Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting - I

November 2014

San Diego, CA 

Day One: Friday

The Pacific Surfliner Amtrak train arrived in San Diego at 1:00 a.m. on Friday, having boarded the Coast Starlight in Emeryville at 6:10 a.m. on Thursday.  Due to confused arrangements for lodging, I had no place to stay.  Took cab to home of my niece Ally and crashed on inflatable mattress in their living room.  The good news is that I got to spend a little time with her, her spouse Lisa, and their darling little Rockwell, aged 19 months, on Friday morning.  I taught him a new word.  He was identifying animals in one of his picture books.  He liked to go “hoo, hoo” when he saw owl.  He could say something approximating “sheep,” but didn’t have sheep’s sound.  I said “baaa, baaa” in a really croaky sheep voice, and he cracked up.  Now he has another word in his vocabulary: “baaa.”  Meaning I blew off the early Friday sessions I’d planned to attend.

Ally dropped me off at a hotel where I was staying for one night, thanks to my friend Megory Anderson of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Checked in and made my way to the colossal San Diego Convention Center, where I picked up my nametag and bag.  (Purple this year, and sturdily made.)

Feeling a bit lost in the vastness of this convention center, I headed for familiar territory and found myself at the Forum on Religion and Ecology, Yale University, annual luncheon.  I decided to stay for a while because the luncheon was headed by John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker; John Grim and I had participated in The Biodiversity Project[1] Spirituality Working Group[2] at a small retreat near Madison, Wisconsin, in 1999.  The first person I encountered whom I knew was Bron Taylor, headed for this luncheon.  I was fortunate to have a little time for one-on-one with Bron, when we shared optimism about the emphasis on climate change at this AAR, and considered more recent changes in radical environmental activism with the death of such notables as my friend Sequoia in 2008.  I chatted with some of the organizers for a while because we were early, and learned that one of them, a man from Vermont, has a son who is a grower in California.  You never know.

Soon we were joined by Graham Harvey, Doug Ezzy, and others.  As I listened to every person in the room -- I would guess more than 100 -- introduce her or himself and say something about where they were working (universities, graduate students, NGOs, et al.), I was pleased to hear all the references to ecology, nature, climate change, and the like.  Of course, some went on and on explaining what they were doing, and that had to be checked so there was time for everyone else to speak.  I said I was from Covenant of the Goddess and Cherry Hill Seminary, indicating that CHS was the first and only Pagan seminary and that it operated in cyberspace (green, ya know), and that I lived in a county in a metropolitan area that, thanks to some far-seeing wealthy environmental activists and not to me, is zoned 70 percent open space.

I wasn’t able to stick around for very long because I left for a tête-à-tête with a Pagan pal from Colorado before the conference got too crazy.

Here are examples of a few of Friday’s sessions that intrigued me but that I couldn’t attend 

★      Religion and Media Workshop, “The History and Materiality of Religious Circulations,” a day-long seminar “designed to foster collaborative conversation at the cutting edge of the study of religion, media, and culture…[exploring] the history and materiality of religious circulations.”

★      Dharma Academy of North America (DANAM), “Polytheology: The Vision of Plural Divinities,” featuring, among others, papers on “Conceptualizing Divinity: One, None, or Many”; “Conceptualizing the Divine: How Hindu Deities Are Presented in High School World Religions Courses in Canada”; “Devotions of Attachment and Detachment & the Myriad Divinities of Jainism”; ”When Hanuman Became a Jain: The Miraculous Story of Babosa”; “Deities, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas: Nontheism in a Theocratic Universe.”


For so many reasons these kinds of discussions interest me.  My fascination with Hinduism relates to my interest in having Pagans define who we are, as different religious paths and as a movement, which to my mind is similar to the diversity of people who fall under the general term “Hindu.”  Also because I have been devoted to Kali Ma for all of my Pagan life.  Further, because concepts of polytheism and monotheism (as in “we all come from the one” or “after all, we all worship the one god” – well, no, we don’t).

★      International Society for Science and Religion:  Emergence and Complexity in Science and Religion.”… “current research on the religious and philosophical significance of scientific work on questions of emergence and complexity in cosmic and biological evolution.”  As one of those kinds of Pagans who holds scientific inquiry in high regard, mainly because scientific facts are more easily defended, can be replicated, are less likely to be colored by our personal filters, I’m constantly pondering the concordance of scientific fact with religious proclamations.

★      Psychology, Culture, and Religion Group: “Panel Discussion of Lucy Bregman’s The Ecology of Spirituality: Practice and Virtues in a Post-Religious Age.”  I have no idea who Lucy Bregman is, and I suspect she’s coming from an Abrahamic perspective; nonetheless, the topic of ecology and spirituality in an age of secularity interests me.  Now that I’ve looked her up, I can see that I’d be interested in her perspectives on death and dying and on mysticism.  I’m a bit familiar with one speaker, Kelly Bulkley, have heard him speak at a local independent bookstore, and because he does dream research and is also a homie (GTU in Berkeley), and Dr. Bregman was there to respond.

★      Women’s Caucus Brown Bag Luncheon: Ecofeminism and Earth Healing, which included, among others, “What Is Ecofeminism? Memorable Ideas in an Ongoing Conversation (1972-present)”; “Indian Women and Jainism: Toward an Ecofeminist Perspective”; and “Spiritual and Transformative Connections: Women’s Stories of Ecofeminist Activism and Artistic Expression.”  I’ve been working on a 90-minute presentation on “Mother Nature Speaks” for a webinar on ecofeminism for the Emergent Studies Institute.

★      Religion and Ecology Workshop:  Religious Environmentalism and Environmental Activism.”  This was an afternoon-long workshop, at an extra charge, examining the fusion of religion and politics and politics in religious environmentalism,” considering people of “established faiths and of eclectic spirituality … engaged in environmental activism for explicitly religious or spiritual reasons.”  Well, this is many of us Pagans, isn’t it?  The workshop claimed to look at case studies, such as “civil disobedience by religious leaders over Keystone XL, interfaith reforestation efforts in Southern Africa, indigenous resistance to fracking,” progressive movements for democracy, racial and gender equality, workers’ rights, et al.  Obviously this session was one where I could have learned and shared.

Alas, I was wiped and didn’t feel really settled because I’d be changing my lodging on Saturday, so Megory and I arranged to rendezvous at our room and find a place to get a light meal.  As I was trekking my way back to our hotel, I encountered a man waving to me across the plaza.  It turned out to be Steve Wehmeyer, who’d only just arrived.  Proceeding from a big hug, we started an animated conversation.  I told him I was on my way to meet with Megory, so he walked me back to the hotel and we sat in the lobby for quite a while having a great talk.  He said some things to me that caused me to reflect upon my identity and place in the world of Pagandom.  I’m grateful for that.

Chas Clifton had told me earlier in the day that the likely gathering spot for us Pagan scholars – presuming to apply this term to myself merely because of the nature of the gathering – would be in the New Religious Movements (NRM) suite.  We referred to it as “The Pomegranate party” because so many connected with The Pom were likely to attend.  I told Steve when and where and off he went to enjoy the party, while Megory and I sought a restaurant and retired early.  Well, not too early, since this was also an opportunity for Megory and I to visit, which we did.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 

[1]  In the intervening 15 years, it seems that The Biodiversity Project in Madison has changed its name to Bluestem Communications.

[2]  Something I wrote when I returned:  http://www.machanightmare.com/bcarchive/broomstick1.htm

Sorry about funky formatting, folks.  This program evidently doesn't allow much more than text; no indents, bullets, proper footnotes, so take it as it is.  I give up.


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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


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