Neither Capitalism Nor Socialism: A Third Alternative

In the lead up to Earth Day this year, I wrote a 21-part series of posts offering practical suggestions for how to honor the Earth beyond the standard ideas of planting a tree and picking up litter (both of which are good, but insufficient).  (You can see the list here.)

Number 6 was “Fight Capitalism.”  I wrote:

“Our capitalist economic system is fundamentally incompatible with a healthy planetary ecosystem.  We live on a planet with finite resources, but our economic system is premised on infinite growth.  And since we can’t change the laws of nature, we must change our economic system.  This means challenging some of our most cherished myths …

We can unlearn capitalist ways of thinking.  Capitalism infects all of our relationships: with other people, with other-than-human beings, and with the Earth. … Think about your relationship to the place you live.  Is it a place you ‘use’, or is it a world you inhabit, cherish, and care for?  We learned these ways of thinking, and we can unlearn them.”

One of the commenters asked me what we are to replace capitalism with.  It’s a common question that I hear in response to critiques of capitalism.  The reason why people ask this so often is because capitalism has so colonized our minds that we are incapable of imagining alternatives.

Capitalism ≠ Markets

13743608_622425937932025_2060653650_nOne point of confusion is that capitalism has been conflated with markets  People think that capitalism means people buying and selling things.  But that’s a “market.”  And there can be markets without capitalism.

What is capitalism then? A capitalist society is a market society in which the concentration of wealth in a small percentage of the population.  A capitalist society is divided into two classes: the capitalist class, which owns the means of production, and the working class, which must sell their labor to survive.  The government protects and perpetuate this division through creation and enforcement of laws like limitations on liability of corporations, protection of usury (lending with interest), and free trade agreements.

The Problem With Capitalism

The capitalist class exploits the working class by living off their labor and reinvesting profits to create more profits, which are not shared with the working class.  The members of the working class have no real power in this system, because their only options are to accept the terms of employment by the capitalist class or starve.  This is where the term “wage slavery” comes from.”  Workers put up with this because they believe they are all “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”.  In other words, they have bought into the promise of the American Dream.  But the natural outcome of a capitalist society is the increasing consolidation of property in the hands of an ever shrinking capitalist class and an ever growing class of people who earn just enough to survive (or not enough to survive) — exactly what we are witnessing today.

But this division of society between capitalists and workers is not necessary for markets, or for buying and selling, to exist.  There are other kinds of market economies than capitalism.  Some people think the only alternative to capitalism is Society-style communism — which they believe was debunked with the fall of the USSR — or socialism — which they see as a slippery slope to Soviet-style communism.  The truth is that there are many alternatives to capitalism.  Communism and socialism are just two.*  Distributism is another.

Distributism’s Origins

A little history:  Distributism has its roots in Catholic social theory, starting with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (“Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor”), which published in 1891, in the wake of the rise of capitalism and industrialization, as well as the socialist and communist reactions to these.  In the encyclical, Pope Leo called attention to the poverty of the majority of the working class.  He supported the rights of the working class to organize and form unions for purpose of collective bargaining, in lieu of state intervention.  He rejected both capitalism and socialism.  And he affirmed the right to private property.

These ideas were later supplemented by other Popes, including Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anon in 1931, Pope John XXIII’s Mater et magistrate in 1961, and Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus annus (1991).  (Distributist ideas also can be found in Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment. ) The ideas in these documents were taken up by British authors G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, who formed them into a coherent system called “distributism.”  It was eventually adopted by leaders of the Catholic Worker Movement like Dorothy Day.  Although distributism began as a Catholic idea, distributism’s later supporters were not necessarily Catholic.

What is Distributism?

occupy-vennDistributism is not a middle ground between capitalism and socialism.  Rather, it rejects both capitalism and socialism, which it sees as flips sides of the same coin.  From the distributist perspective, capitalism inevitably leads to the concentration of power in big businesses who hold monopolies and exploit workers, consumers, and the environment. On the other hand, socialism also leads to a concentration of power, but in the hands of big government and a political elite.  This concentration of power, either in big business or big government, has the same effect of disempowering the majority of people.  Distributism sees capitalism and socialism, big business and big government, as mutually reinforcing, one leading to the other hand back again in a vicious cycle.  (The military-industrial complex has many analogues.)  Distributism seeks a third way: instead of big business or big government, we would have “big community”.

Distributism sees economics as a subset of ethics.  Thomas Storck explains in “Capitalism and Distributism: Two Systems at War,”

“Distributism seeks to subordinate economic activity to human life as a whole, to our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our family life. It does not regard the mere production of goods, still less the acquisition of wealth, as ends in themselves.”

Our current capitalist system turns this on its head and renders everything — the family, religion, even our bodies — subordinate to the production of wealth for the capitalist class. In a distributist economy, the economy is made to serve the needs — both material and spiritual — of all human beings.

Small is Beautiful

The motto of a distributism is “Small is Beautiful”.  Distributism favors the small and the local.  A fundamental concept in distributism is “subsidiarity,” the idea any activity of economic production should be performed by the smallest possible unit — down to the family.

Another important concept is “solidarity” or “solidarism”, the recognition of our interconnectedness.  Thus, it is the family, not the individual, that is the core of distributist society.  The family is understood as connected to other families through social and biological bonds, and to the whole human family, as well as all life on earth.

In the distributist ideal, the family is in control of the means of production.  No larger unit should perform a function which can be performed by a smaller unit.  Thus, distributism favors anti-trust legislation that breaks up monopolies and concentration of market power in one or only a few companies.  As G.K. Chesterton wrote,

“Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.”

Distributism affirms private property, but rejects its consolidation in the hands of an elite — the 1%.  Instead, it advocates distributing (hence the name) property ownership as widely as possible.  Note, this is different from re-distributing income.  Distributists believe that, when people own the land on which they work and from which they and their families benefit, they work harder and take greater care of the earth.

What Does A Distributist Society Look Like?

So what would a distributist society look like?  Well, Private property would still exist, but most property would be owned by families. Small, family-owned farms and artisan businesses would produce most goods.  Most people would grow at least some of their own food, and the rest would be produced as locally as possible.

Most people would be able to earn a living without having to rely on the property of others.  Farmers would own their own land, artisans would own their own tools, and so on.  There would be markets and competition, but instead of mass production and cheap poor quality goods with built-in obsolescence, local artisans would create high quality products with the expectation that they would be repaired when they broke, not tossed in the trash.

Co-operatives of families and guilds (rather than unions) of workers would exist, but anti-trust and tax laws would prevent companies from growing too big.  Where monopolies are necessary, such as public utilities, they would be owned publicly and locally.  Local credit unions would replace big banks. Social security would be provided by mutual aid societies.   The federal government would exist to provide mutual defense, ensure that human rights are respected, and foster cooperation among smaller political units.

Distributism: A Pagan Ideal?

I’m not an expert on economic matters by any means, so I welcome constructive critiques of the ideas I’ve shared here.  Although it has its roots in Catholic social theory, I think distributism has a lot in common with Pagan critiques of capitalist society I’ve seen here at G&R and elsewhere.  I expect the “small is beautiful” concept will resonate with a lot of Pagans.  I’d like to see more discussion — both pro and con — of distributism as an alternative to capitalism (and socialism) on Pagan blogs and in Pagan forums.  So share your comments below, or write your own post in response.

Some Distributist Resources

“Distributism Basics” by David W. Cooney

A Brief Introduction

Distributist Economic Society

Distributism vs. Capitalism

Distributism vs. Socialism

The Nature and Roles of Government

The Science of Economics

What’s Wrong With Capitalism

The Distributist Review

“An Introduction to Distributism” by John Médaille

“Distributism: Economics As If People Mattered” by Peter Chojnowski

“A Parallel Economy” by Peter Chojnowski

Colin Kovarik (10 minute slideshow)

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My thanks to NaturalPantheist, whose essay, “Pagan Political Economy”, inspired me to learn more about distributism.

*There’s actually lots of different kinds of communism and socialism.

How “Gods Before Politics” Perpetuates Privilege

(A version of this essay was previously published at allergicpagan.com.)

“Ever and always, the Gods come before politics.” — John Beckett

What does “political” mean?

There’s been a lot of argument on the Pagan internet lately about whether Paganism and Polytheism are political, per se, or whether we need to have political-free zones in Paganism.

Some of the confusion has to do with definitions.  When people hear “politics”, they tend to think of political candidates, elections, and voting.  And they think about people arguing about political candidates, elections, and voting.  And, really, who wants to have that at your next Lughnasadh ritual or in your devotional ritual to Lugh?

But politics is a lot more than elections and voting.  It’s even more than signing petitions, boycotting products, and marching in the streets.  Politics is about power: who gets to use it and when and how.  Politics is how we decide who has power … and who doesn’t.  Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”  If we flip that around, we see that politics is how we peacefully (more or less) resolve the question of who gets to exercise power over whom.

When politics is understood in this way, then it’s easier to see that there is really no place or zone that is free of politics.  Not the marketplace.  Not school.  Not church.  And not your Pagan and Polytheist circles.

Why?  Because all of these places are permeated by complex power relationships, and in all of these places, we are either working to reform these power relationships or we are reinforcing the status quo by our passivity.  You’re either doing one or the other.  There’s no escaping it.  And if you’re not doing it consciously, then it’s happening implicitly, in the background of all your words and actions.

Privilege makes politics invisible

And this is why statements like “Gods before politics” reinforce white, male, hetero-, and cis- privilege.  And this is why the notion that there should be non-political spaces in Paganism is so insidious.  The idea can sound very reasonable — especially when it is delivered in a calm and equanimous fashion to others similarly situated.   So much of privileged talk is like this.  While those who are less privileged seem to be railing about invisible powers.

It’s easy to say there should be non-political spaces when your existence is not perpetually under threat by virtue of your difference, by virtue of your conformity to white, male, hetero-, cis-normativity.  But if you are female, if you are a person of color, if you are queer, or gay, or lesbian, or if you are trans, or if you are disabled, then there is no such thing as a non-political space for you.  Because almost everywhere you go, you are being told implicitly, if not explicitly, that you do not belong, that you do not have the same rights as others, that the exercise of power over you by privileged others is right and justified and deity-sanctioned.

Ginger Drekisdottir explained this well in an article here on G&R entitled, “Paganism is Personal, and that’s what makes it Political”:

“There are groups in Western society which are systematically oppressed: women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people, the list sadly goes on and on. These groups are […] oppressed through the very structures which make up our society […]

“For members of these oppressed groups, our daily lives can often be a struggle just to survive, a struggle to carve out a space to live, a constant fight to demand that our lives have just as much value as others. We live these fights just through carrying on with our normal lives, every time we go out to the shops or to see friends, through carrying on breathing; as well as through our activism.

“[…] for oppressed people it is these continued struggles in the face of systems of oppression which make our personal lives political. Yes many of us do activism, engage in demonstrations, engage in direct actions or even the dreaded party politics I mentioned above; but continuing to exist in the light of a system saying that you are lesser, that your life is worth less than others simply because of who you are is just as political. We can’t just shed these aspects of our identities when we step into a space, even a Pagan space.”

In a recent post, entitled “Why the Gods Come Before Politics”, John Beckett responded to Drekisdottir, arguing for the possibility of non-political spaces in Pagan and Polytheist circles.  Interestingly, in the process of trying to make his point, Beckett actually disproves it when he says that “there are limits”.  He writes:

“There is no place for racism in Paganism and polytheism – Stephen McNallen is not welcome at any circle I lead. There is no place for transphobia in Paganism and polytheism – Ruth Barrett is not welcome at any circle I lead.”

That is a political position, an explicit one.  And every time Beckett holds a circle and explicitly or implicitly communicates that racism and transphobia are not welcome in his circle, he is being political.

Consider another recent example, when the Pagan Federation of Ireland was recently asked by a couple of Odinists for help finding a Pagan clergy member to marry them “who only performs heterosexual ceremonies and refrains from marrying those of mixed races,” and the Pagan Federation responded:

“We are most happy to report that none of our clergy subscribe to your views on mixed race or gay marriage, and so we cannot assist you in your upcoming visit to Ireland.
“F**k off.
“Yours very sincerely, Everyone at Pagan Federation Ireland.”

That was a political action.  If the Pagan Federation had helped the Odinists find a racist, homophobic clergy-person to conduct their wedding, that would have been a political action too.  And (pay attention now) if the Pagan Federation had just ignored the request, that would have been a political action too.

The next time someone tells you their Paganism is not political (or the next time you think it yourself), ask whether they would welcome a Neo-Nazi to their ritual or place a swastika on their altar.  If the answer is “no”, then ask them why.  Their answer will inevitably be political — because it has to do with who has power and who does not.  If they say “yes”, then ask how they think a Black person would feel at their ritual or standing before their altar, and whether they care, and why or why not.  That answer will inevitably be political too.  We are being political whether we are conscious of it or not.

Is your Pagan circle explicitly open to LGBTs?  Is so, congratulations, your circle is political.  If not, shame on you, but your circle is political too — it’s implicitly political.  Has your Polytheist group declared that Black Lives Matter?  If so, good job, your group is political.  If not, you need to wake up, but your group is still political.

The luxury of being “non-political”

Only a white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied person like me, or like John Beckett, could really believe that such non-political spaces exist.  As Kiya Nicoll wrote in the comments to Drekisdottir’s essay:

“When I observe someone saying ‘This is not a political space’ what I hear is ‘I have never had to think about whether or not my sort of person is welcome to show up.'”

Only people like Beckett and me have the privilege or the luxury of being (or seeming to be) non-political.  We have that luxury because every aspect of society is structured so as to make us feel empowered and diminish our discomfort.  We have that privilege because the people who exercise power in our society look like us, and act like us, and love like us.  And because of that, we can believe in the myth of non-political spaces.  Other people don’t have that privilege.  What I perceive as politically neutral spaces are in fact highly adversarial spaces for people who do not look like me or love like me.

(Not to mention, we have the luxury of being “non-political” only because two generations of Pagans have fought for our political right to be Pagan and openly so.  We still have a lot of work to do to secure our rights as Pagans, but we’ve come a long way.  If we we couldn’t hold open Pagan circles or if Christianity were the national religion, I wonder how “non-political” Pagans would be then!)

It’s true that there is no political test for Paganism.  There are Pagans who Democrats and Republicans and Greens.  There are liberal and progressive Pagans and conservative and right-wing Pagans.  There are anarchist Pagans and there are libertarian Pagans.  But saying there is no political test for Paganism is not the same thing as saying Paganism is not political.  Your Pagan tradition may not tell you how to answer specific political questions of the day, but there is no escaping those questions.

If you’re not being consciously and intentionally political, then you being unconsciously and non-intentionally political.  And I think there are good reason, good Pagan reasons, for favoring the former over the latter, for favoring conscious activism over unconscious conformity to the status quo.  In fact, I think the definition of an “activist” is simply someone who performs their politics actively and explicitly, rather than passively and implicitly.

Beckett writes, “Good religion has both an internal focus (becoming better people) and an external focus (building a better world).”  He’s right about that.  Where he’s wrong is thinking that one of these is political and the other isn’t.  Both inner work and external activism are political.  Being political isn’t just about working to change the world; it’s also about working to change ourselves too.  And some of that work has to do with recognizing our privilege and learning how to use it for good, rather than perpetuating the status quo.

change

The politics of the gods

Beckett is right that we all need to do spiritual work, to stay connected to our source.  If activists don’t engage in self-care, if we don’t stay connected to the source of our inspiration and energy, then we burn out.  But it’s not a question of whether to perform devotions to our gods or get out in the street and march.  We need both, obviously.  But if you think you’re not being political when your praying to your gods, then you’re deluding yourself.  Think about it … What are you praying for?  Are you asking for help to make the world a more just and peaceful place?  Or are you only praying for more divine favors for yourself, to keep what you have, and get more for yourself?  If it’s the former, then you’re being political.  If it’s the latter, you’re being political, too — just in a bad way.

And what about our gods?  Do your gods bear an uncanny resemblance to you?  If your gods are Black or queer, then your choice of gods is political, because it is a challenge to the status quo.  And if you’re white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and able-bodied, and your gods are too, well then, your choice of gods is also political.  If it’s because you’re avoiding cultural appropriation, that’s political.  But if it’s because it’s what you were drawn to, then that’s political too, implicitly.  And if you tell me your gods chose you, not the other way around, and that their resemblance to you is purely coincidental … well, I would invite you to look more closely at that.

Consider these images, which were among the first that came up when I Googled “Pagan god” …

il_fullxfull.411443169_6ark
Consider the implicit sexism of this image. (Source: “The Council Of Cernunnos” by Emily Ballet)
duo
Why are images like the one on the left ubiquitous in Paganism, but not images like the one on the right? (Sources: Left: “The Tree of Life” by Laura Zollar; Right: “Pagan Gods – Wincest” by Milla1990)

Our choice of gods is a highly political act.  I wonder why so many Pagans can be critical of the actions of the Abrahamic god, and yet seemingly uncritical when it comes to Pagan gods.  As “timberwraith” wrote in response to Beckett’s post, just because a god is more powerful than us, does not make it more virtuous or more just:

“[…] the Abrahamic god is deeply flawed at best. So, that begs the question of how many other gods are questionable in their values and conduct, the degree to which they value human life, and their preference in followers. […]

“The Abrahamic god has been a source of active and violent oppression of queer people for ages. I’m not about to give any other deity automatic respect as a divine guru of awesomeness. Just because people label an aware, non-biological entity as a ‘god’ doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically kiss their supposedly divine bottom. […]

“If the gods are truly individuals, some will behave like complete rotters, some will behave with care and empathy, and a large swath will fall between those possible modes of conduct. Respect should only be applied to those individuals who deserve such consideration. That means one must actively evaluate the nature and persona of said individuals…and that inevitably involves politics, for politics, by definition, concerns the flow and conduct of power, and allegiances formed in the context of power. If god-like entities hold greater power than those of an embodied existence, then said power differential indicates that the realm of the political applies.”

Beckett quotes Abraham Lincoln as saying, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side,” to support his argument for putting the Gods before politics.  But — and this is critical — Lincoln’s conception of “God” was of an infallibly just and virtuous being.  The pagan gods, in contrast, are not described in this way.  In fact, they are often ambivalent and sometimes antagonistic to human cares.  As I’ve written before:

“If the myths are to be believed on any level, the gods are just as flawed as human beings — they just have more power.  Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?”

The notion that the pagan gods are embodiments of virtue seems like a very Christian conception of deity.  Compare Beckett’s statement, “Ever and always, the Gods come before politics”, with the one below:

jesusisking

Now, if one of these statements bothers you and the other doesn’t, you have to ask: What it is about the Pagan gods that you think puts them, and not Jesus, above politics?

I admit, I’m just starting to understand how privileged the statements like “gods before politics” is.  And when I first read Drekisdottir’s essay, I didn’t really get it.  So I shouldn’t be too hard to Beckett.  But people like him and me need to get this.  We need to see that when we are supposedly being “non-political” we are nevertheless reinforcing structures of power that privilege us and hurt others — and that is political.  The myth of non-political Pagan spaces acts as a blindfold for many of us in the Pagan community — especially those of us Pagans who are privileged.  It perpetuates implicit racism, patriarchy, and hetero- and cis-normativity — all of which continue to exist in our Pagan spaces, whether we see it or not (especially if we don’t).  And if we’re not consciously and actively working to see it and deal with it, then we’re passively helping to sweep it back under the rug.

Paganism is Personal, and that’s what makes it Political

By Ginger Drekisdottir

A common refrain I hear in many Pagan spaces, both online and off, is “this is a non-political space”. In light of the recent toing and froing around this issue in the Pagan blogosphere, this has been on my mind again.

On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. Paganism is religion, and politics is politics. Paganism should be about bringing people together in honour of our gods and spirits, while politics just divides people and distracts from the reason why we get together as Pagans in the first place.

But, and this is a big “but”, there is a problem with declaring any space, including Pagan ones, as being “non-political”, and that problem is that there are some issues in our society on which it is impossible to be non-political. I’m not talking about the party politics of Labour vs Tory, Democrat vs Republican etc, but if you think that this is all that “politics” is then that is a very privileged position, which does not reflect the day-to- day lives of many people, including many Pagans.

Let me explain. There are groups in Western society which are systematically oppressed: women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people, the list sadly goes on and on. These groups are not only oppressed through the very structures which make up our society, but there are also people who actively try to keep us oppressed, bigots who actively try to keep us down at best and wipe us out of existence at worst.

For members of these oppressed groups, our daily lives can often be a struggle just to survive, a struggle to carve out a space to live, a constant fight to demand that our lives have just as much value as others. We live these fights just through carrying on with our normal lives, every time we go out to the shops or to see friends, through carrying on breathing; as well as through our activism.

You might have heard the phrase “the personal is political”, well, for oppressed people it is these continued struggles in the face of systems of oppression which make our personal lives political. Yes many of us do activism, engage in demonstrations, engage in direct actions or even the dreaded party politics I mentioned above; but continuing to exist in the light of a system saying that you are lesser, that your life is worth less than others simply because of who you are is just as political. We can’t just shed these aspects of our identities when we step into a space, even a Pagan space.

Our daily fight for existence carries on inside the circle just as much as it does outside of it. And for those of you lucky enough who don’t have to fight daily for your right to exist, I’m sorry to tell you that there is no “non-political” neutral position on these issues. There is a saying which goes “all that it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing”. Now aside from the noticeable sexism in this quote (see how politics gets in everywhere?), this makes a very good point. Claiming a neutral position in the face of injustice only ends up reinforcing the status-quo and therefore reinforcing these oppressions. When you are in charge of a space, whether this is a circle, a Pagan Pride parade, or a blog, this can express itself in many ways, some of which might not be obvious at first glance: Who are you inviting to your event? Remember those bigots I mentioned earlier who want to keep people oppressed or worse? Well if you have them at your event then their very presence makes it unsafe to attend for the groups they oppress. If there is an active transphobe in your circle, then their presence makes that circle unsafe for trans people to attend, regardless of the opinions or wishes of the organiser, and so trans people won’t attend. Not out of protest, but out of a need to survive.

Who attends your event goes beyond the safety of oppressed people, it can also greatly affect how the wider public view Pagans and Paganism. When anti-fascists point out the risks of the far-right to Paganism, we are criticised for making associations between Nazi’s and Paganism, but if you have Neo-Nazis accepted at your “non-political” Pagan Pride parade, that will definitely create the association in the general public’s mind between Paganism and Neo-Nazis. This is dangerous for all Pagans. And if you scoff and think “well of course we wouldn’t want Neo-Nazis on our Pagan Pride parade” then you are already bringing politics into Paganism, the very thing anti-fascist Pagans are criticised for doing. Beyond issues around attendance, does your ritual recognise and include same-gender couples? Then that’s political. Does your ritual not include recognition of same-gender couples, maybe only using a God-and- Goddess structure? Then this is just as political. Western society has spent years if not centuries saying that same-gender relationships are lesser than man-woman relationships, it has erased those relationships while oppressing the people in them. Unfortunately your ritual cannot be separated out from this cultural context, and by not including same-gender relationships alongside man-woman relationships, you are excluding by omission, contributing to and continuing this history of erasure. This is true regardless of the opinions or even the sexualities of the organisers.

Have you gone to extra lengths to make sure trans women are safe using the toilets at your event? In light of the current campaign against us being able to, this is a political act. Do you not know or you haven’t tried to ensure that trans women are safe using your toilets? This is just as political. Regardless of your opinion on Laverne Cox, if we cannot do something as simple as peeing, then how are we going to be able to engage in the rest of your event? Trans women have far higher rates of UTIs and bladder cancer than equivalent cis women due to us retaining urine too long due to not being able to use toilets. It’s hard to think of a more personal issue which has been politicised by oppression than trying to use the bathroom. Similarly, do you have gender-neutral toilets? Political. Do you not have gender-neutral toilets? Just as political. If non-binary people also cannot pee at your event without risking personal upset at best and violence at worst for using the wrong toilet, then they also won’t be able to engage in your event, making this decision just as political.

If you have icons of your deities on the altar at your public ritual then what do they look like? Have you chosen a diverse range of ethnicities and body types to represent? Political. Are they all white, thin and appear to be able bodied? Just as political. If the appearance of the very deities you have gathered to worship end up reflecting the exact same body types and appearances which are placed at the top of the pyramid by our society, then what message does that send to people whose bodies don’t and never will look like that? If you are told every day, in every advert you see, that your body is wrong and these bodies are right, then you turn up to a ritual in the evening and you only see those exact same bodies being held up as being the gods, how might that make you feel about your body and your relationship to the gods?

This sort of politics goes even beyond the events themselves to the behind the scenes. Who is doing the work of organising the circle? Who has the time and energy to put into doing this? Can everyone who wants to get involved in the organisation? If not, why not? Who is doing the small but essential bits around the edge which makes sure everything runs smoothly? Who gets the credit for the event? Who is doing the emotional labour, soothing arguments and comforting people when they get stressed out?runes

Unfortunately the answers to these questions have a tendency to follow existing social structures, and these structures are oppressive. One of the (many) really nasty aspects of oppression is how insidious it is, and how much we all reinforce oppressions on a day-to- day basis without realising it or meaning to, and this even includes oppressions against ourselves. So if women end up organising the food and childcare aspects of your event, while the men plan the main activities of the ritual and receive all the credit, then this doesn’t make you an inherently bad person. But it does show you just how politics and these political issues permeate every aspect of our lives and everything we do.

Finally, I find this whole argument about a “non-political” Paganism to miss a very important point: being Pagan is ALREADY being political. In the UK we have an official state religion, which is Christianity; in the rest of the Anglophone West, Christianity is the dominant religion if not the official one. By stepping outside of this dominant social paradigm, all Pagans are being political. Even if we do so under calls for secularism being accepted, that is still a political stance. As Yvonne Aburrow points out in this excellent piece, all religions are in fact fundamentally political in nature, because they want to cause change, both in society and in people. As I write this, there is currently an online funding campaign for an anthology of radical feminist essays called “Female Erasure”. This is being led by Ruth Barrett, an American Dianic priestess, and is purely an ideological attack on the transgender community, our right to exist, and those who support us. As Susan Harper so wonderfully said over on Witches & Pagans:

“This is not a matter of disagreement over personal spiritual practice. This is not a difference of opinion. This is not a question of different views of how the world works and is. This is violence. It is hate speech.”

Criticisms of this, including criticisms coming from other Pagans, have been met with threats of doxxing (where people’s person information including home addresses are released publicly onto the internet). This as a practice is highly dangerous to those targeted, and is being done, at least in part, in the name of the Goddess Movement and Goddess Spirituality. If you don’t stand up and publicly say “not in my name” then you are tacitly endorsing it, as this hate speech is being done in your name. Standing up for other Pagans, especially some of the most marginalised of our community, is a vital act for people to do. It is also a deeply political one. You might not have asked to be a part of this fight, but other people are making you a part of it by attacking incredibly vulnerable people, at least partly, in your name. This is what I mean when I said that there is no neutral position on these issue, even just trying to opt out of attacks made in your name is a political act. If you don’t want to confront some of the oppressions and privileges which I have discussed here, then that’s up to you; but don’t claim refusing to confront them isn’t just as political as trying to challenge them. And if you do want to challenge them, then you can do so all the stronger by embracing the political nature of that struggle.


Ginger Drekisdottir is a Heathen and follower of Frey and Freya. She is a trans lesbian living in London and active in feminist and queer liberation politics. She is interested in the overlap between liberation and environmental justice, and spends her free time climbing and taking photos.

The Irrational Fear of Death

Someday, you’re going to die.

Yes, you.

Maybe it will be something sudden.  You’ll be crossing a bridge, walking your bike with the pedestrian light, and a drunk driver will whip through the intersection, not notice the blinking light, and you’ll be Humpty Dumpty.

Maybe it will be something longer.  Cancer, maybe.  Cancer gets lots of people.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll actually go the distance.  Maybe you’ll avoid all the accidents, not get cancer, not get Alzheimer’s.  Maybe it will be old age that gets you.  You’ll be a hundred and ten.  You’ll have arthritis and bad bowels and all your faculties, but a tiny blood vessel in your brain will explode and you’ll have a stroke and be dead before you hit the floor.

And guess what?  There’s not a single fucking thing you can do about it.

Nothing.  NO-thing.  No amount of hand cream or botox or face lifts will save you.  Death even got Joan Rivers in the end.

No amount of positive thinking will protect you.  Wayne Dyer, who was bragging in an audiobook I was listening to about how it had been twenty years since he got a cold, got cancer.  He’s still with us, but how long before it comes back?

No amount of exercise will stop it.  Jim Fixx died of a heart attack — while running!

So knock it off.

Knock off all the silly superstitious bullshit that you think is going to protect you.

Stop hiding all the old and the broken people away where you don’t have to look at them.

Stop worrying about what other people eat because you’re jealous, since you can’t bring yourself to enjoy an occasional cheeseburger without guilt.

Stop with the Power of Positive Thinking and the Secret.  Stop with the victim-blaming.  Stop with pretending that if you just colour inside the lines, it won’t happen to you.

Because it will.  If not now, then later, and there’s no amount of magic that is going to protect you.  No one has achieved immortality through magic yet, except maybe St. Germaine.

"Cow Skull" by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.
“Cow Skull” by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.

So why let it bother you?

Okay, you might live a little longer if you don’t eat burgers all the time.  But one cheeseburger really will not hurt you that much.

Old age isn’t a disease.  Hiding and marginalizing the old will not prevent you from getting old.  It’s not catching; it’s already programmed into your DNA.  Everything breaks down in the flesh.  Physical bodies cannot last.

If you develop positive thinking, life might be more fulfilling because you will not dwell on unhappiness.  But it will not prevent bad things from happening to you.

More than that, losing your irrational fear of death will make you a more compassionate person.

If you don’t try to tell yourself that the homeless guy on the street corner just isn’t thinking positively enough, maybe you’ll give him some spare change.  Maybe you’ll buy him one of those hamburgers you can’t bring yourself to eat.  Maybe you’ll even actually talk to him, and you’ll learn his name is Joe and he’s a Desert Storm vet with PTSD who was abandoned by Veterans Services because they don’t want to admit that Gulf War Syndrome is a thing and he drinks so he can sleep.

If you don’t think that old age is a disease that you might catch, maybe you’ll spend some time with older people.  And you’d be amazed at what you can learn when the past is something that happened to someone in your monkeysphere and not something you read about on the internet.  If you don’t try to tell yourself that younger people are more valid than older people, maybe you’ll glean some wisdom because nothing is new under the sun and likelihood is that your original, “innovative solution” has been tried before.The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The irrational fear of death is what keeps us from getting involved when we should.  It’s what stops us from standing up against wrongdoing; because, after all, maybe someone will target us if we say something.  It’s what keeps us from caring when caring matters.  Easier to try to believe there’s a reason why one person is lucky and one isn’t.  Why some of us constantly struggle and others have everything handed to them on a plate.  Why one person dies from choking on a chicken bone in their soup and another lives through being struck by lightning with no permanent damage.

But don’t you believe it!  There is no reason.  Sometimes, bad shit just happens to good people.  And sometimes, good shit just happens to bad people too.  No one’s keeping score.  There’s no brownie point system.  Impressing whatever god you believe in will not result in earthly rewards, nor protect you from harm because you’ve earned enough good karma points.

So, since that’s something you can’t control, stop letting it control you.

Let it go!  Relax!  Have fun every once in a while!  Take risks!  Dare!  Because life is more fun when you’re not worrying about how it’s going to end.  And love is easier when you’re not afraid of people.

Book Review: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Lord of LightLord of Light by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this book was outstanding. It was deep, thoughtful, and marvelously subversive, and like all good science fiction, it makes you think.

A bunch of people in a far future on a distant planet with some superpowers establish a society that they model consciously after Vedic civilization (it never says why or how, but there is an assumption that most of the people are Indian). For some reason (again never fully explained) the people do not start out with the levels of technology of their ancestors; somehow it has been lost. They discover the people with the superpowers and start to treat them like gods. The “gods” divide into camps. Some take the fascist view that since they can do things that others can’t, they *are* gods and worship is their due. Others (the minority) take the position that they need to help people to rediscover the technology they lost, and if they *must* be seen as gods, they will use the press to further that end and then “resign” their positions and disappear into myth. Sam, our protagonist, consciously uses the legends of the Buddha to that end.

Some have commented that they don’t understand this novel, or that it reads more like fantasy. It’s intended to be read that way, and to someone with even passing familiarity with Vedic mythology it’s brilliant. The characters who assume the roles of “gods” speak to each other and their “worshipers” with a weird mishmash of pseudo-archaic-speak that can’t possibly be anything but affected, which is downright funny. Much of their “miracles” are also due to extremely advanced technology. The technology used to justify their Ascension is extremely loosely described by design and might just as well be magic for the reader’s purposes.

The author explores many deep themes of religion. He asks us to consider the nature of what a “god” actually is. Gods get to be gods in our myths because they are immortal and they can do amazing stuff that the rest of us can’t. So at what point does that become true? I have read numerous dissertations that theorize that superheroes are modern stand-ins for Pagan deities (Superman = Sun God, Wonder Woman = Moon Goddess, Batman = God of Vengeance/Justice, etc.) If they can do things that we can’t, and they’re effectively immortal, aren’t they *actually* gods?

If not, then how do we justify our gods being gods in the first place? Perhaps the gods we are familiar with were just people who can do things that we can’t. If it’s because they’re more “enlightened” than we are, how do we know that? Maybe they’re con artists, like Sam, who says all the right things but doesn’t believe them himself, until an enlightened “follower” shows him that the words of the Buddha that he’s aping do actually have truth. And furthermore, many gods in mythology behave just like us, only they do more damage when they do stupid or mean things because of their powers. (And that’s every god ever, from Thor to Zeus to Jesus to Jehovah himself).

Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a necessary part of human development? Is it something that we “transition out of” when we grow up as a species, or is it something that we always need? Which gods are the “real” gods anyway?

Some have wondered if this book might be disrespectful to Vedic beliefs. I can see that some might find it so, and considering that when the book was written no one would have thought twice about it because it wasn’t Christianity, Judaism or Islam, that’s progress. But I don’t personally find it so. For the record (full disclosure) I am a rather devoted Wiccan Priestess who has written books and keeps a blog on the topic, and I’m sympathetic to the Vedic deities because a) Hinduism and Paganism are very similar in many ways, b) some modern Pagans worship Vedic deities, and c) many of us dabble with Buddhism as well because it also has a lot in common with contemporary Paganism. So understand that I take these deities very seriously and have the highest respect for Them. But this is no way invalidates the issues being raised by the author, who is challenging and exploring the nature and necessity of religion as a whole. Is religion something that holds us back as a species, or does it inspire us to greatness? Is faith the only thing that keeps the darkness within human nature in check, or is that only our mortality? What kind of horrors would we get up to if we weren’t limited by human frailties?

At the time Lord of Light was written, science fiction extolling the virtues of human ascension through technology were common. Zelazny, with a combination of cynicism, humour, respect and love, suggests that no matter how advanced our toys and powers become, we’ll still just be people and we’ll still act like it, for good and for ill.

I found myself contemplating those figures who were said to be divine incarnations throughout history, such as the Buddha, or Jesus, or Zoroaster or Pythagoras, and I find myself wondering if they, as Sam does in this novel, originally established their following as a protest *against* the gods and those who claimed to speak for them. The Buddha was protesting the Vedic caste system; Jesus was protesting the Pharisees. Did they intend to become objects of worship, or was that a corruption of their original message?

More than the religious issue, however, Lord of Light can be read as a powerful anti-capitalist message. What starts the conflict between Sam, the handful who join him, and the rest of the “gods,” is that a new merchant class takes over the Wheel of Karma (the technology that allows people to transfer to new bodies when they die) on behalf of the “gods,” who direct them to only permit people to reincarnate if they’re doing the things that the “gods” want them to do, which they get to make up arbitrarily. They encourage the populace to labour for them with lesser technologies than they might receive, and destroy their works whenever their civilization discovers a higher level of technology than the “gods” wish them to have (such as the printing press) by promising that those who are pleasing to the “gods” might reincarnate into better positions when they die. But the “gods” and the Lords of Karma make up the rules to suit themselves and secure their own “divine positions,” so who really gets to advance? Free thinkers are also punished by being reincarnated as apes or dogs, for example. In this I see the message we are told by the 1%; we are all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. But who really gets to advance, and by what rules other than toeing the party line?

Not only does this story contain all of that, but the allegory is a lot like “American Gods” or “Gods Behaving Badly”, and it’s a funny and sympathetic look at the human condition. Highly recommended!

View all my reviews

Faith & Politics in Paganism

Public domain image.

Public domain image.

Should we link our politics and our faith?  This is a question that is beginning to be asked in our community.  Some of that has to do with the stir that Gods & Radicals has created, especially the recent controversy.

I try to stay out of online bickering, and when I feel I must get involved I try to do it in the form of a column so that we can have a mature, intelligent debate rather than a bunch of back-biting, pot-stirring and name-calling, with the usual wake of vultures showing up to cannibalize whomever looks weakest for their own self-glorification through gossip.  Hard experience has taught me that wading in to the mix while the shit is still flying is never helpful.  But even I was drawn partway into this one.  I guess it’s because it’s such an emotional issue for me.  It’s a button-pusher, and my buttons were pushed.

Sometimes that’s a good thing.  It makes you consider where it is that you really stand on important issues, and why; or it forces you to confront all those shadowy sub-motivations and personal issues that you bury under the subconscious muck.  For me it did both.

One thing that made me very . . . I won’t say angry, but perhaps exasperated is the correct word . . . was the accusation leveled against the writers of G&R that we put our politics before our faith.  That couldn’t be more wrong, and I felt inspired to explain why.

Religion Informs Culture

There is a movement not to use the singular word “community” to describe us Pagans, because we don’t really have one.  That’s true.  But we do have a distinct Pagan culture.  Anthropologists who study us refer to it as a “sub-culture” (which we don’t like, because we’re too proud to be “sub-anything,”) or a “counterculture” (which isn’t exactly true; most of us aren’t directly opposed to the culture we live in, we just don’t entirely agree with it.)

The separation of church and state is something Americans hold as an unalienable right.  Weirdly, you are kind of alone in the world.  Most other countries, even we Canadians, your closest neighbours and probably closest to you culturally, don’t quite go that far.  Culture is something we talk about as being an important force.  Culture is an issue that our bilingual country, which was founded on, and continues to grow by, the juxtaposition of three distinct cultural aspects — Anglophone, Francophone, and First Nations (note the plural) — has had to be hyper-aware of since our founding.

We do believe in the principle of not enforcing a religion through the mechanism of the state.  Our Charter of Rights & Freedoms (our Constitution) protects freedom of religion.  We Canadians are strong supporters of that right and we try to accompany those rights with equal respect (which aren’t quite the same thing).

But religion is also a part of culture.  The Quebec court systems and legislature in many cases still carry crucifixes on their walls, because when they joined Canada, Quebec was a distinct French Catholic culture living under English Protestant rule.  Much of the religious element is moot now in the wake of what was called the Quiet Revolution, which happened in the mid-seventies.  The Catholic church was a significant part of everyone’s life in Quebec, running most social services and so forth — until, all of a sudden, they weren’t, and much of that became secularized.  But there are remnants.  For instance, property still passes to the eldest son, at least in part, after a man who owned it dies, rather than entirely into the hands of his widow.

This distinct Francophone culture ultimately culminated in a long series of Constitutional crises and an endless series of referendums, a strong Quebec Sovereignty movement and a federal political party whose entire goal was Sovereignty for Quebec.  There were arguments and a lot of bitterness on both sides, but I think we seemed to have settled into an uneasy peace that is becoming easier with each passing year.

However, the triumvirate of religion, culture and politics doesn’t have to be a negative thing.  That Anglophone-Francophone cultural tension is part of what makes Canada so unique.  It teaches us to have a broader appreciation for cultural differences in general and to create a truly beautiful fusion in many places.  And we’re learning how to do it better.  For instance, many First Nations incorporate their spiritual practices into their social services and decision-making processes.  They believe that this helps to create a sense of community which makes it easier to come together on divisive issues.  Furthermore, many official federal and provincial functions are beginning to include elements of First Nations’ ceremonies.  I think this is a positive trend and I’d like to see more of the cooperative decision-making elements of some of our most politically powerful First Nations included as well.

This culturally diverse history is why we can open our arms to 25,000 Syrian refugees without batting an eye, knowing they will bring their own unique colours to our mosaic.

Ethics

Much of the American and Canadian judicial system is founded in English Protestant Christianity.  Our system believes in “right” and “wrong,” and it punishes what it sees as wrongdoing.  The enforcement of concepts of good and evil is an Abrahamic concept and you probably don’t even think about this, since you grew up in this culture and despite the efforts of the more extreme of us to throw off that yoke, it still influences our behaviour and perhaps always will.  Christian ethics also led them to found the very first hospitals and pensions for widows and orphans — institutions no one but the most dedicated libertarian or fascist would argue against now.

Yet Protestant Christianity has a powerful Humanist influence, which culminates in trying to balance the needs of the state with the rights of the individual.  In a way, both Paganism and Atheism are simply following the reasoning of Protestant ideas — human rights, personal dignity, and individual relationship with the Divine — to their ultimate conclusions.  (Please note that I do not say “logical” conclusions.  Faith, by its nature, is illogical and is something we engage with emotionally and then justify through reason.  At least, that’s what I think.)

Ethics are, perhaps, the most significant influence that religion can have upon us.   This is something we Pagans tend to be a bit fuzzy on.  We’re a new religion (yes, even the Reconstructionists) and so we are still trying to figure this stuff out as we go.  Most of us would say that the Christian ethic simply didn’t work for us and that was the impetus that drove us into this crazy patchwork quilt of a community.  Many of us, if pressed, would say that we have no dogma at all.  We are liars, but at least we are subconscious liars.  It’s our genuine belief, not an intentional falsehood, and I think it’s based in a misunderstanding of what dogma actually is.  Kind of like when people say they’re not religious because they don’t believe in Jesus.

Many of the definitions of “dogma” don’t fit, including anything that is declared, proclaimed or handed down.  But as Brendan Myers once tried to explain to people in a lecture I attended, that very thing is dogmatic!  Part of the Pagan dogma — one of our most “settled or established opinions, beliefs, or principles” — is that no one has the right to act as an authority for the whole group on anything, ever.

Where am I going with all of this?  I’m suggesting that Paganism does, indeed, have some powerful dogma that affects our ethics.  Like, for example, a strong ethic of personal rights and freedoms.  A slightly less strong ethic of personal responsibility.  I have written about my belief that the Charge of the Goddess is a series of ethical commandments that is at least as important as the Rede, if not more so.  And I’ve also written about my belief that the Rede is not nearly such a black-and-white, namby pamby ethical code as you may have been led to believe. Other Pagan faiths have their own liturgies and their own codes of ethics, such as the Nine Noble Virtues, and these will dictate ethical choices just as surely as mine do.

Deities Inform Your Politics

Polytheistic faiths have an additional factor that influences these things, and that is the individual Deities we choose to follow (or Who choose us) will also influence our ethics and our priorities, and thus, our politics.  A devotee of Coyote or Loki is probably a bit of a shit-disturber, coming from the understanding that sometimes the wisdom of the Fool and the Trickster is needed to make us question ourselves and take us down a peg.  A devotee of Apollo, on the other hand, is going to resent anything that breaks the harmonious order.  Neither side is wrong, and both are needed, but they will clash in places and as Pagans, we must simply accept this as part of our reality.

alley-fist

A Personal Perspective

Winding this discussion in from the wide perspective to the personal, I am a Wiccan, so for me there are some definite ethical guidelines–contained within the smattering of liturgy we have–that I feel I should observe.  I say “guidelines” because individual interpretation and understanding is also one of those ethical guidelines.

One of these ethics is an abhorance of slavery.  “You shall be free from slavery,” my Goddess(es) says, and so I must believe, since Her “law is love unto all beings,” that She would want me to fight for the freedom of all.

There’s more to it than that, but a lot of these things intersect.  Environmentalism comes from a love of the earth and its creatures and a desire that we might all be free to enjoy the earth’s bounty.  My sex positivity and my staunch defense of all rights to choose in reproduction, relationship and personal expression are bound up in a combination of that freedom from slavery principle, love unto all beings, and the exhortation to sing, feast, dance, make music and love, and the need for beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence.

As a result of all of that, I feel I must defend the oppressed.  Oppression can be expressed socially, politically, militarily, or economically.  It is my understanding that these things are abhorrent to my Goddess, and abhorrent to me, that drives me to take a stand against them.

Culturally, as a Pagan I have allies.  Culturally, Pagans of various stripes, but perhaps none more so than the Women’s Spirituality Movement, have a long history of forming peaceful but outspoken opposition to oppression.  This has filtered over into the whole community and in particular, a lot of Polytheists seem to be on board.  It makes much more sense for me to support the work of my allies in this complex and wearying fight, driven by my religious ethics, than to do it alone.  I get more done that way.  And I get encouragement when I need it.  I don’t always agree one hundred percent with everyone who writes for Gods & Radicals.  But dammit, they’re doing something.  And I would answer their critics with, “and what are you doing?”

Spiritually, I also believe I have a calling to do this work.  I have written before about how Diana accepted my offer to pray to Her before I realized what that really meant.  At the time, I was connecting to the Maiden Warrior Goddess in the Moon Whose name I had been given.  I believed in feminism and the wild and its preservation and I had no interest in sex whatsoever, so Her Maidenhood was attractive to me.

But over time that relationship changed.  I learned, as I began to realize my bisexuality, about Diana’s preference for the company of women.  And about Her love of the occasional man who was especially worthy of Her attentions.  I discovered Women’s Spirituality then and a spiritual impetus to support my desires for equality.

And then, when I had finally reconciled my sexuality and the idea of the holiness of sex, when I had accepted a path to become a High Priestess in the way that a Catholic might have accepted a calling to become a nun, I discovered Diana, Queen of the Witches, Mistress of all Sorceries, seducer of Her brother, Lucifer.  She and Lucifer gave the world a daughter, Aradia.  She was sent to the world to teach witchcraft to the masses and liberate the oppressed.  Hence, the choice of my Craft name.

I suppose, as my awareness of politics has grown, I have realized that in many ways, it is a part of my spiritual calling and the oaths I have sworn to become involved in politics.  It is my sacred duty to defend the underdog, to raise up the powerless, and to oppose oppression wherever I see it.  And if you haven’t read Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, the “oppressors” that Aradia led Her followers against in the myth were the Church and wealthy landowners.  In other words, the 1% of their time.

I won’t disagree that there are drawbacks to this stance.  In many cases I can’t just “go along to get along.”  I can’t keep my mouth shut.  It’s like a Bard’s Tongue; silence for too long will just cause blunt, tactless statements to slip out.  Sometimes I have to point out elephants in living rooms.

Some people would rather not have to confront a lot of these issues.  I don’t blame them; it’s tiring and I don’t always have the energy for it either.  I hate fighting.  But sometimes I have to.  If I don’t, who will?

There are places where politics and faith must not mix; for example, a Pagan conference, or a Pagan Pride Day.  I once chastised someone for posting information about an environmentalist rally on the local Pagan Pride list (which I was moderating).  I was intending to go to that rally myself, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was that it was presumptuous to assume that other Pagans shared that political view.

But the blogosphere is not one of those places.  Indeed, I would argue that this is the very place to discuss and debate politics, faith, spirituality and ethics.  The blogsophere is the modern Pagan Agora.  If you don’t want to be part of that, you’re welcome not to.  But you can expect that I — that we — are not going away any time soon.

*Note – When I read back the article I realized it sounded like I had a negative opinion of the Francophone-Anglophone cultural juxtaposition in Canada.  Nothing could be further from the truth, so I expanded that paragraph.  Also, I added a link to a great article that Steve Posch wrote today about Aradia and the opposition against slavery.


Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia Author 1I have been a practicing Witch for more than 20 years, and an active organizer and facilitator in the Pagan community since 1993. I am a third degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions, and an ordained Priestess and recognized Religious Representative in the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia. I was the first Local Coordinator in the Okanagan Valley for the Pagan Pride Project. I am a practicing herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) and a Reiki Master/Teacher.


 

Gods&Radicals is not just a site of beautiful resistance, but also a publisher of A Beautiful Resistance! Our second issue is out soon, and there’s still time to pre-order or subscribe. You may also like  A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer (featured above).

We Are the Dreamers of the Day: Capitalism and the Failure of Imagination

(The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989)

Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE!

Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The Princess Bride

When the Inconceivable Happens

 

In 2014, we marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To those who were born later, it is hard to convey how earth-shattering this was. The fall of “the Wall” was one of those events that profoundly changed my conception of the world. Growing up, as I did, in the Midwest in the 1980s, there were certain things I knew to be true:

  1. The United States was destined to reach the stars.
  2. The Soviet Union was the Evil Empire, with whom we would forever be locked in a stalemate.
  3. The Republican Party had the best plan for keeping America economically and militarily successful.
  4. I was safe in my home because the continental United States would never be attacked.

Each of these myths was ultimately undermined by an event in my lifetime:

  1. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 began to undermine my faith in the myth of technological progress.
  2. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR in 1989, breaking the stalemate between the USSR and the USA, which had previously been inconceivable because it implied nuclear war.
  3. The defeat of incumbent George Bush I in the 1992 election.
  4. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Of course, each of these seemingly unprecedented events had their precedents. There were many disasters in the history of the U.S. space program, perhaps most notably Apollo 1 in 1967. The fall of the USSR, while apparently a surprise to the CIA, should not have been a surprise to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the history of empires. My own experience of the peaceful end of the Reagan era hardly compared with the Watergate scandal which my parents lived through. And the attack of the World Trade Center surely was no more shocking to me than Pearl Harbor was to my grandparents.

My parents’ generation experienced similar paradigm shattering experiences, including the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the assassination of Kennedy. For my grandparents, it was the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the Holocaust. I think we all must grow up thinking that certain things could never happen … until they do. Thinking back, humanity seems to be plagued by events which, at the time, seemed inconceivable.

Many of these events caused people to question the existence of a just God, from the Black Death in the 14th century, which killed a third of Europe’s population and over half of the population in cities like Paris, Florence, and London, to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which registered an 8.5-9.0 and killed people as they sat in church on the morning of All Saints’ Day, to the trench warfare of WWI, which created a generation of atheists.

On the flip side, there have been world-shattering changes for the better. For people in the South, living in the first half of the 20th century, the Civil Rights movement was probably inconceivable. My parents joined the Mormon church the same year that the church hierarchy decided to grant priesthood privileges to Black males (1978) … something which some people (including a previous Mormon prophet) had said would never happen. People are saying the same thing about Mormon women and the priesthood now, but “the times are a changing.”  The success of the same-sex marriage rights movement is another recent example. I didn’t think I would live to see that particular historical arc curve toward justice, but I am glad I did.

The Myth That Things Will Always Be This Way

 

It is easy to live under the illusion that things are the way they always have been and they will always be the way they are now. But there really is no excuse for this kind of failure of imagination, at least among adults. This is true on both the personal level, as we contemplate our individual deaths, and on the collective level, as we contemplate the future of our society and our species.

Every adult person should realize that, one day, the United States will no longer exist. No doubt this would be considered unpatriotic heresy by many people, but it seems an inevitable conclusion looking at the political history of the world. What’s more, one day, human beings will no longer exist. … Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in. One day, no matter how much we rage against the dying of the light, we will not be.

This thought struck me as I watched the movie, Interstellar, for the first time. The movie is set in a near-future, where the earth can no longer sustain humanity. The population has been decimated by famine. The good old US of A still exists, but it is no longer what it once was. And a combination of blight and dust storms seems intent on wiping out what remains of a struggling humanity. We’ve seen many such post-apocalyptic cinematic visions in the past, from Road Warrior and Terminator to The Postman and The Book of Eli. But what was disturbing about Interstellar to me was not the changes, but the similarities, of the near-future depicted in the movie to the present day. Many post-apocalyptic stories describe a future that is unrecognizable to present-day Americans. But the future of Interstellar, a future of environmental disaster and only partial social collapse, seems very real.

It occurred to me that humanity’s paralysis over the impending environmental (and corresponding economic) collapse is a function of the psychological strength of the myth that things will always be the same. The sun always rises in the morning, and winter predictably (less predictably now) follows autumn which is followed by spring, and I, here in the U.S. go to work during the week, and rest on the weekend, and go on being a good consumer, largely unperturbed by war and famine and plague. So it’s easy to believe that things have always been this way and always will be …

… but they won’t.

It is likely that my children or grandchildren will live to see a day when our everyday experience, living in the United States today at the beginning of the 21st century, will be entirely foreign to the children being born at that time. This is not apocalyptic catastrophizing. It is simply a recognition that things will not always be as they are. And I think realizing this may be the first step toward making the system-level changes which are needed to address the environmental disaster which is already happening.

Certain things which we take as inevitable … things like capitalism, for example … are not inevitable. As Naomi Kline explains in her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, our economic system and life on earth are incompatible. Our economic system demands unfettered growth of consumption, but our survival and that of many other species requires a contraction of humanity’s growth and consumption. One of these must give way. Our choice, according to Kline, is to fundamentally change our economic system, or to allow nature to change it for us. The first will be hard, but the second even harder. But it is possible: If “the Wall” can fall, then the “Invisible Hand” can be severed.

One way or another, capitalism — at least capitalism as we know it, built on a model of infinite growth — will no longer be. My hope, is that we humans are around to see that day, and that the demise of this particular economic system does not correspond with the demise of our species. What we need is the courage to imagine a different future — the courage to imagine both a future where we have committed collective suicide through our desecration of the environment and a better future where we have escaped that fate by creating a new kind of society.

Paganism: A Religion of the Imagination

 

Where does Paganism come in? Well, if our problem is really a failure of imagination, then Paganism is uniquely suited to the task. Imagination is at the core of the Neo-Pagan paradigm. Reconstructing an ancient pagan past requires imagination, as much as it does scholarship. And much of the Neo-Pagan revival was inspired by fantasy. Dion Fortune’s fiction was an important influence on British Traditional Wicca, as was Robert Graves’ White Goddess (which is a work of imagination in the guise of philology). The American Neo-Pagan revival was also inspired by works of imagination, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. 

The early founders of the Neo-Pagan religions drew from myriad sources for inspiration – both ancient and modern – and where gaps existed, they improvised – following Monique Wittig’s injunction to “Make an effort to remember. Or failing that, invent.” Later, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may have played a role in the growth of deity-centered Polytheism. More recently we have seen the emergence of so-called “pop-culture Paganism,” which includes the worship of comic book and movie characters.

Imagination has been long been denigrated as mere fancy in our post-Enlightenment culture. But imagination is more than fancy. As Sabina Magliocco explains in Witching Culture (2004), imagination refers to “a broad spectrum of thought processes, from memory to creative problem-solving to artistic expression, that rely primarily on internal imaging, rather than on discursive verbal expression or lineal logic.” She argues that rather than being irrational, “the imagination possesses its own internal logic that complements or enhances linear thought.” It is this part of ourselves which is awakened by Pagan ritual and magic. And it is to this part of ourselves which me must look to begin the transformation of our society. As Lawrence of Arabia wrote:

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

We Pagans are uniquely capable of imagining things being different than they are. After all, we are Pagans in (predominately) Christian America! (or, as the case may be, the increasingly secular English-speaking world) More than any other religious group in the West, perhaps, Pagans can imaginatively “remember” a time when Christianity was not the dominant mode of religious discourse. And we can imagine a future which is not only post-Christian, but post-monotheistic. And to the extent that our pathological relationship with the environment is bound up with a monotheistic paradigm, we are uniquely situated to help imagine a society which has a radically different relationship with the environment.

Indeed, much of Pagan ritual and practice is designed to help us realize just that possibility. Starhawk calls this the “radical imagination,” which she describes as “refusing to accept the dominators’ picture of the world”:

“All war is first waged in the imagination, first conducted to limit our dreams and visions, to make us accept within ourselves its terms, to believe that our only choices are those it lays before us. If we let the terms of force describe the terrain of our battle, we will lose. But if we hold to the power of our visions, our heartbeats, our imagination, we can fight on our own turf, which is the landscape of consciousness. There, the enemy cannot help but transform.”

(The Fifth Sacred Thing)

We can lead the way in effecting this paradigm shift away from from a mode of consciousness which is linear, atomistic and disenchanted — which lies at the root of all of these failed systems — to one that is cyclical, interconnected and re-enchanted. One way we do that is through rituals which connect us to nature, and by creating new myths (like the myth of Gaia).

Imagination gets a bad rap in our contemporary scientistic culture, which fetishizes objectivity and rationality and denigrates subjectivity and non-rational ways of knowing. But imagination has been behind every major revolution in human history, whether technological, social, or religious. The environmental crisis is a result of a failure of imagination — a failure to imagine the disastrous consequences of our current economic system and a failure to imagine that our economic system could be different. What we need is the courage and creative resources to imagine things can be different, and Paganism can help us fight that future by imagining new possibilities … and then creating them.

Come Dreamers of Day, come and act your dreams with open eyes.


John Halstead

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


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How Goes the War? Taking Stock and Initiating New Magick for Change

How goes the war, witches and magicians?

I think that since September 2015 it’s going rather well.  There have been a lot of interesting shifts in the way things are going in the world.  For one thing, in October, the Liberal Party of Canada, headed by Justin Trudeau, finally toppled the Conservative Harper Regime, which was well on its way to transforming Canada from its social democratic roots into a Corporatist paradise.  Those who support an anti-capitalist (or anti-corporatist) viewpoint can’t be as happy with that as we would be about an NDP victory in Canada, but it’s definitely an improvement.

For another thing, the American Presidential primaries have never been so interesting!  It’s fascinating to see how Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist who’s been speaking from the same place since the 1960s is suddenly a serious contender for the Democratic nomination.  Not that you’d ever know this if you only followed the mainstream media!  Their deliberately misleading coverage in their desperate desire to preserve the status quo has been even more interesting, and it inspired my last article.

But it’s a truth that in magick one must be especially careful of what one wants to accomplish, because you may end up with unintended consequences. Donald Trump may be one of those unintended consequences.  Those of us working magick for change were not very specific about what form the change should take, were we?  Clearly Trump is setting out to destroy the modern Republican party, which is clearly either our foe or a powerful ally thereof, but perhaps the cure is worse than the disease.  It scares me a little that Americans seem ready to elect the 21st century equivalent of Mussolini.

So what’s to be done?  Well, perhaps more magick is called for.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and when you use magick to break down, you must also use magick to build up.

So it’s time now, I think, to call upon the growing and healing spirits of transformation.  With spring (and March 15) just around the corner, it’s time to call upon that energy of renewal.  When the system comes apart, what will replace it?  Let’s all lend our energy to the United States right now, where much of the world’s future is about to be decided (like it or not,) and then let’s spread that power out into our own lands:

Statue of Liberty of New York by Axelle B (public domain image).

Use whatever your usual procedures are to enter into a Journeyworking (spirit travel.)

Visualize a bald eagle flying high over the land.  See it flying high above you, searching.  It cries as it finds what it seeks and it lands on the shoulder of Lady Liberty, who is bearing Her torch of freedom.  She smiles and nods Her greeting to you.

Who is Lady Liberty?  Is She just a symbol, a statue?  Or is She something more?  She bears a strong resemblance to Athena to me.  I think perhaps She is a new goddess.  And as an American goddess, the fate of Americans matters to Her.

Ask Her to lend Her support to those working for the cause of liberty, freedom, and justice in the upcoming Presidential election process.  Ask Her to withdraw Her support from those who are not working in the interests of those causes.  Ask Her not to take a side in personal political preferences, but to keep in mind the personal motivations of candidates that we cannot see and the long-term consequences that we may not be able to predict.

If you, like me, are not an American, then reach out to impress upon Lady Liberty how the American Empire affects the entire world, and why we who are not U.S. citizens care about the future of American politics.

As when dealing with the Wild Hunt, be aware Lady Liberty may ask you to perform a task in return.  Listen for guidance.  If you are willing to agree to the task, do so.

Visualize the torch of freedom illuminating those who are doing the work of freedom with a glowing spotlight or halo.  Hear their words being amplified to spread to those who need to hear it.  See that light spreading out over the United States, and then the whole world.  And where it touches the yokes of the ones who would enslave us, let those yokes be burnt to a crisp.

The eagle takes flight over the illuminated landscape and lets out a cry of joy.  Lady Liberty smiles.

Return to your body and make whatever offering you feel is appropriate.

And let’s cross our fingers!

* I deferred my intended subject for the next article because I felt that this was a little more urgent.  My article on the pitfalls of internet media will follow next week.


Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia Author 1I have been a practicing Witch for more than 20 years, and an active organizer and facilitator in the Pagan community since 1993. I am a third degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions, and an ordained Priestess and recognized Religious Representative in the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia. I was the first Local Coordinator in the Okanagan Valley for the Pagan Pride Project. I am a practicing herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) and a Reiki Master/Teacher.


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The Matter Of The Gods

This essay by Jonathan Woolley is among the great works published in A Beautiful ResistanceEverything We Already Are, available in print or digital.

Roy Cohn: What’s it like? After?
Belize: After…?
Roy Cohn: This misery ends?
Belize: Hell or heaven?
Roy Cohn: [laughs]
Belize: Like San Francisco.
Roy Cohn: A city! Good! I was worried… it’d be a garden. I hate that shit.
Belize: Mmmm. Big city. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens.
Roy Cohn: Isaiah.
Belize: Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths. And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.
Roy Cohn: And Heaven?
Belize: That was Heaven, Roy. [1]

Many Gods; Beyond Belief?

There is something strange happening within Paganism. It is strange not because it is unexpected—indeed, all families of religions go through it at one time or another—nor because it is unusual—indeed, its like happens all the time. What is strange about it, is that it seems to run contrary to the social circumstances of Paganism today. Indeed, given our highly networked and increasingly virtual world, and the relatively small size of the Pagan community (small, even when compared to the number of Pagans who don’t “do” the Pagan community, but are solitary), it seems quite remarkable.

Paganism is diverging.

In America, we are witnessing the ascent of a new kind of hard polytheism. The familiar refrains of Gaia-theorists, duotheist Wiccans, archetype-channelers, and feminist Mono-theaists are now joined by the carousing of a bunch of upstarts. These contend that no, the gods are not all aspects, incarnations, or faces of The One (or The Two), that is Nature, or its Creator Goddess and her God. The gods are real, and distinctly so–each a person in their own right, just as we [humans] are, and that believing in them as Actually Extant Beings is, really, okay. These polytheists reject the slippery theorising documented by Tanya Luhrman’s trailblazing ethnography [2,] and the postmodern construction of experience-as-basically-subjective articulated by Sabina Magliocco [3]. The Gods, for the new polytheists, are Real.

In Europe I have seen a different trend. The same old order –in which the same gentle theologies held sway—is being complicated here too, but not by a radical call for belief in many gods. Rather, belief itself is being set aside. European Pagans increasingly do not identify as “religious” or “believers” per se. Rather, to them, Paganism is something that is lived through, crafted, cast, brewed, known—hewn from raw being itself. To talk of “believing in the gods” here seems inappropriate. The gods as we know them are real, but the question of how they are real is both an open one, and one that doesn’t matter very much. They are like love, maths, or motion sickness; part of our world, part of our traditions and customs—in a way that makes what we might think about them, well, purely academic. Fun to discuss, certainly. A question for the philosophers, perhaps. But not important for defining what we do, and think.

As the late (and much loved) author Terry Pratchett once said,

“Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.” [4]

The witches of Britain are, in my experience, much like those of Pratchett’s Discworld. Why bother believing in something, if you know it exists?

Much of this could be put down to broader differences between European and American societies. Although American society has been shaken by the rise of the unaffiliated “nones”, religious ideas and themes nonetheless hold tremendous power in the collective imaginaries of the American people. In Europe, however, religion itself is a highly discredited concept—exhausted by millennia of ecumenical strife, and bored by centuries of tame state churches, European peoples no longer see religious concepts as being especially meaningful or relevant. As such, Paganism has increasingly developed along lines that are cultural, aesthetic, or philosophical in nature, rather than expressly religious.

Talk is not of setting up churches, temples, and monasteries; but villages, festivals, and campaign groups. Although the Druid Network did succeed in getting approved as a religious charity by the Charity Commission recently, this development was greeted with disapproval amongst the majority of the Druids I know—Druidry, as many said to me, is not even a religion. I cannot say for certain if this is a purely Druidic phenomenon, but there does appear to be evidence from across the continent that suggests a gradual transformation of Paganism from a “religious” phenomenon, into a broader “cultural” one that is anything but “fundamentalist” – whether or not we look to socially progressive Asatru of Iceland, or the nature spirituality of atheistic Estonia.

Making sense out of Chaos, out of Order

It might be imagined that these changes are pulling in opposite directions—the American trend reflecting a “radicalisation” of religious doctrine in the form of polytheism, while the European trend representing the fulfillment of the secularisation thesis. I would disagree with this characterisation. To my mind, these trends have far more in common than might appear at first glance.

If we consider the old theological consensus, what becomes readily apparent is that in many respects, it really isn’t too far removed from the spiritual conventions of the Western world’s established religious orthodoxy. Pantheism and Panentheism have a vibrant life outside of Paganism, and the Goddess has her anchorites even within Christianity and Judaism. Even the duotheism of Wicca arguably puts very little clear water between itself and the distributed godhead of Christianity; instead of a Holy Trinity, we have a Holy Tryst. In short, from a theological standpoint, the first generations of Pagan writing owe far more to lay Catholicism and the New England Transcendentalists, than to anything recognisably pre-Christian.

However, what it did do was create a formal break with Christian and Jewish religious authority and the commitment to dogma that came with it. For 1500 years, the Christian Churches—be they Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Restoration—held almost exclusive sway over the souls of Western Europeans; no spiritual life—save that of the oft-persecuted Jewish community—existed outside their universal purview. By creating a new category of spiritual expression that was officially outside both the Christian and Jewish communities, any mandatory requirement to fit with the creeds and customs laid down in Holy Scripture, Halakha or Canon Law was abolished. This was in itself startlingly radical; though the Enlightenment established the legitimacy of secular thought, it was the rise of new religious movements, including that of Paganism, that actively challenged the formal, ecclesiastical control of the spiritual realm.

In short; the first few generations of Pagan sages made a gateway through which forgotten beings, old souls, and the old ways could return to human society.

And that is exactly what is now taking place.

The Old Ways, Plural

The crucial thing to remember is that what defined the old Paganism was explicitly not a single set of beliefs, nor a single set of customs. Europe, before the arrival of “the Nazarene” and his vision of the world, was a patchwork of different traditions, methods of enlightenment, esoteric systems, state cults, philosophies, and initiatory systems—all flourishing and fighting with one another, all very different in range and content. What united them—if anything—were cultural exchanges and political alliances that took place over time. The Druids, for example, commanded influence across tribal and linguistic boundaries in Iron Age Europe, just as Greek art, language and philosophy came to flourish across the Mediterranean during the same period. The Cultus of the Divine [Imperial] House united all who lived within the Roman Empire, just as various state-sponsored reverential traditions had forged civic or national identity prior to the Roman conquests.

Before the arrival of Christianity, a wide variety of interpretations of divinity existed—from the dualism of the gnostics, to the naturalism of the Stoics; from the pragmatic polytheism of the official cults to the mystical techniques advocated by Plotinus. When Christianity developed into a powerful force within Imperial politics, the drive to produce the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth became the new unifying ideology across the Roman world—an exclusive one, at that. Lacking any term to describe what they stood for, the opponents of this new order came to refer to the old ways as “Hellenism”; the defining attribute of which being a love of the Greek classical heritage that the Romans had inherited, and everything that had been syncretised with it. As Talal Asad has argued, before the rise of religion as a category, Christianity was once described as a disciplina—a system of government—just like that of the Empire itself [5]. The Christianisation was, then, the bringing of Imperial rule in line with the expectations of Christian discipline, at the expense of pre-Christian mores.

In a sense, what can be seen in the rise of The Church is a continuation of the process of conquest initiated by Rome itself. When Rome began, it was one political vision amongst many—the Capitoline Triad were just one constellation in a myriad of political cults, spreading out from Alexandria to Bibracte and beyond. But as Roman rule became ever more absolute, the geopolitical reality of many peoples, each with their own moral, legal, and spiritual alliances faded away; being replaced by the singular authority of the Roman State. As the notion of this single disciplina became ever more established—manifest in the deification of the Roman State in the genius of the Emperors – it became possible to re-imagine the divine order in a way that better reflected what had been realized on Earth; a total system of control, focused upon a single authority.

Christianity, with its emphasis upon one God and an absence of idols, was the perfect theological companion to this new arrangement. The fact that the unstable bricolage of Hellenism failed to halt the Christian advance is not at issue here: what is interesting is that the term adopted by the proponents of a non-Christian influence was linked to a loosely-organised cultural assemblage—Hellenism—that grew out of a long, mutual history of trade, war, and intellectual and ritual expression, and not a singular body of authoritative doctrine or law, laid down by a prophet and codified by his disciples.

Construction,[Re]construction

My analysis so far is heavily influenced by a school of thought—propounded by such scholars of religion as Talal Asad, S. N. Balagangadhara, and Timothy Fitzgerald—which argues that our contemporary concept of “religion” is highly specific to the context of modern, Western Christianity. Religion—as a separable sphere of life, concerned with spiritual beliefs, divinely-sanctioned morality, ritual, prayer, and mythology—is not a human universal. It is perfectly possible for spiritual life to exist in forms and varieties that look strikingly different to “religion”, as that word is normally understood. Pre-Christian spiritual life in Europe—in all its bewildering diversity, contradiction, and creativity, inseparable from the rest of both public and private life—is a case in point. Indeed, it is arguable that the very fact that people define the spiritual so differently today—largely through the lens of “religion”, rather than disciplina or anything else–means that it is impossible for us to posit any real substantive similarities between ancient and modern Paganisms.

But to my mind, the development of highly diverse, de-centralised expressions of “unChristian” practice in Europe and America suggests otherwise. Once the spiritual authoritarianism of Christendom was declared to be in abeyance, people began to adopt a much wider spectrum of positions, covering territory theologians have not dared occupy for a thousand years. And this is not just to be expected; it is to be celebrated. It represents a gradual, and quite organic, restoration of state of affairs truly authentic to pre-Christianity—one that puts clear water between itself and Christendom, and thrives in its own right. By acknowledging the lesson taught by Asad and his fellow social constructionists—that “religion” is a term with a specific history and social context that limits its relevance—we are freed from the expectation to conform to the implicit standard of what “counts” as a religion.

Rather than trying to revive ancient spiritualities by consciously trying to reconstruct specific rites and rituals, we have delivered a spiritual environment similar in key respects to that of the ancient world, without even meaning to. Though what Pagans think and do is thoroughly contemporary; the fact that we’re all doing it differently, in ways concordant with our particular contexts, is quintessentially pre-Christian.

Like the common heritage that gave some semblance of unity to the Classical world in the face of the conquering army of Christ, so it is with Paganism today. As Ethan Doyle White points out, Pagans are united not by a common set of rituals, beliefs, or literary canon, but by a common social history; involving diverse groups exchanging ideas, practices, concerns, and themes over time, who began appearing in the 1800s, all drawing on the pre-Christian past in various ways [6.] Just as there are Dharmic religions (who look to Dharma), or Abrahamic religions (who look to Abraham and his legacy), so, Doyle White argues, there are Pagan ones (who look to the pre-Christian inhabitants of Europe).

But this observation also points out a crucial difference between the Pagan religions of today, and the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity; Abrahamic faiths tend to focus upon the teachings of a specific prophet—Jesus, Moses, Muhammad—and earnestly affirm and search for compliance with such figures’ singular authority. All other trusted teachers and texts are judged by their compliance with the truth stated by these great men; a truth which itself originally comes from a [singular] divine source. Paganisms, however, both past and present, look to many different sources of authority – without any one of these trumping the others.

Beyond the Big Tent and into the Earthly City

Although this epistemology is applied extensively in practice, the theory has yet to catch up. Many authors within the community and in the academy still attempt to define “Paganism” with reference to the everyday definition of “religion”—as a bounded belief system pertaining to spiritual matters. Rather than allowing for a historical understanding of contemporary and ancient pagan spiritualities—whose connections are constructed through the relationships between Pagans living and dead – it is assumed that the question “What is Paganism?” can be answered with reference to a particular set of ideas, that owe their validity to a single authoritative source. In doing this, we treat Christianity – with its emphasis on just such an arrangement – as the gold standard to which we must aspire.

We see this clearly in attempts to create a “Big Tent” of Paganism, based as they are around a desire to establish certain broadly-worded statements of belief. Do you, like the Pagan Federation, believe in the role of the feminine in the godhead? Theological pluralism? Sacredness of nature? Perhaps Paganism is—as Margarian Bridger and Stephen Hergest argued, a triangle –with strong polytheism, an aspecting pantheism, and Jungian humanism at its points? [7] Or do we describe Paganism with reference to four poles—Nature, Deity, Community and the Self? [8] Such efforts are interesting, and noble—but they nonetheless attempt to shape Paganism after the fashion of the Christian ecclesia—a community joined by common belief[s]—and as a result, fail to do justice to our traditions. Rather than devote our energies to dreaming into being successors to the older, pre-Christian relationships that were barely hinted at by the word hellenismos, we instead spend a lot of time and effort trying to herd conceptual cats.

But such efforts are doomed to either shoe-horning the wild variety of Pagan lived experience into a conceptual prison, or being so broad as to be empty of usefulness or rigour. We are left with Hobson’s choice, of either leaving some Pagans out in the cold, or frogmarching those who would rather be outside the tent—often people of colour and indigenous communities—into its confines. Rather than create our own discourse about how our communities fit together, as Foucault might suggest we do [9], we consistently adopt the familiar mythos of the powerful.

The problem with a tent, is that it is a pre-defined space—it has a canopy, canvas walls, pegs, ropes, and—most of all—poles. All these things delimit the space, setting its dimensions firmly in time and place, rendering it static. If anybody tries to move any of these components, there is a very real risk the entire edifice will come crashing down.

Paganism, as a movement encompassing a range of very distinct religions, is ever-changing, ever-moving, ever-shifting. As such, it is as profoundly un-like a tent as you can imagine. Instead, Paganism is much more like a spontaneous gathering of people, in a place open to the elements—a crowd, a throng, a rally, a carnival. And as it has been going on for some time, it has become the permanent version of these: a city.

Cities do not have fixed borders, edges, limits in the same way that a tent does. Though we can easily point out the dimensions of a city in any given moment, this act is in no way is that definitive—indeed, cities are constantly changing in population and extent. All you need is for more people to come in, or for some others to leave, for some buildings to be built or torn down, and you have changed the city’s limits. Nor is a city defined by single function or concept. Certainly, something will have attracted the first settlers there—a spring, a fertile field, a crossing place, or a defensible hill—but oftentimes this feature will vanish and be forgotten as the city grows. Over time, the city will gain its own character, based on the people who have lived there, the land upon which it is built, and the events that have happened there. In short, what defines a city—and attracts more people to it—is not any one thing you find within it, but rather its history; the ongoing story of its making.

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. [10]

Saint Augustine of Hippo once wrote a searing invective against what he called “The Earthly City” – a metaphor for the disciplina of the Roman Empire and all polytheistic societies. For Augustine, in such places it was Mankind who was the measure of all things, and not the Holy Spirit to which he professed allegiance. He exhorted Christendom to dwell instead within the City of God, wherein it was God, not mankind, who was the subject of devotion, and therefore the absolute standard against which society was weighed.

It is, perhaps, unfair of us to be too hard on Augustine. The Roman Empire was indeed an evil Empire; in which many bad men were raised up to a station they did not deserve. But Augustine’s vision of the City of God and the Earthly City – one holy, one fallen, each centred on one thing – is, in the terms I have lain out above, less of a tale of two cities, but more of a tale of two big tents, with big poles in their middle. The reality behind Augustine’s metaphor was, of course, but one city—Rome—that had yet to decide whether to accept the Divine Providence of Christ Crucified. In that choice, Augustine saw all of human history.

But in Augustine’s Earthly City, we can see an echo of our own situation. His City of the Pagans did not recognise the total authority of the One True God, and neither do we. In echoing this refusal, we share in a key aspect of our ancestors’ broader attitude toward the spiritual. But against Augustine, I would say that the true solution to the iniquity of Empire is not to choose an Emperor-God over a line of God-Emperors—but to dispense with the throne upon which both would sit.

The Earthly City – if by that, we mean the example of Ancient Europe that inspires Pagans today, and not the decadent late-Imperial Rome that Augustine knew – has no one king, no one centre, no one idol to occlude the vibrancy and variety on its streets.

Let us not search in vain for the one public square, the one scenic landmark, the one ancient temple, the one leader who shall take precedence. Let us not worry unnecessarily over the matter of the gods; but explore it with curiosity, and accept the inevitably of many answers to the same questions. Let us leave belief—and all the problematic baggage that it carries—behind.

For there are far more important conversations; over how we should govern ourselves, about the security of our water and our weather, and about who our friends [and enemies] are. Because the more situated, the more contemporary, the more specific in time and space, the more rooted in the pragmatic concerns and the lived experiences of people today our spirituality is, the more like the wisdom of the ancients it becomes. Let us no longer falsely aspire to dwell in the City of God – obsessed with abstraction and unattainable discipline – but rather build together an Earthy city – where we are all sensitive to the way we need to live now, and are free to do so.

And may no one god, nor no one man, be the measure of all.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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