Pagan is Not a Four-Letter Word
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 30, 2005
Here’s what I mean:
Picture a second grade Sunday School class, in a church maybe a little more traditional than our’s. It’s just before Christmas, and the teacher has told her students about the events leading up to the birth of Jesus: the shepherds and the wise men; King Herod and all that. She then asks the students to draw their pictures of the flight into Egypt. As the kids draw, the teacher then makes her way around the classroom, making appropriately encouraging teacher-sounding noises to each of them. Comments like, “Very nice, Johnny.” Or, “Good job, Suzie.” Noises like that.
Then, the teacher comes to Veronica, and glances down at the desk at her picture. On her picture, Veronica is just putting the finishing touches on a really nice picture of a great big Boeing 747.
“Oh, Veronica,” asks the teacher, “what is this?”
“It’s the flight into Egypt,” Veronica says.
“Ok, and these people smiling in the windows, who are they?”
“That’s Joseph, and Mary, and the baby Jesus,” Veronica responds. (Like, who else would it be?)
“I see,” says the teacher. “And who is this up front,” she asks, pointing to the cockpit.
“Oh,” says Veronica, “that’s Pontius, their pilot.”
Religious language can be a very tricky thing, and just when we think we’ve got it right, we find that we missed the whole darn point.
There are some Unitarian Universalists who suffer from a theological disease known as the “Baptist bends”: the mere mention of the word “Jesus” and they’re bent over like someone just 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 worth learning there.
The same thing happens in society as a whole. Mention “Marxism”, for instance, and people conjure up pictures of Lenin and Stalin and the whole stupid system they spawned in their minds —which really had very little to do with the original ideas of Karl Marx.
Nowhere is there a more loaded religious term than the word “pagan”. “Pagan” is sort of the theological equivalent of calling someone a “Commie”. Say “pagan”, and in the popular mind, the picture that pops up, all too often, is about Satan worship and ecstatic orgies, and human sacrifice, and God knows what else.
I know I’ve told you the story about Mrs. Knight and our dog, Pagan, before—but I think it bears repeating (and maybe some of you haven’t heard it; and maybe others of you don’t remember it), so here goes:
When we lived in Maine, we had a very lovely (but somewhat intellectually challenged, I must admit) collie whom we named named Pagan. The name really fit, too: he was a beautiful young dog; so energetic; so close to the earth; so in tune, we thought, with the natural world.
One crisp fall day, Elizabeth and I were out walking Pagan around our neighborhood in Rockland, and one of our neighbors, a very nice woman named Mrs. Knight, came over to chat. “What a lovely dog!” she said. “And what’s his name?”
“Pagan,” we replied proudly.
“Ohhhhhhh,” was all she said (with a somewhat quizzical look on her face, which seemed to indicate, “I knew these people were a bit odd.”). Well, the next time we walked by, Mrs. Knight was out in her front yard again, tending her shrubs, and she greeted us warmly: “Hello, Liz! Hello, Jeff! Hello, Satan!”
Nice woman, Mrs. Knight. Very nice woman. But she just couldn’t get beyond her preconceptions which equated paganism with Satanism. Nor was she alone…
In Ashville, North Carolina, a proclamation by the mayor recognizing “Earth Awareness Week” is being criticized by a group of local ministers because, they say, it encourages “witchcraft”.
In other communities, more conservative religious elements condemn the use of guided meditation and visualization in the classroom as “pagan rituals”. Some fundamentalist ministers want the Harry Potter books banned from public libraries because, they say, the books encourage “sorcery”. (Hey, if it takes sorcery to get kids to read—so be it!)
Now, closer to home, in communities not too far from here, in this enlightened Commonwealth of ours, we are being treated to the silly ritual of children having their schools’ Halloween parties cancelled because some parents object to Halloween “on religious grounds”. (These are the same people, no doubt, who have no problem whatsoever with Christmas carols being sung at school assemblies, which other parents, of course, obect to. People [on both sides] just need to loosen up sometimes!)
So it is, if you want to marginalize someone, and say that he or she is beyond the pale, religiously speaking, just call him or her a “pagan”. Anything not in strict conformity with the narrow theory and practice of this or that particular religious group gets automatically tarred with the pagan brush—and thus, get painted as Satanic, diabolical, evil…
Of course, this does real violence to the actual meaning of the word itself:
Pagan is from the Latin pagonis, meaning “country folk”, or the ones who dwelled in the rural areas. Just as the word “heathen” comes from Old English for those who live out on the bogs, out on the heath—in the country—away from the city.
Now, these early “pagans”, these country folk, living far away from the religious establishment in Rome or wherever, developed their own particular religious practices. They paid more attention to the ways of nature, the cycle of the years, than did the more urban (and urbane) people of their time. These countrified practices were, in turn, often looked down upon by the city dwellers, and so, quite early on (even before the advent of Christianity, actually) “pagan” became a pejorative term, and unfortunately, the negative connotations stuck, and have grown only more intense as the years have passed—right down to our own time.
But in more recent years, something interesting has happened. The term “pagan” as a religious labels is making something of a comeback. Today, an increasing number of women and men choose to call themselves and their religious outlook “pagan” (or, sometimes, “neo-pagan”).
As Margot Adler, commentator for National Public Radio (and a practicing pagan herself) writes in her book, Drawing Down the Moon:
It also includes about 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 our denomination. The strength of the Pagan component within our Unitarian Universalist family was most clearly shown when CUUPS led the campaign to add a “sixth source” to our association’s Statement of Purposes and Principles which delineates the sources from which our Living Tradition draws. In 1995, a sixth source—“Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live on harmony with the rhythms of nature”—was added to our Purposes and Principles, an open acknowledgement of the importance of Earth-centered spirituality to our UU faith.
Today, many practitioners of Earth-based faith use the word “pagan” openly and proudly, seeking to rescue it from the negative connotations of the past. If they succeed, we might all have a lot to gain, whatever our particular religious point-of-view.
As Margot Adler’s definition of this new Paganism indicates, we’re talking about a pretty diverse movement here—if you can even call it one single “movement”. As one CUUPS member has said, “Ask five pagans what they believe, and you’ll probably get seven answers.” What holds them together, then? Not too long ago, a group of UU pagans tried to develop a basic description of their spirituality, and here’s what they came up with:
Let’s read together the Mission Statement of our own church. (In case you don’t know it by heart [hehe], you can find it on the back of the order of service.) :
Compare these words to the definition of paganism we just heard:
I think that we may well be more “pagan” that we might admit sometimes—if by “pagan” we mean earth-centered, and affirming of the individual search for personal growth and truth and meaning. Whatever our particular religious persuasions, there is something in earth-centered spirituality which speaks to the souls of many of us in this church.
But why is that? Why do city folk or suburban folk like us need nature religion to keep a little more in tune, to help us become a little more whole?
Indeed, the question should probably be: “Who could possible need it more?”
Who more than us modern men and women, so often cut off from any deep and direct daily contact with the rich earth, fresh breezes, clear flowing water, or natural light for more than a few days each year? Who needs a good dose of nature religion more than us, air conditioned away from summer’s heat; insulated against winter’s cold; with our street lights denying the waxing and waning of the moon; with our human-made illumination obscuring and hiding the glory of the endless reign of stars. Who needs reminders of the deeper ways of Nature more than us, whose food is delivered safely wrapped and frozen and manicured, who are both blessed and cursed to be able to have pumpkins in the spring and strawberries in December?
We all need a good dose of paganism sometimes, my friends, to reconnect our little human ways—our human work and play—with the awesome ebb and flow of this planet which gave us birth and to which we will all someday return. We need a good dose of earth religion sometimes to remind us yet again about the deeper cycles in which we live and die: the cycles of the seasons; the changes of the moon and sun; even the rhythms of our own bodies.
We need a spirituality of the earth to ground us again, and wean us from a culture which has marginalized faith, and has removed the holy from the here and now, and has exiled the sacred off to somewhere far away.
We need a religion of the Earth to remind us that we are of the Earth—and that the Earth flows in us, and that divinity dwells within.
We have now, in our own time, a splendid opportunity to let go of our fear of others, and listen to one another, and envision this new world of ours as a planetary garden. 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 each other’s eyes, and glimpse the truth in what we have to share with one another.
At this special time of the year, as Nature once again completes her magnificent death dance of fall—and when, some say, the veil between worlds seen and unseen grows thinnest—may the voices of our pagan forefathers and foremothers—those silenced too long in the pages of our history and in the words of our religious traditions—speak to us clearly, and join with all the saints, with prophetic women and men of all ages and all times— calling us back to this deep, inner truth writ large within our souls: