Why We Do Pagan Studies

During my first semester of graduate school, I was told a cautionary tale. It was about a Christian pastor who went back for a PhD in religious studies. But one day he had had enough. He stood up from the seminar table and exclaimed, “That’s my Jesus you’re talking about!”

The pastor’s reaction is the typical believer/practitioner one. He expected his advanced studies to “strengthen his faith,” perhaps.  He resisted setting aside his Christian truth claims, “bracketing them out,” to use the common expression.

Read this post at the Religion in American History blog about an attack on a professor of Catholic Studies who criticized the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The comments, thus far, are intelligent.

The problem, however, is a constant one—even between Pagan practitioners (I don’t like the term “believers”) and scholars in Pagan Studies, who are indeed mostly but not all Pagan practitioners themselves, in some way, shape, or fashion.

Religious studies is not-theistic, nor is it atheistic. But it is not theology. There is some tension between the two approaches. (I should point out that the AAR includes theologians too, although some think that the academy is plagued by dangerous religious liberalism.

(On a somewhat bookish online discussion group someone recently claimed that scholars in Pagan Studies pursued their intellectual interests only to gain stature within the Pagan community. Not hardly. For every fan that you may gain, there probably is someone else ready to denounce you as an enemy of true Paganism.)

For instance, when I wrote Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America, one of the question that I wished to attempt to answer was, “What do we (Pagans) mean when we talk about nature religion.”

You will get a different view with a different “we” if you read Bron Taylor’s  Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future.

So if I were revising Her Hidden Children (I have no plan to do so), I would have to take his ideas into account. The conversation would continue. Not that I am right and he is wrong, or vice versa, but I would have to sort out the differences and similarities, intellectual influences (e.g., he gives Henry Thoreau much more space than I do), and so on, because I think that Dark Green Religion is a significant book, and it would be a glaring omission to ignore it now.

These are just two books, against the flood of practitioner-oriented texts coming out from Llewellyn and other publishers.  And neither I nor Bron (so far as I know) are teaching workshops on “How to be a better nature-religionist,” complete with breathing exercises, movement, and song. Other people could do that much better. Audiences want to hear a speaker with a schtick.

We do what we do because we like to think about these things, trying to find paths through the intellectual underbrush.  (“Eliade used to go up the hill this way. Is that path still useful?”)

Meanwhile, you learn to argue whether there is such a thing as “religion,” even while continuing to use the term.

5 Comments

  1. Pitch313 says:

    Taking, for this comment, an “insider” outlook, I think that Pagan Studies may be useful and informative for those who are the subjects–and, importantly, the informants–of Pagan Studies. That is, Pagan Studies and those who are Pagan Studiers may reveal or hint to the Pagans on the ground certain qualities, features, processes, trends, or subcultural contents that the Pagans on the ground had not, or choose not, to notice.

    One reason, that is, that I endorse Pagan Studies and take a shot at them myself involves the possibility that Pagan Studies can make Paganism better, more expansive, and–in the spirito-magical sense–deeper than it would otherwise be.

  2. Diana says:

    I’m on the practitioner side of writers, and I know right now there’s no market for much of anything. I really find the Pagan Studies books invaluable – often much more interesting than yet another spellbook – because it tells me how the practitioner books really get used (as only one example of their value to me.)

    It’s different from other theologies, but it merits study. I know I want to see more.

  3. […] at Letter From Hardscrabble Creek, Chas Clifton talks about being a Pagan within Pagan Studies, and how what religion scholars do is very different from what practitioners writing for their own co… do. So if I were revising Her Hidden Children (I have no plan to do so), I would have to take […]

  4. Hecate says:

    I think that Dark Green Religion is a significant book, and it would be a glaring omission to ignore it now. It is a significant book. It was likely a better essay than a book. One has the feeling that he wrote a good essay and then some editor told him that he needed to flesh it out and make it “book length.”

  5. Peg says:

    It would be a good thing if pagan readers can begin to better appreciate scholarly and thoughtful books that examine contemporary paganism and witchcraft wider contexts, well beyond “what it is” and “how to do it.”