True story: The Earth is not the center of the universe. Neither is the sun. Most likely, the universe has no center; it’s at once both infinite and bounded, but tell that to the wrong person, in say 17th-century Italy, and you found a one-way ticket to sacrilege. Just ask Giordano Bruno.
But you actually don’t have to go that far back to see how a dominant authority pushes back against new ideas, sometimes aggressively. For example, stress doesn’t cause ulcers, neither do bad eating habits. The medical establishment once believed that ulcers were caused by caused stress and over time that became untested medical truth. In 2005, after two decades of being dismissed and even ridiculed, Drs. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren received the Nobel Prize in medicine for establishing that bacteria are the actual causes of over 90% of stomach ulcers. Their ideas had been called rubbish, because the medical power-elite had certified belief as fact.
Each in its own way is an act of heresy; the essence of modern Pagan transgression. They each represent a rejection of the norms that were established by a powerful patriarchy controlling through belief and not evidence. They each represent a moment of liberal insight that broke through the fog of dogma.And, of course, that is a dangerous process because dogma is a very, very safe place. It is a place of narrative symmetry where the world and our place in it is perfectly described. If we believe, the world becomes a simpler place. It also fades in color and relief because that fog remands complexity into monotony. Ultimately, the extravagance of individuality is subverted to the anonymity of conformity.
Regardless whether it is science or religion, when belief becomes an ultimatum, the intent is to suppress. It is a tactic of the patriarchy; the dominant overarching institution present in the world today that has sought our subordination for millennia. It began with establishing the most basic — indeed the simplest — of rules: identifying who is right and who is wrong, good and evil. Who belongs and who does not belong. With them, who is transgressing and that transgression is sin.
As a concept, sin is designed to make you feel flawed and outcast. It strips belongingness and replaces it with guilt. Rather than empowering an individual, sin promotes doubt, shame and- down the line- subservience through a need for cleansing. The type that can only be offered by the patriarchy.
The rise of modern psychology as field of science in the West laid bare the emotional damage that the concept of sin wrecks on individuals. Sin became increasingly recognized as a mechanism of control that suppressed individuality and repressed authentic living. Promoting the act of shaming and instilling emotional vulnerabilities into individuals through dogma are strategies that Pagans have been staring down in defiance for decades.
There are movements afoot to stifle that freedom within our community. From defining our relationships to deities to prescribing the parameters of “harm none,” some parts of our diverse community have sought to identify what constitutes moral code. It’s a mistake. The world is already full of enough would-be bullies and mores, that we have no need to hand over new rules for controlling us.
There seems to be a rise in some quarters to convene acts of shunning, to define our morality, and to even align Paganism to monotheism so we can be less outcast. Yes, you read that right, I’ve now heard too many times in the past month that we should frame polytheism as practice looking at divine representations of the same god. Or conversely flirting with the other darling, pantheism, where reality and a monotheistic deity are one in the same. All in the context of adopting codes of common theological belief and conduct because of the reprehensible behavior of some individuals who happen to be Pagan.
Frankly, these arguments all head to the same place: monotheism with sin. Or, more clandestinely to a patriarchy, redux and incognito.
For ourselves and with limited support and infrastructure, I think that we’ve have done pretty well without invoking creedal structures of faith. That’s something that the Abrahamic faiths brought to the table: some central requirement that must be believed to be considered part of the religion. Creedal faiths create community by identifying belongingness through common belief.
While the creedal nature of Judaism is debatable, the Shema Yisarel in Deuteronomy 6:4 condenses its monotheistic nature and center: “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The proclamation of monotheism and the supremacy of the one god is a core tenet of Judaism and essentially a requirement for the construction of the Covenant.
Similarly, Muslims must profess the Shahada, the twin testimonial of faith: ”There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Rejecting any part of the Shahada essentially means that you are not Muslim. Accepting the testimonial places you in community almost regardless of your practice.
The same is true for Christianity which consolidated major aspects of its creedal nature in the First Council of Nicea that started on 20 May, 325 CE and lasted until just before the solstice. That council established some of the core tenets of the church. Most famously, perhaps, is the Apostle’s Creed that forms the earliest statements of Christian belief. Among those beliefs is the trinitarian nature of God, the suffering of Jesus Christ, and the redemption he offers through belief in his sacrifice and resurrection. These are the essential elements of belief. It is a statement of faith that becomes an essential requirement to be in communion. If you don’t believe in Christ’s sacrifice for your salvation from your transgressions, you basically are not a Christian.
Creeds offer empowerment, belonging and community. But in their extreme, creeds also lead to fanaticism and sober consequences. It doesn’t take much to see it. Turn on the news, or ask Giordano Bruno.Rejecting the concept of sin — a likely outcome of creed construction — while accepting the diversity of belief is both the trodden path to apostasy as well as the most fundamental form of Pagan liberation. It is sin that defines our lack of fitness for religious involvement and demands remediation for imperfections defined by powerful others in our society. It is also the idea of sin that Pagans render powerless. We can be ourselves without adding guilt and shame.
That’s not to say we cannot have expectations of conduct. In many ways, we already have them. Our expectations of hospitality, honor, and respect are hallmarks of our community. We teach them at Pagan festivals. We also offer a consequentialist view of the world that we share with other devotional faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism. We learn to own our actions, reaping and sowing.
In the African traditional religions, we have a concept called Ori; it literally means “head,” but it also means your spiritual sense of who you are. It is intuition, destiny and authenticity. Part of the task of divination is to help us express our Ori and learn how we can better live in balance and acceptance of who we are, our Iwá Pélé. As we learn who we are, we balance the energies around us and within us, and thus improve and heal ourselves. We strive to fulfill who we are and the balance lets us move through the streams of destiny – everything flows, and our balance lets us move effortlessly.
That’s not free reign to live in ways that damage others and the world around us; we still live in both a spiritual and societal interconnected web. Instead, as we learn to stop harming and we begin accepting. We navigate the demands of the world composed and at ease. We can honor, respect and accept those around us and build community and strength, and we can leave justice to Justice.
One of the great strengths of reconstructed Paganism is to build unconditional acceptance of the self. That process undermines the patriarchal controls that declare what is wrong with us while promoting a wholeness for ourselves that is powerfully centering in a society that — at best — tolerates our presence. That’s also consistent with modern psychotherapy: help people explore their failures, fears and frailties while offering them the tools to overcome them. We don’t need sin or creeds to define who we are and what we can do; we need self-acceptance. That strips us of anxiety and births our authentic selves.
That genuineness lets us do great things, think great things and ask great questions, sometimes in the face of the worst oppression. We might even be remembered for them.
Just ask Giordano Bruno.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.