And here I begin to delve into politics. Sorta.
There are a lot of Pagans out there that regard activism and environmentalism as integral to their paganism. If that’s their deal, then fine: I won’t hold it against them. My issue is when they assume that because those elements are central to their religious understanding, that they assume that those elements must be central to my religious understanding, and that if they aren’t then I aren’t a “real Pagan” or I’m not “enlightened” enough, or I’m a hypocrite because I’m part of a “Nature Religion” and I’m not committed enough to protecting “Nature.”
Because nothing is more endearing than a bunch of people who reject the labels and pigeonholing of the dominant and oppressive overculture, only to have them insist that you live by their rules, labels, assumptions, and dictates.
I came across this post by Shauna Aura Knight at Pagan Activist. Knight is offering a criticism of our culture of wastefulness and offering suggestions for more environmentally sustainable and responsible behaviors, and sure, that is a good thing. But the underlying assumptions and judgmentalism annoy the ever living fuck out of me.
It starts with a seemingly simple question:
If we call ourselves Earth-centered, how do we do that without being hypocrites?
“We?” Is there a mouse in your pocket?
But assuming that all pagans share her values,politics, and spiritual understanding isn’t enough. We get outright condemnation:
I’m going to offer a harsh statement here. If you call yourself Earth-centered…or if you turn and face the North in ritual and invoke or honor the Earth, and you are littering like this, if you aren’t sorting your trash and recycling, if you are drinking bottled water and not making any attempt to begin to live more sustainably, you have no business standing in ritual and calling Earth, honoring the Earth. It’s hypocritical.
And that probably pisses you off. And, maybe instead of being ticked off at me, the messenger, you can acknowledge where you might need to do some work to use less resources. For those who called me a hypocrite for calling for the use of less resources, particularly not using styrofoam or plastic cups in a ritual, being a hypocrite would mean I’m not working hard to reduce my use of resources. If you are honestly, sincerely trying, then you’re not a hypocrite. But, we can all do better.
We aren’t perfect. I’m not perfect. I’m using resources too. But, like many others, I am working hard to reduce my use.
It’s hard, and my greatest fear is that it’s not going to have enough of an impact. But I’m going to try my best, because, I am Earth-Centered. I value the Earth and my relationship to it. I consider it a contract, a sacred trust. It’s my job to live in better harmony, to reduce my use of resources, and to help others do the same.
Yes, it pisses me off for you to call me a hypocrite. But not because you’re a grand messenger calling me to task on my own failures to live up to my professed values. But because you’re calling me to task for not living up to your expectations, on the assumption that because I’m Pagan I’m your kind of Pagan, and that I must share your values and motivations, and that if I don’t then I must lot be legitimate. And that the only way I can atone for my sins is to admit the error of my ways and adopt your dictates for how I worship and how I live.
Because my Paganism is not based in environmentalism. It is not “Earth-Centered.” And you have absolutely no right whatsoever to tell me that I can’t invoke the powers of the element of Earth unless I obey you.
The issue of Paganism being “Earth-Centered” or “Nature-Based” is something I’ve talked about before:
The concept of Paganism as a “nature religion” is a very modern understanding, and assumes a very romantic worldview relating to worshiping nature. I have found little to suggest that ancient pagans were “nature worshipers” as we conceive the term — most of them sought to placate the gods and spirits of nature to preserve order from chaos. It is far more accurate to say our pagan forebears were “order worshipers.” My own Roman ancestors did not worship nature in any meaningful sense, and in fact celebrated their grand civilization and the order it brought to people’s lives as having divine origins.
This reflection was inspired by commentary by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus:
For a long time now, I’ve been hearing modern Paganism characterized as a “nature religion” or an “earth-based religion.” That is true to an extent (and in some cases, far less true than others—and not necessarily in a negative sense). However, I suspect a huge reason that it is characterized that way—especially to non-Pagans—is because of fear of being thought foolish or “primitive” for recognizing the gods. We have then internalized that dialogue and have spent lots of virtual and actual ink on determining whether or not one group or another is truly “earth-based,” when in fact that understanding in itself might be more of a problem than an accurate portrayal.
The idea of Pagans as “nature worshippers” fits in perfectly with the Christian conception (and, as in my case, misconception) of ancient polytheists as unsophisticated bumpkins with no place in civilized society, and therefore no business doing their rituals indoors.
My Paganism is based upon my interaction with the spirits and the gods, which in turn helps to inform my place in the Grand Scheme of Things. Many of those spirits dwell in nature, and embody natural forces, and as such interacting with those spirits often necessitates and understanding and respect of nature. But the central focus of my worship is those spirits, not the environment that they dwell in.
Paganism is frequently depicted as nature worship, and I disagree with this assumption. The Romans gods celebrate engineering feats and the cultivation of philosophy and learning. These are hallmarks of what we classify as civilization, which is frequently placed at odds with nature.
See, the gods of Rome were beings that embodied the forces of nature. They were not worshiped or petitioned to celebrate nature, but to moderate it. To keep it at bay.
Raw nature is scary. There are hardships there. You struggle to find things to eat, and there are things that can and will eat you. Nature is chaos.
And the gods were petitioned to keep that chaos at bay, so that life might be easier for us.
And this isn’t even considering the fact that our insistence on viewing “Nature” as a real concept worthy of reverence, as distinct and opposed to the idea of the “Artificial,” is itself a dubious political construct that I argue actually serve to alienate us from the societies and cultures we live in.
Nature as a concept is a romantic notion, one that brings to mind pristine and peaceful wilderness where noble savages live in peace and robust health. This is contrasted to the concept of the “artificial” or the manmade, which is seen as exploiting or going against the virtues of Nature. This ignores three simple facts: 1) The “natural” world is inherently dangerous, and doesn’t give a flying crap if we survive comfortable or die slow, agonizing deaths; 2) The “artificial” world has bestowed upon us many things that have proven greatly beneficial to our comfort, survival, and well-being; and 3) Humans are animals, and are a part of Nature, and as such any activity we undertake, no matter how complex, is “natural.”
Worshiping “Nature” seems redundant to me. Everything around us and that we do is nature. Our very existence, and even our pondering it, is a part of nature. Nature itself is an artificial construct. So why would I worship a political concept instead of the gods and spirits in the world around me?
Now I obviously understand that many Pagans don’t have the understanding of “Nature” that I do, and I’m fine with that. If your brand of Paganism is centered on the worship of the Earth, and it works for you, then that’s fine. But I will take issue with any Pagan that 1) Questions the “authenticity” of my Paganism for lacking the environmentalism (or other political concern) that their Paganism has, and 2) Calls me a hypocrite for not living up to the standards of their brand of paganism.
Many people are drawn to Paganism because they reject the idea of a powerful central authority that has the right to define or dictate their relationship with the divine. To insist that members of such a group — one that prides itself on its complex diversity — must conform to your political requirements is far more hypocritical than Pagans who use too much toilet paper.