by Rev James Vacca
What does it mean to be a pagan, in 2019? If someone asks you about your religion, what do you say? And if you attend a gathering of fellow pagans, what does it mean if you find their beliefs and practices are radically different than your own? What shapes this thing we call paganism?
These questions have at least one answer found while considering the strange duality and tension that sits at the foundation of modern paganism: the duality of religion and spirituality.
In the general usage, religion is used to describe a system of beliefs and practices that all work together. A religion is the tenets of faith, the structure of ritual, the theological grounding, the core values, and the basic practices of a set of beliefs in some form of divinity. In the best case scenario, this framework helps to support and encourage the experience of the faithful.
Spirituality, then, is that experience. It’s that unique understanding that you the believer have with your divinity. Spirituality is the meditative bliss, the message from your astral journey, the feeling of being with the undeniable presence of the divine.
In a broader, or perhaps more philosophical sense, this duality is between social structures on the one hand, and personal, unverifiable gnosis on the other. Paganism is a place where your own direct experiences with the divine are given serious weight and immense theological authority. The gnosis, or knowledge of spiritual mysteries, that you experience is direct from the source, so to speak. But it’s also personal and unverifiable. No one else will have the same experience as someone else, and oftentimes if they do it’s a worrying sign that a cult of personality is forming.
So what does this mean? On one side, we experience this direct and unique experience with the divine; on the other side, we have this structure of practices and beliefs that we use to build a community with other humans. Humans who also have their own direct and unique experience of the divine. This is the tension; how do we compare one person’s personal, unverifiable gnosis with any other person’s? We cannot, and to attempt to do so usually leads to hatred and bigotry.
And yet, we must in some ways make a judgement if we are to have any kind of shared experience. By coming together as co-religionists, we share our gnosis and try to hammer out some framework that allows us all to continue having these mystical experiences. The tension builds, and often leads to splinter groups and schisms.
As pagan religion continues to grow, it faces the challenge of synthesis or sanctuary. Does a group strive to bring together all of the gnosis if its members into one, new, glorious vision? This is the aim of synthesis, but too often this results in a washed out form of spirituality stripped of all identifying marks. To make the unified whole fit everything, many of the unique facets get scraped off.
What about sanctuary then? Does a group strive to let every gnosis stand, to give room for as many unique experiences as possible? Then comes the challenge of syncretism and tolerant intolerance. How does a group manage the competing interests of a shrine that demands total darkness that can only be placed next to one that must always have a candle burning?
What does this mean for you? For your own paganism? It means that when you go to a festival or gathering, you’re going to find groups that have a different understanding of the god or goddess you hold dear. And that’s ok.
It means that as you build your spiritual life, it’s not going to look like the spiritual life of anyone else. And that’s ok.
It means that if you want to stand up and tell someone that they’re doing something wrong or advocating an incorrect belief, you had better be prepared for a debate. Sometimes this will work; groups that focus on reconstruction are much more open to this sort of discussion. But less historically minded groups have less concern.
This also means that when you encounter groups who hold beliefs that you find questionable, you should engage with them and strive to explore their understanding. They are like you, bearers of personal gnosis, and they are striving to create a community of shared experience.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this also means that you should discover where your own boundaries lie. Where does the tension become too much for you? When must you be intolerant to be tolerant? What level of synthesis works for you? Discover these things, and then also discover that these are your boundaries, not anyone else’s. There are some points that most pagans agree on: things like human sacrifice, slavery, and other major illegal actions. But besides these areas, most other boundaries you will discover are just yours. You can find a group that aligns closely with your edges, but even then there will be points of contention.
How do we solve this tension? This duality? We don’t. This is the core of modern paganism. Tectonic plates are thrust apart by upwellings of lava, forcing the plates away from each other and creating massive stress. But this pressure creates new land. In the same way the duality of modern paganism is where we find the new land of the divine.