The Future of Paganism (Part Two): What Pagans Can Learn from Pioneer Mormons

To cap off our March series, “As Pagans, what do we hope to build?”, I offer this essay, slightly updated from its original 2012 version. I’ve long been impressed by the early Mormon practice of “gathering,” through which pioneer Mormons became a potent economic force and were even (temporarily) able to establish some political independence. As energy prices rise and our supply of fossil fuels runs out, Pagans could gain enormous practical benefits from adopting this practice for their own reasons—especially if we begin to understand “Pagan” primarily as a cultural outlook or spiritual orientation, thus minimizing our theological disagreements. Read on…


Because of the Church of Latter-Day Saints’ opposition to LGBT rights, Pagans often find themselves opposing Mormons in the culture wars. We tend to be just as ignorant about Mormon beliefs and practices, however, as the average American is about contemporary Paganism. All many of us know about Mormons is what we learned from South Park.

Mormons and Pagans, however, have some surprising things in common. And although we also have many differences, some of those differences are instructive. For Pagans who are interested in growing community and wielding political power in the service of minority religious rights, Mormons could be our teachers—particularly if we focus on nineteenth-century Mormons and the practice of gathering.

First, some similarities (and please note that these are generalizations; Mormons, like Pagans, are diverse).

1.      Sexuality is divine. Mormons have many more rules restricting the who, what, and where of sexuality than Pagans do, but they reject the idea that sexuality is the result of an “original sin.” Sexual relationships are believed to continue into the afterlife, and God is thought to have a physical and sexual body.

2.      The divine is male and female. Mormons acknowledge a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father, although praying to the Mother is officially unacceptable in the LDS church (some members do so anyway).

3.      Divine revelation is ongoing and open to all. Although Mormons don’t use the term gnosis, they believe that God speaks to them in prayers, and revelations can be conferred to believers regardless of their social position (though in modern Mormonism, the church provides much more restrictive guidance than at the birth of the movement).

4.      Mormon believers who have proper priesthood authority heal through the laying on of hands in a manner not unlike Pagans’ use of energy work and Reiki. Although officially only men can become part of the Mormon priesthood, Mormon feminists also engage in this healing practice among groups of women (Terry Tempest Williams, for example, describes it in her memoir Refuge).

5.      Mormon worship occurs in two layers: church attendance that largely resembles Protestant worship, and inner Temple worship into which one must be properly initiated. The “outer court” and “inner court” models used by many Wiccan and some eclectic Pagan groups makes a clear parallel.

6.      Mormons are a religious minority who attract suspicion and sometimes outright discrimination on the part of other Americans. Although the assault and murder of Mormons for their religious beliefs has not occurred since the nineteenth century, Mormon beliefs are often held up for ridicule in popular culture, and some allegations suggest that Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign team spread anti-Mormon rhetoric to discredit Romney. The public’s willingness to eat up lurid portrayals of Mormons probably also drove sales of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Under the Banner of Heaven, which focused on murder and polygamy in a Mormon sect. Pagans are not the only religious minority to have to battle the public’s perception that we are a dangerous, sexually deviant “cult.”

Wagon train. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.It can be hard to remember, considering the substantial political clout of LDS, that the Mormons began as a ragtag group of believers who fled to Utah in fear of their lives. In the early 1800s, converts to Mormon prophet Joseph Smith’s new revelation responded to their prophet’s call to gather into communities of religious and economic solidarity. Other local residents were intimidated by the rapidly growing religious movement and angry at the way Mormons did all their business with other Mormons. Eventually, tensions became violent, and the Mormons were driven out of their settlements and sometimes murdered. The most famous incident was the 1838 Mormon War, which occurred in Jackson County, Missouri. Although the Mormons fought back, twenty-two were killed, and ultimately 10,000 Mormons were forced out of the state of Missouri, with some dying due to hunger and exposure. Eventually, Mormons from several states established a new settlement in Utah, but the United States government continued to interfere in the self-governance of the Mormons while denying petitions for statehood. When the LDS church renounced the practice of polygamy, Utah was granted statehood and representation in the United States government.

American Paganism as a defined movement doesn’t date back to much before the 1960s, so our relative lack of stable community and political power is partially just a result of our not having had 150 years to work on it. Nevertheless, as Pagan community centers continue to struggle financially and high-profile court cases are decided against Pagan plaintiffs, I find myself asking: what did the Mormons have that we don’t?

Firstly: nineteenth-century Mormons had amazing community solidarity—which is perhaps no surprise, since the practice of gathering was a religious commandment. As a result, since the beginning of their movement, Mormon believers have supported each other economically and socially in a way that has become embedded in their religious culture. My readers are probably all familiar with ongoing struggles to satisfactorily define the term “Pagan,” and the ambiguity seems to have led many in the movement to hesitate to commit to any group larger than a dozen people. For those of us who actively want small group or solitary practice and nothing more, this individualism isn’t a problem. But for those who want a community that can support living out Pagan or earth-centered values throughout daily life—schools, temples, farmer’s markets, health care clinics, libraries, and more—the lack of explicitly Pagan or even Pagan-friendly institutions is a problem.

Perhaps our struggling community centers are a sign that we’re coming at community from the wrong angle. We want permanent spaces to have events and worship, but in most cities and towns, there’s not yet a critical mass of Pagans in any one place to support such services. While it’s true that Pagans are, as a group, resistant to giving money to institutions, my observations of efforts to build Pagan community centers suggests to me that our fundraising strategies are ineffective. In an interview, the founders of the Sacred Paths Center in Minneapolis describe how they opened a joint metaphysical store and community center essentially without a financial plan. This strategy is in some ways superior to doing fundraising first and then renting a building when the money has come in: as the Sacred Paths founders knew, most community centers using this model never get off the ground. But in its two years of existence, Sacred Paths Center had two financial crises, leading to emergency fundraising efforts in the local community and on the internet. Much as I hate to malign the hard work of those who have kept the center running, the “if you build it, they will come” mentality did not result in financial sustainability.

Commanded to gather, nineteenth-century Mormons grouped together in communities of mutual support, and these communities provided opportunities for mutual protection, economic benefits, and community religious practice. Perhaps Pagans are less willing to compromise, or just not afraid for their lives, but it is a rare Pagan who will change jobs or move in order to be physically closer to other Pagans. Despite there being an estimated 1.2 million of us in the United States, Pagans often remain scattered and isolated, and we turn to the internet to find like-minded others. Online community is certainly better than nothing, but it will not help us raise our children or bring us potluck dishes when we bury our dead; the bonding that occurs when neighbors can casually run into each other at the grocery store cannot happen. As a movement, we do not prioritize Pagan community highly enough to make the sacrifice of moving—at least, not yet.

I would like to see Pagan community centers that grow organically out of clusters of Pagan settlements—groups of Pagans who choose to buy or rent in a single apartment complex or neighborhood and then, when the needs arises for space bigger than anyone’s living room, buy or rent space where they already live. Congregational churches use a slow, effective model to build a new church: first, a small group begins meeting at the home of a member. Donations are solicited from the group (and admittedly, a culture of charitable giving is a big advantage here). When the group is bursting out of its space and the monthly income is enough to sustain rent, the group moves to a storefront or other inexpensive rental property. Only when the congregation is established in its space and growing does it undertake an extensive capital campaign. The core group that will support the building financially is already there, attending regularly, gathered in a room together. There is no wishful thinking that if a space exists, the community will take notice and support it. Internet fundraising is a supplement, not the group’s bread and butter.

Pagan community centers should not be scrambling to grow their membership in order to cover a lease or begging for donations from far-away donors. When a community center is formed, it should already be clear exactly whom that center will serve and what their needs are—and the center’s core income should be based on real needs, not on wants. (In my town, for instance, an earth-centered daycare center run by Pagan educators could be very, very profitable.) Although the internet does much to make the gathering of like-minded people possible, it alone cannot substitute for participation in the daily rhythms of other Pagans’ lives. That is something Mormons know that we Pagans have not fully grasped: sustainable community is better nourished by physical proximity and stable business and personal relationships than by shared beliefs.

If the idea of modeling ourselves after the Mormons still leaves a bad taste in your mouth, consider that pioneer Mormons are hardly the first or last to have benefited from concentrating their numbers: LGBT culture as we know it today would not exist if not for the mass exodus of LGBT folk from all over the US to the California Bay area. It is my hope that in the coming years, Pagans will find themselves catalyzed to accept each others’ differences in the name of stronger and deeper community—and that it won’t take something like a massacre to bring them together.

Erotic Ethics and Pagan Consent Culture

In the wake of Kenny Klein’s recent arrest for possession of child pornography, many Pagan groups are discussing what policies and ethics statements might help to safeguard our communities. My co-writer Yvonne Aburrow has some excellent concrete suggestions here, and various people are again looking at the collective statement of sexual ethics spearheaded by Brendan Myers to consider whether it might be formally adopted in their groups. I hope these resources will be of use to our readers.

As these discussions continue, I’d like to offer some recommendations on how new sexual ethics statements and policies might be framed. In times of crisis, we often focus on what we DON’T want. But if we are to create a healthy consent culture, our vision of our erotic ethics must be framed in positive terms. What does a Pagan consent culture look like?

1. Rather than focusing purely on sexual touch, let’s focus on touch in general. If we create a culture of consent around touch, and learn to treat touch as an opportunity for a sacramental moment between two people, we will have clear standards for what constitutes appropriate touch in all cases. Not only will it be easier to identify boundary-violating warning signs from potential predators, but well-meaning people will find it easier to offer and accept touch only when it’s wanted, not out of a sense of social obligation.

2. We must acknowledge that our culture is rife with power imbalances, and that all relationships occur within these power imbalances, because no two people are perfect peers. With this in mind, we need language to talk about power in those relationships so as to maximize the autonomy of both parties. Further, we need to be able to speak openly about the fact that with a large power differential, there is a greater chance for exploitation or abuse–and yet retain the conviction that adults do have the ability to consent to touch. No adult’s experience of pleasurable, consensual touch should be dismissed as “patriarchal brainwashing,” as some sexual ethicists of the past have done in order to attack the validity of unequal relationships (such as heterosexual partnerships).

3. We must acknowledge that adolescent sexuality is a a blessing and make sure that our efforts to protect adolescents from abuse do not result in their desires being denied or punished.

As a Pagan, I believe deeply in the potential sacredness of touch and of sexuality. Accordingly, my sexual ethics are different from those espoused in mainstream religious institutions. I seek to create a culture in which enthusiastic, ongoing consent is an expected part of any relationship involving touch, and I believe deeply that adults have the right to consent to any form of loving touch that they desire, regardless of whether or not that touch is considered “deviant” by our society.

In our fear and grief over recent events, let us not mirror mainstream culture with destructive assumptions about the danger of desire, the asexuality of adolescents, or the responsibility of potential victims to protect themselves. We need to change our culture. We need to change the conditions that create people who abuse others, and that allow others to overlook the signs of abuse. Further, we need to avoid utterly demonizing those who commit sexual violations and acknowledge that problematic behaviors are rife in our communities — some persisting as a result of ignorance and lack of understanding, some as a result of genuinely dangerous mental illness. We need to be able to confront those who violate others with compassion, with the understanding that compassion can involve calling the police and sending predators to prison, for the good of all.

So I repeat: let’s take the long view here. Let’s not focus the coming discussions purely on seeking out predators. Instead, let’s concentrate on creating a healthy culture of enthusiastic consent. Not only will that approach better help to reveal those who seek to hurt others, but all our relationships will benefit.

 

Resources:

Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspectiveby Christine Hoff Kraemer (Particularly the discussion of consent at the end of the introduction) [Full book available here, or contact me at ckraemer at patheos dot com]

Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, eds. Friedman and Valenti

Erotic Attunement: Parenthood and the Ethics of Sensuality between Unequals by Cristina Traina

 

Silence equals complicity: making Pagan groups safe for everyone

The recent arrest of Kenny Klein, Pagan author and musician, on 25 counts of possessing child pornography, although this has not yet resulted in a conviction, has prompted everyone to ask, how can we keep our Pagan communities safe from people like this?

There was a horrific abuse case in the UK in 2012, but those involved were not part of the wider Pagan community, or of the Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccan community; nor it seems, of any recognisable Wiccan or witchcraft community.

Nevertheless, the widespread nature of abuse in society means that sooner or later, it is simply statistically likely that some member of the Pagan community will perpetrate some kind of abuse.

In response to cases which came to light in 2010, Jason Pitzl-Waters called for an ethics statement on abuse. In response, Brendan Myers and a group of others created a community statement and invited people to sign up to it. This is alright as far as it goes, but it is not enough, because it does nothing to challenge the silencing of victims of abuse.

However, this is not just about ensuring zero tolerance of child abuse in our communities; it is also about creating a safe space for everyone.  That means zero tolerance of creepers – people who think it is acceptable to sexually harass others. It also means that we cannot sweep rape, domestic violence, and abuse in our communities under the carpet. If someone is brave enough to say they have been raped and abused, we should believe them. We should also encourage them to go to the police. And for those of you who are thinking that the police don’t take rape allegations seriously, rape convictions are at an all-time high, with the conviction rate in the UK currently at 63%.

I have heard too many stories of people being told off for “rocking the boat” when they have complained of sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence. I have been in situations where Pagan men have not understood that no means no. Being in the same bed as someone does not constitute consent to sexual activity. Consent is continuous and explicit, not merely acquiescing to the sexual act because it is easier than arguing.

We are supposed to be a community that values women, that believes women are the embodiment of the Divine just as much as men, if not more so.

We are a community that celebrates all acts of love and pleasure. Well, let me tell you right now, anything less than enthusiastic consent is not an act of love and pleasure. Love and pleasure are sacred. Rape and abuse are the most horrible violations of the sacred integrity of the human body.

What is enthusiastic consent? It is where sexual partners actively describe what they do and don’t desire. It means not just avoiding a No, but actually getting a clear Yes. And not just a yes to sex, but also a yes to all the other activities that surround it. Maybe your partner doesn’t like being touched in a particular way, or in a particular place – so don’t touch them there, and/or don’t touch them like that.

It became clear after the Steubenville rape case that many people thought that an unconscious drunk girl was “asking for it”.  The victim was blamed for “ruining the careers” of the young men who raped her. No, they ruined their careers by raping her. More importantly, they also ruined her life.

Many anti-rape posters are victim-blaming and slut-shaming. The only ones that actually reduce the rates of rape are the ones that make it clear what consent means, and what rape means. The “Don’t be that guy” campaign in Canada, which does make it clear that non-consensual sex is rape, has reduced the rate of rape by 10%.

We live in a rape culture, where a woman who gets raped is blamed for complaining about it, rather than the rapist being blamed.

People assume that rapists are 100% evil and bad, therefore the “nice” people they know can’t possibly be rapists. But a very high percentage of rape and sexual assault is committed by partners or acquaintances of the victims.

Sexual violence is any unwanted sexual act or activity. Rape includes the non-consensual penetration of the vagina or the anus with any object.  That is the legal definition in the UK and in the USA.

We live in a rape culture, where every time someone brings up the subject of rape, someone says, yes but men get raped too. They do, but the numbers are much fewer than the number of women being raped, and it is often done as a form of power-over to ‘feminize’ the man who was raped.

We live in a rape culture, where men’s rights activists are rape apologists, who claim that women were asking for it, or are just frigid, or were to blame for being raped. They claim that feminism is emasculating men, or they blame their mothers for not making them proper men. Or something. So they go down to the woods to hang with the dudes and connect with the “male energies”. And some of these people use Paganism as a cover for these activities.

We live in a rape culture, where rape apologists claim that men “need” sex, or that it is in their nature to be rapists; that’s why women are the ones who have to take all the preventive measures against rape, like not dressing “provocatively”, not walking home late at night, not getting drunk and incapable. This is horrible slut-shaming nonsense, but it is also grossly unfair to the majority of men who are not rapists.

We live in a rape culture, where people derail conversations about rape culture by claiming that women lie about being raped. This represents a tiny minority – and if we did not live in a patriarchal culture of slut-shaming, where women who have sex at all are regarded as sluts, no-one would need to lie about it.

“In the period of the review, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 111,891 for domestic violence. During the same period there were 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape, 6 for making false allegation of domestic violence and 3 for making false allegations of both rape and domestic violence. ” (from page 2 of the UK Crown Prosecution Service report on false rape allegations, March 2013)

Pagans think that we are immune to the problems of the wider society, including rape culture, because Pagans are ethical, or because high priestesses are very wise and intuitive and supposedly always filter out dodgy people, including rapists and abusers. I am aware of enough cases of sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence among the Pagan community to know that that just is not true. And besides, some of these people are downright manipulative, and can be quite convincingly ‘nice’.

So what can we, the Pagan community, do about it?

I have said it before, and I will say it again: we need a safeguarding policy and committees for Pagan communities, of people trained in safeguarding. I do not care how difficult it would be to set up. We need it, period. Yes, I know covens and other groups are autonomous; I know the Pagan community is more of a network than a gathered community; I know it would cost money, and maybe only have partial coverage – but we need to do it. Which would you rather join – a coven/grove/hearth that is signed up to the safeguarding committee, or a coven that isn’t?

We really need to have consensus: no more creepers, no more rapists. If a woman says she doesn’t like someone’s behaviour – don’t just ignore her, or tell her it’s not that serious, or tell her not to rock the boat, or take the piss out of the perpetrator – bar the perpetrator from the group for a period of time, or permanently, depending on the seriousness of the act.

Do not tolerate creepers (today’s creeper is tomorrow’s rapist). If a woman says she has been assaulted, believe her, and encourage her to report it to the police. If a woman objects to sexist behaviour and/or creepy behaviour (e.g. unwanted touching) don’t silence her. If you hear someone making misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, or racist comments, challenge them and make it clear that their views are not welcome in the Pagan community. Tell the perpetrator of sexual harassment that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable. We need to do this to make the community safe for everyone.

Silencing the victims of sexual harassment, rape, and abuse happens over and over again. The parable of the rats on the boat gives a powerful illustration of silencing and victim-blaming.

In the past couple of days I have been feeling very angry. I have been angry about sexual harassment, sexual assault, creepy douchebaggy harassy behaviour, men exploiting the way in which women are socialised into being polite and non-confrontational for the purposes of the aforementioned creepy douchebaggy harassy behaviour, and also the fucking cover up and culture of silence around the above. Especially the phrase “don’t rock the boat”. As in “don’t say anything to that creepy guy in X society who always hangs around the youngest women possible; that would be rocking the boat”. As in “don’t make a big deal about that one guy who sent you those creepy, sexually harassy emails: don’t rock the boat”. As in “yeah, there’s this guy who’s a creep and we all know about him but we don’t DO anything about him because we don’t want to rock the boat” (oh my god, the amount of times I’ve heard this). This is a stupid fucking metaphor which is used to silence women and values calmness and stability (and the feelings of creepers and sexual harassers)  above the feelings and comfort and happiness of those women.

When someone complains about sexual harassment or abuse or rape, don’t assume that they are just being vindictive against the accused person. Don’t dismiss or make light of their concerns. Encourage them to report it to the police, and to get specialist support.

However, if a victim does not feel able to go to the police, because they do not have physical evidence, or the abuse happened a long time ago, or because the police in their area are not supportive of rape victims, that is their choice, and should be respected. Don’t make them feel ashamed for not going to the police. They may already be feeling shame for a variety of reasons.

Of course we need to be careful about rumours from third parties. There have been some vicious rumours that have gone round the Pagan community, and far too few people checked on both sides of the story – but they are suddenly very keen to say “oh well we don’t know both sides of the story” when it comes to allegations of abuse.

Don’t make excuses for creepers and claim that they are “just socially awkward” – that is no excuse. There are behaviours that are creepy and unacceptable: commenting on the bodily characteristics of others (just because your tradition practices nudity, does not give you the right to comment on the size of other member’s breasts or penises or extra weight); unwanted touching, especially on areas of the body that are considered erotic, is harassment. Everybody knows what makes people uncomfortable, but we are all too polite to challenge these behaviours.

All covens, groves, hearths, moots and groups need to educate their members about consent and enthusiastic consent, and make it clear that violations of same will not be tolerated. Have a regular talk at your local moot, make sure people understand the issues, and that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. If a new person joins your coven, grove or hearth, make sure that they understand about consent.

I can think of a Pagan pub moot that collapsed due to the presence of someone whom everyone considered to be a creeper, and no-one wanted to be in the room with him on their own, and yet no-one asked him to leave, so in the end, the group collapsed, because no-one turned up in case they were alone with the creeper. I can think of a student society where a creeper was asked to leave, and the society flourished.

Quite often, when someone suggests ostracising or banning a creeper or an abuser or a rapist, they are told, “Your feelings, your problem”, or “we don’t really know what happened”, or “That’s just the way that person behaves; they’re a bit weird”, or “It’s wrong to ostracise people”. This phenomenon has been described in “Five Geek Social Fallacies“.

Above all, don’t keep going around the missing stair, and mostly warning others about the missing stair, but occasionally forgetting and then not being surprised when someone is injured by the missing stair.

Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it?  Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it?  “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings.  But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”

We need to make the Pagan movement safe for everyone. Except abusers.

Cat Chapin-Bishop: Sacred Fire, or What Do I Hope to Build?

We are very pleased to offer this guest post on our March theme from Cat Chapin-Bishop. Cat has been a Pagan since 1986, and has also been Quaker since 2001. She is the former chair of Cherry Hill Seminary’s Pastoral Counseling Department, and her essays have appeared in Celebrating the Pagan Soul, Writing Cheerfully on the Web, The Pomegranate, and at The Wild Hunt blog.  In addition to her Pagan work, Cat is active in her local Quaker meeting, and she writes about the connections between Pagan and Quaker practice at the blog she co-writes with her husband Peter, Quaker Pagan Reflections. –CHK


I live in a place that reminds me daily that the world is vibrant with spirit.

The land around me reminds me: we live amid wonders.  My hope for the Pagan movement, fifty years from now, is that we remember to celebrate that fact, and to live in a way consistent with that vision.

Cat Chapin-BishopI live and work in rural Massachusetts, in a landscape full of stone walls and looming pine trees. My daily commute takes me past oaks and orchards, icy waterfalls and granite cliffs, and I see deer, bears, and red-tailed hawks on a regular basis. Driving to work this week, I saw the cold fire of a full moon on one horizon, while to the east, the the sun rose over the hills in a blaze of copper.  In moments, the faded pastels of the landscape dissolved, and the birch trees, rocks and windowed houses all caught fire.

As a Pagan, this is how I see the world.  Call it spirit, call it numen, call it life or the last resounding echoes of the Big Bang.  Something burns with lines of silver and copper fire within every being, every object in the world.  Hard to name it may be, but this is not just a metaphor, a product of my human mind; the world was sacred before I ever saw it, and it will be so long ages after the human race is gone. Even the rocks vibrate with it… even ordinary morning commuters like me.

We Pagans do not all understand the sacred in the same way. Some of us hold that the Earth Herself is sacred, and some of us do not.  Some of our traditions teach of gods, some of land spirits, nymphs, ancestors and disir, Fair Folk and ghosts.  Some of our traditions recognize holy trees and holy wells,  mountains sacred to the gods, or powers of nature the gods can wield like toys. Some of us feel a sacred fire without reference to the supernatural at all, while to others, each rock and stream is home to a spiritual being, formed with holy fire at its core.

I do not understand all the ways my people honor what is holy in the world.  I only understand that we do.

We do not need to define our experiences of the holy in the same way.  We do not need to blend together our theologies, vocabulary, or myths.  But I think we are weakened forever if we allow our differences to distract us from what we know we hold in common: that we live our lives open to the possibility that on this day, we will  encounter personally some source of that sacred fire.  We walk through the world ready to be blessed.

As Walt Whitman put it, in Leaves of Grass:

Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun—(there are millions of suns left;)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.

My hope for us in the future is that we will have become wise enough not to quarrel with one another over our intellectual understandings of experiences too deep for words.  How we understand the sacred is diverse; that we can know what it is like to be on fire with the sacred is unitive—if we let it be.

Every Pagan is not a mystic.  Every Pagan tradition does not need to center on mysticism.  But I would like for us to recognize, and even to celebrate, that whatever the teachings we have inherited or created, the fire of Spirit still runs through the bones of the world. It’s still there, and we can find it.

What if we put more energy into encountering the spiritual fire behind our traditions, and into letting them inspire us into action than we put into defining what distinguishes one of our traditions from another? I don’t say eliminate our differences… but perhaps we can lose the illusion that difference is the point of religious life. Perhaps we can make use of the unique strengths and insights of each Pagan tradition to better find and follow the sacred encounters at its heart.

What if, instead of quarreling over what notions, what definitions of the sacred are right or wrong, mine or yours, we instead tried to listen to what that holy fire is telling us about how to live?  What if, instead of trying to define which Pagan traditions are “nature-centered” or “earth-centered,” monist or polytheist, we opened ourselves, through our own traditions, to understanding what our own sacred sources have to say to us, today, about relating to the world—or to conflicts, or poverty, or any of the other complications of sharing a biosphere with seven billion other human beings?

What would we hear, if we remembered to listen?

Fifty years from now, I would like us not to be composed of religious traditions that make war on our mystics, as modern Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims do.  I’d like us to remember that the miraculous is always on the verge of breaking into everyday life, and has as much to teach us now as it taught our ancestors—whether fifty years ago, or five centuries.

Fifty years from now, I hope to find a Pagan community that shares the world of Spirit in beauty, diversity, and interconnectedness.

Polytheism and mystery

Polytheism ought to mean “many deities”, with no other qualifications, and include all varieties that recognise many deities. However, the term has been hedged about with so many codicils and footnotes, it is starting to look like the doctrine of the Trinity (apparently simple, but actually incredibly complicated).

Some “hard” polytheists say that all deities are discrete entities.

I have never been able to reach a definition of “soft” polytheism. I am not sure that anyone identifies as a “soft” polytheist. It appears to be a term coined by “hard” polytheists to mean anyone who does not see all deities as discrete entities, or possibly a monist who sees all deities as facets of the ultimate divine source.

So I do not think that the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ for polytheists are particularly useful. I do think that the term ‘devotional polytheist’ is a good term to distinguish those who feel they want to serve deities from those who feel that deities are allies, or mysteries to be explored.

However, there are some other ideas available.

Lugh Lámhfhada appears to be the same person as Llew Llaw Gyffes (their names both mean Lugh of the skilful hand). There does not seem to be much point in asserting that they are different entities.

However, asserting that all storm deities are the same person seems a bit more problematic. They may be manifestations of the storm in their locality.  I can’t accept that Thor, Taranis, Perkūnas, Yahweh, Jupiter, and Zeus are all the same entity. They behave differently from each other. However, I think Thor and Thunor are just variations on Thor’s name, and actually Taranis may just be the Gaulish version of the same name. I alo liked the idea, described in Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, that whilst Odin is Wōden in England and Oðinn in Norway, he becomes Mr Wednesday in America. They are all facets of Oðinn, but he manifests differently in different lands (rather like the different incarnations of a human, perhaps, only existing simultaneously).

I also think that there is a Goddess of the universe, a Goddess of the Earth (the Greeks called her Gaia), and local goddesses for countries, regions, tribes, and cities. In my view, these deities encompass one another (like Russian dolls), but they are still distinct individuals.

We are also all manifestations of divinity. It used to be said that all women were manifestations of the Goddess, and all men were manifestations of the God – but as there are more than two genders, and more than two deities, I rephrased it. Some people seem offended by the idea that all deities spring from the same ultimate divine source; but if humans do too, and we know that humans are distinct individuals, I don’t see how saying that all deities spring from the same source is denying their individuality. Whereas the saying “All the Gods are God, and all the Goddesses are one Goddess” (popularised by Dion Fortune) does deny their individuality.

I think that there is an underlying energy to everything, but that this energy does not have a personality; and the more diffuse and large a deity is, the less they have what we would recognise as a distinct personality. Local deities and spirits of place take on the characteristics of their locality, and their personalities are formed by their interactions with other people (and the same is true of humans).

No entity is discrete and separate, existing in a vacuum unaffected by other entities. Humans and other animals are distinct entities; we eat, breathe, and excrete, exchanging matter with our surroundings. We exchange ideas and moods with the people and places around us. We are interpermeable with our environment.

However, the view that we are all one is going too far in the opposite direction. We exist as distinct beings within the cosmos.

We also have to accept that we just don’t know what the nature of deities is. We scarcely understand the nature of consciousness in humans – how then can we claim to understand it in deities?

The names and forms we ascribe to deities are, in all likelihood, our anthropomorphic projections of what they are like. In an excellent post entitled “Gods like mountains, gods like mist“, Alison Leigh Lilly points out that deities are very probably shaped like something other than humans:

Because I do not believe that humans are the only beings with agency in the world, I do not expect my gods to express their agency in the same ways that human beings do. There are gods who forever remain elusive, whose identities shift with the landscape, the seasons and the stars. And there are gods so intimate that they are never really absent at all, and meeting them is not a matter of inviting their presence but rather of quieting my own expectations and learning how to listen.

I think that deities are fluid and changing. A deity may start out as the mind of a natural phenomenon, or a deified human, or the mind of a place or a region; and possibly deities can merge, and divide. I think that deities are on their own path of development, as the Hindu story of Indra and the Ants attests.

Ultimately, however, the nature of deities is a mystery, and (in my experience) the more concrete and definite we try to make our understanding of it, the more we lose the presence of Mystery.

So let a thousand theological flowers bloom! And let’s not be too quick to assume that any of us are right about any of it. A number of different theological schools of thought exist in Hinduism, and they seem to manage quite well.

What happens when the oil runs out?

I am currently reading the Emberverse series by S M Stirling, in which electronics, guns, the internal combustion engine, and gunpowder all stop working overnight. The laws of physics have been tampered with by some unknown power. The books explore the consequences of this strange event, known as the Change. Part of the story follows a small group of Georgian Wiccans who take to the hills; another part deals with a man who decides to set up a feudal Norman-style state. The people who do best are those with some skills in farming, making things, but also, the ones who are rich in stories that help make sense of the world, which help them to build just and cohesive societies.

I think that the Change is shorthand, or a metaphor, for what happens when the oil runs out. It won’t happen overnight, and if we are lucky, it will be managed sensibly. But all the current indications are that it will not be managed sensibly. Instead of reducing our dependency on fossil fuels, companies are inventing ever more destructive ways of wresting them from the ground, the worst of these being fracking. We are also not investing in sustainable power sources, or taxing carbon consumption, or anywhere near enough of the things we should be doing. The warning signs of climate change are being ignored.

Rhyd Wildermuth’s story, What we built from ruins (part 1 and part 2), in response to the question, what will Paganism look like in fifty years’ time? got me thinking, as well. I realised that my response completely ignored the question of what will happen when the oil runs out.

I also recently attended a ritual in my local area that was part of a global magical working to protect the waters of the world from fracking, which is about the most irresponsible and damaging thing anyone could possibly do to the environment. It was a very moving and beautiful ritual, and it brought together eco-activists, Pagans, shamans, and others.

So what can Pagans and other ecologically-minded people be doing to prepare for the eventual crash, or shift?

We can reduce our own dependence on fossil fuels; campaign for investment in sustainable energy sources; campaign for environmental and social justice. But in addition to these, we can do magic (the art of changing consciousness in accordance with Will) to heal and protect the Earth and other living beings, and we can learn skills such as building roundhouses and coracles and boats, raising livestock, weaving, growing our own food, and so on. We can get involved with the transition towns movement and other sustainability initiatives, support organic farming, and check our own ecological footprint. We can build strong communities – not only of Pagans, but including others of good will. And we can engage with stories that show how to build just, cohesive, and inclusive societies. We are already doing all this to a certain extent – we just need to do it more.

Vampires and Addicts

Vampires are a national obsession right now, especially among young people. TV shows, movies, comics, novels—blood-suckers are everywhere, and they’re big business. For four years, NPR journalist and Pagan Margot Adler shared that obsession. Vampires Are Us: Understanding Our Love Affair with the Immortal Dark Side is her attempt to tell us, quite simply, why vampires are more than the latest adolescent fad.

As Adler relates, she read 260 vampire novels before writing the book, which is a long essay on vampires and culture followed by an annotated bibliography of the novels. For Adler, what triggered the obsession was her husband’s cancer diagnosis, and her avid vampire novel consumption continued through her own struggle with cancer. This narrative of her own journey with mortality—the fantasies of becoming immortal, the pain of remaining alive while loved ones die—was one of my favorite aspects of the book, a personal glimpse of a massively influential Pagan writer. (Adler published Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America in 1979; the book is now in its fourth edition, and it is used in college classrooms as well as in Pagan groups seeking to learn more about the Pagan movement.) Adler argues for the ability of non-realistic fiction to effectively capture elements of the human experience that realism struggles to encompass. To have an active fantasy life, she argues, is not necessarily a sign of detachment from reality, but rather a mode of experience that allows the exploration of difficult emotions and situations in another guise.

What, then, can vampires teach us about ourselves? Adler argues that in the twenty-first century, vampires are no longer symbols of the feared other, the way they were in the past. (Dracula, for example, mirrors nineteenth-century Anglo anxieties about the perceived destructive effects of immigration.) Today, vampires in fiction are not monsters to be feared, but protagonists and love interests we are meant to identify with—in other words, they are us, as the title of Adler’s book claims. Moreover, most of the vampires in contemporary novels are deeply conflicted beings who are struggling desperately to be moral—to behave rightly in the face of their predatory natures and their raging addiction to blood. Isn’t this, Adler asks, rather like our present moment in the West? We are complicit in economic systems that are predatory: exploiting the earth’s resources, the underpaid workers who turn those resources into consumer products, and the young people whose sexuality is used to sell those products (whether we really need them or not). We’re addicted to gasoline, Nike sneakers, cheap cornfed beef, and convenient housewares from Ikea and Walmart. To try to wean ourselves away from the products of an exploitative economy often involves partially withdrawing from wider community life (to avoid using a car or airplane; to cut expenses enough to afford the extra costs of locally grown food; to send our kids to schools that don’t push or even require the purchase of corporate products).

Are vampires a metaphor for the way we are drinking other species, the land, and each other dry? Maybe this developing allegory is a stretch, but it’s clear that there’s something about the morally conflicted, damned-but-trying-to-be-saved vampire that audiences are entranced by. Maybe, at the moment, we are no longer confident that we are right or good; in fact, perhaps there’s a suspicion that we are terribly, terribly wrong, even as the power and pleasure of it all continues to be intoxicating, exhilarating. We’re addicts; we can’t stop.

If these issues weigh on your mind as they do on mine—and especially if you enjoy a good vampire novel the way I do—this book will help you track down the very best in genres ranging from historical to romance to sci-fi. And, perhaps, you’ll do as Adler did, and find yourself confronting some of the biggest questions of the human condition, lightly veiled by a layer of compelling fantasy. Happy reading!


Vampires Are Us is a feature in the Patheos Book Club! Click through for more roundtable responses from our Pagan bloggers, vampire video footage, praise from horror novelist Whitley Strieber, and more.

 

The Future of Contemporary Paganism: Holding Paradox (Part One)

[This is a partial response to our March series, “As Pagans, what do we hope to build?” It’s an edited version of an essay that appeared in the Patheos Press collection The Future of Religion in 2012, and it contains part of my answer to this question — but stay tuned for Part Two! –CHK]


Pagans are facing a series of issues that challenge American Paganism’s most immediate origins in the individualistic, grassroots counterculture of the 1960s. We often resist the institutionalization of our religions for the same reasons that many of us left mainstream churches and synagogues: we fear that the intensity of our spirituality and its sense of authenticity will be lost, that our practice will become stagnant and rote. Today’s Pagans are mostly solitary practitioners with loose or occasional affiliations with groups (79% identify as solitaries, according to sociologist Helen Berger). Many are hungry for more substantial experience and training than can be had from books and the internet. Additionally, Pagan families often long for stable religious communities in which to raise children, celebrate marriages, and mourn their dead. Yet the movement’s intense focus on personal spirituality looks superficially incompatible with sustainable institutions.

The challenge of contemporary Paganism’s future is to maintain an apparent paradox: to meet the needs of a growing movement without losing the passion and alternative vision that drew so many converts to Pagan traditions.

Individuality vs. Community

Pagans today most commonly gather in small groups with fluid membership and for large festivals that last for several days. Some Pagan nonprofits have successfully purchased land on which to hold gatherings, and urban groups have also attempted to start Pagan community centers, although many of these efforts have been hobbled by a weak economy and by a lack of clarity around their mission. Community centers usually attempt to provide ritual and classroom space for local Pagan groups, as well as space for social events, but the need for such spaces has often not been strong enough to make the centers financially sustainable.

Pagans of the future will need to develop institutions that do more than welcome diversity—they will need to harness diversity into collective work that meaningfully binds individuals into community. Since Pagans’ practices are so diverse, they often can only gather into large groups for worship by creating ritual that is relatively generic. Worship cannot be at the heart of a Pagan community center the way it is at a church. The shared work of Pagan institutions must concretely benefit Pagans from a variety of traditions, whether that means focusing on social justice projects such as hunger or homelessness; building Pagan-owned businesses on a cooperative model; providing networking or shared space for Pagan-specific goods and services; or creating Pagan homeschooling collectives. Pagans will financially support Pagan institutions only when those institutions allow individuals to express their religious values in more areas of their lives.

Professionalism vs. Egalitarianism

British Wicca came to America in the hands of individuals and small covens in which there was no laity—all were initiated as priests or priestesses. Mixed with American egalitarianism, this led to an eclectic American Wicca in which nonhierarchy was a common practice. In subsequent decades, many other Pagan traditions have continued to embrace this ideal. As the Pagan movement has grown, however, Paganism’s lack of professional clergy has become a stumbling block. Pagans often have difficulty finding Pagan clergy who have the professional skills to help them with difficult life transitions (for example, licensed counselors, hospital and prison chaplains, etc.). Pagan leaders are usually volunteers with families and day jobs. The hard work of facilitating a group, planning large events, and building and maintaining nonprofits often leads to volunteer burnout. Volunteers also often lack formal training in ministry, nonprofit administration, or counseling and are not always well-prepared for the stresses and challenges of leadership.

Pagans, however, are resistant to the idea of paid, professional clergy, as they fear that paid clergy will form an elite class that takes decision-making power and opportunities for creativity away from volunteers. Pagans must balance the need for professional Pagan services with the desire to continue to actively empower volunteers as leaders in the community. Nonhierarchical religious groups such as the Society of Friends (the Quakers) may help to provide models of how individuals with various levels of training might still function in a community as peers with differing roles.

Intimacy vs. Inclusivity

The contemporary Paganism of the 1960s and 1970s—strongly influenced by British Wicca—focused on emotionally intimate small groups. Some of these were oathbound covens who kept the details of their rituals a secret; others were empowerment groups (often for women, gay men, or lesbians) where personal sharing and confidentiality were paramount. Feeling that secrecy is no longer necessary for protection, Pagans now often enter the movement through large public workshops, book groups, and distance learning. While there are legitimate concerns about how secrecy can create an unhealthy power dynamic in small groups, young Pagans are often unaware that the practice of confidentiality is also a powerful group bonding tool. Pagans who see their religion as having a mission to change the world, especially in the realms of ecological issues and human rights, tend to be radically inclusive and sometimes demand that other Pagans be as well. Pagans who have experienced the support of a closely bonded small group, however, sometimes resist such inclusivity because for them, intimacy and trust are necessary precursors for deep spiritual experience.

Clashes between these two value systems have sometimes led to extended conflicts between groups and individuals who are otherwise fairly like-minded. Take, for example, an incident at the 2011 conference PantheaCon where transgendered women were turned away (perhaps inadvertently) from a Dianic women-only ritual. The incident has sparked an enormous amount of emotionally charged writing on the right of groups to hold exclusive rituals in public spaces, the social impact of exclusive rituals on Pagan community, and the legitimacy of gender-essentialist theologies. Some Dianics have charged that transwomen make a space “unsafe” for women who have been traumatized by men and have asserted their right to a particular kind of gender-exclusive intimacy, even at a large conference event. Queer and transgender activists have answered that such events splinter Pagan community and should at minimum be private events. Others, in turn, have questioned the moral rightness of having exclusive groups or confidentiality at all. Traditions that retain oathbound lore or have idiosyncratic rules for membership have sometimes felt assaulted by would-be students who feel entitled to entry. Pagans have a great deal of work to do in order to preserve the powerfully transformative effect of the intimate group, while also creating a wider Pagan movement that can protect their civil liberties as members of minority religions.

Conclusion

Pagans frequently fear institutionalization because we do not want our religions to compromise their values. The movement, however, has grown too large; institutions will inevitably form in response to needs. In order for those institutions to reflect non-mainstream values, however, they must be structured in non-mainstream ways. Pagans will not thrive in the structure of traditional churches; we must build something new. The struggle to creatively embed paradoxical values—individuality and community, professionalism and egalitarianism, intimacy and inclusivity—into institutions is the primary Pagan challenge for the new century.

Pagan prayer

There are several different types of prayer:

  • contemplative prayer (communing with a deity, usually in silence);
  • intercessory prayer (praying for help for someone else);
  • petitionary prayer (praying for help for yourself);
  • thanksgiving;
  • adoration, devotion;
  • prayer of approach (preparing to enter a deity’s presence);
  • invocation (asking a deity to be present);
  • bidding prayer (a suggestion to participants to pray for a particular thing);
  • confession and penitence (though I would be surprised if any Pagans do this, as we do not tend to regard wrong acts as injuring a deity, only as injuring the physical person(s) who were harmed by them);
  • words of reassurance (for the benefit of the participants of the ritual);
  • healing prayer;
  • expressing aspiration (e.g. “may we be blessed”);
  • reflection (reflecting on events).

Prayer is not just asking a deity to do things for you. It can be used as a means of creating a sacred context for your activities, by opening proceedings with a prayer. An invocation of a deity is a form of prayer. An evocation of an elemental spirit is a form of prayer.  Many Pagans dismiss prayer as “passive magic” (as opposed to doing spells, which they class as “active magic”). This reduces prayer only to petitionary and intercessory prayer – but there are many other kinds of prayer, as you can see from the list above (which may not be a complete list).

There are also different modes and techniques of prayer: for example, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, and body prayer (using dance or other special movements in prayer).

Centering prayer was developed by an interfaith dialogue group of Christians and Buddhists. These Christians admired the technique of Buddhist meditation but didn’t want to cultivate the awareness of the Void recommended by Buddhist tradition; so instead they decided to choose a single concept and focus on it during the meditation, which they called “centering prayer”. So for instance you might choose one of the Nine Noble Virtues of Heathenry, or the Eight Wiccan Virtues, or one of the Roman virtues, to focus on during the prayer. The technique is similar to that of meditation, in that you relax your breathing and focus on the body, but you hold the concept you wish to focus on in your heart for the duration of the prayer, perhaps repeating the chosen word.

Contemplative prayer is an age-old tradition of mystics. It is quite similar to centering prayer, but doesn’t involve a specific concept; it’s more of a wordless communion with a deity. It is usually preceded by more verbal forms of prayer, which lead into contemplation or meditation.

Body prayer is where you involve your whole body in the act of prayer. This might be gardening and praying, or dancing and praying, or walking and praying. Walking a labyrinth can be a prayerful act, as you deliberately focus on the spiritual journey. Another example of body prayer is the Dances of Universal Peace, a dance tradition in their own right, designed to engender peace and love in the participants; another example is the Salute to the Sun found in Yoga (which is a sacred Hindu practice designed to stimulate spiritual growth).

What is the purpose of prayer? I don’t think it is only for the benefit of the deity being prayed to. I think it is for the benefit of the one doing the praying. The practice of mindfulness, of cultivating awareness of the greater life of the universe, and of examining our own conscience, and being aware of the suffering and joy of others – these are beneficial for the soul.

In the Wiccan text The Charge of the Goddess, Doreen Valiente wrote,

“Arise and come unto me. For I am the soul of Nature, who gives life to the Universe. From me, all things proceed and unto me all things must return; and before my face, beloved of Gods and men, let thine innermost divine self be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.”

To “be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite” expresses very well for me what contemplative prayer feels like. (Your mileage may vary.)

Ceisiwr Serith produced A Book of Pagan Prayer, which is an excellent starting point if you are new to this practice. The books suggests a lot of different types of prayer, and to many different deities.

Prayer can be personal and private, or collective. When sharing a prayer with others, it can be difficult to express your theological viewpoint without excluding others.  One proposed solution is to say “this is a prayer from my tradition” and perhaps invite people to “translate in their heads” if it does not quite work for them.

There are prayers in many different Pagan traditions, including devotional polytheism, Feri, Reclaiming, Wicca, Druidry, and many others. The theological stance of these prayers may vary from monism to ‘hard’ polytheism. A prayer does not have to be to a deity; you can also pray to spirits of place, or commune with Nature. I do not think there is anything wrong with adapting prayers to fit your own theology (as long as you state your sources, to avoid plagiarism, if you are praying the prayer in public).

You don’t have to close your eyes or kneel down to pray. Many people (e.g. Eastern Orthodox Christians) pray with their eyes open and their hands extended to indicate that they recognise the divine in the world.  You could experiment with different positions. Some traditions use prayer beads; there are some lovely Pagan prayer beads available.

A prayer can be nothing more than time taken to set an intention for the day, or to contemplate the day’s events before going to sleep. It can be time spent communing with a deity, or holding others that you care about in your awareness and wishing them well. It can take place at your personal altar, or just in your head. It can be spoken or unspoken, formal or informal, and involve stillness or movement. It can involve descending into your own depths to find a connection with all-that-is; or it can be reaching out to a deity or spirit of place; or some other process. Different people experience it differently.

Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine

Metaphors for religion are tricky things, especially when we try to stretch them and make them work too hard by trying to turn them into analogies. One very popular metaphor for explaining religious diversity is the idea that we are all walking different paths up the same mountain. However, many people are coming to believe (myself included) that we are in fact all walking up different mountains.

I had noted down the title of this post, and not got into writing it yet, when I saw that John Halstead has written an excellent post entitled which also suggests that we are in fact all walking up different mountains.

Moraine Lake, Rocky Mountains

Valley of the Ten Peaks and Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Canada.
Mountains from left to right: Tonsa (3057 m), Mount Perren (3051 m), Mount Allen (3310 m), Mount Tuzo (3246 m), Deltaform Mountain (3424 m), Neptuak Mountain (3233 m). Photo by Gorgo.

The title of my post is inspired by the saying in the kink community, “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s OK” – in other words, diversity is acknowledged and celebrated.

I wonder if we actually each have our very own mountain – not just a different mountain for each tradition and religion and denomination, but personal mountains. Maybe our mountains are on the same mountain range, or on the same continent; maybe they are on different continents. And of course continents move around as the tectonic plates shift; new mountain ranges are created, new continents formed. The Pagan continent (like the mythical Atlantis) was submerged for a while, but now it has re-emerged, and we can explore it again, with its polytheist mountain range, its monist mountain range, its pantheist mountain range, and other geological formations. The Pagan continent also has magic portals or bridges to the Quaker realm, the Unitarian Universalist realm, the Taoist realm, the Buddhist realm, the Hindu realm, etc, or maybe whole regions of CUUPs people and Quaker Pagans, and Jewitches. Of course, being a Pagan sacred landscape, there are no centres, or centres everywhere, and no periphery (unless you want a bit of liminality). And there’s nothing to stop you exploring the other continents, or even settling for a while on one of them, as long as the inhabitants are friendly.

Indeed, who’s to say we are all climbing up mountains? Maybe some of us are exploring lush valleys, hanging out in the forest, taking a dip in the ocean, building a beautiful eco-village, or whatever takes your fancy. You can define your own journey, you can walk (or run or hop whilst whistling Dixie) on a predefined path, or discover your own bit of the lush Pagan continent. There is room for all. If I choose to decorate my sacred landcape with shrines to Oðinn, Ishtar, Shiva, and Shakti, and P Sufenas Virius Lupus chooses to decorate eir bit of landscape with shrines to Antinous, and someone else decorates theirs with shrines to the NeoPlatonic Divine Source, that’s all good.

And if you don’t like this metaphor for Pagan religions, it’s only a metaphor, so pick another one, or invent your own.

A while back, I wrote a meditation on religions as trees in a forest, which also emphasises the diversity of religious responses to the world:

The trees and the forest, by Yvonne Aburrow

As we sit in the quiet of the evening, breathing softly, each with our own particular concerns, let us be aware of our common humanity. Each of us has our own hidden wellspring of joy, our own experience of sorrow, our unique perspective on deities and their relationship with the world.

Let us celebrate the diversity of dreams and visions.

Think of the trees in the woods: each grows into its individual shape to fit its particular place and the events that have shaped its growth, but each is recognisable as one of a species: oak, birch, holly, maple, yew, beech, hawthorn.

Religions are like that too: each has its own unique characteristics, shaped by place, culture and history; but all of them have their roots in the fertile soil of human experience, and all seek the living waters of divinity.

Let us honour the beauty and diversity of religions in the world, whilst loving and cherishing our own particular visions and traditions, recognising that we too are rooted in our common humanity, all seeking the nourishment of the endless outpouring of love and wisdom that we call by many names, all of them holy.