Pagan Is Not a Four-Letter Word
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 31, 1999
|Religious language can be a very tricky thing. The terms we use to describe aspects of spirituality and religion can color them, change the way we see them, carve deep places in our minds that only the most patient re-envisioning can erase.|
Here's a story to illustrate:
Picture a second grade Sunday School class, in a church, perhaps, a little more traditional than ours. It's just before Christmas and the teacher has just told her students the story about the events leading up to the birth of Jesus-- the shepherds and the Wise Men and King Herod and all that. She then asks the students to draw pictures about the "flight into Egypt". And as they draw, she walks around the room, making appropriately encouraging comments to each. "Very nice, Johnny," "Good job, Suzy." You know, teacher-kinds of noises like that. They're all drawing donkeys and baby Jesuses and things like that.
Then, the teacher comes upon Veronica, and looks down at the desk at her picture. And on her paper, little Veronica is just putting the finishing touches on a really nice picture of a Boeing 747.
"Oh, Veronica" says the teacher. "What's this?"
"It's the flight into Egypt," Veronica says.
"Hmmmm. Okay. And these people in the windows, who are they?"
"They're Joseph and Mary and the Baby Jesus," Veronica explains.
"I see," says the teacher. "And who is that up in the cockpit?"
"Oh," says Veronica, "that's Pontius, their pilot."
Religious language can be a very tricky thing. Just when we might think we've got it right, we find out that we've missed the whole darned point.
There are some Unitarian Universalists who suffer from a disease known as the "Baptist Bends": the mere mention of the word "Jesus", and they're just about bent over in pain like someone punched them in the stomach. They can't see beyond their own pre-conceived notions about Christianity and Jesus enough to see that there might actually be some lessons there worth learning for them.
The same thing happens in society as a whole. Mention "Marxism", for instance, and people conjure up notions in their heads about Lenin and Stalin and the whole stupid, mad system they spawned-- which had really very little to do with the original ideas of Karl Marx.
Nowhere is there a more loaded theological term than "paganism". To call someone a "Pagan" is sort of the religious equivalent of calling someone a "Communist". Say "pagan", and in the popular mind, all kinds of ridiculous notions about Satanic worship and ecstatic orgies and animal (even human!) sacrifice come to mind. I think I've told some of you already about the collie we had when we lived in Maine whom we named Pagan. The name really fit: he was beautiful young dog, so energetic, so close to the Earth, so in tune, we thought with nature. (Not too bright, but that's beside the point.)
And one crisp, fall day, we were out walking Pagan around our neighborhood in Rockland, and one of our neighbors, Mrs. Knight, came over to chat. "And what's your dog's name?" she asked.
"Pagan," we replied proudly.
"Ohhhh," was all she said (with just a slightly quizzical look on her face). Until the next time we walked by, walking the dog, with Mrs. Knight puttering around her front yard, and she greeted us: "Hello, Liz! Hello, Jeff! Hello, Satan!"
Nice woman, Mrs. Knight. But she just couldn't get beyond her preconceptions equating paganism with Satanism. Nor was she alone...
In Asheville, North Carolina, a proclamation by the mayor recognizing "Earth Religions Awareness Week" is being criticized by a group of local ministers because, they say, it invites "witchcraft" into town.
In other communities, more conservative religious elements condemn in-class exercises in guided meditation and visualization as "pagan rituals". And now, some fundamentalist Christian ministers want the phenomenally popular Harry Potter banned from school libraries because, they say, the books encourage "sorcery". (Hey, I say, if it takes sorcery to get kids to read-- so be it! As soon as I heard that, I clicked on Amazon.com and ordered the complete Harry Potter set-- boxed!)
So, it is that if you want to margainalize someone, and indicate that they are beyond the pale, religiously speaking, you call them a "pagan". Of course, among religious extremists there is generally a tendency to label any religious practice not in strict conformity with their narrow slant as "pagan" (as Satanic, diabolical, evil)-- so all kinds of people get painted with the "pagan" brush. This, of course, does real violence to the actual meaning of the word:
"Pagan" is from the Latin pagonis, meaning "rural folk" or "country dwellers". Later, it takes on a connotation of "rural hicks", meaning those not living close to the action in Rome. (Just as the word "heathen" comes from the Old English for those who lived out on the heaths-- in the country-- away from the cities.
Now, these early "pagans", these country folk, far away from the "religious establishment" in Rome or wherever, developed their own religious practices, which paid more attention to the ways of nature, and the cycle of the year, than those of their more urban (and urbane) countrymen and countrywomen. These practices were often looked down upon by the people in the cities, and so, pretty early on (even before the advent of Christianity, actually), "pagan" became a pejorative term, and unfortunately (perhaps) the negative connotations have stuck (and have only grown more intense and misunderstood as they centuries have passed).
But there are today an increasing number of men and women who choose to self-identify themselves as "Pagans" or (sometimes) "neo-Pagans".
As Margot Adler writes in her exhaustive (if a little dated now) study of modern Paganism, Drawing Down the Moon:
And you may (or may not) be surprised to learn that it also includes over 5000 Unitarian Universalists who are members of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (or CUUPS, for short)-- one of the fastest growing affiliate organizations within the UUA, whose influence within our movement has expanded extraordinarily since its founding in Atlanta in 1983.
The depth of support for neo-Pagan ideas (or, at least, earth-based spiritually) within our faith can best be seen in the decision of the 1995 General Assembly to add a "sixth source" to our Statement of Purposes and Principles, the closest thing Unitarian Universalism has to a creed-- which affirms that "The living tradition we share draws from many sources...", and goes on to list them-- direct experience, Judaism and Christianity, world religions, humanism and science and so on-- and now (for the last four years at least)--"Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us o live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Today, many adherents and practitioners of Earth-based spiritually, both within Unitarian Universalism and in society at large-- affirm use of the name "Pagan" and seek to rescue it from the negative connotations of the past. In so doing, they place themselves "squarely in solidarity with all those men and women of the past and the present who have suffered persecution, torture, and even death for their beliefs and the fight for religious freedom." It's a tough struggle, but if our contemporary pagan brothers and sisters succeed, we might all have a lot to gain. (Certainly, they've made our own UU household of faith a much more interesting place, and they've added immensely to my own personal religious belief and spiritual practice).
As Ms. Adler's description implies, contemporary Paganism is a far-flung and diverse "movement" (if you can even call it a movement). As one person has said, "Ask five pagans what they believe, and you'll probably get seven answers." (Which may be why so many of them feel so at home within Unitarian Universalism!)
Not too long ago, a group of UU pagans tried to develop a definition or basic description of their spirituality. Here's what they came up with:
"How do you become a Pagan?" someone once asked a modern witch named Susan Moonshadow, and she offered a few suggestions:
"A religion that grows from the bottom up": sound familiar? It doesn't sound too subversive to me-- or to most of you either, I would imagine.
Listen to the words of the Mission Statement of our own church:
We may well be more "pagan"-- earth-centered, affirming of the individual search for truth and meaning-- than we want to admit! There is something in earth-centered spirituality, I believe, that speaks to the souls of many of us.
But why? Why do city-folk (or actually, suburban folk) like us need a nature religion to feel a little more whole, a little more "in tune'?
Indeed, perhaps the question should be: "Who possibly could need it more?"
Who more than us modern men and women, cut off from contact with the rich earth, from fresh breezes more than a few days a year, from clear flowing water or natural light? Who needs it more than us city dwellers, air conditioned away from summer's heat, and insulated against winter's cold? With our street lights denying the waxing and waning of the moon, and our human-made illumination obscuring and hiding the glory of the endless reign of stars. Who needs reminders of Nature's Ways more than us, whose food is brought to us safely wrapped and frozen and manicured, who are both blessed and cursed to be able to have pumpkins in spring and strawberries in December?
Who needs a good dose of paganism more than all of us, my friends-- to reconnect our little human ways-- our work and play-- with the overriding, awesome ebb and flow of this planet that gave us birth and from whom all life flows? We need a good dose of earth-religion to show us again the deeper cycles in which we live and die: the cycles of the seasons; the changes of the moon and the sun; the rhythms of our very bodies.
We need spiritually rooted in the earth to ground us again, and wean us from a culture which has removed the holy from the here and now and has exiled the sacred off to somewhere else-- a system that poisons the air, pollutes the waters, ravages the earth, and tames fire as a weapon of mass destruction.
We need a religion of the Earth to remind us that we are of the Earth.
We have a wonderful opportunity in this church of ours to let go of our fear, and listen to one another, and envision a new world based on love and justice.
We can get beyond the prejudices of the past, and let go of all the nonsense attached to terms like "pagan" (or, like "Christian", for that matter), and look into our brothers' eyes, and look into our sisters' eyes, and listen to them, and grasp the truth in what they yearn to share?
And at this holy, splendid season of the year, as Nature stands ready once again to complete her ineffable, magnificent death dance, may the voices of our pagan foremothers and forefathers-- those silenced for too long in the pages of our history and the words of our religious traditions-- speak to us clearly, and join with all the saints-- all the prophetic women and men of all ages and all times--
We are God's hands, and God's eyes, and whatever love there is within whatever gods or goddess which might be must become real in our own lives-- here and now-- if it is ever to be real in the life of this world.
Blessed be. Blessed be.