? Here is where I feel the question of "values" becomes essential, and perhaps the key to unlocking the question of self-identity and community-definition, rather than the other way around.

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.

courtesy of PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE, via flickrBut 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?


  1. Precisely. It was these very thoughts that has kept me from joining the discussion, not because I feel that the undertaking is not viable or worthwhile but rather I myself am not certain how to reconcile a pan-pagan viewpoint with the starkly individual and localised truth of modern faith. The great strength of the contemporary pagan community (and the term is very useful despite its proclivity for slippage - as you point out so succinctly) is in its wild diversity.

    I wonder if the approach should not be concerned with the moral and ethical aspects of contemporary paganness but rather with a system of worth. This is to say that Aristotle approached his consideration of ethics by considering what constituted the Good Life, identifying a set of goods (and by implication ills) the pursuit of which determined his ethic. I wonder if the way to approach a common set of moral values is to identify a common range of goods.

  2. I love your definition of paganism! :-)

    Besides other awesomeness in the post, I particularly like how you're implicitly shifting the definition of Pagan from something based on *beliefs* to something based on *values*. The upshot of that shift would be that we, as a community, would say, "You know what? What you believe isn't so goddamned important. What's important is your values (personal and communal)."

    And this kind of shift isn't just important at the level of the pagan community; it's something people need to be talking about worldwide. When religion is defined as a set of personal values instead of a set of personal beliefs, perhaps we can move beyond evaluating religions based on their similarity to Christianity, and beyond atheists trashing theists, and so on.

    And maybe we can move beyond the situation we have today in online forums, in which, too often, discussions about values devolve into incoherence, because no one has any vocabulary to talk about values anymore except by bringing up the Founding Fathers and Hitler.

  3. Wonderful post. I really appreciate your distinctions between communal and individual values. Of course I still have lots of thoughts about definitions, and I think that conversation is very important, but you are absolutely correct that there is a time for that discussion, and a time for the discussion of shared values and community. :)


  4. Personal and communal values, Jeff!

    It was an innovation of Christianity that belief and creed were the definition of religion. Throughout the ancient world, and in modern Paganism as well, it was practice--and, I now see, values--that were the beating heart of religions.

    I think a lot of harm is done us when we accept without question Christian-derived assumptions about what religion is. Perhaps it is the fear that we must all believe the same things in order to belong to the same religious community--a very Christian fear--that is partially behind the reluctance many of us have to use the term "Pagan" at all in describing ourselves.

    I also think we need to be cautious in accepting without question Christian ideas about personal values as identical to communal ones. There is room for a creative tension between communal values and individual ones, but not in a religious movement that dictates orthodoxy. If we do not accept that it is the place of a religious community to dictate either belief or values to the individuals who hold them, we open the door to a community that helps to shape and be shaped by individual values, in something like the process Ali discusses... or like the relationship between individual and "corporate" (17th Century for "communal") witness and testimonies in non-creedal groups like the liberal branch of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), where the communal testimonies against war or oath-taking or slavery exist in a kind of synergyistic relationship with individual spiritual leadings, both to apply those testimonies, and to begin to discern new ones, as Spirit leads the entire community into greater integrity and wholeness.

  5. I'm not convinced that believing that Paganism is multiple religions rather than one is detrimental to the greater Pagan community and I don't see how the existence of the community relies on a belief in shared religion. My primary concern regarding the conflation of Paganisms into a single Paganism is that marginalized voices become more marginalized and that Neo-Pagans of various stripes forget that they do not have the right to define Paganism, even as a liberal and diverse singular faith, for those who come from truly ancient and indigenous Pagan traditions which may not seek inclusion in our "religion." I see this as an issue not of cynicism but of post-colonialism.

    As I see it, greater pan-Pagan emphasis on community-building is a good thing. Recognition that our beliefs are divergent AND that we are capable of remaining in community is even better. Community transcends religion but acknowledgment of difference remains important just as knowledge of the needs and characteristics of individual species helps us preserve an ecosystem of interdependent species.

  6. I believe that there is an inherent difficulty in defining paganism as a religion. Quite simply it is because so many of us found it objectionable to be "pigeon-holed" by the traditional religious establishment in which many of us began our religious journeys. We like to define ourselves.

    If there is a common thread which ties us together it is love. We exhibit a love for our fellow travelers on this endless journey around our sun and a love for Nature herself. Ritual, traditions, creeds, doctrines etc are the products of those who wish to standardize "religion" and exert control over others.

    Establishing an -ism and then providing strict definitions to form it allows people to relinquish control of their responsibilities and tie themselves to the faith of their choice. It keeps us from having to think and reason for ourselves. We act based on somebody else's definition of right and wrong rather than discerning it for ourselves.

    These things being said, I respect the rights of all others to believe in any way they see fit. We were granted free will at the moment of our birth and so can choose whether or not we maintain control of our spiritual identities or lend them to an established and fully defined -ism. For me I choose to control who I am and what I will become.