Response to Sam Webster, part the Last (and Longest)

Sam and I briefly discussed the danger of doctrinalism in Paganism, and the undesirable potential for modern Pagans to go the way of the ancient Christians–that is, from a massively diverse group of theologies and practices with some, however tenuous, common thread, to an insular orthodoxy ruling the world with an iron fist.

The difference, I believe in Sam’s estimation, is in the power of enforcement. He is 100% right to say that he can’t force anyone to do anything about their beliefs. But here’s the thing: neither could Peter (yes, the apostle). The extent of either man’s power amounted to group membership. Sam can refuse to be part of a group that invokes Jesus, and he can refuse to acknowledge that a Christo-Pagan is truly Pagan, and that doesn’t matter. The only way that can change what any other person does with their life and their religious practice is if they feel that they need to be a part of the same group as Sam.

Peter could tell people that if they did not belong to his group, they didn’t get into the Kingdom (whatever Peter understood the Kingdom to be, a subject that I’m not even going to get into here). Sam doesn’t have that power or even that desire (or so he expressed, but he keeps using words like “can’t” and “don’t”…). There is no paradigm in Sam’s religion, that I’m aware of, that would allow him to make that threat. In Peter’s religion, not being a part of Peter’s club meant not being a part of God’s club. It meant, in the words of the author of Matthew, “the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In Sam’s religion, not being a part of Sam’s club (sorry) means… finding another club to join. So far so good.

The real issue, however, wasn’t with Peter and it isn’t ultimately with Sam. In reality, people who didn’t want to belong to Peter’s club made their own (Hi, Paul). Lots and lots of them did, and Peter could tell them that they weren’t going to be a part of the Kingdom, but they just said, “Yes, we are,” and some of them said, “Also, you aren’t, and also you’re stupid,” and they did their thing. So Peter as an individual really had no more power than Sam does.

But do you know had more power than Peter and Sam? Domitian. That guy got to say, “If you don’t worship in the way I want you to, it’s the lions for you.” (Or not–I haven’t read Candida Moss’s book on the subject yet, but it’s on the list). And a few centuries after him, Constantine had that power, and a few centuries after him, Torquemada had that power.

Sam’s mistake is not in his opinion. His opinion is his, and I even agree with his theology to some extent. I don’t think the Christian God is a very nice guy, and I don’t talk to him, and I don’t talk to his son. I would be uncomfortable if someone invoked Jesus in a ritual I participated in, and I would not participate in a group that invoked Jesus regularly. I can’t really wrap my head around the idea of Christo-Pagans, but I know that at least part of that is because my experience of Christianity is far, far more exclusivist than the Christianities of other people. No, Sam’s mistake is in believing that his brand of exclusivism–the idea that he gets to define Paganism for other people and deny them their claimed identity–cannot possibly breed the kind of institutionalized exclusivism that ultimately killed the Arianists, and as many Pagans like to say, “destroyed” ancient religion. The fact that a number of people have sided with Sam indicates that this isn’t just “his” opinion, and that it isn’t powerless.

Then there’s this: “If you don’t live our life, if you are unwilling to face the consequences and bear the burden of being Pagan, don’t call yourself one.” Holy Early Christianity, Batman! Whether or not people in the early movements who escaped persecution could still look forward to salvation, could still belong to the group, was a huge issue during the second century. In our own time, I wonder what Sam has to say to Pagans who request to be excluded from photos at Pagan events, because they might face adverse consequences at work or with family. What has Sam to say to me, who won’t use my legal name on this blog because of the very real possibility that I’ll be applying for jobs at Christian schools in the not-too-distant future? Is unemployment an acceptable price of entry? Does my need to feed myself and my family make me unworthy to worship the gods, or just to claim the title Pagan when Sam Webster’s in the room? Is this focus on martyrdom, as effective as it is for group solidarity and galvanization, really where we want to move forward as a community?

I’m not a Pagan because I feel like I get some reward out of bearing an unfair burden, and if the gods want my loyalty they won’t require my wellbeing in exchange. That’s Christian talk, and sorry, Sam, I’m not going to pick up my Catherine wheel and follow you.

The idea that one gets to decide whether or not a person really belongs to a religion is an insider idea. It’s Christians who declare that other groups “aren’t Christian.” My mom, at the time something of a fundamentalist, told me point-blank that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons aren’t Christians because they don’t believe in the Trinity. For an outsider, and particularly an academic, anyone who venerates Christ primarily (any definition of Christ–it’s the word we’re concerned with) is a Christian–that’s the only definition. Unfortunately, there is not currently such a simple definition for Paganism. As I’ve said before, self-definition is primary, especially without a central defining feature. In other words, Sam can’t say that another person isn’t Pagan because, first of all, that person says they are Pagan, and second, there is no central, agreed-upon precept of Paganism to serve as a litmus test.

Here’s where this goes, potentially: Pagans like me and Sam refuse to participate in Christo-Pagan groups. Maybe some of us actively exclude individual Christo-Pagans from our groups. Christo-Pagans form their own groups. “Christo-Paganism” becomes a thing, another mode of Paganism that, as it grows, requires recognition or rejection. Do we allow Christo-Pagans at the Pagan Conference? Are there Christo-Pagan events at Pantheacon? Maybe not, maybe that’s something the majority of Pagans decide they don’t want, and Christo-Pagans have to find space within Christianity (rather than within Paganism). Maybe they become completely Pagan, or completely Christian, or they spin off completely, whatever any of those things mean.

Let’s say–and it’s a stretch, but let’s say it–that Paganism (whatever that means) is the dominant religion in the US in 100 years. We’ll assimilate Christians values, language, and practice no matter what, because that’s the milieu we inhabit (and we already do assimilate many of those things–assimilate isn’t even a good word for it, since all Neo-Pagan beliefs, values, practices, and language have been developed in Christian culture and through the lens of the past 1500 years of Christian domination of the West). But how will we decide who’s Pagan, and how will we treat people who don’t make the cut? We’d better start thinking about it now, because orthodoxy has its way of sneaking up.

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One Response to Response to Sam Webster, part the Last (and Longest)

  1. By far, my biggest concern of it is the “what is a real Pagan?” question. Can you be a “real” Wiccan and still be Dianic? Can you be a “real” woman and be a transwoman? Can you a “real” marriage and not be heterosexual? Can you be a “real” Athenian Reconstructionist and not speak perfect Greek? To me, saying “you can worship this god, but not that god” is a dangerous path to take, and I’m not willing to turn down that road.

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