Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Elemental: Why We Are All Pagan

“My family is Jewish,” he said.

“My family is Protestant,” she said.

“But we’re pagan,” he continued, “and we want our wedding to have some pagan element.”

“Only we want it to be subtle,” she added. “We don’t want our families to feel uncomfortable.”

That was back in the day when I used to officiate at weddings as an interfaith minister. (For why I no longer do see “Mixed Marriage”)

“That’s simple,” I answered. “We’ll honor the elements.” A feature of most contemporary pagan rituals. “We all have to breathe. We all need light and warmth. We all stand on the earth that feeds and shelters us. We all need water to stay alive, whatever else we believe or don’t believe.”

The word pagan simply means country dweller, though many contemporary neo-pagans are urban dwellers as were many pagans in classical times. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, the designation came to describe anyone who was not a monotheist. Paganism isn’t really an “ism” at all. Pagan practices are specific to a time, place, and culture. Though Isis was at one time worshipped all over the Mediterranean world, and the Rites of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis drew pilgrims from everywhere, no pagan community or practice (to avoid the charged word cult) has ever been hailed as a world religion. Yet all so-called world religions have pagan roots and practices that vary from one region to another. All the world religions have splintered into sometimes violently opposing sects. They also continue to make war against each other, or their more extreme practitioners do.

So who needs religion? you might wonder, as you hum John Lennon’s “Imagine” under your breath. I am not going to answer that question beyond muttering: “Religions! Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em.”

Paradoxically in its particularity, attention to the local—this mountain, this river, this cycle of seasons—the pagan approach offers a way to recognize our commonality, not just with our fellow human beings but with all the life on this planet. For most of human existence, religious practice had to do with ensuring that there would be enough food, that resources would be preserved, that the gods (source) in the form of rivers, springs, mountains, soil would be honored and fed, replenished, so that the people would continue to thrive.

Whatever our religious beliefs, we know that we are made of the same elements as this planet. The sea is in our blood, the air is our breath, are bones are crystalline, the sun’s fire (in whatever form) warms us and fuels. Climate change, in which we play a role, has shifted the balance of the elements. Whether or not human agency is clear in every instance, we can’t help but be aware of elemental upheaval: tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, the devastating flooding in Pakistan, fires in the Western United States. We have put diverse ecologies at risk as we compulsively drill for what is in effect ancient sunlight. A huge glacier just broke away from Greenland, and the seas are rising.

Instead of regarding the elements as our enemies, something to harness, subdue, exploit or escape, maybe it is time to start honoring them again, restoring them, learning from them, aligning with them, recognizing that all life, not just our own, is sustained by the elements, of one substance with them. Maybe we all are pagan, urban and rural dwellers on this earth.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

We the People: Are We in Charge?

Last night my husband Douglas Smyth, who writes about politics and economics, mentioned Paul Krugman’s op-ed piece in the New York Times “Defining Prosperity Down” Krugman expresses concern that “those in power will soon declare that high unemployment is “structural” –a permanent part of the economic landscape.” Where is the public outrage at this cavalier government acceptance of high unemployment, my husband wondered? People, he said, have become so passive.

At which point, I became outraged. Who is passive I wanted to know? Aren’t many of us signing petitions and making phone calls to representatives almost daily? And before the invasion of the Iraq, didn’t people take to the streets in large numbers in almost every small town and city in the country not to mention the rest of the world? Don’t people organize and join boycotts? (I had just that day written to CEOs at Target who are now exercising their rights as a “corporate person” to buy elections.) Don’t people volunteer in the political campaigns of those they believe will make a difference? I make no claim to being a model activist. But I am not passive or indifferent, and I don’t believe that most people are no matter what their political stripe or lack thereof.

It is a time-honored axiom that those in power cannot govern without the consent of the governed. But I wonder if that is true. Along with many people, I keep saying no: no to our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, no to tax breaks for the wealthiest one percent, no to energy policies that insist on off-shore drilling with only a nod to alternative energy sources, no to the aforementioned Supreme Court decision, no to eliminating provisions that would provide jobs and extend unemployment benefits, no to cutting services to the working poor. No, no, no! I am not consenting. No!

In this country we pride ourselves on our freedom of speech; we exercise it relentlessly (on the internet, anyway). But who is listening? Our speech may be free, but it seems to have little power to move anyone in power. The problem, I believe, lies not with The People (who are not monolithic and probably never will be) but with the accountability and transparency of those in power. And who is in power, anyway: the elected officials or those who finance their campaigns? How do We the People hold our economic and political elite accountable? Voting? Petitioning? Lobbying? Demonstrating? Do these time-honored/worn methods still work?

At the end of his article, Krugman describes the public as angry not passive, but he calls the anger unfocused. That is an accurate observation. We don’t know where to direct effectively our anger, and anger can easily turn to blame and scapegoating. Honest anger can be manipulated by politicians for their own self-serving ends. Anger can be used by those in power to divide and conquer, and it has been over and over again. Anger can also be turned against the self and lead to shame and despair.

My own anger (directed against a husband who is a tireless activist and does not deserve my ire) stems partly from hearing people’s stories day after day. In my counseling practice, I accept whatever anyone can give, which is sometimes very little, and so I often hear stories of heroic struggle. Almost everyone these days is confronting not only personal problems but economic ones which in turn intensify the personal pain. Political or not, everyone is aware, however peripherally, that we as a nation, world and planet are in dire straits. I cannot fault The People, as I see him or her in their individual strength and weakness, beauty and pathos. But I can hope that that out of this collective crucible, in which our conventional structures and systems appear to be failing, compassion for each other and our common plight and cause may rise.