How Pagan is Our Paganism? by Emma Restall Orr

The understanding that Western neo-Paganism is a widely diverse system of beliefs and practices is well accepted. Even within particular and distinct traditions, there is a growing acceptance of diversity, an acceptance that tolerates less intolerance, so allowing less bitchcraft and pedantry. Within my own tradition of Druidry, the existence of Pagan, Christian and humanist Druids (among others) is an element that requires perhaps more overt tolerance than in other mainly or fully Pagan traditions, and that tolerance is growing as the tradition itself grows, as in turn its diversity grows. Indeed, the definition of the word Pagan which I find most poignant is that based upon the Latin ‘pagus’, a word meaning a village or community; it is a definition that not only explains but encourages localism within the tradition. However, it is the specific differences within Paganism itself that I would like to address here, differences that are not and cannot be labelled as differing traditions, yet which occur within each separate tradition I have encountered.

Despite the title, simply because Paganism is so diverse, the perspective I give here is in no way an attempt to define what Paganism should be. All I can hope to do is to offer the view from where I sit, pondering upon what I have seen as I¹ve journeyed through Paganism over the past twenty years. What interests me is the difference in basic belief structure that exists within the faith community, a difference evident within English-speaking neoPaganism, urban and rural, virtual and tangible, all around the world. The lines between such differentiations can easily be blurred, indeed I sense that most Pagans lie comfortably across them. Nevertheless, they raise some important issues.

The first I might call spiritual Paganism, or the aspect of Paganism that is our spirituality. Questing and acknowledging the sacred energy within all creation, both seen and beyond our perception, we consider that energy to have a consciousness, a purpose and an evolution, indifferent to the extent to which we can perceive or comprehend it. This is animism, a powerful spiritual tradition that is the root of most native or earth spiritualities across the world. It encourages respect for the spirits of the environment in which we live: the spirits of place. In most cases it also includes the honouring of ancestral spirits, again both seen and unseen, as existent entities that continue to watch and guide us. It is what the majority seems to believe to be a definitive Paganism, or the foundation of the tradition.

The next is the religious aspect of Paganism. This goes beyond animism to an understanding and reverence for deity. Within religious Paganism there are monotheists and duotheists, practical and radical polytheists; there are those with direct experience of deity and those whose belief and determined questing sustains the vigour of their devotion despite a lack of evidence. The spectrum of visions is boundless. While for the purposes of this article, specific definition might be irrelevant, I would like to suggest that for practice to be religious, a god needs to be more than a mythic concept. This leads me onto the third type of Paganism.
Beyond here, we get into mistier landscapes. Firstly, the philosophical aspect of Paganism. A good many of those who quest a deeper meaning to life begin at this point after reading a stack of books, and gently, as practice takes over from theory, and experience washes energy into the as yet dry ideas, they find their way into one or other of the above. For many, the philosophy, theology and academic/scientific elements of the tradition are an essential part of their spiritual or religious practice, deepening their beliefs and enriching their devotion.

Philosophical Pagans, however, sometimes remain as such. Humanists or thinkers, profound environmentalists, scientists or historians, these folk have a respect for the natural world based on an understanding of co-existence, a flow of history and tradition, of beauty, order and entropy. Though the idea may be useful as metaphor, spirit as essence or spirit entities of separate and individual consciousness do not exist for them as a reality. Here is where I begin to question whether this is truly Paganism.

The psychological aspect of Paganism is another profoundly important part. The quest for self-development, self-awareness and growth is an integral part of most people¹s spiritual or religious practice, allowing us a way of finding meaning, value and confidence. However, for the psychological Pagan this healing and empowerment is the central focus. Spirits of place are no more than reflections and projections of the psyche; elements and creatures of nature are omens to read, signs that can be used for the purposes of divination. Ancestral spirits and guides are aspects of one¹s own psyche, and to consider these as otherwise is to reveal a deep wound in the soul, a crisis of separation perhaps, a lack of wholeness and integration of self: a need to be healed.

Because so much of our human fear is related to rejection, to being outcast even in the smallest way, it can be frightening to express anything that might be seen as weak or peculiar. If the act of questing relationship with spirit is seen as odd, talking to these separate entities is surely then to express an insanity. As a result very many people, natural spiritual Pagans, stumble along their path, filled with self-doubts, sometimes quite terrified, half reassuring themselves that they are imagining it all, half desperate for confirmation that what they see is real when secular culture again and again yells that it is not. When parts of the Pagan community appear to agree with this secular perspective, confusion is intensified.

Spirituality and religious devotion, philosophy and psychology are all important parts of our modern Pagan tradition. However, where there is no animism or belief in deity, I wonder if this is can truly be called Paganism. This brings me onto another term, political Paganism, which not only takes us back to the intolerance and pedantry of bitchcraft, it also leads me to the key issue of the conference at which this article was given as a talk: How Green is our Magic?
Where we make relationship, listening, perceiving clearly another individual, where we make a connection allowing communication, finding a shared language, individual to individual, politics does not exist. Respecting fully the situation, we can access the potential and power of the moment available through that relationship – whether it is between a human and another, or cat, brook, tree, stone, mouse or moon … But where we do not acknowledge the other as an individual, missing any possibility for relationship, we risk dishonourable interaction. Communication becomes a hammered jigsaw of monologues, of projections and reflections. Political relationships do just that: they are based on the perception of an abstract not an individual, a threat of some kind, one that can be evaded, confronted or used. We may see or interact with the physical form of that abstract, be it a government, an organization, a clique, yet we are not responding to the individual but the abstract represented.
I do not, of course, negate the value of political environmental (or social) protest, in terms of making a perspective known, raising consciousness about an issue, screaming ‘Enough!’ and following through where appropriate. However, there is a victim consciousness in our culture, particularly amongst minority groups such as Paganism, that nourishes both anger and its inverse emotion, guilt. While much political monotheism is based on the promotion of negatives (‘thou shalt not’), it is not necessary to work within this mindset, either in the landscapes of environmentalism that we walk as Pagans and as humans, nor in personal and social change. Letting go of the guilt-tangled complications that come hand in hand with perceiving an abstract authority, we can leave behind political relationship completely.

As an animist who reveres a number of native and ancestral gods, when looking at the issue of change, I would encourage us to go further still, not just into personal relationship, but into sacred relationship where not only the individual is acknowledged but the spirit is too. Where spirit is seen to be metaphorical or symbolic, or an aspect of ones own psyche projected, while there can be clear thinking and sound decision-making, a strong sense of personal responsibility and ethics, in reality there is no true relationship and so nobody and nothing to harm ultimately but oneself. Where this perception exists, we are relying on selfishness or the strength of self-interest, on the primal survival instinct, in a world where self-destructive behaviour is the acceptable norm.

How green is our magic?
I return then to the question: how green is our magic? Understanding magic to be the process of activating change, my answer would be that it is as green, or environmentally and socially positive, as is our ability to develop sacred spirit-to-spirit relationship. For where our decisions are made, smothered with defensive emotion, as a political response to a situation, and where spirit is not acknowledge, where there is no true dialogue, where the stories are not clearly heard, our creativity will always carry the risk of being unhelpful. As magic, it will consequently be either black or white.

Where we acknowledge spirit in another and in ourselves, we see beauty – sweet, light, wild, soft, raw, brilliant and dark – and where we find beauty, we find inspiration. In the Druid tradition, that inspiration is the power of ‘awen’, which reveals to us not only the clarity of the path ahead, but offers us too the energy with which to carry it out. Powerful sacred relationships allow, and indeed encourage, the process of positive and congruent creativity, which is neither black, white or ‘dirty grey’, but richly green magic.

So how Pagan is our Paganism?
I have offered here a view of various frameworks of Pagan belief, and I have expressed my doubts about a Paganism that does not acknowledge spirit as existent beyond the human imagination. It is my opinion that the effectiveness of our Paganism is defined by our ability to make spiritual and religious relationship, inspired relationships, beginning within the sacred valley of our homes and our faith communities, without the anger and guilt of politics, nor the self-focus that comes with the fear of rejection and insanity. That is the measure of our Paganism.
It is well known amongst those who have worked with me that my ethics and religious perspective can be extreme. I acknowledge that others may have an entirely different view from the warm stones upon which they sit in their own sacred valleys. There is music and laughter in the winds of change.

Emma Restall Orr,Joint Chief, The British Druid Order. March 2001.

Please Note: Emma Restall Orr, is no longer the joint chief of the BDO, and now head’s The Druid Network. For further information, please visit: http://druidnetwork.org ; General Equiries to: office@druidnetwork.org

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