Interviews of Pagan Studies Scholars; Animism and Radical Individualism

I’d had an idea that I might interview some Pagan Studies scholars for this blog (and I still might!), but I’m delighted to see that Ethan Doyle White has scooped me. The most recent interview is with Chas Clifton, author of Her Hidden Children (a history of contemporary American Paganism) and current editor of The Pomegranate, the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated explicitly to Pagan Studies.

Clifton touches on the use of the word “Pagan” as an umbrella term for a style of religiosity, rather than a specific religion:

Jone [Salomonsen] and I have felt from the beginning that Pagan studies is not so much about this group or that, but about Paganism as a way of being religious. For example, we have had presentations that focused on the treatment of images in a Pagan setting and in Mediterranean Catholic settings, which leads to joking about “the i-word” (idolatry) and to discussions of whether it is useful and usable in a scholarly setting or whether one would do better to adopt some term like “sacred materiality.”

So far, White has also interviewed Dave Evans, a scholar of esotericism who helped found The Journal for the Academic Study of Magic.



In Pagan theology news, I’ve noticed a growing emphasis on animistic attitudes among Pagans over the past several years–in other words, a increasing conviction that specific work with the local land, plants, animals, and ancestors is necessary for grounded religious practice. In fact, when I came on as editor for the Pagan channel, I immediately received two different proposals for a blog about the spirituality of Place. The result is A Sense of Place, which I couldn’t be more pleased with.

I was interested to see that in esoteric publisher Scarlet Imprint’s year-end post, a turn toward animism (and away from attempts to perfect the individual self) is cited as necessary for the birth of a new era.

We too can be found engaging in the worst kind of self-absorption, a project of self-deification that is more pop psychology and atomised consumer narcissism than fierce path. The obsession with the perfection of the self is the shiny surface of our corrupt capitalist cult. It does not challenge power. Evolution does not occur through a passive sense of entitlement, or the acquisition of trinkets, or grades. It requires more radical work. Our hands need to get dirtier.  […]

Where we differ from the New Age is that magic and witchcraft must be grounded in our relationship with the land, with community, with nature. Stating this has been ‘unfashionable’ for those who wish to exist in a bubble where the spirits that they talk with are not embedded in the physical world but are fragments of their psyches. This is not a position that our ancestors would recognise, we are part of a continuum, a continuum which is being raped and destroyed. […] We need to understand ancestry, land, spirit as a living system which must be defended with tooth and claw. This vital sense of animism is what must animate us. Our proof must be our work, not our unfulfilled dreams, but in living mythically, in embodied action.

The tone of the article is harsh, but along with animism, I notice another theme here that’s being raised by other thinking Pagans: namely, an increased suspicion of radical individualism, because of the difficulty it creates in forming community and wielding collective power.

I enjoy online Pagan community. But in 2013, let’s not forget to get our hands in the dirt.

Eros and Psyche

L’Amour et Psyché, by François-Édouard Picot, 1819

Pagan rituals are performed with the whole body as well as the mind and the heart. They have an erotic quality – not overtly, but sublimated and transmuted. Ritual is sensual, and involves all the senses. This erotic aspect of worship is frequently expressed by medieval Christian mystics, Sufis like the poet Rumi, as well as contemporary Pagans.

The mood-swing of Western culture against the body, women and sensuality is said by historians to have begun around 500 BCE and reached its height in about 500 CE. At its worst, it was profoundly anti-women. It had a lasting influence on the Christianity of later centuries.

Bound up with this fear of women, sexuality, and the body was the fear of the dark, which is connected with the feminine, nature, and wilderness and has been denigrated for most of Christian history.  In patriarchal culture, the assertive and sexually active female is regarded as dark, dangerous and malevolent, and characterised as a witch.  The passive female is elevated as the model for how women should be: quiet, virginal, and modest.  In order for patriarchy to function, female sexuality must be suppressed and controlled, and men must be taught to fear it and abuse it; and the wilderness must be conquered and tamed.

Fortunately for us, the mystics frequently rebelled against this anti-women worldview. Their writings were deeply sensual and erotic, and extolled the dazzling darkness of God, the ultimately unknowable and mysterious aspect of the Godhead.

Judaism, on the other hand, never entirely abandoned its respect for the body and for women, and making love remained an act of worship. It was and is obligatory in Judaism to make love on the Sabbath Eve, because making love reunites the exiled Shekhinah with the Godhead. According to many Jewish theologians, the Shekhinah, who is the immanent feminine aspect of the Divine, is exiled in the material world, and seeks to be reunited with the transcendent male Godhead. We can help her by making love and performing acts of kindness, which are known as Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.

Spirituality and sexuality are intertwined. The most profound sexual experiences involve an abandonment of the centrality of the ego and opening up to the beloved other; this can become an opening up to the Divine Beloved. This is reflected in the erotic and spiritual poetry of the Sufis. The Sufis loved the night, which was seen as the time when the soul was most open to the Divine Beloved.

Similarly, the deeply spiritual is also erotic, and opening up and self-abandonment to the Divine can resemble a relationship with a human partner. The ancient Greek story of Eros and Psyche represents the Divine visiting the soul. In India, the story of Krishnapleasuring a thousand cow-girls simultaneously also symbolises the erotic relationship with the Divine. Medieval mystical poetry is full of erotic yearning for the Divine. One meditation on the Song of Songs exclaims “Oh that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”. In the medieval period, among both Jewish and Christian thinkers, the Song of Songs was seen as an allegory of the soul’s relationship with God.

So, how can ritual be erotic without being overtly sexual? How do we entice Eros to visit Psyche?

The erotic can be sensual, involving all five senses. There can be visual elements to ritual: magical tools, the altar, flowers, candlelight, jewellery, pictures.

Ritual can include scent – the smell of flowers, incense, good moist earth, baking bread, wine, fruit. Smell is the most subtle and evocative of all the senses, and smells can transport you instantly to a memory of the past or an intimation of future bliss.

Ritual can include taste – the taste of food, mindfully and appreciatively savoured, shared amongst friends. Many Pagan rituals include the use of food in a ritual context.

Jewish worship in the home includes food, as in the well-known ritual of the Seder (Passover meal) with its various symbolic foods.

Ritual can include touch and movement – hugging, dancing, joining hands, gestures, warming oneself at a fire, anointing with oil and water, ceremonial kissing, the feel of rich earth, planting bulbs, experiencing textures.

Ritual includes sound, but there is not as much singing in Paganism as there could be (presumably a reaction to the singing of hymns in Christianity. The lyrics of Pagan chants are sometimes a bit trite. In Hinduism however, the classical raga form goes through stages, firstly of yearning for the Divine Beloved, making contact, and achieving union. The erotic aspect of this encounter is clearly celebrated in the music.

The erotic aspects of spirituality are present in Paganism (especially Wicca) but not much talked about, because they are so easily misunderstood. The erotic can be sensual, passionate, tender, mysterious, alluring, mystical; it does not have to be explicit or acted upon.

Our rituals are performed with the whole body, not just with mind and heart. This is how we integrate our spirituality with everyday life. As Mary Oliver so memorably put it, “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Let us welcome Eros into the bridal chamber of the psyche, for only then can we make the shift from the domination of the ego (the rule of law) to the balance of all aspects of the psyche (the religion of love). Let us descend into our own depths to encounter the darkness and silence, and be dazzled by the unknowable mystery of the Divine.


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Autumn foliage splendor in the Green Mountain National Forest

Autumn foliage splendor in the Green Mountain National Forest (Wikipedia)

My favourite times of year are the transitional seasons of spring and autumn, when everything is changing rapidly. In spring there are new blossoms and new leaves emerging, and the days lengthen rapidly. In autumn, the leaves turn red and yellow and orange and are blown away in the wind. The smell of bonfires is in the air, symbolising the transformation of decay into the bright energy of fire.

Everything is always changing, transforming into something else; nothing is ever lost. The gathering of life experience is like the laying down of compost. The leaves of individual events fall onto the heap, fade and decay, and are transformed into memories, which feed our sense of identity, which gives rise to new experiences.

Change is constant in life; it is the one thing we can rely on. Some people find it difficult to embrace change; others enjoy it. Without change, there would be no growth, no seasons, no new life. There would also be no death, but just try to imagine what immortality would be like – a barren state of existence with no excitement.

The Buddhists like to point out that there is nothing constant about our bodies. Our cells are replaced so rapidly that every cell in our bodies is replaced by the end of seven years, so you are literally not physically the same person you were seven years ago. This is possibly the origin of the phrase, “the seven year itch”. Each day you acquire new experiences, new dreams, and lose old memories, so you are not the same person you were yesterday.

We constantly shape each other socially, giving approval or disapproval to certain characteristics, and each of us is a slightly different person in different social situations. We change our opinions as we hear new evidence, and this is a sign of flexibility and openness. A lack of willingness to change one’s opinion gives rise to the rigidity of fundamentalism. There’s a lovely quote by Alan Watts (an Episcopalian priest who became a Zen Buddhist in the 1960s) that explains the difference between the openness and trust of faith and the rigidity of belief:

“Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

This openness and trust is an essential pre-requisite for the building of spiritual community. It is why many communities (such as Quakers and Pagans, and many Unitarians) like to do their rituals in a circle, which involves making eye contact with others, and emphasises the equality of participants.

The sociologist of religion, Emile Durkheim, said that the function of ritual is to manage changes in life, such as the transition from one state to another. Rites of passage (coming-of-age, coming out, initiation, marriage, divorce, birth, and death) are obvious examples; but in a sense all rituals are about managing change. The structure of ritual is a way of managing and enabling the change in consciousness that you experience as you make contact with the Divine by gradually relaxing into the ritual and entering into an altered state of consciousness.

The major change enabled by participating in a ritual is the building of community with others. As we share the celebration of ultimate worth, singing, praying, invoking, meditating, speaking and listening, we are focused on something other than our individual ego. We cease to worry about how we look, and focus on the experience of being together. The constant presence of the inner commentator is switched off. David Smail, a therapist who regards therapy with suspicion, writes in his book, Taking Care, that more therapeutic benefit is derived from participating in a communal activity than from hours of individual therapy. This is true even if it’s something apparently trivial like your local bridge club.

Being in a community of people sharing their spiritual journeys enables us to rub the corners off each other; to be aware of our own foibles and to tolerate those of others. That’s presumably why the prayer of Jesus emphasises that we are forgiven as we forgive those who trespass against us (or in the original Aramaic, “detach us from the fetters of the faults that bind us, as we let go the guilt of others”).

So change is both embracing and letting go, expansion and contraction. It is a dance of inner and outer, dark and light. It is a cycle of growth, death and rebirth. Everything is in constant flux. The plants grow, blossom, bear fruit and die. Stars and galaxies are born, expand, and then die as their energy is spent.

Sometimes change can be painful. The loss of loved ones, or the ending of relationships, are usually immensely painful, but they may also enable growth and renewal, and expand your capacity to feel. There’s a beautiful poem by Kahlil Gibran about joy and sorrow:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
The more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

Similarly, the Baal Shem Tov, a nineteenth century Jewish mystic, equated brokenness with openness to divine mystery:

Once the Baal Shem Tov commanded Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret meanings behind the blasts of the ram’s-horn, because Rabbi Zev was to be his caller on Rosh Ha-Shanah. So Rabbi Zev learned the secret meanings and wrote them down on a slip of paper to look at during the service, and laid the slip of paper in his bosom. When the time came for the blowing of the ram’s-horn, he began to search everywhere for the slip of paper, but it was gone; and he did not know on what meanings to concentrate. He was greatly saddened. Broken-hearted, he wept bitter tears, and called the blasts of the ram’s-horn without concentrating on the secret meanings behind them.

Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: “Lo, in the habitation of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock, but the master key of all is the axe, whith which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So it is with the ram’s-horn: the secret meanings are the keys; every gate has another meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a man truthfully breaks his heart before God, he can enter into all the gates of the apartments of the King above all Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” — Or Yesharim

When I reflect on the changes in my own life – the beginnings and endings of relationships, moving house, moving to a new city, meeting new friends, learning new ideas – these are always the times of greatest spiritual growth for me. Suddenly I experience a flood of creativity; poetry and prose pours onto the page in an unstoppable flood. Then there may be years of stagnation, until something comes along to shake me out of my rut and force me to move and grow. I should really try to find a way to make change constant in my life…

There could be no stories without change, because stories tell about the transition from one way of being to another – the discovery of spiritual treasure, a struggle for justice, falling in love, journeying from one place to another. The scientist Jack Cohen has suggested that we be renamed Pan narrans, the storytelling ape, because storytelling is a major aspect of our human nature. So let’s celebrate change as being the basis of all good stories, including the unique and special story we are each currently living.

[originally published at Dance of the elements]

After the Longest Night

Rising Sun over national park scenic by Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Last night I observed the solstice and kept vigil with two different groups of people. In one, we celebrated a simple ritual drama where the waning sun of the old year was transformed into the waxing sun of the new. The other was an informal, all-night gathering where the group committed to having at least one person awake at all times to tend the fire, ensuring that the sun would rise again in the morning. My night was full of hugs and kisses, homemade soup and bread, and gifts of chestnuts and blessed gold coins. An old friend led singing with his guitar, and we giggled our way through carols and folk-rock essentials, making up new harmonies and sometimes coming together in moments of soaring beauty.

The world didn’t end yesterday: at least, not in a different way than it usually does. But the winter solstice always offers opportunities for reflection on the year that’s passing away, and a reorientation to the future — at least, if we don’t let the hustle and bustle of secular holiday culture overwhelm us. I feel blessed to be part of communities that focus on love and relationship, music and meaning during this delicate time of turning.

My friend Grove Harris says that at the solstice, paradigm shifts are possible. This morning, I’ve awoken refreshed, full of plans for the year ahead. May ’13 be a lucky number for us all!

A gift for a gift: a Pagan ethic of reciprocity

“A gift in return for a gift” – The Hávamál

In ancient times, hospitality was regarded as sacred. In English, the words ‘guest’ and ‘host’ are very closely related. In German, the words are ‘Gast’ (guest) and ‘Gastgeber’ (host, or literally, guest-giver). There were rituals of giving and accepting hospitality, and it was regarded as a sacred exchange. A guest under your roof was to be protected. That is why stories where the relationship of hospitality is betrayed are so powerful and shocking. In Germany and in Pakistan, it is still the custom for a guest to bring a gift for the host on their first visit to a house (even if they are not staying the night). This is the custom in other countries too. Hospitality was regarded as a sacred obligation in ancient Greece; it is mentioned several times in Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus is shipwrecked, it is because of the obligations of the host towards the stranger that Nausica comes to his aid; and when he returns home to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, the shepherd Eumaios welcomes him as a guest. In India, the guest is regarded as a manifestation of the Divine, and hospitality is based on the principle Atithi Devo Bhava, meaning “the guest is God.”

The exchange of gifts is a way of establishing relationship. In gift economies, gifts are given without any formal agreement as to when the favour will be returned; however, the ethic of reciprocity is so strong that the gift creates an obligation to return the gift or favour, and in this way, an ongoing relationship is created. We can see this ethic at work in the giving of gifts for Yule and birthdays. If a friend gives me a gift, I feel an obligation to get them a gift in return. If someone looks after your cat while you are on holiday, you get them a gift while you are away.

Sadly, the giving of gifts has become bound up with monetary considerations, as we feel the need to buy something of equal value to the gift we were given. However, the point of a gift is the amount of effort that went into it. Perhaps your friend went to a lot of effort to find something that they knew you would like; perhaps they went to a lot of effort to make something beautiful. Either way, it is the effort that counts, not the money. It is the idea that the friend cares enough about you to spend time making something for you, or finding a gift that expresses something about who you are. The gift then becomes an outward and visible symbol of your relationship with the giver. This is why I disagree with the idea that we should give up on all material things and get rid of stuff; quite often the stuff that you have around your home represents friendships and relationships.

The giving of money in exchange for something does not create relationship, it ends it. If I pay in full for a service or a commodity, my obligation is discharged, and that ends the relationship. If I pay for a massage, a Tarot reading, or a workshop, that is because the masseur, Tarot reader, or workshop leader is not going to receive from me (at some unspecified future date) a massage, a Tarot reading, or a workshop. The relationship is ended by the payment. This is, I think, why Wiccans believe strongly that we should not charge trainees for training. Members of a coven are in a relationship, and payment for training would end that relationship. What you gain in return for teaching is an opportunity to formulate, clarify, and refine your own views in the process of transmitting them to others. You can also learn from your trainees. And in due course, you will have a coven to work with who can write rituals for you to take part in.  All members of a coven are expected to contribute food for the feast and candles and incense for rituals, and help with the washing-up, however.

A similar situation exists in the development of friendships. A friend is someone you can open up to, who will not judge you for your actions; they may offer constructive criticism, but they do not reject you for your oddities and quirks. However, the process of opening up to each other is gradual and reciprocal. One person will reveal something about themselves, and the other will reciprocate. Revealing your innermost thoughts and feelings is to make yourself vulnerable, to give the gift of yourself. If the other person does not reciprocate with a revelation of similar import, it feels as if there is a major imbalance in the relationship; you have made yourself vulnerable, giving the other person power over you; so you need them to reciprocate. The gradual peeling away of layers of the onion applies both to thoughts and feelings, and to social space. First you meet a new friend outside the home, in a pub or other neutral space; only later do you invite them to your house. At first you talk about current affairs and other relatively impersonal topics; only later do you reveal your more inward feelings and experiences.

This ethic of reciprocity appears in many cultures, but is grounded in the idea of creating relationships. We are social animals and like to form bonds and associations – friendship groups, clans, tribes, families. These groups gradually form their own traditions, rituals, and symbols, but they are grounded in the mutual relationships of the members, who help each other, forgive each other, and form bonds of obligation through the exchange of gifts and hospitality.

It can be a good thing that the money economy has developed; sometimes we do not want to enter into relationship with a person who has done something for us, because they are not part of our social group. But it is important not to confuse the practice of gift exchange with the money economy. The two “systems” work differently, and have different rules.

Traditional Pagan and other cultures had a strong ethic of reciprocity, hospitality  and gift exchange, and it is worth investigating these ideas. They can help us to understand the dynamics of gift-giving (always fraught with social minefields, especially at this time of year), and to learn to value what is of real worth (the emotional associations of a thing, rather than its monetary value), and not feel guilty about having stuff. They can also make us more aware of the underlying currents of social intercourse –  always a valuable insight for a magical practitioner who aims to be effective in all the realms (physical, spiritual, astral, social, and mental).

Reciprocity also exists in nature, in the form of balance. Birth is balanced by death; growth is balanced by decay; darkness is balanced by light. This natural reciprocity is found in ancient myths too. In order to gain wisdom from Mimir’s Well, Oðinn had to sacrifice an eye. He gave up part of his physical sight in order to gain inner sight or wisdom. In order to gain the knowledge of the runes, Oðinn hung nine days and nights on the World Tree. The gain of one thing entails the loss of another; that is how equilibrium is maintained.

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A Community of Scholars

My theology class this fall at Cherry Hill Seminary is wrapping up this week, and my students are making their closing remarks and evaluating each others’ final projects. I love to see the gratitude and delight my students express at the end of the semester—sometimes to me, but more often, to each other.

I design my classes to be discussion-oriented and as non-hierarchical as a graded class can be. As an instructor, what I provide is structure—readings, theoretical frameworks, vocabulary. The real learning takes place when my students enter that structure: they struggle together, question and challenge each other, hear each other’s stories, and bear witness to each other’s epiphanies. Deep understanding grows most naturally in a community of intellectual and emotional support.

There’s a myth that scholars work alone, tucked away in libraries or at computers. It’s true, when I’m on a writing marathon, I tend to forget the rest of the world. But the thoughts that I write down so avidly rarely come to me when I’m alone. Most often, they develop in classrooms, in intimate conversations with friends, or over breakfast with my long-suffering husband (who, surprisingly, is not yet sick to death of listening to me talk about religion). The best scholarship is collaborative.

I feel greatly blessed by the community of Pagan studies scholars who gather every year at the American Academy of Religion conference. I’ve had opportunities to present my work there and receive feedback, but the most enriching parts have always been the intense debates over coffee, the casual dinners where a dozen people or more laughingly cram themselves around a too-small dinner table, and the brilliant extracurriculars organized by locals. This year, religion and performance scholar Jason Winslade put together an amazing “Occult Chicago” pre-conference. The pre-conference brought incoming scholars and local practitioners together for presentations, conversation, and a wonderful piece of occult steampunk theater. I find myself going back to the AAR conference year after year, not for the massive book exhibit or the keynote addresses, but for the company, the encouragement, and the warm mentoring I receive.

I’ll let you in on an open secret: most Pagan studies scholars are Pagan themselves. Not all study the same Pagan traditions they practice, and many study contemporary Paganism as a sidebar to some broader discipline, which provides paying work (sociology, for instance, or the religions of a particular region of the world). There’s a myth going around that scholars who study Paganism are somehow hostile to the movement, that their historical studies are meant to undermine the religion or destroy it. Nothing could be further from the truth. We do often disagree, though: not all scholars of Paganism (or Pagans in general) share the same vision for our movement or have exactly the same values. That’s as it should be.

Pagan scholars who are Pagan themselves are in a slightly strange position, academically speaking: they’re “insiders” to certain Pagan traditions, “outsiders” to others. An entire book, in fact, has been published just to talk about participant-observer methods and insider/outsider positioning in Paganism (Researching Paganisms). The insider-outsider spectrum is complex, and deserves its own post… as does the difference between religious studies, which traditionally uses an “outsider” method, and theology, which by definition is written by insiders. But more on that another day.

I’ll continue to unpack that complicated question of “What is theology?” (because it is not the same as religious studies!) in a later post. Today, I’m content to celebrate the warm communities of scholars I have access to, and also to invite you to join some of them.

In the spring, I’ll be teaching “Paganism and the Body” as an online course at Cherry Hill Seminary. It is a Master’s-level course that requires some previous training in theology or religious studies, but don’t despair if you’re not there yet—I plan to teach it every few years. Here’s the description:

Declaring that all acts of love and pleasure are the rituals of the Goddess, contemporary Pagans widely affirm the sacredness of the body and of sexuality. Students will engage with the-logical and ethical writings around gender, sexuality, and the body from Pagan and allied perspectives, such as Christian and post-Christian feminist and queer theologies. Special attention will be given to Pagan understandings of same-sex relationships, BDSM, polyamory, transgender, and other expressions of gender and sexuality that are marginalized by mainstream society. The role of gender polarity and sex magic in the Western esoteric tradition and its influences on religious witchcraft will also be considered. Students will examine their conceptions of gender and sexuality and develop their own the-logies of the body in a context that takes both personal liberation and social justice into account. Students will also consider the challenges and joys of ministering to a sexually diverse Pagan community and emerge better equipped to counsel their communities in ethical responsibilities around eroticism and touch.

Mine is not the only class available by far, though – in addition to the Master’s classes, there are also 4-week community classes for those looking for a smaller commitment. Click here for descriptions.

Also, Cherry Hill Seminary is holding an exciting conference on sacred places in April, with Ronald Hutton as keynote speaker! Paper proposals are being welcomed through January 1:

 We welcome papers that explore the following questions:

In today’s post-modern, urbanized world, where everything is a commodity, how and where do Pagans find their sacred places? How should we protect and maintain these sites? In colonized worlds, how do we avoid the appropriation of these lands? If Goddess is immanent in nature, what makes some places more sacred than others? How is our spirituality shaped by the land and our relationship with the land shaped by our spirituality?

Proposals of up to 1000 words are due by January 1, 2013 and may be uploaded at

The best scholarship happens in community. Won’t you join the conversation?


A patchwork of ideas: introducing myself


Photo by Bob

I have been a Pagan since 1985, when I realised that the various philosophical perspectives I had cobbled together for myself could be described as Pagan. This was a bit scary at the time, because I thought I was the only Pagan in existence; this was pre-internet and before I met other Pagans.

The philosophy I had patched together for myself was this.  I had decided that there was no external deity outside the universe, controlling it – how could there be when there was so much wrong with the world? I had decided that sexuality and the body are sacred. I had realised that Nature is full of divinity. And I had realised that if the world is going to get any better, it’s up to us to roll up our sleeves and do the work ourselves, not wait for some deity or deities to do it for us.

These realisations have formed the basis of my Paganism ever since. My emphases have shifted and changed from time to time, but these are my core values. I realised that the label “Pagan” best described my philosophy because I had read Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling.  It’s still one of my favourite books.

I also believe that we are not here to serve deities; we are here to work with them as allies to make the world a better place (for all its denizens, human and non-human). The deities need our finite, time-bound and local perspectives as much as we need their infinite, eternal and non-local perspectives.

In 1991, I became a Wiccan, and in 2007, I also joined the Unitarians. However, I have realised that it is too hard to follow two paths and do them both justice. I can only be fully part of one sangha (spiritual community), in one dharma (model of how the universe works), and in one tribe. Wicca is my dharma, my sangha, my tribe. I have learnt much of value from Unitarianism and will always value it. But I need the wildness and eros of Wiccan spirituality; it’s in my soul.

One of the reasons I looked elsewhere was the way in which much of the Pagan community is fixated on a binary gender model; a model into which I do not fit, and which makes me profoundly uncomfortable. The Pagan community is certainly not homophobic, but it can be decidedly heterocentric at times. However, this does seem to be changing – albeit with the slowness of glaciers.

I also affirm the idea that all religions are looking at the same underlying  phenomenon from different perspectives; and that includes Christianity. There is much that we can learn from Christian spirituality, even though we reject most of the theology. There are plenty of heretical and mystical ideas that have come out of that tradition which are worth investigating. Many Christians are now interested in these ideas, and in Pagan ideas too. It’s time for dialogue, not flinging stereotypes at each other.

My approach to Wicca (and that of many other Wiccans in the UK) is experimental and fluid. I think that every witch should build up their own Book of Shadows, not regard the text inherited from Gerald Gardner as some kind of holy writ. Wicca is not a religion of the book, and should not become one. Our “holy book” is Nature, not the Book of Shadows. I have other “heretical” ideas about Wicca, which will probably appear in subsequent posts.

And finally, I think that the basis of theology is relationships – our relationships with each other and the world around us.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.

Yvonne Aburrow Joins “Sermons”; Gender and Sexuality Article

Two pieces of exciting news today:

First, Yvonne Aburrow is joining Sermons from the Mound as a contributor! Yvonne is the longtime editor of the Pagan theology wiki Theologies of ImmanenceHer recent book, Many Namesis a collection of earth-centered prayer and liturgy for Unitarian Universalists Pagans and others working in a multi-faith environment. She has also published several books of folklore and a poetry anthology focusing on place, the seasons, and the sacred. I’m excited to bring her perspective to this blog.

Second, I have a new academic article available on gender and sexuality in contemporary Paganism. It’s a summary of (almost) everything scholarly that has been published on the topic so far — including an article by Yvonne on queer theologies. If you have university library access, please check it out at the Religion Compass site here:

Kraemer, Christine Hoff. “Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Paganism.” Religion Compass 6:8 (2012): 390-401.

Otherwise, it is available through my profile at

Human Flesh: Beginning a Pagan Theology

Peacocks at Florida School of Massage. Image by Christine Kraemer.I spent last weekend at the Florida School of Massage, where I communed with their peacocks, soaked up the sun, and learned a new bodywork modality from one of my favorite bodywork writers, Deane Juhan. Deane is equally delightful in person as in text, if not more so. In fact, I wrote down a number of his sayings in my notes word for word. (My favorite, on the nature of having a body: “Our birthright is ecstasy, not freedom from pain.”)

I was aware that, like me, Deane had a background in the academic study of religion and literature, but I didn’t know the full extent of our parallels until I heard his story last weekend. Deane and I both made the choice to become bodyworkers around our first Saturn return, at age 28. He had been studying the poetry of William Blake at UC Berkeley, and was about a year from finishing his dissertation. (William Blake is an amazing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mystic, artist, and poet of the flesh. His rejection of the standard Western mind/body dichotomy has a lot to offer Pagans. In fact, here at Patheos, I see Aidan Kelly has been writing about Blake just this week!)

On Deane’s birthday, a friend took him to Esalen in Big Sur. It was the 1970s, and Esalen was in its heyday as a center for the human potential movement, bodywork, and alternative spirituality. As Deane tells it, he received professional-level bodywork for the first time while in the bathhouses, looking out at the ocean: a beautiful experience that put him fully in his body. When it came time to leave, he got into his car to go, but one of the people in charge stopped him. Another employee had just quit; did Deane want a job? He thought, “I can go home and write about this kind of experience, or I can stay here and live it.” So he put his car keys away, and the rest is history.

So what does any of this have to do with Pagan theology?

My Pagan theology begins with the body. All of my experiences, even ones like dreams or trance journeys that appear to separate me from my body, cannot become part of me unless I experience them with my senses and process them with my squishy, wet brain. So long as we are human, we are our bodies, and our consciousness is both of a manifestation of that body and fully integrated with it. We do not think with our brains alone; we think with our whole nervous system. We do not love with our hearts, but with the totality of our flesh.

That which we think of as “spirit” is fully a part of that bodily system. In my witchcraft tradition, we often speak of human beings as having three souls. Each of these “souls” has a different function and makes up part of the human being. But some (myself included) prefer to speak of these souls as “subtle bodies”—integral parts of the human self whose essence is the same as the physical body, but which we cannot so easily see or touch. So when I say that body and spirit are one, I don’t deny that there is more to the world than can be perceived by our physical senses. Rather, I want to emphasize that our bodies are us, and that what we think of as the soul is not separate.

Bodyworkers know this on a visceral level. Many of us come to bodywork as a spiritual calling, because we’ve experienced what it means to lay hands on another person in a conscious way. When you touch another’s flesh, it’s not just skin, blood, and bone that you’re contacting: it’s that person’s entire history, all the experiences ever had by that perceiving body. People bind emotions into their bodies that are sometimes stirred up or released through bodywork. Sometimes our clients cry on the table; sometimes they see visions, or laugh hysterically, or remember something they’d long forgotten. There is nothing like working with hundreds of people’s bodies in an attentive way to convince a person that the body and mind are absolutely one.

"Glad Day" or "The Dance of Albion," by William Blake. Image via Wikipedia, public domain.

“Glad Day” or “The Dance of Albion,” by William Blake

In his most famous book, Job’s Body, Deane Juhan argues that the body is the vehicle of all our experiences. We relate to everything that is through our bodies, including—and perhaps especially—the divine. Yet many of our bodies are trapped in habitual or even painful physical and emotional patterns: restricted breathing, frozen muscles, collapsed posture, all often relating to depression, anxiety, or trauma. Some of us suffer constantly with chronic pain that doctors can’t satisfactorily diagnose or treat.

Deane suggests that if we are able to teach our bodies new patterns of movement, breaking up the old, chronic patterns of dysfunction, we can do more than simply lessen pain. Rather, we may be able to expand our ability to sense, experience, and perceive with our bodies—in effect, to expand consciousness and open ourselves to the possibility of divine ecstasy. For Deane, and for me, full engagement with the body is the direct path to deepening relationship with self, divinity, and the world.

Obviously, the path toward health and then toward joy is not always an easy one. At age thirty-four, I’ve had my share of health struggles, and I’ve spent years being frustrated with the treatment available to me. Although bodywork is hardly a cure-all, it’s helped me facilitate my own healing. Perhaps more importantly, though, engagement with my body has become a cornerstone of my spiritual practice. The human body, with all its amazing complexity, is the temple where I worship. For me, knowing the body is a path to the Gods.

Most theologies begin with considering the nature of divinity, with the nature of humanity as a secondary concern. I like the idea that my Pagan theology should begin with the human, with the very flesh I’m using to write these words. For if we come to know our own flesh, I believe, in the same moment we will also perceive the divine.

Opening a Pagan Theological Dialogue

Paganism is focused on practice rather than on belief. Ritual – whether we perform the rituals of a particular tradition, innovate our own, or a bit of both – is at the center of most Pagans’ religious lives. We build altars, sing chants, leave offerings, drum, and dance. But the ritual of reciting a creed, a doctrinal statement of belief, is notably absent. Pagans may recite liturgy together, but none of it begins with “I believe.”

Unfortunately, in our attempts to distinguish ourselves from the strongly Protestant Christian culture of the United States, we’ve rejected more than the idea of creed. Even the idea of having beliefs –and of having theology, a framework for discussing beliefs – has become suspect. And in refusing to acknowledge belief as an intrinsic part of practice, we’ve dulled our understanding of ourselves. Even worse, our resistance to the idea of building Pagan theologies may have slowed the development of a new, distinctively Pagan intellectual culture.

I want to help change all that.

So let’s begin with a simple question: In a Pagan context, what is theology?

For me, theology is a vocabulary and a framework for thinking about spiritual issues. It also the process of doing that thinking – of framing the questions and exploring their answers. Questions like, “What is the nature of the Gods?”, “How can humans have meaningful relationships with the land on which they live?”, or “How do we understand death?” are all theological in nature.

Because Paganism is so highly individualistic, Pagan theology is inherently personal. As Sam Webster wrote recently of liberal theology (and I think most Pagan theology fits that definition), much of what theologians do is develop spiritually pressing, provocative questions, as well as some potential methods for answering them. The answers themselves come from individuals and their communities, all in dialogue with each other.

Let me be clear: theology need not be a practice where an educated elite creates rigid systems of belief for the masses to embrace. It is not the same as doctrine (a codified system of beliefs), nor dogma (beliefs declared by a religious group to be absolutely true). Rather, it is an ongoing, cyclic process: through practice, we have religious experiences and come to know ourselves and divinity (or, perhaps, divinity in ourselves).  Our experiences resulting from practice inform our beliefs about the world, which in turn shape our practice.

The discipline of theology describes this integrated system of practice and belief. When we share our ideas about the nature of the Gods, discovered through practice, we are doing theology. When we consider why one ritual is more spiritually effective than another, we are doing theology. When we discuss the nature of the human soul, the spiritual basis of gender, or the necessary foundations of religious community, we are doing theology. Theology, at the core, is an expression of our holiest experiences and our deepest knowing, integrated with the clarity and eloquence of the rational mind.

Many Pagans do theology all the time. We just haven’t been calling what we do “theology,” nor have we been consistently doing it with all the depth or complexity we’re capable of.

Without a commitment to developing theologies with a sophisticated vocabulary and continuous traditions of thought, Pagans have a tendency to reinvent the wheel. Multiple communities have the same discussions about the role of offerings in ritual, for instance, but those communities do not have significant contact, and little may be written down. Innovations in ritual appear, are briefly spread, and then are lost, only to be innovated again with much fanfare in a different community. Different practitioners write articles about the nature of the gods, sometimes making the same arguments, but without any awareness of their fellow writers.  It is difficult to stand on the shoulders of giants when we don’t know who they are.

The Internet, happily, is changing this situation, as is the ease of self-publishing. We are not isolated in our local communities or individual traditions the way we once were, and niche books – books that larger publishers won’t buy, because their intended audience is too small – are now widely available. We are undertaking the next step in our movement’s development: building theological traditions through dialogue.

Many of us have begun to publish formal or semi-formal Pagan theologies, in book or blog form. One of the purposes of my recent book is to provide an overview of recent, theologically innovative Pagan writing, as well as to present entry-level vocabulary for those who want to contribute to Pagan theological discussion. But the next step now is not just to publish theological work, but to read each other’s work, and read it deeply.

It’s time to study contemporary Pagan and related theologies with the same seriousness that other religions give their theological traditions.

It’s time to teach and take classes, to debate in an atmosphere of collaboration and support, and to push each other towards ever-deepening connection with being, toward ever-deepening truths.

It’s time for Pagans to take their beliefs as seriously as they do their practices, and to affirm that thinking is as important to being human as feeling.

We are passionate people, deeply committed to our practices and our relationships. Pagan theology can give us an intellectual framework to support and sustain that practice.

Come: with warm bodies and full hearts, let us reason together.