Sustainable Pagan communities: An interview with Alison Leigh Lilly

Alison Leigh Lily beside Angel Oak, a live oak tree in South Carolina and the oldest oak tree east of the Mississippi

“Instead of drawing lines in the sand, we draw lines of connection and communication.”

This week we interview Alison Leigh Lilly, who has just launched a new podcast along with Jeff Lilly called Faith, Fern, and Compass.

B. T. Newberg:  Working for the Pagan Newswire Collective, editing No Unsacred Place, and now podcasting, you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the Contemporary Pagan community.  If you had to name one single issue (as absurd as that sounds) most pressing to the Pagan community today, what would it be?

Alison Leigh Lilly:  Sustainability, hands down. Pagans these days face the challenge of crafting sustainable models of engagement and effective communication not just with each other, but also with the rest of society.

You can see this struggle playing out in everything from Pagan-focused media like the PNC, to controversies in the community about leadership and service, financial funding, exclusive versus inclusive ritual, and perennial debates about what words like “Pagan,” “Druid,” and “Witch” (among so many others!) even mean and who uses them.

Right now, there are many folks out there experimenting with different solutions — some borrowed from more mainstream religious traditions, some set up as alternatives to redress problems of the mainstream. Solutions that work will have to be sustainable, supportive and vibrant in the long-term, not just passing trends.

I also mean sustainability in the sense of ecological sustainability. It’s impossible for any spiritual community today, regardless of tradition, to avoid the pressing question of how humans relate to the planet and its ecosystems. Ecology has a direct impact on how we create and maintain our communities. “Green” is a part of the religious vocabulary now, for Christians, Muslims, Hindus and modern Pagans alike, “nature-centered” or not.

BTN:  Many have observed a shift in recent years away from archetypal views of deity and toward hard polytheism.  By that I mean a shift toward views of deity as external, independently willing, real-existing causal agents, more or less as depicted in myth.  Would you agree, and if so what do you make of that shift?

ALL: I do agree that there seems to be a shift in that direction. My initial impulse is to look at the sociological pressures at work. I think the shift towards a hard polytheism reflects a desire among Pagans for legitimacy in the mainstream, drawing on authentic ancient sources and anchoring their interpretation of those sources in the authority of modern scholarship — distancing themselves from what they might see as silly claims made by some Pagans in the past.

You also have the polarization in mainstream society between hard-core atheists and literalist fundamentalists, with more nuanced views of deity getting sidelined in the media ruckus. Pagans looking for legitimacy or authority in the debate might (knowingly or not) lean towards a more literal view of deity to avoid being marginalized as just another wishy-washy New Age trend. On top of that, a desire to respect the cultural integrity of ancient societies and modern ones can lead to a backlash against paths that seem too eclectic or syncretic, erring instead on the side of overly simplistic interpretations of cultural boundaries, drawing hard and fast lines between theologies that are actually much more fluid in their original contexts. So there are a lot of factors that might be at play, many of them stemming from noble intentions.

I’ve found this shift to be somewhat of a stumbling block for me in my personal spiritual practice. Debates about “hard” v. “soft” polytheism often feel to me like they’re unnecessarily dualistic. It’s only recently I’ve been able to set the whole theological question aside and cease to view it as the defining aspect of my Pagan identity. My interfaith work has played a big part in that.

BTN:  A desire for legitimacy – good point.  I think that underlines the same sense of urgency felt by many naturalistic types.  By seeking spirituality within the bounds of current scientific understandings, naturalists seek a path that may appear plausible and legitimate in modern society. 

It also comes back to sustainability, too – crafting a path that is sustainable within a larger context of Western scientific discourse.  Hard polytheists go for a different solution, but the issue seems similar.

One thing for which I have to commend hard polytheists is their motivation and seriousness – I think a lot of the most rigorous research as well as dedicated ritual practice is coming out of such groups today.  Frolicking in the woods is definitely valuable, but so is making a deep commitment to one’s path.  Hard polytheism seems particularly conducive to the latter.  Or am I off base here?

ALL:  There is some fantastic work coming from the reconstructionists and hard polytheists among us. Erynn Rowan Laurie and Seren are two in the CR community who’ve had a big influence on my own work.

And it’s exciting to see Pagan naturalists engaging modern science with the same rigor and enthusiasm as reconstructionists bring to their study of history and archeology! In both cases, people are grappling with methods of structured discourse that offer valuable insights – whether into history or ecology – and they’re looking for ways to integrate those insights into a meaningful, authentic spiritual life. It’s not a one-way conversation.

The mistake we make is in thinking that frolicking in the woods and deep commitment are at odds with each other, or that dedicated ritual practice must be based in one particular theology.

I know many Pagans who not only host regular rites and perform daily devotions, but show up to their UU service or Quaker meeting every Sunday. Their serious, life-long commitment and the service they give back to the community are in no way diminished by the fact that they hold a somewhat looser view of deity than hard polytheists.

BTN:  In this context of struggles for legitimacy and efforts toward sustainability, how does your new podcast fit into the picture?

ALL:  Since I’m a tree-hugging dirt-worshipper with an analytical streak myself, I like to think that Faith, Fern & Compass gives listeners a legitimate, scientifically-based excuse to spend more time hugging trees, talking to animals, lighting candles, sitting in meditation and generally frolicking about in the woods!

In all seriousness, though, what a desire for legitimacy really boils down to, I think, is a desire for deep-rooted authenticity and mutual respect. These are important drives behind why we form religious communities in the first place, but they also set a challenge before us: to find ways of living that don’t compromise our rational minds or ask us to ignore what we know about the world.

The pressing issue of ecological sustainability is an inescapable reality today, and it’s one that many religious traditions are struggling with, not just Pagans. Religions that ignore this reality risk losing credibility and sometimes resort to fear-mongering, exclusion and even violence to bolster their legitimacy.

FF&C podcast strives to move in the opposite direction: towards inclusivity and interfaith outreach as a way of confronting head-on the challenges of living with/in an ecologically and socially complex world. Instead of drawing lines in the sand, we draw lines of connection and communication.

We believe the natural world can be an authentic source of spiritual guidance if we craft communities that know how to listen – the way a human tool like a compass helps us see the planet’s magnetic fields and orient ourselves when we are lost.

About the interviewee

Alison Leigh Lily

Alison Leigh Lilly is the producer and co-host of Faith, Fern & Compass, and the editor of No Unsacred Place, a project of the Pagan Newswire Collective. Nurturing the nature-centered, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, she explores themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. Her work has appeared in numerous publications both in print and online, including Aontacht Magazine, Sky Earth Sea,  and The Wild Hunt. You can learn more about her work on her website:

Faith, Fern & Compass is currently running a promotional campaign where anyone who recommends FF&C to a friend via the recommendation form on our website will get a free phonosemantic name analysis from Jeff (and whoever recommends the most new listeners wins a free album of guided meditations).

7 Comments on “Sustainable Pagan communities: An interview with Alison Leigh Lilly

  1. Great discussion Alison and BT!

    “Right now, there are many folks out there experimenting with different solutions — some borrowed from more mainstream religious traditions, , some set up as alternatives to redress problems of the mainstream.”

    Alison, can you give some examples of what you are thinking of?

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  3. Great interview! I am looking forward to listening to “Faith, Fern and Compass.” I think Alison has really put her finger on the mark – “sustainability” is a huge issue in paganism. Modern western paganism/polytheism is a very, very young religion growing in the strange unnatural soil of modern life. IMO paganism is still very much an adolescent religion, still finding itself, still reacting/rebelling against mainstream culture and religion. This is of course an exciting time in the life of a religion, but I wonder if paganism will stand the test of time. It is interesting to speculate what paganism might look like in 100 years. Of course with the never ending breakneck speed of technological innovation and change in our culture, who knows what the world will be like in 100 years much less paganism. Sustainability is truly the issue of our times.

    I also very much agree with what Alison has to say about hard polytheism. Our overall culture puts a lot of emphasis on physical reality and de-emphasizes/de-values the very real but non-physical aspects of human experience (or worse reduces the significance of these by interpreting them as merely mental processes). For many Christians if Jesus did not literally rise from the dead and physically ascend into heaven, than the whole Christian tradition, the sense of meaning and purpose derived from participating in the Christian community and the very real and powerful spiritual experience that many Christians have, is a baseless delusion, without real value. I think some of these same forces/values (either knowingly or not) are at work pushing paganism toward a harder, more literalistic theology. (I think of this as a kind of metaphysical materialism.)

    I think B.T. is correct that naturalistic paganism is also an attempt to legitimize pagan beliefs and practices from within (as oppose to against) the modern scientific understanding of reality. Not surprisingly my own turn toward a more naturalistic spirituality occurred in college when I was studying science. I came to feel that my belief and desire to believe in a world with a supernatural magical superstructure with all its enchanting denizens of gods, devas, faeries and the likes could not be justified, that I could not justify such beliefs to my scientifically minded colleagues. I didn’t give up my spirituality as some would, but reinterpreted it within a naturalistic framework. Now my own sense of spirituality is so enmeshed with a naturalistic worldview that supernaturalism seems to me to be a diminishment of meaning compared to a naturalistic/humanistic view of religion.

    • >It is interesting to speculate what paganism might look like in 100 years.

      Indeed. In this vein, I remember feeling a wake-up call after reading Robert Fuller’s book “Spiritual but not Religious”, which traced the history of alternative spirituality movements in America. I realized that movement after movement had replaced its predescesor(s), e.g. Transcendentalism, Freemasonry, Theosophy, Spiritism, New Thought, Transcendental Meditation, etc. This made me wonder if Wicca and Paganism were not the current vogue in this same lineage of alternative movements, to be replaced soon enough by something else.

      Nowadays, it seems like that just might happen. A self-destruct sequence seems to have been initiated around the label “Pagan”, and if enough people keep that going, that’s going to be the end of this movement – to be replaced by what? I dunno. Perhaps “Polytheism”, newly separate from various green spiritualities and naturalistic spiritualities. Or not. Maybe all will still find a way to play happily together. Who knows?

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