A Pagan Goes to the Wild Goose, Part One

Last month, I had the fantastic opportunity to attend the inaugural Wild Goose Festival down in central North Carolina, a gathering of progressive and emergent Christians interested in engaging with questions of social justice, peace, community, art and spirituality in a postmodern, multicultural world. I admit, as a Druid and a Pagan, I had my trepidations about attending a Christian festival — worries about what kinds of assumptions others would have about my own religious affiliation, anxieties about potential misunderstandings or miscommunications that could arise (although growing up Catholic and holding a degree in comparative religious studies, I’m reasonably well-versed in the unique ways Christians sometimes use language or make off-hand Biblical references) — but I resolved to set aside both my fears and my cynicism and attend the festival with as open a mind and as soft a heart as I could. I told myself that, if worse came to worst, I could always just imagine myself to be a curious and sympathetic anthropologist there to observe and take notes.

As usual, most of my anxieties were entirely unfounded. Yes, there were a few awkward references to how progressive Christians ought not to accuse other religious practitioners of “paganism,” as though there weren’t some of us who quite happily accept the Pagan name as a positive self-descriptor (it’s like saying Christians ought not to accuse others of being Jewish, like that’s a bad thing!). But besides these well-meaning if slightly uninformed remarks, the Wild Goose Festival provided a welcoming and safe atmosphere in which people of many different religious persuasions had a chance to dig more deeply into some truly challenging and controversial issues. (It also helped that my friend, author and speaker Carl McColman, seemed to get a particular joy out of introducing me and Jeff as “his Druid friends.”)

As so often happens with events like this, I spent a lot more time listening than I did taking notes (and, alas, absolutely no time taking pictures!), and perhaps more time thinking than I did listening, which continues to be the biggest stumbling block of both my intellectual and spiritual life! In the days since returning home, I’ve spent a lot of time re-collecting my thoughts and experiences from those four days and carefully organizing and annotating what notes and journal entries I did manage to jot down, in the hopes of writing up some half-way-coherent reflection on the festival to share here. Most especially, I wanted to explore the importance and value of interfaith work at festivals like the Wild Goose by asking myself what Pagans and Christians have to teach each other. In the end, I decided to boil things down into three short lists of three (because, yes, I am a Druid — we are all about the triads).

3 Things Christians Can Learn from Pagans | 3 Things Pagans Can Learn from Christians
3 Things Pagans and Christians Can Work On Together

I think most of my readers here are of the Pagan persuasion, and I’m hoping at least some of them haven’t gotten fed up with me because of the Christian-heavy focus of my recent posts. In order to appease those readers (hi there!), I thought I’d start out by talking about those things that I think Pagans really do well that we can offer as examples and challenges to Christians. If you’re a Christian who found your way here link-surfing blog posts about the Wild Goose Festival (welcome!), I hope that this post can offer you some insight and perspective from an “ex-insider outsider.” I have a feeling that some of you, even if you still walk a Christian path, can relate to that feeling of being on the fringe looking in. Finally, I really hope all of you will share your own thoughts and ideas and experiences, and that you’ll stick around for Parts Two and Three (especially Part Three, which is maybe the most important of all of them). So, without any more introduction….

3 Things Christians Can Learn from Pagans

1. Pagans can share with Christians a deeper understanding of the role of nature, wilderness and wildness in the spiritual life.

It’s hard to avoid thinking about nature when you spend four days camping out beneath the stars, sharing your space with trees, spiders, ticks, skin-baking sunlight and the occasional wandering chicken or guineafowl. The Wild Goose Festival opening ceremony welcomed the presence of the natural world, as participants were invited to bless each other with cool water and smear mud on each other as a reminder that “we are all connected to the earth, and we are connected to one another.” Talks focusing on environmental justice, sustainability and organic gardening peppered the four-day schedule of events, where speakers explored the connections between the laws, cycles and lessons of nature, and the legacy of Christian theology and liturgy which has so often been dualistic and world-denying.

On Thursday and again on Saturday, Lakota/Sioux “recovering evangelical” Richard Twiss grappled with questions of balance and integration, sharing his own personal experiences of colonialism that left him feeling disconnected and alienated from the indigenous traditions and myths of his people. On Friday morning, Christine Sine gave a lovely talk about the spiritual lessons to be learned in the garden — celebrating the cycles of the seasons and expressing gratitude and trust in the fecundity of the earth — ideas that would not have been out of place at any Pagan gathering. Towards the end of her presentation, Sine returned to the familiar Christian Parable of the Seeds, connecting it to the metaphor of organic composting and lamenting that Christianity has too often lacked a “focus on the soil” in its theology and ritual. Others at the festival agreed, including Rabbi Or Rose, who said during the Saturday afternoon Interfaith Panel that the next biggest challenge facing interfaith dialogue is a focus on conservation efforts and environmental justice.

It’s clear from much of the conversation at the Wild Goose Festival that Christians of all kinds and persuasions are seeking a renewed sense of spiritual connection to the natural world and the earth as our sacred home. Issues of environmental destruction and climate change weigh heavily on everyone’s minds, but even simple, everyday relationship with the land is becoming increasingly important to many Christians as well. Yet I noticed that speakers and participants alike often seemed unsure of how to reestablish and nurture that connection. Though they were able to articulate their sense of disconnection or alienation, there were few suggestions for practical steps to cultivating a sacred relationship with nature, and often the contradictory or problematic aspects embedded in traditional Christian theology went unnoticed or unaddressed.

Here is an excellent opportunity for those belonging to Pagan and earth-centered spiritual traditions to engage Christians in conversation about the role of the natural world in the spiritual life, and to challenge some of the assumptions that lurk beneath the surface of Abrahamic monotheism. What does it mean when we take our relationship with the earth seriously as an expression of spirit and sacredness? What do mythological and theological concepts like the Garden of Eden and the Fall really say about the Christian view of humanity’s place in the world, and how can Christians acknowledge, confront and, when necessary, challenge or change these views? How can a “universal” religion like Christianity ground itself more deeply in the seasonal expressions and experiences of the local landscape through its liturgy and ritual? Pagans have an important role to play in helping Christians answer these sorts of questions.

2. Pagans can remind Christians to view time as a cyclical dance, and not simply as a linear history.

Over the course of the festival, I attended several talks centered on the pressing question, “What next?” In a rapidly developing, globalizing world, Christianity is not immune to immense changes in community infrastructure and socio-political trends. Old institutions are falling by the wayside, shrugged off as archaic and irrelevant by younger generations even while more conservative believers “circle the wagons” and try to consolidate their power and influence. There is a sense among many liberal, progressive and emergent Christians that society is on the cutting edge of a whole new way of being in the world — and religion has to keep up, or risk becoming irrelevant.

In her Friday afternoon talk “What In This World Is Going On?”, editor and author Phyllis Tickle outlined her theory of the “Great Emergence”: that cultures stemming from, influenced by or colonized under latinized Christianity (that is, in short, most of what we call the First World) undergo a fundamental shift or transformation every 500 years. Later that evening, Doug Pagitt followed up with a discussion of the “Inventive Age” as the latest development in Western civilization (following the Agrarian, Industrial and Information Ages), and what such a shift means for people looking to build religious community over the next generation. On Saturday morning, founder and CEO of Patheos.com Leo Brunnick explored the approaching technological singularity and its role in shaping theological concepts in a presentation that one festival-goer described as “the most disturbing talk” he’d heard so far.

This linear approach to the “progress” of history was not limited solely to the developing trends of society, however. In his presentations on Friday and Saturday, Franciscan friar and contemplative Richard Rohr explored personal spiritual development through the first and second halves of life, citing Jung, the four life stages in Hindu culture, and Spiral Dynamics, among other concepts. In a spur-of-the-moment change to the program, the performance artist, philosopher and Christian “a/theist” Peter Rollins gave an impromptu lecture on his personal Christology, founded on theories of human development and individuation during the first few years of life. This focus on the linear nature of time is not at all surprising in a religion so grounded in a sacred sense of history, in which key historical persons and events act as the very vehicles of holy revelation. As Thomas Berry describes in his book, The Sacred Universe, Western religious traditions have often looked to the process of time as salvific, the expectation of a someday-future fruition or completion redeeming the necessarily fragmented and imperfect present moment.

By Saturday evening, however, the story of progress had begun to wear a little thin — something I’d anticipated to some extent in the days leading up to the festival. Doug Pagitt concluded his Friday evening talk by suggesting that, by and large, it would be later generations who would determine the shape of church community in the future, and perhaps the best we could do for now was to “get out of the way.” Richard Rohr seemed to fall into a habit of praising the virtues of the “Second Half of Life” as a time when we have freed ourselves from the ego and are finally able to ask the deeper questions that, he asserted, we are simply incapable of asking in our 30s and 40s (though always with the Seinfeldian caveat, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”). So here again the old Christian tension arises between belief in a redemptive future, and the restlessness and energy of an imperfect present.

In contrast to this focus on linear history, modern Pagan traditions look to an agricultural past that celebrates and consecrates time as an unending, cyclical dance through the seasons of the land and the ever-recurring stories of myth — as well as a modern scientific view that acknowledges human history as only a tiny fraction of the earth’s lifespan, a mere blip in a cosmological timeline so much greater than our ability to conceive that it may as well be infinite. If progressive and emergent Christians focus a bit too much on the question, “What next?”, Pagans can help balance this tendency with the equally important question, “What now?” (and maybe, every once in a while, with the question, “What, again?”). Certainly Christianity has its own ways of answering the question of how best to live in the present moment — contemplatives and mystics have engaged with that question for millennia — but it is far too easy to subsume that question into the more deeply rooted question of how what we do today can get us to the kind of future we want for tomorrow. Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Taoism have become increasingly popular in the West over the last century because they help to counterbalance this overly-linear focus. Modern Pagans have an opportunity to help Christians reconnect with their own Western roots in ancient, non-linear traditions, to remember the fullness of the present moment and to see it as a way of entering into relationship with wholeness and holiness.

3. Pagans can help Christians revive and restore a sense of enchantment and value in ritual and religious aesthetics.

Billed as a festival of “faith, justice, music and the arts,” the Wild Goose Festival engaged openly with questions of spiritual aesthetics right from the beginning. More than two dozen musical performances were spread throughout the four-day schedule of events, while on-going creative writing and collage work invited festival-goers to contribute their own voices and visions to community works of art and inspiration in the Making Art tent. Children scampered about the festival grounds decorated with facepaint, and each evening after dark, night-owl campers gathered to watch ground-breaking films and documentaries engaging issues of peace, social justice, spirituality and community. “Sacred Space” rituals throughout the weekend incorporated song, performance art, body movement and breath, including a stunning ceremony led by Lilly Lewin and Martin Poole in which participants wove together a rainbow tapestry of yarn and shared stories, transforming a tree near the main stage area into a “burning bush” of tangled colored threads and prayers. The artistic creativity extended to festival-goers themselves, many of whom expressed their sense of personal style through clothing and accessories (even despite the heat!) or decorated their campsites with tapestries, flags and ribbons.

In light of this eager engagement with the creative spirit, it might seem that Pagans have little to teach Christians about the value of ritual and aesthetics. Yet despite the wide variety of artistic expression and participation going on at the festival, there remained a distinct disconnect, even a discomfort, regarding the role of aesthetics as expressed through the music, storytelling and ritual of the weekend, and the Christian theologies that informed many of the festival participants and speakers. As a friend pointed out to me (because otherwise I wouldn’t have known), most of the bands and other musical performers were not known for being part of the “Christian music” genre, but were instead musicians who were Christian — an observation which led to a brief conversation about how overly-marketed and explicitly derivative “Christian music” tends to be in general. Kind-hearted jokes about the Catholic penchant for candles, incense and elaborate ceremonial outfits were not uncommon among presenters and festival-goers alike, and contemplative Catholics like Richard Rohr and Carl McColman were sometimes the quickest to point out during their talks and Q&A sessions how the “warm-fuzzy feeling” of aesthetically-pleasing ritual was not necessarily an indication of authentic religious experience and could even sometimes be a distraction from it.

One of the most overtly ambivalent responses to the question of sacred aesthetics and ritual that I witnessed came on Friday morning during Margot Starbuck’s talk, “Barbie, Skin Lighteners & Shame-based Advertising – Faith and Justice Transforming Women’s Body Image Obsessions.” Discussing the regret she felt when her young daughter expressed an interest in dyeing her hair, Margot Starbuck explained how she took this desire as a sign that her daughter wasn’t happy “just the way she was.” Later, when an audience member asked her about the role of “church dress,” she roundly declared that we should certainly rise above the antiquated obligation to wear anything other than our favorite jeans and most comfortable tee-shirt on Sunday, that we should attend religious services “just as we are.” As a poet and artist, I found myself wondering what exactly it means to come “just as you are” for the self-consciously creative human animal, so enchanted with the activity of self-expression and symbolic communication. (And as a soon-to-be stepmom of three young girls — one who dreams of being a pretty-in-pink princess while the other two can’t be bothered to wear matching socks — I found myself wondering if maybe Margot could rest a bit easier about her daughter’s personal sense of style.)

This apparent unease with the role of ritual aesthetics is not surprising. A solid majority of festival-goers belonged to or at least had personal roots in Evangelical and Protestant Christianity, which has traditionally tried to distance itself from what it has long viewed as the ornately ritualistic, even pagan leanings of the Catholic Church. Yet today, in what Doug Pagitt calls the “Inventive Age,” the creative urge is reasserting itself strongly among spiritual seekers, and this renewed sense of the power of aesthetics in ritual was everywhere evident at the Wild Goose — though, like the role of nature and environmentalism, that urge was often only haphazardly articulated. In this respect, Pagans have a great deal of insight to offer Christians about the process of integrating aesthetics and theology, and bringing both to bear on liturgy and ritual.

It was Ross Nichols — an early revivalist and arguably one of the most influential leaders of modern Druidry — who wrote that, “Ritual is poetry in the realm of acts.” Pagans today, who face the task of crafting new and meaningful traditions out of dusty academic tomes and the inspiration of personal experimentation, have devoted much of their work to the exploration of how ritual not only expresses but actually (re)creates the shared mythologies and theologies of both individuals and communities. Participants at the Wild Goose Festival showed sure signs of a similar kind of creative grappling and reinvention, and I found myself frequently amused, and sometimes bemused, by the festival’s aesthetic syncretism that seemed to draw (at times heavily) on familiarly pagan/Pagan sensibilities. (Not that Pagans have exclusive claim to drumming and intoxicated songs around campfires, or the ritual of decorating a central tree or pole with colorful, interwoven ribbons!) A more conscious conversation between Pagans and Christians about the role of ritual aesthetics can help Christians deepen their understanding of such creative activity, while navigating the murky waters of cultural appropriation and syncretism to discover how religious communities can express and embody their unique theologies in more integrated, authentic ways.

 


Coming Soon…

In my next post, I’ll look at 3 Things Pagans Can Learn from Christians, exploring issues of service and social justice, community cohesion and support, and spiritual authenticity.


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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