[Forgive me: this one is 1280 words long and it’s 1:30 AM on a work night. I won’t be spending as much time proofing this one as I usually do.]
A friend of mine — not a close friend but someone with whom I’ve shared conversations and worked with for a few years — decided recently to abandon the term “Pagan” as a self-identifying label. This is the second time in the last month that I’ve come across a situation in which someone that I would term a Pagan has chosen not to use that term. If I go back another thirty days, it’s the third.
Firstly, let it be known that I categorically support someone’s right to construct their own identity in the way that seems right to them. No one, me or otherwise, should ever be in the business of telling someone who and what they are. As I write these words tonight (technically: this morning), they represent not necessarily a way to coax others over to my point of view, but rather a struggle to help further understand myself, my identity, and whether or not it’s time to change.
It’s my understanding that the argument against the term Pagan tends to be that it has attributes accumulated over the last two or three decades that do not describe an individual, that it is too strongly bound to the separate traditions of Wicca and Witchcraft to be useful in the context of anything else, or that it is too general because the various traditions that we try to include within it are too dissimilar to be described by the same term.
The first thing that strikes me as I read what I just wrote is the the second and last items above are somewhat contradictory. Shocking, I know; who would have thought that you’d find contradictory concepts within the community!? It seems odd that some people feel that the term Pagan is too specific while others find it too general but I’ve encountered both points of view within the last few hours. Admittedly, they were from different people, which — based on that difference — may lend strength to the too-general side of the argument.
By which I mean to say, if multiple people can so completely disagree as to the meaning of the a term, does the term actually have meaning? (Damn, writing that question sucked.)
Leaving that thought aside for a moment, the baggage argument above resonates with me. There are a lot of practices within Paganism that are not my own: circles, the calling of quarters, ancestor work, really anything having to do with crystals and faeries, and probably more that escapes me at the moment. Hell, even my devotion to Eris is considered a problem for many. Much of these ideas were attached to Paganism because of the popularity and relative accessibility of Wicca and Wicca-descended traditions. Take a survey of books on Pagan traditions and I would be shocked if the majority (or the strong plurality) of them weren’t focused on Wicca. Further, I suspect the simple fact that many New Age stores were the only method by which some people could access topics including Paganism has a lot to do with it.
Is it any wonder, then, that non-Wiccan and non-New-Agey groups would choose to voluntarily distance themselves from the term Pagan?
That said, I contend that baggage is a problem that can be dealt with, but I would stipulate that it’s best done by people using the term rather than those who do not. I can’t, for example, be very effective in trying to help others understand Christianity more clearly since I am not a Christian. I might be able to do a passable job at sharing ideas and concepts of Judaism, assuming I can dredge up any lessons from my Hebrew school days, but I stand outside that religious tradition and should not be considered an authoritative source on something I did care enough about to keep in my life.
As I think about it further, the too-specific argument seems to be rather intimately related to the baggage one. As if the baggage that has been added to the term Pagan over the years connects it too specifically to Wiccanate traditions. If we accept this premise, then we’re back to the contradiction between a term that is too specific for some while being too general for others.
And, I’m forced to answer my question from above: I don’t think the term Pagan has any meaning at the moment.
However, this leads me to a different conclusion from others: let’s give it one.
From reading the writings of others on the topic, a primary gripe seems to be that there isn’t enough that is similar between the various Pagan traditions (i.e. Hellenics are too different from Heathens who are too different from Wiccans who do it differently than Humanist Pagans, etc.). Therefore, the meaning of “Pagan” that I seek should include that which is common between all of these different and disparate groups. A tall order, that one.
For years, I’ve explained Paganism to non-Pagans by connecting our traditions to the geographic location of their origins. In some cases, those origins proved to be the wishful thinking (or, for the less politically correct, propaganda) of the tradition’s founders, but never the less, I think there is something common to be found:
Many Pagan traditions descend from, or were claimed to descend from, the indigenous practices of European, East and North Asian, and Middle Eastern cultures that, for a variety of reasons, were lost during the last few millennia and are being reconstructed in a modern context.
The strength of this definition is that it does define at least one thing that Druids have in common with Hellenes, that Heathens have in common with Qadishuma. The weakness is that some would want to include the traditions of the African diaspora (e.g. Haitian Voodoo) as well as the indigenous traditions of Central and South America as well. I can see how our practices and theirs are very, very similar; in some ways more similar than a Heathen and a Hellenic. But, there’s one clear thing that bothers me about that inclusion: it seems arrogant to try to include the faith practices of another people without their consent. The Druids — the original ones — aren’t really around anymore to tell us that we’re taking their stuff; voodoo practitioners are.
Which, of course, takes me right back to the beginning. If I draw the line at labeling others — perhaps a Houngan– as Pagan without their consent, who am I to try and do the same for a Heathen?
In the end, I don’t think these are questions I can answer alone. And that frightens me, because I worry that we’re not strong enough in the ties that (should) bind us to answer them together. In the end, I fear that by splitting ourselves into smaller and smaller categories — even if those categories are very specific, very descriptive, and very useful — we will have rendered ourselves and our voices superfluous for lack of numbers. Worse, that people outside our community will continue to call us Pagans regardless of what we want them to use, and they’ll continue to have all the baggage discussed above unless we can put forth the effort necessary to help educate others in the proper use of all of our specific terms.
There’s one other thing I want to touch on and then I think I should really call it a night (morning). Above, I commented that I should not be considered an authoritative source on something that I no longer cared to keep in my life. Perhaps that is why I cling so desperately to the Pagan parts of my identity: I am fulfilled by my work with people of other faiths. If I ever have the freedom (financially and otherwise) to pursue that which makes my heart sing, it would be to dive deep into the waters of interfaith work and to dedicate myself to learning from others about their faith and to help them learn about mine.
If I’m not Pagan, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to be doing that work.