The emergence of modern Paganism in the post-industrial West in the 20th and 21st centuries presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities for those engaged in critical reflection on the nature of this movement, on its defining qualities, and on the specific character of Pagan spirituality. The difficulties and opportunities I will describe are very much those I have personally come to identify, as part of my own struggle to articulate what it is I am a part of , and what I hope to produce. In engaging what I see as “difficulties” within the modern Pagan movement, I am not intending to be dismissive or judgmental. I am speaking as a Pagan who cares deeply about the issues I intend to discuss. Clarifying these complexities helps me make sense of my own experience, and I hope, may offer something to others.
I approach this set of issues first and foremost as a scholar of religion. I have studied religion for almost eight years, two of those as a teacher of undergraduates. I inhabit that strange, middle space between insider and outsider that complicates both the study of religion and the practice of it. In order to be organized in my discussion, I want to introduce three Orders of Meaning in the study of religion that I find helpful and use with my First Years. They are:
1. First Order: The immediate experience of individual religious people in the practice of their religion.
2. Second Order: The sustained, critical reflection by religious insiders on their own experience, and their attempt to express that reflection in organized ways to both insiders and outsiders. (Sometimes simply called “Theology.”)
3. Third Order: The theoretical perspective of scholarly outsiders, seeking to describe and explain religious practices in non-religious (i.e. social-scientific) terms.
What do we long for?
Most Pagans would agree that our First Order experiences (which later then come to be described as “pagan”) generally have some connection to a profound, transformative relationship with the world itself. Many modern Pagans have shifted our attentions from creedal religions of the dominant culture as a consequence of some kind of powerful encounter with the world around us, an appreciation for plants and animals, and a positive valuation of the world we experience. It is these experiences that continue to fuel the reflective projects of Pagans seeking to explain their experiences in ways that are clear, accessible, and engaging for both insiders and outsiders.
But religion is not simply “sheer experience.” Without symbolic systems, rituals, and cosmologies, these experiences could be characterized as “nature appreciation,” but not “nature religion.” And so, recognizing this, modern Pagans look to pre-Christian, paleo-pagan sources for inspiration. We draw on ancient lifeways in order to give symbolic expression to our experiences and structure our celebratory responses. We rightly recognize that the pre-Christian religions of our distant, European ancestors also shared this quality of radical engagement with, and positive valuation of, the world. In order to do this, we turn to historical scholarship in order to gather reliable information about what the paleo-pagans “actually did.” We long to recover a religion that ties us to the world and its many Beings, integrates us into the sacred at the heart of nature, and affirms the goodness of our fleshly experience.
Note that in speaking about modern Pagans, I am discussing the experiences of Euro-descended people who have little-to-no historically continuous connection to the ancient cultures to which they seek to connect. Primarily, these are the descendants of Christian European settler colonists who attempted to reproduce their home cultures in new land, but over time the culture of those colonies transformed and became something radically new, through engagement with indigenous peoples and other colonists, due to the specific demands of a different bioregion, and the unfolding of their own local histories. The situation is very different for those who inherited some form of cultural identity with nearly-continuous roots in the place where they still live – broadly, modern Europeans.
Here is where difficulty emerges. Historical scholarship is not a neutral guide to what paleo-pagans “really did,” nor can we totally grasp the complexity of paleo-pagan life and practice through historical scholarship alone. This is not only due to the problem of sources and the implicit biases of scholars, but also to the fact that, in most pre-Christian societies, religion was not a separable element one can detach from human life for its own, separate analysis. Religion, for much of human history, has been deeply interwoven with the other adaptive strategies humans have employed for responding to the realities of their environments. We might even go so far as to say that before early Christianity’s insistence on religion as separate from cultural identity, there was no such thing as religion; only lifeways which included various techniques for managing a community and structuring human and non-human encounters.
Contrary to the creedal, abstract systems at the center of the monotheisms, these techniques would have no meaning apart from their relationship to other cultural modes of kinship, food production, power and prestige, etc. The distinguishing feature of ancient paganisms was not its specific theological claims (Polytheistic? Monist? Animist? Zeus? Odin? Freya?) but rather its insistence on the immanence of the divine. Michael York argues that “Spirituality for the pagan is corporeal or at least includes the physical. The pagan god is not ‘wholly other’ (ganz andere), as is the Christian God. Consequently, paganisms corpospirituality allows for perception of the divine in nature…” Not only can we not analyze paleo-Pagan religions as discrete entities, we cannot pull their specific symbolic expressions forward out of their contexts and imagine that they will fit neatly into our own in ways that faithfully reproduce the essence of ancient religion. The symbols of paleo-pagan religions were context-dependent, integrated into lifeways radically different from our own.
The culturally and ecologically context-dependent nature of ancient religion is, I would hope, something all pagans would readily acknowledge. Indeed, this is the very quality we are attracted to! The difficulty comes when we (I think rightly) draw on ancient sources, but then lack ways of making them part of our own cultural experience. One danger is that, in our hunger for systems of meaning which speak to our experience of worldly integration, we may ultimately become consumed with mimicking ancient cultural forms, which become abstract “systems of belief” to which we direct our attention.
This is not mere speculation; I have experienced this for myself. I have grown increasingly focused on the trappings of Pagan practice, and with which “hearth culture” I should choose to structure my personal devotions. In doing so, I find myself studying the lifeways of the ancient Greeks and Norse more than I spend developing my relationship to the world around me. And yet there is no ancient Indo-European culture whose Gods and symbolic systems “call” to me. I feel no connection to any of these ancient people through my inherited culture (White, Protestant American), nor through my “blood,” which I find a difficult concept in and of itself. This is not to say that Pagans cannot or should not experience a deep sense of reverence for, and resonance with, ancient symbol systems; obviously they can and they do, and more power to them. But those of us who lack that experience can experience a sense of disconnection from our fellow Pagans. If we do not experience the same “call” that others do, we may come to think that there is something wrong with us, or that we are “spiritually tone deaf.” (I have used this term for myself in the past.) I long for the kind of religion the ancient paleo-pagans practiced, but their symbols and stories do not speak to me.
Many Pagans argue that the mythologies of ancient peoples carry “universal” themes that can be embraced by anyone, and integrated into one’s celebration of life and the depth experiences thereof. While I would agree in principle that story-telling communicates Truth in many profound ways, I cannot submit to the level of homogenizing these stories, which are expressions of unique cultures, tied to their specific histories and bioregions, for my own spiritual development. Nor do I find that the truth of their wisdom can be so neatly abstracted. If I could not integrate the abstracted and infinitely reinterpreted stories produced by ancient Israelites and early-first century Judeans into my life in meaningful ways, because of distance of time and space, how am I expected to do so in the case of the Norse, with whom I share no cultural connection? Perhaps it is the poverty of the White American Protestant culture of my upbringing that disconnects me from the wealth of folk traditions that still exist in many parts of the Christianized world. But while unfortunate, I cannot apologize for or change this fact. Nor can I “skip over” this part of my own identity to go hunt for connections to a past which is so distant as to be almost irrelevant.
Longing and Contradiction
The reason I spend so much time pondering this situation is because I feel it speaks to a deep and important longing among modern Pagans. We admire the non-creedal, integrated, world-affirming lifeways of ancient paleo-pagans and hope to (re)create that form of religion for ourselves, working past centuries of religious alienation produced by religions which insist that any experience of “depth” must be “Not of this World.” But the societies in which ancient paleo-pagan religions were practiced no longer exist; if we celebrate paleo-paganisms because of their seamless integration with daily life, natural systems, and cultural milieu, then the fact that we live in entirely different circumstances means that, even if we could recover these systems in their entirety, we could not successfully integrate them into our own lives, which is the goal in the first place.
We cannot do exactly as they did and expect to reproduce the same qualities that we uphold as admirable. Simply practicing as they practiced, using their symbols, can create an unhelpful form of orthopraxy: the symbols and practices themselves become the priority, rather than the orientation they are meant to produce and reinforce. Also, there is the problem that religion in ancient paleo-pagan cultures served to reinforce socio-cultural systems and their norms, some of which we may, as moderns, reject out of hand, e.g. patriarchy, execution of prisoners, veneration of the State, etc.
But neither can modern Pagans build uncritically within our own, modern, post-industrial Western culture. We recognize that paleo-pagan religion was part and parcel of the social order, and served to reinforce socio-cultural systems and their norms. We also acknowledge that we do not want religion to serve this function for our own time and culture, as we’ve seen the dangerous ways in which extremist forms of Protestant Christianity have done so in American society and politics. There are also aspects of American culture which many pagans find distasteful. So in our attempt to (re)create a form of religion that is integrated into life in the way of non-creedal, indigenous lifeways, we run into the problem of producing a system that emerges out of a cultural experience in which we belong, but to which we may also hold strident objections.
“Full integration” of religion and culture is not an option for many modern Pagans. Indeed, many of us have come to our religious convictions as a consequence of protest against and criticism of the current social system. Our religion cannot emerge as a unified, integrated part of our social, cultural, and environmental experience, in the way that ancient paganisms emerged. It has to be built intentionally, with an eye to the needs of modern people living in a pluralistic society, responding to the unprecedented challenges we face in the Anthropocene.
Opportunities: Back to the Orders
So what is the solution? Create a protest driven sub-culture? This can compound on the problems above. How does this sub-culture interact with the dominant culture? How does it respond? How does it avoid the pitfalls of isolationism and escapism? How can modern Pagans integrate their “Pagan lives” with their “regular lives” if the sub-culture stands insistently apart?
I am not sure how to answer any of the questions above. But if we are to look for resources to help us generate creative visions of modern Paganism that critically engage the issues above, our own modern context does provide some useful strategies.
The profound opportunity of modern paganism, especially humanistic, scholarly-engaged paganism, is that this movement is creating a conversation among religious “insiders” that spans all of the Orders of Meaning mentioned at the beginning of this post. The very existence of the comparative study of religion – the Third Order – has made modern Paganism possible. The existence of modern Paganism as a site of resistance to prevailing cultural and moral norms gives it a self-conscious, critical stance – the Second Order – that members would be wise to embrace. Even the rise of modern science, which has carved out an imaginative space in which moderns can experience the world in non-Christian ways, has had a role to play. Pagan work with environmentalism engages the realities of the Anthropocene, and challenges us to push beyond dichotomies of nature and culture that seemed so obvious to ancient paleo-pagans. We are self-consciously engaged in creating religion; as much as we may want that to happen “naturally,” in the way of all other religions of the past, our historical situation complicates that desire, perhaps for the best.
The unique, ethical challenges of the Anthropocene are perhaps the best example of how the recreation or restoration of ancient pagan symbol systems and systems of thought are insufficient for the needs of modern Pagans. The ancient pagan view of un-cultivated, wild “nature,” as a dangerous realm beyond human control and the abode of potentially dangerous but morally neutral spirits, may have served them well, but its usefulness is limited now that we have entered what some scholars are calling the “post-natural” world. In his book The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity, Willis Jenkins points out that “some scientists have begun remapping earth’s biomes as ‘anthromes,’ in recognition that most of the planet’s habitats are now ‘human systems with natural ecosystems embedded within them.’ In a sense, humanity has become earth’s habitat.” “Nature” is no longer “Other,” or beyond our control; we must come up with new ways to think about the life systems around us, for they are fundamentally at our mercy in ways unimaginable to paleo-pagans.
York writes, “Paganism is an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by individual or community with the tangible, sentient, and nonempirical.” By “polymorphic,” he means “multiple forms.” Any form of expression a Pagan chooses to use to affirm this relationship, as long as it works for that person and helps to build community, is, I argue, a valid form of Paganism. I am not interested in arguing which forms/models/symbolic systems individual Pagans ought to use in order to do this. But for those who are working to lay the ground for an inclusive, pluralistic, rich and fertile Paganism, I argue that this relationship ought to be our primary concern, and we ought to ask whether our forms of expression are enabling or hindering that primary relationship.
What happens if we redirect our conversation about Paganism away from the claims we make about the existence or non-existence of entities, instead toward the particular mode of engagement it requires us to adopt in response to the wakeful, empirical and extra-empirical world around us? To direct our attention away from the specific “content” of Paganism is not to say that this content doesn’t matter, but rather says that this aspect is secondary to our root concern. We must build from the bottom up. Where better to start than in our own experience of the world we celebrate and affirm?
Those engaged in this kind of conversation would benefit from engagement with the Third Order scholarship in religion, because that scholarship allows for a broader view of the modern Pagan project. It roots this project in the wider context of religion as a human activity. In understanding religion as human activity, we come to see better the ways in which it speaks to all parts of the human self, integrates into the fabric of human life, and gives voice to the full range of human experiences. I argue that this would be a very constructive kind of conversation to have. In doing so, we lay fertile ground that would nourish all forms of expression Pagans might choose, all kinds of conclusions they might come to about the quality and meaning of such engagement.
For those engaged in Second Order work like myself, I would argue that this redirection is crucial. Instead of asking, “What is the content of our religion?”, (Polytheism? Animism? Pantheism?) let us ask, “What kind of religion are we building?” Instead of, “What do we believe?”, why not ask, “What does our religion do?” or “What orientation toward the world are we seeking to give shape and expression?” For it is not the symbolic content that makes a practice pagan. For me, and I would think for many humanistic Pagans, Paganism cannot only be the attempt to revive ancient paleo-pagan practice for modern people. As much as I honor that goal, it is not enough. I say this as a person who has done serious scholarly work in the past, and considers themselves a historian. For me, in order for Paganism to be a religion I can live, I must resist the temptation to turn it into yet one more historical pet-project.
Historical research has dominated my academic life up unto this point; however, now that I am seriously pursuing Second Order work as a self-identified Pagan, I know that I have to shift gears. This is difficult for me, and represents a serious level of dedication. I once promised myself and others that I would never do theology, and here I am, about to enter a Philosophy and Theology program in order to engage these questions in a sustained and critical way. My hope is to engage emerging, modern philosophies – like ecstatic naturalism and process philosophy – from a Pagan perspective, in order to see how these might help frame Pagan experience in ways that speak to the modern heart and mind.
I became a Pagan because I saw the potential for a religion that would welcome my whole self – body, heart, and mind. But as much as I value the philosophical approach and intend to pursue it as an academic, it is important to note that this work is supplemental; it is not an exchange for the actual being and doing of Paganism. My speculative engagement with these philosophies ought to support that being and doing, not replace it. The problem with the abstract is not that it is abstract, but that it is divorced from lived experience. By engaging critical issues, we challenge ourselves to live more deeply, more authentically, and more thoughtfully as a consequence. Whether we honor the Aesir or the Goddess, revere many distinct Gods or none, meditate silently or pour out offerings, let our practice affirm our sacred relationship to this world and its many Beings – however we envision them.
Herling, Bradley. A Beginner’s Guide to the Study of Religion. Bloomsbury: New York, 2007.
Jenkins, Willis. The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity. Georgetown University Press: Washington, D.C., 2013.
York, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a world religion. New York University Press: New York, 2003.
Amelia “Émile” Wayne has studied the intersections of religion, history, and culture for eight years, and has spent the last two years teaching undergraduates in various Humanities courses as an adjunct professor. Émile’s personal spiritual quest flowed along lines of inquiry laid out by research, and eventually led them to seek out a form of religion which could counterbalance Émile’s tendency toward intellectual abstraction through a radical affirmation of lived experience. It was through participating in Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) style rituals that Émile came to embrace Paganism. Émile will be pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and Theology at Drew University in New Jersey from 2016-2019. Their goal is to construct a naturalistic pagan philosophy which engages Queer Theory, Process Philosophy, and Ecstatic Naturalism, while remaining firmly rooted in actual soil and actual lives. While not studying or teaching, Emile enjoys horseback riding, mystery dramas, and craft beer.