Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Is defining the pagan sensibility more manageable than defining Paganism?

Back in the summer months, I attended a Pagan festival held at a little cottage and its surrounding land, which was part of a bigger area belonging to a castle in the vicinity. It's a beautiful place. The festival was small, held by 'De Cirkel van de Godin' ('Circle of the Goddess') which is the Eclectic Witchcraft Tradition I was initiated into. About sixty to a hundred people attended, and it was a fun day.

Because the area reserved for our festival was part of a larger terrain, it wasn't blocked off. There was an admittance table on the east side, but that was it. About half way through the day, a little before dinner, a couple in their late fifties wandered into the main square from the west side. They were Sunday hikers, fanny pack, road map, GPS device and all.

The couple wandered into the square, and took a good look about. They were clearly lost, and felt right away they had ended up somewhere they hadn't bargained for when setting out. Social creatures that we are, no one thought it a good idea to help the bewildered folks--who were checking their map and GPS--out.

Eventually, I got up and introduced myself. I told them that they had stumbled into a witches' gathering, but we were friendly folk. They smiled at me politely, looked about and back to their map. I told them where to find the castle and the parking lot, and they wished me a fun day. I wished them the same, and they were off. Crisis averted, everyone happy.

Walking back I could feel a lot of eyes on me, as if I'd done something out of the norm, or worse, had been infected with outsider-coodies. I never quiet understood why no one else got up to act as a guide, and it had a profound influence on my enjoyment of the rest of the day.

I was reminded of this event this morning, while reading Jonathan Korman's latest blog post entitled 'The pagan sensibility'. In it, he relates watching the assigned information providers of a Pagan festival botch up their job when non-Pagans came to ask what's going on. From that post:

"It is odd. Any Christian stands ready to explain God, sin, and redemption through Christ in 50 words or less. Any Buddhist can tell you quickly about suffering, illusion, meditation, and releasing attachment. Pagan inability to do something similar presents a problem both in talking to non-Pagans and within our own community."

He's right. Try it now: formulate the basics of Paganism in fifty words or less in a way that would make sense to an outsider. I gave it a try and this is what I came up with:

"Paganism is an umbrella term for a wide variety of religions and Traditions, ranging from witchcraft Traditions, to shamanism, modern religious witchcraft religions like Wicca, and nature religions like druidism, as well as an assortment of Reconstructive religions which focus on bringing back the worship of pre-Christian pantheons."

That's forty-eight words and I haven't even scratched the surface. Korman must have noticed this too, because instead of focusing on defining Paganism, he has decided to focus on defining the 'pagan sensibility'. In short, he defines pagan sensibility as immanence-centered, where the human is sacred. Adding to that, he says 'the pagan sensibility apprehends the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different interconnected forces ... and honors all of those forces'. Full definition here.

I agree with Korman on a few of the point in his definition: most Pagan Traditions seem to focus on immanence, not transcendence. I discussed this one when I gave a reply to John Halstead's post on terminology a while back. From that same post on words to explain ourselves with, comes the following:

"I believe that within Hellenismos, humans should not be seen as divine, or holding a spark of the divine."

Not exactly in line with Korman's views, now is it? But that's the only part of his definition I disagree with. The rest of his definition is good, but vague. It's vague for a good reason; because of the many different Traditions under the Pagan umbrella, you can't get any more specific than this. That brings me to my next point: is defining the pagan sensibility more manageable than defining Paganism? There are a few less terms in Korman's definition than in my sorry attempt at formalizing the basics of Paganism, but is it clearer? Korman needed an extra 535 words to explain his definition. I don't even want to know how many more I would need to explain mine.

I appreciate Paganism as a label, but when I'm at a festival with a certain focus and people wander by, I'm going to give a basic description of the generalized ideologies of the majority of the people who have gathered for the event. If that's mostly witches, I'm going to explain modern witchcraft; if that's mostly Hellenists, I'm going to explain Hellenismos. I'm not going to bother with the Pagan label, because unlike Jonathan Korman, I only assign to 'Big Tent Paganism' when it's an 'us versus them' situation, where the others are conglomerated belief systems as well, like 'Christianity' or 'Islam'. If we're talking Mormonism, Catholicism or Sunni Muslims, I'm going to be talking witchcraft, druidism, Religious Witchcraft, Hellenismos or any other sub-group of the Pagan label. To do not, would make the conversation completely unmanageable, in my opinion. This doesn't make Korman's attempt at a definition any less valuable, though.

1 comment:

Jonathan Korman said...

Thanks for this post, Elani. I've commented on it over at my original post.