As noted last week, I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks (in fact, I wrote my last post in the airport). TheScott and I visited New York City and Washington DC, and while in DC, we checked out the National Museum of the American Indian. Let me just say that if you ever have the chance to go, GO. It’s awesome – a beautiful building with fascinating exhibits (and a surprisingly tasty food court – who knew?).
There is a lot of debate about whether it’s appropriate to call the traditional faiths of Native Americans “Pagan” or not, and I don’t feel it’s my place to label them. I will say I felt beautifully at home in the exhibits, which were all crafted by leading tribesmen and women of various American Indian cultures. Echoing throughout the building was the same deep connection to the Earth, to ancestors, to magic, and to practical daily living (as opposed to the hereafter) that make up the backbone of most modern Pagan faiths. As a Reconstructionist I also felt a kinship to exhibits that talked about the struggles of American Indians to keep their ancestral faiths alive. They, too, are reconstructing beliefs which didn’t make it intact through Christian conversion attempts. They too must reconcile modern living with a faith traditionally practiced in a society living much closer to nature.
But the challenge that really struck me was that they too must adapt rituals and practices which were once tribal – a village that lives and practices together as an integral part of ceremony – into something that is spiritually fulfilling to an individual living in a diverse world. That got me thinking. One of the Heathen listserves I’m on will occasionally have somebody spouting poetic about a “Heathen Homeland,” some sort of village created by Heathens, for Heathens. I always thought that was crazy and sounded like a cult. But going through the exhibit brought home the point that traditional Paganism isn’t done in isolation – if you really want to go back to a pre-Christian faith as it was practiced, community was a necessary part of it. One thing most ancestral faiths have in common is some concept of wyrd, the physical / mystical connection between people who interact with each other and how their collective history affects the present and the future. We value hospitality and oaths, encourage social drinking (or passing peace pipes) and, at least in the past, told our stories orally which requires community, as opposed to reading which does not. Our rituals involve dancing and theater, drinking and eating, exchanging gifts and making promises. Things that aren’t the same when done alone.
Wicca may have been adapted for solitary practice, but I have no idea how to be a solitary Heathen.
Looking back on my choices, I realize my personal solution to this conundrum (even before I had defined the conundrum) has been to try and include my non-Pagan friends in my major celebrations. Paganism has no taboo against interfaith alliances – I am allowed to worship at any altar with people of any faith and my gods won’t get angry with me for “cheating on them” – and we believe interfaith ritual can be done as an act of community with no shadow of evangelism. So there is no strangeness in having people of other faiths in attendance. Religion at its deepest level, for me anyway, is about celebrating the milestones of the year and milestones of a lifetime in conjunction with a higher power (however you want to define it), and I’ve found that the shared community of the event is more relevant to me than a shared definition of god. People who do not know my life do not know why I make the vows I make at Yule (nor would they be there to support me in fulfilling them). When I have children, my family and friends are the people that will help me raise them, so what purpose would Pagans that don’t know me or my children have at my child’s naming ceremony (the Heathen equivalent to a Baptism)? Pagan ceremonies are less about supporting each other in faith and more about supporting each other in life.
Of course there is the problem of, why should non-Pagans show up at my Heathen celebrations? They attended church on Sunday already. They think I’m raising a glass to invisible sky people (who, in the case of my Christian friends, may cause their own god to be angry with them). I don’t have a good answer. Don’t misunderstand my message. It’s not that I’m not interested in getting to better know my local Pagan community. I will always welcome new friends into my life, and if they happen to be Pagan, all the merrier. But I will never pick my community of friends based on their faith. There is no Heathen Homeland for me and never will be. And I imagine I am not the only Pagan who feels this way.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Anybody else have good ways of integrating Recon Paganism into your current community, or do you think it’s necessary to have two communities, one of friends and one of faith?
+ Featured image: Howard County, Maryland, 2007 Pow-wow photographed by Jeff Kubina