Inclusion and Selectivity in the Pagan Community

Alright, I’m about to express an extremely un-popular opinion.

Last night I was reading through old posts. I had gotten a new comment on my blog “Pagans and the Modesty Issue“. Between that and my blog “Gender Respect in the Pagan Community“, there was a lot of controversy and I still attract a lot of readers to my blog with these two posts. Between the Pagan Soccer Mom and Star Foster posting about it on their FB pages (and where has Star Foster gone to these days? She seems to have disappeared off the face of the planet), people either loved what I had to say or hated me and called me the worst person ever (I’m paraphrasing here, but you can imagine some of the things that were said).

I occasionally go back to these posts myself to remind myself that I did actually say what I wanted to say and didn’t sound completely irrational (at least from my own point of view). Blogging, and really, any sort of public writing or speaking, takes a certain degree of courage, especially in today’s Internet world of instant access. Anything you say and do can be taken a thousand different ways by a thousand different people, especially when what you express goes against the popular opinion.

This is something that our younger generations, unlike ours, are faced with. When I was in high school, if I got myself into something that I shouldn’t, we didn’t have Facebook to broadcast it all over the world and to ruin our lives forever. We had MySpace, and we were in the beginnings of this world of social networking on the internet and on cell phones. But we were nowhere close to what we’ve got today. While our children deal with this and feel its affects us in every aspect of their lives, it is also a reality that impacts the Pagan community.

One of the comments that I had gotten on my blog “Pagans and the Modesty Issue” was, “Modern Paganism needs to be inclusive, so this needs to be a non-issue, separate from the dialog about sex and patriarchy”. This is a sentiment that I’ve seen a lot of lately.

I disagree.

Most Pagan traditions, if you’re following an actual tradition, are mystery traditions. (And yes, this has been a kick that I’ve been on a lot lately, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I’m beginning to approach my own initiation). Mystery traditions are inherently not “inclusive”. That’s sort of the whole point.

Modern Neo-Pagan Eclecticism has changed the face of Paganism. That’s not a good or bad thing, it’s more of an inevitable thing. I started out as an Eclectic and I’ve found my way to Wicca (the exact opposite of what most people that I know have done), so maybe I’ve had to approach thinking about it a little differently than most.

Inclusion is a politically correct term these days. And in most ways, I think it’s a good one. Theoretically, having rules about inclusion mean that employers can’t discriminate because of race and sexuality, that witches can’t be burnt at the stake because the Muggles freaked out over something ridiculous, and so on and so forth. And in the larger overall community, Hel’s yes we should be inclusive!

But I think it takes on a different character in the Pagan community. Rather than the idea of inclusion, Paganism has one of selectivity.

In the Pagan community, we’ve seen a lot of upset lately at Pantheacon over the whole Z Budapest controversy and once again, we, as a community are having to redefine the idea of inclusion. Apparently twenty years ago the controversy was over homosexuality and it’s place in ritual. We got the Minoan Brotherhood and Sisterhood out of this controversy.  Now we’re having to redefine our old-fashioned ideas of gender and the potentials that define people in an era where technology can actually create the you you wish to be. Some of the outcome of this is simply a dialogue addressing old ideas that don’t fit with the modern worldview, and this is healthy and good.

But when it comes to our mystery traditions, inclusion is slightly different. I don’t care about your race or sexuality or anything like that, but I am practicing a particular religion that moves along its own realities. If you don’t want to put in the hard work of living and learning these realities, this is not the path for you. This is a path that requires hard work. If you aren’t going to put your nose to the grindstone and do the work, I’m not going to include you. Traditions have a set way of approaching the Gods; if you don’t want to follow that particular path, that codified way, you’re asking not to be included. This is of course one of the huge differences between Eclecticism and an initiatory path.

I know, I know, this makes me a hateful, terrible person.

But really, this is true in most religion. God A says I need this, this and this for my particular worship and in return I’ll ensure that, that and that. God B says, well you need to do it this way to approach me and so on and so forth. One of the things we do in practicing a particular religion is learning how our Gods wished to be worshiped and then how to take it to the next level in our personal relationships to them.

My S.O. wrote a blog called Talking the Christo-Pagan Blues where he addresses this idea. His point is that people aren’t letting go of their old religions when they become Pagan and this is hurtful to our community. (And if I thought I was hated for my modesty posts, he was completely vilified for his viewpoints in this particular blog). His main point was that it’s disrespectful to completely ignore the way a particular God has asked to be approached and worshiped. Christ is a good example of this; people want to make Christ into something he isn’t. He was not a Shaman, he was a Rabbi. Want to worship Christ? Go to a Christian Church and do so in the proscribed way. This also goes back to the idea that words do have actual definitions and we can’t make them simply mean what we want them to mean, just because it isn’t convenient. Doesn’t work? Fine, there’s probably another word out there that does work, go find it and use it. Otherwise, why have language at all? To refer to the Bible, you just have babble.

And this isn’t about making our community more insular; it’s about getting people to understand that guidelines exist within our community: if you wish to enter our community, do so because these guidelines are meaningful to you. It is simply disrespectful to enter an existing community, and then attempt to tear it down because its tenets are not meaningful to you!

The Pagan community today really likes this idea of inclusion, and to a certain extent that’s fine, as long as you’re extremely respectful about what you’re doing. But that’s the problem, most people don’t take respect into consideration, and when they say they’re going to worship Kali and Aphrodite together, they don’t seem to want to take into consideration the cultural contexts they might be addressing; the fact that Kali and Aphrodite might have no interest in being worshiped together. (Maybe they do, did you take the time to actually ask? What are you going to do if you suddenly have two extremely angry Goddesses in your Circle?)

Just because we are a modern take on an old religion, doesn’t mean that we can toss all of the rules out the window. And yes, rules do exist.

So when you say that you’re a Buddhist Wiccan Voudon with Hindi leanings, are you actually thinking about what you’re doing? Are you actually taking the time to learn the rules before you break them? What’s the point of following a path when you don’t take the time to actually learn about the path you think you’re on? Isn’t there a certain level of hubris inherent in that way of thinking? Or do we, as a community, no longer care about the Gods we’re worshiping?

If we, as a community, don’t start thinking about what we’re doing, there will be major consequences down the road. Sort of that old saying that my mama always like to throw at me, “you made your bed and now you get to lie in it”.

Paganism really isn’t a path for lazy people. It’s a proactive religion. We don’t just go to church on Sunday and listen to someone preach at us. We go and participate in rituals and we practice magic. This is not the course for the faint of heart. Our actions have consequences in the real world. We are putting energy out in hopes of changing the universe. Shouldn’t we take the time to learn about what we’re doing before we actually attempt to do it? Why aren’t we thinking beyond what is “easy” for us to do?

Paganism is not the catch-all path that so many want to make it; perhaps we don’t include everyone, and perhaps this is not a terrible thing.

Misconceptions about Wicca

After writing a blog for Pagan Square discussing mystery traditions and magical secrecy I wanted to talk a little more about the misconceptions about Wicca that I’ve seen over the last year or so. There seems to be so many misunderstandings out there about what Wiccans do, and there seems to be a great deal of anger focused towards Wicca. Sadly, in the past, I too have been guilty of a few of these misconceptions. It took finding someone that I wanted to work with to change my mind about Wicca. I’ve seen Wicca called the “default” of Paganism, and I’ve seen it called a “dinosaur” that just needs to go extinct, and much more. So let’s clear a few things up.

One of the things that I keep seeing is that Wiccans don’t actually believe in the Gods, that it’s just a practice of magic. While different traditions balance these two out in different ways, one of the integral parts of Wicca is worship of the Gods. I think that some of the confusion comes over the fact that many Wiccans talk about the “Lord” and the “Lady” and while there are many Pagans out there that believe in larger constructs of the “Lord” and the “Lady”, Wiccan traditions usually have a patron God and Goddess that only a tradition’s initiates know the ‘identity’ of. Put another way, the b=name of a coven’s patron God and patroness goddess is often a tradition secret, and so instead of calling specific names, especially in public or in outer court, we use the title of the “Lord” and “Lady.”  This “Lord” and “Lady” are not the only Gods worshiped; they are simply most prominent in that particular tradition, but are not seen as simple archetypes; they are our Gods.

One belief I’ve seen is that it’s very disrespectful to work with a deity that you don’t know, and that it’s necessary for you have to form close ties with your Gods. One of the things Wiccans do throughout training is form close ties with specific deities. Of course everyone has to start somewhere, but it’s like any relationship;  you introduce yourself and go from there. Often covens encourage relationships between students and the Gods the coven works with. Many covens feel that a student is brought to their group by the Gods they serve, as that student will come to serve those particular Gods. Often the relationship a Wiccan has with their Gods is deeply personal. Older initiates think that its extremely disrespectful to ask someone from another coven about the Gods they worship. They see that as being a deeply personal connection that isn’t open to the scrutiny of outsiders.

Just as with any practice, there is a range of beliefs when it comes to the Gods; not all of us are hard polytheists and there are definitely those who will just call on the “Lord” and “Lady,” but I would say that a majority of people who practice Wicca do so to worship the Gods, however they view them. Magic is not the prominent reason for practicing Wicca, though it is also an important part.

Wicca by DuChatNoirPub

Wicca by DuChatNoirPub

I’ve heard a lot of criticism over the fact that Wicca integrates a great deal of Ceremonial Magic and the Kabbalah, that there is no actual traditional witchcraft in Wicca. Gardner and Sanders both used a lot of Ceremonial Magic when they started their traditions, but a lot of people have worked hard to take the ceremonial magic out of their traditions and return them to more “folkloric” practices. Janet and Stewart Farrar are infamous for doing this with the Alexandrian tradition. Blue Star, my own tradition, has also worked hard to take practices based in Ceremonial Magic out. My personal thought on this is that the Ceremonial Magic works; because of its basis in the Kabbalah, it has a lot of strong ritual theory behind it. When Gardner openly published about Wicca in the 1950’s, he wanted to attract people with things that were teachable. Many people who practice magic work with Ceremonial Magic, it seems logical that it would have ended up a part of Wicca.

Another issue that is brought up is that all Wiccan covens are cults of personality based around a priest or priestess. To some extent this is true. A good priest or priestess is like any good religious leader, they have the dynamic personality and ability to create an amazing spectacle that any religious leader has. I’ve always heard the best priests and priestesses are more than a little crazy. They sort of have to be to be able to tap into that other-world and to want to put themselves directly in the path of divinity. You also have to be a little crazy to be able to ignore what conventional society wants to tell you about how the world works. You have to be able to go beyond what your eyes see to successfully speak to the Gods and do magic. For that matter, I would say that most Pagans have a little bit of this going on in their lives. I think the problem comes from people seeing the drama that can ensue, and unfortunately, some of the abuses of power that happen in an improperly trained coven. Unfortunately it does happen and it’s up to the individual to say, no, I’m not going to allow this person to do this and to walk away, or to recognize what’s going on and to seek out help from the tradition. Traditions do usually have checks and balances for their members. Any social group where a hierarchy is involved has the possibility of attracting people who want to abuse it. Don’t be sheep people, use your heads. It’s also more likely you’ll find properly functioning covens in established traditions, like Gardnerian and Alexandrian, than in fly-by-night made-up-last-week traditions. The better trained a Priestess or Priest is, the better they will run a coven.

A lot of people tell me that they’ve read the books and know everything there is to know about Wicca. Wicca is a mystery religion, and a large majority of what happens after initiation has not been written down. A big misconception is that initiation is the goal. It is not, initiation is really only the beginning of your work as a priest or priestess. Some traditions will initiate you first and then start teaching you. I prefer my tradition’s approach. We have two outer court levels where you learn the basics and only after your priest or priestess thinks that you’re ready to walk this path will they offer to initiate you. Once you’re initiated, the hard work actually starts. There are a lot of “101” books out there and I’ve heard many people complain that there aren’t any advanced books out there. Well, there’s a good reason for that…most of that is information is oath bound and people won’t publish it. It’s also not the sort of thing you hand to a newbie who has only read a book. Wicca is hard work. It takes time and dedication and is not for the faint of heart. I’m a librarian, I revere books and easy access to information in ways most of the rest of the society does not, but in the case of Wicca, the books aren’t going to get you very far.

A lot of people seem to assume that when we do ritual every week, we are having a bunch of constant orgies. You know, cast a circle, do a little ritual, wine and cakes…and BAM, everyone drops it like it’s hot! Covens work closely together. A well functioning coven is more than simply family. The ties you create with those you work with magically will have a profound impact on your life. I know a lot of covens in which there are many close sexual relationships. That doesn’t mean that we cast and then jump each other. Sexuality is a sacred element of Paganism and should be celebrated, but that doesn’t mean that orgies are what happens during ritual or are required. For as many covens as I know that have a lot of sexual ties within, I know just as many that have absolutely none.

A lot of people want to argue that Wicca is a New Age religion. It is not. At it’s heart, it’s about the balance of the male and female energies, both light and dark. I’ve talked before about how people abuse the Rede and make it say what they want it to say. Yes, we believe in the law of three, that doesn’t mean that I believe in only light and love and goodness. Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way. If anything, our world is made up of shades of grey and Wicca is about dealing with all of the energies involved in the creation of our world.

 Wiccaby ~SelinaFenech

Wiccaby ~SelinaFenech

Another big issue I see pop up a lot is that Wicca is for women only. Again, Wicca is about the balance of male and female. I think this is a common misconception in the overall Pagan community and is something that we need to work on. We can’t ignore our men, they are as vitally important to our Circles, our rituals and our lives as the women are. I think this is an unfortunate side effect of our modern society and the fact that women are still such second class citizens. Paganism is a place where a woman is able to be powerful and comfortable in her abilities. It seems that many more women are attracted to Paganism in general because of some of this. That doesn’t mean that our men don’t play just as big a role as our women and I think that it’s something that we, as an overall community, need to deal with. It really is all about balance, and when you lose balance, you have an unhealthy community.

I’ll probably think of more later, but if you want to seek Wicca out, go find an actual person to talk to. Join a group and get to know people. Any priest or priestess who wants to teach will sit down and talk to you about what Wicca is, what that particular group and tradition does and will explain the type of work that will be required of you. They will understand if after hearing them and maybe working with them a little bit if you find that it is not the path for you and this should be true of any group, Wiccan or otherwise, that you join in Paganism. If you want to read more of my advice about what to do when first seeking out a Pagan group, read my blog (Information and Resources for New Pagans) about it.

Wicca is not for everyone, but it is for some and it saddens me to see the path I’ve chosen be so vilified and hated for such lack of basic understanding.