Why interfaith is important – an interview with John Macintyre

Kinnoull Hill, Perth, Scotland, by Suomi Star

Kinnoull Hill, Perth, Scotland, by Suomi Star

Recently, after fourteen years of interfaith dialogue and sheer hard work, the Scottish Pagan Federation has been officially recognised as a member of the Scottish Interfaith Council. This is a really important development, and a tribute to the hard work and persistence of the Scottish Pagan Federation.

I interviewed John Macintyre, a good friend of mine, a former president of the Scottish Pagan Federation, and the person who is responsible for most of that patient process of dialogue, and asked him to explain why it is so important, and how it was achieved.

Yvonne: What exactly does being a member of the Scottish Interfaith Council entail for the Scottish Pagan Federation? What are the benefits?

John: It means that Paganism is now formally recognised by, and included within, the official, national, interfaith body of this beloved country.

In a sense, by this stage of Scottish PF’s long-standing interfaith programme, it could be argued that much of this particular achievement is symbolic. We’ve long been recognised as the representative body for Pagans by the Scottish Government, and consequently involved in a broad range of consultations and activities relating to hospital and prison chaplaincy, education, youth issue, the national census, equalities and other matters. We’ve had legal, Pagan, religious marriage in Scotland for almost ten years now. Religious discrimination against Pagans has been in rapid decline for almost twenty years now. The main benefit here is that the other faiths in Scotland have now accepted that we belong in SIFC, and even if not all of them are entirely comfortable with us, greater familiarity and the passage of time will take care of that.

Yvonne: This has obviously been a lengthy process. How come it took fourteen years?

John: Although Paganism has been reviving in Europe, in the West generally, for generations now, we are still a very small religion which quite a few people harbour grave misconceptions about. It takes time, quite a long time sometimes, to educate people. It also takes time, dialogue and, crucially, a fair amount of getting to know each other as human beings and working together on common projects, to dispel the grim negative stereotyping that Paganism has attracted for centuries.

Fourteen years is certainly a long time but we’ve actually been very fortunate in Scotland where, as far as I know, more progress has been made in this matter than in any other European country. The re-convening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, albeit with very limited powers, initiated a radical transformation in our civic culture. Perhaps because we had such a shameful record of religious sectarianism going back generations, politicians of all the main parties were determined to promote religious inclusion and respect for diversity. Although Pagans are only a small part of our multi-faith society, we certainly benefited from the change to more progressive official attitudes.

Yvonne: What kept you going?

John: Faith. Faith in our Gods and Goddesses, and in the whole Pagan complex of world views which certainly merits a place in our modern cultures. Faith in the general principle that if something is right and needs doing, you work at it until it’s done.

Yvonne: What would you say to those Pagans who feel that interfaith is a “waste of time”?

John: I’d say that they should look at what interfaith has achieved for Paganism in the last twenty years and perhaps change their minds.

Interfaith is not a threat, it doesn’t aim to change what Paganism is, still less to merge it into some kind of ‘one size fits all’ universal religion. It allows us to educate other faith groups and the wider society about the reality of modern Paganism, to challenge prejudice and negative stereotyping close to its sources, and to make a positive contribution as one of the many faith communities that make up our society.

I’m well aware that a few Pagans have always seen interfaith as a process in which we somehow sought the approval of the Christian Church. They were, and are, wrong. Such views usually went hand in hand with paranoia and negative stereotyping regarding Christians. They were, and are, wrong about that too. Such people often seemed to prefer moaning to each other about how much prejudice there was against Pagans rather than going out and doing something about it. That’s not only wrong, it’s cowardice.

Interestingly and encouragingly, it isn’t a question you hear very often nowadays. You and I both remember the time, twenty years or so ago, when it was a genuinely controversial topic in the community and we often had to defend our involvement. Things are very different now. I don’t think anyone’s raised it with me since the year 2000 CE.

Yvonne: What advice would you give to others trying to achieve a similar outcome with regard to other interfaith bodies?

John: Your strategy will be determined to a very large extent by the way religion in general, and interfaith in particular, fits in to the civic structures of your country. That’s inevitably going to differ a great deal from place to place. But the key to the whole thing is getting involved in whatever interfaith groups and networks are available, engaging in dialogue with other religious bodies to explain what modern Paganism is, and gradually building up goodwill, reciprocal understanding and respect wherever you can.

Even where another faith’s beliefs and attitudes are utterly different from those of Pagans, you’ll still find at least a few commonalities, the Golden Rule being a good example. Most of the people you’ll meet with will be thoroughly decent sorts, even if it takes a while for them to understand where you’re coming from. You may well encounter a certain amount of ignorance, prejudice and even insult, but you must never let it get to you and never let yourself be dragged down to that level.

Always remember that you represent the modern expression of a complex of ancient, honourable and profound religious traditions that provided the foundations of our modern Western world, and try to be worthy of that.

Yvonne: Many thanks for the detailed and thoughtful responses, congratulations and well done to you and to the Scottish Pagan Federation, and it’s really great to hear such a success story. Hard work, integrity, and faith really do achieve results in the end.

Here’s a video of John announcing the news of Scottish PF’s inclusion in the Scottish Interfaith Council at the 2013 Pagan Federation conference in Edinburgh:


Pagans and Academic Publishing

Some of you may remember that I’m publishing a book of Pagan erotic theology entitled Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake with an academic publisher next year. Here’s a sneak peek at the cover image I commissioned from artist Valerie Herron. Gorgeous, no?

Deciding what kind of press to approach with this book was a difficult process because both the publishing industry and academia are in crisis right now. This makes it a particularly difficult time for those of us in Pagan Studies and other minor area studies to get our work out to our intended audiences. Let me tell you a little about why.

A big part of it is that many academic publishing houses are still using the publishing strategies that worked in the past, even as the internet and electronic publishing steadily deconstruct the industry. The old academic publishing strategy looked like this:

  1. Put out a sturdy, expensive hardback library edition specifically to sell to university libraries. In the past, some well-endowed university libraries bought nearly everything that certain academic publishers offered, so each publication was guaranteed to make the press a certain amount of money. These books would then be in circulation at those universities and for interlibrary loan at other institutions, making the book relatively easy to get as long as you were willing to wait.
  2. Send out review copies to journals and scholars in the field and market the book through conferences and catalogs sent to members of professional organizations. If the book was well-received and all the library copies sold out, it might be released in a cheaper paperback edition for a wider audience.

Under this old academic model of publishing, the advances and royalties given to authors for academic books were small. This wasn’t considered important, however, because most academics had full-time teaching or research jobs. They needed publications in order to get tenure or get promoted, but they didn’t need to get money directly for their writing.

Fast-forward to the present, where university tenure is disappearing and most universities make regular use of armies of underpaid, overworked adjuncts. Funding for many libraries has been cut, meaning that the automatic library purchases that sustained academic publishers in the past are no longer guaranteed. The old models of publishing are no longer working very well—but they haven’t quite completely collapsed, meaning that well-established presses continue to cling to them.

I’m an independent scholar teaching occasionally for Cherry Hill Seminary. Publishing won’t get me tenure or a promotion, but because of the way academic publishing is set up, it won’t get me much money either. Due to economic conditions, publishers also have a much reduced capacity to market books to libraries and scholars. So why publish with an academic press at all?

I seriously considered self-publishing the book. There are ample resources available for becoming your own print-on-demand publisher: format your own manuscript, do your own cover design, and put out a professional-quality book (or if you need help, hire contractors). In the Pagan world, I can particularly recommend Asphodel Press as a print-on-demand writers’ collective that puts out books at least as professional in quality as Llewellyn or Weiser.

In the end, however, I felt that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a theologian, I needed the credibility of an academic press, which comes with the guarantee of peer review (in other words, other scholars have reviewed the text, made suggestions, and told the publisher the book is worth publishing). I also engage a lot with existing queer theology in the book, and I knew I’d need an academic publisher if I wanted any of the theologians I admired to ever hear of it. Self-publishing would have required an enormous amount of marketing, and the reality is that without the imprint of an academic press, some scholars simply would never have looked at the book at all.

The end result, however, is that my book will initially appear as a library edition with a Very Large Price Tag (and, happily, also as an electronic edition, but academic electronic editions sometimes cost considerably more than the average trade paperback!). If the book sells enough copies in hardback, it will be released in paperback, but there’s no guarantee of that. I had to sacrifice accessibility for credibility, and it wasn’t an easy choice.

I want to emphasize that my editor and everyone else at my publisher has been very professional and helpful. The ground is shifting under the publishing industry’s feet, and everyone is fumbling around to try to find new publishing strategies that are sustainable. But even as I go through this publication process, I find myself thinking about the publishing alternatives that may arise in the future, especially for academic books.

One dream of mine is that academic publishing might reorganize itself in the form of profit-sharing scholarly writers’ collectives. The main strength of academic publishing now is peer review: scholars read and comment on others’ work, usually as volunteers. This process can be time-consuming, and since the reviewers do not derive any direct benefit from it, the reviews are not always thorough or of good quality. Since print-on-demand makes it easy to start one’s own small press now, though, I have been imagining peer review collectives in which scholars who wish to be published work collaboratively to peer review, edit, copyedit, and proofread each other’s work. Rather than being volunteers, they would be helping to create the opportunity for their own work to be published (hopefully on less than the two-year timeline that most academic publishing involves). Although a professional-level editor would still be needed to oversee production, still, more of the sales profits could be directed back to the writer. It would take time for such presses to grow large enough to send representatives to professional conferences, but in the short term, they could provide opportunities for quality academic publishing that do not currently exist.

Print-on-demand services have also made it much easier to start small, more or less traditionally-modeled presses for niche topics (and indeed, Pagan studies is a niche topic, and Pagan theology a niche within a niche). One such attempt is Concrescent Press, which recently put out an academic, peer-reviewed collection on esotericism entitled Pathways in Modern Western Magic. The volume features prominent scholars in esotericism as well as scholarly practitioners. I’m working through the book now, and hope to write up a more thorough review here in the future.

This book’s existence, however, gives me hope that academic publishing could reinvent itself to become more streamlined (fewer people involved with each project, shorter timeline), to create opportunities for scholars with unusual interests to be published, to direct more of the profits back to the writers, and to produce books at a price point that is accessible to non-academics. If we were to stop thinking of the typical scholar as a tenure-track professor and instead face the reality that many up-and-coming researchers are now adjunct instructors and entrepreneurs, the result could be a more accessible, egalitarian, and innovative academic publishing industry.


Notes toward a Pagan Theology of Fiction

Pagans widely agree that fiction has spiritual power. In their interviews of Pagans, Margot Adler (Drawing Down the Moon) and Sarah Pike (Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves) both found that Pagans often cited science fiction or fantasy as important inspirations for their spiritual life. In religious studies scholarship generally, there’s an enormous amount of material on how people have engaged novels, films, and other media for spiritual purposes (one good recent example is Invented Religions; some of my own contributions to this topic include papers on matriarchal Goddess novels, Heinlein and Starhawk, and film as religion).  My take has generally focused on how fiction with a spiritual impulse has inspired real-life community practice, followed by individuals re-fictionalizing those community practices in order to better articulate and spread their religious values. As in myth, which tends to focus on spiritual or cultural truth rather than historical truth (though there may be a historical event or person at the core of the tale), Pagans often use fiction to clarify values, describe ecstatic experiences, or articulate hopes in a way that feels spiritually authentic—a purpose for which literal, historical prose accounts are not well designed.

Here at Patheos, we’ve had quite a few posts recently touching on the topic of fiction and Paganism. Sterling, for instance, writes about how the images from a favorite novel allowed her to form a real-life connection to the spirit of a particular river. (Her experience reminds me of the conversation in this blog, where the author argues that the local gods and spirits of a particular place are forced to use images we are familiar with in order to speak to us – such that, while we may seem to be speaking with a deity from across the world, we may actually be relating to a local deity who has clothed hirself in a way designed to get our attention.) Gus diZerega has offered a two-part series on pop culture and the formation of independently acting thought forms, suggesting the power that the media we consume may have on our behavior as individuals and as a society. Sunweaver recently shared about her use of fictional heroes as a way of exploring human virtues, and Aine Llewellyn responded with some reflections on how fiction and pop culture help to inform his work with contacting local and/or previously unknown spirits.

Although I myself have found fiction to be religiously inspiring (especially fiction that includes the worship of historical deities), I largely keep characters derived from pop culture entertainment out of my devotions. There is something compelling in diZerega’s suggestion that given enough attention and energy, a thought-form originally based in a pop culture narrative can become responsive (or, perhaps, a previously-existing spirit will clothe itself in those images in order to make human contact). Yet I still tend to agree with Galina Krasskova that making pop culture the focus of a spiritual practice could distract us from forming relationships with the partially forgotten, but potentially very responsive spirits of our local land and of our particular ancestors. (Krasskova’s post is in response to Sunweaver’s, as is this very interesting post on the nature of film vs. theater and its relationship to ritual by Sannion.)

As someone who makes her living largely at a computer screen, I know I already struggle to be present with my little square of earth and its particular flora and fauna (including the human fauna who are my neighbors). Keeping up with internet communication and its rapid change is intellectually stimulating, but in other ways, its demands directly contradict what I know is best for my health in its broadest sense. Spending time outside, being present with my surroundings, and cultivating a pace of life that allows deep contemplation and deep intimacy is good for me, good for the health of my community, and good for the health of the world—but I find myself summoned to the computer to earn a living and try to disseminate those locally-focused values to the wider world. Ah, paradox. —In any case, I worry that fiction can have an escapist quality, and that engaging with it too directly in my spiritual life might distract me even further from the local.

And yet… Although I find myself sympathetic with Krasskova’s argument, it hinges on the idea that there is a kernel of historicity at the heart of tales of Cu Chulain, Heracles, and Achilles. Krasskova suggests that these heroes’ historical existence gives them a tie to real-life communities that purely fictional characters cannot have. But I am skeptical, because as we know well, the relationship between the tales told of historical people and the historical reality often diverge wildly within even a few generations. Pick up a copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me and consider the propaganda that passes for history in our public schools—the distortion of even basic facts about important American figures. It is in no way clear to me that heroic legends have the power to put devotees in touch with personalities who are more than literary creations, particularly when the historical gap is one of thousands of years. Even in a post-Enlightenment era where we observe a line between fiction and fact that many ancient peoples did not, our “history” is far more literary in content than we like to acknowledge.

I plan to continue to collect resources on this topic, perhaps to write something more substantial about all the ways Pagans use fiction in their practice and theology. What are your thoughts?

EDIT: I should have mentioned here Alan Moore‘s theology of fiction as articulated especially in Promethea (and which scholar Jeffrey Kripal finds underlying a number of different works of science fiction and fantasy). Moore sees reality itself as narrative—that all beings are tales being told in the mind of God (an idea he derives partially from poet and artist William Blake). This circumvents the claim of a certain group of Pagans that for gods to be real, they need to be historical, not fictional. For Moore, since reality itself is narrative, both human beings and gods are real *because* they are part of the narrative of creation. The line between the fictional and the real is blurred, if not entirely erased; although some fictions are manifest in flesh and others are not, and fictions have varying degrees of consciousness and power, all fiction is understood as ultimately real.

Context is everything

The inner work and the outward sign

Viewed outside the context of their meaning and purpose, rituals can often look silly. When I first saw a CUUPs ritual online, I thought, why are they lighting a candle in a chalice? This was because I was viewing the ritual through a Wiccan lens, and in Wicca, a chalice represents water, and is used for drinking consecrated wine. Whereas if you view the lighting of a chalice through the lens of Unitarian and UU symbolism, it makes perfect sense. The chalice represents community, and sharing the wine with the laity, among other things; the flame represents inspiration, and connection with the Divine, among other things. It is a rich and complex symbol whose meanings are evolving all the time. So it is vital to view a symbol in its cultural context and find out what it means.

Similarly, a criticism often levelled at Judaism is that it has lots of nit-picky rules. One of these is that you can’t light fire on the Sabbath, so some Jews tape over the light in the fridge so that opening the door doesn’t turn on the light. To someone unaware of the context and the corresponding inner work, this looks a bit silly. Once you understand that the whole edifice of Jewish observant practice is all about remaining constantly aware of the presence of the Divine, and one’s relationship with it, the action of remaining observant even in such a tiny detail makes more sense. There is a prayer to accompany every action, so that the observant Jew remains in communion with the Divine at all times. Also, for this practice to make sense, you have to understand the deep affection in which the Sabbath is held in Judaism. It’s not like the dour Protestant Sabbath. First, on the Friday evening, when Sabbath begins, the lady of the house lights the Sabbath candles, which invites the presence of the Shekhinah. Then, on Friday night, the husband and wife make love, also inviting the presence of the Shekhinah. The whole family comes together for a meal and to spend time together. At the end of the Sabbath, the whole family sniffs a spice box, so that the loveliness of the Sabbath can be remembered for the rest of the week. In times of persecution, the Sabbath, taking place behind closed doors, would be an affirmation of Jewish identity and community, and the only time when you could be truly at peace.

Another example is the custom of covering the head, which is found in a number of different religions (and some Pagans have started wearing veils). This might look like oppression of women – and if it is enforced rather than voluntary, I think it is – but its original meaning was as a reminder that the Divine is always present (that’s why Jewish men wear a kippah).

I expect that some Pagan practices look a bit daft when viewed outside their context. The casting of the Wiccan circle, with its elaborate preparation, might look a bit over-the-top to outsiders; but in context, it makes perfect sense. The series of different actions prepare us for the inner work, stilling the mind and readying the body for an encounter with the mysteries. They also align us psychologically with the sacred directions; this alignment symbolises our connection with the universe. The thoroughness of the preparation also means that the circle feels like a safe space, which is important as rituals can sometimes be profoundly transformative. Another example which might look daft to outsiders is the Heathen practice of offering libations of mead. But of course, mead is a precious thing, and when making offerings to the deities, it is customary to offer something of value; and Heathens want to connect with their deities.

All of these practices  are aimed at cultivating our connection with the Divine; they are a reminder to live life in a sacred manner. Of course, some people practice the outer observances without managing to do the inner work, and this can lead to an over-emphasis on the rules at the expense of the inner work. Sometimes, when the practices have lost their inner meaning, and adherence to the tradition has become more important than the inner work, they need to be changed, and either a new religion results, or the existing religion is reformed. The prophet Amos criticised the practice of sacrifice, saying that God would prefer people to practice justice and righteousness instead –  so clearly the practice of sacrifice had lost its function of connecting with God, and become merely routine. Jesus criticised the rigid observance of Sabbath rules, and placed emphasis on being kind to people instead – so clearly, in his day, the Sabbath rules had lost their inner meaning. At the Reformation, Protestants criticised Catholic practices of praying to saints, and the concept of transubstantiation. They were viewing these practices through a rational lens and forgetting to look at their inner meaning, and the inner work that they represented.


There is also a tendency to take sayings and quotations out of context. When Jesus formulated his version of the Golden Rule, he meant it to be a summation of the Law and the Prophets, not a replacement for them; he would have wanted it viewed in the context of Jewish practice and culture. When Gerald Gardner formulated the Wiccan Rede (“An it harm none, do what thou wilt”), he probably assumed that it would be taken in the context of the ritual which introduces it, and the whole body of Wiccan lore and practice. When Dávid Ferenc said, “We need not think alike to love alike”, he said it in a specific historical and cultural context, which needs to be understood in order to apply his saying effectively. Of course, these utterances are quotable out of context, but if we want to live by them, we need the whole body of lore and practice that goes with them, in order to implement them effectively. It’s all very well exhorting people to love one another, but then you need specific techniques to overcome things like projecting your shadow-side onto other people; the damage that can be caused by group dynamics (e.g. in-group versus out-group); and other aspects of human psychology.

The practice of taking quotes and practices out of context and applying them without regard to circumstances is one of the most damaging aspects of religion; and it is also one of the major causes of misunderstanding between religions. We need to look at the context of any practice, quote, or rule, and ask, what is the real reason behind this? If it is harmful, can it be reformulated in such a way as to restore the original intention (to remind us of our connection with the Divine), and remove the harmful aspect of the practice?

The argument from desire

I am currently reading a biography of C S Lewis by Alister McGrath. In the chapter on Lewis’ Christian faith, McGrath argues that Lewis came to believe in God because he recognised that there was something he desired that was always out of reach. This “argument from desire” occurs in Lewis’ well-known sermon The Weight of Glory; in his first novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress; and in his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. This desire is not simply a want, or a need for wish-fulfilment; it is not a craving for a particular transitory experience; indeed, it can be occasioned by a fleeting glimpse of beauty or transcendence. It is a desire for connection with, or experience of, the divine (which, for Lewis, came to mean the Christian God). The “argument from desire” is that we all have a “God-shaped hole” in consciousness, which can only be filled by the divine. Lewis writes (in The Weight of Glory):

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them.

Can this concept have any meaning in a Pagan context? What is it that Pagans desire? For one thing, most Pagans believe that the divine (whether it is perceived as a single underlying energy, or as many deities) is immanent in the world, and therefore available to our experience in the here and now. So that is a key point where we differ from Lewis, who may well have seen the divine as both immanent and transcendent, but certainly thought that a full experience of it would only be available after death.

For many of us, Nature does not merely reflect the divine glory: she is the Divine glory – in all her contrary moods and states. And we can experience the divine directly. As we have only finite and local consciousness, we cannot fully apprehend the (presumed) infinite and non-local consciousness of deities, but we can participate in it. That is one of the purposes of magic (in my opinion). I believe that the goal of existence is not to divorce spirit from matter, but to awaken matter to its full potential; to divinize it, if you like.

The aim of my personal Pagan path is to become divine, to achieve apotheosis (not to merge with the underlying divine energy, but to be infused with it). I think this will take several lifetimes, but I believe it is possible. The only obstacle on this path is one of perception. As Blake put it, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is, infinite.”

I do think that the “argument from desire” is quite a good argument for the existence of deities – but I do not think it is a desire for a realm that is beyond the world (ontological transcendence); rather I think it is a desire to connect with something beyond the ego, something larger, deeper, broader that already exists in our own depths and connects with all that is (epistemological transcendence).

Lewis argues (in The Weight of Glory) that every activity has its proper reward, and every desire has its fulfilment. It is mercenary to desire “the reward which has no natural connexion with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things”; but it is not mercenary to desire the proper reward of the action. The example he gives is that if someone marries for money, that is mercenary; but if they marry for love, it is not – because marriage is the proper reward of love.

In the same way, the fulfilment proper to existence is to encounter it fully; to experience it as the divine beloved. From my personal Pagan perspective, this does not mean to dissolve the self in the great all, but to experience the hieros gamos (sacred marriage) in one’s own depths, between the finite and the infinite, between manifest and unmanifest, matter and spirit.

From a polytheist perspective, even if one believes (as I do) in a single substance or energy from which all other entities (deities, spirits, humans and other animals, genii loci, etc) emerge, the underlying energy is plural and diverse, and so we cannot dissolve into it, and nor would it be desirable to do so (and interestingly, this is not the goal of Christian spirituality either). Becoming infused with it is not the same as losing our identity within it.

So yes, we desire meaning, joy, fulfilment, and the sacred marriage; and we can have them in the here and now, and they can be found through many spiritual traditions. But it does seem that there must be something (however we perceive it) that our desire is fixed upon – the goal of our desire is not merely imaginary.