Institutions vs Counterculture in Modern Paganism

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In 1983 something different happened within the world that we call modern Paganism. The organization Circle Sanctuary, which had been involved in activism, publishing, and throwing events since the 1970s, began the process of purchasing a plot of land after four years of fundraising in the (still nascent) community.

Circle Sanctuary. Photo: Paula Jean West

Circle Sanctuary. Photo: Paula Jean West

“Circle Sanctuary land manifests. After four years of fund raising and land hunting, land is found in southwestern Wisconsin and purchase begins. Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve becomes the first Pagan land project to be supported by Pagans from many traditions and from Paganism as a whole. Its creation inspires other centers to begin their own land projects. Circle moves its headquarters from its rented farm in Black Earth and rented offices in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin to Circle Sanctuary land. Circle changes its full legal name from Church of Circle Wicca to Circle Sanctuary. At Yule, a Stone Circle is established in an oak and birch grove atop a majestic mound on Circle Sanctuary land.”

This was not the first time Pagans owned land, but it was unique for that way it raised money from the wider community, with the idea that the land would be used for Pagan events and functions. Even today, almost all outdoor Pagan events in the United States take place on rented land, at parks, or at land owned by fellow travelers sympathetic to modern Pagans. But I’m not here to talk about land per se, but what the purchase of Circle Sanctuary represented: a move towards infrastructure and institutions. If you read any history/overview of modern Paganism, “Drawing Down the Moon,”  “Her Hidden Children,” or “The Triumph of The Moon,” you’ll see us operating as a religious subculture, or more accurately, a religious counterculture. Explicitly holding values at odds with the dominant institutional faiths in the West (namely Christianity, but also Judaism).

“A culture with values and customs are very different from and usually opposed to those accepted by most of society; also : the people who make up a counterculture.”Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Now, many countercultural currents in America, the UK, and other Western countries eventually try to collectively own land. But this is usually done in the context of creating a completely separate space from mainstream life and values. Modern Paganism’s moves in this direction, I’d argue, may have started out this way, but became something else in the last 30 years. Modern Paganism’s leaders (self-appointed or otherwise) have, quite openly, and usually with enthusiastic support, been moving our religions towards mainstream institutional participation and acceptance. We’re not only trying to buy land, but build seminaries, and libraries. We’re demanding equal treatment within the military, and in how Pagans are treated in prison, we mobilize when slandered by talking heads in the mainstream media, and have worked very hard to be seen as faiths to be respected within the context of the global interfaith movement.

There is nothing wrong at all with any of this, and indeed, I have been an active cheerleader for many of these developments here at The Wild Hunt. However, these are not the actions of countercultural faiths, and I think there’s a growing undercurrent of tension within our interconnected communities over just how integrated and accepted we want to be. For example, the publisher Scarlet Imprint recently published a book entitled “Apocalyptic Witchcraft” that was, essentially, a manifesto for embracing Witchcraft’s outsider, countercultural, and wild, elements as a way forward.

“Witchcraft is the recourse of the dispossessed, the powerless, the hungry and the abused.  It gives heart and tongue to stones and trees.  It wears the rough skin of beasts.  It turns on a civilization that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” – Peter Grey, Apocalyptic Witchcraft

We are a religious movement that embraces plurality, and most often, polytheism, so we tend to reject easy binary dualisms, but there does seem to be an often unasked question hanging over many of our debates lately: what do we collectively want? Do we want to be part of the West’s religious institutional structure with churches, libraries, and schools, or do we want to be unpredictable, wild, and outside of traditional society’s norms? This is a spectrum, to be sure, there are Catholic anarchists, after all, existing side-by-side with the rules and expectations of Mother Church, but they largely exist on the fringes, tolerated, mainly as a steam valve for the pressures of maintaining a global institution hundreds of millions strong. Likewise, the organized center of modern Paganism fully embracing mainstream aspirations won’t suddenly erase the Witches, Pagans, and polytheists who live vagabond, bohemian, or radical lifestyles on the fringes of our culture. But a choice is being made, and we should be making it with open eyes.

As I see the ongoing debates over theology, I often ask myself why some of us are so concerned with what other people in our movement really believe. Certainly there are events and functions that call for a modicum of theological comity, but for the most part, these questions normally get hashed out on a small-group level. Individuals deciding if they are in tune enough to work together, to be religiously, spiritually, intimate. If concerns about theology are seen as pressing on a meta-level, that is, as being pertinent on a intrafaith, intra-community, model, then it seems to me that it ties into the larger question of what our movement wants in terms of its future. If we are countercultural, then questions of theology and belief are decided locally, by groups actually working together, larger cooperation is saved for a political crisis that demands a more unified voice (or for big parties). But if we are moving towards permanent infrastructure and Pagan institutions, then questions of theology become very, very, important indeed. Then it’s about who’s inside, and who is outside.

When I became a Pagan in 1990, we still operated largely as a counterculture. But in the last 20-plus years, I’ve heard the conversations, the debates, and the yearnings, and I know that many want the respect, and the power, that comes from being part of the institution. We want leaders to acknowledge us, we want to be respected, we want our credentials to be accepted as valid, and our pronouncements taken seriously. We want to have a say, and our elders want fiscal support, and our clergy want to be paid, and we want nice buildings, with a parking lot, conveniently located near our schools and work. These are the same people throwing the events, buying the land, and winning legal battles in our names. At the same time, there are still plenty of Pagans who have almost no connection to the “Pagan Community” as such. Who attend transformational festivals, who’d rather be at a music festival than at an indoor convention. Who live lifestyles dedicated to being radical outsiders, who participate in tree-sits and reject the very idea of “clergy” or “leaders.”

Again, I’m making no value judgements here. I’m not arguing for institution or counterculture, I’m arguing for conscious decision making. Many of us believe in magic, in Will, in shaping our own futures. As such, if we are going to be a part of this religious movement, then we should be clear-eyed about what we ultimately want to become. We are at a point in our growth and success where we’ve allowed ourselves a moment’s reflection on the future. I believe this is why we are having so many fundamental debates over who we are, and if we want to be a part of this movement. This question isn’t even necessarily an either-or, but the way in which we “lean” will shape our collective future. Eventually, some part of us will be seen as the fringe, as not representing the heart of our culture, and I want to make sure we are comfortable with the direction of our forward lean.