In my decade-plus experience of being part of the modern pagan movement, I have noticed a recurring issue across nearly every tradition I’ve encountered, among pagans both new and who have been involved for decades. It’s an issue that I struggled with for a time and that most first-generation pagans are going to encounter. That issue? Not being pagan. Bear with me.
Most everyone coming to pagan religions arrives with a background in Christianity. This looks different for different people; some grew up being taken to church with family, some went of their own accord. Some had parents who were Christian but not observant, others grew up in nonreligious households. Regardless of this, most newcomers to paganism have at least a somewhat antagonistic relationship with their former religion. Your average pagan almost invariably has a period where they are not so much “pagan” as they are “not Christian.” For many, this phase never ends.
Part of this, I think, is due to the troublesome issue of defining paganism. Most people’s perception of “pagan” simply begins and ends with “not Christian.” For a variety of reasons that I may go into in later blog posts, I believe that definition is no only inadequate as a religious identifier but arguably harmful; this is why I have been a proponent of r/pagan’s endeavor to shift that definition to something more concrete. That definition is as follows:
“Contemporary Paganism is a term denoting modern applications of Pagan religiosity and spirituality. These religious concepts are codified into a wide, disparate terminology encompassing many different philosophical and theological outlooks. It generally encompasses religious traditions focused on reviving or drawing inspiration from the pre-Christian traditions of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East; modern paganism typically does not include African, Native American, East Asian or other traditions who deliberately do not identify as pagan.”
It is a bit wordy, but it can be summarized a bit more concisely as “A group of religious traditions recreating or inspired by the pre-Christian religions of the Euro-Mediterranean cultural basin.” This was chosen for a number of reasons that aren’t necessarily important to this particular discussion. What is important is a definition more clear than “Non-Christian” or “Non-Abrahamic,” because that is where we have to begin in order to resolve this issue.
I’m of the opinion that the most important moment in a pagan’s spiritual development, regardless of which particular traditon they are part of, is the point at which they become more “pagan” than they are “not-Christian.” This is, to put it lightly, one hell of a process, and there are many steps one can take to affect this particular change. I want to focus on a few that I believe are particularly important.
1. Positive definitions
Perhaps the most important step is what I believe should be the first, and which I have already touched on. There are plenty of studies to suggest that the way we talk about things influences the way we think about them, and vice versa; the words we use manifest in how we view ourselves and the world. To that end, maybe most imporant first step in the process of becoming primarily pagan is to be able to explain one’s religious beliefs for what they are, rather than what they are not.
It is an easy thing to define ourselves by what we are not; we are not Christian, we don’t believe in sin (a dubious statement, as mentioned), we don’t believe in hell, and so forth. What is harder, but more useful, is to describe what we are, what we do believe and what it means in practice. This point feeds into one that comes later, because this entire process is in my mind cyclical and must be repeated as we grow and develop. As an example, here is how I describe my religious tradition.
I am a Kemetic polytheist. I believe in many gods; I am a worshiper of Sekhmet, of Anpu, of Djehuty and of Wepwawet. I believe in the principle of ma’at, that rightness and justice and balance should be served in word and action. I believe that isfet- that which subverts ma’at- must be opposed, that this opposition is a made manifest in right-action. I engage in ritual in honor of my gods and offer to them in accordance with the proper forms to the best of my ability. I wear an Ankh as a symbol of life and in particular of the life that I have found in and that is made better by my veneration of Sekhmet, to whom I am indebted and whom I love.
I believe that it is important to define our religious traditions by what they are and by what they mean and by how they manifest in our lives rather than what they are not and how they are opposed to the prevailing societal norms. Despite paganism’s emergence as something of a counterculture, it must at some point emerge as a culture in its own right that does not exist to buck the norm.
2. Religious engagement
The next step, and a key point in developing these positive definitions, is religious engagement. Part of the reason I believe so few pagans struggle to present positive definitions of their religion is because so few pagans genuinely engage in their religion; they treat it as a passive thing, eschewing ritual, moral guidelines and ‘rules’ in favor of a more free-form spirituality. The downfall of these freeform spiritualities is that they do not lend themselves to positive definitions in most cases; they lack structure and established systems which makes them difficult to quantify. Moreover, this noncommittal approach is in itself usually a manifestation of rebellion against and rejection of “Christian” religion, unwittingly disposing of concepts that are in fact common across nearly all religions rather than being specific to one.
The key to religious engagement in most traditions, particularly reconstructionist traditions, is the gift cycle. This manifests in the giving of offerings (in Wicca, the baseline action is ritual magic of some sort; this is outside my area of expertise and so I won’t go into it in too much depth) on a regular basis. These need not be complex; the cost of admission is not high for most traditions, so there is little reason to abstain. The key is in establishing a routine, which facilitates growth by way of keeping oneself involved over time. Falling out of the habit of practicing happens, but it helps stall out one’s growth and can drag out the process of shifting one’s identity into that of being primarily pagan.
My process, which I am admittedly a bit spotty in since my recent move, is to maintain at least weekly offerings. These are simple, consisting of bread and water or bread and milk in most cases (the format of these is described in older posts on this blog). Religious engagement can come in other forms as well; whether it’s engaging in dialogue with fellow practitioners, attending pagan pride events, and the like, but these are ancillary actions. None of these are a substitute for developing an active practice. Religion is often a communal activity, but social experiences alone are not religious action; cultivating a regular practice is key. And practice is facilitated by study, which brings us to the final point.
3. Depth of study
It may seem counterintuitive to place this last, but I believe that it should in fact come after the first two points. Liken it to the process of reading; first we learn words, the basic premise of language. Then we begin to put them into use, simply at first, and finally we expand on what we know, our vocabulary and our use of it growing as our knowledge expands.
This may still be a point of contention, as many pagan traditions present themselves as religion with homework. I am on record in many places saying that I believe in a pagan laity, that these religions must not be accessible only to scholars, and I do believe that. To that end, most of these traditions have much more accessible information than they did when I came into paganism (such as the Larhus Fyrnsida for heathens, Dun Brython for Brythonic CR, and others), which makes studying a much less involved process than it once was.
Even for a lay person, for most pagans their religious activity is going to be an individual practice. We do not have the luxury of temples with large congregations and weekly services, and so while I don’t believe every individual need be a trained scholar, it falls to each of us to familiarize ourselves with our religious traditions of choice at least to a point that we can competently practice it. As we move forward in developing our spiritualities we must delve deeper into what we are doing, study the areas that are most relevant to us and in doing so we further our connection to our gods and our body of traditions.
So my challenge in this area would be to say “Don’t get comfortable.” Seek out new information from time to time, don’t be afraid to branch out a bit in your practice. Keep up with respectable, knowledgeable bloggers or engage with communities to see what sort of discourse is going on; refine your ritual praxis and improve your methodology over time. Never stop learning, never stop growing.
The result of these processes is, ideally, that one moves away from identifying their beliefs and practices as counterpoints to Christianity and in the process, furthers he development and distinctiveness of whatever tradition they are engaging in. Ours are modern religions, whatever ancient foundations we build upon, and it is only through refinement and engagement that our religions can become what they have every right and potential to be: vibrant religious identities that are complete and whole, that honor the gods and that enrich our lives, that have every bit as much to offer as any other religious tradition in this world. We owe it to our pagan communities, to our gods, and to ourselves to endeavor to be better. So going into 2018, I hope to see this begin a dialogue on how we can each be more pagan, more Kemetic, more Wiccan, more Heathen, or whichever may apply. Let us make our identities positive ones.