Column: Pagan Worldviews in the Wider World

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Twitter can be a lawless hellscape where regular use of the ban-hammer is the only way to stem the endless feed flood of political bots, anonymous stalkers, and extremist trolls. Elected officials continually violate declared community standards on targeted harassment while asserting that the platform is secretly erasing their followers. Extreme-right activists respond to posts by journalists and academics with grossly anti-Semitic and racist memes. Bizarre counterfactual conspiracy theories are promoted daily on the continually updated trends tab.

Twitter can also be a liberating forum for the free exchange of ideas and amplification of underrepresented voices that go largely unheard in mainstream media. Members of minority communities can clap back at the blue-check verified glitterati of cable news, print journalism, government, and academia. Stories that have been erased from the corporate newsfeed narrative can be shared and lifted to prominence. The wild and willful lies of politicians can be fact-checked and denounced in real time.

Earlier this month, two tweets, made one week apart, caught my attention and have been bubbling in my brain ever since.

“Out into the Wide World” by John Bauer (1907) [Public Domain]

“Christian mindsets” and “dangerous narcissism”

The first was posted by Soli, a Pagan in Connecticut who is Kemetic Orthodox, a practitioner of witchcraft, and an initiated hounsi in Haitian Vodou. She wrote that she had been pondering “ways pagans and polytheists can extract themselves from Christian mindsets.”

The second was part of a thread by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who quoted bell hooks1 on turning “spiritual practice into a commodity.” “I am struck,” writes hooks, “by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love in the context of community.”

Both of these tweets are a bit perpendicular to my own regular paths of thought, but isn’t engaging with new points of view why we spend time on social media? Well – no. We generally go online to have our biases confirmed, tell strangers that they’re wrong, watch cat videos, and try to convince others how interesting our lives really and truly (supposedly) are. It would be great if we actually were always open to new perspectives, however, and in this case, these two tweets did get me thinking.

On one hand, accusations of “Christian mindset” in today’s Pagan communities seem to generally be leveled against anyone who has a different opinion on a given subject. Anyone who has made a statement for or against gay marriage, racial diversity, reproductive rights, relationship to deity, modes of worship, or any of a host of other topics that get argued about in online Pagan spaces has likely had the charge leveled against them. The view being shouted down is said to be “Christian baggage” and not in accordance with the supposedly unified worldview of our putatively glorious Pagan ancestors.

On the other hand, there does seem to be a common habit of porting Christian frameworks into modern Paganism in the United States. Ex-Catholics build national organizations with ritual and hierarchical structures similar to those within Roman Catholicism. Ex-Mormons gravitate towards groups with a concept of elders parallel to that within the Latter Day Saint movement. Ex-evangelicals build intense personal relationships with deities that echo the fervent devotion to Christ within fundamentalist Christianity.

In many cases, the obvious influence of Christian upbringing is brushed aside by citing specific passages in, for example, the Eddas and sagas of medieval (Christian) Iceland  – an emphasis on the primary religious role of written textual sources that is itself foundational across multiple modes of American Christianity.

If it is indeed a worthwhile project for modern Pagans to “extract themselves from Christian mindsets,” if part of becoming more solidly Pagan is becoming less subconsciously Christian, how do we perform this self-intervention without falling victim to “the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love in the context of community”?

I think the key is in the end of the quote from bell hooks: “in the context of community.” We can agree to disagree on whether “the practice of love” is a prime directive of whatever form of Paganism we each subscribe to; the central issue is developing religious understanding while avoiding the pitfall of navel-gazing self-absorption that is part of the heritage of American Paganism from the spiritual tourism of the 1960s, the “Me Decade” of the 1970s, and the crystal therapy of the 1980s. Maybe the best way to turn away from self-centered spirituality is to turn to the public sphere.

If Paganism today is truly distinct from Christianity today, engaging with public discourse may be a solid means of self-defining and clarifying the multiplicity of Pagan worldviews. By looking up from our texts, walking out of our circles, entering the wider world, and openly joining the flow of modern history expressly as Pagans, we can sharpen our understanding of what makes our own voices unique and necessary.

“In the context of community”

Rather than simply sniping at the privileging of Christianity in American public life and demanding diversity of representation, we can assert what positive effects the seating of Pagans at the table will have. If our local legislatures and other public spaces begin sessions or events with prayer, what do we have to say that is qualitatively different and special? What elements of our worldview can be expressed in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to the wider communities in which we live? By putting ourselves forward as willing to speak publicly at these sorts of social moments, we put ourselves in situations where we must drill down into our own beliefs and concepts and distill them into coherent and expressible forms.

Instead of only critiquing mainstream journalists from Christian backgrounds who write for corporate secular media but regularly and primarily cover Christianity as the default form of American religiosity, we can publicly lay out what Pagan writers have to offer that would improve the coverage of religious issues in the news. If journalists who come from Catholic families, Catholic high schools, and Catholic universities tend to privilege official voices from hierarchical religious organizations and mostly cover issues important to Catholics (abortion, death penalty, shrinking church attendance, whatever the pope did this week), what would journalists from Pagan backgrounds provide that would clearly improve news coverage?

If our diversity is our strength – diversity not just of practitioner heritage but also of belief, theology, practice, and organizational structure – how would that diversity positively effect what happens in newsroom meetings and what appears in print? By articulating the benefits of including Pagan voices in mainstream media, we clarify what is different and special about our worldviews.

Many of us have had negative experiences in educational settings, whether as students or teachers. A dean once told me that Ásatrú “has no validity,” a philosophy professor insisted that historical pagans were nothing but “poisoners,” and several noted scholars in medieval studies have stated that anyone studying Norse mythology is either a promoter of “whiteness” or an actual Nazi. If modern Paganism, historical paganism, and even the study of the written myths can be unashamedly slandered in educational settings, it seems obvious that Pagan representation is needed and that we can offer perspectives that are not only missing but willfully excluded.

The whetting of worldview expression in academic settings is, for those of scholarly bent, a fantastic way to clarify for ourselves what we really think about a range of issues. I know that formulating my responses to Christian writers assigned in divinity school was a great way to sharpen my ability to express my ideas coming from an Ásatrú perspective, and I have direct experience with the ways classroom discussions of multiple issues can become both broader and deeper when Pagan voices speak out and are heard.

This sort of sharpening doesn’t have to happen in an academic setting, but it does definitely help to address our ideas to a non-Pagan audience in whatever media we’re most comfortable in – written word, spoken word, video, music, or visual arts. So much of intra-Pagan discourse can take place via shorthand or with the assumption of shared conceptual understanding.

By engaging in the wider public conversation, we have to fully articulate what can go unsaid within our own virtual or physical communities. Just as the pressure of an upcoming performance or competition can drive a musician or athlete to take their skills to the next level, the spotlight of speaking out in the public sphere can push a Pagan to more clearly formulate and articulate what their worldview contains aside from so-called Christian baggage.

There are many paths forward, but I do think that Pagans who truly want to “extract themselves from Christian mindsets” would derive great benefit from addressing their own beliefs and practice “in the context of community.” It is not an easy road to travel, and there are both potholes and irate drivers on it. There is no magickal crystalline wonderland of self-actualization at the end, but instead a lifelong journey through multiple communities that can help us to understand what it is that we each mean by Paganism and what our beliefs and practices can offer to others. Your mileage may vary.

1. Editor’s note: bell hooks’s name is spelled in lower case.