Paganism Needs a Prophet (but it ain’t me)

Note: What follows arose out of a discussion in the comments to a recent post entitled, Religious Leave-Taking as Asking Different Questions, in which I described my growing disinterest in most Pagan discussions and the change in the questions that most concern me now. One of the commenters, Phil Anderson, challenged me to continue to be “a purveyor of sense and reason in the paganosphere”. His comment prompted a long response from me, which I have edited and reproduced here. Where important for context, I have reproduced parts of Anderson’s comment here.

For a long time, I believed that a naturalistic* version of Paganism was the most genuine expression of contemporary Paganism. When I came to Neo-Paganism, I thought it was naturalistic at its core, and I thought the supernaturalism I saw was aberrant. It seemed to me to be an unfortunate consequence of a historical accident, the infiltration of occultism into the neopagan revival via Gerald Gardner’s Wicca. And there are several academics whose work support this notion, including Robert Ellwood & Harry Partin, Joanne Pearson, and Wouter Hanegraaff. I thought these strands–the occultist and the neo-pagan–could be separated, and so I set about trying to unwind them.

That would have been challenging enough, but it turned out things were even more complicated that I knew.  I had discovered contemporary Paganism just as it was moving toward its own version of the Great Awakening, with the growth of devotional polytheism. And I have been swimming upstream ever since.

“In the UK though most pagans pay lip service to environmentalism, economic and social radicalism and ‘earth centered’ spirituality, that is not where the most fervent pagans put their energy. Many (actually most) of the active pagans I meet want a solipsistic and super-naturalistic, literal deity centered religion with a big R. They want the devotional experience they believe the ancients had minus the messy, inappropriate and gory bits.” — Phil Anderson

I agree, most Pagans don’t really want a truly naturalistic paganism. And I think there’s historical reasons for that. Devotional polytheism is a reaction to something–it’s a reaction to an over-rationalized Paganism, which had embraced a watered down Jungian archetypalism and which had grown shy about ecstatic ritual (in part due to a desire to be seen as more mainstream). The pendulum of the collective Pagan imagination was swinging away from the rational, just I came along.

And Devotional polytheists saw me trying to pull the pendulum back in the direction of the rational and reacted with outrage.  What they didn’t see was that I was also working on the other end, trying to pull naturalistic Pagans away from the excessive rationalizing of religion. (Incidentally, I think don’t think I’ve had any more success on this end than I did on the other.)

I realize now that Neo-Paganism was never what I thought it was. With a few prominent exceptions, it’s always been a supernaturalistic religion. I was looking at it through a lens, skewed by the writing of academics who were trying to make Paganism seem like a respectable subject for study for a rationalist academia. And I was selectively choosing from available examples from Pagan history to support my vision of what Paganism should be.  (I’m not alone in doing this. No less than Margot Adler and Starhawk have done the same.)

“Modern paganism is hopelessly confused. I’m sure you are familiar with the ‘pre/trans fallacy’ concept of Ken Wilber. To my mind, whatever your view of Ken, his concept rather ‘explains’ my and your problem with modern paganism. For you, and me, the ancient symbolism and mythological motifs of the past are potentially transformative in aiding a change of consciousness. However for too many pagans their interest in ancient mythology is differently motivated. Whatever they say they’re doing, in reality they are in unconscious retreat from the stress of modern life into a pre-rational bubble.” — Phil Anderson

I also realize now that most Pagans today are not going to have any interest naturalistic paganism. I agree with Anderson about the pre/trans fallacy, and I have written about it in relation to Paganism here. The basic idea is that human psychological development moves through stages from pre-rational magical thinking to the rationality of scientific thought to trans-rational consciousness. The trans-rational stage transcends the limitations of positivistic rationality, with its egocentrism and logocentrism, but without losing its insights and falling back into superstitious magical thinking. The difficulty is that the pre-rational and the trans-rational sometimes look a lot alike, and Pagans often confuse them.

I agree that there are a fair number people (who may or may not identify with the word “Pagan”) who are interested in a naturalistic small-p pagany religion. But here’s the dilemma: It seems that, as people move away from religious literalism and pietism, and their religion becomes rationalized, and they lose enthusiasm.

I see this in Unitarian Universalism, but also in naturalistic pagan communities. Oftentimes, it seems the pendulum has swung too far in other direction. So, while many supernaturalistic Pagans confuse the pre-rational with the trans-rational, naturalistic Pagans, on the other hand, make a similar mistake of failing to see any distinction between the pre- and the trans-, and condemn it all as ir-rational. Supernaturalistic Pagans are stuck in the pre-rational phase, and many naturalistic Pagans are stuck in the rational phase.


“You’ve already got the influence and contacts to actually make something new. Maybe an Order, maybe a ‘Network’ but in any event an Earth Centered Movement. This is what I hope you will build: something that is actually organised, it will have ritual -personal, seasonal and rites of passage; it might be expressly pantheistic but make a very clear statement that anthropomorphic deities (including Jehovah) are not taken ‘literally’ but as symbols and archetypes. Your movement without dogmatically holding to a naturalistic materialism as such will still make clear its reliance upon a naturalistic epistemic methodology to sort unverifiable private truth claims from evidence based public truth claims. The movement will be holistically activist and radical.” — Phil Anderson

I would love to be a part of an organization or movement like Anderson describes, whether it bears the “pagan” label or not. But there have been so many attempts to do this already which have failed. The Druidic Order of Naturalism, of which Anderson was a part, is just one example. Others include Toteg TribeGaia Group, and Panthea (the first Pagan UU congregation)–all defunct now.

It seems to me that we’re caught in a Catch-22. When we reject the literalism of theistic religion, we lose the enthusiasm (from enthousiasmos, meaning the indwelling of a god), and without the enthusiasm, we can just sustain a religious movement. This has been true of UUs, who have been limping along since the time of the Transcendentalists, and it seems true of naturalistic Pagans today as well. We love to talk about religion, but the actual doing of it makes us uncomfortable, and so we don’t. (No, I don’t count having a potluck on the solstice as religion, nor do I count an exegetical sermon at a UU church on the meaning of the equinox, nor do I count anything we do on the internet.)

“You are our prophet. Give us a new movement with such an ideology John to help get our feet marching. Just make it a good one!” — Phillip Anderson

I think we do need a kind of prophet, someone to call both supernaturalistic and naturalistic Pagans back from the extremes of the pendulum’s arc.  Someone who can point the way beyond both that pre-rational and the rational frames to the trans-rational.  Someone who cane speak to the heart and the mind.  Someone with the power to call forth the enthousiasmos and build lasting communities.  In short, someone with charisma, a word which has been reduced to something superficial in modern parlance, but which originally referred to a divine gift.

But I don’t have the qualities of a prophet. I’m a critic. I lack the charisma of a prophet. There are other people who are doing this work, some quietly, some a little more publicly, who might fit that bill. Steven Posch is one of those people, I think. He’s more poet than critic, and the poet is, I think, close to the prophet. Speaking of poets, Ruby Sara is another person I think could have been our prophet, but she quietly left Paganism–as so many others have. (You can’t find much of her writing online anymore, but I archived it. So if you’re interested, I’ll send it to you.)

There are other people, too, but they are mostly going about their work alone or in small groups. Cat Chapin Bishop, Anna Walther, and Alison Leigh Lily come to mind. To me, they strike that balance I think we need–rational without being rationalistic, spiritual without being supernatural, activist without reducing religion to politics, etc. But they seem to have little interest in organizing others.

Those who do have the inclination to be organizers–like Mark Green (founder of Atheopaganism), Jon Cleland Host (founder of the Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo discussion group), B.T. Newberg (founder of Humanistic Paganism), Rua Lupa (founder of Ehoah), and myself–seem to struggle more with the balance I described. All these people should be applauded for the work they’ve done and are doing, but (forgive me) I think we lack that undefinable quality that makes a prophet, what I’ve called “charisma” (meaning it in the archaic sense of the word).

(Is it a coincidence that four of the five people I listed in the first group are women and the four of the five I listed in the other group are men?)

Another problem is that I think we expect too much of online community. There is no substitute for the flesh. The kind of communities we need to build aren’t communities of the mind–and that’s all you can have online. We need communities of bodies, or it’s really not pagan. (Reminds me of a quote from one of Anne Rice’s novels: “In the flesh all wisdom begins. Beware the thing that has no flesh. Beware the gods, beware the [pure] idea.”) Have you ever tried to do an online ritual? It might as well be a contradiction in terms!  In the flesh, all paganism begins.

“… at this moment it is hard not to feel you are behaving like the proverbial baby throwing his toys out of his ‘pram’ (or as you yanks call it, the Baby Buggy)”

I hope I’m not throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. I’m still interested in practices for cultivating an immediate and sensual relationship with the land I stand on and the other-than-human (as well as the human) beings that fill the world around me. I think that is pagan, if maybe with a small-p. In fact, for me, that’s real paganism. For me, that’s the “baby”.

The “water” I’m “throwing out” is any association with a community that focuses on belief in literal, anthropomorphic deities or on literal, practical magic. I’m throwing out any association with a community that is more concerned about individual freedom and self-expression than about our relationship with the more-than-human world.  I’m throwing out any association with a community which insulates itself from criticism, and hence from growth. I’m throwing out any association with a community which is so phobic of organization that it has hamstrung any effort to be a force for good in the world.

Honestly, I don’t think I’m giving up very much. When I think about my most “pagan” experiences, most of them have had little, if anything, to do with the contemporary Pagan community.

They were ecstatic “double rainbow”-type experiences, like those I had in a redwood forest, on a rocky beach on the Pacific ocean, or on Pike’s Peak. Or they were more subtle, but no less profound experiences, which I can have anywhere, like the smell of burning autumn leaves on the wind, discovering the Dogwood blossoms on a spring morning, feeling my fingers digging into the black soil of my garden, eating a really ripe, jucy mango, or the sound of the wild geese “harsh and exciting–over and over announcing [my] place in the family of things” (Mary Oliver).

And, yes, there was that one time, as I watched a stranger dance around the campfire in the dark at a Pagan summer festival, that I felt like a deity had been “drawn down”. And there were a few other experiences like that at Pagan events, times that I danced too.  But most of my experiences of contemporary Paganism have been disappointingly shallow. The few profound experiences I have had in a capital-P Pagan context just don’t justify all the effort I have put into trying to reform the rest.

I do hope a prophet does come along to lead modern Pagans out of the wilderness of superstition and self-absorption … but it ain’t me babe!


* “Naturalistic” is a contested term. Here, it means a monistic worldview which denies the existence of supernatural phenomena or any dimension of existence apart from the material.

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