Saganism

A new Pagan tradition was launched today, based on the ideas of Carl Sagan. Many Pagans value and respect the ideas of Carl Sagan and his evocative descriptions of the universe and our place in it. Sagan also wrote, “We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

This idea was expanded upon by J Michael Straczynski in Babylon 5, where the character Delenn says:

The Universe itself is conscious in a way we can never truly understand. It is
engaged in a search for meaning, so it breaks itself apart, investing its own
consciousness in every form of life. We are the Universe, trying to figure itself
out.

And who could forget Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, one of the most inspiring pieces of prose ever written.

In 1994, Carl Sagan wrote:

A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.

Hildegard Gradbach, the founder of the new religion, has decided not to wait for this religion to emerge, but to give things a bit of a nudge. She is an avowed admirer of Carl Sagan, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett. She says, “I’m fed up of waiting for a religion that actually does stress the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, so I figured I would start one.” (It’s been suggested that both Paganism and pantheism are religions that stress the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, but there are rather a lot of other concepts attached.)

Sagan wrote many poetic evocations of the universe and these will form the backbone of Saganism’s liturgy:

For as long as there been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. This perspective is a courageous continuation of our penchant for constructing and testing mental models of the skies; the Sun as a red-hot stone, the stars as a celestial flame, the Galaxy as the backbone of night.

The chief festival of Saganism will be Carl Sagan’s birthday, 9 November, but it will also celebrate the solstices, equinoxes, and other astronomical events. Its theology is mainly agnostic, in keeping with Sagan’s own views, but it will welcome all theological perspectives. We need more open-minded skepticism of the sort that he advocated:

We wish to pursue the truth no matter where it leads — but to find the truth, we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact. The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths; of exquisite interrelationships; of the awesome machinery of nature. The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

Sagan in Cosmos (1980)
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Spring Equinox

After several years of excellent research by Adrian Bott, we now know the following things. Spring Equinox was not actually celebrated by ancient pagans in the British Isles; nor was it a fertility festival. There was probably a festival at the fourth full moon of the year, at which cattle were sacrificed. Eostre was most probably a goddess local to Kent, although her name is cognate with various other goddesses of dawn and light, such as Austriahenea and Ausrine.

Various animals are associated with the festival of Easter in folklore (none of them are associated with the goddess Eostre): the Easter Hare, the Easter Fox, the Easter Stork, and the Easter Cuckoo, all of which bring eggs. None of them are particularly cute and fluffy, so didn’t work too well on Easter greetings cards, unlike chicks and bunnies. And none of them are fertility symbols.

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Fictional and constructed religions

What can fictional religions tell us about real religions? Are constructed religions just as valid as ancient ones? What about real-world religions based on fictional ones? One impetus for creating constructed religions is for use in jurisdictions where religious activity is imposed by the authorities – but people often find that their joke religion then takes on a life of its own.

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Review: Casting a Queer Circle

Thista Minai (2017), Casting a Queer Circle: Non-Binary Witchcraft. Hubbardston, MA: Asphodel Press.

Aimed at everyone who finds that binary and heterocentric approaches to witchcraft do not fit actual lived reality, this book is an outstanding guide to crafting an inclusive, non-binary approach to ritual. It contains a complete system of magic, ritual, symbolism, festivals, and ritual roles, all designed to be inclusive, safe, creative, and genuinely transformative.

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Misconceptions about cultural appropriation

I have now written several articles on cultural appropriation. When people comment on articles on this topic, I have observed several recurring themes.

Silos,_Acatlán,_Hidalgo,_México,_2013-10-11,_DD_02

Silos, Acatlán, Hidalgo, México. Photo by Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Cultural silos

Frequently, people assume that talk of cultural appropriation means that no-one can ever use an idea from another culture.  This would rule out situations of cultural fusion, where two cultures which are on an equal footing come together to create a new amalgam of ideas, music, cuisine, or ritual. It would also rule out cultural exchange, where two cultures on an equal footing acquire new ideas, practices, or rituals from each other. These situations are clearly not problematic, because the two cultures are on an equal footing. The key feature here is theequality of the cultures.

People also talk as if those who are trying to draw attention to the issue of cultural approppriation are behaving as though culture is a monolith or silo, where nothing can ever be transferred from one culture to another. Obviously, this is not the case, and offering examples of cultural fusion or cultural exchange between cultures which are on an equal footing is not an argument for dismissing claims of cultural appropriation.

What makes you part of a culture?

Some people claim that what makes you part of a culture is that you are genetically related to the people who produced that culture. On the basis of this claim, the idea of cultural appropriation has been distorted by people with a racist or alt-right agenda, who want to keep people of colour out of revived European religious traditions. We should strenuously resist the idea that culture is genetically trasnmitted, as it is legitimises racism.

Culture is transmitted through acculturation, via books, films, conversation, storytelling, dance, and traditional practices. People who immerse themselves in another culture can become part of it, and can legitimately take part in its practices and rituals, though if the culture is a living culture, then they should approach living representatives of that culture in order to become part of it.

Culture is specific to time and place

Another recurring theme is the idea that culture is universal and somehow open-source. This is derived from two particularly pernicious ideologies.

The first of these is colonialism, which has taken many forms over the centuries, and consists of the dominant or hegemonic culture assuming that it is superior to the conquered culture, and therefore has a right to the goods, services, resources, lands, and ideas of the conquered culture.

The second of these ideologies seems benign, but isn’t. It is sometimes called the perennial philosophy, and sometimes called universalism – the idea that there is a universal essence of every idea or practice that can be extracted from it and re-embedded in another context. This is the idea behind Michael Harner’s “core shamanism” – the idea that there is a universal shamanistic practice which can be extracted from Siberian shamanism, and re-clothed in the trappings of another culture, and thereby can become the shamanism of the new culture.

However, whilst ideas from one culture can be transferred to another if proper care is taken, quite often they are transferred with little appreciation or care for the original culture from which the idea came, or cherry-picked whilst ignoring other aspects of the source culture which are too ‘difficult’, and become distorted in the process of transfer. The transfer of ideas becomes problematic and culturally appropriative when the appropriating culture has more power than the source culture.

Ignoring the power differential

Many people who struggle with the idea of cultural appropriation fail to see that it happens when the appropriating culture has more power than the source culture.

What does it mean to say that one culture has more power than another? When a culture is seen as normative (in the current context white, European, heterosexual, male, and cisgender are the “norm” or unmarked default), it has more power than non-normative cultures.

Cultures acquire normative status by conquering other cultures. In the ancient world, the Graeco-Roman culture was the normative culture, against which other cultures were measured and found to be barbaric or exotic. In the modern world, the Western culture of Europe and America is the normative culture against which other cultures are seen as relatively exotic or even barbaric.

Paganism and the Body Class Sneak Peek

Eros and Touch from a Pagan PerspectiveThis Fall I’m offering Paganism and the Body, a 14-week graduate-level online class in body theology and sexual ethics, at Cherry Hill Seminary. Some of you may have already heard about CHS’s uncertain future, so this may be the last time a class like this is available for some years. If you’re thinking about signing up, please do it soon! We start Sept. 12.

Additionally, I just noticed that the price of Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective has popped up again to its retail price on Amazon. (There are some copies from third-party sellers still available for around $50.) If the price of the book is a problem, don’t worry; talk to me and we’ll make other arrangements.

In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at the syllabus! And here’s where you can register. [Write me at chkraemer13 at gmail dot com if you haven’t taken a CHS class before — I believe you’ll need instructor permission.]

 


Note: This syllabus is subject to change.

Course Number and Title:  N6650 Paganism and the Body

Semester:  Spring 2016

Class meeting time: Mondays, 9pm ET

Instructor(s): Christine Hoff Kraemer, PhD

 

 

Description of the Course

For most Pagans, the human body and the manifest world are sacred centers of religious practice. But what are the consequences of that belief for our daily lives? What do our Pagan theologies of the body call us to do in terms of justice work? Because of the significant percentage of gender and sexual minorities in the Pagan movement, this class will have a special focus on sexual ethics and alternative sexualities and gender expressions. We will also explore other important aspects of embodiment such as health and disability; race; relationship with food, water, and the natural environment; and more.

Prerequisite:  C5121 Contemporary Global Paganisms OR C5141 Introduction to Pagan Theology OR written permission of the instructor

 

Required Texts

  • Jennifer Hunter, Rites of Pleasure: Sexuality in Wicca and NeoPaganism, Citadel Press, 2004
  • Christine Hoff Kraemer, Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake, Routledge, 2013
  • A book of your choice on embodiment issues

Other readings will be posted as PDFs or links to web pages in the Moodle classroom.

 

Course Objectives

This course is intended to provide you with an introduction to contemporary thought examining embodiment issues in a Pagan religious context.  Our study will include both academic peer-reviewed articles and personal or journalistic accounts by Pagan practitioners and others. These goals will be achieved through regular reading, discussion, and writing.  You will also need to demonstrate your engagement and understanding of the material through a final project.

By the end of this class, you should be able to:

  • Articulate your own religious beliefs about bodies and embodiment
  • Reflect critically and constructively on existing theologies of embodiment
  • Have the foundation to deal sensitively and knowledgeably with both Pagans and non-Pagans around issues of the body

 

 General Expectations

 Paganism and the Body is a graduate-level course. Students will be expected to digest difficult written material and attend discussions prepared with their own observations and questions. The instructor’s role in the course is primarily as a facilitator and knowledge resource; it is the students who will decide what elements of the assigned readings we will explore most deeply.

Forum posts may be written conversationally. For formal written assignments, students are expected to adhere to academic writing conventions, including the use of proper citation format (Chicago, MLA, or another academic style). The Office of Assertion by Scott F. Crider is recommended as a good basic text on academic writing.

Because clear and mechanically correct writing is essential for effective communication, grammar and organization will be considered in the evaluation process. If successful academic writing has been a challenge for you in the past, it is recommended that you submit a rough draft to the instructor a week before the assignment is due so that she may assist you in revisions.

Plagiarism is a serious violation of ethics, and its consequences may include failing this class. Check with your instructor if you are unclear on how to quote or cite work that is not your own.

See the Catalog for details about additional issues of policy.

 

 Participation

 If you attend and participate in at least eight class chats, you will receive an 85 or above for participation. In order to receive a participation grade in the A range, students should participate in additional chats and engage in discussion in the forums. Participation grades will be assigned at the discretion of the instructor.

During each class chat, we will discuss the readings assigned during the previous week.

 

Weekly Homework

 For Week 1, you will briefly define a list of key terms for the study of theologies of embodiment. One- or two-sentence answers are sufficient. Many of these terms can be found in your Week 1 readings. For additional information, Wikipedia is a sufficiently reliable resource for this assignment and (due to how frequently it is updated) may even be superior to standard encyclopedias and dictionaries. Please note, however, that Wikipedia is not an appropriate resource to cite for a research paper.

 Other weekly homework assignments will include reflective responses, summaries, or summary/responses in a specific format (see below). Each week, you will be asked to post one of your written assignments to the Forum by Thursday for group discussion; the rest are due by the end of Sunday. Respond to at least one other student post before the next chat.

Students are encouraged to use the Forums for any additional questions, reflections, or reactions that come up in the course of the class.

 

Summary/Response

Your weekly homework is due by the end of the day on Wednesday. Each reading summary should be around 200-250 words. You will not be penalized for additional length, but it will make the best use of your time and the instructor’s time if your writing is dense and to the point.

In addition to submitting your assignment through the assignment link, choose one reading summary to post in the Forum by the end of Thursday. Turn in the remainder of your homework by the end of Sunday. Respond to at least one other student Forum post before the following week’s chat.

In paragraphs or in outline form, summarize the reading and then respond to it both analytically and personally.

Below is an example of a student reading summary in this format, from a chapter of Jordan Paper’s The Deities Are Many.

Jordan Paper states:

  • that when we depend on wild plants and animals, we see them as numinous/deities
  • that when we domesticate the plants and animals on which we still depend, we see them as gifts of the numinous/deities rather than as the numinous/deities themselves
  • that plant and animal deities have powers humans need in our lives
  • that humans are weak in relation to wild animals
  • that we know about deities because they communicate with us

I affirm:

  • that my life is dependent on the deaths – the sacrifices – of plants and animals, as well as the gifts of plants and animals (mammals do not have to die to give milk, or fowl to give eggs, for example)
  • my respect for and gratitude to the plants and animals whose deaths sustain my life
  • that I recognize the plant and animal beings I encounter each day as Sacred, and strive to do so more consciously
  • my bird feeding as a sacrifice of appreciation to some of the bird deities in my new location, as a freely-chosen religious/spiritual obligation during certain seasons
  • that the conscious cultivation of relationship with plants and animals may restore a numinous quality that supermarket culture has removed

Assignments that receive a grade in the A range will:

  • be specific
  • go beyond mere description and begin to ask/answer “why?”, “how?”, and “so what?”
  • pick up on nuances in the readings that require more than skimming to grasp
  • present students’ most controversial, radical, or challenging personal theologies
  • present statements from students’ experience that are likely to be unique

The instructor may choose a few particularly insightful or provocative excerpts from these assignments to share anonymously with the class as springboards for further discussion.

 

Term Assignments

Book Review: This assignment gives you an opportunity to read an additional book related to theology and embodiment. Suggestions for acceptable books will be provided by the instructor; other choices must be approved. This assignment is due at the end of Week 5.

Your book review will contain the following elements:

  • Summary of the book’s contents and main argument(s)
  • Evaluation of the book’s effectiveness with its intended audience
  • Reflective response on how this book might be useful in your ministry or personally

Assume that your reader is an educated fellow student who has not read the book. Your summary must give the reader enough information to understand your evaluation of it. Make sure your review is more than summary, however! Your job is to present an educated opinion about the book you read; summary is a tool in this process and is not a sufficient end product by itself. Your thoughts and reflections should make up at least half of the review.

Consider questions such as these as you take notes for your review.

  • What is the topic?
  • What are the author’s subjects?
  • To whom is the author writing?
  • What is the author’s opinion of her subject and what tone does she use?
  • How does the author support her statements?
  • Is the argument convincing? If not, why not?
  • How am I reacting to the text?
  • How does this text fit into what I already know about the subject?
  • Who would benefit most from reading this text?

Your review should contain a minimum of 750 double-spaced words. Organization, grammar, clarity, and the use of proper citation format (MLA, Chicago, or another academic format) will be considered in the evaluation of your essay.

A sample book review: http://inhumandecency.org/christine/eisler.html

 

Autobiography: You will compose an approximately 1000-word personal reflection and account considering the role of the body in your religious and spiritual life. In order to focus your narrative, you may wish to choose a specific incident from your life and contextualize it using the theological ideas and issues that we will study in class. These narratives will be shared with the class in a non-judgmental environment, so students are encouraged to share as openly as they feel comfortable. Potential starting places for beginning such narratives include:

  • experiences of the body’s limits, such as while running a marathon or dealing with a serious illness
  • memories of the onset of puberty or menstruation
  • reflections on one’s personal relationship to traditional gender roles, particularly during life transitions such as marriage or parenthood
  • aging
  • growing, preparing, and eating one’s own food
  • coming out regarding sexual orientation or gender identity
  • sacred experiences of touch (with human or other-than-human persons)
  • experiences of the body while recovering from abuse
  • experiences of the body in “natural” environments

Questions you may wish to address in order to link your personal experiences with class materials:

  • How did I experience divinity (or the absence of divinity) in this incident or period of my life?
  • How did my spiritual practice and beliefs at the time shape this experience?
  • How has this experience shaped my spiritual practice and beliefs?
  • What are the ethical issues that are relevant to my experience?
  • How did I relate to my community and my loved ones with regard to this issue? How did they relate to me?
  • What did my experiences teach me about the nature of the body?

Assignments will be graded for clarity, originality, and their success in framing a personal experience within a theological framework. Students may wish to consider carefully before writing about an issue that is emotionally volatile for them, as it may be difficult to submit such experiences to theological analysis. A successful autobiography assignment will balance emotional engagement with thoughtful, well-reasoned theological reflections.

This assignment is due at the end of Week 8, and the writing process should be considered part of the preparation for your Final Project Question, described below.

 

Final Project Question: By the end of Week 8, you will have developed a sense of what you are curious about and how that might become a project. Your project question may still be broad and open-ended, but it should also be provocative and express a real area of curiosity and concern for you.

Post your question to the Final Project Questions forum for instructor and student feedback. There, we will begin to narrow your field of inquiry so that it can be tackled in a final project.

Examples of viable project questions:

  • What is the role of a religious community in supporting its members around coming-out issues?
  • Why was ritual sex important in early twentieth-century occultism?
  • How can Pagan beliefs about the body support food and water justice work?
  • How can large Pagan groups balance disability accommodation with the desire to offer ritual in wild or out of the way natural settings?
  • How can Pagans best represent the sexual and gender diversity of the Pagan community in an interfaith context?
  • How do Pagan beliefs inform our ethics about reproductive rights?
  • What do children need to know about their bodies in order to understand them as sacred?
  • What education does my community need around racial justice, and how does its existing beliefs about the religious role of ancestry help or hinder that effort?

 

Final Project: You will design, implement as is appropriate, and present a project based on your personal learning goals, readings, autobiography, reading responses, and your final project question.

This project is not necessarily a research paper, although you may write a paper if research is the best format in which to address your question.  You might choose to outline a workshop, create a game, design a ritual, prepare a speech, develop a meditation series, or any other creative and useful vehicle for your project.  The project will be presented to the class during one of the two final chats.

Written materials should be 12-15 pages long. Other types of projects should involve about as much work as a 15-page paper and must include a verbal or written component that contextualizes the project for the class (or other intended audience). If you are choosing to work in an artistic medium, speak to the instructor about how substantial the written or verbal presentation should be.

Project Proposal

Your project proposal of approximately 250 words is due by the end of Week 9 and must be approved by the instructor. It should include:

  • A description of the project, including your (brief) anticipated answer to your Project Question (your “thesis sentence”)
  • A rationale for the project – why this topic? Why this approach?
  • Whom you intend the project to serve
  • How you see this project as serving this population
  • Logistical considerations, including how you will present the project for grading and to the class
  • A list of the resources you will draw on to complete the project (books, websites, people, etc.)

Project Presentation

You will present your project or excerpts from it to the class at the end of the semester. During Week 13, post an approximately 200-word summary of your project (an abstract such as you might provide for a conference presentation) to the Final Projects forum.

The written part of your project is due at the end of Week 13. Project materials may be posted to the Forum, or you may share a link to Dropbox or another service if they are very large.

Presentations may be made verbally via Skype, with Powerpoint, via recorded MP3, and/or by another instructor-approved method.  Your presentation of the project to the class should be no more than 10 minutes long. Each student will take questions and comments after their presentation.

Note that you will certainly not be able to cover every aspect of your project in ten minutes, so come prepared to adequately summarize and point out the highlights of your paper or project for the class. The effectiveness with which you present the project will be considered in grading.

 

 Grading

Grades will be given according to the rubric described in the Student Handbook. Please note that in a graduate-level class, a B is given for solid, above-average work. Grades in the A range require substantial analytical thinking and creativity. Contact the instructor if you need clarification on what “analysis” means in the study of theology.

Book Review                                      15%

Weekly Homework                         15%

Participation                                       15%

Autobiography                                  20%

Project Question                              5%

Final Project Proposal                    5%

Final Project                                       20%

Final Project Presentation            5%

 

Summary of Assignments

 Forum posts are due by Thursday of the week assigned. All other assignments should be submitted by the Sunday of the week they are due.  Late assignments may receive a grade penalty, up to one letter grade per week, at the discretion of the instructor.

If you find you need an extension on an assignment, contact the instructor immediately.

Weekly

Definitions, 200-word reflective responses, or summary/responses

Forum posts and replies

Assigned readings

Week 2

Title of book for review

Week 5

Book Review

Week 8

Autobiography

Final Project Question

Week 9

Final Project Proposal

Week 13-14

Final Projects

 

Schedule

 Week 1:  Defining Terms

  • Kraemer, “Pagan Traditions: Sacralizing the Body” (2016)
  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch (2013), Introduction and Conclusion
  • Fuller, Spirituality in the Flesh (2008), Introduction and Conclusion

Week 2: Theologies of the Embodied Self/Soul(s)

  • Kraemer, Seeking the Mystery (2012) Chp 4, 83-85; 91-94
  • Weidenbaum, “You Have to Take It With You” (2008)
  • Abram, “The Perceptual Implications of Gaia” (1990)
  • Whiting, “On Being a Holy Mother” (2011)

Week 3: Pain, Illness, and Disability

  • Fuller, Spirituality In the Flesh, Chp 6
  • Matthews, “Rooted in This Body: Learning Pantheism from Chronic Illness” (2013)
  • Pearson, “Disabled Rites?: Ritual and Disability in Wicca” (2011)
  • Pearson, “Embracing the Lash: Pain and Ritual as Spiritual Tools” (2011)
  • Aldag, “How to Include the Physically Challenged in Group Rituals”

Week 4: Pleasure, Healing, and Touch

  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 1 & 4
  • Kirner, “Healing Community” (2014)
  • Brown, “Touch and American Religions” (2009)

Week 5: Food and Water Justice

  • Harvey, Animism (2005) Chp 6
  • Rifkin, “Pagan Kosher” series (2013) (http://witchesandpagans.com/tags/tag/pagan-kosher.html)
  • Larson, “Holy Water and Human Rights” (2011)
  • UUA, “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice”
  • Clifton, “The Hunter’s Eucharist” (1993)
  • Adams, Neither Man Nor Beast (1995) excerpts

Week 6:  Sexual and Erotic Diversity

  • Rubin, “Thinking Sex” (1984/1992)
  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 3

Week 7:  Erotic Justice

  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 2
  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 90-118, 142-146
  • Kraemer and Aburrow, Pagan Consent Culture Introduction (2016)
  • Betkowski, “Seeking a Morality of Difference” (2016)

Week 8: Race, Rac(ial)ism, and Ancestry

  • Gallagher, “Weaving a Tangled Web? Pagan Ethics and Issues of History, ‘Race’ and Ethnicity in Pagan Identity” (2009)
  • Bel, “Ancestors and Heritage in Paganism” (2016)
  • Blanton, “Understanding the Definition of Racism” (2015)
  • Skallagrimsson, “Racism in Asatru”
  • Hale, “Marketing Rad Trad” (2015)
  • Theurer, “Ancestor Work and Anti-Racism” (2015)

Week 9: Sexuality and Gender

  • Kraemer, “Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Paganism” (2012)
  • Urban, Magia Sexualis (2006) Chp 6
  • Salomonsen, Enchanted Feminism (2002) Chp 7
  • Blain and Wallis, “The Ergi Seidman” (2001)

Week 10: Queer and Transgender Issues

  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 119-142
  • Eller, Am I a Woman? (2003) Chp 1 & 2
  • Kaldera, “The Third Voice” (2012)
  • Stover, “When Pan Met Wendy: Gendered Membership Debates Among the Radical Faeries” (2008)
  • Greene, “Transgender Inclusion Debates Reignite in Pagan Community” (2016)

Week 11:  BDSM and Alternative Relationship Structures

  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 64-89, 147-173
  • Henkin, “Counseling Bisexuals on BDSM Lifestyle Issues” (2005)
  • Kaldera, “Walking the Underworld Paths: BDSM, Power Exchange, and Consent in a Sacred Context” (2016)
  • Hoff and Sprott, “Therapy Experiences of Clients with BDSM Sexualities” (2009)
  • Zell, “A Bouquet of Lovers” (1990)
  • Weitzman, “Counseling Bisexuals in Polyamorous Relationships” (2005)
  • Hutchins, “Playing with Sacred Fire: Building Erotic Communities” (2005)

Week 12: The Myth of the Temple Prostitute and the Contemporary “Sacred Harlot”

  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 174-194
  • Hutchins, “Bisexual Women as Emblematic Sexual Healers and the Problematics of the Embodied Sacred Whore” (2002)
  • Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution (2008) Introduction, Chp 11
  • Urban, Magia Sexualis (2006), Conclusion

Week 13:  Final Projects

Week 14:  Final Projects

 

 

Pagan and Pantheist Tendencies in Unitarianism

Slide 1: Introduction

Many people think that the Pagan or Earth Spirit element in Unitarianism started around 1980 with the first Unitarian Universalist Pagan ritual, or with the foundation of CUUPs (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) in America in 1986, or the Unitarian Earth Spirit Network in the UK, founded in 1990. In fact, it has its roots in some much earlier developments.

Slide 2: Unitarians and ancient pagan ideas

A notable pagan thinker of late antiquity was Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who pleaded for religious tolerance for pagans in the face of Christian intolerance:

We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road.

— Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (340–402)

Paganism is generally tolerant of different viewpoints because most Pagans believe that everyone has their own unique path to walk, and that there is a vast array of deities. Unitarians are tolerant because they tend to believe that everyone’s experience is unique and different religions are different perspectives on the same underlying reality.

Slide 3: Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus (often regarded as the first Unitarian martyr) decided on the unity of God in part because he had been reading Hermetic texts, according to Earl Morse Wilbur, author of a history of Unitarianism in two volumes. The Hermetic texts were a loose compendium of Platonist and Neo-Platonist texts from late antiquity (the last days of the ancient pagan world). Some pagan thinkers of antiquity held that there was a divine unity.

Slide 4: Deism and Natural Religion (18th century)

Two key strands in Unitarian thought were Deism and Natural Religion.

Deism in the philosophy of religion is the standpoint that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that a supreme being created the universe. Further the term often implies that this supreme being does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending to assert that God (or “The Supreme Architect”) has a plan for the universe that is not to be altered by intervention in the affairs of human life. Deists believe in the existence of God without any reliance on revealed religion, religious authority or holy books. … Deism became more prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment — especially in Britain, France, United States and Ireland — mostly among those raised as Christians who found they could not believe in supernatural miracles or the inerrancy of scriptures, but who did believe in one God. The Founding Fathers of the United States were heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophies, and it is generally believed that many of them were deists.

Most deists saw the religions of their day as corruptions of an original, pure religion that was simple and rational. They felt that this original pure religion had become corrupted by “priests” who had manipulated it for personal gain and for the class interests of the priesthood in general.

According to this world view, over time “priests” had succeeded in encrusting the original simple, rational religion with all kinds of superstitions and “mysteries” – irrational theological doctrines. Laymen were told by the priests that only the priests really knew what was necessary for salvation and that laymen must accept the “mysteries” on faith and on the priests’ authority. This kept the laity baffled by the nonsensical “mysteries”, confused, and dependent on the priests for information about the requirements for salvation. The priests consequently enjoyed a position of considerable power over the laity, which they strove to maintain and increase. Deists referred to this kind of manipulation of religious doctrine as “priestcraft”, a highly derogatory term.

Deists saw their mission as the stripping away of “priestcraft” and “mysteries” from religion, thereby restoring religion to its original, true condition – simple and rational. In many cases, they considered true, original Christianity to be the same as this original natural religion.

(Wikipedia)

The original, simple and rational religion was known as the Urreligion or natural religion.

Many early Unitarians were Deists (particularly the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence) and were accused by their contemporaries of atheism. Deists believed that religion was natural to humanity, and that God was accessible to reason. They looked for an original form of religion from which all current forms had decayed or evolved. Hence many of them were interested in ancient Greek religion, and also in Druidry, believing it to be a form of the ancient Hebrew religion which had been brought to Britain by the Phoenicians.

Slide 5: Iolo Morgannwg

Hence, when Unitarianism in Britain officially began, it was not long before it attracted the attention of one Iolo Morganwg, who had earlier written a huge collection of material for the nascent Druid movement, and went on to become a Unitarian minister and to write many of the hymns used in the Welsh Unitarian hymnbook. At that time ancient druidry was thought to have been a debased form of the Hebrew religion, brought to Britain by the Phoenicians, so it is hardly surprising that Morganwg became interested in Unitarianism. Nevertheless, the Druid movement of which he was one of the founders has evolved into the modern Pagan Druid movement.

Ronald Hutton’s comprehensive work on the druids shows that there was hardly any evidence of what the druids were like; the only evidence available was from Roman sources, but there was hardly enough there to reconstruct a religion that looked anything like druidry.

Druids did not generally identify themselves as Pagans until the early 20th century. Before that, druid orders had names like the Universal Bond, and their views were universalist rather than pagan, in other words, they believed that there was an essential element in every religion that was the same – a mystical core of religion.

Contemporary Druidry is part of the Pagan revival. Druid and Pagan beliefs range from non-theism to animism to (neo-)shamanism to duotheism (a god and a goddess) to monism to polytheism. Most Pagans feel a sense of connection to the land, the Earth, and/or Nature. A number of Druid orders are drawn to ancient sites because they feel connected to their builders and former users. Some Druids consider themselves to be the successors of the ancient druids described by Julius Caesar and others, often using arguments of dubious intellectual provenance, as we know almost nothing about what ancient druids did or believed.

A key theme in Druidry (particularly at the festival of Samhain) is the connection with ancestors, usually defined as including one’s personal kin, the people who once dwelled in the place one lives in (house, village, town, region), and spiritual kindred, that is, inspirers.

There are two main strands of Druidry, the countercultural (associated with road protests and similar events, and sometimes clouded by a reputation for public drunkeness) and the more retiringly ‘spiritual’ (who tend to be more middle class). There is much overlap between the two strands.

Druidry and the Pagan revival are very diverse and cannot be easily pigeonholed. Contemporary Pagans are drawn from a range of backgrounds and include some professionals and scientists.

Slide 6: Rammohun Roy

Another non-Christian who became interested in Unitarianism – and became in the process a major influence upon it – was Raja Rammohun Roy. He had had encounters with various Christian missionaries in India, but found their arguments unconvincing. Tired of Hindu stories of half-human half-deities, he was not minded to accept the divinity of Jesus, and argued that Jesus was human and not divine. He founded the Unitarian Society of Calcutta and the Brahmo Samaj (One God Society). He also translated the Upanishads and Vedas (Hindu scriptures) into English, and it was probably he who coined the word “Hindu”. He corresponded with Unitarians in Britain and eventually travelled here to ensure that the government did not repeal the law banning widow-burning, which he and others had campaigned so hard to abolish. Sadly he died here and is buried in Arnos Vale Cemetry in Bristol. His writings influenced many Unitarians.

Whilst he was in England, Roy toured the country and met many people of all walks of life, including George IV (whose coronation he attended) and Jeremy Bentham, who had Unitarian sympathies and many Unitarian friends. Roy presented three papers on the Revenue System of India, the Judicial System of India and the Material Condition of India to a committee of the House of Commons.

Religious and political thinkers sought him out to engage in spirited discussions, and Dissenting and Anglican clergymen vied with each other for the honor of his presence at their services. Prominent middle-class reformers were constantly at his side, their daughters or unmarried sisters often especially attentive to him. And, while in Manchester, a crowd of factory workers followed Rammohun about on his tour, the men and women insisting on shaking his hand or embracing him. (Zastoupil, 2002: 215)

He addressed the Unitarian annual meeting in London, and was invited to Bristol by the Reverend Lant Carpenter, where he stayed at Mary Carpenter’s home until his untimely death from meningitis on 27 September 1833. He was buried in Arnos Vale cemetery in Bristol, and an annual service is held at his tomb, conducted by the Unitarian minister of Bristol. The Brahmo Samaj are regular attenders at this event.A statue of Rammohun Roy (paid for by the Indian government) was erected in central Bristol in 1997.

Roy’s visit also had political implications, in that there was some talk of him standing for Parliament, and his association with radical dissenters like the Unitarians was of considerable assistance in their agenda of reform and the disentanglement of church and state (Zastoupil, 2002: 220).

Roy’s deist views, his struggles with Hindu orthodoxy and debates with Baptist missionaries over the doctrine of the Trinity and the nature of Christ, and the fact that his family was said to have disowned him for his views, all resonated strongly with the Unitarians of the 1820s and 1830s, who faced persecution by the authorities (the 1689 Toleration Act was not extended to them), legal disputes over chapels and endowments, frequent blasphemy charges, and public objections to their involvement in politics and campaigning (Zastoupil, 2002: 230).

Slide 7: Unitarians and Nature

Unitarians have often found Nature inspiring and viewed the Divine as immanent in Nature, perhaps drawing on Spinoza’s ideas of God as Nature (Deus sive Natura).

Slide 8: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge, the Romantic poet, was a Unitarian originally and preached in several Unitarian chapels. He also employed a lot of Nature imagery in his poems, and many of them were pantheist in tone.

He wrote about Liberty as a principle that ran through all Nature:

And there I felt thee!—on that sea-cliff’s verge,

Whose pines, scarce travelled by the breeze above,

Had made one murmur with the distant surge!

Yes, while I stood and gazed, my temples bare,

And shot my being through earth, sea, and air,

Possessing all things with intensest love,

O Liberty! my spirit felt thee there.

He writes about God incarnate in humanity, and in Nature, in his poem, Religious Musings: a Desultory Poem. The influence of his Unitarian mentor Joseph Priestley is apparent in these lines:

‘Tis the sublime of man

Our noontide Majesty, to know ourselves

Parts and proportions of one wondrous Whole!

This fraternises man, this constitutes

Our charities and bearings. But ’tis God

Diffused through all, that doth make all one whole . . .

James Martineau spoke for many other Unitarians when he included the works of Coleridge in a short listing of his personal ‘sacred guides’. And perhaps his famous view of the Incarnation could have been influenced by these Religious Musings.

“The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly.”

Slide 9: Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Transcendentalists

The most obvious way in which Unitarianism has influenced contemporary Paganism is through the Transcendentalists (a group of Unitarians from New England). Ralph Waldo Emerson, who began the Transcendentalist movement, had read the writings of Rammohun Roy, and was deeply influenced by them.

The Transcendentalists argued that true religion and spirituality transcend the dogmatic cultural forms of religion; they took their name from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The key players in the Transcendentalist movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau (author of Walden, an account of his attempt to return to Nature by living in a small hut by Walden Pond), and Bronson Alcott, educator and father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women.

Many of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s ideas fed into modern Paganism; for example the idea of polarity (on which Emerson wrote an essay) is very important in Wicca; and the idea of retreating to a simple hut, as Thoreau did, influenced Ross Nicholls, founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, to advocate retreating to a simple hut (perhaps he got the idea from the poem by WB Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, but that was inspired by Thoreau).

Emerson’s own writings were widely read, and he became friends with Walt Whitman, the gay poet of Nature, who corresponded with Edward Carpenter, a gay Pagan socialist vegetarian whose writings were influential in the Pagan movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is probably because of the Transcendentalists that Paganism has so often been referred to as a “Nature religion” according to Chas Clifton, an American scholar of Pagan Studies. Most Pagans and many Unitarians believe that the Divine (or deities) is/are immanent in the world; an important prerequisite for treating the planet with respect.

Slide 10: Unitarians and the Goddess

Another very important idea in the contemporary Pagan revival, and for many Unitarians, is the worship of the Goddess or of Goddesses.

Unitarian feminists were vital in the process of exposing the patriarchal nature of religion. Names such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of Theodore Parker’s congregation, who wrote The Woman’s Bible, and Frances Power Cobbe, who edited a 14 volume edition of his writings, are very important in feminist history.

  • The Goddess is immanent in the world, not transcendent.
  • She is not just an aspect of a male God, but a being in her own right. (If you want to be properly Unitarian about this, perhaps you could regard Her as an emanation of the Divine source.)
  • She is associated with Nature and the wilderness.
  • She is often seen as a mother who gives birth to the Universe and who also IS the Universe.
  • But she is also the wise crone and the wild maiden.
  • She is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.
  • She is not interested in imposing laws from on high, but on the emergence of harmony at the grass roots level.
  • She is much more than a Virgin Mother – this is an image which has been very damaging to women by holding out an unattainable ideal and denying the validity of sexual pleasure.
  • Her worship includes sacred sexuality.

Before there was the Earth Spirit Network, there were the feminist theology activists in Unitarianism who campaigned for more inclusive language; they included Ann Peart.

Slide 11: Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker was a Transcendentalist minister who was shunned by the more conservative Unitarians in the Boston area, but eventually gathered a congregation of about 300 in an old theatre; they included Barbara Bodichon, feminist and later a Pre-Raphaelite artist; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a famous American Unitarian feminist. Parker was a noted campaigner against slavery; but he also often referred to God as a Mother, and believed that God is immanent.

Slide 12: Norbert Čapek 

Norbert Čapek also viewed the Divine as immanent in humanity, and wrote the famous and much-loved hymn, Mother Spirit, Father Spirit. He also designed the Flower Communion, which was a radical expression of what it meant to be Unitarian in a country occupied by the Nazis, and a celebration of individuality, as well as a form of communion that his congregation, many of whom had rejected conventional Christianity, could celebrate.

Slide 13: The flaming chalice

During the Second World War, the Unitarian Service Committee was rescuing Jews from the Nazis, and needed an official symbol to put in their passports to show that they were under the protection of the Unitarian Service Committee. Rev Charles Joy, the leader of the USC, commissioned Hans Deutsch to produce a symbol, and wrote to the General Assembly back in America, that it was like a Greek or Roman chalice.

Slide 14: Conclusion

So, pagan and pantheist ideas have been in circulation in Unitarianism since it began; they are not a recent introduction, but an integral part of Unitarian engagement with the world, because both Paganism and Unitarianism are world-affirming.

~ Yvonne Aburrow

Creative Commons Licence

From Natural Religion to Nature Religion: Pagan and Pantheist tendencies in Unitarianism by Yvonne Aburrow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

 


Note on names: In the UK, the movement is called Unitarian and Free Christian (Unitarianism for short); in the USA, it is Unitarian Universalism, as a result of the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961; in Canada, it is Unitarianism.

Paganism for Beginners: Things we care about

Pagans care about the same issues as everyone else – poverty, war, racism, homophobia, transphobia, the environment, saving indigenous lifeways, knowledge, and culture, women’s rights, cruelty to animals, and so on.  Like any other movement, there are many different opinions in the Pagan movement: some Pagans don’t care about these things; some take a different view of them; and  some care about them very much more than the average.

But there are some issues that are associated in people’s minds with being Pagan, the two most obvious ones being environmentalism and feminism. Many people have claimed that Paganism is a Nature religion (and many others have claimed that it’s not), and since Paganism and Nature-worship are synonymous in many people’s minds, caring for the Earth seems like an obvious thing for Pagans to want to do. And since the Earth is often viewed as a goddess, or as the Goddess, Paganism is an obvious choice for anyone who wonders why so many monotheists view their deity as exclusively male.

Environmentalism

Pagans care about the environment for many and varied reasons. Some people became Pagans because they care about the environment; others began to care more about the environment after becoming a Pagan. Either way, Pagans recognise that the Earth is our mother, and if we don’t take care of her, we will all die, and so will many other species.

The earth is our mother,
we must take care of her.

Hey yanna, ho yanna, hey yan yan.

Her sacred ground we walk upon,
with every step we take.

The earth is our mother,
she will take care of us.

Native American song (mp3)

The causes of our current destructive course are many and complex. Some people blame capitalism; others blame consumerism; and others blame the dominionist views of conservative Christianity.  I blame all three, and think they are historically interlinked.

Capitalism does not simply mean a market economy; it means the investment of surplus money in a business venture. This means that instead of being accountable to the whole community, a company becomes accountable to its shareholders, and shareholders generally want only one thing: a profit.

Consumerism is not simply wanting nice things; it is the view that only having nice things makes you happy, and the drive to acquire more and more nice things.

Dominionism is the view (derived from the book of Genesis) that God gave the Earth to humans for our use.

A major contrast with these views is deep ecology, which advocates the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, and argues that this requires a radical restructuring of modern human societies. This certainly chimes in well with the Pagan world-view, and I explored the ecological and embodied world-view in two previous posts, Eco-spirituality and theology and Eco-spirituality in practice.

The language of ecology can be problematic, especially when it gets co-opted by business trying to preserve the status quo. Sustainability used to mean living in a way that prevents damage to the environment and loss of species habitat; now it has been co-opted to mean something like ‘greenwashing‘ (paying lip-service to environmental concerns while actually continuing to act in a destructive way), or buying carbon credits and continuing to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The “environment” implies something that surrounds us, but which we are not necessarily part of. We are part of the environment and of ecosystems; we are not separate from our habitat.

A group of Pagans (of which I was one) have recently produced A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, which has been translated into several different languages and has now reached around 5000 signatures. Whilst a statement will not fix things on its own, what it does is articulate the principles and practices which will help to fix things, and signing up to the statement means a commitment to its principles and to doing something for the planet.

Feminism

Some people became Pagans because they were feminists; others began to focus more on equality after becoming a Pagan. Either way, feminism is a natural bedfellow of Paganism, because most Pagan traditions worship a Goddess or goddesses, and value diversity and equality.

The roots of feminism lie in three simple premises:

  • that women are equal to men,
  • that women are not currently treated equally in society,
  • and that we should do something about it.

However, as with any other philosophy, there is more than one flavour of feminism, because not all feminists necessarily agree on the correct tactics for getting rid of inequality, or indeed on who counts as a woman.

Variants include: Amazon, Analytical, Anarchist, Atheist, Black, Chicana, Christian, Conservative, Cultural, Cyber, DifferenceEco, Equality, Equity, Fat, French, structuralist, Global, Individualist, Islamic, Jewish, Lesbian, LiberalLipstick,  MarxistMaterialMaternalMormonNeo, NewPostcolonialPostmodernPoststructuralPro-lifeProtoRadicalSeparatistSex-positiveSocialSocialistStandpointThird worldTransTransnational, and Womanism. There is even an online quiz for deciding what kind of feminist you are.

Here are some of the ones that share concerns with Paganism:

According to Wikipedia, “Anarcha-feminism, also called anarchist feminism and anarcho-feminism, combines anarchism with feminism. It generally views patriarchy as a manifestation of involuntary coercive hierarchy that should be replaced by decentralized free association. Anarcha-feminists believe that the struggle against patriarchy is an essential part of class struggle, and the anarchist struggle against the state. ” Historically, anarchist feminists included those who advocated free love and campaigned against marital rape and the subjugation of women. 

Black feminism: Black feminist theorists argue that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together. The way these relate to each other is called intersectionality. The theory of intersectionality has been adopted by many other feminists and social theorists. According to Barbara Omolade,  ”Black feminism is sometimes referred to as womanism because both are concerned with struggles against sexism and racism by black women who are themselves part of the black community’s efforts to achieve equity and liberty”.

Eco-feminism: According to Vandana Shiva,  women have a special connection to the environment through our daily interactions. She says that women in subsistence economies who produce “wealth in partnership with nature, have been experts in their own right of holistic and ecological knowledge of nature’s processes.”

Obviously there are lots of other things that Pagans care about,  but these are two areas that are fairly central to why so many people have joined the Pagan movement.


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost. 

The next post in the series will be on controversies in the Pagan community, where I attempt to summarise all the controversies of the last few years, including racism, transphobia, Wiccanate privilege, and more.

Transplanting from one culture to another – appropriation or exchange?

Many people do not understand what is and is not cultural appropriation because they assume that practices and techniques can be easily transplanted from one context to another, but this does not take into account the issues around the particularity of traditions to their culture, place, and history, and it does not recognise the impact of colonialism and the commodification and commercialisation of indigenous traditions.

Dandelion seeds in the morning sunlight blowing away in the wind across a clear blue sky

Cross-fertilisation: dandelion seeds blowing away in the wind. Photo by Brian A Jackson, courtesy of Shutterstock

Take for example the practice of calling the quarters. This is based on several assumptions: that circular space is the most sacred; that there are four cardinal directions, and four elements with a meaning that is embedded in a particular cultural context (the Western Mystery Tradition, or of several Native American traditions), and that making a connection with the four elements and the four sacred directions helps you to become more connected to Nature, or the universe, because we are the microcosm of the universe (an idea found in Neo-Platonism, Kabbalah, and Swedenborgianism). If the practice of calling the quarters is transplanted to another tradition which does not have these assumptions, myths, and symbols, it will only be a shallow version of the practice, and will probably not even make sense in the context to which it has been transplanted.

People who charge money for the practices of others, without respect for their situatedness in a particular culture, history, tradition, and totally failing to notice the power relations involved in the colonialism of the very recent past, and the continued assertion by the West of the superiority of capitalism, consumerism, and the rationalist enlightenment is a big ethical issue. Spiritual traditions are not and cannot be divorced from context, and they are not automatically the property of all humanity. We need to approach other traditions with mindfulness and respect, and not assuming that everything is ours for the taking.

Spiritual traditions are rich with meaning, both mythological and historical, and taking a practice or a ritual out of the context within which it was created strips it of the rich associations that it had in its original context. If you take practices out of context, you are very likely to end up doing them superficially.  Respectful engagement with other traditions requires a reasonably in-depth engagement with them, and a certain amount of immersion, not just a brief encounter. I guess ‘respectful’ is the key word in all of that.

As a minor example, even copy-cat behaviour towards an individual can be problematic. A few years back, I had very specific labels in the religion and politics boxes on my Facebook profile, which I had arrived at through considerable soul-searching, angst, and upheaval, both social and personal. I was also recognised by other members of the groups I belonged to as a member of those groups. Imagine my horror when some eejit who did not even know what they meant (and I know he didn’t because I asked him) decided he was going to copy them for his profile. He was not even a member of either of the religious traditions concerned. I was furious. (And there was not even a history of colonial oppression in the history between him and me.) Now imagine how people from other cultures feel when that happens with their identities and culture.

However, say you have encountered a practice that really speaks to you, or that will significantly improve your health, and you want to borrow it respectfully. What should you do? Is it enough to ask someone who might be considered an authority in the tradition you want to borrow it from? The problem here is that there are many different people within a given tradition, and they do not all speak with one voice. So, what should be the criteria for whether or not a person can be considered the keeper of a tradition? Is it strength of belief? Is that they are a priest or recognised holy person? Many people would argue that the laity should have just as much say in the matter as the priesthood. Or should the criterion be the consensus view of many members of the tradition?

However, the construction of an argument around strength of belief as a possible criterion for being the keeper of a tradition, or the idea of a holy person as no more worthy than a secular person, is all grounded in a particularly Western and rationalist and Protestant view of how religion works. My argument has nothing to do with strength of belief, keepers of tradition, or any inherent ownership of ideas: it is about the historical and cultural context in which something arose, and (in the case of Native American spirituality in particular) the colonialist appropriation of ideas, artefacts, rituals, and the commodification of them. Cultures whose spiritual traditions have been appropriated are complaining about the commodification of their ideas, and the way they have been packaged and sold and marketed by fake gurus and shamans in the West.

A priest or shaman has been trained in the technique and the safeguards that go with it. Many popularisers of various meditation techniques forget to tell you the safeguards. The shaman or priest is steeped in the culture and the context and the meaning of the practice. A populariser (whether a lay person from the same culture, or someone from another culture) is not necessarily aware of the context, meaning, safeguards, etc. The people who don’t want their practices taken out of context are not doing it to protect the practice as a commodity which they could package and sell – as far as most of them are concerned, their practices are not for sale. They are very likely to be trying to protect us from bad / shallow / poorly understood versions of the practices. Because without the safeguards and correct techniques, and an understanding of the context, some practices are dangerous. The people doing the commodifying are the appropriaters, who often want to make a fast buck out of repackaging the practice for a Western audience, usually stripped of its sacred context and meaning.

All of this does not mean that you can never borrow a practice or a ritual from another culture – but it does mean that shallow engagement with it is not enough. You need to examine whether the practice fits within your own tradition, by looking at the religious, spiritual, and cultural assumptions which have gone into its construction.

There have been many fruitful and successful moments of syncretisation of different traditions, and some failed ones. The most successful ones seem to be when the two traditions met as equals, and engaged in genuine dialogue and exchange (as when Buddhism met Taoism and created Zen Buddhism, or when Buddhism met Shinto and created Ryobu Shinto). When an imperial and colonising tradition moved in, the indigenous religion was often either crushed (like when Christianity met ancient paganisms) or subsumed (like when Buddhism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity met indigenous religions).

Anyone studying the history of encounters between religions and cultures can easily see that cultures are not monolithic, intact, or impermeable. In fact, cultures are always exchanging ideas, inventions, material goods, books, food, recipes. There is clearly a lot of healthy and respectful cultural exchange. Hence the attempt to make a distinction between culturing borrowing and cultural appropriation, both in this article about decolonising your yoga practice, and in my previous attempt to write about the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.

Appropriation means claiming that you own something or have a right to it. Borrowing means acknowledging that the other party owns it. They are not synonymous.  Borrowing can be respectful. Appropriation is disrespectful. The trick is learning the difference.  However, if a person from another culture says, hands off, you cannot access this without going through the proper process – then proceeding to take it without their approval is theft.

If the culture which you had the misfortune to be born into goes around colonising other countries (both by conquest and via economic power) and you then come along and steal their spiritual traditions, despite them saying no: that makes you part of the colonisers.

If on the other hand you acknowledge them as the ones with expertise, and learn from them, and acknowledge their sovereignty, and they decide to give freely: that is respectful.

An obvious analogy is Wicca. There are practices in Wicca that I would not recommend to anyone uninitiated (because initiation prepares you for them) and that would not make sense outside of the symbolic framework of Wicca.  Although these practices are available from other spiritual traditions, invocation is also carefully situated within a symbolic framework and an initiatory process in those other traditions, too. It occurs in Buddhism, and they have a very elaborate system around it – with good reason. And the same with all the other practices.

I know there are things in Wicca that don’t quite fit in Druidry, and vice versa – and those two traditions are reasonably similar. Consider how difficult it is, then, to import a practice from a dissimilar tradition. I generally don’t do Buddhist practices because I disagree with the basic founding premise of Buddhism, that all is dukka (suffering) and that the only way to free yourself from suffering is to avoid attachment. If you don’t buy into this basic premise of Buddhism, then a lot of their meditation techniques don’t make sense.

In my previous post on this topic, I outlined some thoughts on what constitutes appropriation, and what constitutes respectful borrowing. When I wrote that post, I was largely unaware that sometimes people accuse non-Europeans of cultural appropriation when they try to join in with European forms of Paganism. I learnt this from reading the excellent book, Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood, and Brandy Williams. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend doing so.

Cultural appropriation cannot be properly understood unless you look at it in the context of colonialism, power, money, exploitation, and capitalism. Although Pagan religions are not part of the dominant paradigm of Western culture (which is predominantly Christian with an overlay of Enlightenment rationalism and a big dollop of capitalism), and are often relegated by the dominant discourse to the realms of the “primitive” – white practitioners of Pagan religions still benefit from being members of the dominant social group much of the time. Cultural appropriation is usually done from the dominant position in any encounter between two cultures. So if you are not in the dominant position in the encounter, it will be difficult to appropriate the culture of the other.

To sum up, then: ritual techniques and practices are not universal, and it is difficult to lift them from one context to another; doing so without consideration for their original meaning and context is disrespectful; and it is often a continuation of colonialism, capitalism, and commodification.