Pagan and Pagan-'ism'

I've been thinking a great deal about what Paganism means to me and more directly about the relevance of the term 'Pagan' as a descriptor of my spiritual life. Paganism is a broad umbrella that shades a variety of budding faith paths, from Wicca to Aztec Reconstructionism (a blossom I find deeply troubling, given my recent research into Aztec religious practices). It boasts a host of non-Christian Gods and a burgeoning repository of historical, pseudo-historical, reconstructed and reinvented religious practices, including many that non-Pagans would call magical (ritual, spell-craft, tarot and the like). It is certainly diverse, and I've often heard that our unity is drawn from our diversity, though unity has been historically difficult for people of my faith to master.

In twenty-six years of practice, I've had time to explore Paganism philosophically and psychologically as a process and see certain patterns emerge. In the beginning, practitioners discover some element of the faith or craft and want to know more, which leads them to the wealth of how-to books perpetually written and released on topics ranging from the eight sabbats to herb lore. This helps them to find and hone their own methodologies of worship and practice, which usually correspond with one or more pre-Christian culture and religion. From there, mileage varies. Some cheerfully invent, but others immerse, reconstructing as they go. One of the most interesting aspects of this from my perspective is the psychological Christianization that often happens as the new is grafted onto the old. Practitioners begin to talk about what the Gods want from them, personal relationships with the Gods and sacrifice (bloodless or otherwise) as a means of interaction with a chosen deity or deities. Perhaps these impulses are universal, but their current incarnation in Pagan thought often strikes me as having risen out of the pervasive methodology Christianity has brought to cultivating right relationships with the divine.

What results from this is a person well-versed in modern Pagan spiritual practice and variously educated in and/or misinformed about one or more pre-Christian cultures and religions, who seeks to deepen her spiritual understanding through historical research, religious and magical practice and the cultivation of a personal relationship with one or more deities. That's all very well and good, but because Paganism is a new religion grafted onto the bones of many old religions, and because what we know about those religions is spotty, there are problems with this approach. For one, not every cultural and religious practice is a healthy example of the human experience, and some should be left in the grave. For another, the fundamental principles of relationship with the Gods, especially via the concept of sacrifice (which is rooted in resource scarcity), desperately need revisiting. Humanity is not what it was; physically, intellectually or spiritually, and our understanding of relationship with divinity needs to change in step with our evolution as a species. And even when we are investigating cultural and religious practices that healthfully speak to us as modern people, it's important that we respect them for what they are. As a Gaelic learner living in Cape Breton, this is especially relevant to me, and I am regularly appalled by the number of Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans who either don't know or don't care about the authentic roots of the religion they claim to practice.

Another troubling hole in the Pagan patchwork relates to our experience of each other and of the world. Because Paganism is individualistic (another psychological grafting, this time of modern, Western culture onto religion), Pagans often have difficulty relating to one another in meaningful ways. Beyond the bickering, there is a persistent dearth of organizational support for one another and for disadvantaged members of our community. If we are to be more than a disparate collection of pseudo-historical religious re-enactors, this has to change. But perhaps most troubling is that Paganism is ostensibly an Earth-centered religion, but so few of its practitioners are environmental and animal activists. Surely the Earth needs defenders more than She needs lip-service to Her air, fire, water and soil. And what of the totem animals so many Pagans claim to have? Beyond my vegan snark that nobody picks chicken totems because they taste too good (Are not chickens worthy of spiritual companionship?), don't totem animals deserve the active protection of the people who claim to be protected by them? And finally, where is our exploration of birth, life, death and the larger issues of spiritual life that only deep contemplation can address? We have few tools for this, and we need them far more than we need another Internet discussion of the Battle of Magh Tuireadh.

And so I wonder about my relationship to the 'ism' of my Pagan faith and practice. I don't know whether or not I need a personal relationship with the Gods, because I'm not certain the concept itself is useful to contemporary, Pagan spirituality. I certainly don't believe in sacrifice, but communion appeals, whether it be with the land, sea and sky, my human and non-human brothers and sisters or with my understanding of divinity. I don't think every ancient cultural or religious practice is worthy of revival, but I believe those that are ought not to be appropriated. I equate Pagan individualism with navel-gazing and believe enduring strength lies in genuine community. I am a vegan, an animal and ecological activist who believes that my greatest acts of religious piety lie in the service I do for the Earth and Her denizens. I want to be more contemplative, to address the deeper questions of my life, and I have not yet found the tools I need for that endeavor in Paganism alone.

Perhaps I have come to a place of nameless spirituality, where I am what I am and believe what I believe and where labels do me more harm than good. Perhaps my community of faith is still in process, and I am too impatient with it. And perhaps there are things I just don't know yet, or understand. Still, I've been on this road a long time, and I think my observation of it counts for something.