I have quite a bit of ambivalence about the P-word. I doubt anyone’s noticed, but I make an effort to avoid it while writing this column. That may seem faintly ridiculous. After all, I’m writing for a site called Humanistic Paganism. Who am I trying to kid?
Honestly, I’m not trying to fool anyone. It’s just that I harbor this deep-seated conviction. In writing about values and practices and beliefs, generally grouped under the heading of spirituality or religion or worldview, it should not be strictly necessary to make reference to any label. The ideas and concepts should stand on their own.
This reflects my deeper ambivalence about identity. Who am I, and what labels apply to me? What labels are applied to me by society, willy-nilly, and what labels do I elect of my own volition? In some sense, in certain moments, I want to say yes to every label there is, to embrace every identity, to joyfully affirm my participation in all that is. In another sense, in other moments, I want to reject them all, to assert that my being cannot be neatly defined or delimited, to remember the fact that I have no discrete and well-delineated self.
This all seems hopelessly abstract, so I’ll give a concrete example. I was at a conference last week, the seventh annual meeting of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, where I was to participate in a panel on the topic of “Creating Beloved Communities,” discussing work that I’ve done to form and sustain communities of spiritual practice and political engagement. My own quest for meaning has driven my efforts, yet I found myself feeling quite a bit of ambivalence about putting a label to it, about publicly identifying myself as a (gulp) Pagan.
What was I afraid of? My concerns will be all too familiar to many readers. I was worried about being misunderstood in many ways. There are so many misconceptions people have about contemporary Paganism. Most of all, given the academic milieu, I was worried that people might think I lacked critical thinking skills.
To digress briefly: I’m not fully out at the campus where I work; that is, I don’t trot out the P-word freely and easily, and I certainly don’t go around advertising my religious identity. But my coworkers have known me for years. Those amongst them who are interested in such things have surely put two and two together. They know who I am. In some ways, they know me better than I know myself. I’m not fooling anybody.
The people at the conference didn’t know me so well. It was a brief encounter, a bit longer than an elevator speech, but with a similar ephemeral quality. Under such circumstances, the possibilities for misunderstanding are multiplied.
In the end, I said it. I said the P-word. It felt like a moral imperative. While I dithered over this issue in Washington D.C., back at home people in my circle were celebrating Greater New Orleans Pagan Pride Day. I very much wanted to express my solidarity with them.
Time didn’t allow, however, for any deep explication of why I identify with this term. So I’d like to use this space to go on the record.
I call myself Pagan because wild nature is awesome, and I experience Earth as sacred, and I realize I don’t have a well-delineated self separate from the planetary ecosystem. I call myself Pagan because I think honoring the ancestors is a good idea, and I feel a connection to antiquity, and I like mythology. I call myself Pagan because dancing under the moon is my kind of religion, and a purely rational approach to life is deadening. I call myself Pagan because I value reason and intellect too, and I think ancient philosophers like the Stoics had a lot of wisdom. I call myself Pagan because pentagrams are cool, and Gerald Gardner was one interesting cat, and Starhawk is my hero. I call myself Pagan because baby, I’m an anarchist. I call myself Pagan because it offers a political and psychic bulwark against Abrahamic hegemony. I call myself Pagan because polytheism provides a metaphor for the mysteries of existence that’s frankly preferable, in my view, to the monotheistic metaphor in terms of both ethics and aesthetics. I call myself Pagan because I celebrate the Wheel of the Year, and my family prays to Mother Earth before dinner, and I’m an active participant in a local Pagan circle. I call myself Pagan because “eco-spiritual practitioner” is such a mouthful.
My critical-thinking proclivities require me to add a disclaimer. Few of these reasons are unconditional. In fact, each one begs for nuance. I’m trying to hint at an orientation toward these issues, rather than stake a permanent claim to some territory or issue some authoritative statement. Take it all with a grain of salt. I certainly do.
About the Author: Bart Everson
What can we learn, and how can we teach, from the cycles of the Earth — both the cycles within us, and the cycles in which we find ourselves?
In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism,Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.