This is the third in a 3-part series, looking critically at contemporary Neo-Paganism from an earth-centered perspective. Note: The views expressed in this essay are the author’s and are not necessarily representative of HumanisticPaganism.com or any of its other contributors.
This past summer, while visiting my in-laws in Utah, we drove up to Fish Lake, which is home to what may be the largest living organism on the planet … Pando. Pando isn’t a blue whale or a giant sequoia. It’s a grove of quaking aspens that’s been determined by genetic markers to be a single living organism with a giant root system stretching over 100 acres and containing over 40,000 individual trunks. It is estimated that the root system is 80,000 years old, although it may be much older.
My wife and kids and I went to see Pando along with my Mormon in-laws. We stopped at the main grove, which was partially fenced off, and then found a picnic area in a smaller grove of the aspens next to the lake. After lunch, my Mormon wife took the initiative and led us in a spontaneous interfaith ceremony for the family. She read a verse from Genesis about Abraham planting a grove where he prayed to God (Gen. 21:33), and explained that “grove” was sometimes used in the Bible as a euphemism for and symbol of the goddess Asherah, who was the wife of Yahweh (“Lord”). She then went on to explain how our family, Mormon and Pagan alike, can honor both the divine feminine (Mormons believe in a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father) and “creation”, in the form of trees generally and specifically the grove in which were were sitting. She then invited everyone to pour a libation of water and think on how we are grateful for nature and our lives. My mother-in-law, who is a lifetime Mormon, drew the connection between the interconnectedness of the roots of Pando and how we human beings are all connected as a family … and I think it is just a short step from there to the interconnectedness of all living things. It was a beautiful ceremony and it was very special sharing it with my extended family. I am confident that no one walked away from that experience without a deeper appreciation of our connection to the earth and a fresh appreciation of what Paganism is all about.
We then went to the ranger station, where the nagging question I had was answered. I already knew that Pando was under threat from what I had read, but I wanted to know how an 80,000 year old organism suddenly becomes at risk, coincidentally in my lifetime. The park ranger explained that Pando is under threat from blight and new invasive insects. According to the ranger, global warming has changed the climate of the area, inviting new pathogens and insects that had not previously threatened the trees. Pando was partially fenced off because the forest service was trying different techniques to mitigate these effects. My mostly-conservative extended family listened to this matter-of-factly, which was in itself remarkable in a culture where climate change denial seems like the norm. And I thought about how fortuitous was the coincidence of our ritual in the grove and our learning about one of the very real ways that our interconnectedness manifests: the impact of human pollution on this ancient organism.
The bloggers at Patheos (of which I am one) recently attempted to answer the question whether Pagan environmentalism has failed. That question is part of the larger question of whether environmentalism has failed, and that question is beyond my ability to answer. But I do know this much:
- Whether or not there is time to prevent global catastrophe, I chose to act as if there is time and our actions matter.
- If were are to going to really change things, we need to change our relationship with the earth in a fundamental way.
- By viewing environmentalism as a religious issue and religion as an environmental issue, earth-centered Paganism has the potential to help effect this fundamental change.
- If Paganism is going to help effect this change, we need to start sharing our faith.
And here we come to the crux of this essay: I believe that the Pagan aversion to “proselytizing” is standing in the way of fulfilling our potential as earth-centered Pagans to help save the world.
In her recent book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Kline argues that what is needed to avoid irreversible ecological disaster is nothing less than a cultural-wide paradigm shift:
‘Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals, but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis— embedded in interdependence rather than hyperindividualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”
An alternative worldview embedded in interdependence and reciprocity? That sounds like exactly what earth-centered Paganism has to offer. Kline goes on to say that we need to take a lesson from the transformative movements of the past — like the abolition movement and the civil rights movement — which succeeded in shifting cultural values: “they dreamed in public, showed humanity a better version of itself, modeled different values in their own behavior, and in the process liberated the political imagination and rapidly altered the sense of what was possible.”
They dreamed in public … How do we “dream in public”? Joseph Campbell famously wrote that “myths are public dreams; dreams are private myths”. If myths are public dreams, then we dream in public by creating new stories, new narratives, new myths, as well as new rituals to enact those myths. And that is the business of nature religion!
Coming Out of the Broom Closet
But if we are going to “dream in public” on the scale necessary to effect a cultural paradigm shift, I think a lot more of us will need to come out of the “broom closet” and be willing to share our beliefs with non-Pagans. This includes those of us who are entirely in the closet, as well as those of us (like myself) who are standing more or less on the threshold.
Pagan secrecy has both historical and practical causes. While Earth-centered Paganism is a product of the 1960’s Counterculture and the feminist movement, the form that it initially took was borrowed from British Wicca, which was itself a product of the Western occult tradition. As the name suggests, “occult” groups tend to be secretive, and this tendency persisted in Neo-Paganism through the influence of traditional Wicca.
But even earth-centered Pagans, with few real ties to occultism, had good reason to keep their religion secret, especially in the first few decades of Neo-Paganism’s existence, which coincided with the satanic ritual abuse scare. It wasn’t until 1986 that the U.S. Court of Appeals decided, in Dettmer v. Landon, that Wicca was entitled to the constitutional protections of a religion: “Wicca occupies a place in the lives of its members parallel to that of more conventional religions. Consequently, its doctrine must be considered a religion.” There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence of people loosing their job, or even custody of their children, in those early years because of their affiliation with Paganism. But since that time, Pagans have won several important legal and cultural victories in securing tolerance, if not respect, within the mainstream culture. And with the growing ecological consciousness, earth-centered Paganism is beginning to look a little less strange to outsiders.
I realize that there are still dangers for many Pagans choosing to come out of the closet, dangers which depend a great deal on geography and life circumstances. I am very fortunate to live where I do. Although I live in a conservative town, we are close enough to Chicago that my liberalism and religious non-conformity is not so exceptional. I am also fortunate to be a lawyer, which affords me a relative level of job security and easy access to the means to exercise my legal rights. And, most of all, I am fortunate to have supportive non-Pagan family on both my own and my wife’s side of our family. Still, it is still hard for me sometimes to be open with my family about my Pagan beliefs and practices. So, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for those who are living under different circumstances.
But while I cannot tell any individual whether it is right for them to “come out of the broom closet”, I do think we need to start moving as a community toward greater openness. We as individuals need to ask ourselves the hard question of whether our remaining in the closest is born out of a legitimate fear or mere timidness. If you’re looking for support in coming out, check out the International Pagan Coming Out Day (May 2) website, especially their “Guide to Coming Out”.
Hedonism or Environmentalism
For those who really want to influence the public conversation about ecology, I also suggest we call into question the practice of using silly “craft names”. I’m not talking here about the special names used in ritual contexts. I’m talking about the names many Pagans adopt in public and on the Internet which only distract Paganism’s message to the world. And the same goes for a lot of the outlandish Pagan costumes.
I don’t think Pagan chaplain Rev. Patrick McCollum would have been invited in 2008 to testify before the U.S Commission on Civil Rights or would have become the the first government-recognized Wiccan chaplain, if he had been calling himself “Reverend Gandalf” or if he had shown up to testify in a wizard’s robe instead of a suit and tie. We Pagans may have to choose sometimes between radical self-expression and the radical social and political change we need to effect in order to avert climate catastrophe. We may have to choose sometimes between our commitment to hedonism and our commitment to the environmentalism.
In addition, I believe that we must find a way to actively share our faith with non-Pagans. The Pagan taboo against proselytizing is a product Paganism’s excessive individualism, and it stands in sharp contrast to our espoused belief in the interconnectedness of all life. The words “proselytizing” and “evangelism” get a bad rap in Paganism, probably because of negative experiences many Pagans have had with Christians trying to aggressively convert them. But I don’t think we should let this stereotype of domineering Christians become an excuse for what amounts to insularity on our part. Nor do I think we should buy into the myth that people will magically find their way to Paganism if they are “meant” to be here, a myth which may be operating as a convenient cover for our own timidness.
I’m not suggesting that we should start knocking on doors like Mormons with a “Book of Shadows” in hand. But I do believe we have a responsibility to share our faith with our friends, our family, and our neighbors, when we really can. This is not about trying to convert people to Paganism, but about sharing with people the perspective that Paganism gives us, helping to normalize the idea that we are an interconnected part of this earth. And it is about acting as if we believe it too … that we are not just connected to the earth, but to other people too, Pagan and non-Pagan.
This requires getting our Pagan “elevator speech” down pat, so if we are asked by someone what Paganism is, we don’t respond with “an unhelpful, incoherent non-answer with the gods and nature and magic bobbing about in a froth of words”. This requires making Pagan Pride Day really be about public outreach instead of just another gathering for Pagans to wear costumes. It requires not standing with our backs to the world when we circle together, figuratively or literally. It requires taking seriously Chas Clifton’s challenge to “live so that someone ignorant about Paganism would know from watching your life or visiting your home that you followed an ‘earth religion'”. And it requires inviting people to participate in rituals that will help them form a living bond with the earth … or even just talk a walk in the woods with you. The marriage equality fight has shown us that what moves people to protect an Other (whether human, other-than-human, or the entire biosphere) is personal contact with the Other. As John Beckett wrote in his contribution to the Patheos conversation on Pagan environmentalism:
“What will cause people to order their lives in ways that differ from what the mainstream culture says they should? What will cause people to set aside their immediate desires for the long term good of other people and other species? It isn’t education or information. It’s a personal, heart-felt connection to what is desired. It’s learning to see the Earth as sacred, to feel the Earth is sacred.”
And we Pagans can help people feel that. But first we need to question our motives for being in, or part-way in, the closet. We need to let go of this idea that people will magically find their way to Paganism. We need to rethink the idea that sharing Pagan values is the same as forcing our religion on them. We need to get over our timidness and our excuses. We need to be brave enough to “dream in public”.
As Pagans, we have something the world desperately needs and, if there is such a thing as sin, then I think, under the circumstances of our present environmental catastrophe, it is a sin for us to hide our faith in the closet.
John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, Jungian psychology, ecopsychology, theopoetics, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis). He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the author of the website Neo-Paganism.com. John currently serves at the Managing Editor here at HumanisticPaganism.com.