[Pagan in Place] “A Personal Pagan Philosophy” by Anna Walther

I find the vitriolic blogosphere debates between atheistic Pagans and hard polytheists exhausting and uninteresting. Like many of you, I think about the nature of deity, but I think the question itself is more interesting than the answers. Furthermore, relationship with deity is deeply personal and intimate. No surprise then, that in the very public discussion of the nature of deity among people who don’t know each other well, without the goodness of face-to-face communication cues like eye contact, facial expression, and tone of voice, many people’s personal boundaries are crossed and a lot of conflict results.

It doesn’t matter to me whether or not another Pagan believes in the external, independent reality of the Gods. What are you doing? How do your worldviews shape your life? These questions interest me, and I think we can discuss them constructively without hurting each other. I want to know what kinds of ritual work you’re doing, what you’re creating, what sorts of gritty social and political action your beliefs compel you to engage in, and what has surprised you as your practice unfolds.

That said, I understand that belief guides practice, which in turn informs belief, such that the two can’t be cleanly separated. Also I find it helpful to be able to articulate my beliefs in interfaith discussions, especially since many theists place more relative importance on belief than practice. So in this post I want to describe the core views and values that guide my daily spiritual life. I speak only for myself, of course. I hope to offer an example of a messy, personal philosophy of Paganism, one that is neither atheistic nor strictly polytheistic, one that is now and always will be still developing. I invite you to do the same, in the interest of representing the widest number of possible personal philosophies and expanding the discourse on what it means to be a contemporary Pagan, by posting a brief comment or a longer statement on your own blog.

First, I experience an energetic connection with the Land beneath my feet. In general I’m happiest and healthiest when I’m outside. Nothing enlivens me like breathing deeply, walking outside, getting soil under my nails, or creek water between my toes. I have only to breathe deeply while paying attention to the sensation of my feet on the ground, to bring myself into a relaxed, alert state of being. This is the state of being in which I am most ready to self-reflect, learn, and make conscious decisions.

I believe in the power of the Land. By Land, I mean the local soil on which I stand, the waters that flow across it, the air that envelops my body, the light that warms me and makes all things visible in this particular place. Here on the southeastern edge of the Edwards Plateau, this means the limestone hills and the thin topsoil that covers them. The Ashe junipers and liveoaks. The limestone creeks and springs. The Edwards Aquifer. The fierce late spring and summer storms that flood many areas across Central Texas. Our searing summer sunlight. I believe in the power of the Land to shape the many beings it sustains, and the power of those beings in turn to shape the Land. My primary devotion to the Land involves regularly visiting a small, local grove, likely special only to me and the birds and foxes who also visit it, and sitting there for meditation and prayer. I tend also to pick up trash in public parks, stack stones beside the creeks I visit, garden, eat vegetarian, and use reusable bags, plates, napkins, and cups. I’m under no illusion that these practices will save the planet from human pollution, but they are some of my personal keys to remembering my relationship with the Land.

I believe in magic, the art of changing consciousness at will, and I use it regularly. I cleanse, ground, and center. I cast the sacred sphere and work with the Elements to do automatic writing, trance journeys, and spellcrafting. While I don’t really believe in magic or energy work at a distance, I try to keep an open mind. Doing magical work changes my state of mind and the choices I make outside the circle; therefore it does indeed change the world. And I find that my life is richer for leaving room in it for magic.

I believe in prayer. I believe that prayer arises spontaneously from human experience, from our common desire to be connected to something greater than ourselves and to be free from suffering. And I believe in the power of devotional prayers such as the recitation of the Marian Rosary or the Buddhist Heart Sutra. I grew up in the Catholic Church, and I still pray to Mary when I’m afraid. I also pray to Eairth, Ariadne, and Kwan Yin. I experience connection and comfort as a result of praying. Though I have yet to receive any answers to prayer that clearly come from outside myself, I do not begrudge those who do their experiences.

I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and in the free, responsible search for truth and meaning. These are the first and fourth of the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, respectively. I attend First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, atheists, and others. Our paths are different, yet we gather to celebrate the mysteries of life that bind us together and to serve our wider community. We gather together because life is only meaningful when shared, and because diversity of belief is beautiful.

I believe that the scientific method is the best way we have of evaluating objective claims about our world, and that scientific stories are often just as awe-inspiring as traditional ones. But science is certainly not the only way of knowing, nor is it an appropriate tool for evaluating every kind of human experience. As a nurse, I use the scientific method to objectively assess, diagnose, and treat my patients’ responses to disease, but I don’t ask science to say anything about my subjective experiences of ritual, prayer, and ethics. I think a failure by both naturalistic Pagans and hard polytheists to distinguish between objective and subjective claims and ways of knowing lies at the heart of current disagreements.

Though I don’t always hold with tradition, I honor my ancestors. I’m inspired by what must have been a strange brew of curiosity, bravery, and desperation that brought my ancestors here from the British Isles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (my mother’s family) and Silesian Austria in the nineteenth century (my dad’s family). If they could do what they had to do then to make it then, with only a foreign land to provide and nine or ten kids to feed, I can do what I need to do today, with a smart phone, the internet, a car, and seven grocery stores within a five mile radius. In addition to biological ancestors, I honor at my altar ancestors of spirit, profession, and place, such as Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, and the Tonkawa and Lipan Apache tribes whose homelands were once where my beloved Austin now sprawls. My ancestor altar is one of the first I set up, and the one I most consistently tend.

I could apply labels to the views and practices I describe above. Animist, Reclaiming Witch, soft polytheist, naturalist, Unitarian Universalist. But regardless of which labels I claim or which labels others apply, what counts is what I do. As I shared with John Halstead in a recent personal communication, my authenticity as a seeker lies not in the labels I apply to myself, not in my response to baseless criticism, but in the depth and sincerity of my practice. And I believe yours does, too.

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4 Comments on “[Pagan in Place] “A Personal Pagan Philosophy” by Anna Walther

  1. Another great post. Thank you. So much of this resonates with me as well.

  2. Beautifully said. I wish I could describe the land where I am as well as you do. Kind of puts me on notice for what I need to attend.

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