Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Two Winding Rivers: The Changing Face of the Pagan Movement

Day 13, Canaanite Month of [Gapnu, the Vine]
Tigris River by Mosul, Iraq
Historic-rooted religions, like polytheistic, reconstructionist, or revivalist religions are wending away from Paganism like the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meander away from each other from sources a mere nineteen miles apart, then return together as they flow into the Persian Gulf. There has been much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth regarding what exactly has led to this estrangement and what the fallout will be. In my opinion, this divergence is caused by misunderstanding the two different approaches historic-rooted religions and majority Pagans take in religious thought.




Euphrates: Majority Pagans
The majority of the Pagan movement, whether they realize it or not, tend to support a neo-romanticist philosophy. Romanticism is “a movement in literature, philosophy, and art which developed in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th cc. Starting from the ideas and attitudes of Rousseau in France and from the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany, it held that classicism, dominant since 16th c., denied expression to [hu]man’s emotional nature and overlooked [her/]his profound inner forces. Romanticism is above all an exaltation of individual values and aspirations above those of society. […] Through its concern with the hidden forces in man, Romanticism exerted a profound influence on modern thought, and opened the way e.g. to psychoanalysis” (from New Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus of the English Language).

Neo-romanticism, of course, means “new Romanticist” and follows in the footsteps of its predecessor. Neo-romanticists often focus on self, self expression, individuality, self enrichment, imagination, rebellion against the establishment, and love/worship of nature. In addition, they adopt philosophies from such thinkers as Freud, Jung, James G. Frazer, and Joseph Campbell. Often theories, or ideas based upon those theories, are considered truisms to the majority Pagans.

I see this neo-romanticism is a natural reaction when people are fleeing the religion of their birth—usually Christianity, and sometimes Judaism—often a dogmatic monotheism. As refugees of one of these monotheistic religions, people have a natural desire to rebel against authority, to embrace nature since their previous religions may have shunned it, and to see deities as archetypes or facets of one overarching divine force. Instead of submitting to church authority, for the first time a Pagan has the opportunity to free expression and deciding what is spiritual to her or him.

Tigris: Historic-rooted Religions (Reconstructionists, Revivalists, Polytheists)
Reconstruction, revivalism, and polytheism often focus on deities and community and/or kinship, and their religious structure and beliefs have their foundations in history. People who practice a historic-rooted religion tend to see religion less as personal development or therapy for the individual, and more as being in the service of the deities and the community. Individual historic-rooted religions rely on historians and scholars prominent in their fields, instead of upon broad theories that envelop several disparate cultures in an effort to see similarities. They often challenge or simply do not accept the theories built upon Jung, Freud, Campbell, and Frazer. Because historic-rooted religions do not accept theories of romanticism as truisms, they often find themselves at odds with the majority Pagans over many seemingly separate issues, most of which actually find their basis in these two divergent approaches to religion.

Because historic-rooted religions tend to be methodical in their approach, and because they rely on historic precedent, these religions have structure, hierarchy, ethics and values. These structures may allow for personal experience and inspiration, but they are not as wide-open as the less-structured neo-romantic Paganism. Because majority Pagans often seek refuge from organized religions that have become dogmatic, some of them may see in the organization of historic-rooted religions a dogma or structure that they sought to abandon.

Silt along the Rivers
Majority Pagans and the historic-rooted religionists find themselves at odds because they often talk past one another, not realizing the deeper basis of their differences. Conflict comes from a misunderstanding of the core philosophy of the historic-rooted religions, a glossing over difference in search of common themes and similarities, a reframing of what is only superficial similarity, or a reframing of elements in terms of romanticized truisms. Some adherents of historic-rooted religions feel their religions, deities, holy days, and beliefs are press into ill-fitting neo-romantic categories when they converse with majority Pagans. Though several historic-rooted religionists make great efforts to educate majority Pagans about the historic-rooted religions, the effort is gargantuan and is impeded by this lack of understanding of the different core philosophies. This effort is like digging in sand only to find the dent you make is filled in behind you. This fundamental miscommunication is leading to the divergence of historic-based religions from the Pagan movement.

Although from an emic (insider’s) approach, many Pagans want their movement to encompass different religions and believe that it does, from an etic (outsider’s) view this isn’t happening: “Although there are overriding similarities among Neo-Pagans, there are also distinctions and differences within the religion.” p. xvi of the preface from Voices from the Pagan Census by Helen A. Berger, Evan A. Leach, and Leigh S. Shaffer, 2003. Note “religion” singular, not “religions” plural—the implication is that from an etic view, Paganism is one religion instead of several individual religions with different core philosophies. We can argue what Paganism “should” be ideally, and we can argue how the definitions of “pagan” should be more encompassing, but this isn’t de facto what’s going on at a core philosophical level.

Ebb and Flow
Although the Pagan movement and the historic-rooted religions seem to be diverging from one another, like the Euphrates and the Tigris, they flow parallel to one another, supporting one another and the landscape around them. Eventually both movements will grow an understanding and appreciation for one another, but perhaps a little distance between one another will aid in that process. And maybe, one day when the historic-rooted religions grow and develop, and when Paganism can open itself up to religions with different core philosophies, the two can meet on equal terms and flow together.


Photo Credits: Photo by Matthew Glennon, public domain, 2007

21 comments:

  1. This is an interesting reed, and I'll share it. I think it hits the nail on the head with regards to the issues between pagans and neopagans and recons. I also like how you compare the two approaches to the Tigris and the Euphrates :-) The Euphrates being the one long favored for settlement by most people, and the Tigris being less favored but equally necessary for Mesopotamian life :-)

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and please share freely.

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  2. Well thought out. Perhaps the two paths will come together, but I think there's a lot more changes that are going to happen before that happens.

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  3. A: Thanks! It took quite some time, soul-searching, talking and listening with others before I came to this, but I think it is an accurate reflection of the greater issue.

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  4. Hello, Svartwulf: Thank you; I agree with you. It will be interesting to see how the movements evolve over the next couple of decades.

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  5. I think a common mistake is to look at Paganism's external trappings and to ignore the deeper set of beliefs and actions that unite NeoPagan and historical revivalists / reconstructionists. Much of this depends on how we are defining "Paganism." Michael York defines Paganism as “an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationships by the individual or community with the tangible, sentient, and/or nonempirical” (York, The Pomegranate, p. 9). In layman's terms, I think this implies that Pagans believe in a literal or metaphorical polytheism, belief in the imminent presence of their deities, veneration or recognition of Nature as one of the metaphorical expressions of divinity, and have a focus directed at this life rather than an afterlife. These core beliefe underscore primitive religiosities, historical revivalists/reconstructionists, and Contemporary Paganism. The external focus and practices of these groups may differ widely, but it is these basic core elements that define Paganism and unite us all under that umbrella.

    "People who practice a historic-rooted religion tend to see religion less as personal development or therapy for the individual, and more as being in the service of the deities and the community." I see your point here, though I am not sure I agree with it entirely. Contemporary Pagans also strive to serve their deities and communities, while additionally utilizing religion as a tool for self-transformation. I would argue that none of us would bother with religion if we did not get something out of it for ourselves; it has always been a quid pro quo relationship. While it may not be used as a psycho-analytic tool, I think a strong case can be made that even revivalists and reconstructionists use religion for self-betterment.

    In the end, I think it is simply a matter of education and reinforcement of the differences in external trappings, but I think it a mistake to ignore the core elements that bind us all together under the rubric of Paganism. The Canaanites would almost certainly be considered Pagan and I use that term free of as much polemic as possible.

    Ben Hoshour
    www.the-pagan-perspective.com

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    1. It isn't just a difference in external trappings, it's a difference in core worldview and belief. I think it's a common mistake of the "Neo-Pagan side" to try and mitigate and minimize the differences, when the differences in core values, worldview, and belief are very real.

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    2. The core philosophies, as I mentioned above, are quite different. Core philosophies are the foundations of religions, not "external trappings." There are deep-seated philosophical differences on basic levels that make historic-rooted religions and mainstream every-day Paganism quite different: especially in practice, ritual, belief, daily life, and understanding of the deities.

      We could discuss definitions of the word “Pagan” for a very long time, but there’s no one definition that is either widespread or that functions well. If I must use a broad “umbrella” term, I prefer the term “polytheist” since it is both simpler and more accurate. “Polytheist” fits just right and most people are in no doubt as to its meaning, definition, common practical application, or use as a broader category.

      Many beliefs assumed to be in common with most Pagans are beliefs that are as different to my religion as Judaism is to Christianity, and both of those religions still worship of the same deity. To me, dualism, a Western European-based calendar, Jungian philosophy, and Neo-Romanticism are just as different from my religion as the Jesus-issue is to the Jews. Put the Jews under the Judeo-Christian “umbrella” term and most of them get upset because their differences get shoved into a Christian paradigm. However, put Christians and Jews together under the category of “monotheism”--there’s no problem and little to misunderstand.

      For myself, I shall put away the “umbrella” term of “Paganism”. Lady Shapshu shines golden in the sky. An “umbrella”-term that has many conflicting definitions, but which smothers, forgets, ignores, or overlooks such fundamental differences on a daily and practical basis cannot do its job well in rain or shine. Unfortunately with a tendency towards monism, or an All-is-One approach, mainstream Paganism in practical situations seems to overlook differences.

      It took a great deal of soul searching before I dropped the “Pagan” label. I know what religion I am--I am simply "qadish."

      I believe we shall have to agree to disagree on the matter.

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  6. Except the deeper set of beliefs tend to also be different. It isn't just "external trappings," it's a core difference of worldview in many cases.

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  7. Matthew Nathaniel HuntJuly 29, 2012 at 8:02 AM

    Hey Tess...this article has one serious problem....


    IT IS TOO SHORT!

    ;-)

    Great article by the way. I've shared it multiple times.

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    1. Too short? Yeah, well write a better one! ;) Thanks, I'm glad this article helps. But, yes, you're right, this could be an entire essay on its own.

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  8. You are welcome, Satsekhem. I hope it is a helpful piece.

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  9. Thank you, Tess. I was pointed here by a Hellenic Polytheist group on Google+. I'm one of those Neo-Pagan types, but as I've grown within that group, I'm finding I can't adhere to an absolute duality, deities as 'aspects' or Jungian archetypes, etc. Really I don't think I ever felt they were that way. I'm still struggling to find my place in it all as the Triple Goddess and Horned God are very much real deities to me. But in no way do I see them as higher aspects of other deities. To me they are very much discrete. And I don't think I'm alone in that. In one book, Progressive Witchcraft, Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone describe this as a growing current in the witchcraft movement, where we are all moving away from the idea of aspects and monism and toward polytheism. I'd agree that anecdotally that's what I've seen. However, the mechanics of it all are still in the works. The "how" question is very much under discussion.

    I think the Neo-Pagans have a large share of the growing and changing to do, and I'm encouraged to see signs that those changes may be taking place, albeit slowly. We'll never be one and the same, I wouldn't expect us to. It doesn't even really make sense that we would. But there is perhaps a stronger common ground we can reach with time.

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    1. I find this fascinating, Terrence, and I will love to watch how Neo-Paganism grows and changes in attitudes towards their deities. I will keep an eye out on these changing attitudes. Thank you for sharing!

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  10. Thank you Tess, a well written article and goes well with the discussion had last week at the Gawler Pagans Discussion group (Australia) where we tried (in vain as it happens) to discern Paganism, what it truly was to us and to others, how it was interpreted, who it included (and who didn't want to play) and was there a better word to label us all with that gave us a united front as a group to be counted, recognised and reckoned with if needs be; supportive of all included and one that the 'others' understood, accepted. And probably had little to do with one's own spirituality but more for a common community good with and against other recognisable religions, governments, schools etc. The answer - NOPE, can't think of one. But we all agreed that as a community with many facets and differing opinions, practices etc. we still needed each other for support at times, are prepared to overlook differences in particular paths and religions to gather and work for the community and the world as a whole and are much more accepting of those differences. Your article explains much and I only wish someone had had it last week. The 'label' system we as humans seems to need to put others in their rightful boxes (more for our own personal organisation I sometimes think as we all like to know just who is what and where) is a very curious and confusing habit. And creating one big umbrella covered box in which to place a multitude of labels is like tidying up because none of them deserve a place of pride on the mantle piece.
    One day, hopefully we will all come together and I feel that when that happens it will also be because Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam etc. might too have changed to for the better for all. ??

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    1. I feel your pain Dilali. It's a monumental, if not impossible, endeavor. And truth be told, there are a lot of different religions that get overlooked when there's one "umbrella term". But, just because there are separate religions doesn't mean that people won't fight for others' religious liberties. It doesn't matter if a person is Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Pagan, or qadish, we can all stand for each others' religious rights--and indeed it takes an interfaith effort to do exactly that. I love your comparison of a "place of pride on the mantle piece." :)

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  11. I love the article and I think some very good and very important points are made. The only reason can even conceivable see is the comming together of the communites in such a way to, as you said, support one another. The communities are just so proportionately small compared to the more "mainstream" religions, and that support of one another could give us all such a voice if we could only figure out how to use it together, around the differences and for our, as a whole, benefit. The words "pagan community" shouldn't have to be such a distant pipe dream.

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    1. Thank you, Maria. I believe we can come together to stand for each others' rights, and I think it is much more helpful to come together under the umbrella term of "interfaith." It seems more fitting, and respects the diversity of each unique religion. No one comes to the table with preconceptions of beliefs, concepts of deities and the divine, or common holidays. Even Christians as different as Pentecostal to Catholic have more in common: they share some holidays and a belief in Jesus. But do the disparate religions that would/could band together under the "Pagan" umbrella term even have basic beliefs and holidays in common? Nope.

      "Interfaith" is better because that is a better descriptor of the type of dialogue that we have, and that we should have: a sharing between and among different religions in hopes of establishing better relations with one another and better relations with the world at large, and efforts to further understanding and peace.

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