Saturday, 19 January 2013

What Makes A Pagan (and who decides)?

Factionalizing within a movement is nothing new, and perhaps the only thing surprising about it at all is that there are still people who are surprised when it happens. Beneath the umbrella labelled "Paganism" the most common divisions used to be things like Traditional Wiccan vs. Eclectic Wiccan, or Wiccan Witch vs. Non-Wiccan Witch. The current distinction seems to be developing between factions a bit more difficult to easily categorize and slap a label on, the scope of the split being, seemingly, farther-reaching and rooted both in practice and perception. Is it between the Reconstructionists/Polytheists and the Neo-Pagans, however imprecise those descriptors are? From some of the forms the debates are taking, I'd almost go so far as to say it's between the Literalists and the Figurativists, if I may be allowed the conceit of coining terms of my own. Those who view "the gods" as beings with their own agency and objective reality, and those who view them as metaphor, archetype or symbol. It's far from a new division, but people are becoming very vocal about it, as though it matters more now for some reason. Which apparently means that "Paganism" as a whole has developed to a point where theological battles are moving beyond the confines of individual traditions and into a larger arena. It also appears to signal a shift from orthopraxic to orthodoxic peer pressure in general (though perhaps that was always there as well).

I'm personally more the metaphorical thinker, comfortably agnostic and content with knowing, as the quote in my header states, that there are mysteries that I'll never understand, but that there are also reassuring constants in the universe. The gods to me are human faces upon larger concepts, ways by which we, in our limited capacity, can interface with the mysteries. This is a simplification (and possibly not a very good or coherent one) of my personal cosmology; and as you might imagine it has not won me any love from certain sectors. I'm not an atheist, though I may have more in common with them ideologically than I do with the hardcore true believers--the pagan versions of which baffle and frankly unsettle me almost as much as do their Abrahamic counterparts. If I call upon or invoke a particular deity to a particular end, I do so not expecting a result to appear from on high, but rather to manifest within me so that I might accomplish what needs to be done. (This works with fictional characters, too, but that's a tale for another time.) If I invoke Hathor to aid me in, say, becoming a better dancer, I don't expect to be automagically granted the sinuous grace of Rachel Brice--but I do expect to find within myself such characteristics as Hathor contains that will impact my dancing positively, such as beauty and confidence and sensuality. And, in "invoking" a deity, I absolutely do NOT mean being "possessed" by them or "becoming" them, though in certain cases such an invocation might produce a temporary overlay of the deity's chief traits onto my personality, for me to direct to a desired end (rather in the manner of what used to be known as "Method acting," though the comparison is imprecise). But that's it: there's no dramatic show, no blackouts or dissociative states, just--for want of a better term--enhancement. I think of it as applied psychology.

(If you haven't already denounced me, made a capslocked rage-post to Tumblr about what an asshole I am, or simply clicked the back button, read on.)

I read a lot of pagan blogs, both more traditional types and things like Tumblr, and I've been watching these seismic shifts without really saying much about them. Maybe it's a generational thing--I came to alternative spirituality long before the internet as we know it, and had been a initiate for about three years before I ever got online--but much of what I read from (mostly younger) pagans these days leaves me feeling like I should be calling myself something else. I see very little of me in what I read in so many places. I give honor to gods, and I practice ritual forms, yet I get the distinct impression that I do these things for very different reasons than do the vocal majority--who now appear to be rising up to declare my ilk as somehow unpagan. Nothing new there, of course, for me personally, but now I'm seeing it on a larger scale.

I am not "god-bothered" in the way some claim to be. I don't hear voices in my head or whispers in my ear. No nagging feeling that Someone requests or requires me to do specific things. I can go to the grocery store without "hearing" a deity ask me to buy Them chocolate bars or a particular kind of booze. I don't perceive a Calling to dress a certain way, grow my hair out or veil my head, take a vow of celibacy or make myself available to all and sundry; that's not the relationship I have with the divine. (Frankly, there is a part of me that wonders how many others really feel those things and how many just talk the talk because it seems the required price of admission, de rigueur behavior to be part of the subculture. But I do tend toward the skeptical.) My messages from the universe come through in far different ways, much more subtle ways, and I have to pay very close attention to catch them at all most of the time. It'd probably be easier to have a god-pal talking in my ear telling me exactly what they want and exactly what I'd get in return--but that's not reality. I'm wired a different way, and that works for me.

But is it pagan? Who gets to decide? Who gets to define the word, determine the parameters? Is it about belief? About faith? About practice? All the above? Is it an aesthetic, a worldview? The term itself is to my mind broad, amorphous, and thus leading to further descriptors to clarify minutiae of all those types. I'm hard-pressed to pigeonhole myself in that regard--perhaps because I'm more owl than pigeon.*

Broadly put, I'm intellectually Kemetic/Isian and philosophically Druidy/Neopagany. Indoors, I'm a spiritual Egyptologist; my practice is specific and liturgical and tends to require homework and the purchase of complicated books. Outdoors, I'm a druidess, armed with a harp and alert to the whispers of the winds and the voice of the trees. The dichotomy is visible, but normal to me. "Religious" form--liturgy, ritual, study--satisfy the intellect while "spiritual" form--music, story, sweet wild nature--satisfy the soul. The two coexist harmoniously in me, and I find them pleasing and satisfying. One may take precedence over the other at any given time, but the side in shadow is only momentarily quiet, never absent. This is what works for me--but is it pagan? I don't honestly know what else to call it; the language is imprecise. For now, pagan will have to do.

I don't have any answers, and I don't have any need to argue, unless the fight is brought to me. For now I'll continue to work with the term Pagan because I don't have anything better with which to replace it. It may be that the term Pagan as a general descriptor is on the way out because of its imprecision. If the definition really has become so broad that the word has ceased to have a definitive meaning, then it could be time to find new words (which may, in their own time, become obsolete as well). When you're mostly solitary, forging your own path, perhaps it doesn't matter as much.

And as Grace Slick once wisely said, "it doesn't mean shit to a tree."

*(This is metaphor. I am not otherkin, No no no. Don't even.)

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