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.