I have been reading my way through “The Matter of the Gods” by Jonathan Wooley over at Gods and Radicals. It has giving me a lot to think about, and I wanted to explore my thoughts about the article in a little more depth here.
I think is a wonderful and well written piece, chock full of good, insightful analysis as well as plenty of ideas, thinkers and concepts that are well worth a second and even a third look. But perhaps most importantly Wooley starts out with a most obvious, and at the same time a very profound statement.
“Paganism is diverging.”
This is a very self-evident and obvious statement on many fronts. My background in anthropology really hits this home with the basic understanding that any culture is an adaptive and dynamic thing. The pagan family tree is growing, and with it comes many new offshots, ideas and new branches as it grows and expands. As Wooley points out, one of the most notable examples is the more recent move to hard forms of polytheism, in which the gods are not manifestation of the All, or some aspect of The One, the Two or otherwise. But that the gods are distinct beings in their own right.
As an animist, this is also something that is foundational first. I have often referred to myself as a polytheist by proxy. I am an animist first and foremost, and one of my core philosophical building blocks is that the world is full of people and persons, only a small portion of which are human. Looking out my window right now, I can see an assortment of plant people (grasses, shrubery, ect) tree people (oak, cherry, popular) bird people (cranes, finches, ect) and so on. These are people in my mind, living beings with awareness, conciousness, will and intelligence, even if these don’t compare to human notions of the same. They are people of a different kind than I am.
Also, they all have alliances, relationships, and dead around them. All of them have ancestors, and spirits of the disembodied with which they cohabit.
And yes, some of these beings might be gods.
Later on Wooley says;
“In short, the first few generations of Pagan sages made a gateway through which forgotten beings, old souls, and the old ways could return to human society. And that is exactly what is happening”
So much is said in this one little section, that it is difficult to say exactly what resounds with me, because it is so many things at once. As a relatively young fellow, I have to acknowledge that some of the work has already been down, the foundations been laid. At the same time, as each year passes, I also have to acknowledge that I am the next agent in the work. It will eventually (if it has not already) fall to me to continue to build on the foundations that have been laid. And later on, it will be my place preserve and pass on what has been done. In addition, part of the work is opening these “gateways” to allow these old beings and ways to find fertile ground once more.
Further in the article Wooley says;
“The crucial thing to remember is that what defined old Paganism was explicitly not a single set of beliefs, nor a single set of customs. Europe, before the arrival of “the Nazarene” and his vision of the world, was a patchwork of different traditions, methods of enlightenment, esoteric systems, state cults, philosophies and initiatory systems – all flourishing and fighting with one another, all very different in range and content.”
This is modern paganism(s) in a nutshell. As older traditions continue to grow, and newer ones take root, there has been a great deal of both flourishing as well as fighting. A part of this has to do with the internet, because our world is a lot smaller as a result. Alliances are much easier to make, as are disagreements. In addition, the internet and other modes of communication has allowed the wide reaching formation of groups across the world, as well as a ready flow and exchange of ideas. Never before has such a network been available, and so many ideas and information been so readily accessible. It has allowed new traditions and beliefs to take root, and the combination of “like” minds to preserve them. In the same breath, it has also allowed for discussion and debate to take place across philosophies and traditions, so that each can explore their own ideas, as well as compare notes with others. Wooley comments on this when he says;
“What united then – if anything – were cultural exchanges and political alliances that took place over time.”
The point I take away from this is that paganism is composed of a variety of different traditions, different cultures, each with their own beliefs, ideals and ways in which to view the world. And that is perfectly okay, and even desirable. That mosaic, that plurality is one of the most beautiful things about being a modern day pagan. The fact that I can walk into a room and sit with a dozen people, and a dozen different philosophies at the same time. Then we can talk, debate, and even argue about the differences. It helps me to better understand my own thoughts, and to really understand the fact that the world is really a complex and fascinating place. I will come back to more of this in a bit.
This all brings us to the “Big Tent” concept of paganism.
Wooly has this to say;
“We see this clearly in attempts to create a “Big Tent” of Paganism, based as they are around a desire to establish certain broadly worded statements of belief. Do you, like the Pagan Federation, believe in the role of the feminine in the godhead? Theological pluralism? Sacredness of Nature?…. Or do we describe Paganism with reference to Four Poles – Nature, Deity, Community and the Self? “
Wooley goes on to point out that such attempts are noble and interesting, but ultimately fail because they are trying to create a shared set of beliefs where perhaps there may not be one. Also, such attempts, in his opinion, fail to do justice to the wide diversity of pagan cultures and traditions.
I found myself having mixed feelings at this point. I happen to like Beckett’s four pillars model, but I can also see that Wooley’s critique is a fair one. With the wide diversity of traditions and believes, how can we come to a consensus? Is consensus even possible with so many differing views? I think that is where the “Big Tent” metaphor does fall down.
As Wooley points out;
“But such efforts are doomed to either shoe-horning the wild variety of Pagan lived experience into a conceptual prison, or being so broad as to be empty of usefulness or rigour. We are left with Hobson’s choice, of either leaving some Pagans out in the cold, or frogmarching those who would rather be outside the tent – often people of colour and indigenous communities – into its confines”
Wooley goes on to say that the problem with the tent is that it is a pre-defined space. With all of its pegs, ropes, poles and walls, it only serves to limit the space. The dimensions are firmly fixed in time and space, and as Wooley points out, if anyone tries to move it there is a very real risk that the whole thing will come crashing down.
Wooley says; “Paganism, as a movement encompassing a wide range of very distinct religions, is ever changing, ever moving, ever shifting. As such, it is about as profoundly un-like a tent as you can imagine. Instead, Paganism is much more like a spontaneous gathering of people, in a place open to the elements – a crowd, a throng, a rally a carnival. And as it has been going on for some time, it has become a permanent version of these: a city”
Wooley points out that a city does not have fixed borders like a tent. Cities are constantly changing in population and size. They shrink and grow, people leave, old buildings are taken down, new ones are put up. The whole process is organic, and the city changes with the people that live there. It is a shared history, and an ever evolving story that creates a city. One part past, one part present, and one part future.
I have to say I found myself nodding along as I read these words. Wooley I think makes some very strong critiques of the Big Tent Model of paganism, and even the Four Pole Model, which I have wrote about before. I find myself seriously questioning the whole concept of the Big Tent, and this is something I will have to chew on in my own time.
But this proposal of a City Metaphor is an interesting one. However, I have always found cities to be rushed, and chaotic places. Having spent quite a bit of time in places like Chicago, I find that I prefer my quiet country life to the bustle of the city. This is personal bias only. I understand the role cities play in civilization, and they are essential to the way things are now. Still, I find that I prefer forests over cities. Or, to put this another way, to quiet village life over the city.
This is not an alternate proposal, just a shift in metaphor. A village is similar to a cities in many ways. They are just as dynamic, adaptive, but only on a smaller scale. Villages can loose people, gain people, and change in size and shape just like any city. They can grown, live, and die in just the same way.
In addition, the Global Village metaphor has long been used for international politics. I have to wonder, why not a pagan city/village? Think of it this way, a village is full of different houses and shops. The Heathens are in one house (it is probably a longhouse), the Druids in another (I see it as a hobbit-style house) and the Wiccans in another, and so on and so forth. Each “house” could have different beliefs and ideals, to each their own. Perhaps each house has a “Sacred Fire”, which represents the ideology and cultural beliefs of that tradition.
Still, maybe the village also has a common fire, where people of all traditions and paths can get together if they choose, and discuss, debate and argue as they see fit. Sure, they don’t all have to be singing Kumbayah(sp?) around the same fire, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all be good neighbors. If some group or person doesn’t want to be part of the Pagan Village, then they can leave. It’s not a tent with a flapped door and gatekeeper, but an open space where people can freely associate.
Circling back to earlier, this whole idea reinforces the need for political alliances and cultural exchange. There is a great deal we can learn from each other. At the same time, with all the diverse and distinct traditions, there will be a great need for relations between the different pagan “houses”, “camps” whatever. We will need allies going forward, even if we don’t agree with their views. Even though we all have different traditions and ideas, surely we can come together and sit around the common fire?
Surely something worth contemplating.
May you all have unique, diverse, and merry Holidays!