The esteemed Teo Bishop observes that pagans are living in something of a bubble of our own creation, which effectively isolates us from mainstream culture and makes reaching to those outside the bubble … problematic.
This all came into focus for me as I was sitting at my parents dining room table this past weekend. My stepfather, a man who has loved me as his own for nearly thirty years, a man who has never been religious but who has been tolerant of my religiosity in its various incarnations, looked at me and said, gently,
“I read your blog, but I don’t really have any idea what you’re talking about.”
I was speechless.
I didn’t know I’d been that cryptic. I didn’t realize that my writing was so narrowly focused. I’d thought that within the realm of Pagan writers I’d managed to do a pretty good job thinking and writing outside of the box. I’ve worked to consider the diversity of belief and religious practice in the Pagan world, and I often reach for something more universal — more purely human — that might unite us in a shared understanding.
But that’s just it. I’ve been doing this work from within the realm of Paganism. I have been writing in a Pagan bubble.
And Teo is correct. We do live in a very isolated religious community that is difficult to penetrate if you don’t know the language, the politics, the culture. We’re generally accommodating to newcomers, but that doesn’t translate well to pagans trying to reach out to non-pagans. Of course, we don’t reach out often to non-pagans, unless it is to insist that we do not do or condone certain things that outsiders thing we might do. But even those efforts can be plagued by difficulties arising from technical jargon and frame differences.
Teo brings a very interesting perspective as an out gay man as well, and relates the organization of the gay community to that of the pagan community.
The gay community first organized in response to cultural oppression and subjugation. Gays organized because they were being treated poorly, and through organization we were able to forge change within culture. We continue to do so to this day. But should we achieve all of our political goals and forge the cultural change we have sought out for so long, we may find ourselves in a position where we are no longer in need of protection against the over-culture. The cultural forces whose othering allowed for us to shore up our sense of individual and collective identities may become benign.
I suspect a similar fate for Pagans should we step outside of our bubble, and I think this may be one reason why the bubble stays in place.
As my husband (my gay husband), Sean Michael Morris, told me while discussing this matter,
“In today’s world, many ghettos, which were created by people who othered us, are maintained because we cherish our otherness.”
We perpetuate our otherness because it’s safer than being out. We perpetuate our otherness, I think, because if we allow the walls to come down from around our encampment, our stronghold against those on the outside, we run the risk of losing our sense of identity in the world.
I have long argued that the pagan community at large is defined by its sense of otherness. (Seriously, I got a master’s thesis out of this.) With all of the hoopla of late over pagans struggling to define what paganism is, not many people seem to be eager to mention that the only real qualifications to be “pagan” are 1) call yourself pagan; 2) be open to some mystical, “spiritual,” or metaphysical experiences; and 3) in some manner be an outsider from mainstream, Abrahamic dominated culture. (And #1 is negotiable.) We have not really defined ourselves in any meaningful way beyond this, despite vigorous efforts.
Do these boundaries continue to be necessary? Do they serve a purpose, other than for protection?
How, I wonder, might we be better served by the deconstruction of our ghettos? What would happen if we no longer lived in this Pagan bubble?
These boundaries are necessary because we still insist that we need them. I understand that this is tautological, but if we were ready to discard them, we would. What it really comes down to, at least for me, is that without these boundaries, without that sense of “being other,” we have nothing else to define us as a community, or even as a religion.
I’m not sure how much these boundaries form a “bubble” so much as an “egg.” As a religious movement, we are still gestating. I think that after we’ve had enough time in our shell to decide how we want to define ourselves, we’ll be ready to come out. And we may not come out as a unified force: the egg may contain twins or triplets. But coming out of that shell signifies an emergence into mainstream culture: becoming a World Religion. (Wicca is starting to make motions towards that level of emergence, but isn’t quite there yet. It may leave the rest of us pagans behind.) But a large majority of pagans are actively resistant to paganism organizing, norming, or establishing itself to that degree. We’re resisting that pull, which tell me we need more time to mature and develop.
We’ll have our day. But for now I think we need a bit more time in our bubble.