The Ocean is in Motion…

When the waters get rough, we might be tempted to throw in the towel on Pagan unity.

But what the fracas really means is that we are growing up enough to realize that we don't all think alike.

There's nothing like trying to be a peacemaker on the Web to give a person a first-rate migraine, and I'm just getting over a doozy. So please forgive me if I "share my pain" with all of you.

First, a bit of background: our Witches&Pagans website now hosts one of the largest Pagan blogospheres on the planet, With over a hundred poets, mystics, pundits, prognosticators, and magicians all rubbing shoulders, there's bound to be a bit of friction.

But earlier this summer, things at PaganSquare got downright testy. It pained me, a Libra Sun Hufflepuff peacemaker, to see my friends going at it hammer-and-tongs in my own house (which is how I rather possessively saw the site). Looking back, I now realize how naive it was to assume that just because everyone on the site was fine with me that they would all get along just peachy with one another.

See, it turns out that there are really, really big differences in practice and belief in the wider umbrella of Pagan belief systems. This is partially due to our own success. Once (and not that long ago, either!) the word "Pagan" was a simple label that meant something like "I'm-not-Christian-and-I-worship-the-Goddess." But our movement has expanded (I'm tempted to say "exploded") in both scope and number to the point where the common ground between Pagans can get pretty thin.

Although I've discussed the various styles of Pagans ranging from the earliest anti-establishment types to the now-burgeoning groups of Tea Party Pagans (see my editorials in issues #23 and #24), I've now become conscious of a more fundamental rift: between Human-Centric and Deity-Centric Pagans.
For Human-Centric Pagans, the most important values are tolerance and independence. These Pagans don't usually give a care about Whom or What other Pagans worship, or how they go about it. Their attitude, by and large, is pragmatic: whether you have a shrine to Batman, Loki, Demeter, or the One Great Goddess, if that practice helps you to be a happy, humane person, good on you. Whether you follow the Wiccan Rede, or the Nine Noble virtues, or make up your own Seven Suggestions for Conscious Living, if you are basically humane, your practice works for them. Even if you don't believe that the Gods actually exist — or you consider them to be "archetypes" or human-created thought constructs — it's no skin off their backs. Many Human-Centrics have assertively eclectic practices, make their rituals up from bits and pieces from various traditions (or invent new ones), invoke deities from many pantheons (or from pop culture), and think of their religion as a "do-it-yourself" affairs. The simple question "does this work for me?" is often their primary litmus test for evaluating their practice.

But to an increasing number of Pagans, this laissez-faire attitude sums up everything that's wrong with the Pagan community today. To these Pagans (who often term themselves "Hard Polytheists" or "Deity-Centric"), the Gods are Real-With-a-Capital-R. Their primary values are loyalty and devotion to the Gods. Deity-Centric Pagans use historical accounts, received tradition, divination and (sometimes) personal gnosis to understand the will of the Gods. The question, "Does this please my God/dess?" is at the center of their practice, and the concept that a fictional hero like Superman might be just as worthy of veneration as an ancestral deity like Zeus is irreverent to the point of blasphemy.

Of course, there are myriad variations on these themes; many Human-Centric Pagans have serious, disciplined spiritual practices, and lots of Hard Polytheists don't have a problem with you worshipping the Ostara bunny if that's what you are into. But mixing these two groups can be a wee bit like putting together nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and glycerine. One spark and — kablooey!

That's what happened in June — bloggers who may not have previously rubbed elbows with their theological opposite numbers encountered attitudes they viewed as fundamentally unsound; soon they began publicly criticizing each other's practices and from there the accusations and insults began flying back and forth. Feelings became so inflamed that I felt compelled to step in and impose a 30-day cooling-off period between the parties. (It's a measure of the underlying goodwill on the site that not only was my request respected, but hostilities didn't immediately reignite after the month was up.)

Such battles can come as a shock, even a crisis of faith, especially to those who come to Paganism as refugees from fundamentalist forms of Christianity. Some may have innocently believed that Pagans are so tolerate that they will never question — let alone argue about — each other's beliefs.

However, history shows that internecine debates are far more common within spiritual communities than between religions; the fact that we Pagans are now arguing about how we approach the Gods (or don't) neatly demonstrates that we do consider ourselves members of the same group.

I believe that the label "Pagan" is currently useful primarily as an umbrella term, kind of the way "Queer" is now commonplace as shorthand for LGBTSQ, or like the banner of a large political party with many factions. Personally, I use the term "Pagan" because it nicely differentiates us from the both Abrahamic faiths and other recognized World Religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Ours is a still and immature and inchoate movement; it's not yet possible to decipher how many religions and spiritualities find shelter under this Big Tent. If the history of most major religions serves as an example it will probably be another half-century or more before we sort ourselves out into various denominations and decide who's in and who's out. Hopefully, we won't have done a Gingham Dog and Calico Cat* trick in the meantime.

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