Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pagan Identity, Part 3: We’re All in This Together!


Some individuals during the current wide-ranging discussion on Pagan identity make the argument that, even if there is no consensus as to what Paganism is, all Pagans should stick together for the sake of solidarity. Let us first ask the question, how should that solidarity, if it exists, be expressed?

If all “Pagans” are supposed to feel some level of solidarity with one another, then some level of support should be expected. But what sort of support? Good wishes? Signing a petition? Letters to the editor? Picketing the business? Paying the rent of the Dianic Wiccan until she can find another job?

Expressions and expectations of solidarity can take many forms. Just where are we supposed to draw the line?

There are other examples of instances where solidarity might imply the expectation of action, not in a reactionary way to right an injustice, but in a positive way to advance “Paganism” in general. We do this all the time by buying books that don’t directly relate to our own specific faith, but there are many other ways in which this could be done. Attending a class, or a ritual, presented by a “Pagan” group that has nothing much in common with one’s own. Contributing to a land fund, or a temple fund, to help another group take the next step into respectability and stability. Even joining umbrella groups that don’t really meet our specific needs or match our specific religious concerns, for the sole purposes of expressing solidarity with them and their goals.

But expecting solidarity-for-solidarity’s sake is arbitrary and senseless. Surely solidarity should be based on some commonality. The question then becomes, solidarity in the pursuit of what goal?

The most obvious answer is the freedom to practice one’s Pagan religion. However, as I hope I’ve shown in the previous two installments of this series, coming up with a definition of what Paganism is, that manages to include all of the various specific faiths and paths that are usually lumped in under the Pagan umbrella without so many qualifiers that the definition becomes a meaningless, is a very difficult, perhaps impossible, task. It ain't all Wicca.

Just what interest does a Celtic Reconstructionist have in helping a Dianic Wiccan who has been fired from a job because of her religion? More to the point, should that Celtic Reconstructionist feel any more responsibility for helping that Dianic Wiccan than, say, a Vodouist or Jehovah’s Witness who has been fired because of their faith? They might have just about as much in common, from a religious point of view.

In other words, why stop at solidarity with “Pagans”?

Do I, as a Théodsman, really have anything more in common with a Gardnerian Wiccan than I do with, say, a Shintoist? I might argue that I have more in common, on a religious level, with the Shintoist than I do with the Wiccan. Why, then, should I be expected to show some sort of solidarity with the Wiccan, because someone else decided we both fall under the arbitrary label “Pagan”?

Now, this also brings up the divide between Pagans and Heathens, which I touched on in the second installment of this series.

Most Ásatrúar, Théodsmen, Anglo-Saxon Heathens, Fyrn Sidu, Odinists, Urglaawe (Pennsylvania Dutch Heathens; it’s actually quite fascinating), and some Celtic Reconstructionists and Druids specifically eschew the label “Pagan” in favor of “Heathen”. There are linguistic reasons for this (the word heathen comes from the Old Norse word heiðínn, which is consistent with the Heathen approach to limit their synceticism to things Germanic), but chiefly many Heathens do so to consciously distance themselves from self-identified “Pagans”. Many don’t want to be associated with a lot of the very eclectic, counter-cultural, less-than-academically-rigorous, and (from their perspective) oddball things that some prominent “Pagans” indulge in. (Note that this is, of course, a huge generalization on both ends, and I do not speak for all Heathens, but rather base my generalization on nearly a quarter century of being a Heathen myself.)

And, boy, do those Heathens love it when Pagans try to say they’re just a path or tradition within Paganism.

So are Heathens to be brought into this solidarity with Pagans, even though many of them consciously choose a different label specifically to avoid such associations? If so, does Pagan/Heathen solidarity extend to a Blue Star Wiccan coven showing up at a town hall meeting to speak up for the rights of Théodsmen who want to perform a swínblót but are facing obstacles from the local police? When it comes to solidarity, just how much do we get to pick and choose who and what we’re in solidarity with?

Perhaps the goal should not be Pagan solidarity after all. Many disparate “Pagan” groups have nothing at all in common, and may even be quite at odds in terms of theology, ideology, and goals. Perhaps a more effective route, rather than trying to lump scores if not hundreds of “Pagan” groups and faiths under an umbrella already straining to contain them all, we might instead move towards focused interfaith outreach.

In fact, I would argue that attempts to create Pagan solidarity are just that, but without conscious acknowledgement of that term and thus lacking in the awareness needed to make it effective. If we shed the “Pagan” label, and do not insist on “solidarity” with faiths and individuals with whom we have little if anything in common other than a mutual desire to practice our faith in peace, we can open up a world of possibilities.

Rather than trying to force some sort of solidarity with Ásatrúar, Dianic Wiccans might find it more effective to reach out to Quakers, or Disciples of Christ, or Episcopalians on some issues, and Seax Wiccans or Reclaiming Tradition for other issues. Ásatrúar might find more in common with Mormons on issues that are near and dear to their hearts, and Druids or Hellenes on others. Reclaiming Tradition Wiccans might make common cause with Deep Ecology Catholics in some instances, and Blue Star Wiccans in others. Much like Patrick McCollum has done with Hindus in India (among many other such initiatives).

That’s when they feel the need to do so, of course; one of the great things about interfaith dialogue is that it doesn't necessarily carry with it the expectation that just because two groups are talking on civil terms that they will necessarily some to each others’ rescue when one of them runs into trouble. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, depending on how their mutual interests align. But attempting to force members of faiths that really have little beyond a few God and Goddess names in common (and in many cases, not even that!) in the name of “Pagan Solidarity” is ultimately a losing proposition, as there is no commonality upon which to base that solidarity.

I think interfaith dialogue that extends both within and without what is now called “Paganism”, targeted on specific issues and with specific groups, makes a lot more sense than some ill-fitting “Pagan solidarity” that, in some cases, makes for some very odd bedfellows indeed.

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