Erotic Religion: The Body and Sex for Wiccans and Pagans

This post is part of the October Patheos Public Square on “The Spirituality of Sex.” Every religious tradition has rules—spoken and unspoken—around sexuality, and sacred texts come into play as these rules are navigated in dating and marriage. What does your faith tradition really say about the meaning of our sexuality and sexual activity? What role does sex play in the life of the spirit?


Witchcraft traditions such as Wicca are highly visible in the Pagan movement when it comes to sexuality and sexual activity. Though Pagan traditions in general see the body as a blessing, they hold a variety of views on what the proper relationship is between sexuality and spirituality. Wiccans and other witches, however, embrace the holiness of sexuality as a central religious principle.

“The Charge of the Goddess,” penned by Wiccan priestess Doreen Valiente (1922-1999), is a piece of liturgy so powerful that its influence has reached far outside Wicca into spiritual feminism, the sex-positive community, and contemporary Paganism as a whole. When used in ritual, the Charge is spoken by a priestess who is embodying the presence of the Goddess. She says:

And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise.…

Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. (DoreenValiente.org)

An ~11,000-year-old figurine thought to depict a pair of lovers. British Museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

An ~11,000-year-old figurine thought to depict a pair of lovers. British Museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. (CC-BY 2.5)

Many Wiccans and witches believe that all things contain a primal energy or vital life force that moves within and among them. This energy is most easily experienced through sexual activity, especially when it is raised with spiritual intent. Through their sexual intimacy, practitioners can participate in a primal moment of creation: a moment when two divine forces or beings—imagined as a many-gendered God/dess making love with her mirror reflection; or a lunar Goddess and a solar God; or a genderless yin and yang, nothing and something—communed together in an erotic union whose vibrations continue to animate the universe.

Sexuality is a particularly dramatic way to experience the flow of life force, but for some Wiccans and witches, it is not the only way. Sensual communion with nature and nonsexual touch are also places where spiritual energy can flow between two or more beings. To emphasize that this embodied, intimate flow of life force contains sexuality but is broader than sexuality, I use the term eros or the erotic.

I first encountered the idea of the erotic as a spiritual force in Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance (1979). In the 1980s, this important book of ecofeminist witchcraft was many Pagans’ introduction to Paganism and Goddess religion, as well as to the idea that the body and sexuality are holy. In her introduction to the 1999 edition of the book, Starhawk emphasized that the erotic should not be understood solely in terms of heterosexual or reproductive sexuality, nor necessarily always in terms of pairs (as opposed to individuals or groups). Instead, eros is a relational force that is found throughout nature and within the self. She writes:

Sexual reproduction is an elegant method of ensuring maximum biological diversity. […] But to take one particular form of sexual union as the model for the whole is to limit ourselves unfairly. If we could, instead, take the whole as the model for the part, then whomever or whatever we choose to love, even if it ourselves in our solitude, all our acts of love and pleasure could reflect the union of leaf and sun, the wheeling dance of galaxies, or the slow swelling of bud to fruit. (The Spiral Dance 1999, 20-21)

Starhawk is in good company in understanding eros as both an individual and a cosmic principle. Her idea of the erotic echoes other the views of other theologians and spiritual writers of the twentieth century. To name just a few: psychologist and mystic C.G. Jung saw eros as the foundational principle of all relationship; feminist visionary Audre Lorde characterized the erotic an embodied impulse toward pleasure and holistic community flourishing; and progressive Christian theologians Carter Heyward and Marvin Ellison understand eros as a divine principle of desirous connection that motivates justice-making.

Perhaps because of the theology that “all acts of love and pleasure are [Her] rituals,” Wiccans, witches, and many other Pagans are often more accepting of sexual minorities and unusual sexual behaviors than is society at large. When sociologist Helen Berger surveyed American Pagans in the early 2000s, about 28% of Pagans identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual—a much larger percentage than in the United States overall. LGBTQ Pagans can be found in positions of religious leadership in many different Pagan traditions today, and many traditions have rituals to celebrate same-sex partnerships and even group marriages (for Pagans who practice polyamory, a form of ethical nonmonogamy). Such rituals may sacralize temporary partnerships—for example, for a year and a day, at the end of which the commitment may be renewed—while other rituals formalize a lifetime partnership, or even a commitment to seek one another in a future life.

Pagans usually consider sexual activity to be ethical if it is consensual, between adults, and does no harm. Today, Pagans are having important conversations about how to ensure valid consent to sexual activity, as well as exploring the impact of individuals’ sexual behavior on their communities. Because inequality—based on race, class, gender, gender identity, and other factors—is an unavoidable part of living in our society, Pagans struggle with questions about how to best navigate power differentials in romantic and sexual relationships.

Pagan traditions challenge religious traditions that see the body as sinful or as a prison for the soul. Although celebration of sexuality is most central for Wiccans and other witches, sexual freedom and community harmony are important values for many Pagans. Accordingly, the Pagan movement continues to welcome LGBTQ people and other sexual minorities who find themselves unwelcome in their birth religions. For Pagans of many paths, the body is an important site of religious practice, a place in which we can meet divinity flesh to flesh and heart to heart.

Find out more:

City of Refuge, by Starhawk (Book Review)

[Please note: spoilers ahead, especially for the prequel, The Fifth Sacred Thing.]

City of RefugeWhen I bought my copy of City of Refuge, I was trying to have low expectations. I can only imagine that writing a sequel to a well-received, bestselling book like The Fifth Sacred Thing more than twenty years after its initial publication must have been an intimidating task. Would the sequel remain true to the characters we loved the first time around? Would the story still resonate despite changes in our political climate? Would the book simply come off as too idealistic for me—now twenty years older myself—to take it seriously?

Well, I lost a lot of sleep the week I read it. I didn’t stay up all night, because I am the parent of a toddler and I value my sanity; but I stayed up till the wee hours four nights in a row because I was desperate to learn what happened next. Dare I say it? I could barely put it down.

Now, I’ll admit that neither City of Refuge nor The Fifth Sacred Thing is going to win prizes as literary fiction. The Fifth Sacred Thing suffers from the didactic, “teachy/preachy” quality that’s typical of utopian/dystopia sci-fi. The book’s setting is drawn in broad strokes: the United States government has collapsed and its remnants are controlled by a corrupt, fundamentalist, militaristic Christian sect. The land once known as California is in severe drought, and water is a scarce resource. But within the border of the former San Francisco, witches and other community-oriented, earth-loving people have formed a lovely but fragile consensus-based society that is harmoniously integrated into the local ecosystem.

Starhawk uses the metaphor of homeopathy to suggest that a tiny, representative fragment of a just society, when inserted into an unhealthy society at the right place and time, can have a healing effect that ripples out from the point of contact. In The Fifth Sacred Thing, this principle describes how the peaceful people of former San Francisco survive an army invasion and, after terrible and bloody loss of life through nonviolence resistance, convert the ill-treated soldiers to their side. In City of Refuge, this metaphor continues as main characters Bird and Madrone travel to the crumbling metropolis of former Los Angeles. There, while the converted army turns and marches on its former masters, they attempt to set up a safe place for refugees from the city who would otherwise be executed or slain.

City of Refuge is still a utopian/dystopian novel. It has parts where characters lecture each other in order to get across important background information about economics, permaculture, pedagogy, and other issues. Yet it does its teaching more smoothly and with more self-awareness than The Fifth Sacred Thing. The Fifth Sacred Thing was written by an activist in her forties whose daily work included regular direct action—no doubt an intense and polarizing place from which to write. City of Refuge was written by that same activist in her sixties, and seemingly from a place of greater reflection and humility.

At an American Academy of Religion conference I attended about five years ago, Starhawk spoke about her work with the Occupy movement. She remarked on the potentially insurmountable challenges that Occupy faced in its attempt to exclusively use a consensus-based decision-making process. As she wrote in her blog around the same time:

Sitting down in the public square to Occupy and protest an unjust system attracted the very people most impacted by the injustice, some of whom are badly wounded in ways that make it very hard to organize and live together.  When your own needs are overwhelming, and unfulfilled, it’s hard to see that other people might also have needs.  When you’ve had no voice, and somebody offers you a platform to speak and an audience, it can be hard to step back after your allotted two minutes and let others speak.  When you’ve dulled your pain for years with drink or drugs, you can’t easily go cold turkey and stop using. […Consensus] requires someone with a linear thinking mind to facilitate, who can keep a kind of outline in their head of topics, subtopics, points A B C and D.  When people come to it with the pent-up anger of years of disempowerment, it can simply compound frustration.  When the voices in your head compel you to tell the world about the impending arrival of the Space Brothers with the Mysterious Blue Geodes and you theory about how it all relates to the Mayan Calendar, being told you’re off topic just doesn’t cut it.

The idealism of City of Refuge is noticeably tempered with real-world experience. Consensus works pretty well in a well-fed group of people who have been trained their whole lives to use it; but what about on the streets with a group of starving strangers, some of whom are in poor mental and physical health and all of whom are scared and angry? There are moments when Bird and Madrone’s project simply goes off the rails, and there is no magical solution, no deus ex machina to make things right.

People die a lot in City of Refuge: adults and teenagers and children. The book presents problems to which there are no solutions, at least not in this storyline. And although there are moments of hope—perhaps even a “happy” ending—some threads are simply left unraveled.

The book also has moments of black humor that warn the audience against reading it or its prequels as strictly ideological. The Fifth Sacred Thing used nonviolent resistance as a central plot point, and many readers have assumed that Starhawk is rigidly committed to nonviolent protest. In City of Refuge, however, Maya—the character whose life story most resembles Starhawk’s—states firmly that she was never a pacifist. When challenged on her past advocacy for nonviolence as a response to invasion, she snaps, “That was a vision. I never claimed it was dogma for all occasions.”

Later, when a group of enslaved farmers is being liberated, we have what initially looks like a stereotypical utopian/dystopian teaching moment: a farmer asks how they will run the farm without hierarchy, and a member of the liberating army launches into an explanation of collective ownership. Rather than listening avidly, however—as one would expect if this were a typical scene in the genre—the starving, exhausted farmers talk amongst themselves, cry, or stare off into space in total shock. The lecture falls on deaf ears—a lesson, perhaps, in the need to give ideology second place behind compassionate response to human need.

This is what I mean when I say that City of Refuge is humble. It is not a book that present itself as knowing the answers to climate change, racism, classism, sexism, religious intolerance, or economic exploitation. Its beautiful witch heroes are compelling, but they are also sometimes naïve, wrong, or just plain foolish. Its villains, in turn, are not wholly evil, though some are quite bad; in fact, some apparent villains turn out to be needed allies for the liberating army. City of Refuge does not present situations or people in black and white terms. It acknowledges brokenness and does not always insist that that brokenness be fixed. Instead, it allows for love, and for uncertainty.

City of Refuge portrays earth-based spirituality, permaculture, sacred sexuality, nonhierarchical decision-making, collective ownership, and other politically-charged concepts. As an engaging novel, it is an enjoyable way to introduce yourself or a loved one to these ideas—and in that way, it serves an ideological purpose. However—and this is what makes City of Refuge so much better than many utopian/dystopian novels—it refuses to present these ideas rigidly or dogmatically. City of Refuge is deeper than a simple dramatization of Starhawk’s politics. For that reason, this book belongs not just in the hands of Pagans or activists, but in the hands of any reader who is struggling with the realities of this frightening historical moment. Humbly, City of Refuge offers us not simple answers, but instead a variety of ways forward to explore and perhaps make our own.

 

Occupy Spirituality: Reflections from a Once and Future Activist

Occupy SpiritualityOccupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation
Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox
North Atlantic Books, 2013

 

Matthew Fox and Adam Bucko make me feel old.

That’s kind of funny, considering both are older than me (Fox by decades). Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this book put me in mind of a younger version of myself, one who burned white-hot to make the world a better place and was willing to bend the course of her entire life to that end.

It’s not that I no longer have an activist heart. I do. But it surprised me to be technically part of the youth generation addressed by this book—a generation of young people viscerally angry at the failures of consumer capitalism and organized religion, whom Bucko and Fox see as standing ready to take up their true vocations, form communities of alternative values, and enact (on a small scale, at least at first) a new vision of spiritual democracy. I’m 34 and a mother-to-be; this book speaks to me as I was ten years ago, when I worried less about paying my bills and life seemed to hold infinite possibilities.

This isn’t my first encounter with Matthew Fox, an earth-centered Christian theologian who, on account of his radical activist theology, was once silenced for fourteen months by the Pope and ultimately ejected from the Dominican order. In my early twenties, I attended a Creation Spirituality-centered, GLBT-welcoming Methodist church that did its best to act on Fox’s vision of a prophetic activism founded in mysticism and creativity. I still have amazing memories of attending one of Fox’s Cosmic Masses, where we prayed at gorgeous three-dimensional elemental altars, passed the peace to hundreds of others while moving in a spiral, listened to Fox give a truly trippy homily about light, and finally danced like angels and demons to trance music under laser lights.

I later found my way into the Reclaiming tradition of witchcraft, which similarly believes that sustainable, healthy activism requires a steady diet of joy to maintain. (Fox, in fact, has worked extensively with Reclaiming co-founder Starhawk, and he mentions her admiringly more than once in this book.) During that period of my life, I did extensive activism opposing the racism of the drug war, protested the war in Iraq, marched in Gay Pride and MLK Day parades emphasizing civil liberties, wrote endless letters to my elected representatives, and chose a career (the academic study of religion) that I thought would give me maximum opportunity to promote tolerance, pluralism, equality, and peace.

Fast-forward as the restrictions of adult life set in. As it turns out, there are few academic jobs available these days, and what jobs remain are a shadow of the professorships of the past: low pay, intense competition, insanely heavy workloads, and schools that increasingly care more about the financial bottom line than education made me abandon my intention of working in academia proper. I also moved across the country for graduate school and lost the religious community that had been part of the support for my activist spirit. As it turns out, it is much harder to form one’s own group than to join a thriving one. For several years, my friends and I did our best to form a local Reclaiming community that would both feed our spiritual needs and provide a vehicle for political activism. And people did come to our rituals and workshops; they even donated money when we asked, but we never were able to grow the core group that was actually doing all the work. Between that and the intense stresses of grad school, I learned the true meaning of burnout.

After graduate school, I did a lot of re-evaluating and reshaped my life so that *I* would be fed first. I’d realized I couldn’t be of service to anyone else unless I was healthy, so I made a number of changes. I went to massage school, both to seek my own healing, and so that I would have a second career path to support myself (and indeed, massage therapy was my major source of income for several years). I sought deeper training and initiation in a non-Wiccan witchcraft tradition focused on self-development and acknowledged that, for the moment, I needed to pull back somewhat from the leadership roles I had tended to take on in religious community. Although I continued to volunteer my time with Cherry Hill Seminary, an online seminary dedicated to providing graduate-level and community education for Pagan leaders, I mostly stopped teaching spiritual workshops or leading public rituals. And, finally, I cut my expenses so I could choose only jobs that I both believed in and that compensated me appropriately. Over the past few years, I’ve worked for a series of humanitarian, religious, and educational organizations without much having to compromise my values.

At this point in my life, I’m not out hitting the street in protest. I give money to worthy organizations; I write the odd letter to my representative; I encourage the writers I work with at Patheos to highlight important issues and try to bring those issues to the attention of our audience. But fundamentally, my concerns now are about family, health, and home, about the container into which my husband and I are bringing a child. I think a great deal about poverty, racism, homelessness, and the web of power and privilege in which I find myself; I think a lot about how to have good relationships with my neighbors when I live somewhere that, most of the time, mine is the only white face to be seen. But these days, I am much more concerned with logistics than vision.

Someday, though, I’m going to be ready to dream and vision again, and Occupy Spirituality is a book that can stoke that inner fire. Based around Fox’s “deep ecumenism,” its approach is inherently interfaith, with Fox and Bucko frequently acknowledging the contributions of Buddhist, Hindu, Indigenous, Christian, and Jewish thinkers to their thought. Their vision of a just economy, notably, includes not just human well-being, but also what Fox calls the “more than human” – animals, plants, the ocean, the land. Fox and Bucko recommend a new spirituality for activist communities, inspired by contemplative monasticism but with contemporary values:

  1. Instead of a vow of poverty, a vow to create a just economy;
  2. Instead of a vow of obedience, a vow of democracy and collaboration;
  3. Instead of a vow of celibacy, a vow of sexual responsibility and ethical parenting.

As the subtitle acknowledges (“A Radical Vision for a New Generation”), this book is more about vision than about logistics. Appropriately for this post, however, long-time Pagan activist Starhawk can provide a nuts-and-bolts counterpoint to Fox and Bucko’s radical vision. Although Fox and Bucko have very much been in the trenches of social injustice (Bucko currently works with homeless youth in New York City, for example), their dialogue in this book tends to focus on broad issues. Not so Starhawk, who freely acknowledges that the radical inclusivity of the Occupy movement raised some difficult and specific challenges: in her speech at the American Academy of Religion in 2011, she quipped, “The Occupy movement sometimes seems to be entirely composed of raving drunks and former student body presidents” (listen around 28:00 in the linked audio; her discussion of group dynamics begins around 17:00).

While protesting for economic and social change, the Occupy movement encountered the challenges of mental illness, addiction, trauma, and the long-term effects of homelessness among its members and in society at large. Just prior to the birth of the Occupy movement, Starhawk put out a book called The Empowerment Manual that addresses some of the difficulties of collaborative group dynamics – and how-to manuals like it are equally as important as Bucko and Fox’s prophetic community vision when it comes to building a positive future.

I opened by saying that Occupy Spirituality made me feel old. But I know that there will be a future when my children are no longer small, and with my own needs and desires firmly in mind, I will expand my efforts to create communities of alternative values beyond my household and the circle of influence created by my job. For now, it’s been good to remember how brightly that inner fire can burn—and when I’m ready, Fox and Bucko’s vision will still be waiting.

 

Recommended Follow-Up Reading

“The Occupy Movement: Drumbeats of Change”
The encampments are now gone. But the things that were born in them survive.
By Rebecca Solnit, 9/15/13, LA Times

“Spirituality: Where Seriousness and Playfulness Meet”
How do how do the patterns and practices of the Occupy Generation differ from those of New Age spirituality?
By Matthew Fox, Christ Path Seminar