Pagan Tea Times with John Halstead and Fritz Muntean

My Pagan Tea Times spilled into March — but I hope they won’t be my last for the year!

John Halstead got a lot of baby face time, as I was bouncing the baby on my knee for about half our call, and that of course led naturally to talking about our kids and families. Most of the Pagans in my life (with a few valuable exceptions) don’t have children, so it’s nice to talk to other Pagans who have coped with similar limitations and had some of the same joys. John and I talked a lot of brass tacks — how to encourage writer engagement on websites, experiences writing for different web venues, etc. — but I also enjoyed hearing about how John was first inspired to start blogging and his trip to PantheaCon. Bonus: he’s now reading my latest book!

Next, I sat down with Fritz Muntean, a colleague from the American Academy of Religion and co-founder of NROOGD back in the 1960s. Fritz often comes off as combative online, and he confesses that he loves a good argument, but in person he’s soft-spoken, good-humored, and a big fan of babies. (My little one also joined me for the end of this call!) We talked about the potential role of humor in deflating conflict, the founding of The Pomegranate (now a peer-reviewed journal of Pagan Studies), and subcultural standards of what constitutes civility on the internet, especially related to the recent article in The Nation about “toxic Twitter feminism.” Reading that article later led me down a fascinating rabbit hole of criticism and rebuttal, some of which was mysterious to me, as the article left me with a positive impression of the WOC feminist (Mikki Kendall) that most opponents claimed the article was critical of. I suppose I already knew that what’s considered offensive relies heavily on context and on how the person doing the speaking is perceived. Much to unpack there — I’m adding another item to the list of articles I wish I had time to write. I also had a good time hearing about Fritz’ background as a carpenter, his pursuit of a Master’s degree in his fifties, and his love of drag. Perhaps most surprising of all, though, I found Fritz to be an excellent active listener — not what I would have expected from our online interactions.

May all your Tea Times past and future be this productive and fun!

 

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All the Pagan Tea Times You Can Drink!

I have so enjoyed meeting other writers face to face!

John Beckett and I were actually able to meet in person — serendipity arranged for John to be driving by the little Texas town where I was visiting family early in February. We met at a groovy little sandwich shop, where we expressed mutual surprise that neither of us was quite what the other had expected (John said I was taller, and I hadn’t imagined his Tennessee accent). We talked about our work (paid and otherwise), our religious traditions, Unitarian Universalism, and Texas. I was particularly struck by John’s remark that he really values his “straight” job, because it removes any incentive to compromise his spiritual work — a temptation that could arise if he made his living by it. The fact that John listens so well makes him a particularly delightful tea time companion!

I had a somewhat short conversation with Julian Betkowski, but it’s spawned lots of juicy private correspondence, so I consider it a roaring success. More than anyone else I chatted with, Julian and I skipped the small talk and grappled with big issues: the question of whether a devotional Polytheist split from the Pagan movement would be a healthy thing, the effects of trying to do theology in a blog medium (which, unfortunately, is a medium readers are conditioned to skim at top speed), the way subcultural communities reproduce the hierarchical politics of the overculture they’re embedded in, and more. My brain was nicely exercised and fed.

David Dashifen Kees (also known as Dash) lives in my area and was able to come to my house and drink tea with me while I bounced the baby. Dash has had his fingers in *so* many important Pagan and interfaith projects as a tech person and/or volunteer — I found myself making a mental list of awesome things he could help make happen. I really enjoyed hearing about Dash’s partner, a veterinarian, and their many, many animals. We also geeked out about tattoos. It was a good time!

I also got to catch up with Henry Buchy, who’s already a friend, but from whom I always learn something new — and not always what I expected. This time I got away with a book recommendation and the urge to learn more about the stock market. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that witches have narrow interests. 😉

The official month of Pagan Tea Times is coming to an end, but I hope the live conversations will go on! Keep an eye on Agora for when I do a  round-up of Tea Time posts.

Tea Times with Aine Llewellyn and Rhyd Wildermuth

I’ve had some fantastic Tea Times this past week! I sat down with Aine Llewellyn (who pronounces her name “ahn-yah”) and Rhyd Wildermuth (who pronounces his name “reed”) for some juicy conversations that, alas, were far too complex to easily summarize here. But a few tidbits:

My favorite bit with Aine was chatting about the role of career (i.e. long-term paying work) as part of an integrated religious life. We discussed our perception of how damaging it is to live hand to mouth — not because of a choice to live in simplicity, but because of a discomfort with money or an unwillingness to work a “straight” job. We talked about surprising ways that our studies in school and our paying jobs have provided skills that enhanced our spiritual practices and understanding. I would love to see more Pagans embrace the power that comes from having money — and then use that power to build community and make art that’s in tune with their values.

Rhyd and I benefited from my having excellent child care that day, and our chat went on for two and a half hours! We talked a great deal about how to support constructive dialogue in both intra- and interfaith contexts and about the role of alternative religions in critiquing mainstream society — as well as the awkwardness that can result when a formerly countercultural religion begins to gain a little acceptance (i.e. when a religion is still far from mainstream, but no longer on the fringe). Rhyd also gave me a juicy historical tidbit that I’m anxious to explore — the fact that the extremely active pre-WWII gay culture of Berlin produced a great deal of erotic theological writing (much of it in praise of Eros). It’s a shame that American Pagans are largely unaware of Pagan history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as represented by groups like this.

Both conversations touched on the position of alternative religions in relationship to centers of power in American culture. There are advantages to being in the margins and on the fringe — that’s where innovation happens, and a counterculture is necessary in order to challenge and perhaps even periodically refresh mainstream culture. Is it possible to move toward the center just enough to gain basic protections and civil liberties, yet retain a subversive, exploratory edge?

Aine, Rhyd, it was delightful — let’s do it again sometime!

Tea Time Update and Chair Position at Cherry Hill Seminary

I am thrilled to see how much various writers seem to be enjoying Pagan Tea Time — and February’s only just begun!

Just to recap, Pagan Tea Time is an informal event encouraging writers and commenters to get together in real time, either in person or over video chat.

During the month of February, if you write online, make a date to have a cup of tea (or food or drink of your choice) with another writer or commenter. Even better, be daring, and make it someone you’ve argued with. Those of you who are attending PantheaCon will have numerous opportunities to eat and drink and talk together in person, and I hope you will take them! But for those who won’t be there, I invite you to take a risk: e-mail someone (or more than one!) whose voice you’ve never heard before and ask them for an hour of their time via video chat (or failing that, phone). Get a glimpse of their pets or babies or partners. Show off your altar or your book collection or the way the sunlight slants into your kitchen. Put away your debates for a while and take the time to talk. Debates can come later.

If you participate, please write something about it online (respecting your chat partners’ privacy, of course!).

So far, I’ve seen some great reports of Tea Times involving Rhyd Wildermuth, Conor O’Bryan Warren, and a three-way chat between John Halstead, Sannion, and Galina Krasskova (wow!). I haven’t had any tea times with people I haven’t already met yet — one of the blessings of being managing editor here is that getting together with writers via video chat happens semi-routinely, as does attending conferences, so I’ve met many of you already. (Yay!) I did get to do a nice catch-up with Niki Whiting, though, and I have a few more dates set for next month.

Gentle readers, please feel free to hit me up for Tea Time, although due to simultaneously working, being primary caregiver to a tiny baby, and teaching a class, I can’t promise that our schedules will line up. But I will try. 🙂 ckraemer at patheos dot com is the e-mail to use.

And if you write about your Tea Times, let me know! I’m collecting the links and will post a round-up in March on Agora.

Image adapted from Banquet cup-bearer Louvre G467, by a Euaion Painter. Public domain.


In other news, Cherry Hill Seminary is looking for a new chair of Theology and Religious History! This is a great opportunity to serve an exciting Pagan organization while simultaneously building your online education resume. Check out the call:

Position:  Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious History
to begin May, 2014

Effective Date: one year with possible renewal

Minimum Qualifications:  Ph.D. in Religious Studies, Masters in Divinity or other terminal degree in a relevant field from an accredited institution; support for core values of Cherry Hill Seminary and Pagan-centered ministry; experience working constructively with those in the Pagan community; comfort with web-based classroom and other communications technology needed to deliver high quality courses, such as Moodle and Skype, or willingness to learn via tutorial offered by CHS; access to both computer and telephone; regular access to high speed internet

 

DUTIES: Oversees course offerings:  including scheduling, faculty hiring, supervision, and evaluation; syllabi review; course development; other tasks as assigned by the administration

TIME: 
Approximately ten hours a week, flex-time

COMPENSATION: Free tuition each semester in one class offered at Cherry Hill Seminary, the opportunity to teach an occasional course and receive regular faculty fees, and the knowledge that you are helping to build a lasting institution that reflects your goals and values.  Unfortunately, this is all that can be offered at the current time.

REQUIRED DOCUMENTATION: Your letter of intent; curriculum vitae; three letters of recommendation; official transcript from institution awarding M. Div. or highest degree.

Letters of intent should be sent to wgriffin@cherryhillseminary.org. Hard copies of all letters and original transcripts should be sent to Cherry Hill Seminary, P.O. Box 5405, Columbia, SC  29250-5405

Cherry Hill Seminary prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, sex, age, marital status, national origin, mental or physical disability, political belief or affiliation, veteran status, or sexual orientation and any other class of individuals protected from discrimination under state or federal law in any aspect of the access to, admission, or treatment of students in its programs and activities, or in employment and application for employment. Furthermore, Seminary policy includes prohibitions of harassment of students and employees, i.e., racial harassment, sexual harassment, and retaliation for filing complaints of discrimination.

For more information about teaching at Cherry Hill, go to http://www.cherryhillseminary.org/faculty_teaching.html

 

Building Pagan Intellectual Culture Face to Face

For years, I’ve said that one of my goals in life is to help build a contemporary Pagan intellectual culture. That desire has led me to teach at Cherry Hill Seminary, to write general-audience and academic books on Pagan theology, and of course, to manage writers and blog here at Patheos Pagan. And yet, one of the more powerful methods I know of building Pagan intellectual culture was something I stumbled upon, rather than something I actively sought out.

I’m an initiate of a non-Wiccan religious witchcraft tradition. There are relatively few other initiates of that tradition in my local area, however, so a couple of years ago, I sought out a local Wiccan family of covens. I wanted others to work with spiritually, an existing structure I could join (rather than having to create one myself), and support for the challenging process of having my first child. Happily, I’ve found all of that and more.

Although I didn’t know about it when I first approached my coven, there’s a second group that runs alongside it, often drawing in members from other covens, friends, and guests: a philosophical and literature discussion group facilitated by one of my covenmates. This covenmate was educated at a small liberal arts college with a “Great Books” program, and he designed the structure of the discussion group in the style of a forma liberal arts seminar (while also keeping a bit of ritual theory in mind).

Here’s how it works.

Each month, we read a book: popular fiction (dystopian and utopian novels are a favorite genre); literary fiction, like Candide; modern social or historical commentary, like Neil Postman’s Technopoly; or classics of philosophy, like The Symposium (which we actually repeat once a year). Next, we gather in person with a set start and end time – no Pagan Standard Time here. Once gathered, we sit around a table so everyone can see each other, books in hand, pitchers of water in the center, and glasses for each of us. Alcohol consumption and snacks are put off until the formal discussion is finished. To open the seminar, a participant offers an opening question (usually a different person each meeting). And then we’re off!

Although the subject matter is always different, our discussions often circle around the recurring question of “What is a good life?” or, more simply, “What is the good?” (No doubt this is partially due to the fact that the group spent its entire first year reading Plato – although there are few questions more fundamental.) We debate; we play out thought experiments; at times we apply the books to our lives and communities, and at others we explore pure abstraction (like the time we read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and then worked through a number of the proofs in Euclid’s Elements – yes, seriously!).

For me, this group is a bit like being in college again, when I was thirsty to know everything, and my close friends and I would come home from class with heads full of new ideas and talk for hours—about beauty and what it means to be human, about society and what we wanted from our future. We are all a little older now, and probably more practical. But the discussions with my covenmates and our friends are juicy, and more importantly, they inform the choices we make: How do we use our resources? What is the purpose of education, or religious practice? What values do we teach our children? These discussions work their way into our writing, nonprofit mission statements, classroom curricula, art, and the way they approach patients or clients.

Notably, this discussion group is relatively devoid of the kind of vicious contentiousness we often see in the Pagan blogosphere. I don’t think we are significantly more like-minded than I am with those I carry on conversations with online; in some ways, we may be less so. But here’s the real difference: we do ritual together. We eat and drink together. We take care of each others’ pets and babies. And, perhaps most simply, we sit down around a table together and talk while looking each other in the eye.

Of course, it’s hardly the case that no one loses their temper while debating philosophy in personquite the contrary. But it helps us greatly, I think, that the table is a ritual space every bit as much as our temple. The table is a place where we temporarily set our personal investments aside. It is a place where we play and experiment together, not so much a place to argue or persuade (although, argument can be a kind of play, as anyone who has ever argued something they didn’t actually believe knows!). At the table, we respect each other, but not necessarily each other’s ideasthe ideas are all open to question. And, perhaps more importantly, the table is a place where we are clear that we have thoughts, but that we are not defined by our thoughts. We do not come to the table with ideological labels: a Marxist, a classical liberal, a secular humanist, a theist, a nihilist. All these ideas are the objects we put in the center of the table to play with together, perhaps to reclaim ownership of in the end. The ritual space makes it possible to explore, defend, or attack ideas without attacking people—instead, we come to the table as friends and intellectual playmates.

I’ve come to love the culture that the combination of coven and philosophical discussion group creates: the intuitive and the rational all tangled up together in community with the bonds of ritual. It’s also made me realize that not everyone knows how to participate in a seminar-style discussion, where we lay aside our ideological commitments for a specific purpose. I would love to see more Pagan groups learn to create and nurture spaces for intellectual exploration and play, held in a container of bodies, voices, and breath. To be growthful, our debates need to take place in the context of relationship, where the goal is not to persuade or win, but to seek understanding, train limber minds, and gain valuable colleagues.

Of course, not all of us are fortunate enough to have local groups to practice and learn with. I suggest the next best thing—to take some of our conversations out of the realm of text alone and add sight and sound. If we can’t be bodily in the same room with each other, video chat software at least lets us see each other’s body language and hear the intonation of each other’s voices. It is vitally important, if we want to build Pagan intellectual culture, that we know one another in a way more profound than mere words on a screen.

So here’s my proposition: during the month of February, if you write online, make a date to have a cup of tea (or food or drink of your choice) with another writer or commenter. Even better, be daring, and make it someone you’ve argued with. Those of you who are attending PantheaCon will have numerous opportunities to eat and drink and talk together in person, and I hope you will take them! But for those who won’t be there, I invite you to take a risk: e-mail someone (or more than one!) whose voice you’ve never heard before and ask them for an hour of their time via video chat (or failing that, phone). Get a glimpse of their pets or babies or partners. Show off your altar or your book collection or the way the sunlight slants into your kitchen. Put away your debates for a while and take the time to talk. Debates can come later.

How do I grow Pagan intellectual culture?

I form relationships. Won’t you join me this February?

P.S. Feel free to grab the graphic above for your blog or site! And if you participate, I hope you’ll write something about it online (respecting your chat partners’ privacy, of course!).