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Last month, I attended Pagan Pride Day in Chicago. The keynote speaker was Phyllis Curott. Curott is a Wiccan priestess, civil rights attorney, and advocate for Pagan rights. She became Pagan in the early 1980s, served as President of the Covenant of the Goddess, and was instrumental in getting Paganism recognized at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
I was drawn to Curott’s speech by its title, “Beyond the Wiccan Rede: Grounding Pagan Ethics and Activism in the Sacred”. She told a fascinating story about her own journey beyond Paganism and her awakening to an ecological consciousness. The gist of her talk was that we Pagans are called to not just worship the earth, but to fight for it.
Near the end of her talk, she said something remarkable. She said that, when people ask her what they can do to fight for the earth, she tells them:
Just ask the earth what it needs. She described her own practice of doing this and some of the answers she has received.
Currot’s answer called to my mind something I had recently read by the 19th century minister, John Trevor, in his spiritual autobiography, My Quest for God. Trevor was writing about Unitarianism, but I think what he says applies well to Religious Naturalism broadly:
My respect for individual Unitarians is unbounded. And yet their religious position as a denomination is one which I have always deeply regretted. For want of something, I know not what, all their freedom, all their knowledge, all their generosity, all their high personal character— everything which seems to mark them out as the one denomination to lead the van of religious and social emancipation—never comes to the point of making them a great reforming power.
…There is one thing needful to Unitarians. God alone knows what it is, but he does not tell them. Is it for want of their asking?
Is it for want of their asking?
Today, Unitarians tend to be even more atheistic than in Trevor’s time. And so the notion of asking God anything hardly makes sense. Similarly, for many Naturalistic Pagans and other Religious Naturalists, the notion of asking the earth or universe a question is nonsensical.
And yet, I wonder if we are cutting ourselves off from an important spiritual resource. We assume that asking a question presupposes a sentient listener on the other end. But is the true? Is it really necessary to believe the earth or the universe are sentient in order to address a question to them? Or to receive an “answer”?
Asking a question is an act of humility. It is an acknowledgement that we don’t have all the answers, and that sometimes human reason alone is not sufficient. Unitarian Universalist minister, Ashley Horan, describes supplication–which is basically the act of asking–this way:
“opening in ourselves the ability to surrender control while courting creativity and cultivating hope as we seek to change circumstances in our lives and our world.”
The act of asking a question changes the questioner. It opens us up to new possibilities. Perhaps asking the question is a way of quieting the conscious mind so that the unconscious can speak to us. Or perhaps it is just a way of opening our senses to answers that are already around us, just waiting to be noticed. There need be nothing metaphysical about it.
Whatever the mechanism at work, I know from experience–as a once-theist-turned-atheist–that answers do come. I have received answers when I was a theist, and I believed they came from God. And I have received answers as an atheist, and I said they came from my deep self. The effect was the same.
This practice, the practice of asking, has worked most effectively when I set aside some time to do it and when I vocalized the question–in other words, when it looked most like prayer. The vocalization might be the hardest part for many Naturalistic Pagans who eschew anything that smacks of theism. But think of it as a spiritual technology which can be borrowed from theistic religions and made to work in a non-theistic context.
You can rationalize the practice in any way you want, but I think, for it to work, you do have to mean it. You have to really ask the question. You have to really open yourself up to receiving some kind of answer. Anything from a resonant thought to a voice in your head to a synchronistic event.
I like to call this “praying without talking to God.” But whatever you call it, you can still … just ask.
John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which was previously hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.
To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.