I was reading a post by Aine Llewellyn on identification at Patheos.com and I thought about my own identity.
How did I come to know who and what I am?
I looked for something to identify with myself, a model or series of models to compare, contrast, follow, and reject. It necessitated looking at how others described themselves, seeing which words fit best. This is part of every person’s foundation. Self-identification and self-definition cannot happen in a bubble. While it is personal to some degree for much of our lives identity is communally developed.
Consensus reality is built with a standardized understanding of the world around us. Even with words that have their own continuum, words such as hot/cold, good/bad, etc. there must be a root knowledge of what is being described and compared for any meaning to be built. To understand hot we must understand ‘hotness’ just as we must understand cold by its ‘coldness’. We must also understand where those dividing lines are defined, even if it is relatively arbitrary. Without these foundations there is nothing for meaning, or identity to build on. These basic identifiers of reality then expand outward to more complex topics, such as religion.
If identity cannot be built in isolation how can identity take such as central role when only defined by oneself? If self-identification is all that matters what would the point of words, let alone consensus-based reality, matter?
I recognize that writing this post is, in and of itself, setting a healthy powder keg with ample matches nearby. To even address identity in so straightforward a manner can be viewed as threatening, confrontational, fundamentalist, or simply being a jerk. Or all of the above. It is not my intent, either in writing this or pointing out Aine Llewellyn’s post, to be antagonizing. It my intent to make some points on things I feel very strongly and develop constructive, needed dialogue.
If I cannot point to x, y, or z and discern x from y, y from z, and so on, what is the use of words? Words can, by their nature, restrict meaning, but it also gives us the means to sharing and understanding meaning with ourselves and with one another. In so doing it gives us the means to understanding, appreciating, and developing meaning itself.
Words like hot and cold exist on a spectrum, yet we can say that hot is not cold and cold is not hot; to say otherwise is to destroy the meaning of both words, and the concept for each completely falls apart. We can say where freezing is, where lukewarm (aka room temperature) is, and where the boiling point is for water, both in terms of scientific measurement, and in terms of common parlance. That is why I sincerely believe that exclusionary definitions must come into use, and be respected, in order that our words mean anything. If ‘Pagan’ is to mean anything substantive, at some point we must confess that hot does not equal cold, and thereby, cold does not equal hot. While pinpointing where that dividing line is may take some work on our part, it is a necessary thing.
I cannot, as a polytheist, animist, a priest of two Gods and a Northern Tradition shaman, walk into a Catholic Church and declare myself Catholic with any honesty or in truth. I do not believe, think, or have the worldview of a Catholic. As importantly, I do not attend Mass, believe in the Nicene Creed, or perform the sacraments, hold the Roman Catholic Church as my authority figure, or Jesus Christ as my Savior and YHVH as my God. For me to say “I am Catholic” would not be honest or true. I am not only ill-suited to being Catholic but it would be dishonest and untrue of me to identify as one.
I use the words ‘honest’ and ‘true’ because of their definition:
Honest: “free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere”
True: “in accordance with fact or reality”
So one may be totally honest in the presentation of their feelings but untrue in what reality is. One may sincerely believe believe that a hot cup of tea is in fact cold, even while steam rises from it.
Would honoring St. Francis de Assisi, to the point of setting aside a shrine for him where I could commune with him and leave him offerings, make me a Catholic? Absolutely not. I would be a polytheist animist honoring the spirit of a man who deeply touched my life, whose namesake I took when I was Confirmed, and whose prayers I still enjoy.
To even try to breach this boundary would be an insult, if not a direct affront to myself, my Gods, many if not all of my Ancestors (polytheist and monotheist), many, if not all of the spirits I call friends and allies, and my Elders. It would equally be an insult to YHVH, the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, devout Catholics, Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals, and the Pope. In short, I would be honoring nothing and insulting everyone.
What of those Catholics (few, I imagine, given my experiences in the Church) who are in between the points of boundaries, such as those who think you can be Catholic and worship Gods? What of those Pagans who believe that the words ‘Pagan’ and ‘Paganism’ should mean whatever their user wishes them to mean? At some point there needs to be a consideration on whose voice matters, why, and for what reason their words should be recognized as honest or dishonest, true or untrue, valid or invalid.
A layperson in the Roman Catholic religion may make all the pronouncements on Church doctrine that they wish, and for all they may articulate their position well, with full citations from accepted Church sources, they will not be an authority within the Catholic Church. A layperson has no power to set theology, doctrine, or ways of conducting oneself within that religion. Few forms of Christianity exist which allows their laypeople to have this authority.
If one is truthfully and honestly identifying themselves as a Catholic then, according to the doctrine of the Church, you are placing yourself under its authority. If one is to truthfully and honestly self-identify as a Catholic you cannot be anything other than a Catholic who adheres to the beliefs of the Church. These are part of the rules laid out by the communal body of the Church through its doctrines and theology. These are the rules that one accepts, even if one disagrees with them and is seeking change within the Church, as part of being identified as a member of the Church. You can personally identify as a Catholic, going to Church, and believing as you will, even being fully polytheist, and your feelings may be completely honest and true in and of yourself, that you feel that way and identify as a Catholic. However, it will not be honest or truthful in regards tobeing Catholic.
A Pagan operating purely from personal gnosis alone will likely not be accepted as any kind of authority within reconstructionist circles no matter how fervent their beliefs or powerful their experiences. A reconstructionist Heathen will probably not be an authority figure within British Traditional Wicca. Pagan communities already practice discernment as to whose identification is accepted, who is an authority figure, and who is part of the community’s in-crowd. However, it is seen as rude and/or outwardly hostile when one tries to apply any rubric of discernment in determining who belongs to the larger Pagan community.
At this moment, one can truthfully and honestly identify themselves as Pagan regardless of personal theology. Among a great many, one of the differences between the Christian and Pagan communities is that Pagan communities each have their own standards as to who belongs. Some of these standards may be so lax as to be nonexistent. Some Pagan communities have no standards of belief and/or practice whatsoever, accepting all comers to the identification. Others, by contrast, are quite strict in their definition of who belongs to their particular community, while others’ boundaries are quite porous while still having a core of adherence required. In the case of Paganism, as it exists right now, the only way to identify a Pagan is to have one identify themselves.
In order for Pagan to gain more substantive meaning it needs to be become more exclusive. Why should Pagans embrace exclusionary statements? If there are 30,000 or so (and growing) denominations of Christianity, why not follow suit and embrace as many variations of ‘Pagan’ as come to the term?
Christianity as a whole discerns between itself and other religions in its namesake and its theological position. To be Christian is to follow Christ. That marks it as different from other monotheist religions as well. It is exclusionary in its very name, demarking itself from all other religions in that Christ, regardless of what denomination one follows, is the head of the religion and that one is a follower of Christ. There is no such thing in Paganism. There is no positive differentiation between Pagans and other faiths. We are defined by negative differentiation, by not being Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Shinto, etc. In other words, we are not even self-identified.
The Pagan identity is all but completely constructed outside of our communities. There is no absolute baseline for belief as the term is used today. There is not even a requirement for belief in a God or a Goddess, let alone Gods or Goddesses. Nor are there requirements for even a belief in a spirit, let alone spirits. If the word ‘Pagan’ and ‘Paganism’ communicates essentially nothing in terms of belief within our own communities, and communicates little to nothing of our beliefs when used by other religions as an identifier, what good is it as a description for any belief, let alone an umbrella of them?
By contrast, there is a profession of belief in declaring oneself a polytheist. It is simple and direct: the belief in many Gods. Individual groups within the polytheist communities may have different standards of belonging, belief, right action, right practice, ethics, etc. but the uniting factor is that belief is actually involved and it is in many Gods. This definition excludes atheists, monotheists, monists, and others, but that is what makes it an effective word: it does not say ‘the belief in Gods if you can believe in Them’, or ‘the absolute belief that the Gods are x, y, z, etc”, merely that one believes that many Gods exist.
If ‘Pagan’, ‘Paganism’, and related terms are to be of use they must be more than negatively outwardly-defined. They must be internally defined, and, more importantly, positively defined with a clear meaning.