The Green Eclectic

Seemingly the entire Pagan blogosphere is wrestling with the term Pagan this week.  I’ve wrestled with the term myself over the years, and I’ve already weighed in with some thoughts on the current dialog.  Over the past few days, in between walks on the beach, meals with friends, collecting local and sustainable food for our table, sleeping, bathing, and otherwise living life, I’ve been checking for updates to this ongoing conversation at various sites, not only in the blogs themselves but in the resulting comment threads.  (Some suggested posts, threads, and links to other resources worth checking out: Star Foster’s Link Roundup, T. Thorn Coyle’s Can We Share a Common Fire?, Alison Leigh Lilly’s Religious Branding, Ruby Sara’s That Troublesome Term… Again, Resa’s Labeling is Complicated, and two posts at The Wild Hunt: Paganism, Solidarity, and the Way Forward and The Pagan Terminology Discussion Continues.)

There are (to me, at least) a few thoughts coalescing:

  • To some, the term Pagan is so ambiguous as to be pointless, because even as an umbrella term it means nothing definitive.
  • To others, there are so many Wiccans out there that the terms Pagan and Wiccan are taken at face value by many to be (not accurately) synonymous, so what’s the point?
  • To yet others, the term Pagan has been hijacked by the New Agers or the Non Europeans or the [Insert Group Name Here] and because language is apparently an unchanging and not at all dynamic thing, the word Pagan can mean nothing besides what the Group Self-Appointed As Most Authoritative On The Subject desires it to mean.
  • To still others, the term Pagan is a dirty word that implies we’re somehow less deserving, because the Abrahamic faiths have so much negative baggage associated with the word and maybe if we found a different word to describe ourselves the people of the Abrahamic faiths would realize we’re okay after all. (Setting aside the fact that no one word will ever inclusively describe all of our belief systems, nor cleanse us in the eyes of the Big Three Religions.)
  • To many others, while the term is imperfect, it’s the only way a number of smaller faiths can ever possibly hope to achieve religious freedom in countries dominated by non-Pagan faiths.  While this group appreciates why people might want to abandon the term Pagan, as is their right, there is a hope that we can all still work together toward this shared goal.

While the dialog online hasn’t been without its share of heated language, and the occasional but inevitable trolls have reared their heads, I’m very, very thankful for this discussion that’s taken place.  For the most part the conversation has been exceptionally mature and very well-thought out, with many interesting points made.  Before this week I thought I was pretty much okay with the term Pagan to describe myself, even if it was an imperfect label in some respects.  However, I guess deep down there was a part of me that was still waffling on the issue, and having all this excellent discussion and synergy on the topic brought the idea back to the fore, gave me more to think about than ever before, and sped up the pace of that thought process.

So, what have I decided?  Does the term Pagan work for me?

Here’s an interesting approach to making decisions that I sometimes use:  when I truly can’t decide between two things, when I truly think I have no preference one way or the other, I toss a coin.  Seriously.  Why not?  If you think you’ve weighed both possibilities and considered the potential consequences of each, and you still really don’t have a preference, what harm is there in flipping a coin?  And, in fact, there’s an interesting phenomenon that might occur while that coin is flipping side over side through the air: you may suddenly feel the answer in your gut.  You may suddenly find that you are really hoping that the coin lands a certain way.  Et voila… you’ve found you do indeed have a preference.

And so, as I’ve read through the various thoughts on this, and heard people say that there’s no point in the term Pagan because it’s so often conflated with Wiccan, or that Pagan is such an ambiguous word as to be useless, or how I can’t be Pagan because I live in North America… as I’ve been reading all this stuff, it’s as if I’ve watched the coin flipping through the air.  I’ve experienced a feeling in my gut.  That feeling screams out, “Don’t take this term away from me.  That’s my decision, not yours.  It can mean different things, even if that makes it less useful.  Do most words ever just have one meaning?  I may be sick of people associating Paganism with things I don’t believe, but in the absence of that word, what starting point do I have for explaining my beliefs or finding potential common ground with others?”

Pagan is a term I’m going to continue to use, and a term I don’t want to see taken away from me.  Not that anyone can take the term away, but there have certainly been quite a few people stating that they’d like to… just enough to elicit that surprising (to me) response.  At the end of the day, explaining my various beliefs out longhand is the only true way to define my faith, but shorthand is helpful, and I’m glad we have the term Pagan to bring us together and help us initiate dialog.

It might not be the perfect term, but it’s the term we’ve got.  It’s a term that most of us (at least loosely) define in the same general way.  It’s a term that starts conversations, that helps us find one another.  It’s a term that facilitates gathering together around the fire when working toward equality and religious freedom.

Pagan actually is a term that can unite us.


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There are lots and lots and lots of blogs out there this week addressing the appropriateness of the term Pagan.  It’s a once-again-crescendoing debate, which has its lulls but never seems to die.  If you want to read some of the buzz, the Wild Hunt (as ever) is a good hub for linkage.  My favorite of all the essays I’ve read, I think, is this one by Resa over at Labeling is Complicated. (Talk about summing up something complex in three words!  Well done, Resa.)

This grand discussion is a macrocosm of what many Pagans go through internally at some (or many) point(s), I think.  I know I certainly have.  I call myself Pagan, but I’m not polytheistic, I don’t believe in magic(k), I don’t assign a gender or genders to the Divine and consequently avoid the words god/goddess, lord/lady, etc.  I don’t have any reconstructionist leanings, there’s no text that holds the necessary dogma, and while I definitely have mentors, I don’t see any way that anyone could be my priest or priestess.

While I use the word eclectic to describe myself, even that’s a bit misleading: it implies to some that I pull my beliefs from other religious traditions.  I don’t, for the most part.  I believe what I believe, what I’ve always believed, as arrived at through observation and experience.  There are the places and events that feel sacred, the moments when you sense things greater than yourself, the eternal patterns of how the world works, and the obvious interconnectedness — the way ecology works not only in natural ecosystems, but also in human relationships.

This of course does not mean that I don’t have a great deal in common with people of a variety of other faiths — there are threads of universal truths which are interwoven through all cultures and belief systems (but which manifest differently depending on the context).  So of course I have bits and pieces in common with people of established traditions: we’re all human, and there’s nothing new under the sun.

So why call myself Pagan?  I’ve wrestled with that, believe me.

While I don’t seemingly fit within any of the defined denominations of Paganism, the more widely agreed upon tenets resonate with me.  A belief in the interconnectedness of all things, of a sacredness in the natural world, and a respect for the eternal cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth… those are observable universal truths for me.

Paganism is also the one religion from which I have overtly adopted my religious traditions.  I observe the Wheel of the Year, though I’ve made it my own in a way that differs from the way it’s practiced by most other Pagans.  And I like that name for it — the Wheel of the Year — because it speaks to the continuity of cycles.  However, I’ve slowly been discarding a number of the other commonly used Pagan terms and definitions associated with it.  I don’t use the word sabbat, preferring instead the world holiday (defined as a day which has special significance).  I don’t generally use the Pagan names of the holidays, except for a common frame of reference when celebrating with other Pagans.  I observe the cross-quarters at the exact midpoint between each equinox and solstice, such that Mid Autumn (what most Pagans term Samhain) will fall on November 7th this year, rather than October 31st.  And I don’t think of that date as the start of the new year… for me that coincides with the Winter Solstice, when we celebrate light returning to the world.

I think I’ll close by quoting the conclusion to Resa’s guest post at Pantheos (which you should go read in its entirety), because it sums things up pretty well for me as well:

If I don’t have some easy shorthand for what I am, it makes it burdensome to try to connect with other people. For me it’s also intellectually dishonest. I would not be the religious practitioner that I am today without the experiences I have had in the neo-pagan community. Pagans welcomed me and taught me and offered love and trust. As much as I don’t want to be mistaken for a circle caster who can’t wear synthetic fabric and can’t use a timepiece, I don’t want to disenfranchise myself from the community that has been my home for many years. For now, I suppose I’ll stick with the Facebook trope: Religious Affiliation– It’s complicated!

{May 15, 2011}   Musings on Morning Readings
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Lots of stuff being posted all over the web this morning.  Here’s a sampling, with some commentary.

  • Downsizing May Not Be Enough, by Nathaniel Jeffers
    A good essay, with some shudder-inducing observations and well-made points, but I’m the choir he’s preaching to.  It’s an essay like so many others these days: volumes of evidence about how bad things are, with maybe five percent of the writing dedicated to what we can do to change how bad things are. What can we do? A major solution would be to pursue readily available alternatives to gasoline-powered engines and start working toward affordable alternative energy sources. […] Americans as a whole must reprioritize their values and begin advocating change. We must drop the cowboy persona and adopt a new identity for ourselves and a new set of values. We must learn humility and be willing to let profits suffer briefly for greater rewards from positive change.

    That’s a tall order.  The vast majority of the people reading Jeffers’ post are hopefully already on board with him… it’s everybody else that needs to get the message, and couching it in the rhetoric of we must drop the cowboy persona isn’t going to win that audience. Then again, this critique of his essay is no better, as I’m not exactly offering solutions… subtlety is lost on this population he’s trying to reach, pointing out the true seriousness of the issue or where some of the faults lie shuts them down, and my personal approach to this whole thing (to lead by example and demonstrate that you can  lead a normal life and still live sustainably) is slow-going and (though it’s effective) it only reaches so many people and it seems like there aren’t enough people leading by example to spark substantial change.

    He’s got a point, though: downsizing isn’t enough.

  • A Call to Arms – The Time is Now, by Storm Shadow-Wolf
    This is less of an essay than Jeffers’ Downsizing May Not Be Enough, though it approaches the same topic in a very different way.  This one is more of impassioned speech.  And reading it makes my heart and soul go out to the girl who wrote it, but … yeah, this is never going to reach the masses.  I get why people use craft names (hell, I’m using a pseudonym myself here), but when you call yourself Storm Shadow-Wolf and you lace your speech with phrases like our Mother speaks through me so hear Her now! This world is aching to be healed. It will die without us… well, you lose a lot of listeners that way, especially when you’re cognizant enough of your tone that you feel it necessary to overtly say I’m not a fluffy bunny. I’m very serious.

    I do know where that blaze of passion comes from, how heavy the ache can sometimes be in your soul when you contemplate the state of things, but this is not the way to engage with the world at large.  This is the way to make the world at large laugh at environmentalists and Pagans.  This is the way to make them stop listening.

    And perhaps the hardest truth?  The world will most likely not die without us.  I think it more likely that the world will purge itself of us, and then it will eventually reachieve equilibrium, and then things will go on. We just won’t be here to see it.

  • Grassroots Paganism: Magic or Miracle? by Disciple of Oghma
    The short version: In Lafayette, Indiana, USA, there are forty-eight churches, five dedicated Christian books stores, but only one Pagan supply store.  There are lots of Christians out there doing charity, but (to quote the author) Where is OUR presence? The world isn’t stopping online to read our blogs and web posts. Where are the coven food pantries? I certainly hope we aren’t too busy to start one because we are complaining over our ritual feast about why no one pays attention to us.

    People generally come to Paganism because it’s a path that calls to them.  Not because they were ‘saved’ by a missionary or were invited to a ritual by a friend trying to save their soul.  That’s part and parcel of many Christian faiths, and generally considered to be bad form by most Pagans because we hate it when it’s done to us.  So when the author goes on about how We practice a faith that venerates our connection with nature and the world. Let’s set our self-flattering aside and yield a true sacrifice.  Well, here’s the thing: lots and lots of Pagans are out there, doing everything this person is trying to encourage them to do.

    We donate to charity, we help our neighbors, we give to food banks, we volunteer with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, we do all those things.  And we do it because it’s the right thing to do, without feeling the need to say that we’re doing it because we’re Pagan, without using our charity as an opportunity to proselytize.

  • Where is the Neo Pagan Community?  by Crick
    This essay is about how there is no Pagan community, not really, and how all the Pagans are on their computers (like I am, and like the author is) and how the Pagans only go out to attend high-priced festivals and why does Paganism have to cost so much?  From the closing of the essay:  Do you have what it takes? Can you step away from your computer and step outside and engage Mother Nature? Can you reach out and support those of a truly like mind and join them at the park or in the woods or atop a mountain… free of charge? In short, are you ready to create a true “pagan” community?

    Now, I’m solitary, but I’ve been to a few gatherings, and they’ve all been friendly and tight-knit-but-welcoming, and I’ve never paid a dime to attend them.  And while I may be typing this up on a computer right now, I spend a fair amount of time (admittedly not as much as I could spend, but a fair amount of time) connecting with the world around me.  I just don’t see what this person is seeing, and think that perhaps he’s just running in the wrong circles.  What he wants?  It’s out there.  We’re out in the forests and along the rivers and climbing the mountains and listening to the planet.  We’re out there.

  • Huckabee Not Running for President, by Jason Pitzl-Waters
    And, of course, the big news of the past twenty-four hours: Huckabee thankfully not running for president.  While this is a relief for most (if not all) non-Christians out there, we still have another year and a half of politicking to endure by whichever Religious Right candidates step into the lead spot over the coming months.  To be clear: I have no problem with Republican Christians running for president, but so far, it rather looks as though all the possible front-runners have an agenda for further marginalizing minority faiths in the United States.

et cetera