Defining Paganism

Published in 2013

A light bulb
By RRZEicons (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
My long-winded and not entirely valuable post from last Monday morning was only the beginning.  I’ve been having this conversation with people on a few different sites, though primarily on threads in Facebook and in the comments of Jason Mankey’s post Running from the Word Pagan.  But, finally, in those comments, I feel like I’ve begun to understand things after realizing something:

I work primarily with powers from the Hellenic pantheon.  To be honest, I’m not sure why; perhaps just because their mythology was the one I encountered first.  Regardless, I would never want to be referred to nor would I accept the label for any of the reconstructionist traditions, like Hellenion, because what I do is not what they do.

Suddenly, when I looked at things in that light, I could see why someone who does not do things in a way that they associate with the term Pagan would not want to be called one of those either.  A simple concept, but regardless of how many times someone said the words to me and I heard the logic of them, I didn’t viscerally understand them until I could internalize things for myself.

That said, while I think I’ve got a better understanding for the points of view held by non-Pagan polytheists (hereafter: NPPs), I think we’re still lacking a meaningful definition for what is a Pagan.

Why define Pagan?

For me, it’s somewhat self-evident.  By defining the term we use to describe ourselves, we convey meaning about our identity to others.  The problem now, like I wrote on this past Monday, is that there are people who connect Paganism specifically to Wicca and Wiccanate traditions, who try to cram NPPs into the community regardless of their separation from it, and a host of other problems as well.

If we can’t even use the term to convey meaning to each other without a conversation clarifying that meaning, then I think it’s time to get to work to begin to do so.

Further, when you consider that there is no place in the world where Pagans represent a large enough part of the population that our faith practices are going to be readily available and understood by others, having a vehicle to share that meaning with others whose frame of reference is sometimes vastly different from our own is necessary.  Until we gain telepathy, language is the only such vehicle we have.

Where to begin?

Even leaving out NPPs, there’s quite a bit of diversity left within the Pagan community.  Further, as I mentioned above, I am a Pagan but I work with the same powers as some NPPs.  Similarly, in my personal experience, I’ve met people who work with the Norse pantheon but are Pagans, but I’ve been in conversation with many Heathens over the past few days who are not.  I struggle with how we can depict this nuance.

John Halstead at the Allergic Pagan has an excellent post wherein he works to define the Pagan community as having four centers  in an effort to do just that.  These centers are deity, earth, self, and community and are fully described within his post. This description of our commonalities, while I find it quite brilliant, doesn’t really define Paganism.  That said, as we work on a definition, I think his ideas should be reflected within it.

A Return to Where I Began

I still think that there’s value in starting a definition based on where many of our gods and goddesses come from but to try and be clear that not all Pagans work with deities in the same way or at all (e.g., naturalistic and humanist Pagans tend not to care all that much about them).

Even this, however, is not complete; it would, for example, leave out goddesses like Columbia and the Wiccan concept of Goddess and God, though many Wiccans do, in my experience, use ancient powers as stand-ins for their more archetypal figures (e.g. Cernunnos or Pan for the God).   But, if we consider that the majority of our powers were those of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Asia we begin to reach for something common and we can do our best to clarify these exceptions.

Thus, we have something that goes like this:

Paganism is a family of faith traditions that honors either a variety of gods and goddesses as the creative forces of the universe, the created universe and it’s systems (i.e., nature), or both.  The deities are most commonly those from the original cultures of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Asia but others have been conceived of more recently or are archetypal figures worthy of veneration (e.g., the Wiccan Goddess and God).

Immanence vs. Transcendence

One thing that a number of the NPPs I spoke with over the last four days have returned to is that they believe firmly that their deities are transcendental (i.e., separate and nonphysical).  Many Pagans believe similarly, but hold that there is also an immanent quality to them.  In other words, Pagans often think that the divine is both a part of and within its creation but also different from it.  The technical term for this concept is panentheism.

This separation also leads to another difference between Pagans and NPPs:  the Pagans seem far more likely to practice and believe in magic.  This appears logical; if you believe that a spark of divine force is present within yourself, that spark may be used to cause change in the world.  The Allergic Pagan post I linked above talks about this further under the heading of Thou art God.

Why don’t we add a bit about that to our working definition:

They view these deities as transcendent but also tend to apprehend that there is an immanent divine force as well. In this way, many Pagans are panentheists, though those who do not work with deities may find themselves more comfortable with pantheism or animism.  This belief in an immanent divine force is made manifest by the commonly–but not universally–held practice of magic.

We Seek; We Find

Finally, I think it’s important to try to show that we are a community of seekers but clarify that we do not proselytize.  This lets us include some details about the reconstructionist traditions but allows us to dovetail into some words about new ideas and faith practices.  Here is where I think it makes the most sense to make sure that we give the NPPs the separation that they require of us:

While the community is beginning to include the Pagan children of Pagan parents, it remains more likely that a member will have left the religion of their childhood (or lack thereof) and sought out a different one.  This search leads some to work towards the modern reconstruction of the practices found within the aforementioned cultures and others to create new faith practices befitting our times.

Pagans eschew proselytizing their faiths and members are often as free to leave as they are to join.  It has been particularly common for reconstructionists to leave the label “Pagan” behind as they seek to be more true to the culture they venerate.

Good Enough?

I wonder if those three paragraphs are it.  It feels right to me, but I’m just one person.  Part of me would like to include more about the earth-centric part of our faith traditions but I feel like if we try to cram too much into things it becomes less a definition and more a treatise.