What do we hope to build?

This post comes in response to the question from Patheos Pagan via Christine Hoff Kraemer:

As Pagans, what do we hope to build?

Much of the current dialogue in the Pagan blogosphere is about carving out ways to explain and justify our personal experiences and beliefs in relation to other traditions, but without a clear vision of the place our own traditions and experiences might have in an ideal world. Will the Pagan movement become one tradition-heavy set of religions with several “fringes”? Will it split apart into competing factions? Or will we find a way to unite using some shared cultural language? What institutions will we build, or will we build institutions at all? What rights or recognition will we have in the larger society?

What does your Paganism look like in 50 years?

I’m skeptical of the promises of the Age of Aquarius, but I am certain we are living at the dawning of a new age. My hopes for the Paganism of 50 years hence are inseparable from my hopes and fears for the world as a whole.

We live in a world coming to grips with the realities climate change. We live in world where our lifestyle choices fuel the industries that cause environmental devastation. As the world becomes more interconnected, we can see how the actions of nations (and big NGOs) impact the whole.

When I think about the Paganism of the future, I think about the role Paganism must play in making sure future generations thrive. I believe it is time for an earth-based liberation theology/satyagraha. The need for engagement seems most clear to me when I reflect on the challenges above and look to the Goddess I know best, the living-breathing Earth.

We live within the body of the Goddess.
We participate in her wellbeing.

But if this is true, then it also true (on some level) that the Sacred is polluted and the Goddess is sick. The Earth communicating in the form of extreme weather –the Goddess is asking for help. We need new theologies and praxis to address these issues.

To do this we need to embrace our prophetic gifts. In particular there are three prophetic skills I believe we need to hone: speaking truth to power, listening to the voice of tomorrow (future generations), and reshaping symbols to meet those needs.

I am 32 years old. When I think about the future 50 years from now I expect to be living in the long emergency. I hope that, in 50 years, I will be able to tell my grandchildren about how Pagans joined in the work of the Great Turning, how we joined with others to avert ecological disaster.

There are so many gifts we can bring to this work. Several types of direct action are needed. Ritual, prayer, and the teaching of new/old skills (i.e. permaculture, canning, sustainable living, artisanship, etc.) are also required if we are to ensure the Earth is a place fit for future generations. Many Pagan denominations help their members to cultivate these gifts. I also believe it’s time to share our gifts with the broader culture, to teach ways to listen to and honor the earth, even if the folks learning don’t worship as we do.

To accomplish all of these things I think we will need to become more organized and less insular. So many of our conversations seem to be intra-religious dialogue. While there is certainly value to this, I think it’s time we began expanding our circles and dialogues to include non-Pagans. We have paradigms, skills, and ways of knowing that are needed in the broader culture. Pagan culture, as a whole, is good at embracing multiple truths/realities, intersubjectivity, and radical interdependence while simultaneously questioning systems of power, dominant cultural metanarratives, and notions of absolute truth. Our community is able to engage paradox, upholding/cherishing profound personal experiences without feeling threatened by others who experienced the same event as banal. This kind of pluralism and tolerance is desperately needed in the dominant culture.

Similarly, as a part of an earth-based liberation theology/satyagraha, I think it’s time for more organized Pagan civic engagement. This is especially challenging since so many of us (just under 80%) are solitary practitioners, myself included. I don’t know what this will look like, but I hope for better networks/resources that will allow us to join together for skill-shares, organized activities (e.g. wildland restoration work, community clean up days, etc.), and so on.

I can barely guess what institutions we will need in 50 years, and I have even less clarity about what the constellation of traditions that make up contemporary Paganism will look like. It’s easy to forget how young a religion Paganism is. Gardner published Witchcraft Today in 1954, and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance came out in 1979. The first book launched Paganism as a new religious movement; the second reinterpreted and reshaped the movement into an accessible modern spirituality. Since then Paganism has grown by leaps and bounds: diverse traditions/denominations have arisen, print and e-media have blossomed, festivals thrive giving us places to meet and innovate, and we are beginning to see a division between lay-practitioner and clergy develop within some Pagan traditions. Who can say where we are going?

In the end I don’t care if, 50 years hence, ADF Druidry is recognized as a religious denomination in the way Missouri Synod Lutheranism is. What is more important to me is that Modern/Western/Industrialized culture becomes more earth honoring as a whole: able to listen and skillfully respond to the needs of Earth, of future generations, and the non-human co-inhabitants of this planet. If, on top of that, there is greater appreciation for my multifaith practice, animism, belief in magic, and so forth, better still.

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Mulitfaith Identity & Practice

Yvonne Aburrow, at Sermons From the Mound has an wonderful series on dual religious identities, including her own of reflections on how she has navigated the experience. Her articles outline lots of key terms like syncretism (and its subtypes), and discuss the challenges in multifaith practice. What follows is a reflection on how Buddhism and Paganism meet in my life.

I identify as both Buddhist and Pagan. In Buddhism, metaphysical questions are usually not considered. Mostly because the Buddha said they’re frivolous questions that don’t deal with our real problems. Instead Buddhist practice traditions, like Zen, focus on teaching how to live wakefully. Zen practice has helped me grow as a person and transform suffering into nourishment. However, Zen practice has always felt a little lacking to me – a little too heady and disconnected from the living-breathing Earth. I returned to Pagan practices as a way to honor the wildness in my soul and the marrow in my bones. Yes, soul talk is verboten in Buddhim, but it’s part of my experience. Pagan practices address these needs.

My religions, Buddhism and Paganism, meet in a form of “light” syncretism called coinherence, meaning my practice of each tradition informs the other, but I pursue them more-or-less separately. In practice this means that I do a lot of zazen, attend sesshin when I’m able, and do earth-based rituals regularly. I follow the wheel of the year and participate in a few eclectic ritual groups.

My spirituality, my visceral experience of the sacred, underlies religion and is most simply characterized by immanence and animism. This spirituality allows me to walk both Buddhist and Pagan paths without much conflict. Zen practice first showed me immanence, the experience that all things are alive and connected. Contact with suchness (tathatā) changed the way I lived my life and opened me up to the numinous in everyday experiences. Working as a chaplain brought me to see the world through an animistic lens. My first big animistic experience happened in the ICU of the local hospital, while attending an elder on a ventilator. I was praying with the man’s wife when I had the distinct feeling that someone had come into the room. No one had. A few moments later it felt like two people exited the room, then the man died. The man’s wife said she’d been praying for her husband to pass peacefully and comfortably – she didn’t want to have to decide whether or not to take him off life support. The woman said that an angel must have heard her prayer and come to take her husband home. I stayed with her and helped her begin to process the initial waves of grief that came with the death.

At the time I wasn’t sure what to make of the experience, I’d never encountered such a presence so viscerally before. I remember talking about it with former teachers and supervisors. They said they’d had similar experiences and encouraged me to find my own way of making meaning. I have had more experiences like this since then, and for me, an animistic view is the only thing that fits.

Buddhist teachings view mind as a sense organ. The more we meditate, the clearer the reception. My Pagan and Druidic trainings have taught me that the ancestors and the Otherworld are real, they always accessible if we learn how to attend properly. My training as an interfaith chaplain has taught me to believe and honor others’ faiths; this man’s wife prayed for an angel to come and take him. As far as I’m concerned that is what happened.

But what is the Truth? What really happened? The more I study the more convinced I become that Truth is multiple. In Buddhism the doctrine of the Two Truths tells us that both the relative and absolute views are required to arrive at Ultimate Truth (despite the fact that these truths seem irreconcilable). In Paganism we see this, not only in polytheistic belief, but also in the diversity of belief within the community as a whole. Jorge Ferrer (2008), writing about participatory spirituality and spiritual pluralism, said: “No pregiven ultimate reality exists, . . . different spiritual ultimates can be enacted through intentional or spontaneous cocreative participation in a dynamic and undetermined mystery, spiritual power, and/or generative force of life or reality” (p.142). Put more simply, our beliefs and practices contribute to and create the holy.

When my death arrives I pray that my ancestors will gather round and help me make the crossing to the Otherworld. Even if this doesn’t happen, I do not worry. As a good Buddhist I remember that what happens to me when I die does not matter, what matters is how I live.