All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.

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Pagans at the Parliament of the World's Religions

 

Trying to describe the Parliament of World Religions in a short article is like trying to describe the biological abundance of a rainforest in a similar way.  It is impossible.  It was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life.  That said, perhaps I can focus more narrowly here on what it meant for we NeoPagans in general.  For at least three reasons Salt Lake City’s Parliament of the World’s Religions was an important event for us and for Pagans worldwide.

• First, among Pagans Wiccans pioneered interfaith involvement, and so for many years people in other faith traditions equated Pagans with Wiccans.  This time many other NeoPagans were visibly prominent in an international gathering, I hope ending this misinformation. 

• Second, “indigenous religions” were very much in evidence at the Parliament,  their members honored and traditions respected.  This achievement built on previous efforts to engage indigenous peoples in Cape Town and Melbourne.

• Third, three of the Parliament’s major themes were particularly close to the Pagan heart: the divine feminine, protecting and enhancing the status of indigenous Pagans and preserving the natural world from the worst ravages of climate change.

I: Wider NeoPagan involvement

Some non-Wiccan NeoPagans have complained most people equate being Pagan with being Wiccan.  Some even call this “Wiccanate privilege.”  Most people think of Wicca when they think of contemporary Euro-Pagans.  The reason is Wiccans’ much greater visibility in the wider religious community due to our greater numbers but also our long and visible activity in interfaith. And happily we Wiccans were well represented among participants at this Parliament as well.

However, this time other Pagan traditions were also visible and respected. Andras Corban-Arthen, president of the European Congress of Ethnic Religions hosted a panel with Romuva priestess Inija Trinkuniene. They presented a fascinating workshop on Europe’s pre-Christian Pagan survivals and their current status. Arthen argued European Pagan traditions suffered the same oppression and imperial suppression as have more recent indigenous peoples, only it happened to us hundreds of years earlier. Lithuanian Romuva is rooted in surviving Pagan traditions that held out against the Church and the Communist Party in rural Lithuania, the last EuroPagan culture to fall to Christian militarism. Trinkuniene was also one of the speakers at the indigenous plenary.

Other non-Wiccan NeoPagans also participated, including Celtic Reconstructist Erynn Laurie   Heathen Diana Paxsonand people unknown to me representing Hebrew, German, and Hellenic Reconstructionist traditions.    Selena Fox gave a pan-Pagan ceremony emphasizing our relations with the sacred earth.  In addition Starhawk, Don Frew, Angie Buchanan,  Ruth Barret, and Andras gave a panel on the richness and variety of different Pagan traditions.    No attentive member of this Parliament could go away thinking all NeoPagans are Wiccans.  Our traditions are far richer than this.

A personal note

The Gods must have wanted Andras and ­­­ Inija’s panel to take place.  When they set up their presentation there was no working connection between their computer and the projector.  This glitch would have ruined her presentation in particular. I had a room across from the Salt Palace where the Parliament was held, and remembered I had a connector there, in my computer bag.

Running to the hotel to get it, I encountered Patrick McCollum and Barbara McGraw.  I mentioned my quest and Barbara said she was also carrying one. I borrowed it and went on to my room. Mine might be different and I had no idea the kind needed.  Upon my return a connector had just been found, but it wasn’t working. Barbara’s fit perfectly, and the presentation went on.

A lot of coincidences were needed for their presentation to happen, and they all fell into place.

II: Indigenous Peoples and Religion

While the term “indigenous religion” is frequently argued over, the basic focus is clear: religions preceding but long dominated by the monotheisms and still practiced by various tribal groups today. Today these most traditional of religions are enjoying a renaissance in many tribal cultures and receiving renewed respect from the world’s larger religious communities.  Some reconstructionist traditions also describe themselves as indigenous.

Confusions about the term come from “indigenous” originating as a political label for people colonized over the past few centuries by European powers, with their native religions frequently suppressed or worse by the occupiers. As such the term covers neither all colonialism, (the Japanese engaged in it), nor all suppression by monotheisms (Islam did its share) and does not fit Shinto, which never suffered colonial oppression, or  the Native American Church, which arose after colonization and includes Christian themes.

To my mind the best all inclusive religious term is “Pagan” which solves most of these problems while emphasizing their similarities with other Pagans, but tribal people usually prefer “indigenous” because it emphasizes their own experience. Whatever the label, from all that I saw or heard the relations between NeoPagans and many indigenous participants during the Parliament grew stronger and more friendly.  Important seeds with powerful future implications had sprouted in earlier interfaith venues and now are flourishing.

Native Americans opened the Parliament with a magnificent drumming ceremony. During it processions of religious leaders from around the world entered the huge room filled with the power of the drum.  This set an unforgettable tone for the days to come. Native Americans also maintained a sacred fire for the Parliament’s duration, where anyone could make prayers. 

Indigenous religious people from the Americas, Asia, Australia, Europe, and Africa were active in panels, workshops, performing rituals, and demonstrating their history and culture. An indigenous Plenary session, one of six for the Parliament as a whole, featured  participants from indigenous traditions world wide.

A major symbolic issue successfully raised was the call for the Catholic Church to repudiate Papal Bulls creating the “Doctrine of Discovery”   authorizing only Christian monarchies as sovereign, and encouraging them to enslave non-Christian peoples. These Bulls legitimized the crimes committed by Catholic powers, and later justified similar crimes by Protestant ones. With the present Pope there is hope these efforts will bear fruit.  The issue is seemingly only symbolic, but repealing it recognizers the crimes committed against nonChristian peoples by Christian powers acting in the church’s name. It was favorably cited as late as 2005 by our Supreme Court.

Religions emphasizing place and ancestors and experience are now receiving increasingly respectful attention from traditions that once looked down on them. This renewed respect is only right for the people maintaining these traditions, butit also benefits the rest of us who have impoverished our spiritual reality by ignoring these factors.  We NeoPagans suffer less in this way, but we too can learn much from indigenous paths’ focus on the concreteness of place and our common embeddedness in a stream of ancestors.

III: The Sacred Feminine

The Grand Ballroom was subdivided into a number of large rooms for presentations.  Along the resulting central hallway hung an enormous number of tapestries honoring the sacred feminine. Not surprisingly, most were Pagan deities because for the most part the history of Goddesses is entwined with the history of Pagan religion.  That this beautiful display was in such a central location testifies to the seriousness with which many took issues of women and the sacred feminine. It also testifies to the capacity of the best practitioners of long dominant patriarchal religions to rethink their practices, and grow. (Here are a very few of my favorites.)

b2ap3_thumbnail_goddess-4.jpgb2ap3_thumbnail_goddess-11.jpg

 

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There was a women’s Plenary as well as a women’s Assembly, Women’s Sacred Space, and many panels and workshops exploring issues such as the role of the Divine Mother in different traditions, Women the Earth and the Sacred, Indigenous Women Wisdom Sharing, and so much more. A major NeoPagan event here was “Goddesses Alive!”  a ritual with goddess masks organized by Lauren Raine and Macha Nightmare. 

Outside the world of the most feminine friendly traditions attempts to include these topics could be unintentionally humorous, as in panels dominated by male presenters. I will long remember a morning panel on “Female Centered Cosmologies in Science and Spirituality” where the male presenters rarely addressed the topic and major women presenters did not show. At the last minute Charlene Spretnakwas invited to speak and gave a wonderful account of how psychology of perception had long considered women inferior in their intellectual abilities, only to have to eat their words more recently.   In my view she made the panel worth attending. 

But even fumbling efforts hold enormous promise for the future of religion around the world. The importance of a path is not where we are at the moment, but the direction we are taking, and here the Pagan focus on Goddesses and the Divine Feminine carries weight far beyond our modest numbers.

IV: The Earth and Climate Change

More than other faith traditions, Pagans emphasize earth’s sacredness and our need to treat the natural world with respect, care and love.  At the Parliament Native American traditions were far the most visible in this regard. They even had a Parliament-long presence outside the convention center, with rituals and dances frequently held and a sacred fire continually going.  But in this respect they were simply the most visible representatives of a general Pagan sensibility. 

Mainstream religions have had the seeds of an at least compatible perspective within their own traditions, but for the most part had relegated them to obscurity.  Today they, and we, are confronting as never before humanity’s interconnected fate with the earth, and the positive role religion can play in recognizing and harmonizing this connection.

Foremost among the threats of course is climate change brought about by global warming, modernity’s darkest contribution to the world.  One of the Parliament’s plenary sessions was devoted to this issue, with speakers from an enormous number of traditions.

The Parliament offered opportunities for people of all traditions to come together in ritual and prayer for the earth, and they did. Along with Pagans there were panels, rituals and workshops by Buddhists, Sufis, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, and others focused on healing the harm we have done to the earth and living appropriately upon it. Some focused on their own traditions, others were mixed faith. But connected with rituals, prayers, and workshops were calls to action.

V: The Sacred Tapestry

When considering the religions of the earth I like the image of a sacred tapestry more than that of many paths converging at a spiritual summit. Each religious tradition and each practitioner is a thread in this tapestry, and each thread adds to its completeness and beauty. My personal thread is a Pagan one, but it contributes to a design far more beautiful than I can grasp, and the same holds for every other thread.

From a magickal perspective, imagine the energy field that arises when nearly 10,000 serious practitioners of virtually every faith on earth, men and women who usually also honor and respect other faiths, gather under one roof for 5 days.  It was far beyond my power with words to describe, and from talking with others my experience seems to have been shared widely. Interfaith gatherings such as this provide a glimpse, perhaps more than a glimpse, of the beauty, love and power that emerges when so many threads in the divine tapestry come together in peace and good will.

 

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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.

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