Archives For Quaker Pagans

The Utah Standard-Examiner talks to author Sharman Apt Russell on the event of her visit for the Weber Pathways’ Seventh Annual Author Dinner Event. Russell, well known for her science and nature books, branched out in 2008 with “Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist”, which explored the history of pantheism, and her own devotion to that religious philosophy.

“Tell someone you are a pantheist, and she is likely to wrinkle her brow in confusion,” said Russell. “Tell her you believe that the universe is a miracle worthy of awe and reverence — and she may well nod her head in agreement.”

Which is all fine and good, some of my best friends are pantheists after all, nothing to write home about within the scope of this blog. What is particularly interesting is when Russell, a Quaker, discusses the distinctions between her pantheism and outright Paganism.

“I’m not a pagan dancing around a tree, I anchor myself to the Quaker community,” she said. “I belong to an organized religion, Quakerism, which is eclectic and diverse in its beliefs, but does have a sense of the sacred and … a sense of reverence. It has a lot of history to it, and so I’m am not unanchored.”

Which immediately made me wonder about all the Pagans dancing around trees who also anchor themselves to Quakerism. Some of whom I count as friends. Now, given that newspaper articles often paraphrase or quote out of context, we make not know the fullness of Russell’s feelings on the divisions between pantheism and Paganism. That said, there are an awful lot of implications to unpack from her statement. Is Paganism, in her opinion, unanchored? Does Paganism not have a sense of reverence or the sacred? What is she even speaking of when she speaks about “paganism”? I can’t imagine that a self-professed pantheist is completely ignorant of the advent of modern Paganism. Or indeed, that a Quaker pantheist would not know of the growing movement of Quaker Pagans, a phenomenon large enough to gain the attention of large Christian publications.

In the end, her statement sounds like a disclaimer. I may be a pantheist, it says, but I’m not too different. I shouldn’t scare or unnerve you. I’m not like those margin-walkers trying to co-exist in two different traditions, or taking my reverence for the universe into the realm of actually celebrating its existence by “dancing around a tree”. I’m safe, I’m one of you.

I don’t say that to mock or belittle Ms. Russell, only to acknowledge how those statements sound to actual Pagans who have been known to dance around the odd tree, or find a sense of true reverence outside a Christian-founded institution. Indeed, Russell, and her message, are important. She is making pantheism safe for those made nervous by the Pagans, in a very real sense she is preparing her community for a post-Christian society.

Cat Chapin-Bishop at Quaker Pagan Reflections has posted a very brave personal essay exploring the need for, and hierarchy created by, fame in the Pagan community. In the process she outs her own cravings for Pagan-world fame, and how this fame-centered economy sometimes brings out the worst in those who would be our leaders and teachers.

“…there’s also something that’s a little off in my craving for fame through writing. I can joke about it, but I know it’s there. When my friend K. is talking about his latest writing project, or the interaction with the organizers at a festival where he’s presenting, I think, “I want that!” I don’t just want to write for the sake of the writing, or publish for the sake of communicating with an audience. I’m attracted to the shallow, superficial aspects of it, too. I want the sense of being Important, and having people act like they agree with me. It’s very adolescent, really. And it’s also very, very Pagan … it’s a way of life in the Pagan world. In the Pagan world, all too often, you can tell exactly who the Big Name Pagans are by how they walk into a room. And those of us with friends who are Big Name Pagans–or even passing acquaintances who are Big Name Pagans–are under a constant temptation to puff ourselves, at least a little, by name dropping.”

While I’m certainly no Starhawk, Margot Adler, or Thorn Coyle, I have spent quite a bit of time processing my own small piece of Pagan notoriety. I too have felt the pressure to publish that book, the book that would cement my name and place in Pagan history, and I was more than a little pleased when I started getting offers to speak at festivals and public events. But at the same time I, like Cat, have felt deeply ambivalent concerning the way our communities measure what she (and the Quakers) call “weight” (which I gather is akin to spiritual authority). I have also realized that I may never write that book, or if I do, it won’t be anytime soon, or in a form that will garner me the kind of Pagan-fame that gets people to name-drop you in occult stores. I realized that what I am is a new-media journalist and commentator, and that for me to be truly effective at what I do I can never aspire to be part of the unspoken Pagan hierarchy Cat describes, a pecking order that can value sales and volume over truth or accuracy.

I urge all my readers to read her post, and tell me what you see when you look at our “leaders” and “teachers”. Are our brightest lights there on merit? Or are they simply the ones with the best representation and publishing contracts? Have you felt the urge to “publish that book”? Have you ever found yourself name-dropping some BNP (big-name Pagan) at an event or shop? What do you think about Pagan fame?

Modern Reformation magazine profiles the growing movement of Quaker Pagans, and interviews Cat Chapin-Bishop of the Quaker Pagan Reflections blog.

“In the last decade, this dual faith has sprung up around the country, including Quaker-pagan gatherings, seminars, an extensive presence on the Internet, and even explicitly Quaker-pagan congregations. There may be only several hundred Quaker pagans, but among American Quakers, their presence can be distinctly felt.”

The article also speaks to Pagan-turned-Christian Carl McColman, and Stasa Morgan-Appel of the Musings of a Quaker Witch blog. The tone of religion journalist Matthew Streib seems to be intrigued but cautious, noting that the dwindling number of Quakers could receive an infusion of new blood from curious Pagans, but that the tradition (specifically the Friends General Conference) risks losing its focus on Christ (and thus its Christian identity).

“[Cat Chapin-Bishop] says many pagans find Quakerism attractive because it allows them to appear more mainstream. Still, she worries that if their commitment doesn’t deepen, that could weaken Quaker beliefs. “I see the pagan world waking up and saying, `Wow, there’s Quakers, and maybe we could be Quakers and pagans — cool!'” she said. ‘If it stays on that superficial level, that’s not good news, and threatens Quakerism with real dilution. But if there are some leadings and people … take in the wisdom that people have to teach us, then it’s a wonderful thing for both pagans and the Society of Friends.'”

Could the more liberal strains of Quakerism slowly evolve into a post-Christian faith? It isn’t an unheard-of event. Unitarian-Universalism, once two distinct liberal Christian traditions, has embraced a post-Christian identity and now happily includes a number of theological points of view (including Paganism) within its ranks. Whether these theological shifts are ultimately healthy is a topic that is still being debated, though even conservative Quakers are hesitant to take an action that would make Pagans feel unwelcome.

“Christ is not the sort of person who would drive people away — I don’t know that it’s our job to stop it … Our job is to seek to know the will of the living Christ and to obey it the best we can. When we humans try to fix one another, we just make things much, much worse.”

Whether its fate is to remains essentially Christian, or evolve into something else, the Religious Society of Friends will most likely avoid hostile cries of heresy and fights over blasphemy that would be greeted if this trend manifested in a more mainstream Christian church. Instead, the Quakers will most likely do what they have always done, listen in silence, and wait for the “leading of the spirit”.