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.
And John Beckett takes my metaphor of the Big Tent and extends it in some interesting ways, finding four “tentpoles” in Pagan culture: “Nature, the Gods, the Self, and Community”.