04 December 2009

Parliament: Getting started with Pagans

2009 Parliament of Religions

I'm planning on spending most of the Parliament trying to get a taste of a broad range of things, involving as many different religious traditions as I can, but I got started with several Pagan events.

Before the opening plenary, there was a hospitality suite for Pagans attending the Parliament; the hotel room was filled beyond capacity with about two dozen people, roughly evenly split between folks from the US and Australia. I was charmed by how alike both contingents were: cheerful, glamorously sloppy, and a bit boisterous appears to be universally Pagan. (Fortunately Patrick McCollum was also there to represent for the Pagans With Neckties brigade.) I learned that the legal situation for Pagans in Australia is quite different; since Australia has, after the British example, an official state church, there are complicated issues around legal recognition of legitimacy. But on the other hand, Australian Pagans have made a serious effort to reach out to the press, who have learned to turn to reliable Pagan voices for comment on relevant news stories; I was told of a recent newspaper article which made a point of confessing that they had not been able to reach Pagan representatives, promising to follow up.

The following morning, Thorn had a workshop on the Parliament event calendar in the very first morning time slot, “Dancing the Seven Directions.” She was terrific as usual, of course, and it was good to get the blood flowing with the movements. We migrated from the room she had been assigned, to just outside the convention hall. A quiet little klatch of protesters bearing a “No Religions, Only Jesus” banner scowled, a passing forklift driver waved his free arm to match our movements, and passerby kept stopping to join in. I spoke to dishy, silver-haired woman from a Midwestern school for metaphysics who dropped in; we had a couple of Jews with kippas as well, and I overheard Thorn talking to a man from India who turned out to be a Lutheran minister. (Over on her journal, I see that the Indian minister made an impression on her as well.) An auspicious beginning to the interfaith project.

After that, I went to a panel talk entitled, “People Call Us Pagan — The European Indigenous Traditions” given by the three pagans who have succeeded in getting a voice on the Parliament's organizing committees: Angie Buchanan, Andras Arthen, and Phyllis Curott. I went provoked by the title. Defining contemporary paganism in terms of being “indigenous tradition” seemed odd to me. Shouldn't we reserve the term “indigenous” for the people and things that reflect a continuity with something different from the West? And what of Pagans, like me, who frankly admit that their practices are recently invented rather than the survival of much older lost and secret traditions?

Though the panelists did make numerous references to defining Paganism in terms of “indigenous tradition” (and more on that in a moment) the discussion was more a loose and lively exploration of the slippery question of what Pagan practice involves. Can you engage with nature in your living room? What is our relationship with the Pagan religions of the ancients? There are no easy answers. The discussion was perhaps a bit more Paganism 101 than I might have been drawn to, but it was gratifying to see that so many non-Pagans in attendance were impressed with the vigor and richness of the discussion, and the description of Pagan practice.

Mr Arthen told a funny story about an encounter he had a previous Parliament, when numerous Native American spiritual teachers had vigorously criticized Western appropriation of their traditions and symbols. At the end of his talk, during which he had expressed his solidarity with the sentiments of the Native Americans concerned with appropriation, three burly young Native American men insisted that Arthen come with them to meet with an elder. “Tell him what you just told that room,” they insisted. When Arthen had finished an abbreviated version of his talk, the elder said, “Thank you. I have learned two things today. First, obviously there were Indians in Europe long ago. Second, I thought that White people were drawn to our teachings because they didn't have them at all; now I see that they are drawn to them because they have lost them.”

Given this attention to the problems of appropriation of indigenous cultures, I remained uncomfortable with the rhetoric of indigenous-ness, so I buttonholed Ms Buchanan afterward. I asked about whether that was really a wise way to frame Paganism ... but between our conversation getting cut short, and some crankiness on my part from an empty stomach, we didn't get far. I ran into her later and we resolved to find time to finish the conversation; as I write this, I'm still looking forward to that.

The afternoon was devoted to other things, but that evening there were community nights hosted by local congregations of various traditions. Though I was tempted to go mark shabbos with the Reconstructionist Jews, I wanted to get connected with Pagans at the event early on, so I went to the event hosted by the local Reclaiming group. I'm glad I did.

The circle, singing, and storytelling were nourishing to the soul, and I met some lovely people. I was relieved to discover that I was not alone in being a Hermeticist among Witches; I had a lively chat with an woman with tales of the mystery schools of England. A fella made a wonderful comment that won my Quote of the Day: “Everyone overestimates what they can do in a year ... but they underestimate what they can do in a decade.” The unreasonably dishy Wendy Rule sang a song about Hekate. I returned to my bed happily exhausted.

Next up: Art, politics, and awesome Muslims.

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