John Beckett asks an interesting question: Must Paganism be Transgressive?
Do we lose something when a radical spiritual movement starts to be accepted by the mainstream? Or is it more complicated than that?
Beckett looks at a few other discussions going on in the Pagan blogosphere in examining this question. I saw a few themes that I’ve talked and thought about before, so I felt the need to open my big mouth.
In Beckett’s first example, John Halstead presents notable quotables from the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a major interfaith conference that took place in St. Lake City recently. Beckett isn’t too specific in terms of what we’re supposed to notice here, other than perhaps the fact that several Pagan groups were represented, and that this is a big step in terms of acceptance and recognition of Paganism through much of the “Western” world. And this, Beckett points out, is cause for concern for some Pagans who may not want Paganism to become “mainstream.”
Two things from these excerpts stuck out to me. The first is how many of the comments reflected political ideals expressed through religious principles, which I suppose is to be expected, since I would imagine such a large interfaith conference would be more appealing to liberal-minded folks. The other was this quote:
Dispelling myths about Paganism: “I’d like to dispel the myth that we’re just a bunch of old hippies … oh, wait …” — Andras Corban-Arthen at the Paganism 101 panel (humorously looking to his co-panelists Starhawk, Ruth Barrett, Angie Buchanan, Don Frew)
That this was a joke says something. He’s denying that all Pagans are aging hippies, while facing evidence that the stereotype is largely a justified one.
I think those concepts are connected, and I’ll come back to that.
For his second example, Beckett brings up this charming article by Dana Colby.
I’m old enough to remember what the Craft was like ‘in the day.’ It was highly sexual. Many rituals included Great Rite in true, and it was practically de rigueur to screw your Witch friends. And while most of the coven leaders I met were married, few (the times being what they were) were exclusively monogamous. Few people now recall that one of the original descriptions of the Craft was ‘the Tantra of the West’ but that’s exactly what it was. Sexual practices for raising energy were common, and many techniques that weren’t actual sex raised magical energy by raising the libido. Great Rite, even symbolic, was experienced as a sexual act, not just intellectually appreciated as a symbol of divine union. My tradition preserves some sex magic techniques from those days but I have no idea if anyone actually uses them.
Traditional forms of Wicca are blatantly sexual (and heteronormative), there is no denying that. But this nostalgic paean to halcyon days is extremely problematic for me. Not only do we have the conflation of Wicca and witchcraft (and Paganism) that the older generation of Pagans desperately clings to, we also have a drastic oversimplification of Tantra=unrestrained sex, which I find dismissive to many aspects of both Tantra and Wicca. Of course, monogamy is presented as reactionary, and de-emphasizing the blatant sexuality of Traditional Wicca is equivalent to believing all sex to be dirty and bad.
And then we get this:
I wonder if it isn’t time for Traditional Wicca to go back to being a spiritual practice, a priest-and-priestesshood, strictly of and for consenting adults. And to being underground, which was in many ways a lot more free than we are now.
As far as I knew, Traditional Wicca was and is still that way. This romantic nostalgia for a time of keeping a secret, spiritual truth supports my thesis that Wicca not only embraces but depends upon the “outsider” status of its adherents to build religious identity. Quite frankly it also smacks of spiritual elitism.
And I’m not even sure that I’m up to addressing the fact that the primary criterion for being a “spiritual practice” appears to be an open, free love sexual ethic. I can only presume that my monogamous nature makes me less spiritually evolved and not fit for the enlightenment and freedom that Traditional Wicca provide.
And then there’s the “let’s mainstream the Craft” movement. I’m sorry, but Witches are by definition a fringe group. We lose (have lost) much of our power when we stop walking the shadows and start going to interfaith luncheons, expecting to be treated as peers by mainstream clergy and as clergy by the press.
That capital W indicates another conflation of Wicca with witchcraft in general. Either way, I’m not sure what necessitates that witches or Wiccans remain fringe groups. I suppose that witches in general are technical specialists that engage in activities and deal with things that the rest of society usually doesn’t, so that element is present — witches inhabit a liminal space. But how does that translate to acceptance and tolerance of Pagan religious beliefs by the mainstream taking our power? (See comment regarding spiritual elitism above.)
For his third example, Beckett references this journal by the folks at Gods & Radicals, with a forward by Peter Grey. Grey’s witchcraft is intensely political, and his book Apocalyptic Witchcraft is well worth the read. And I have no problem with the fact that his witchcraft is political, or the fact that this publication explicitly connects its witchcraft to its political goals and positions.
My issue is when people assert that everyone else’s witchcraft, that everyone else’s Paganism, must not only be political to be authentic, but must be their type of political. (To clarify, I have not seen evidence that Grey or other contributors to Gods & Radicals hold that position.)
Beckett brings the discussion to consider the need for transgression of certain mainstream social mores, and the fact that religious ideas — and especially new and fringe religious movements — are important to that transgression. He concludes that transgression is an important part of both social and religious experience — especially to many Pagans — but that it is not inherent in much of Pagan practice. I am inclined to agree with him.
But my issue comes back to what Beckett doesn’t seem to notice or address explicitly: that much of what he describes as transgressive is political, and there seems to be a presumption among many Pagans that Paganism must involve a political component or position. The Pagan movement of the 60’s appealed to a lot of radical activist types who were happy to embed their political positions in religious terms (see above joke regarding Pagans as aging hippies). And while many forms of Paganism are certainly compatible with or even require certain political positions — and I have nothing wrong with that! — not all of them are or do. And in a community that is so intensely politicized, lacking that political emphasis in your religious expression is a great way to get yourself excluded or have your authenticity questioned.
I’ve said it many times: there is no such thing as Pagan politics. We are simply too diverse a group. We can’t even define the umbrella term we all cling to — how can anyone assume we share a unified political position, and that we all embed that political position with equal weight in our religiosity?