Observations of the light and the dark of what is, was, and might be in the Pagan community's expansion and evolution.
What Do You Call That?
This is part three of an arc of related ideas that can stand alone but would benefit from the additional context of the earlier posts. If you have not read the two previous blogs, I hope that you take time to read them. In this post I’ll explore the use of names and labels such as Pagan, Wiccan, etc.
Though it would be lovely to come up with some equivalent of Linnaean taxonomy (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species) when it comes to the various magico-religious streams, I do not think that it is practical. Physical living things have relatively distinct boundaries whereas systems of culture that are passed from and through individuals and communities through non-genetic means have a high degree of form complexity and overlap. Moreover the overlapping domains of the magico-religious streams are not limited to nesting hierarchies of set and subset. Also, the Traditions of the magico-religious streams are anchored in more than just the physical plane and the rules of the other planes also apply.
Another consideration in creating taxonomies or classifications is the fact that individuals and groups use self-definition and self-identification as a primary means of creating culture and community. The classifications and names chosen by various groups and individuals often do not mesh with each other. In fact they often grind against each other like mismatched gears. For the most part, there is no actual science nor truly objective external markers that would make the classifications strong enough to trump the passion and emotional attachment of self-chosen names. As a clarification, I am using the term names as opposed to labels because names hold actual power unlike labels that may be convenient but are as shallow as the paper they are printed on. Despite that, there are times that labels are more powerful than names.
Most of the markers that we choose to formulate these categories are based upon articles of belief, values and ethos assumptions specific to our communities, personal experiences, sensibilities and aesthetics, etc. When it comes to matters of faith and religion, classifications and categories are a component of the container that makes them viable and are by analogy just as important as skin and bone are to you. They are both part of the surface and the underlying structure. I would say that if we are to create definitions and classifications then we should borrow concepts from the arts as much as the sciences. There are movements, schools, and genres for describing music, the visual arts, and literature and these various sorts of classifications are often more fluid and capable of spanning more diversity than the systems applied to animals, plants, and minerals. Many works of art span more than one category.
I do think there are good and practical reasons for creating definitions and classifications for ourselves as individuals and communities. The first step to keeping it real, healthy, and useful is to understand our motivations for creating them in the first place. This also means soul searching and discovering our conscious and unconscious motivations to the degree that we can. When I choose to create working definitions for traditions, religions, and the like, I do so with an eye to what impact the definition will have on the growth and evolution of what matters to me and mine. I also usually have different definitions and rules of sorted relationships for people and groups that lie outside of the domain of my extended community. I also suggest that you ponder the difference between affinity and identity in making your own determinations.
There was a recent flurry of debate on the web about the term Pagan and whether or not it was a useful umbrella or aegis for a very diverse community. I use a wide and lengthy range of names and labels to describe myself. Which ones I choose and when tends to be selected by the context. Am I describing myself for myself or for the sake of communication with another person or group? Is this the situation more exoteric or esoteric? If the context is more of a political nature or dealing with non-magickal people it is mostly exoteric. If it is an actual discussion of personal practice, beliefs, and metaphysics with people who have a background in these matters then it is mostly esoteric. It is not inauthentic to use different terms for yourself depending upon the audience, how you want to be understood, and what outcome you are trying to reach.
A few decades ago, a friend was running for city council in Wilmington, DE. She was a dark skinned, Latina, Lesbian, Phd bearing science geek, with an expanded sense of spirituality, and many other things as well. She did say something that has stuck with me to this day in a speech she gave to a mostly African-American audience. She said that if there was a hate filled sniper, looking at this audience and looking at her from the roof of a building, they would not hear her accent nor the nuances of her message. They would only see her dark skin and black hair. It is a rather stark example but it taught me something valuable. If the press asks me if I am Pagan, my answer is yes though my internal truth is more elaborate. If I am at a public hearing for a same sex marriage bill, I will identify as Gay because explaining that I am queer, poly, kinky, with a primary relationship of 33 years with a man and secondary ongoing relationships of multiple years with other men and one woman would not further my purpose nor my community’s purpose in that hearing. If I am at an event of a magickal or religious nature I will identify as Wiccan within the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel. If there is time, interest, and openness to dialogue, then I will explain how we and how I conceptualize and practice our variant of Wicca.
I mentioned earlier that sometimes labels can be more powerful than names. Let’s say that I am shopping to try a fruit preserve or a varietal honey to spread on my toast. What I choose will depend upon on what is on the label, because until I have tasted it I have not been initiated into its mysteries. Though labels when applied to people and movements can be seen as laden with negative and reductionist distortions, they are also portals of entry for seekers. The significance of true and descriptive names for ourselves, our communities, and our works are discovered or revealed through time and a journey into mystery. In the short term, I try for truth in labeling with the hope that the jar will be opened and tasted.
Next time I’ll wrap up some loose ends from this blog and talk about what vision means when building a community organization. A note to those who have contacted me in private about unpacking my blog ideas to them… Blogs are mostly labels and hopefully you’ll read my current and future books for more details.
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