Deities and divinity

There has been a lot of talk about the nature of deities on Patheos Pagan blogs recently – for example an excellent article on Raise the Horns about the way that deities change over the centuries.

This makes sense to me – I am a big fan of process theology, which suggests that the divine changes in response to the world, and I am also a polytheist, so I do not see why deities wouldn’t change too.

The Hindu and Buddhist traditions have deities reincarnating in different avatars. In Buddhism, becoming a deity is not the ultimate aim, as you can always slip down the great chain of being if you transgress as a deity; the ultimate aim is to cease to exist, to rest in Nirvana (which literally means ‘no flame’). There’s a brilliant Hindu story which shows the development of a deity through many lifetimes, Indra and the Ants. In this story, Indra sees a column of ants processing through his palace, and is told that they are all former Indras. He also meets an old man who plucks a hair out of his (very hairy) chest every time an avatar of Indra dies, which signifies the end of an age. What this story tells us about deities is that they too reincarnate, and can grow or diminish in wisdom —  in this story, Indra learns something that he did not know before.

There are many different views of how deities relate to each other and to the universe. My personal view (which I offer as one possible view, and not as normative in any way), is that there is an underlying divine energy, which emanates from the divine source. In my view, neither the underlying energy nor the divine source have a personality. From the underlying energy, all beings emerge — humans, spirits, deities, and animals. However, none of these beings are discrete entities — we have fuzzy boundaries and exchange food, energy, and breath with the world around us. Rather, we are distinct entities, and so are the deities. They are affected by our attention, gifts, and communing with them (or lack of it).

I do not think that Thor is the same as Jupiter or Perkunas or Indra or Yahweh the thunder god. They are all thunder gods (that’s their job) and so they are local manifestations of the thunder principle, but they are distinct from each other, just as all web developers share certain characteristics, and may be expressing an archetype when they are doing web development, but are still distinct individuals.

In Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, the American manifestation of Odin is called Mr Wednesday, and the American manifestation of Loki is called Low-key Liesmith (good pun). In the novel, deities are expressed differently when they arrive on a new continent (just as there were many avatars of Indra in the story). I like this idea.

I also want to make a distinction here between monism (the belief that the whole universe is composed of the same energy) and monotheism (the belief that it was created by a single deity). Monism is compatible with polytheism; monotheism isn’t.

Lords and Ladies

I think deities emerge from the underlying energy in various different ways. They can be deified humans (such as Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, or Antinous); they can be personifications of natural forces (such as thunder gods, rain gods, and so on); they can be a combination of these (such as Odin, who was both a human king and the god of the winds); or they can be spirits of place who become particularly powerful (such as Athena, goddess of Athens).

In his novel Small Gods, Terry Pratchett describes how a small particle of consciousness floating around in the desert lodges in the brain of a young man, who then becomes its prophet, and founds the religion of Omnianism, with disastrous and hilarious consequences (hilarious because of the resemblance between Omnianism and fundamentalist Christianity, and disastrous for exactly the same reason).

Terry Pratchett has rightly been hailed as Britain’s foremost Pagan theologian, although he is an atheist. If you haven’t read his novels, you’re in for a treat. I especially recommend Small Gods, PyramidsEqual RitesWyrd SistersWitches AbroadLords and LadiesMaskeradeCarpe JugulumThe Wee Free MenA Hat Full of SkyWintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight — that should keep you busy for a bit! These are the ones about witches, deities, and faeries. (Pratchett’s faeries are not nice — on the Discworld, stone circles were built to keep them out.)

Equal Rites

Anyway, back to deities, and on to the thorny question of gender. In Buddhism, Kwan Yin has two avatars – Avalokitesvara, a male avatar, and Kwan Yin, a female avatar. In Roman religion, the Parilia was a festival celebrating Pales, a deity of uncertain gender, who may be male, female, or a couple. There are numerous transgender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual deities, although unfortunately much of this mythology was suppressed in the past. An excellent source for LGBT deities is Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit (highly recommended).

The underlying divine energy has no gender, in my view, though I do tend to regard it as giving birth to the universe. I think it both includes all genders, and transcends gender. There are more than two genders — indigenous cultures from around the world attest to this. So the underlying energy of the universe is not, in my view, divided into “the God” and “the Goddess”. I do tend to have a male and female patron deity when working in a Wiccan coven, but they are not invoked exclusively, and are asked to be the protectors of the coven, and I do not regard them as manifestations of the ultimate polarity.

I also think there are multiple polarities, and if there is  an ultimate pair of polarities, it is probably the manifest and the unmanifest; it certainly isn’t male and female. Lynna Landstreet has written brilliantly about polarities in her article, Alternate Currents: Revisioning Polarity: Or, what’s a nice dyke like you doing in a polarity-based tradition like this? (it’s an article that I consider to be a classic of Pagan writing, and highly recommended).

polarity transcends sexuality completely. Sex can be a manifestation of it, but it is not inherently based on sex, or even on deity in an anthropomorphic sense.  … That moment of lightning striking the primeval sea to create the first living organism is what I see when the athamé touches the wine.

Other polarities that exist are yin and yang, inner and outer, day and night, up and down, left and right, anode and cathode, waxing and waning, lover and beloved. None of these map neatly onto male and female. Incidentally, the concept of polarity was first mentioned in the West by Ralph Waldo Emerson, as far as I know, in his essay on Compensation; and Emerson did not posit male and female as the ultimate polarities.

POLARITY, or action and reaction, we meet in every part of nature; in darkness and light; in heat and cold; in the ebb and flow of waters; in male and female; in the inspiration and expiration of plants and animals; in the equation of quantity and quality in the fluids of the animal body; in the systole and diastole of the heart; in the undulations of fluids, and of sound; in the centrifugal and centripetal gravity; in electricity, galvanism, and chemical affinity. Superinduce magnetism at one end of a needle; the opposite magnetism takes place at the other end. If the south attracts, the north repels. To empty here, you must condense there. An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole; as, spirit, matter; man, woman; odd, even; subjective, objective; in, out; upper, under; motion, rest; yea, nay.

Whilst the world is thus dual, so is every one of its parts. The entire system of things gets represented in every particle. There is somewhat that resembles the ebb and flow of the sea, day and night, man and woman, in a single needle of the pine, in a kernel of corn, in each individual of every animal tribe. The reaction, so grand in the elements, is repeated within these small boundaries.

I do not know if Emerson’s essay is the source of Wiccan thinking about polarity; but whether it is or not, it is worth reading to get a more complex picture of what is meant by the term.

I have set out my views on polarity here, because, since I am a Wiccan, many readers might assume that I am some kind of duotheist, and I am not. I was inveighing against the misuse of the term ‘polarity’ to present a heterocentric view of reality as far back as 1997, in an article entitled Between Mirrors. I have form.

Small gods

I also think that deities exist on different scales. There are spirits of place, deities of cities and rivers (usually goddesses), deities of countries, deities of planets, deities of galaxies, and the emerging universal mind (which may or may not have a personality). Just as all beings exist within the universe, so the deity or spirit of a place exists within the deity of that country (but it still has a distinct identity within that). For example, the ancient Greeks had Gaea, goddess of Earth, and Rhea, goddess of the universe. Clearly Gaea exists within Rhea.

In my view, deities are emergent properties of the complexity of the universe. They are products of the interaction between mind and matter. There was no Creator God, rather the universe and its inhabitants are becoming more conscious, more compassionate, more empathic, with the arising of the universal mind (which proceeds from the unfolding of the Tao, the mysterious Way or emergent pattern). As we interact socially with the natural world, we increase its consciousness, just as we do for each other. First we awakened spirits of place, then gradually began to perceive the totality of the universe and wonder at the glories of Nature. We are part of the arising of the universal Mind, as we become more conscious and more empathic. We are all Future Buddhas. As we become more empathically connected to the universe, when we die we contribute part of our consciousness to the All (part is probably reincarnated), and it is in this process of interconnection that universal mind arises. Those who connect with the world around them  contribute to the process of expanding awareness and continuing the process of making everything more conscious. The process of individuation and self-development is part of the process of awakening.  But the awakening will not be from the “illusion” of matter, but rather matter itself is becoming ever more conscious or ensouled – it is awakening. Only when the mind of the Universe is fully conscious – when the kundalini of the Universe has arisen from the depths – only then will the Divine fully exist.

As ever, just my thoughts on all this – please share yours in the comments.

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Why I am a Wiccan

Here I stand, I can do no other.

Wicca is my tribe, my sangha, my dharma. Even when other Wiccans drive me crazy, they are still the people of my heart.

Since I was a child, I have loved the land and the Moon and the trees and the old gods and goddesses. They called to me. I love wildness and wilderness. I love to look up at the stars in wonder. I love knowledge (from science, history, archaeology, and magic).

My Craft celebrates life, and love, and sexuality in all its forms.

It respects other paths to connection with the Universe.

There are no required beliefs or dogmas to conflict with reason or the evidence of my senses. My Craft is experiential. As the great Terry Pratchett put it, “Witches don’t believe in the gods. It would be like believing in the postman.”

It’s not a faith, it’s a practice and a way of life, a way of relating to the world around me with awe and love and wonder and joy. The symbols and rituals strengthen my sense of connection to all that is.


[part of the “Why I am a…” Patheos blogging challenge]

Also of interest…

Why I am a… from other Pagan bloggers

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Pagans and religious education

Religious education in schools

Here in the UK, religious education in schools is part of the National Curriculum, acknowledges the diversity of religious traditions, and seeks to prepare children for living in a multicultural society. The content of the local curriculum is decided by SACREs (Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education), which consist of representatives of schools and representatives of local religious traditions. I have been on one as a Pagan representative, and at least one other SACRE has appointed a Pagan representative.

The other day, I had an argument on Twitter with an atheist who thought that religious education should be abolished, because he assumed that it was about teaching children the doctrines of religion (presumably he was also assuming a single religion). Religious education in UK state schools is definitely not about indoctrinating anyone; it is about teaching children about the different customs, value systems, beliefs and practices of the various religious traditions that they are likely to encounter. This includes humanism and atheism, and should include Paganism too. The reason I think it is necessary is that understanding why other people do and believe what they do is an excellent basis for tolerance and inclusion. I also think it quite likely that it will help kids brought up in the more fundamentalist traditions (which sometimes tend to regard other religions as little more than devil-worship) to see other religions in a more positive light, or perhaps to regard all religions as different perspectives on the same underlying reality, or as different metaphors for describing the physical universe.

The Accord Coalition is a UK pressure group whose members include the British Humanist Society, various liberal faith organisations, think tanks like Ekklesia, and some political groups. Its view on religious education in schools is set out in its position paper on Beliefs and Values Education (PDF):

It is vitally important that all publicly funded schools, whether secular or religious in foundation, seek to equip pupils for positively critical and respectful engagement with the challenges of living in a mixed-belief society.

This is best done by providing Religious Education (or, better, Beliefs and Values Education) that is wide ranging, fair and objective in its delivery, and as part of a properly monitored National Curriculum.

The aim of education about beliefs and values in a local and global context should not be to inculcate one particular belief system, whether religious or non-religious. ‘Confessional’ education is not the job of the taxpayer funded school system, but rather the responsibility of particular faith or non-faith communities in the sphere of civil society. Avoiding confusion about this is vital.

Rather, the aim of good quality teaching in this area should be to develop the analytical tools and human sympathies needed to appreciate and understand different beliefs and values while developing and adhering to one’s own life-stance. That includes recognising beliefs as ‘lived realities’, not simply textbook propositions.

If religious education is to include teaching about Pagan traditions, however, there is an awful lot of scope for getting it wrong. There are a lot of variations both within and between different Pagan traditions, and a lot of erroneous material available on the web and in books. So, if your local SACRE invites you to be a Pagan representative (and the best way to make sure that happens is to establish a Pagan presence at your local interfaith group), what sort of resources are there that you could draw on? I would advise drawing on academic research, and contacting local members of different traditions to discuss what they think should be included. Don’t assume that all Wiccans are duotheist (we’re not), or that we do all the same rituals (we don’t), or that all Heathens are right-wing (they aren’t).  You also need to have infinite patience, as the revision of the syllabus may not be on the agenda at all, or be a long way in the future.

Some people might argue that Paganism benefits from its counter-cultural status, and that teaching it in schools will just make it too respectable and dull. On the other hand, given the negative stereotypes that circulate about Pagans among the general population, a bit of education about Pagan traditions would be a very good thing.

Some good starting points would be:

Another difficult area is what to do if you send your child to a school run by another religious tradition, where it is quite likely that they will receive ‘confessional’ education in that faith. Even at state schools, assemblies are supposed to be mainstream Christian in character, unless the children at the school are predominantly of another faith. You do have the right to withdraw your child from assemblies and the like, but bear in mind how isolating and embarrassing that can be for the child. There is also the real possibility of stigma for the child if it is known that his or her parents are Pagans. On the other hand, it is probably best to be open and communicative about your religion, otherwise it looks as if you have something to hide.  Get advice from other Pagan parents, and from Pagan organisations, on how best to proceed in this area.

Religious education at home

Most Pagans believe that children should be allowed to choose their religious tradition when they are old enough. However, that does not preclude the possibility of educating your children about all religions including Pagan traditions, and modelling good values such as respect for the Earth, caring for the environment, caring for other beings, and being intellectually curious about other religions, philosophies, and cultures.

In a survey carried out by Covenant of the Goddess (an American Pagan organisation) in 2005, 49% of respondents indicated having no children, and of the remaining 51%, only 27% (i.e. approximately 13% of the total sample) said that they were bringing their children up as Pagans. 52% of those with children said they were bringing them up in a multi-faith environment; 9% said ‘another faith’; and 12% said ‘none’. Even those brought up as Pagans might not choose to practise a Pagan tradition as adults – I have met many children of Pagan parents who did not go on to be Pagan themselves, though many of them seemed to have absorbed Pagan values (of the sort mentioned above) from their upbringing. This is interesting, as one of Richard Dawkins’ criticisms of religion (in The God Delusion, 2006, p. 260) is that people indoctrinate their children into it; clearly this is not happening with Paganism.

Religious education for adults

Many adults may not have received the broad-based, non-sectarian, pluralistic religious education advocated by the Accord Coalition. They may be curious about other religious traditions, or want to learn spiritual techniques, or to learn more about their chosen religious tradition.

If you are educating adults – whether in a coven, grove, hearth, evening class, UU covenant group, or Unitarian engagement group, or correspondence course – it’s a good idea to think about different learning styles, and also offer opportunities for people to chip in with their own ideas. People will arrive at such events with different expectations, different levels of prior knowledge, different ideas and values, and different levels of commitment.

In the USA, the Unitarian Universalists have developed the covenant group, which is an excellent way of delivering adult religious education in a safe and supportive setting. In the UK, these are called engagement groups. They typically set group guidelines for how people will engage with each other (or covenant to be together). These are decided on by the group members themselves. They often follow a talking stick format. The way of working together that our coven arrived at by a process of trial and error (before I had encountered the concept of engagement groups) was very similar to the engagement group model.

The aim of any such course, workshop, training, or religious education (in Pagan, UU, Unitarian, and other liberal settings, and whether it’s for kids or adults or both) is always to encourage people to think for themselves and make up their own minds, as well as to broaden their knowledge.

Those who are not against us are with us

Sweet chestnut forest (source: Wikipedia)

Religions are like trees

I have always felt it would be better to define Paganism and Pagan traditions on their own terms. If we draw a contrast with some other tradition’s theology, we always reinforce a simplistic outsider’s view of that tradition.

For instance, if you always say “our tradition is polytheist, unlike Wicca which is duotheist”, then you are denying and erasing the existence of polytheist, animist, pantheist, and atheist Wiccans. You are also over-simplifying what it is that Wiccans actually practice and believe. Even Wiccan covens who honour a specific male and female pair tend to be polytheistic and to regard the pair or couple they are honouring as their patron deities, two special deities among many other deities.

Another example: if you are always contrasting Pagan ideas with a simplistic view of Christianity (such as that promoted by fundamentalists and evangelicals), you are erasing and denying a rich and varied tradition of mystics, heretics, and even alternative views expressed within mainstream Christianity. You are setting up those Christian views as a straw man to be knocked down. It’s an easy target, but it just makes you look a bit ill-informed about Christianity.

A certain (possibly mythical) itinerant rabbi during the Roman occupation of the Middle East is reported to have said, “Those who are not against us are with us”. (He is also reported as saying, “Those who are not with us are against us”, but that just goes to show that the text is unreliable, so you need to make up your own mind.) I like this saying – I would rather build bridges than dig defensive ditches. If we are going to build Pagan values into the wider society, the way to begin is to break down stereotypes and make alliance with other liberal faith traditions, not treat them with suspicion and derision.

Critiques of the bits of Christian theology that Pagans don’t like (penal substitution theology, hellfire and damnation, exclusivism and sectarianism, anti-LGBT rhetoric) are becoming louder and louder from within the Christian community. The people who are criticising those aspects of Christianity are our allies, not our enemies. Just because they wear the label Christian, does not make them automatically the enemy. I shouldn’t even need to be saying this.

Of course Christianity has been the dominant discourse for a long time, and we need to challenge the hegemony of ideas about belief being the primary source of belonging to a religion (which is in fact unique to Christianity), but actually occulture is gaining traction, according to Christopher Partridge in The re-enchantment of the West. Ideas such as reincarnation, karma, destiny, synchronicity, and so on are more widely understood and talked about than (for example) Christian notions of salvation.

Apart from getting other people’s theology wrong when we use it to define what Paganism is, I think it is not helpful to define a thing by what it isn’t. Instead we should define it by what it is. We can say that Paganism is life-affirming, world-affirming, sex-positive, non-hierarchical, and inclusive. We don’t need to say that other religions do not possess those qualities (whether or not it’s true) in order to make that point.

We can of course draw on helpful theological ideas from other traditions (whilst bearing in mind issues of cultural appropriation) such as process theology, apophatic theology, creation spirituality, Transcendentalism, Taoist ideas, and so on. We don’t exist in a theological and philosophical vacuum. Indeed, other traditions (including Judaism and Christianity) are drawing on Pagan ideas about the environment and the Goddess to fill the gaps in their discourse.

If we set up Paganism as the thesis, and something else as the antithesis, then we ignore the possibility of synthesis. We create a dualistic and divisive view of the world. In fact, things are not either/or, black and white, male and female – there is multiplicity and diversity. We do our traditions of polytheism, multiplicity and diversity a disservice if we reify and reinforce a dualistic and oppositional view of the world.

Religions are like trees. They grow in a specific context, with many roots and branches. They are pruned by humans, and  weathered by storms, and they are affected by other trees (other religions). You can’t look at a single branch of a tree and insist that it is the whole tree. Nor can you insist that the tree is only its trunk. All the many branches, and the roots, and the trunk, and the forest around it, are part of the tree.

What is cultural appropriation?

Haka for Lord Ranfurly, 1904

Haka for Lord Ranfurly, 1904 (Wikipedia)

It’s about power, and context, and histories of persecution.

The Native Americans had their land and livelihoods taken away, their cultural identity erased and derided, and now people are taking their spiritual practices. Some Christians hold Passover Seder meals immediately before Easter communion; this completely changes the meaning of the Passover Seder; and also there is a long history of Christian persecution of Jews, so this feels inappropriate to me. (I am neither Jewish nor Native American, so it’s not my personal fight, but I do want to be a good ally here.) Some may argue differently.

Buddhists are not a persecuted minority in the UK or the USA, so if the rest of us borrow their spiritual practices, there’s no colonialist / power issue. The way Buddhism is disseminated involves a blending with local and pre-Buddhist traditions anyway, and some see Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion, so arguably Buddhists might be pleased. However, borrowers of Buddhist practices should acknowledge their debt to Buddhism, and make an effort to understand the Buddhist philosophy behind the practice, and learn the safeguards that come with the practice.

There is also an issue of context – many spiritual practices and especially specific rituals have a specific historical and mythological context. For example, Pagans calling the quarters relies on some sort of belief in the elemental spirits of the four quarters (or at least an understanding of the symbolism), so if you lift that and put it in, say, a Unitarian service, it might not work too well, unless you have figured out what this means to Unitarians. Conversely, the Unitarian Flower Communion has its roots in a specific historical moment and expression of Unitarian identity, so if Pagans were to borrow it, it would feel weird, because it is part of Unitarian identity, context and history.

One of the things that Native Americans object to is the way that people make up any old nonsense and claim that it is Native American, and also call themselves pseudo-Native-American names to make it sound more genuine and make a lot of money from selling books and workshops, not a penny of which actually goes to help genuine Native Americans. The peddling of inaccurate information about a tradition can also bring that tradition into disrepute, or misrepresent the practices being described as the norm for that tradition.

For instance, there are any number of books on the market purporting to be a definitive description of how Wicca is practised, and I disagree with large swathes of what is written in them – but other people assume that because I am a Wiccan, I must agree with what is written in those books; or even worse, that what is written in those books is the “proper” way to do Wicca, and I must therefore be doing it wrong. One example of this is the widespread misinterpretation of the “Law of Threefold Return”. I can’t tell you the real meaning, because to do so would be to break my oath, but suffice it to say that what is peddled on the internet is not the real meaning. Another example is the fact that genuine Wiccans train aspirants for free, but there are sadly people out there charging £300 for workshops on Wicca. This brings real Wiccans into disrepute.

Cultural appropriation often involves the erasure of the contemporary issues of the people whose culture is being appropriated. For example, in December 2012, when the “Mayan end of the world prophecy” was all over the internet (and many tour companies were making a lot of money out of New Agey Mayan-themed holidays), the real Mayans, who still exist, were justifiably angry because their culture was being misappropriated and misinterpreted (and people were making really crass jokes about them too) and people were assuming that the Mayans died out (and if they had actually died out, it would be because of colonialism). In fact, the supposedly Mayan calendar that was shared widely on social media was actually an Aztec artefact. Indeed, New Agers often commit cultural appropriation, as the New Age movement is blissfully unaware of historical context, colonialism, and other gritty realities. However, other liberal religious groups can occasionally do it as well.

A guy called Chris said that he once went to a society for shamanic practitioners conference where they held a ghost dance ritual. The ghost dance was something created by Native Americans in response to increasing oppression from the colonial powers, but there was no acknowledgement of this. When Chris mentioned it to someone, they clearly misunderstood his concerns and said “but you can do it for whatever you want”.

Teaching these practices as if they existed outside of the real history of oppression and colonialism does harm the people who invented the practice by ignoring their current existence and current problems. Making money out of someone else’s spiritual practice, without acknowledging your debt to them, or giving them any of the money to help their cause, seems unethical to me. A related issue is where pharmaceutical companies go to South America, obtain indigenous knowledge of healing plants, make millions from new drugs derived from those plants, copyright the drugs, and don’t give any money to the indigenous communities whose knowledge they have acquired.

Another example, pointed out by Lindsay Wolf, is the use of the haka (a Maori dance) by the New Zealand rugby team.

New Zealand white men in their rugby team perform a version of a Maori war haka before matches. NZ relations with Maori culture are complex, and while NZ white people usually express pride in Maori culture I think it is appropriation (even if there are Maori men in the team) because it gives the impression to other nations that all NZers, including the white majority ‘own’ the haka. It covers up the way Maori people have been dispossessed, the Treaty of Waitangi broken, all the many brutalities and infringements of human rights in NZ’s history. It also gives the impression that the haka is only a war dance, whereas there are many kinds of hakas for many occasions, some women dance etc.

The haka is not a single example, white New Zealanders in general tend to use Maori culture as a symbol of their own identity, particularly when out of NZ.  Cultural appropriation is most clear to see when peoples have been colonised and still live under the yoke of the coloniser (e.g. indigenous people of the USA, NZ, Australia).

Until the 1970s the All Blacks played rugby against the South Africans without their Maori players even though these may have been their strongest. That was because the South African Government requested an all-white NZ team. Can you imagine what it felt like to Maori watching the all-white All Blacks performing a haka on the television or newsreel? Obviously this is a special case but there are parallels where only white people undertake some other appropriated cultural expression.

[In the later 20th century] ‘Māori activists[‘]…primary focus was on stopping the abuse of Māori cultural forms. The best known example of this was the ‘haka party’ incident’ (where a group of students performed a parody haka in public and after repeated requests to desist were assaulted by Maori activists who were supported in court by Maori elders).

‘Most recent Māori protest in this sphere has been directed against non-New Zealand groups and businesses who use the Māori language and cultural forms – sometimes copyrighting them – without permission or understanding. Since it is internationally known, the haka of the All Blacks is particularly vulnerable to this treatment. (Wikipedia)

Appropriation and/or misreading can also happen in other cultural contexts. Joseph de Lappe commented:

As an Irish secondary school teacher in England – every school that I have worked in teaches Dracula as a GCSE text. It’s always invariably taught as a Victorian melodrama – with the focus on repressed sexuality. Which would be fine (the text certainly reflects those themes) except that Dracula was written as a famine text – it’s principally concerned with colonial guilt as to race and religion. By appropriating it to one cultural reading – modern interpretations deny responsibility for the replication of colonial responsibility for racial and religious prejudice.

He therefore suggested distinguishing between cultural bricolage and cultural appropriation.

I have attempted to come up with a list of what defines cultural appropriation, with additional suggestions arising from discussion:

  • taking someone else’s practice without permission or proper handing-on of the tradition and making money out of it (especially if the originators of the practice have a tradition of teaching it to people for free)
  • taking someone else’s practice and doing it in a completely different context where it does not fit
  • taking someone else’s rituals, practices, or stories and pretending they are your own
  • taking someone else’s ritual and then excluding them from it (e.g. Haka example)
  • doing someone else’s practice and pretending that you are authorised by the people whose practice it is
  • claiming a fake identity as an indigenous practitioner
  • doing others’ spiritual practices and changing the meaning, and/or failing to build in the appropriate safeguards, and/or failing to acknowledge that you’ve changed the meaning in the new context
  • failing to acknowledge the history of oppression suffered by the people whose practice is being copied
  • doing something which has nothing to do with a culture and dressing it up and claiming it as part of that culture, when you aren’t a member of that culture.
  • all this adds to a culture that misrepresents (‘noble savage’ discourse for example) and mythologises indigenous peoples and makes their real struggles invisible
  • wearing an item of clothing that expresses someone else’s identity and sacred traditions as a fashion statement or a joke

There is of course, a problem with seeking permission – one person from a community might give permission for a borrowing, but others in that community might disagree. For example, Western occultists have borrowed Kabbalah for centuries, and the borrowed version often feels very different to the original Jewish version – but that particular cat is well and truly out of the bag, it would seem.

Here is a suggested definition of cultural bricolage:

  • sensitive borrowing of stories and techniques (but not historically-situated rituals), fully acknowledging their source and original context, and that you might have changed the meaning in the new context (e.g. I do lectio divina workshops, which is a Christian technique, but I always acknowledge that that is what it is, explain the context in which it arose, and acknowledge that doing it with non-Biblical texts changes the meaning of the practice)
  • thoroughly investigating the context, history and safeguards for the technique you propose to borrow; acknowledging your source and directing people to resources that explain these (e.g. if teaching Metta Bhavana, teach the safeguards that go with it)
  • reading from the sacred texts of other traditions, where these are publicly available
  • telling a story from another tradition, fully acknowledging that it came from that tradition, and explaining its context if necessary

This article arose from a discussion on my friend Noam’s Facebook wall. Thanks to him for starting the discussion.

Further reading

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Guest Post: Pagan-Christian Dialogue, Mistrust, and a Difficult (But Needful) Way Forward

Today, we welcome John W. Morehead, a researcher, writer, and speaker and advocate for positive Pagan-Christian interfaith dialogue. Recently I wrote to you all about the importance of intrafaith work in the Pagan movement to bring more understanding and better communication between traditions. But my wider inspiration for that is the kind of interfaith work that John speaks of so passionately here. Think Pagans and Evangelicals have nothing to say to each other? (Confused about what the difference is between an Evangelical and a fundamentalist Christian?) Read on…

Last week, I enjoyed a multi-religious conversation in a podcast that brought two Pagans together with two Evangelicals to respond to questions related to what divides and what might bring together our religious communities. I always come away encouraged from such interactions, but reading comments by Pagans to this conversation on a Pagan blog, I was all too quickly reminded of the uphill challenges and obstacles associated with such things. We have a long way to go, and perhaps some in our communities will never be able to make the journey with trust.

Recently, my colleague Paul Louis Metzger invited two Pagan friends and colleagues, Mike Stygal, soon to be President of the National Pagan Federation, and Jason Pitzl-Waters of The Wild Hunt blog, along with myself to be part of a conversation. The hour-long podcast went very well, and put forth the groundwork for more in-depth discussions in the near future concerning significant issues and challenges facing our religious communities. This included concerns Pagans have about Christians and proselytizing, Christian privilege in the public square, and what public context might be best for a Pagan voice such as secular or multi-faith. The ability to raise and respond to difficult questions was made possible by the trust that has developed among us over time as we have gotten to know each other, watched each other’s public work within and outside of our religious traditions, and through our engagement of each other in private and public forums. I think I can speak for all of us by saying that we came away from the discussion feeling good, and in hoping that members of our religious communities would find something of value, as well as challenge in our conversation.

Following the publishing of the podcast we began to promote it for listeners. One such promotion for the Pagan community came in the post by Jason in The Wild Hunt. I found Jason’s description and commentary on the podcast and its broader context of Pagans and interfaith dialogue both interesting and challenging. Jason’s humility shone through as he briefly mentioned his own contribution to the podcast and recent dialogue efforts, but then quickly highlighted the good work of many other Pagan examples in dialogue. It was heartening to see a mention of Pagans who have been involved in these activities, and I hope to cross paths with more of them in the near future. But in another way, Jason’s post was challenging, not in the post itself, but in many of the comments that came in response to it.

I spent my Sunday afternoon reading the comments and reflecting on what they meant for Pagan-Christian dialogue. Several responses indicated that many Pagans were just as distrustful of Evangelicals (even those who seemingly make every effort to engage positively as trustworthy conversation partners) as many Evangelicals are wary of Pagans. Some of these negative comments included questions about why Pagans should seek the approval of Christians through dialogue (a curious question in that this was never stated as a goal in the podcast), concerns that Evangelical involvement in dialogue was just a ruse for the conversion of Pagans, that Evangelicals have made no attempt at understanding Paganism, and that some of us “stealthier, newfangled evangelicals” have managed to dupe “some Big Name Pagans” through our dialogue efforts. I left a few comments in response to some of these concerns, and my hope is that even if those who left the original sentiments won’t be persuaded by my feedback, that perhaps other Pagan readers might find the responsive thoughts of interest in the name of balance.

Will we ever be able to move beyond our history of ignorance, misunderstanding, misrepresentation, bigotry, and combativeness? In my more pessimistic moments I doubt it, but then I am reminded that efforts at understanding each other through relationships and conversations are really in their infancy. Patience and a thick skin are in order. As a part of working through this division, I share the following observations and reflections for those Pagans willing to listen.

First, there are some Evangelicals who have honestly worked at pursuing a better way in understanding and engaging Pagans. While some continue to distrust us, we have reached into the best of the Christian tradition in order to put forward a new way of interreligious engagement as we try to follow the way of Jesus in his engagements with Gentiles and Samaritans as a model for our interactions with Pagans and those of other minority religions. This has meant seeking understanding in response to ignorance, and we have sought out the best representatives of Paganism and good source material, rather than relying upon problematic and alarmist material produced within Evangelicalism. We also view our Pagan contacts, not as monstrous “others,” but instead as fellow human beings sharing a planet burdened by violence and war, often fueled by religion. We have also developed relationships with Pagans in the form of genuine friendships that have value in and of themselves, not as pragmatic means to the end of evangelism. Although sharing the pathway of Jesus is part of the Christian DNA, just as sharing the essence of the religious message is an essential part of many religious traditions, nevertheless, I recognize that sharing our message with the hopes of persuasion is not the only element of interreligious interactions, and that if it is not welcomed by a dialogue partner and we persist then we quickly move into unethical territory of proselytizing. I have also taken the additional step of countering misinformation and the misrepresentation of Paganism, both within Evangelicalism as well as outside of it in the secular media.

These efforts have at times come at a cost within my religious community. Evangelicalism has a strong sense of its boundaries, of who is in and who is out, and a as a result at times I have become a concern to that group of self-appointed gatekeepers who police Evangelicalism’s borders. Some of my work on behalf of Pagans and other minority religions has drawn the criticism of these Evangelicals who view me as liberal, postmodern, a compromiser, perhaps even covertly Pagan. Such criticism is not always easy to bear, but I try to take it in stride. In my view being the focus of concern and criticism from some in my own religious community is worth the benefits that more positive forms of engagement between Christians and Pagans bring, and it also allows me to be involved in the peacemaking that Jesus called his followers to be involved in.

Second, it seems to be as if both Evangelicalism and Paganism face continuing challenges from the more conservative, if not fundamentalist elements of their religious communities. Although discussion of fundamentalism in regards to Christianity is familiar territory, it may seem strange to consider it in relation to Paganism. But consider the recent discussions of it within the Pagan community.

In January of this year Sabina Magliocco gave a presentation at the Conference for Contemporary Pagan Studies titled “The Rise of Pagan Fundamentalism.” As she describes in her guest post at The Wild Hunt, her goal for the presentation was “open discussion and critical self-reflection” among Pagans which she sees as necessary for the health of the movement. In her presentation and subsequent follow up discussion she provided clarification on what she meant by “Pagan fundamentalism.” As stated above, it may seem strange or inappropriate to apply a term that originally referred to a segment of Protestant Christianity in terms of its very literal interpretation of the biblical text, and practices of withdrawal and hostility toward culture and other religions, and then to try to apply this to Paganism. Magliocco is aware of this, and recognizes that even with a modification of the term, its application to Paganism is not without its difficulties. Magliocco also recognizes that the term continues to be used in ways that stigmatize others, but she defines it in part as an inflexible form of ideology that precludes questioning and which involves boundary-setting, and where those who disagree are labeled as enemies or heretics. In her discussion of the application of fundamentalism to Paganism, she recognizes that the term does not apply to many Pagans, but she also notes that there has been a lot of discussion among Pagans on the Internet in regards to “a single correct form of belief, and the demonization of those who hold different beliefs and opinions.”

Chas Clifton has also shared his thoughts on Pagan fundamentalism. In his view, once the label or the concept is applied toward others you have “declared that nothing those people say is worthwhile, that they have nothing to teach you, and that they should just sit down and shut up.” Magliocco’s and Clifton’s discussion of Pagan fundamentalism is in regards to internal disputes within the Pagan community, but having noted the context of recent conversations on this issue, I believe the term and discussion is useful, and that it relates not only to internal matters within Paganism, but also externally in terms of how the Pagan community chooses to posture itself in regards to interreligious engagement, particularly in the case of Pagan and Christian interactions.

In his fine book Fundamentalism and American Culture, George Marsden notes that Protestant fundamentalists have had an “anti-cultural bias.” This has also been a feature of segments of Protestant Evangelicalism, particularly in terms of responses to pluralism and the increasing profile of minority religions, especially Paganism and Islam. Evangelicals with fundamentalist tendencies have tended to view minority religions as evil, even monstrous, and with this has come mistrust and strict opposition seen as the only appropriate way forward. This fundamentalist strain within Evangelicalism can also be seen within aspects of Paganism.

In 2008, Witchvox featured an article by Jedi Gordy titled “Future of Paganism” which mentioned some troubling parallels between Christian fundamentalism and Paganism. Gordy wrote in part:

This article is on something most of us dislike: Christianity. But it is more on how modern Paganism is BECOMING much like Fundamentalist Christianity. We claim to be enlightened (which we should be to become the third degree). We claim to be tolerant. We claim to be righteous and pure. Then tell me this: Why do I hear so many of us slamming the “big three” (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and calling those who call us out on our hate-speak “Christians” or other names?

More recently I have observed Pagan fundamentalism in one form that relates to Christianity in terms of alarm-sounding and exposé. This is precisely the type of approach that Pagans have decried for years when they are the object of scrutiny by Evangelicals, and now the same type of problematic approach is being used by Pagans.

If we pause to reflect on that element of fundamentalism with the tendency toward a narrow mindedness and defensiveness in regards to those outside our religious boundaries, and the related practice of applying the label “enemies” and cutting off discussion, then perhaps fundamentalism is a problem for Evangelicalism and Paganism alike, both within and outside our traditions. In the discussion above fundamentalist aspects of the Pagan community will hopefully raise cause for concern for some Pagans, and it certainly demonstrates a major obstacle to more positive ways of engaging Christians. Perhaps the time has come for those supportive of more positive forms of engagement in the Pagan and Christian communities to work together in attempts at persuading their more conservative or fundamentalist members of the benefits of conversations involving religious diplomacy. Over time through relationships and demonstrations of good will we can come to view each other as “trustworthy rivals” living in peaceful tension over our disagreements.

I understand the mistrust that many Pagans have toward Christians and the forms of Christianity that have undergirded our hostile interactions with the Pagan community. But it would seem to me that we have limited options in the way forward. We can try to ignore each other, but given our history of animosity, and the increasing presence of Paganism in the public square, this does not seem like a viable option. We can continue to distrust and demonize each other, but should two traditions that claim central elements of peacemaking contribute to the religious tensions of our country and our world? If these two options are untenable, then I suggest that as difficult as it may be for some in our religious communities, that religious diplomacy is the best way forward. It will be difficult to be sure, and we will continue to stumble along the way, but if we are to live in accordance with the best of our religious pathways as neighbors in a multi-faith world, surely this struggle is better than those we have been putting our energies into in the past. I hope an increasing number of Pagans and Evangelicals will join me.

John Morehead is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. He is the editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2008), and has been involved in interreligious engagement in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, Paganism, and Humanism.