Baggage and Reactionary Definitions
Baggage is one of the major topics which I harp on as a cause of major issues with Paganism. In this context “baggage” can run a gamut of incidences: unidentified emotional hangers-on, obvious biases based off of previous interactions or disappointments, or even trauma which needs to be addressed, but nevertheless colors the topic. It largely is considered an emotional response (“emotional baggage”) and there is an implicit assumption that “baggage” is negative. Baggage of all kinds can have an impact on the types of discussions which are had.
Paganism is no exception.
After all, how could it be? Many people come to Paganism after a less-than-affectionate parting with Christianity, or otherwise have had some previous experiences which color them to the prevalence of Christian overculture. As a religious expression which spent a great deal of its life as a counter-cultural representation that defined itself by what it was not, it’s understandable that Paganism has in some way internalized a basic reaction towards what people view as fundamental concepts to Christianity.
For instance, it is popularly considered to be not dogmatic, focusing on ritual and not belief. It is often decried that there are no “Pagan Popes”, or other such authority figures when a greater accountability or organizational effort is made. It is not a religion which concerns itself with morality. It is not a religion with “Sin”. It is an inclusive religious understanding, and telling people they are not welcome or do not belong is seen as aberrant. There’s no place for hierarchy, and very little emphasis on the division of labor in terms of priestly duties.
All these, and many more, are hallmarks of popular Pagan attitudes towards their religion.
But they are not attitudes of Paganism-as-a-religion. They’re not reasoned arguments which benefit the religious understanding of Paganism, they’re not laying the foundations or furthering some of the discussion which can aid in building something new. They’re not unpacking these concepts in a useful way. They’re attitudes of reaction. Discussions about Sin (and I’m picking on “Sin” because it’s the current hot topic, and this actually came up in other social media circles in June) don’t gain traction because of the assumption that it is something that Christians do, and that Pagans do not do. There are mischaracterized beliefs that “Sin” is a Christian intrusion into a people who had no concept of the idea of violation of divine (or mortal) law.
And concepts like sin are not alone. Paganism is replete with attitudes which ultimately have no standing in light of evidence, yet nevertheless are perpetuated by popular opinion or emotional appeals. It took a concerted effort for the idea of genuflection in Heathenry to not be associated with a type of Christian subservience (“Heathens don’t kneel to our gods! We’re not Christians!”) and we still have to fight the misinformation that people spread about it. Some hardcore reconstructionists have problems with the idea of a “personal relationship” with deities because of the overabundance of “Jesus loves me” themes. Religious purity and personal pollution. Prescribed and proscribed religious ritual convention. These are just a few examples.
It happens. After all, these issues are built upon a foundation of previous experience. But they’re not constructive attitudes when they don’t lead to a greater discussion. They’re attitudes of Paganism-as-not-Christianity.
Pagans defining themselves by what they are not is absolutely not a new concept. Even here, in this blog space, I had a handful of years where I did it. And then I made a concerted effort to really take a look at what I was doing, be constructive, and approach my practice(s) positively. Which meant unpacking and working through any baggage I had from Christianity.
There’s an interesting phenomenon when Paganism is defined solely as a reaction to Christianity.
You end up with something that looks an awful lot like Christianity.
Certain constructs exist in religion that transcend any one particular paradigm. Yoking them to a singular religious expression does disservice to the tradition and gives rise to ignorant attitudes about them. We each, as Pagans, have the individual obligation to make a concerted effort to move beyond our preconceived notions towards these constructs. This is of paramount importance if we want to be able to approach these important concepts in a mature way.
Many Pagans have developed, adopted, or continued traditions which carry some kind of wider stigma or baggage when it is placed within the attitudes of the modern world. For instance, certain attitudes of Pagan women have taken to veiling themselves due to devotional or sacred reasons – a topic which caused some amount of controversy in the Pagan blogosphere four years ago. Divisive attitudes towards women purposely covering their head had less to do with the theological merits of the action and more to do with notions and interpretations of the apparent lack of agency found in perceptions from the Muslim world. These were applied broadly to the whole tradition of religious head-covering as a mandated aspect of some of these religious traditions.
It doesn’t end there, and does not remain within practical traditions. Christian and monotheistic baggage informs character critiques, as well. “One man cannot serve two masters” is a common refrain that I have personally heard from Heathens who have specific issues with the practice of multiple polytheistic traditions. As I have written at length on this blog, these attitudes simply do not hold water in light of traditional polytheistic mutability. I view them to be more likely post-Christian baggage, rather than any concrete view of a traditional religious identity.
Baggage and reactionary thought has been utilized in order to discredit another position. “Fundamentalism” is a word that is bandied around as a destabilizing scare word in order to undermine the credibility and attack the character of another, and relies entirely on Christian baggage and associations with wider monotheistic fundamentalist persecution to operate. In reality, Pagan “fundamentalism” is a pathetic scare word, but it still carries those connotations. True story: I have been accused of being a right wing fascist and fundamentalist strictly because I clearly define a line (using academics) between what polytheism is (worship of more than two gods) and what it is not (worship of two or less gods), and refuse to entertain the “soft/hard polytheism” frivolity all together.
Contemporary Paganism cannot properly flourish in the shadow of the Christian bogeyman, jumping at every turn where there’s a concept or theme which might have some comparative similarity to the other religious institution. Purposely neutering intellectualist debates because of baggage stunts the vibrancy and shoehorns Paganism and all the Pagan traditions into an inverse representation of Christendom. It limits the ability of people to think about what they are, and it tethers this non-Christian religious orientation in a very fundamental way to Christianity. What’s more, it constantly puts Contemporary Paganism on the defensive. If we have to establish ourselves by what we are not, in essence have to defend our choices of religious belief to ourselves, then how can we be expected to respectfully articulate our viewpoints to people that hold differing perspectives?
If a person encounters concepts like purity, miasma, or some other concept of spiritual pollution and finds oneself “emotionally thrown back into a place of shame”, that is on them to work through. It is not on the group to work through for them. These people do not have the right to direct the flow of conversation in order to mitigate their personal deficiencies and feelings of inadequacy, simply because they seemingly lack the capacity to address their emotional attachments to these terms or concepts.
Obviously, there are people who have suffered extreme emotional and mental trauma which they associate with wider pre-Christian religious experiences. I am not denigrating those experiences, victim blaming, or otherwise diminishing that experience.
However, there is a certain maturity expected when engaging in philosophical and theological discussion. If someone wants to be a Pagan, be a Pagan. Do not be a Pagan-chained-to-Christianity. Or monotheism. Or anything else that is not-Paganism. Entering the wider dialogue of theological debate means accepting that there are multiple worldviews, approaching them rationally, and not engaging in knee-jerkism.
If you’re going to join the discussion, you can’t hobble yourself with those attitudes.