30 December 2012

The pagan sensibility

I was at a public Pagan festival a while ago and a passing non-Pagan asked one of the people working at the information booth who we all were and what we were doing. The person in the booth provided an unhelpful, incoherent non-answer with the gods and nature and magic bobbing about in a froth of words, and the questioner walked away puzzled. I don't blame either of them; Pagans just don't have this thing down.

It is odd. Any Christian stands ready to explain God, sin, and redemption through Christ in 50 words or less. Any Buddhist can tell you quickly about suffering, illusion, meditation, and releasing attachment. Pagan inability to do something similar presents a problem both in talking to non-Pagans and within our own community.

But it's tricky because definitions are political. For example, I'm a proponent of what I would call Big Tent Paganism — a broadly-conceived Pagan community. My motives are frankly political; I think we will be stronger if we work together. But plenty of Pagans think differently for very good reasons. Any attempt at a Definition Of Pagan runs into serious problems over splits like that, with people rightly asking who are you to define me?

So while I've seen some interesting mutterings around this question on the Pagan blogosphere, the community generally shies away from offering some Definition Of Pagan despite the hunger to have something for situations like that festival.

Still, if we cannot describe pagan-ness, we end up with an unarticulated sense that Pagan means “Wicca and things like it”, which should satisfy no one. To sneak up on the problem, I want to resist questions as grandiose as Who Pagans Are or What Pagans Do or What Pagans Believe. (Indeed, that last is particularly pernicious; defining a religion in terms of what one believes is a distinctively Protestant move; let's not go there.)

Rather, I want to talk about what I call the “pagan sensibility” — note the deliberate use of the lower-case p. Not a statement of the True Pagan Nature or an explanation of the Pagan community, but a description of what kind of thought and action makes things pagan flavored. I think that one can describe that briefly and clearly, including everything one wants while excluding everything one doesn't.

The pagan sensibility sees the divine in the material world ... and so regards the human as sacred.

The pagan sensibility apprehends the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different interconnected forces ... and honors all of those forces.

That's deliberately very succinct, so it will help to unpack how I've phrased things.

the divine in the material world

The fancy term for this is immanence, as distinguished from transcendence, the idea that the divine is separate from the material world. While many Pagans do conceive of a variety of realms other than the material, they all agree that the whole of the material world is animated with divinity, and they connect to the spiritual through engagement with the material world rather than separation from it.

the human as sacred

Here “the human” takes a deliberately open-ended form. The pagan sensibility regards the individual human, the whole of humanity, and human qualities all as sacred, neither more nor less than anything else, though since we are human the sacricity of the human holds special interest for us.

apprehends the Cosmos

My choice of the word “apprehends” is very deliberate here. I'm not saying that the Pagan sensibility believes something about how the Cosmos really is, or even that it understands the Cosmos a certain way, but that it reaches for an understanding using a certain frame of mind. A Pagan may also apprehend the Cosmos through a scientific understanding, or commit to a certain belief, or whatever, but when working from the pagan sensibility, one employs its frame.

a multiplicity of different interconnected forces

The obvious, characteristically pagan example of the “multiplicity of different forces” is a polytheistic pantheon of gods. But the pagan sensibility is broader than simply that kind of classical polytheism; it means looking at the world as a tapestry of many different kinds of things woven together: gods and animals and humans and the spiritus loci that lives in one's backyard and the Earth and the Sun and human-created egregores like the New York Stock Exchange and so on. The pagan sensibility resists simple cosmologies.

I use the word “forces” rather than “things” in order to imply how the pagan sensibility sees the world not in terms of static objects but in dynamic action. To the pagan sensibility, even an “inert” stone is an actor in the cosmic drama interacting with the other actors around it.

Note also that though I have alluded to gods as examples of the forces which the pagan sensibility may find in the world, my description itself deliberately does not mention gods. The pagan sensibility does not require gods, only a multiplicity of forces; one may be an atheist Pagan who regards the complex Cosmos with an awe-struck but scientistic Discovery Channel pantheism.

honors all of those forces

Again, in “honors” I have made a deliberate word choice, avoiding words like “worships”. The pagan sensibility admits worship but does not require it; some Pagans have a relationship with their gods very different from what one could call “worship”. Even those who do worship their gods lack the time and energy and attention to worship all of the gods they recognize. And apprehending a multiplicity of different forces, the pagan sensibility encounters forces inappropriate for worship: one would not worship every breeze and stone and human and earthworm.

But one can honor everything one encounters, respecting its nature and acting respectfully. According to the pagan sensibility, one can and must honor even those chthonic or shadowy forces which one dreads or dislikes.

Linkback to The Wild Hunt! I'm honored to be mentioned in the same post with some other terrific Pagan thinkers there. And Star Foster alludes to this post while talking about her retreat from “Pagan” culture. Teo Bishop links to this post when asking about the possibility for an inclusive conception of “Pagan”.

And the Allergic Pagan has thoughts on this post which I hope to find time to talk about.


Joseph Nemeth said...

Succinct, clear, and -- I think -- useful. Bravo!

Devin Hunter said...

Absolutely! What I love about this idea is that it gives us a starting point for dialogue with people we otherwise may have had a hard time conveying ideology to. What a great practical tool to carry on us as pagans interacting with the larger populace. I like the way you think man.

Rhett Aultman said...

I think this is really hitting on something, but there are also parts of it that I think need more consideration.

For example, misanthropy is actually quite rampant in the sensibilities of the community. Yes, people will talk about work/ritual that communicates that theme, but take off the guise of solemnity, and you'll find a great deal of anger at human endeavor and humans in general. The "egregore" of the "New York Stock Exchange," if you were to poll at your average Pagan gathering, would likely be the closest thing to a Christian demon a Pagan would comfortably describe.

Another point that sticks out is in your remarks about immanence and transcendence. I'd actually be reticent to commit to such a statement, because my own experience tells me there's more going on. While there is a surface-level idea of immanence, there are also a lot of cosmologies out there that suggest deity "lives" far away but "visits" material things from time to time, or that really only "visits" specially prepared places. This is often wrapped up in Romantic thinking...deities, often of some other ethnicity, live in a preferred idyll from which present life has deviated. When you mix this Romance with "psychology of solemnity" which still celebrates the image of the serene renunciate as an image of spiritual maturity, you end up having an interesting form of transcendence hiding within view. The pull to retreat from the material is actually quite strong, which manifests in a number of various rejections of the present.

As such, I think there's a loose thread here, but it's also not one I can put my finger on with simple edits or addenda.

This does speak to something I find interesting, which is the idea of the "elevator pitch" for your religion. There's an oft-discussed schema for religions: (1) posit an ill (2) offer a means to correct it. Even not-wholly-religious ritual systems such as chado (Japanese tea ceremony) have been described under this rubric. Even joke-religions like the Church of the Subgenius employ this model to good effect.

Pagans don't want to proselytize, but I often wonder how I'd elevator-pitch Paganism in general to a not-religious-but-kinda-spiritual friend. What is it offering to correct or improve? "You should consider what these various groups have to offer, because any of them will offer..."

Jonathan Korman said...

Rhett, a few initial thoughts:

Not everything that Pagans do and say necessarily aligns with the pagan sensibility.

There is a great deal of Pagan criticism of human endeavor, but contrast the Christian sensibility, which criticizes human endeavors as doomed because of an essential human flaw which is beyond human capacity to correct, with a pagan sensibility which would criticize humans for failing to honor other forces in the world.

Likewise, I don't want to exclude transcendence from the pagan sensibility, just mark it as optional ... while immanence is not optional, I think it's integral to the pagan sensibility. The Realm of the Gods may be distant, but the pagan project is to encounter those gods here in the material world, not to get ourselves out of the material world to where they are. The pagan sensibility loves noise and flesh too much.

galleygirl said...

Thank you for offering a standard definition. I agree that as part of the greater pagan sensibiltiy we should be prepared to answer questions based on our beliefs. How do we expect our communities to honor our beliefs if we cannot define them? It is challenging to define that which is beyond our physical senses, but it is important that we try. We benefit, ultimately, from taking the time to thoughtfully consider our answers to questions from both ourselves and the outside world. Gratitude and appreciation for initiating this conversation!

Cici Cummins said...

I would be the one in the info booth all these years, starry-eyed about magic, the gods and nature. Yet I've also been known to wax eloquent about the divine in all things present time ... Happy New Year JK; what a joy to find this post!

Your clear thinking always helps me see where I am on a spectrum... being raised Protestant and yet my recovery and trip to India mean I'm deeply leaning into the Buddhist mindset while never realizing how pagan i am .. in fact, (geek time again) I am teary-eyed reading your post because I guess who else feels this way about it (I'm sure I'm not the only one) that having your thoughtfulness on New Year's about moving forward the core of a pagan stance without taking over (Heaven's no) the "beliefs" of All Pagans Everywhere is just plain awesome ... (is it New Year's yet? Is the ball falling yet?)


Elani Temperance said...


A loose reply to this post, from a Hellenic standpoint.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Not too different what Michael York wrote in Pagan Theology (2003):

"an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by individual or community with the tangible, sentient, and nonempirical."

Jonathan Korman said...

Galleygirl, I would not claim to have initiated a conversation, though I hope to make a contribution to the one which has been quietly happening in Pagan circles for quite a while.

But I would say that I want to be wary of using the familiar term "belief" to talk about Pagan practice, thought, and culture. Sam Webster has a recent post which offers a strongly-worded caution against framing Pagan religion in terms of "belief", which is a big part of why I talk not about belief but a "sensibility" and how (not what) it "sees" and "apprehends".

Jonathan Korman said...

Elani, thanks for pointing me to your post, which I commend to any of my readers.

There is indeed a tricky question about human divinity. Is there any overlap between your "I believe that within Hellenismos, humans should not be seen as divine, or holding a spark of the divine", and Pagan liturgy like Victor Anderson's "God is self and self is God and God is a person like myself"?

On the face of it, these seem completely divergent, but my "the pagan sensibility ... regards the human as sacred" is an attempt to square that circle. "Sacred" is not quite the same as "divine", and suggests a shared quality with divinity which is not necessarily the same as the gods. And I say that the pagan sensibility views the world as containing a "multiplicity of different forces", pointing to how the gods et cetera are profoundly different from us.

Put another way, I would say that the pagan sensibility understands humans and gods and other forces in the world to be different orders of things but still all actors on the same stage of the sacred material world. Indeed, one of the things I often find myself having to impress upon non-Pagans is how different the gods are from humans; Thor is real, but that does not simply mean that he's a localized, material superhero whom one does not see around much any more, he's a radically different kind of being, in many ways more like the New York Stock Exchange than he's like me.

I hope that this casts a wide enough net to include the well-defined school of Hellenismos which you describe without stretching itself to useless vagueness. I would not be satisfied with a "pagan sensibility" which does not describe Pagans who work to align themselves as closely as they can with the ancients after whom we have named the Pagan community.

If not, my description of the pagan sensibility is either a hopeless project, as there is in truth no pagan sensibility coherent enough to describe, or needs some work to further refine it. I hope that this kind of conversation continues in the community in favor of the latter.

Jonathan Korman said...

Chas, I'm sure that it will not surprise you that I regard my proposal that there is a coherent pagan sensibility as a much less ambitious cousin of York's contention that Paganism is a major world "root religion".

I don't quite agree with the whole of York's thesis, but this post is very much inspired by his work.

Lily Oak said...

I like this article a lot... and think you highlight a very common issue. Normally when asked I go for the very broad definition of pagan as: "A system of belief worshipping ancestoral and indigenous deity" I think I may now tweak that to "A system of belief honouring ancestoral, indigenous and earth based forms of divinety" lol x

Crystal Blanton said...

This is a wonderful way to move towards a collective speech about the umbrella of Paganism and the diversity of beliefs we have under it. I like this blog a lot and find that you used exactly the right words to articulate a concept that we struggle with grasping in this community. Thank you very much for putting into terms that might create some movement, if we let it.

Lisa Spiral said...

Well thought out, clear and useful. I do think much of the disassociation with the word Pagan is that so many of us use the word as "Wicca and things like it." I'm not sure it's any more useful as a word defined by what it's not (Christian). Talking about pagan sensibilities may do more to help identify with this collective noun than concrete definitions. Thank you.

lise dyckman said...

Thank you, Jonathan, for this. It's time, I think, that we look at what various pagan-identified folks can all get behind, and less at our myriad (and sometimes maddening) multiplicities.

May I add one more point, though? I'd propose changing ..."and so regards the human as sacred" to "and so regards all life forms, including human, as sacred". Some of us would call our religion earth-centric, but even those who don't go that far still shy away from the human-centric worldview that's explicit in the Islamo-Judeo-Christian story of Genesis. I doubt that anyone who claims to have a pagan sensibility would say that humans have a divinely-given right to lord it over other forms of life on this planet, or to use the earth however we choose.

I may be wrong (and would like to hear from folks who disagree). But I think a key element of pagan sensibility is a conviction that the other life forms sharing this planet are equally divine. And *that* is one of the biggest differences between neo-pagan sensibilities & those of the "the people of the Book".

Ashley Yakeley said...

"The pagan sensibility sees the divine in the material world ..."

Yes, I definitely agree with this as a defining feature of paganism.

"and so regards the human as sacred."

More or less. I'd say that there is something in people that is sacred.

"The pagan sensibility apprehends the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different interconnected forces ... and honors all of those forces."

No, I don't think so. This is pantheism or panentheism, which might be one kind paganism, but there are plenty of pagans who don't honour every single force in the universe.

"The pagan sensibility regards the individual human, the whole of humanity, and human qualities all as sacred, neither more nor less than anything else, though since we are human the sacricity of the human holds special interest for us."

In "neither more nor less than anything else" I think you're making a key mistake, a common one, and one that is keeping paganism stuck in a rut. It's this notion of "equality of sanctity", that everything is equally sacred, that leads us to believe that even hurtful or damaging human behaviour is just as sacred as the rest of the universe, in some abstract sense.

I think we need to step back and reconsider the notion of the sacred as a subjective quality instead. Alain de Benoist defines the sacred as what one has unconditional respect for, and I think that's a much better starting point. The sacred is a human experience, it's not an objective fact about the world. There's a process here: find anything you have respect for, and locate in it the thing that always inspires respect, and that's the sacred. To reword your description, the pagan sensibility locates the source of the sacred in the mundane world and our ordinary human lives. Whereas for Christians, the source of the sacred is always in a "God" external to the world.

I have some other principles that apply to Western paganism as I think it ought to be and I think it is slowly evolving towards, but don't necessarily apply to all pagans today. Paganism is tied to particular place and to particular culture, rather than being universalist. Paganism is polytheist in the sense of being "polyidealist", that is, allowing multiple systems of values and perspectives even in their conflict, permitting balancing and transcendence of opposition. There's lots of mythology about this sort of thing, arguments between the gods and so on. Paganism calls us to surpass the gods in creation and achievement, whereas Yahweh fears this (for example, in Genesis 11:5-6). I have more about all this in my review of de Benoist's book: On Being a Nietzschean Pagan.

Lev said...

Not for the first time you have elucidated how I feel about a particular subject but have never managed to get around to writing about.

I think your description is succinct but also with great elaboration. I'll put my mind to it more, but my first reaction is very positive.

Lavi said...

Please understand that the label 'Pagan' invokes a particular mostly repulsive kind of attitude' towards so called pagans because of religious socialization process by the established monotheist religions. We need to to be known by an identity which is not labelled on us by others because we can not control the various connotations of that identity-label but instead should search for self-referentially invoked identity label. So either appropriate and invert the meaning that goes by 'pagan' level in the emotional ecology of believers of monotheistic creeds or invent or discover our self-identity label rescued from our own sources of beliefs. Thank you. Ravi.