Postcards from Beyond the Edge of the Circle

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Are We Really a "Nature" Religion?

The organizers of Pagan political causes keep writing to me, asking (nay -- demanding) that I lend my support to various environmental protests, demonstrations, and campaigns -- on the grounds that we Pagans are supposed to be ‘stewards’ or ‘caretakers’ of Mother Earth -- and, as such, we have a religious duty to ‘walk the talk’ and engage fully in ecological activism.

Sez who?

More to the point -- who was the first to say so? And what was the process by which these beliefs (and demands) became the water in which today’s Pagans are swimming?

IMO, and FWIW, the people who rallied, with me, around the ribbon-bedecked May Pole of modern Pagan Witchcraft in the early 1960s were primarily hedonists. Many of us, it's true, were interested in ecology and environmentalism. But all were there, I believe, to fuel the fires of a religiosity that claimed 'all acts of love and pleasure' as its sacraments.

Over the following 15-plus years, considerable thought went into the development of an ethical system in support of this effort. A new system, now called the Expressive Ethical Style, evolved to replace obedience or self-interest as the motivations for human behavior with an ethic of impulse ('follow your feelings'), self-expression ('let it all hang out'), and situational appropriateness ('go with the flow'; 'different strokes for different folks').

Replacing the goal of self-preservation with self-awareness, this new ethical style encouraged relaxed non-analytical attention to the present situation ('be here now'), in order to meet the newly reified obligations of universal love and mutual non-injury.

But then the 80s began. And some writers, new to the field, began making rather strident announcements to the contrary. First, if this was a religion that worshiped Goddesses, and if all Goddesses must therefore be one Goddess, then this one Goddess must be the Goddess of Nature. Veneration of the Maiden (romance) and the Crone (wisdom) was scorned in favor of a kind of feminist monotheism -- worship of the Mother -- Mother Nature.

Next, it was declared that all historical Goddesses (those about which something was actually known, and from whose myths ethical insights might be gained) were hopelessly tainted by 'the patriarchy', and that only those (imaginary Goddesses of pre-literate civilizations were worthy of worship.

Established Pagan ethical ideals (esp 'harm none') were acknowledged in passing, but deemed naive and insufficient. We were not to burden ourselves with such considerations, especially if they prevented us from enacting the emergency measures necessary to protect the (now sacred) environment from those who disagreed with our visions for its preservation.

And as for 'all acts of love and pleasure', well you can just forget about them. In this instance, 'harm none' was extended, and radically so, to disallow any behavior that had ever caused harm, or was believed even theoretically capable of causing harm -- especially to members of a new 'victimhood elite' -- those capable of concocting fictive (or, as Chas Clifton once put it, 'cheerfully ahistorical') narratives of past oppression.

From this point onward, there'd be no wine in that chalice. Nor would any wand or athame be welcome there either. So there!

I object. I have only the greatest reverence for the Goddess as Mother -- but as part of a polytheistic constellation in which Maiden & Crone are included. I have no argument with the sacral nature of Nature -- that Nature is imbued with the divine -- as long as no one insists that Nature (esp as 'the environment') IS the divine.

I want to see a return to our original Pagan spirituality, in which the genuine Pagan deities of the past are studied with reverence and care -- hopefully to provide us with insight into the polytheistic worldviews that predated the Abrahamic religions. And I’d like to encourage study of the concocted deities of the past couple of decades in order to better understand the inner nature of the political, spiritual, and psychological environment that produced them.

I propose a return to our roots. Those who wish to pursue environmentalism (or feminism, etc) are welcome, now as then. But they could just as easily find a home -- quite a comfortable spiritual niche -- in any number of mainstream religions. IMO, what makes Paganism unique, what distinguishes it from these other established religious paths, is its enthusiastic embracing of a sybaritic worldview -- along with the focus and energy to continue (or resume) work on an ethical system (see above) that would support such a way of spiritual life.

Anybody interested?

Raise your hand and shake your bells.

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A co-founder of California's NROOGD trad and a 50-year veteran of the Pagan scene, Fritz Muntean has an MA in Religious Studies from the U of British Columbia. While a grad student, he founded "The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies" and edited it until 2003. Fritz continues to work promote Pagan scholarship and the academic study of Craft organization and theology. Now retired and living in Vancouver, he's surrounded by children and grandchildren, and has recently taken up knitting.

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  • Betsy D. Sauther
    Betsy D. Sauther Thursday, 30 January 2014

    Thanks Fritz, for your blog!

  • Henry Buchy
    Henry Buchy Friday, 31 January 2014

    heh, "I feel your pain", as the saying goes...

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Friday, 31 January 2014

    Excellent observations there Fritz. I couldn't have said it better myself. I find the poorly thought out "religious" zeal of left wing political agendas irritating at best. I have also been called "not a pagan" for failing to support their politics. Pagan is a religion and cultural way of life, not a left wing political campaign. I agree completely and its good to see other elder men expressing the same concerns. Blessings.

  • Fritz Muntean
    Fritz Muntean Friday, 31 January 2014

    Thanks, Greybeard. But do keep in mind that I'm critiquing the idea of Paganism as 'nature religion' FROM a leftist perspective. I'm a devout and dedicated leftist; a red diaper baby. My grandfather (1885-1975) was a CIO organizer and shop steward, and I'm a veteran of the Freedom Ride and SNCC. I'm also a scholar of religious history, and I'm appalled at the puritanical, right-wing drift that's resulted from Paganism's (misguided IMO) efforts to become a full-service 'family' religion.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Sunday, 02 February 2014

    Excellent points. They help to explain my discomfort with the "Nature IS the Divine" attitude when I read that in the 1960's our government was considering plans to blow up the Moon. (It turned out that this was an exaggeration; it was only proposing to set off an atomic bomb ON the Moon. But this still raises the logical question, "If the Goddess IS the Moon, would She die if the Moon were destroyed by men? If so - then how could She be a Goddess?" I also note that Isaac Asimov's futuristic vision of the human race was that we would live in technologically-sufficient Caves of Steel (having supposedly totally destroyed all of the natural environment), with no national parks or even personal pets anymore - only robots to keep us company. I don't look forward to such a world, but the point is that Paganism could not survive in such a scenario unless the Gods and Goddesses are MORE than Nature. And then, of course, we are faced with the scientific indication that someday our Sun will expand to engulf the Earth and put an end to all life here. Will the Gods die, too, with the dying of plant and animal life - i.e., the destruction of Nature? How could they? They are THE GODS! They will simply start it all up again on multiple new planets, if they haven't already done so. As you express so well, "Nature is imbued with the divine -- as long as no one insists that Nature (esp as 'the environment') IS the divine."

    The Maiden and the Crone, especially, represent the deepest yearnings and achievements of the Human reality - no matter what our environment will be. Keep the Faith, Baby. If it feels good, do it! Right on.

  • sindra
    sindra Sunday, 02 February 2014

    I found a few issues with the overall post, though not many. Mostly the problems I found were in that it homogenizes Paganism into one singular spiritual and/or religious entity when it's definitely not. Another issue I had was the part where the author said "I want to see a return to our original Pagan spirituality, in which the genuine Pagan deities of the past are studied with reverence and care -- hopefully to provide us with insight into the polytheistic worldviews that predated the Abrahamic religions." While we're on the subject of history and historical accuracy, let me just remind everyone that ONLY Hinduism, Kemeticism, and proto-Britannic cultural religions predate the first Abrahamic religion of Judaism. Hinduism being not only NOT a Pagan religion, but also being the only one on that list that is still considered living and did not have to be reconstructed from archaeological evidence after the death and/or assimilation of its established parent culture. So really if you want to "see a return to our original Pagan spirituality [...and...] the polytheistic worldviews that predated the Abrahamic religions." then you'd better start converting to what Ancient Egyptian religious practices have been converted.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
    P. Sufenas Virius Lupus Monday, 03 February 2014

    Where did you hear that, Sindra? There were lots of polytheistic cultures that existed before Judaism...and, "Judaism as a monotheistic religion" (which is a massive overstatement, because it's more henotheistic than anything) only really exists post-Babylonian exile, c. 5th century BCE. Homer, Hesiod, and Sappho are older than that...and Rome traces its founding to the mid-8th c. BCE. If you think that the "history" provided by Judaism itself, taken up by Christianity, and often endorsed by modern historians as history is actual history (rather than myth), then sure, "Abraham" and Moses and co. predate the literate emergence of some other polytheistic religious cultures, but the pre-literate periods of them (while inaccessible to us) do not preclude the existence of their gods, their cultural practices, or their religious ideas. Cybele as a goddess may go all the way back to Catal Huyuk, for example, which is even before the emergence of the Vedas or the great pyramids.

    If you're using literacy as a criterion here, then you'd have to exclude the "proto-Britannic" peoples from the list entirely, as we don't have Celtic inscriptions on the Continent or in the Insular realms until well after Greece, Rome, and henotheistic Judaism emerge.

  • sindra
    sindra Wednesday, 05 February 2014

    Is there evidence of these cultures existing prior? Yes, some of them to some extents. However, I'm going off the archaeological dates for when their cultural spiritual systems leveled off in development and can be considered "solid". Before then I have doubts of considering them established systems whereas Judaism, Kemeticism, and Hinduism at the very least were established and rather solidified around the same time (3,000 - 3,500 c. BCE and before). You're corect in the Proto-Brittanic assessment though. We have no records (though it's important to note that "Celtic" is not a culture- it's a classification for several different and widey varying tribes of the area. There is no homogenized "Celtic Culture" though). of a solidified culture that practiced an established system, but there's archaeological evidence of a semi-established group believed to be/ coloquially called the proto-celts that existed in the area around the same time as the Kemetic establishment dates back to. I should not have, however, used them in the example.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
    P. Sufenas Virius Lupus Wednesday, 05 February 2014

    Where are you getting your dates on Judaism, Sindra? "Judaism" as a henotheistic system somewhat similar to what it is now, with the Temple Cult still intact (of course), dates from no earlier than the 5th c. BCE. Everything before that is conjecture and historicized mythology; and, even after the date given above, it seems many of the common people still had Asherah shrines in their houses up to the period of the final diaspora of the Jews in the mid-2nd c. CE.

    So, Greek and Roman systems long predate that, as do the Hittites, the Syro-Phoenicians/Canaanites, the Gauls, the Celtiberians, the Lepontic Celts, etc.

    I actually have a Ph.D. in Celtic Civilizations, so I know there never has been a united Celtic culture, but instead several different strands of culture descending from a common stock of similar groups (which is what the linguistic situation appears to be, in any case).

    Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of bad information out there on a lot of these topics.

  • sindra
    sindra Wednesday, 05 February 2014

    I'm not quite sure. I'll try to find my source for you when I have some more time to dig through my hard drive. In the meantime though, if you have any sources you feel are adequate and are willing to pass along I'd love to get a look at them. If my information's wrong like you say it is (and I believe it may be) it would be nice to look at the resources you'd recommend so I know I'm getting decent information this time.

  • sindra
    sindra Wednesday, 05 February 2014

    Not unless I've been completely misinterpreting everything I've ever read- though I won't say that's not a possibility. There's always a possibility to misinterpret something no matter how well you think you read it.

  • sindra
    sindra Wednesday, 05 February 2014

    Common sense is "good sense and sound judgment in practical matters"; making sound decisions concerning something simple. You learn that stoves are hot and cause pain an injury to bare flesh when touched. You know that pot holders protect ones hands from such heat. Common sense would be to take these two bits of information, and deduce the simple idea that wearing pot holders while handling hot cooking dishes would be a good idea- and then wear them... Likewise, you know jumping off a bridge could lead to personal injury and death. Common sense is knowing jumping would potentially be a very, very, very bad idea.

    It is deductive reasoning and logic concerning simple non-academic, every day things. It is, for lack of better terminology maybe (or maybe not) "street smarts" to some regard- vs the alternative "book smarts" which focuses on material learned in academic environments whereas "street smarts" and common sense are often learned through general every day living.

    Common sense doesn't tell you the earth revolves around the sun. Scientific evidence and theory does. If you were to look up at the sky, without the aid of scientific materials it would take a lot of evaluation to come up with the idea that the earth revolved round the sun. Human history is proof of that, and hundreds of years ago we thought the sun revolved around the earth. By your example (and Mark Twain's words) it would therefore have been considered "common sense" back then to think that the sun revolved around the earth, so I don't believe Mark Twain necessarily had it correct in that regard.

    Anyways, in terms of "Still, if you can think of anywhere -- other than "a university, academic, or otherwise structured learning environment" -- where this is possible, please let us know." I think that community is a good option. Seminars, community gettogethers, "weekend worships", workshops, general gatherings, interfaith groups, interest groups, etc. Anywhere where peers are is an opportunity for continued dialogue, even if the gathering is not education oriented specifically.

    Learning does not always have to take place in a structured learning environment and Academia has proven itself intolerably elitist in a lot of regards that end up shutting down or stunting discussion on certain subjects. That's not to say that Academia isn't a viable option- we can learn a lot from structured learning environments too. It's that we should not discount the non-structured learning environments and their value or uphold one as better or more suitable than another. IMO, BOTH are necessary and both the formal and informal learning environments- and the different types of continued growth and discussion they offer- are equally important for a well-rounded education no matter what the level or scope of education.

  • Fritz Muntean
    Fritz Muntean Wednesday, 05 February 2014

    I think we can discount 'common sense'. As Mark Twain said, "Common sense is what tells you the sun revolves around the earth."
    But you're right about the need to interact with peers; to submit your interpretations to criticism, to discover viewpoints you may have missed.
    Still, if you can think of anywhere -- other than "a university, academic, or otherwise structured learning environment" -- where this is possible, please let us know.
    Starhawk, in an interview in Gnosis Magazine some years ago, stated that university courses were not suitable for studying about 'the Goddess'. Weekend workshops were far preferable. Mainly, one assumes, because weekend workshops are 'one-way' teacher-to-student affairs. While, in contrast, university courses (beyond lower division catch-up-with-what-you-used-to-learn-in-high-school courses) are places of 'continued dialogue and discussion', and (heaven knows) belief in the Prehistoric Paradise of the Goddess can't stand up to much of THAT!

  • sindra
    sindra Wednesday, 05 February 2014

    Not necessarily. The failing comes less from one's own reflective ability and capabilities in areas (other than learning how to get good information in the first place, and common sense), and more from a lack of opportunity to ask questions or discuss amongst peers in order to ensure you are correctly interpreting the source material- or to see if there are any viewpoints you may have missed before drawing a final conclusion involving that source material; it takes continued dialogue and discussion- and therefore the ability and environment for continued growth. None of which necessarily require a university, academic, or otherwise structured learning environment.

  • Fritz Muntean
    Fritz Muntean Wednesday, 05 February 2014

    Misinterpreting what's been read is an all-too-common failing of the autodidact. In order for self-education to function properly (or even well) autodidacts must possess self-discipline and reflective capability -- as well as the ability to apply specific methodologies -- study traits usually learned in a university setting. Some research suggests that being able to regulate one’s own learning is something which must be modeled to students, for it is not a natural human tendency for the population at large.

  • Fritz Muntean
    Fritz Muntean Monday, 03 February 2014

    Good point, Sindra.
    I should have discriminated more carefully/clearly between Modern (aka 'Contemporary') Paganism -- a New Religious Movement -- and Classical or 'historical' paganisms, of which (as you correctly point out) there are many. In scholarly writing, this difference is most often indicated by capitalizing the former (big 'P') and not the latter (small 'p').
    It would also have helped if I had also written "the genuine Graeco-Roman pagan deities of our own cultural past."
    My intent was to distinguish between those deities that come down to us through the compelling narratives of antiquity (aka 'myths') versus those that have been more recently concocted for modern social/political purposes. IMO, these latter would include not only the many fictive 'Goddesses' spun off by the Women's Spirituality movement, but also the 'Celtic', and 'Heathen' deities, virtually all of which are the inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries.
    As someone who came of age spiritually in the '50s and '60s, I have nothing but respect for Hindu, Buddhist, and Egyptian deities. But at some point I had to 'trade up' to the goddesses and gods of my own (very much Western) pantheons, having come to the understanding that 'exotic' did not by any means equate with 'esoteric'. Unplugged from their parent cultures, the religious orgs associated with these deities tended to go haywire (eg: Krishna Consciousness; the Moonies; the Rajneeshis) or become a puppet of Western foreign policy (the Dali Lama).
    I do include the Egyptian pantheons, but only those that developed during the Hellenistic (eg: Isis & Osiris, etc).

  • Fritz Muntean
    Fritz Muntean Tuesday, 04 February 2014

    I couldn't agree more, Lupus. (but where DO you kids get these NAMES -- haven't any of you read 'Lady Pixie Moondrip'?)

    Literacy, IMO and FWIW is the sovereign standard. If the culture you're 'drawn to' didn't leave any of its own writings, then your stuck with what others said about them. Their enemies first, then the 19th c Romantics ('noble savage', etc), then the (sometimes quite aggressive) New Age appropriators.

  • Naya Aerodiode
    Naya Aerodiode Friday, 07 February 2014

    This article, right here, is why I've stopped reading Pagan blogs for the most part. I'm really done with people attempting to define me out of my own religion. I'm Pagan, I do honor nature as divine, and I'm not a polytheist.

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