Parsing Paganism, Rejecting the F-Word
In fact, I do wish that “the f-word” had never been introduced, because rather than helping the conversation, it shuts it down.
As soon as you refer to someone as a “fundamentalist” or to a movement as “fundamentalism,” you have, within the sub-dialect of the chattering classes, declared that nothing those people say is worthwhile, that they have nothing to teach you, and that they should just sit down and shut up. Or stop calling themselves Pagans, whichever.
Historically, the term “Fundamentalism” was coined by conservative Christian theologians of the early twentieth-century and named after a book series called “The Fundamentals.” In other words, it presented itself as a back-to-the-roots movement.
The Latin word for root is radix, which gives us “radical,” a term (or person) about stripping away everything seen as extraneous and getting “back to the roots,” renewing your tradition. About the same thing, no? Yet it is more acceptable in academia, for example, to refer to one’s self as a “radical,” at least in some quarters, than as a “fundamentalist,” which would suicidal, professionally speaking.
According to Sabina Magliocco — whom I wish had chosen a different word, but she consciously chose it to be provocative — “Pagan fundamentalists” seem to be those who think that they have the truth and who are overly dogmatic.
Prof. Magliocco suggests that in the good old days, practice mattered more than belief, but now some people are getting all “fundamentalist” about belief. Yes, but. In the 1970s, for example, I encountered some very “fundamentalist” American Gardnerian Witches. Some Goddess feminists could be pretty dogmatic too.
But the people taking offense today are not Gardnerians. They tend to come more from reconstructionist Pagan traditions. And they are the ones being targeted by this current discourse, as best I can tell.
Whatever your position on “hard polytheism” is, I tend to have some sympathy with their position because, as stated above, being called a “fundamentalist” is sort of like being called a “racist.” It puts you in a box that it is almost impossible to climb out of — and that is a deliberate rhetorical tactic designed to marginalize a political opponent.
A friend wrote to me of the “childish” polytheists who ought, in his words, to “detach themselves from contemporary Paganism.” (That is, sit down and shut up while the grown-ups are talking.)
No, I would argue, they are as much a part of contemporary Paganism as you or I are. Are we going to slide into heretic-hunting? Is contemporary Paganism going to develop a handy acronym, like those Republicans who accuse fellow party members deemed insufficiently pure of being RINOS (Republican In Name Only)? (Democrats do it too, but they lack a handy acronym.)
As an editor in the field of Pagan studies, I look at Paganism as a way of being religious, not as specific beliefs or specific practices. I want to keep the tent big and broad.
Paganism old and new is creedless and flexible, as Michael York wrote in Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, yet some have written creeds (Gleb Botkin with the Church of Aphrodite in the 1930s, for example), and we haven’t thrown them off the boat.
Continuing with York, I still like his definition, even though it reads like a legal document:
Paganism is an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by individual or community with the tangent, sentient, and nonempirical.” (162)
Parse those words carefully, and you will that Prof. York has stretched the tent as far as possible to include the hardest of hard polytheists and the nature-as-source-of-sacred value people, and everything in between. There is room under it for the committed “godspouse” as well as the person whose Paganism is heavily influenced by Jungian psychology. They are both doing religion in a way that we define as “Pagan.”
Here we do come back to the notion of “doing,” but I would allow that one’s “doing” might include relating to gods, spirits, and wights as discreet entities — and talking about it — which seems to be the crux, or a crux, of the current kerfuffle.