Sticking Up For Pagans
Really interesting e-mail from a reader, answering yesterday’s e-mail from the other reader who left paganism for Roman Catholicism:
Hi there, my name is Geoff Trowbridge, and I am an occasional reader of this blog. I feel very much like a secret agent or a stealthy visitor who must hide the fact that I read Rod’s column, because virtually my entire social environment and circle of friends and acquaintances is- with very few exceptions- on the range from quite liberal to hard, hard left wing. My parents and I are all members of a local UU church, one in which a lot of really wonderful, kind, compassionate people are doing a lot of great things in the community…. but also one where, despite a purported openness to diverse ideas and opinions, all those opinions and ideas are required to fit into a box suitable for middle-class, college educated, cosmopolitan western liberalism, replete with the constant, never-ending talk of LGBT (etc. with the alphabet soup) rights, social justice, every other kind of justice, and a perfect, utopian world for everybody.
Being a person who genuinely does want to hear diverse opinions and perspectives, and who truly believes that each of us has a piece of the truth, I have intentionally drifted away from a lot of the socialized environment and friend groups that I’ve been in my whole adult life, to hear from a broader community of voices- and calling a part of the world (East Tennessee) that voted for Trump by 80%-20% home it would be foolish to blindly condemn and dismiss the considerable majority of my neighbors and a lot of what they believe.
I still profoundly disagree with a lot of what Rod believes, and probably with a lot of other readers of this blog- but at the same time I agree with quite a bit of what he says too, and more importantly with where he’s coming from, and where he’s trying to get to, even if the paths he may offer as answers aren’t the ones I would want to take. I am very grateful to have this column and space for conversation as a haven of respectful debate…. it is a rare thing indeed to find these days, especially on the internet.
I don’t have a particular single point to talk about, but I did want to share some of my own perspective on this post about Paganism and its supposed shallowness, particularly in conversation with Rod but with everybody else too.
If I had a particular religious viewpoint, a lot of it would fit into some sort of Pagan beliefs. I was born and raised in East Tennessee, close to the Smoky Mountains, and still live here- and my God do I love this place on Earth. I consider myself to be a very strong environmentalist, and not for some concept of justice or rights, but for what I could only call spiritual reasons. When I was 18 I read some Wendell Berry for the first time, and I also had a series of interconnected spiritual experiences that reminded me just how interconnected and interdependent I was with the living world. We live in a sacred world, a holy world, and from that time on I have been seeking how to honor that sacredness, that precious web of life. Anybody who has had a religious or transformative spiritual experience, Christian or otherwise, may have an idea of what I’m talking about.
I’ve spent a lot of time, especially recently, hiking in some of the beautiful places that surround me, and I’ve also had the privilege of seeing some other very beautiful parts of this living Earth: Ghana in West Africa, Grenada in the Carribean, New Zealand, Mexico, Britain two times in my life. The feel and atmosphere, dare I say the spirit of a landscape, the land itself and the trees and the waters and the wildlife and the presence of human beings who have lived in a respectful way with that landscape over centuries, I find deeply meaningful and fulfilling.
Does anybody else here know what I am talking about? Do you Rod? I genuinely want to know. Christian folks may call this the awareness of the beauty of Creation. And once a person becomes fully conscious of that magnificent beauty, its hard to simply accept many of the aspects of our wasteful, disconnected modern civilization.
As regards Paganism, I think I understand where the woman Rod features here is coming from, but I also feel he and her are a little too harsh on the deeper and wider roots of Earth-based religions. I don’t really think true Paganism has much to do with any modern concepts of “liberalism”, “leftism”, or even “social justice”. This is one of my critiques of a lot of the Green Party movement, admirable as a lot of it is- it seems to be trying to fit an ecological politics into the same strand of grievance and rights-based liberalism flowing all the way back to the French Revolution.
What the Earth wants for us, or more specifically what a particular place on Earth that we call home wants for us, isn’t supposed to meet any kind of obligation of left or right- what do those concepts mean to the bird on the wing, to the rushing waterfall, or to the dying forest on the hill at the end of the day? Love for Creation is love for Creation, it’s like the love of your own children: it’s not a victory to be won or a philosophy to be fulfilled, it’s a living, breathing relationship with living beings that are sacred to you.
When I was in Mexico, I spent a couple of weeks at this ecovillage outside of this town called Tepoztlan, about 4 hours south of Mexico City. The people there are largely Nahuatl in ethnicity, or Aztec, and they still retain a lot of aspects of their culture, including their language and pre-Christian pagan beliefs. Indeed, in Tepoztlan there was at least one store selling charms and spiritual remedies that were definitely not Catholic, and the main tourist attraction there was a pyramid named for an Aztec deity.
It was a truly indigenous, rooted community, the kind that Rod often describes with great fondness here, and though yes the considerable majority of Mexicans there were practicing Catholics, and I’m sure that faith gave them a lot of strength and sustenance, many people still followed the “old gods”, and you know what- I think that gave them and continues to give them a lot of sustenance too. In how they raise their families, in how they honor their ancestors, in how they try to live sustainably and honorably on particular pieces of land that they’ve lived on for many centuries.
They would definitely not be called “progressive” people by just about any standard- some of our modern ideas about queer folks, transgender or gay, and modern feminism, they would find very strange and nonsensical. They understood that life is not going to be perfect for people, that it involves suffering and sorrow, and lot of the wisdom of a culture is in dealing with that and coming out with a sense of grace. Indeed many pagan, indigenous belief systems are able to contain this, by having a non-dualistic understanding of ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’, just and unjust.
When I was in other places, like Carriciou in Grenada, or Ghana, I got a strong sense of an indigenous presence on the land as well, and the possibility of people having a spiritual consciousness with the land. My question is, if people are able to live lives of balance and beauty, honoring each other, honoring the living beings around them, honoring their past, and setting a good example for the generations that follow them, what does it really matter what religious path they take?
I do understand that many committed Christians who read this are basing their beliefs on ideas of an eternal afterlife, with particular rules that will get them there- or not- so I get that not everything is about an Earthly presence. Still, I beg you to bear with me here.
As a guy from Tennessee, a lot of the people I’ve met over my life have been practicing Christians, but as somebody who moves in mostly liberal and left-wing circles, a lot of people I meet are non-religious, and of all those many people, do you know what their REAL religion that they practiced seemed to be?
Capitalism. Growth, progress, materialism, greed, selfishness by the nature of their lifestyle.
People of a deeper faith mark themselves by their humility, by their kindness, by their ability to listen, and by how they have relationships of depth and sacredness. I have met people like that who were profoundly Christian (like at the remarkable Koinonia Farm in south Georgia) and people who were genuine, committed Pagans (like at the also remarkable Earthhaven Ecovillage in North Carolina) and people of many other faiths.
The Altars we create are visible in many ways, and to bow down to something, to someone, to a place or to a God or set of Gods, is a difficult thing in these modern times.
But any bowing down is so rare, can we not see the Beauty that it speaks of, of the precious Thread of Life that it ennobles?
Thanks for reading- I look forward to hearing your response.
This e-mail has just come in as I am about to start another project, so I’ll have to provide my answer later. Still, I know many of you will have thoughts, and I want to open it up to you. Two quick thoughts from me:
- This great letter probably explains why I have as much, and maybe more, in common with my pagan friend Franklin Evans than I do with certain kinds of liberal and conservative Christians. It has to do with reverence towards Nature (or, as we Christians would have it, Creation), and the connectedness of things. This is a thoroughly Christian view, by the way, but it is also a pre-modern view.
- I would like to point you to this piece about the recently discovered C.S. Lewis essay, “A Christmas Sermon For Pagans.” Excerpts from the Lewis:
To say that modern people who have drifted away from Christianity are Pagans is to suggest that a post-Christian man is the same as a pre-Christian man. And that is like thinking … a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built. [They do have something in common], namely that neither will keep you dry if it rains. But they are very different in every other respect. Rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups and a lark singing overhead…
A universe of colourless electrons (which is presently going to run down and annihilate all organic life everywhere and forever) is, perhaps, a little dreary compared with the earth-mother and the sky-father, the wood nymphs and the water nymphs, chaste Diana riding the night sky and homely Vesta flickering on the hearth. …
It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. … For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.
3. Check out this blog post I wrote about the parallels between the Benedict Option and Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain project.