Pagan Theology

Pagan Theology:  Democracy

What is the relationship between democracy and Pagan religious practice?  I’m not talking about political democracy.  In this column I’m talking about democracy in our religious practices and traditions.  We know that Pagans gave rise to Western democracy through the Greeks, and many Pagan cultures had democratic political practices [1]. But how far do we go in practicing democracy, and all that it implies, within our groups and covens?   What obligation do we have to operate democratically?  How does democratic practice affect the way we run our groups?

This is an interesting question, one that goes deeply into the concept of teacher/taught, elder/junior, and mystery/initiation.  For us it is not simply “do we vote on whether to buy the cauldron?” but how democratically information and knowledge is shared amongst us.  Unless someone doesn’t know the great mystery, it’s not much of a mystery anymore.  But excluding some from the mystery is not exactly democratic, at least in the sense that all are participate in making decisions, and all can be leaders.  Democracy is not really possible without equal access to knowledge, or is it?

What does being a mystery religion mean for Paganism writ large?  Given the plethora of views on Paganism, and our well known inability to agree on even the simplest concepts of who is “in” or “out” (Christo pagans anyone?), I suspect we all pretty much hold to the value of the individual as an independent actor when it comes to religious practice.  Everyone must take responsibility for shaping their own destiny, and there are no hard and fast rules that tell individuals what is “right” or “wrong” with respect to religious believes.  This would suggest that the just thing to do would be to treat everyone as worthy of participating in democratic governance in our religious issues.  But that has many practical and theoretical complications.

Religions are complicated organizations to govern.  They are often driven by a pretty clear concept of who is in charge (god/Gods/Goddess/whatever) and what rules and regulations are negotiable (potluck) and what are not (casting and calling).  But at the same time they are wildly dependent on voluntary participation (unlike secular governments) and have only suasion and tradition to compel people to continue to participate.  Different religions use different formulas to hang together and govern themselves.

The Roman Catholic Church uses a tight, initiatory, tradition of its priests to govern, with “consultative” church governance by lay people on secular issues like finance, social justice, or stewardship .  They are able to implement this through a strong argument (do as we say or else) compelling participation regardless of who is in charge.  At the same time the “catholic” church spreads its tenants and believes as far and wide as there are people available to listen, and it not only lets anyone in (barring a few criteria), it claims to apply to everyone.

Pagans, operating at pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum, seem to not have much of a central argument for joining up and staying in line. Unitarian Universalists, who have a rather close relationship with Paganism [2], also occupy this liberal end of the spectrum.  UU’s value democracy so much they place it as part of their fundamental principles:  “the right of conscious and the democratic process in our congregations.”  Some branches of Paganism, such as Gardnerian Wicca, do have a tight argument for keeping members in line (which works about as well as the Catholics arguments do) and a clear hierarchy, at least within a Coven or family of Covens.

Church-based religions like UU and many Protestant denominations have a two-part approach toward congregational democracy.  The ministers are required to meet certain formal and informal qualifications, such as a divinity degree and perhaps an apprenticeship, but the ministers are brought into the congregation through the approval and agreement of the congregation or their elected representatives.  Likewise the ministers may be responsible for the spiritual aspects of the ministry, but elected representatives of the congregation are responsible for the actual governance of the church, and the stewardship of its resources.

Democratic governance, with a ministry limited to those with knowledge, training, and experience to lead the congregation spiritually under the voluntary participation of the congregants, is not very far from how most Pagan and Wiccan groups operate.  The High Priestess or Priest is the equivalent of a minister, one with the ability to minister to the group, and to ensure that the magical life of the group continues in a directed and purposeful fashion.  Unlike other religions, they are also responsible for almost all the mentoring and training of the next generation of the Priesthood.  In a sense Pagan Priestesses and Priests are called when the Goddess delivers the coven members to them, and the spiritual life of the coven is governed by the knowledge and experience of the Priestess or Priest.

Secular governance in Pagan groups is limited by the fact that there is so little to govern.  Most groups don’t have a facility or temple where they meet, and often if they do the group does not own it.  Finances, given the lack of property ownership are also usually small, and decisions about them relatively easily made.  Festivals and Pagan Pride events are some of the larger organized activities Pagan’s engage in and there participation is clearly secular.  Most events welcome anyone who wants to pitch in and work, or even lead.  Some groups, particularly those associated with UU churches, have a democratic governing council that makes decisions about meetings, rituals, and group finances.

Practically there is little difference between Pagan practice and that of many other religions.  We minister through individuals with specialized knowledge and we govern through the congregation and its representatives.  Given how little, in truth, we have to “govern” in terms of financial or physical infrastructure, how we govern shouldn’t be a huge issue for us.  Spiritually, however, there is a significant difference between us and other religions.   While democracy can address governance, it can also be thought of more broadly in terms of the ability of an individual to participate freely in the life of the group.   Everyone with a calling and conscience who is drawn to the religion deserves a place.  This “universalist” approach to religion says that everyone either can, or should, have a place in the faith.  The book religions translate this to everyone must participate, because whatever else they do is wrong.  In this sense Paganism is not a “universal” religion because we have no argument that says you should be a Pagan independent of what you know or how you feel.  If the Goddess calls you, and you know Her, then you should be a Pagan.  But if that revelation does not happen, you can happily be whatever else you want (as long as you leave the rest of us alone).

But two things complicate this question of universalism within Paganism.  Because neo-Paganism was in part derived from mystery traditions [3] it sometimes flies by universalism and comes out the other side, into an exclusionary, initiatory practice.   This means that in some cases we say that, not only do we wait patiently for you to find us, we actively make it difficult to do so.  This concept that you will find your coven and mentor when the Goddess assigns you one is very different from most other modern, popular, religious traditions.  While many Pagan groups don’t follow this program, to one degree or another many still do.

One logical argument for this practice is to keep out both the crazies and dilatants, something I can certainly sympathize with given problems that I have seen with both recently. There is also an argument for letting only the dedicated in, something that is particularly important in a religion that is already all too frequently associated with popular culture and fiction.  However there are spiritual ways to either help these people mature, or help them find a way that agrees with whatever social issues they may have, that does not involve deliberate exclusion.

But at the same time we most likely don’t want to exclude those who are dedicated, or would be if they found a welcoming, happy, and friendly place to encounter the Gods and Goddesses.  I have no easy answer to the question of how we decide who is welcome and who is not.  Do we only welcome those who find us through effort and fate?  Or do we put ourselves out there so that those who are called know where to go and what to do?  Or do we go further, talking about our faith, living our lives openly and hopefully, with the goal of inspiring others to ask about our faith, and potentially join us?

I believe this all centers on our view of the individual’s autonomy in religious practice.  Everyone has their fate, and some individual’s fate is tied to group Pagan practice, while others may be drawn to be Christian or whatever.  If that radical acceptance of the validity of everyone’s fated (or chosen) path is part of our beliefs and practices, then we have a responsibility to honor that when it comes to us.  When individual seekers come to our groups asking to be let in, our belief in the inherent freedom of the individual to choose means that we have a responsibility to facilitate that freedom when the choice is made to be Pagan.   To be truly democratic we need to think about admission and not just decision.  We need to welcome those who wish to join us.

While we can be welcoming, we also need to be wise.  Not all individuals that seek are ready, and not all who are ready and ready to participate in-group activities.  We may respect individual’s choices, and we may understand our responsibility to offer a place to express those choices, but at the same time the practical issues of governance and group dynamics mean that we need to be thoughtful in how we accommodate the seeker.  In this light initiation provides a test:  are you or are you not ready to join in the next level?

Initiation in that sense is a real dialog with the individual seeker about their goals, attitudes, and capabilities, and how they match those of the group.  It is not about who is “in” or “out” rather it can be seen as a conversation between the individual and the religious practice about their progress both as a spiritual person, and as a Pagan.   While initiation often means learning both esoteric and common knowledge relating to the group practice and tradition, that learning and other actions really are a way of engaging the initiate in a dialog with the group, and themselves, about spiritual maturity.  While knowledge is good, the “real work” is one of learning and maturing as a spiritual partner for the group.  If you are mature, thoughtful, and knowledgeable you will better integrate socially into the group dynamic.  This is important for Pagan groups, where even the largest group is often pretty small.

Whether or not groups have formal “initiations,” we all have these conversations with those who circle with us.  Some are more awkward than others, and some are unfortunate.  Understanding that it is both our responsibility to help seekers find their fit is an important first step toward a loving and accepting dialog with those who seek to join.  For those who simply do not fit, it suggests that we still have a responsibility to point the seeker in a better or more appropriate direction.

In some cases this may be nothing more than helping an individual socialize.  What better thing can we do than help a lost and awkward seeker become better able to work and play with others?  In other cases we may need to steer those who come to us but don’t fit to more formal solutions, such as social services.    But in the best cases the dialog is one where we ourselves learn a lot, grow, and build strong ties between each other, our faith, and ourselves.

[1] For example the Irish had a process for electing kings (http://www.libraryireland.com/SocialHistoryAncientIreland/I-II-3.php)

[2] By adopting the seventh principle (interconnected web of existence) in 1985 and sixth source (teachings of earth centered traditions) in 1995 Unitarian Universalism opened its doors to the neo-Pagans.  Now you’ll find many UU Churches have Pagan groups associated with them (shameless plug for UU).

[3] The specific groups I’m referring to here are the Golden Dawn, the Masons, and Gardnerian Wicca, each of which is an initiatory mystery tradition.   You could also add other groups such as Cochrane’s groups as well.