Holy Wild, justice

Why I Quit the Catholic Church

They say you can’t be neutral on a moving train, and if recent developments on the American political scene have demonstrated anything, it’s that the Catholic Church is a train headed in a pretty distressing direction: away from equality and social justice, and set on a collision course with the wall of separation between church and state.

As if the child abuse scandals from the last several decades and the complicity and cover-ups that seemed to reach to the highest levels of the Church weren’t enough, now there’s the crackdown on American nuns who, in their commitment to social justice and helping the poor, have been accused by U.S. priests and bishops of straying too far from sanctioned Church doctrine and not spending enough time denouncing feminists and gays. It’s also clear that pressure from Catholic religious leaders plays a large role in the Republicans’ “war on women” and some of the recent bills proposed to restrict access to birth control and health care for women, all in the name of religious freedom. For those of us who have been keeping an uneasy eye on the socially conservative, theologically strict and consistently anti-feminist Pope Benedict XVI since his appointment seven years ago, this most recent response of the Catholic Church really comes as no surprise.

And so it’s no real surprise that there’s push-back from atheists, secularists and humanists who’ve about had it with an antiquated, patriarchal hierarchy trying to actively interfere with the democratic processes of government. The anger and disgust is clear in a recent, full-page ad run in the Washington Post by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, asking “liberal” and “nominal” Catholics to quit the Church once and for all:

It’s time to quit the Roman Catholic Church. Will it be reproductive freedom, or back to the Dark Ages? Do you choose women and their rights, or Bishops and their wrongs? Whose side are you on? […] The Church that hasn’t persuaded you to shun contraception now wants to use the force of secular law to deny birth control to non-Catholics. You’re better than your church, so why stay? Why put up with an institution that discriminates against half of humanity?

The language of the FFRF ad is harsh, and in many ways it over-reaches when it turns from criticisms of the Church as an institution to mockery of religious belief in general. In an editorial response, E.J. Dionne writes that he is not planning on quitting the Catholic Church any time soon, and he dismisses many of the ad’s arguments as just the “usual criticism” that liberal Catholics face, saying:

Catholic liberals get used to these kinds of things. Secularists, who never liked Catholicism in the first place, want us to leave the church, but so do Catholic conservatives who want the church all to themselves.

I’m sorry to inform the FFRF that I am declining its invitation to quit. They may not see the Gospel as a liberating document, but I do, and I can’t ignore the good done in the name of Christ by the sisters, priests, brothers and lay people who have devoted their lives to the poor and the marginalized.

Like the FFRF ad, Dionne makes no distinction between the Church as an institution and Catholicism as a religion, and his commitment to the latter means that he’s a part of the former, come hell, high water, or anti-feminist disciplinary crackdown on the very sisters and lay people whom he credits for inspiring his Catholic faith.

But Dionne’s response weakens when he tries to tackle the most interesting challenge presented in the ad, the belief that liberals, by remaining part of the Catholic Church, can help change the Church from within:

If you think you can change the church from within — get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cell research — you’re deluding yourself. By remaining a “good Catholic,” you are doing “bad” to women’s rights. You are an enabler. And it’s got to stop.

With more than a little snark, Dionne calls out the ad for its overuse of unnecessary quotation marks and off-handedly dismisses the accusation of being an enabler almost as if he doesn’t know what enabling looks like (like, say, dismissing criticisms of destructive behavior on superficial grounds such as grammar or tone). Yet for all his disagreement, Dionne doesn’t offer a single practical way in which liberal Catholics can successfully challenge, from within, the extreme conservative direction that today’s Church is heading.

Dionne’s best attempt is to recall the somewhat-feminist leanings of Pope John XXIII, who wrote in a 1963 papal encyclical that “far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, [women] are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.” Yet in that same encyclical, Pope John XXIII wrote that while a man “has the inherent right not only to be given the opportunity to work, but also to be allowed the exercise of personal initiative in the work he does” — “women must be accorded such conditions of work as are consistent with their needs and responsibilities as wives and mothers.” Hardly the ringing endorsement of gender equality and self-determination for women that Dionne might lead us to believe.

But even if it were, his attempt to challenge the conservative Church from within consists of little more than “wishing” that Catholic bishops were more familiar with Pope John XXIII and “wondering” if the bishops realize how their anti-feminist stance strengthens the Church’s adversaries. Neither of these seem to be very effective or practical — let alone very compassionate towards women who have more at stake than whether or not Catholicism beats secularism in a popularity contest. Dionne himself acknowledges that these are by no means new criticisms of the Church, but fails to wonder why such criticisms are on-going if the liberal challenge from within were really all that effective. All the more discouraging is that American women religious, who might be the best example of liberal Catholics challenging the Church from within its own ranks, are getting a very real taste of how Church leadership responds when that internal challenge becomes too effective and wide-spread.

In the end, Dionne never actually addresses what is perhaps the most important point of the FFRF ad. Much of the Church’s political power derives from the sheer number of Catholics who count themselves members of the Church even when Church leaders do not really represent their views at all. In fact, representing the views of lay Catholics isn’t even in the job description. The Catholic Church is not, and never has been, a representative democracy.

Politicians looking to score votes and gain support see one massive block of well-financed power consolidated in the hands of a few conservative male leaders who dictate religious doctrine and ethics for millions. They form political alliances and propose religiously conservative legislation with that view of the Church in mind…. and they do so because, for the most part, it works.

One example of why it works is the Manhattan Declaration. Sponsored by conservative Christian leaders back in 2009, it was intended to “rejuvenate the political alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals that dominated the religious debate during the administration of President George W. Bush” and to call President Obama’s attention to the “formidable force” that this conservative religious alliance has in pushing for anti-women and anti-gay legislation. As of today, the Manhattan Declaration has more 525,000 signatures.

A similar petition proposed by liberal Christians to counter the Manhattan Declaration and to affirm support for equal rights for all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation…. sputtered to a pathetic halt with less than 3,000 signatures.

This is too often what Catholic liberal resistance looks like. Trying to stay neutral on a moving train.

~~~

Though my own journey away from the Catholic Church culminated in a definitive break more than eight years ago, when it became known that a close family friend had suffered from on-going sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a trusted Catholic priest, my journey began much earlier than that. My devotion to the ideals of Christ — peace, social justice, care for the poor and the marginalized, the law of love — led me in search of a deeper spiritual authenticity that, according to the standards of today’s Catholic Church, had led me far astray from sanctioned Church doctrine long before I ceased to call myself Catholic.

In many ways, the Catholic Church abandoned me years before I finally woke up to the fact and left of my own accord. For years, I struggled with the feeling of being a solitary Catholic liberal crying out in the wilderness. Like Dionne, I felt beleaguered by atheists and secularists on the one side of me, criticizing Catholicism for being a monolithic monstrosity of backwards-looking conservative patriarchy, while on the other side of me were many of my fellow Catholics striving to make the Church exactly that. I braced myself against the notion of being an example of everything that a Catholic could be — open-minded, intelligent, and feminist while still being devoted to the basic teachings of the Church.

But eventually, the cognitive dissonance and the sense of betrayal were too much to bear. Unlike Dionne, I am a woman — and for that reason alone, no matter how devoted I remained to the church, I would never be welcomed into the halls of power. The efficacy of my “challenge from within” was inherently and irrevocably restricted. And though I valued loyalty and honored the traditions of my family deeply, I also came to realize that one of the Catholic Church’s most basic teachings — the teaching on which the whole damn structure hangs — is that hierarchy and inequality are divinely sanctioned.

I didn’t leave the Church because I no longer believed in Christ, or the sacred mystery of love, or the importance of religious community, or the valuable insights from Catholic theologians, saints and mystics in the past. I left because I no longer believed in the Church as a just or ethical socio-political institution. As my brilliant stepdaughter recently pointed out, “You don’t give any one leader a lot of power just because he seems like a good guy, because you never know whether or not the next one who comes along is also going to be good.” We didn’t reject monarchy in favor of democracy because all kings were bad; we rejected it because the political institution of kingship was itself an opportunity for abuse and injustice.

The same theology of hierarchy and patriarchy that buttresses the current institution is also the reason why Dionne is not, despite what he apparently imagines, participating in a democratic and representative religious community in which liberals and conservatives vie for influence. Dionne might appeal to the slightly more liberal views of previous Popes, but the fact is, as a lay Catholic he has no part in the process of choosing who the next infallible leader of his religion will be. The Catholic Church is not an institution steered by consensus. Conservative Catholic leaders are in power: they’re laying the tracks and they’re at the wheel. Liberal Catholics are little more than passengers on this train and they will, as American nuns are now discovering, one day face the angry countenance of the conductor demanding to see their tickets.

~~~

This was a difficult piece to write. Many of my closest friends, not to mention family members, are Catholics, and I hold great sympathy for those who have remained members of the Church despite the scandals and abuses over the years. They possess a degree of devotion and loyalty that is admirable.

My hope is that their devotion is not misplaced. That they do not make an idol of the institution. That they have the wisdom to see the difference between Catholicism as a faith, and the Church as a socio-political construct, and that they do not compromise the one for the sake of up-holding the other. My hope is that they follow the example of their sisters and women religious, rather than the examples of their priests and bishops. And to be honest, I hope that, in doing so, they will dismantle and remake the Church as we know it.

Because if they don’t, the Catholic Church will die, because it deserves to die. And a great tradition will be lost.

Holy Wild, News & Announcements

A New Podcast on Nature Spirituality: Faith, Fern & Compass

If it seems like I’ve been rather quiet here lately, that’s because I’ve been making a lot of noise over at Faith, Fern & Compass, a new podcast project launched earlier this month. I’m super excited about the project, and I’ve been putting in long hours for the past several weeks to get the website up and the first few preseason episodes out!

So what’s Faith, Fern & Compass, anyway?

It’s not just a podcast. It’s a challenge.

  • A challenge to live more gently and attentively with the fierce joy, quiet sorrow and wild love of the earth.
  • A challenge to reconnect with ourselves and with one another in a time of rapid technological progress and cultural change.
  • A challenge to honor the ancient wisdom of the past while nourishing our sacred roots in the present and looking forward to the unfurling future.

Each week, we invite you to join us as we explore the challenges of nature spirituality in the digital age through ecology, art, politics and interfaith conversation. Become part of a growing community of spiritual seekers and creative contemplatives finding guidance in the wellsprings of personal experience, soulful relationship and the dark green tones of earth-centered spiritual practice.

Faith, Fern & Compass is an interfaith podcast rooted in love for the earth and hope for the future. I am just so thrilled to be working on it, and I hope all of you who read this blog will go check it out!

The official first season starts on May 2nd, but there are already some episodes available on the website — or you can subscribe on iTunes.

You can find out more about the podcast here and here.

Holy Wild, justice

I am a Conscientious Objector in the Spiritual War

I am deeply troubled by the noise and rancor being stirred up in the Pagan community right now. My heart will not let me rest. I see good people who are normally perceptive and insightful being caught up in a “spiritual war” with an eagerness that makes me sick to my stomach. I have tried here to articulate why this bothers me so much.

In part it is because I am not, by inclination and philosophy, eager for war. I despise war. I resist it with every fiber of my being. I seek relationship and engagement, and war is in many ways the opposite of these, the twisted distortion of these. Violence is the rejection of relationship, the diminishment of the enemy into the faceless Other. That is not what I want. So it troubles me to see us so ready to go to war, even a “spiritual war”… almost as though we have been just waiting for an enemy to come along and justify our anger and our power.

I am also troubled because, despite my skepticism that such a thing is ever really possible (or perhaps because of my skepticism), I hold to the idea that it is important to preserve “the wall of separation between church and state” — as much as we are able to, at least. This is not an easy task or one we can take for granted. As human animals, we are inclined to idolize and elevate those in power, to invest religious significance in ritual and tradition, to seek patterns of spiritual meaning in social and political activities and events. This is natural. The task of preserving a secular government is one that requires constant vigilance, a careful and critical eye turned not only on those who seek overt religious hegemony, but on ourselves and our own motives as well. My understanding of the “separation of church and state” is that it applies to Pagans as well as Christians.

And yet we have Pagans advocating worship of Columbia as patron goddess of the nation — while denouncing Christianis who would rather see Christ as patron god.

There are Pagans claiming that the Constitution is a holy text — while deriding Christians who would rather base government on the Bible.

There are Pagans even going so far as to say that political figures of the past should be elevated through worship and reverence to the place of gods, and political figures of today should be seen as priests — while decrying Christians who want to claim that the country’s founders intended a Christian nation and demand politicians to pass a religious litmus test.

Some Pagans call on gods of vengeance, war and nationalism alongside those of liberty to support their cause — while condemning Christians who see Christ as the “Commander in Chief” of an army of righteous Christian soldiers.

These Pagans are doing this in the name of the “religious tolerance and freedom” of Columbia (who was an early propaganda device named after a man who helped to perpetuate the enslavement and genocide of the native people of this land) — their Christian counterparts claim what they are doing is based on the love and mercy of Jesus (who even in their own holy text is depicted as being explicitly against religious empire).

Both groups justify their actions with a claim that basically boils down to “we are not like you, and our god is better than yours.” Make no mistake — when you make offerings of corn and tobacco to Columbia in the name of “religious tolerance” in the same breath as you address her as “patron goddess of our government,” when you insist that it’s okay for her to be a patron goddess because she is a goddess of freedom and tolerance — the message you are advocating is that “separation of church and state” only applies to “dangerous” religions and intolerant gods, not to your own. Is this the message you want to send?

The parallels continue.

Both groups are using prayer and magic to “bring light and understanding” to those who disagree with them, but make no qualms about utilizing images and metaphors of war to do so.

Both groups are seeking to protect what they see as their threatened existence by what they imagine is a shadowy enemy whose presence is hard to pin down, whose numbers may be much bigger (but are likely much smaller) than they suspect and who are secretly influencing people in power through occult and other means.

Both groups insist that the threat is real and imminent, that the evidence of such a threat is everywhere — even in events and the actions of people who have no direct or obvious connection to the feared enemy.

Both groups insist that a grounded spiritual life of integrity that guides practical political and community action is not enough to stop this shadowy threat, and both groups equate less drastic responses than outright spiritual warfare with “passivity,” ignorance and denial.

Both groups use prayer and protest – both perfectly legal and constitutionally-protected activities – to exert their influence and promote their interests, while trying to suggest that when the other group does the same what they are doing is illegal, unethical and dangerous.

This is an ugly, fear-driven side of the Pagan community that gives me as much cause to worry as the right-wing Christian fundamentalists do.

Draw a line in the sand.
What kind of line will you draw in the sand?
We have a rare chance to shape the future of Pagan/polytheist culture with an awareness of the mistakes made in the past. Isn’t this, after all, why we honor our ancestors and respect the lessons of history? We have seen how seemingly innocuous influences in the early stages of the development and evolution of a New Religious Movement can quickly grow to become entrenched prejudices and twisted justifications for violence against those who are different. We have the chance to remember and learn from how those mistakes were made, to recognize those same potentials in ourselves, and to do our best to avoid them. Instead, I worry that we are too eager to make those same mistakes again, to invite a mythology of victimization and on-going spiritual warfare into the foundations of our Pagan traditions, to perpetuate a story that subscribes to the same tired “us versus them” duality that many of us were trying to escape when we left Christianity behind.

Believe me, I am the first to advocate for interfaith outreach and to support the cause of social justice, as well as both the freedoms and the responsibilities that go along with it. But of all people, magic-workers ought to know that intentions matter. What will be the result if we make our interfaith work part of a campaign in the spiritual war against “certain kinds of Christians”? What will be the result if we make our social justice work contingent upon our fears, anxieties or righteous rage against an enemy? We have seen where this path leads.

And if we are too eager to stir up hype and heat, and to dismiss a strong, centered presence and a broad, dispassionate perspective as mere “passivity,” we risk forfeiting the very context, knowledge and spiritual grounding that will help us choose rightly and work effectively.


UPDATE: In response to criticisms from some readers, I’ve compiled a list of references and citations. It can be found in the Meadowsweet Commons, here.

Holy Wild, peace

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.

Holy Wild, News & Announcements

“What Makes a God,” A Myth Retold and More!

It’s always nice to return home after a time away to discover you have a small pile of exciting news to share!

Publications

Firstly, my poem “What Makes a God” appears in the most recent issue of Eternal Haunted Summer, just in time for the summer solstice. This issue is full of wonderful poetry, short stories and essays by a variety of Pagan writers, and well worth checking out!

Also, I’ve just received word that my short story, “Yewberry,” has been accepted for publication in the upcoming anthology of Pagan fiction, The Scribing Ibis, due out later this fall from Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The piece is a modernized/surreal retelling of the Dream of Aengus from the perspective of Caer Ibormeith, the swan maiden (whose name means “yewberry”). I’m excited and honored to have my work included in this project, and I’ll definitely be sharing updates and information as the release date for the anthology approaches!

Mentions Around the Web

I was more than a little surprised and flattered (and probably blushing!) when this weekend I had a chance to meet Mike Morrell, publicity coordinator of the Wild Goose Festival, and he already knew who I was. Turns out he’d really liked my post on Chasing the Wild Goose and decided to share it on the Wild Goose Festival’s Facebook and Twitter pages. (Later, we ran into an old friend of Carl’s who said she was hoping to meet the Pagan who’d written that post, and I felt like a minor celebrity! Happily, hearing folks like Carl, Brian McLaren and Patheos.com founder and CEO Leo Brunnick talk about readership and lecture attendance numbers was quickly and thoroughly humbling.) I think it’s a pretty good sign of our progress and pluralism as a nation when a Christian festival is not only welcoming to Pagans in attendance, but actually brags about them!

And finally, it turns out that my blog has been June’s Featured Site on The Druid Network‘s homepage for the entire month! (They describe me as “one of the prolific pagan bloggers around” — which makes me chuckle a bit, since I really have been trying to scale it back these days.) Thanks so much to TDN for the support!

Drop Me a Line!

It’s always awesome to find out that my writing is being shared and discussed around the web, and I love sharing the link-love in return. But despite my best efforts (i.e. a passing knowledge of how to use Google alerts), I don’t always catch the latest pingbacks and conversations.

So I want to hear from you! My writing is one of the ways I engage most honestly and deeply with my community, and it’s important to me to know how that writing is received. As a craftsperson who sees writing as a skill to be honed and refined, I am always hungry for feedback from readers and peers. Also, let’s face it, writers can be a bit neurotic — we can be shy, introverted, socially awkward, and a bit too eager to please. Hearing from readers, fans and fellow writers helps us to feel connected and to stay grounded.

So if you have a response or review about my work, I would love to hear from you! You can share your comments and critiques directly with me on my contact page, or by visiting the Meadowsweet Commons. If you’ve written a longer response or review of some of my work, I’m happy to share the link-love as well!

Holy Wild, peace

Catching the Wild Goose: Thanks and First Thoughts

After camping for four days straight at the Wild Goose Festival down in steamy, sunny North Carolina, my body almost rebells against the cushy bed, the hot shower and the dry, still air-conditioned air. I was getting used to the delicious feel of sweat and sun on my skin, sharing my home with spiders and trees, and waking to the sound of birds and snoring neighbors at dawn. I do believe camping is good for the soul.

The Wild Goose Festival was a wonderful, welcoming and challenging event for Jeff and me, and we’re both very grateful for the hard work and vision all of those staff members and volunteers who helped organize and run the festival this year. And of course, the weekend wouldn’t have been complete without great friends to share it with (you know who you are!) and new friends to be made (hi again, if you’re reading!).

But perhaps most importantly, festivals like The Wild Goose remind me of how important it is to reach out to folks of other spiritual traditions and make those connections.

This morning, catching up on news I missed while away from the computer over the past several days, I came across several mentions of Christians taking it upon themselves to preach or pray against the “evils of paganism.” These news stories are so deeply at odds with the kind of thoughtfulness, acceptance and good faith I witnessed over and over again at the Wild Goose Festival. Even during those times when a certain amount of Christian favoritism did crop up, it was still clear that festival-goers and speakers alike were well aware of their own limitations and potential biases and were actively struggling towards greater understanding while still remaining anchored in the integrity and authenticity of their own tradition(s).

These are the kinds of Christians that we as Pagans need to be reaching out to and connecting with, rather than spending our time complaining about (and so giving more attention to) every petty slight from the Christian Right. These are the folks who are not only open to our presence, but curious and encouraging and supportive of diversity in ways that would make even some Pagans blush (and hopefully, try harder). We have as much to learn from such Christians as we have to teach, and it is that reciprocity and mutual benefit that really makes interfaith work so essential.

I’ll definitely have more to say about my experiences and ponderings of the past weekend (at least one more blog post, if not several!), but today will be a necessary day of catching up on mundane work around the home and home-office. Which is good, since I’ll probably need more than a single night’s sleep to process everything and be able to write about it with any semblance of sense. So stay tuned for more — and in the meantime, go find your friendly neighborhood Christian and invite them to lunch. As Rabbi Or Rose said on Saturday, interfaith work is all about building relationships.

Featured, Holy Wild, peace

Chasing the Wild Goose

While many Pagans are off celebrating and rubbing elbows at the Pagan Spirit Gathering this week, Jeff and I will soon be heading down to North Carolina to attend the Wild Goose Festival, a Celtic-flavored festival of “justice, spirituality, music and the arts.” We’ll have a chance to attend all sorts of talks and performances focused on themes of social justice and peacemaking rooted in contemplation and the mystical-spiritual life — not to mention, seeing familiar faces and renewing friendships that first grew out of my visit to Northern Ireland last summer. Needless to say, we are psyched!

But we’ll also be testing the boundaries of this festival, and having our own boundaries tested as well. Though the Wild Goose Festival is open to everyone regardless of religious tradition or denomination, it is unabashedly “rooted in the Christian tradition” and has been getting press lately as the Next Big Thing in the progressive Christian movement in the United States. So although I’m very excited and looking forward to our time down in North Carolina, I’m also a little nervous about what my place will be and how Jeff and I will fit in as Druids. It seems more than a bit ironic that my first major festival event as a Pagan will be a Christian one.

Where Christians and Pagans Meet

I find myself thinking a lot about interfaith conversation and the relationship between Paganism and Christianity these days, in the wake of online debates about who counts as Pagan and especially the contemplations of Quaker Pagan and friend, Peter Bishop, after his return from visiting Quaker mission hospitals in Kenya this spring. Peter echoed a sentiment that I felt after my trip to Northern Ireland last summer when he said in a recent blog post, “If I’d known someone like that when I was 22, it’s possible I’d still be Christian.” Writing about discovering a passage renouncing fundamentalism in the Freedom Friends Church’s text, Faith and Practice, Peter confessed:

It comes a bit late for me. I’ve found other paths to God, first as a Wiccan and Pagan, and more recently as a liberal, non-Christian Quaker. But it’s surprising how powerful I still find that renunciation. And how angry it makes me, even today, that no one anywhere in the Christian Church had the balls to say that in 1981.

What’s interesting for me was that there were folks saying this kind of thing when I was that age. At 22, I was just on the other side of a long transition from my childhood Catholicism to my adulthood spirituality as a Druid, which included more than a year exploring the murky, liminal waters of Norvicensian Witchcraft based on the teachings of Catholic saints like Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen. My Catholicism had always been what folks today are calling “progressive Christianity,” steeped in the poetry and aesthetics of mysticism and ecstasy and wild(er)ness while also deeply concerned with social justice, peacemaking and solidarity with the marginalized and disenfranchised. The Christianity I left behind when I formally committed myself to the Druid path was not fundamentalist or oppressive, at least certainly not the way many Christians and ex-Christians have described their traditions. As I’ve written before, my desire to leave Catholicism was less about my need to escape, and more about my need to explore. Yet even while I was deepening my exploration and contemplation, the Catholic Church was growing increasingly conservative, dogmatic and anti-feminist. It would be impossible for me to go back now. That bridge has been burned, and not by me. Catholicism today is not the same as the Catholicism I left behind.

The way certain Christian communities and traditions have made such a pronounced veer towards the conservative right in the last decade is in part responsible for the deliberate resistance among other Christians that has coalesced into the “progressive Christian movement.” Even Patheos.com has acknowledged this shift by introducing a separate “Progressive Christian Portal” — for those involved recently in discussions about the diversity of the Pagan/polytheist umbrella, as though it were inherently more diverse or more pluralistic than the Christian umbrella, this should give us pause. We would be remiss to overlook the tensions that exist within Christianity today, or to ignore potential allies and teachers among those who think of themselves as progressive Christians.

On Progress and Devotion

One of those allies and teachers, my friend Carl McColman, returned to Christianity after seven years as a practicing Pagan. During our time together in Northern Ireland last August studying Celtic spirituality and peace process, we would joke with each other: Echoing the sentiment captured in Peter’s words recently, I’d observe that if I’d known more Christians like him and the others on retreat with us, I might never have become a Pagan, and he would rejoin teasingly that if more Pagans were like me, he might not have turned to Catholicism.

The truth is, I often feel as though I have much more in common with “progressive Christians” than I do with some of my fellow Pagans. This is a sentiment that I think lies behind a lot of recent discussion about the usefulness and accuracy of the name “Pagan” for our tradition, especially for those of us who place value on interfaith outreach. Many Not-Pagan pagans feel they have more in common with Hindus, Buddhists and those of indigenous spiritual traditions. For me, grounded firmly in modern American society (with all its contradictions and struggles unique to this culture), the devotion, compassion, enthusiasm and ideals that inspire progressive Christians to explore issues of peace and justice with such passion and commitment, the sense of humility and gratitude and service that make the foundation for both their mundane work and their spiritual lives — these are things I can relate to much more deeply than the quest for the next best meditative technique or nitpicking over the historical accuracy of this or that folk tradition.

Yet I also agree with Carl when he writes about his ambivalence towards labels like “progressive Christian”:

A few days back [Chris Glaser] suggested that progressive Christians are the mystics of our time. Even though if I had to take a test I’d probably end up with “Progressive” tattooed across my forehead, this kind of language makes me nervous. As soon as we start talking about “progressive Christians,” we are setting up some sort of dualism between progressives and, well, regressives. If you don’t think the right way about human sexuality, or economic justice, or peacemaking, or environmental concerns, well, then, you don’t get to join the “progressive” club. So as soon as we start talking about progressives, we have insiders and outsiders. But that flies in the face of mysticism, which is all about transformative levels of consciousness where categories like “inside” and “outside” fall away.

I have my own ambivalence about the word “progressive” — and it stems, at least in part, from my bone-deep commitment to conservation, memory and ancestor-wisdom as important aspects of my spirituality. In a culture quite enamored with its own “progress,” we can sometimes be too quick to rush on ahead to the next promising solution shining on the horizon, too quick to forget the lessons of history and, more importantly, the lessons of nature and the earth so much more ancient than we can possibly imagine. Though, like Carl, I would probably be first in line for a “Progressive” tattoo, it’s difficult to think of my Paganism as “progressive” when so often it feels instead like digging in my heels, sinking my fingers into the dark, solid earth and holding on for dear life. My commitment to peace, social and environmental justice, the intrinsic value and honor of every being, the sacredness of freedom, responsibility, love, service and beauty — so often these feel less like “progressive” goals and more like anchors, sturdy stone outcroppings to which I’m clinging against the relentless pull of a raging river, my only sense of gravity in a reckless mainstream plunging headlong off the coming cliff into a free fall. To me, these are not values that make me “progressive” — they’re simply what it means to be a Druid.

So I know what Carl means when he says something very similar about what it means to him to be a Christian. And I suspect that plenty of folks who earn the “progressive” label might say the same. The daily work of the “religious progressive” is not really about progress at all — it’s about love and trust, it’s about honor and devotion, and it’s about hope. Which is why, regardless of what religion we belong to, it’s important that we get together to support each other and affirm the work we are doing. It’s important that we create sanctuaries where, for a little while anyway, we can find relief from the pressures that push and pull at us and threaten to drag us off-center, and instead celebrate our sense of shared purpose, relaxing into centeredness with joy and gratitude.

Yet within these sanctuaries, I think we will also discover something of even greater importance: that we are not all the same. Carl muses over the strange paradox that he is “trying to establish a Christianity identity that is at variance with those Christians whose identity as Christians is all about identity” — and this, too, is familiar to me as a Pagan whose sense of Pagan identity is not “all about identity” but much more about service and rootedness and devotion to the earth. But despite this familiar oddness, I also know that our journeys will be very different. Carl’s process for discovering, along with his community, what this new understanding of Christian identity means for him and others will take him in directions that are very different from where my own process of deepening and community outreach might lead me. Though we share many of the same anchors — justice, peace, art, beauty, service — our centers of gravity are not the same.

And this is a wonderful thing! When we can help one another resist the overwhelming, on-rushing pressures of mainstream culture, when we work together to create a better freedom in which to live, we give each other and ourselves permission to sing our own unique melodies as part of the wild beauty of the World Song, and to dance, spiraling each around our own centers, in harmony with that music. While Carl ponders the ironic dualism of trying to distinguish between duality and non-duality, and how such language falls away (or is transcended) through a mysticism of union… I’m turning and dancing around a different center, subsuming dualism into a mysticism of diversity, celebrating the sublimity and awe of pluralism and difference. Though it might seem strange, and against the common usage of the word, to talk about different “kinds” of mysticism, what’s important is to understand that at the heart of any mysticism is Mystery. It is in the pursuit of and devotion to such Mystery — in our common work for justice, beauty and peace — that we find ourselves meeting and parting, meeting and parting again. That is the nature of the Dance.

The Wild Goose

Even knowing this, though, parting can be difficult. I said that I can relate to what Peter wrote about being angry that he didn’t know any “progressive Christians” when he was 22, even though I knew plenty of such Christians when I was that age. The truth is, I am a Druid today precisely because I did know Christians like that, people who were loving and supportive and open, who encouraged me to discover my own center and follow my own passion and love to their source. Last summer while on retreat in Northern Ireland, I realized once again that the supportive presence of such Christians actually helps me to be a better Pagan. We do not need to be centered in the same conception of Spirit or God to be able to support and inspire one another.

And yet, none of that changes the fact that I am not a Christian, and they are not Pagan. At the end of the day, the dance turns again, the melody changes, and we go our separate ways… And I do feel frustrated sometimes — frustrated by the separation that comes with knowing I do not share their gods or their practices and they do not share mine, frustrated that this is true even of many Pagans I know, and that it often seems so difficult to find similar sustenance and support from other Pagans when my attention turns to deepening my work in my own spiritual community. Frustrated that I should be “weird” even to the weird ones, that I should find that the truer I am to my own center and the more devoted to embracing my own place in the land and the community of Spirit, the more it seems I am forever having to relearn the hard lessons of loneliness, forgiveness and release.

But this is the nature of the Dance, and the nature of the World Song is to rise and fall, turn and spiral between sound and silence. I remember reading Natalie Goldberg’s advice, passed on from her Buddhist teacher, that we will always be lonely whenever we do anything deeply, and that the sting of loneliness cannot be lessened — but it is only loneliness, after all.

So I expect there will be times at the Wild Goose Festival when I will feel lonely or strange, when I will feel my boundaries pushed or my assumptions tested — but then, this is part of transformative work and what makes interfaith work so important to begin with.

I think there is power in the metaphor of the “Wild Goose” — An Geadh-Glas — the name in Celtic Christianity for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, after all, that Person of the Trinity which is the indwelling Spirit in all things, the immanence of the divine in the world itself. She is the balance and compliment to the transcendent God-the-Father. She is the fire of inspiration, the creative power of eros, the source and sustainer of community, the untamable wildness of hope. When we go on a “wild goose chase,” we can feel that we’re going in circles, spiraling silly around that which is elusive and mysterious.

Still, I remember one cold winter afternoon just before dusk, going out alone into the woods to pray to my gods. I stood listening for a long time, the quiet of snowfall and the rasping of my breath the only noises in the silence… Until a cry of aching beauty echoed through the gray mist of snow, and looking up I saw parting the low clouds the dark-wedged bodies of wild geese passing like lonely shadows above the bare limbs of the trees.

I can’t help but think that my Celtic ancestors knew this about the Wild Goose, too — that those who follow her follow her into loneliness and sorrow, listening to her keening echoing over the solitude of the wilds. This is always the case when we chase the spirit and divinity within ourselves, when we seek to reach more deeply and to connect more lovingly with the world.

But it’s only loneliness, after all.