Pagan Theology



One of the important things that religions do is regulate behavior.  You may not like it, but that’s the way it is.  One of the reasons that others in society are skeptical of modern Paganism is that we don’t regulate much behavior outside of obvious harm and ill action.  This is part of the reason that modern Paganism appeals to many whose spirits are freer, or just unwilling to behave the way society expects them.  Since religion is one way the culture regulates behavior outside of the legal system, a religion that does not provide such regulation could be seen as suspicious (or not a religion).  I think it’s pretty clear that is not the case, but I’m betting that some acceptance issues for religions outside of the book (and liberal ones of the book) have to do with the rather lax way they may regulate extra-legal behavior.


But the truth is that the Gods and Goddesses don’t tell people whom they can and can’t sleep with, nor do they tell us what to eat, how to dress, or even whether to show up to ritual.  We do these things because we know within us what we are called to do.  Pagans show up at ritual because of a calling we cannot refuse, and we know that those who are called will find the Gods and Goddesses.  We have a magical, inner, compass.


This places Paganism in a very unique position relative to other religions, but it also places a great burden on those who follow the Gods and Goddesses.  Sometimes that burden is too great and we see ourselves wishing for more regulation, as if that would help those who are hurting.  I claim that regulation of behavior as a religious device is wrong, because we are using the spiritual to regulate a different sphere of life, the social.  Better to develop social regulation to regulate social behavior [1].


However when it comes to more mundane matters, such as who to sleep with or where to hang our hats, Pagan theology pretty much abandon’s us.  “Do as you will, as long as it harm none” is a pretty vague statement that is well open to interpretation and various readings.  In fact I claim is has more to do with magical and ritual working than mundane ones.  It does not tell us what to do in situations, for example, where whatever you choose will harm someone, yourself included.  In reality it is equivalent to saying “be responsible for your actions,”  which is just about as vague and unhelpful as any other advice we give or get as parents.  “Harm none” is quite different than “thou shall not…”.  The latter is explicit, requires little thought or interpretation, and can easily be followed in complex situations.  Leaving the decision up to us means that all of the usual temptations and mind tricks that can occur, will, resulting in us giving in to the temptation to be irresponsible when we should not.


So where does this leave us as a community trying to do the right thing in the real world of politics, betrayal, and bitching [2]?


Responsibility is a good place to start, but we need to understand it better.  We need to take responsibility for ourselves and others.  Just as the Gods and Goddesses have only themselves, and their honor and reputation, to answer for, so we also have the responsibility for right action.  The responsibility to exercise the freedom we claim as divine beings in ways that increase the world, and us not diminish it.  This can require us to be brave, and to lose something in the process.  Sometimes we cannot keep friends because we need to be responsible.  Sometimes thing won’t go as we wanted because our responsibilities get in the way.   Sometimes our duties, either to others or to the organizations we lead will lead us to have to sacrifice one thing or the other.  It is important to acknowledge that the requirement of responsibility is the ability to deny ourselves some things that we may want, to impose limits on ourselves.  Paganism is not a religion of abundance [3], it does not promise that all our problems will be resolved by appeal to religious or magical authorities.  Sometimes we have to solve our problems ourselves.


Now different people have different requirements leveed on them.  Newcomers to the circle and community have the responsibility to listen and learn.  Those who have been here a while have the responsibility to use what they have learned for the betterment of everyone in the community.  And those who lead have to lead from the heart of the Goddess, not from their own egos or desires.  They have to be willing the serve both the Gods and the Goddesses and the community.  That is what they bought into when they assumed the leadership role.  It is not just the responsibility to use magical power responsibly, it is also their responsibility to use real power responsibly [4].


But, as the Christians would say, sin is all around us.   While we don’t believe in sin, and have a very complex relationship with evil and darkness in general, we could just as easily call these things “big mistakes” or “challenges” because that is what they are.   Doing bad things often begets bad results in our lives.  Whether you call it sin or a mistake, it’s a problem.   Irresponsibility, ignoring our duty and need for self-restraint, can easily result in harm to ourselves and others.


If you watch Pagan groups enough you see that there are some real challenges to responsible behavior.  Several sins are very easy to commit in Paganism (and yes, I’m talking about the fun ones).  In fact anyone who has stayed around a circle for any length of time has encountered just about every one of them.  Leaders within the community confront these “sins” all the time, and sometimes confront them directly in their own lives.  How we deal with spiritual and behavioral challenges is important both for us as individuals as well as for our community.


By far the biggest challenge I have seen is self-centered behavior.  There is the individual who shows up at the circle the first time knowing everything, correcting everybody, and who won’t shut up.  There is the would-be leader who pushes and pushes for a bigger role in order to be in the spotlight.  There is the leader who don’s the mantle of magical and intellectual power in order to rise above the mundane.


Self-centered behavior, in my opinion, is all about self-worth and self-image.  People who do not have a good feeling about themselves, those who were bullied or left behind by “normal” life, are often drawn to Paganism as an open, accepting, community.  Likewise I believe that wounded individuals are often drawn to Paganism because of the perceived power of magical practice.  Those who have little power in “real” life can escape to an imagined world where they do have power, and that power brings some degree of respect and authority within the community.   None of these behaviors are valid reasons to engage with either magic or the deities, but as members and leaders of a community we must deal with them.  Often quite frequently.


Behaviors like low self-esteem or grandiose self-image may be obvious, or they may be deeply hidden and only come out through different kinds of behavior, often overtly productive behaviors.  Still there is a lack of confidence, a sense of low self worth, that even if deeply buried and hidden can affect how we behave.  If the issues manifest overtly its pretty easy to see what is going on.  Every circle has encountered people who are drawn to religion because of ego, vanity, or a lack of self worth.  But, even worse, these people can be exploited by the second kind of problem that we have:  the users.


Given that many Pagan’s are often drawn to Paganism because it represents a safe place where they don’t have to compete on regular societies’ terms [5], those who are perhaps shall we say “more sophisticated” can and sometimes do exploit circles for their own gain.   These “users” for lack of a better term can be like wolves in amongst the sheep.  While they may be better looking, more articulate, smarter (though that is much harder to pull off), or more socially adept than the majority of Pagans, they would still be challenged if they were thrown in amongst a mainstream Church.  They would be quickly identified in a mainstream group and tossed out.  But in Paganism we are both accepting, and somewhat vulnerable to these types.  Even the leaders can be vulnerable because these users offer something that many don’t have, a social status boost.  Of course this boost can be temporary, but sometimes the victims don’t realize they are victims.


The interaction between those who are wounded, and vulnerable, and those who might exploit them for their own gain is always a danger in small-group religion.  While Paganism seems pretty immune to cults of personality, probably because most Pagans are more irascible and anti-authoritarian then most, we are vulnerable to having the weak exploited by the strong.


The real problem underlying all of this is that both types of individuals are approaching the Gods and Goddesses from a completely wrong-headed and invalid path.  The focus on the self, on rewards to the ego and spirit that come from being a leader or well-regarded member of a small group is not the reward that we, as Pagans, should seek.  Instead the Gods and Goddesses should be approached because we have no other choice, because their fire burns in us in a way that does not allow for a different answer.  This inner compass that guides us to belief and the world of the spirit also provides us with a meter that allows us to be faithful, to circle and worship and practice our magic, but also to participate in the broader life of society.  This broader life is necessary in order for us to accumulate the real wisdom, to do the real work that is required of us in order to learn how to behave.


So I would say that we should all watch out for each other, but those who have a broader, wiser, worldly, view have an added responsibility to watch out for those users when they creep into our circles.  Leadership is critical when danger lurks about, and danger often comes in the most pleasant and attractive packages.  We can also work toward a community of greater responsibility by encouraging those who come to Paganism to visit their reasons, to examine their lives both inside and outside the circle in order to identify the real growth that is needed.  Sometimes spiritual growth and growth in the circle should be put aside in favor of growth in the world.  Wisdom comes from lots of places, but you cannot ultimately be wise without confronting and dealing with the world.  That’s one reason I suspect catholic priests are not ordained for such a long time.  They want their initiates to have that experience of living in the world, to be able to engage socially and personally with the world, before they remove themselves from it, or rise above it.  So too it should be with us.


Unfortunately we have few tools in which to regulate behavior short of expelling someone from circle.  We don’t have sin, hell, or any other similar threat.  Heck we can’t even threaten the poorly behaved with the prospect of being reincarnated as a bug.  Instead it falls to our leadership to actually lead, to build an environment where responsibility is the key touchstone, where behavior is seen in the context of a true and close relationship with the Gods and Goddesses, and where those who are not responsible in their behavior are called out and made to own their own consequences.


This also means that we need to protect the weak amongst us.  The weak and vulnerable need two kinds of protection.  First they need leaders and elders to be responsible for their protection against those who would use them.  While a free society, the effect of properly placed words and suggestions from those who are respected and wise should not be underestimated.  The key thing is, just like children, those words need to be said and wisdom dispensed well before the excrement hits the whirligig.  It’s too late once commitments (or babies) have been made.


But another kind of protection for the weak is to make them strong.  I believe we do too little to strengthen character of those who are week, or to impart wisdom to those who are foolish.  Again this cannot be done at the last moment right before the drunken reveler tries to kiss the rattlesnake.  Instead it must be integrated into our words and actions throughout our circles and discussions, well before we sit down to potluck.


[1]  I continue to maintain that theologically we are better off considering a humanistic approach toward morality and behavior within Paganism than a religious one.  Humanism gives us a well-considered and integrated foundation for right action and behavior, without drawing the judgment of the Gods and Goddesses into our affairs.  At the same time regulation of magical and ritual behavior does derive from theology, not humanism, as it is an inherently spiritual affair.  While most humanists would totally deny any supernatural cause or effect, we can simply ignore that portion of humanist thought and focus on their exegesis of morality.

[2]  You are correct in assuming that I am reacting to something that actually happened within the community.  However I’m just watching the derailment, and using it as a stimulus to talk about the larger problem of trust, governance, and private vs. public.     For those who know the event I’m talking about, a rather public one in our region of the country, I have great sympathy for everyone and believe that a lot, and I do mean a lot, of mistakes were made.    I’m also talking about my general observation that we get a lot of wounded people coming to circle.  Sure there are strong Pagans and Witches who are amazingly grounded in spirit and world.  But there are a heck of a lot of others who are not.

[3]  I’m talking very specifically about the abundance theology of certain Christian sects.  We don’t have something that promises riches; even magical workings require us to “work” to make the effect happen.  If we do a charm for money and go out and quit our job its likely the small effects that the spell made will be overwhelmed by our own stupidity.  Similarly is we are a wise elder but make silly mistakes in our relations with people or organizations, our wisdom will be overwhelmed by the challenges we have brought on.

[4]  As they say in academia, “the fights are so bad because the stakes are so low.”  Such is true for Paganism as well!

[5]  For example, if you attend a “regular” (whatever that is) Christian service you will most likely draw a pretty representative cross section of the community.  The lawyers, doctors, and others who have gained social and material success will likely be there, and they will be dominating.  The pretty wives with the pearls, the guys who golf on Sunday after Church, they all represent a pretty intimidating crowd.  These guys will toss even the most sophisticated user out in a heartbeat should they attempt any shenanigans.  Paganism, at least the circles I’m familiar with, doesn’t quite draw from the same general mix.  The social groupings Paganism draws from are the same ones that fandom, gaming, SCA, etc. draw from.  A different sort, but one that is vulnerable to being naive.  And I must say the demographic we do draw from is a vibrant, interesting, smart, charming, gentle, and wonderfully different sort.  A group that I find far more kind and easy to know than the more mainstream sort.