Lately I’ve been pondering on the real core meaning and purpose of the Pagan Project. By ‘Pagan Project’ I mean the collective efforts of all those folk who do, and have, called themselves Pagans down the years.
Partly my reflections have been triggered by an odd distance I’ve sometimes felt to the Pagan mainstream. I know I’ve changed, become less theistic, less of a believer and more of a sceptic. Sometimes life does that to you. I would say I’d lost my faith, but although at different times I’ve described myself as a Qabalist, Druid, Wiccan, Shaman and Animist the centre of my Paganism has always been a sort of Eco-Pagan devotion to Nature and the Land, and this hasn’t changed. I’ve moved from a purely mythic understanding of my relationship to the land to one based on the sort of scientific-nature-mysticism embodied in the formative Deep Green book Thinking like a Mountain .
I also feel that Paganism itself has changed and moved away from me somewhat. I was a stereotypical Eco-Pagan in the early 90’s, a type of Pagan rarely met with these days as political activism has become largely atheistic. In the days of the road protest Paganism had been the default position and tribes of Pagan activists had roamed the land with handcarts and hurdy-gurdys (or is that just my romantic memories…). Its not just that this sort of Paganism has become obsolete but that the movement has splintered into many (more?) strands.
I know there are Wiccan covens and Heathen Hearths going about their business the way they have always done for the last 30 years or so, but these voices have become somewhat quieter compared to the mass of unaffiliated Pagans. There is an increasing ‘laity’ of people not initiated into any tradition and holding a great variety of beliefs and this has changed the balance of thought in a lot of ways.
Despite the welcome rise in a class of professional Pagan Theologian it has become unfashionable to talk about theology in public, or even try to gather together any kind of shared ideas or manifesto as Paganism has instead become defined in some quarters by a kind of rabid individualism. Perhaps this is a result of the blending of the Pagan and New Age movements? A radical individualism was always present in Paganism, as those Pagans devoted to the Great Work of self realisation were in some ways opposed to others more interested in serving, be that serving the Land or the Gods. Nowadays though conversations about ‘What is Paganism?’ or ‘What is Druidry?’ get boiled down to responses like ‘I’m a Druid/Pagan, so it is whatever I say it is’. I don’t hold to this view, but this isn’t the time for a discussion about that issue! Maybe another Sunday, though in the meantime see this post by Miniver Cheevy who has expressed very well what he calls a ‘Pagan Sensibility‘.
So in this splintered Paganism what holds us together? In my opinion common beliefs have largely dissolved in the last 20 years, leaving behind, however, an important legacy, that being common practice and common culture. More than ever Paganism is defined by Ortho-praxis (what we do) rather than Ortho-doxy (what we believe).
None of the Pagans I know from the youngish student based moot in Bournemouth are in covens, a situation unthinkable 20 years ago where Moots were largely recruiting grounds for covens. So as the coven has lost its place in the centre of Paganism, Moots, and particularly camps and festivals, have become more important. Also ‘semi’ open circles, not a new idea (I was attending Sian’s House of the Goddess in London nearly 20 years ago) have become important, at least around here.
Often these communities are not based on a single tradition but rather span traditions (Druidry and Wicca in particular seem to have fused lately, especially in their more public manifestations). What holds these groups together is not common belief but rather common ideas of practice, common religious imagery, and common identity as Pagans.
These commonalities are extremely important and valuable. From lamenting the loss of a common (or identifiably mainstream) belief system I now celebrate what binds us together, and the result of that ‘binding’. Perhaps the real meaning of Paganism was never the theology, but rather the community. Paganism is a safe container for many types of theological and philosophical experimentation these days. We have seen the rise of the Atheist and the (closely related) Animist Pagans. More importantly though it is an extended friendship group, a tribe, a nation. In stark contrast to the rest of society Pagans maintain vast networks of friends and acquaintances, and mix in intimate gatherings with people from widely diverse social, racial, and economic groups.
Traditional church communities have some of these features, and are similarly held together by common practice and identity. However the majority of these mainstream religions are defined almost by their exclusivity (despite what they may say). You are Christian precisely because you reject other positions and sign up to a creed, a statement of fixed belief. Paganism is happy to support you as you change and evolve your views, it is indeed a broad church, broad enough that I can stay within it even as my views have radically shifted. It is a religion that can even embrace atheists as the existence of Atheist Druidry proves. It has this in common with both the Quaker movement and Unitarianism, and it is no accident that both these have a significant Pagan presence in their own ranks.
This is in itself a radical challenge and alternative to a mainstream society which has become so isolating for most people. We have collectively rejected the atomisation of society into competing individuals whilst at the same time preserving individuality. Despite the scattering of families and communities as people move for study or work or to climb the housing ladder, Pagans obstinately cling to the importance of knowing lots of other people, and keeping in touch with them, and sharing emotional, artistic and religiously moving experiences with them. This isn’t a small thing.
So maybe the real meaning of Paganism isn’t about being Earth-Centred, gender balanced or having an Immanent rather than Transcendent theology, as I have long argued.
The really important thing, is us.
…and our Pagan Sensibility…