Not Fleeing But Seeking; Also, Ending Up Where?

(Tongue-In-Cheek Warning: This is about the Pagan/Polytheist split thing.  If you’re sick of hearing about it, keep moving).

This post by John Halstead was interesting (and it’s not just because I get so tired of hearing Heathens accuse each other of being Christian).  I think there is something to what he is saying.

I’ve often been confused by Pagans who share memes and sentiments amounting to things like “all religions are bad” and “people who believe in God/s are stupid”.  I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it for a while now, and frankly, this article does put some of it in perspective.  The idea that a lot of Pagans are moving away from the –theism portion of their previous faiths may go a long way towards explaining not only that, but the insistence that Paganism is not “religion” but “spirituality”, the oft-repeated statements of “Nature is my temple” (it’s one of my temples, too, but that’s a bit beside the point here), the wincing that one sees when one suggests the Gods are other than elaborate metaphor, that everything should be made up as we go along… if you’re a regular reader of mine, you know I don’t really agree with those sentiments, but I can understand where they may be coming from if people are coming to Pagan paths as a rejection.

I don’t think that it’s accurate for every self-titled Pagan though; it’s certainly not for me.  What drove me away from the faith that I was mostly raised in was a combination of things: being told that some members of my family’s lives could be forfeit if they didn’t accept the same faith (this was especially painful with my grandmother, who was a good woman), or that they would be condemned to an eternity of agony for disagreeing, the fact that someone who is as queer as I am had no place in the faith and the best I could hope for was a life of self-flagellating repression, and countless other things.  Mind you, I recognize that there  are many of that faith that argue that those things are not doctrine or correct.

What drew me towards Paganism was a love of the mystical and magical and a love of the Gods who I had loved as a child.  I’ve told the story a thousand times: when I was a kid I found a copy of the Choose Your Own Adventure book “The Trumpet of Terror”, which is set in ancient Scandanavia and you, the main character, belongs to a family touched by Odin, and you’re called on to aid in a touchy matter involving none other than Gullveig.  The names of the Gods and powers in that book ignited my blood, sang in my bones, captured my imagination and would not let go.  Likewise, when my mother bought a huge map of the solar system for me I asked her what the planets were named after and got an education on the Roman Gods.  Thereafter I tried to set up altars and worship without really knowing how.  I followed my mother into her new faith when I was a still wee one, but I never lost my appreciation of the faith and Gods that felt natural to me, despite trying to accept the idea that they were all demons trying to deceive us.

Leaving behind the old faith was hard, but not because I believed in its absolute correctness, more because of old habits and fears.  While I was walking into Paganism (specifically Wicca at the time) for years I felt a series of sensations like fishhooks attached to wires being pulled out of my spine, sometimes as bunches, sometimes one at a time, and reckoned it the connections to the God I once worshiped being pulled free, or me pulling free of them as I strove towards the path that made more sense to me.

I am not sure which Goddess it was that replied when I called to “The Goddess” or “The Lady” though I have some guesses (I never felt to comfortable with The God, frankly, and not because the God of my former faith was “male” – despite the pronouns used it was made clear to me at an early age that that they were neither male nor female, so I never thought of them as such).  I wasn’t running from religion, nor was I running from the idea of One God – I was fine with that as a Wiccan, all was the Goddess, and I thought of the various deities as Her many faces.  It was neither the mono- nor the -theism that took me away from my old faith nor the lack of one or the other that drew me to the new one.

When I started being Pagan, I started finding a lot of prejudices and what I considered harmful beliefs, but they didn’t drive me away from Paganism (although, to be honest, they had me on the run from Heathenry specifically for a good long while)  I decided to stay and make a difference by being myself and being Pagan (as I’ve decided to with Heathenry).  I stayed because the beliefs by and large resonated with me and because the practical aspects of that belief and my working within it have been beneficial.  I stayed because if I didn’t, my voice wouldn’t be contributing to it and changing it.

Which brings me back around to the article above.  Should Polytheism and Paganism split apart (if that’s even entirely possible)?  Should Polytheists remain a part of the larger Pagan movement and continue to add our voices to it?  I know there are plenty of folks on both side of that question who would be happier if we didn’t.  A voice within me says that that’s not in my hands, but I know better.  It’s in my hands, it’s in John’s hands, it’s in the hands of everyone in the larger movement that we’re attached to.  We all collectively are the “movement”.  This Pagan movement consists of people, and most of them aren’t loud mouths like myself and other bloggers and authors, they’re folks living it and not acting as mouthpieces for their egos, their Gods, or their causes.  Ultimately that’s what all that recent talk about Pagan laity has been about on some level, right?  The folks who just want to live their paths and faiths?

There are folks like me, who are Polytheists and still identify as Pagan – I straddle both identities, and I have to say I’m stretching in places that I’m not used to stretching as a result of this debate.  Part of me thinks that Polytheists would be better off moving away from Paganism, but the fact is there are lots of Wiccans and Eclectic Pagans who are still Polytheists.  They still believe in many Gods, that they are separate entities, and that they exist outside of our heads (though there are surely parts of them that live within us, too).

Is the question of identity more about Reconstruction and Recon-derived practices?  There may something to that – a lot of Heathens don’t want to be associated with Paganism because they associate modern Paganism with folks with no interest in reconnecting to the faiths of the past.  That is surely not applicable in all cases, or even most for all I know.  A lot of Wiccans still believe that they are connecting to an ancient faith-way and for all I know they very well could be, scholarship aside.  Who am I to say whether or not some ancient prehistoric Mother Goddess or Goddesses are whispering in the receptive ears of modern folk?  That aside, reconstruction that begins with scholarship is different from totally channeled spirituality in a number of ways, despite the fact that all lore was once UPG.

As time goes on I don’t know where I belong.  My times at Brushwood went from free-wheeling, firedance-happy Eclectic Pagan to Polytheist ADF gatherings and Heathen Woo-Woo Bootcamp.  I spent less time at the bonfire and more time at the Runestead, less time partying and more time worshipping, practicing, and studying. I found more fulfillment in that than I had in just smoking pot, drinking, and dancing around a bonfire.  It wasn’t what everyone was there for, even among the Pagans who attended.  I was still welcome at the fire and the public rituals; no one treated me as a weirdo for being who I was.  In other words, despite being a practicing Polytheist, the other Pagans didn’t try and make me feel unwelcome.

I don’t know the answer.  I do know that many of us aren’t running away, but running towards, not fleeing, but seeking.  Regular readers will know that I’m fascinated with identity and the borders of it and its composition.  This particular discussion is important to me, and it may be important to many of you as well.  How we approach this will shape generations to come; even if our names and specific words are forgotten, the ripples we set in motion will continue to build and change the face of things.  While I do believe that honoring the Gods is important for a variety of different reasons, I also think that our social and cultural movements are important too.  Would it benefit both Recon-based Polytheism and modern Paganism for there to be a definite split in our movements?  Would it harm either?  What will we be leaving for generations to come?  We all sense the rumblings and have felt and seen these divisions, and it’s up to us to encourage or discourage them as we see fit.  What do you think?

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8 thoughts on “Not Fleeing But Seeking; Also, Ending Up Where?

  1. I had many of the same thoughts as I read Halstead’s piece. He does have some points, yet none of them apply to me directly. The thing that has interested me most to this point about the whole debate is that it is making me question deeper and get more specific in my own articulations about what I believe–or, what I have believed and how those ideas are evolving. I have, for the most part, kept to myself and not participated much in the wider Pagan community. I’m realizing lately, however, that this has been at least in part because I haven’t felt entirely clear about my positions or secure in my own religious identity. That is changing to a certain extent, although I do have a strong privacy reflex that feels like survival instinct. Your assertion in the last paragraph about ripples and influence on future generations really struck a chord with me, though. I’m going to have to sit with that one, I think. (And…People concur.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “not fleeing, but seeking”

    That’s going on my next business card.

    As a person who had and has no problem with the faith of his childhood, I often feel like my perspective is very different from others. I never had any bad experiences within Judaism growing up. Sure, there were times that, as they accumulated, brought me to understand that the faith of my ancestors wasn’t the one that spoke to me (or, perhaps, I just needed to dig further back into my ancestral past beyond King Josiah). As a result, I’ve never felt as if I was leaving (or fleeing) a faith behind as much as finding a new faith before me, one more appropriate to my own personality rather than simply the one I was born into. Furthermore, as a Pagan and a polytheist, the divide that others talk about so fervently is equal parts troubling and baffling to me. And so, I listen and try to understand.

    Thanks for this excellent piece 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ultimately, while I find these conversations interesting, and the points brought up as being valid, and while I do think we’re in a growing pangs sort of place, I also don’t know that anyone, or even any a group of people saying, “Polytheists aren’t pagan” is going to make that change overnight. Hell, many Heathens have been saying that for over a decade, and they still get lumped in with the Pagans, much to their dismay. For myself, I use both, and I identify as both. When I’m in education mode, I’ll use polytheist more than pagan, but I still think of myself as pagan, and that’s not likely going to change. And I’m happy with it, to boot, so to a large extent this divide between the two camps is a mental exercise to me, and nothing more. But, still a useful mental exercise for exploration.

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  4. I also wonder if a lot of the people on the polytheist side wanting that split, or perceiving that split as already taken place, aren’t more of the clergy/ritual specialists who want people to take devotion to the gods seriously and seriously in the way that they do. Certainly the people I can think of off the top of my head fall within the ‘clergy for their group’ category — and I think that needs to be held in awareness. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with people who don’t put their devotion — whatever it looks like — at the center of their lives to the expense of everything else. I’m not bothered by ‘secular pagans’ because why should I be? It’s not for other people to represent how *I* am pagan, or polytheist; it’s up to me.

    Er. So, I guess, mental exercise aside, the topic makes me somewhat cranky. I’ll need to remember that going forward.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I am also someone who ran to, rather than running from. My parents were atheists and religion was always something I had to explore for myself. I had nothing but positive experiences (overall) with every religious community I explored (and I explored many), and nothing drove me away from any of them. In the end, Paganism simply attracted me more than any of them.

    I understand the divide, however, because what attracted me was the legacy of Romanticism. For me, Paganism is the realization of the religion inherent in the poetry of John Keats and William Blake, in the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John William Waterhouse, in the essays of Thomas de Quincey and John Ruskin. I have, quite frankly, no interest at all in the recovery or resuscitation of any pre-Christian religion; what interests me is drawing on them, as on many other sources (including Christianity itself), as a rich stock of symbols out of which to forge a thoroughly modern, post-Christian spirituality–one that will speak with the authentic voice of our time, freed from the burdensome weight of tradition and “Old Ways”.

    That being said, I am keenly aware of the fact that, from the very inception of the Romantic movement, Western counterculture has depended on the legacy of paleopaganism to formulate its self-expression, and that that legacy is primarily unearthed and made available by people of more reconstructionist tendencies. We Neopagans draw on Polytheists’ work, and their focus on sources lends a certain degree of consistency to the symbols we are using. In a way, Polytheists are the countervailing force that keeps Neopagans from flying off in totally unrelated directions and losing the coherency of our movement. For unabashed Neopagans like me to throw Polytheists/Reconstructionists out of the tent strikes me as a somewhat absurd pulling of the rug out from under ourselves.

    At the same time, many of the various forms of eclectic Neopaganism are orders of magnitude larger and higher profile than any of the Polytheist/Reconstructionist groups and movements, and it does seem that most people come to Polytheism through the gateways of modern Witchcraft, Revival Druidry, etc. It seems to me that our relationship is symbiotic–Polytheists provide Neopagans with the consistent, identity-coalescing source material out of which we are crafting a very different kind of spirituality from what the Polytheist religions are building, but that same spirituality is also the primary means of recruitment for Polytheist groups and the most effective means for them to secure legal recognition, protections of equal rights of religious practice, etc. I worry about both of our futures if a split becomes absolute.

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  6. Yes, exactly- and they are people that either have their own worship group or are happy being isolated. I also notice they typically don’t have children- raising kids with no religious peers is a bit like trying to get them to speak Klingon. Also, if someone doesn’t identify as Pagan, their opinion about Pagans no longer matters.

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  7. I don’t think I really see the distinctions between flavors of polytheism, paganism, recon, etc. as being one of theism per se. I think it has a lot to do with a desire for very different kinds of experiences and outcomes. That is, if a desire for feeling connected with the earth and with its web of life is unfulfilled by the religion of my birth, I might see paganism as a way of satisfying that desire. If I’m looking for a way to connect with spiritual forces I’m drawn to, paganism may offer that – or it may not. The same desires that led me to paganism may lead me out of it all over again; I might discover that other needs arise and that paganism (or at least the paganism I’ve known so far) doesn’t satisfy.

    People look for many different forms of satisfaction from their religious identities and traditions. If I was simply looking for a tradition that let me believe in many actual deities I might find the process of selecting a tradition less difficult. (Or maybe not; this is just a hypothetical.) Amazingly, I think that participation in polytheism can satisfy lots of highly personal desires beyond just that of recognizing the existence of many Powers. This is why I am a little hesitant about hard statements regarding what polytheism is or isn’t; multifaceted values and experiences seem entirely in keeping with the fundamental acknowledgment of multiplicity contained in basic assertions of polytheist thought.

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