Heading the Wrong Way Into the Mainstream?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 29, 2007 — 9 Comments

Wiccan author Gus diZerega (“Pagans & Christians”, “Beyond the Burning Times”) gives an account of a public Solstice ritual, and the elements within it that troubled him concerning how modern Pagan faiths (specifically Wicca-derived models) may be changing themselves to become more palatable to a mainstream audience.

“Every new spiritual movement faces the challenge of enabling people unfamiliar with it to partake of its message, its approach to celebrating and connecting with the sacred. What is important is what is new, and what is off-putting and most easily misunderstood to others is also what is new. The more familiar the practice the more accessible the tradition – but at the same time in promoting greater accessibility the tradition might lose what it truly once had to offer. This dilemma is unavoidable when a tradition grows. How a religion handles this task is vital to its future. History is replete with people seeking to institutionalize their spiritual tradition to make it “more relevant” to ever more people, and in the process losing track of its initial message … During this Solstice Sabbat I saw this danger raise its head for the NeoPagan community.”

So what did he see and experience that troubled him? First off, the ritual leaders stopped the active involvement of participants to present a “short sermon”.

“The Sabbat’s major organizer strode forward and gave a “short sermon.” This was the speaker’s own description, not my interpretation of them. Sermons are a central aspect of Christian practice. They imply a specific kind of relationship between deity, the sermonizer, and those hearing the message. Deity is distant. The sermonizer is an expert at theological interpretation, at least compared to the audience, who are essentially passive receptacles … Like any viable spiritual practice, sermons have their strengths and weaknesses, but their strengths are not in keeping with Pagan approaches to relating with the Divine, and their weaknesses undermine the vitality of Pagan spirituality.”

This was followed by a “guided meditation” in which standard scientific explanations for life on earth were laid out for the attendees. The author claims that it was so free of religious elements that Richard Dawkins would have enjoyed it. These two elements, according to diZerega, effectively canceled out the Pagan elements of the ritual and could pose a disastrous harbinger of “mainstream” modern Paganism.

“Changes like these when repeated and institutionalized are how a religion with a new focus is gradually tamed, and brought into harmony with the status quo. If sermons become a component of Pagan ceremonies, participants will increasingly be called upon to become passive vessels filled by whatever words the preaching Priest or Priestess feels called upon to say. If the altered awareness of trance and ecstasy is replaced with hypnotic introductions to scientific orthodoxy, we end up being more dependent on the competence of those giving the sermons and less on the Gods.”

I encourage you to read the entire essay, to fully understand diZerega’s concerns and critiques. The inclusion of a sermon (with left-leaning political messages) and a science-heavy creation story seems to fit right in with your basic humanist-friendly Unitarian-Universalist service. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with such a structure, but as diZerega points out, it comes from a fundamentally Christian understanding of religion and doesn’t accurately capture the modern Pagan mode of practice.

I wonder if any of my readers have experienced similar public rituals? Do you think there is a danger that modern Pagans are watering-down (or altering) practice to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience? If so, what should our reaction be?

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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