Pagan is Not a Four-Letter Word
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 20, 2002
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 what I mean:
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". As they draw, she walks around the room, making appropriately encouraging comments to each, teacher-like noises like, "Very nice, Johnny," "Good job, Suzy." All of the kids are 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, the 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 with language in areas other than religion. In politics, for instance mention "Marxism", for instance, and people automatically leap to thoughts of “Communism” (with a capital-C) and conjure up notions in their heads about Lenin and Stalin and the whole oppressive, mad system they spawned-- which had no more to do with the original ideas of Karl Marx that the Spanish Inquisition had to do with the teachings of Jesus.
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 know I’ve told this story already, but it’s one of my favorites, so I’m going to tell it again. (Some of you are new and haven’t heard it before, and even if you’ve been here a while, there’s a pretty good chance you didn’t hear it either.) Well, anyway, when we lived in Maine, we had a beautiful collie whom we named Pagan. The name really fit him, too: He was a stunningly good-looking 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.)
Well, one crisp, fall day, Elizabeth and I 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), and we eventually went on our way. Then, the next time we walked by, walking the dog, we saw Mrs. Knight puttering around her front yard again, 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". Not too long ago, some fundamentalist Christian ministers launched a movement to have 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! Three cheers for Harry, I say!)
So, it is that if you want to marginalize someone theologically, and indicate that they are beyond the pale, religiously speaking, just call them a "pagan". Among the religiously intolerant (or misinformed), there does seem to be generally a tendency to label any religious practice not in strict conformity with their narrow slant as "pagan" (and through that, 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". Among them is Margot Adler, well-known National Public Radio commentator (and member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of All Souls in New York City).
As Ms. Adler writes in her exhaustive (if a little dated now) study of modern Paganism, “Drawing Down the Moon”:
You may (or, then again, you may not) be surprised to learn that this “neo-pagan” movement also includes more than 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 in an extraordinary manner since its founding in Atlanta in 1983.
The depth of support for neo-Pagan ideas (or, at least, earth-based spirituality) 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 of transcending mystery and wonder; words and deeds of prophetic women and men throughout history; our Jewish and Christian heritage; the insights of world religions; humanist teachings and the guidance of science; and now (for the last seven years at least), a sixth source: "Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature."
Today, many adherents and practitioners of Earth-based spirituality, 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 (in the words of one observer) "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."
Rescuing “paganism” from the misconceptions of the popular mind is 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"—and which accepts the most basic acts of life as its daily rituals—that might sound familiar to some of us, too. 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:
Compare these words to that definition of paganism we just heard:
Maybe we are more "pagan"-- earth-centered in our spiritual perspective; affirming of the individual search for truth and meaning in our religious practice-- than we realize!
There is something in earth-centered spirituality, I believe, that speaks to the souls of many of us. But why do city-folk (or actually, suburban folk) like us need a nature religion to feel more whole, more "in tune'?
Maybe the question really should be "Who possibly could need it more?"
As Phaedra Ooerbeck has written:
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 a spirituality 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.
In the words of Paul Harrison:
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, the nonsense attached to terms like "Christian" by some people, 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.
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 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 in us.
We are God's hands, and God's eyes, and whatever love there is within whatever gods or goddess that 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.