I have written about the value of words and meaning here and I think that the recent posts by P. Sufenas Lupus and Sannion hit the nail on the head.
Why am I so invested in the pop culture debate currently raging in Paganism?
Well, some of it has to do with the fact that I think conflating worship of fictional characters with my Gods is downright blasphemous. I’ll admit that straight out. You don’t have to agree with my position; it is what it is.
Rather than keep the conversation talking past each other, or spinning our wheels, let’s get to the point of this post. Anomalous Thracian talks here that words are losing their meaning because they’re being stripped of them. To quote Anomalous Thracian:
I want to address the bigger issue here, which is the overall misuse of words, the lack of “common ground” in conversations, and the entanglement of a thousand different topics as one “meta-topic” which is what fuels 100% of all fights and arguments in Paganism because these practices attack the very core of linguistic communion and expression: MEANING. A fundamental part of all communication must be an attempt to convey, achieve and establish greater collectivemeaning, otherwise it is purely about getting oneself off while looking longingly in the mirror that you’ve turned the internet into, striking all kinds of super-hero poses as you hammer out the dribble you call theology, debate, or “religion”. Religion itself, outside of the discussion of religion – which, by the way, is a real thing: religion outside of talking about religion does exist, if you shut up long enough to practice it! – is a thing that must orbit around the pursuit and exploration of meaning, which is a thing completely undone and undermined by using language and words that actually attack meaning. Directly.
Seriously, people. “I don’t think that word means what you think it means…”
I could not agree more, and it is why I push for concrete definitions and understanding where and when possible. I am not trying to dilute the numinous experience or cage a wild bird, so much as asking that we delineate the bird we’re watching from the sky it flies in from the tree upon which it lands. There are relationships, and each thing has an underlying connection to one another, but the bird, the sky, and the tree are definitively separate things. Words need to mean things or words like ‘God’, ‘Ancestors’, or ‘spirit’ lose all meaning. To quote V for Vendetta:
Words offer the means to meaning…
The Gods exist without our leave, understanding, worship, or influence. I do not know a polytheist for whom this is an untrue statement. It is a concrete article of believing in the Gods, in interacting with Them, and worshiping Them. This basic understanding is part of the foundation of polytheist understanding. It places the Gods, Ancestors, the spirits, and us humans in cosmology, in the Web of Life, and gives us meaning for our place in the Worlds and in relationship with all things. Without this notion of where we sit the cosmology essentially falls apart and all of the understanding of the Gods disappears in confusion. Think about it. If I was to claim I am a co-creator with my Gods, i.e. Odin, why would Ask or Embla need His breath to come to life? Why would my Ancestors matter at all? The very meaning of the Gods falls apart if for us in denying Their cosmological and mythic place, and Their fundamental relationships to us. The Gods will keep on being, will keep on doing what They will, even if we deny the meaning of the word ‘God’ or ‘Goddess’ and my Ancestors will still be my Ancestors even if I use another term wholly for Them.
In destroying meaning, in reducing words to whatever we want to be rather than what we are, we dilute the understanding we gain from words, and in so doing, reduce our ability to communicate effectively within our human communities and with our Gods. How? Try speaking another language. In German there are very rigid sentence structures, and some words in German can go on for a damned long time because of the convention of sentence and word formation. American English has seemingly dispensed with rigidity and in so doing words are harder to pin down, and accordingly, communication is more difficult. German is, for all its complexities (from my perspective as a non-native German speaker) more accurate in its speech and use of words than our American English. Factor this in with ‘words mean what I want them to’ kind of attitude, coupled with an open-source use of foreign words, sometimes without proper translation of the culture/subject matter, and you have a hodgepodge language that is hard to parse from the get-go and gets harder with actual use. Dig into theological concepts with this unwieldy shovel and the hole you dig may well be far wider and deeper (or haphazardly dug) than your original intent.
So when someone uses the word ‘fundamentalist’ to describe Pagans such as myself, polytheists who believe in the literal existence of the Gods, you have pretty visceral reactions from people. The word fundamentalism has a historical meaning according to Merriam-Webster: ‘a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching’ and a fundamentalist is a follower of these beliefs. With the plasticity of words the meaning has moved from this to any belief structure that is ‘a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles’ (ibid). In both cases applying the word to Pagans such as myself this word, fundamentalist, loses meaning.
When someone says “I worship Batman” and the response is “I do not believe that” even in rough terms, or an angry tone (or just outright venomous rage) that does not mean they are fundamentalist. It means that you do not like their tone or reacting negatively to their anger, both of which are understandable, but taking in the words of another in that direction, even if accurate, is not fundamentalism. Even when someone says “I worship Batman” and the response is “That is blasphemy in my religion, tradition, etc.” that is still not fundamentalism, but a statement of belief. Having baseline standards for a religious community is not fundamentalist. Those standards include standards of belief, praxis, relationship, roles for clergy/specialists, etc. Those standard differentiate a polytheist Pagan from a monotheist Catholic Christian. Heck, those baseline standards delineate one polytheist community from another, and Christian denominations from one another.
If I am a Wiccan, I believe v and x. If I am a Northern Tradition Pagan I believe y and z. If I am a Catholic Christian I believe j and k. These baseline beliefs can be added onto with other letters, but take out v and x for a Wiccan and the religion is no longer Wicca. Can a Wiccan be a polytheist and not a duotheist? Sure, so long as the religious belief system is accommodating to that with v and x left intact. Can a person be an atheist and a follower of the Northern Tradition? Absolutely not because the y is taken out. Again, this is not fundamentalist. Without y, a person cannot be a Northern Tradition. The y may be that you must be a polytheist in order to be a follower of the Northern Tradition. If you are an atheist you simply do not fit the criteria.
The ongoing debate between Pagan communities are part of figuring out where our boundaries lie. It is part and parcel of figuring out theology. It is part and parcel of figuring out who and what we are. We do not have to agree, and I count that as a blessing. I’m not interested in converting Wiccans, nor am I interested in converting Pagans who worship Pop Culture icons. Both are a waste of my time, an insult to them, and a waste of their time as well. What I am interested in is where my religious boundaries lie, where we are similar in thought, and where we definitely disagree on, and why. Our answers probably won’t be comfortable with one another; we are talking about our personal relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and the stories that have unfolded in our coming to these Beings and understanding. In some cases there is no translating between our varying beliefs because we either don’t have the existent structure, it does not translate due to theological differences, or we have not developed enough in one way or another to speak to another’s beliefs and experiences on a given topic.
I do not see this parsing as snobbery, but an unfolding of religious communities. That unfolding can be a damned raw experience. I know that some people will balk at my belief that the Gods are literally real, and they hold the idea that the Gods as archetypes makes the most sense. Yet no one has called a Council of Nicea to figure out just what is acceptable in Paganism as a whole, and that plurality is a good thing. I do not need to agree that atheists belong in Paganism if someone accepts them freely. That is your right as a follower, priest, etc. of that religious tradition. It is my right to say such a thing dilute the meaning of the word Pagan, and you in kind can disagree.
Saying something as a statement of belief does not mean snobbery or fundamentalism, but just that: a statement of belief. When I say something definitive, but for all the power, or lack there is in my ability to say something I will exercise that right to say it. You can disagree with me; that is your right. Just as it is the right of a tradition to determine beliefs, ritual behavior, praxis, and a whole host of other things that their religion considers sacred, impious, acceptable, and unacceptable. That is far afield from fundamentalism.