Interrogating myself and what I believe in has taken me a long time, but perhaps it is now time that it bear fruit. Perhaps this is where I set it down, for myself, to see if the argument holds weight. Bear with me, this post is deeply personal.
By 2008, I was finishing my Anthropology Bachelor and I was pretty sure that no other topic captivated me more than human spirituality. It would be the subject of my thesis and all I had to do was to convince social scientists (my future graduate advisers) to tackle the subject with me. But my brain was scattered, you see. I wasn’t sure yet what to believe and I couldn’t use a Master’s Thesis as a pretext to “figure myself out” and where I stood in the world. The subject mattered that much to me.
You see, I had spent the previous four years as a neopagan and eclectic Wiccan, and before that I had flown the heady currents of New Age psychic development. Then, as my interest grew and I began the preliminary research into the topic–specifically the neurobiological underpinnings of spiritual/religious experiences–my faith waned. Drastically. The more I learned about how other cultures worshiped and how the brain processed mystical experiences, the more I became agnostic… and then atheistic.
I couldn’t shake my experiences of the Divine or magic. I couldn’t betray what amounted to eight years of experience–a full third of my life, then. As I slowly “failed” grad school–getting B’s is basically failing and a C is a death blow–I began to understand that the life of academics was not what I wanted. Something within me was withering, which I now realize was the awe and wonder through which I had experienced the world before.
Six years of desolation followed. I had neither a Master’s Degree nor an answer to my spiritual questions. (Don’t get me wrong, I was not unhappy, but I wasn’t spiritually fulfilled, either.) I became a middle school science teacher, mostly because it was one of the easier subjects to pass and get hired for, and because it seemed fun. I could do for my students what no teacher did for me in school: challenged me and enlightened me. The universe was fabulous and I was hell-bent on teaching that, at least.
Then the pagan community of Palm Beach County stirred, organized, and I found myself surrounded by various flavors of pagans. Because I had kept the old Facebook meet-up group alive, I became an organizer. By 2015 I knew two things:
- I was “culturally pagan” just like many are only “culturally Jewish” and
- I had research/insight to share with a newborn community
What I believed in didn’t matter. I had to operate within rituals and around people who did really believe. I had to treat them with respect, not the withering skepticism I reserved for myself. I wanted them to thrive and the community proved itself wise and talented and joyous at every turn. They had to thrive, so I threw my mind and soul into helping organize.
A curious thing started to happen, then. The shape of my old beliefs–and I’ve entertained so many–became a book I could read from with detachment. New experiences came, some magnificent and awe-inspiring precisely because I knew how they happened scientifically. Slowly, in spurts of inspiration and intuition, I began to dig deeper into spirituality and the research I had accumulated. Slowly, I came to a set of likely answers.
Paganism spoke to a sense of authenticity and to my roots as a descendant of Europeans. The new forms that had emerged since the 1950s were brilliant introductory tools for a world relearning to honor the Sacred. The old, historical pagan faiths couldn’t be faithfully reconstructed, but the imprint they left on recorded history were inspiring. They suggested the outline of something valuable, honorable, and worth cultivating.
Science neatly solved the physical nature of reality and was beginning to answer deeper questions through ecology and biology. It had its place as well. Science was another tool, a scalpel with which to separate the “dross” of spirituality and get at its beating heart. On top of that, science could offer a view of the universe that was grander than anything our ancestors dreamed of, suggesting a “higher order” that begged the Spirit.
Not the Spirit written of in all the world’s mythologies and holy books, but the Spirit of the mysterious. The elusive knowing of All Things that drove scientists to ask hard questions and probe ever deeper. The “essence” of being alive without resorting to words like prana or kundalini–or any other culturally appropriated term. It was the feeling of what is, but which remained undiscribable.
For me, these two come together in pantheism, flavored with Uncle Gardner’s Wicca, Spinoza’s God, and a dash of truth from all the world’s religions.
I am inclined to call it “Pagan Pantheism” but that might be redundant. Pantheists believe that Nature and God are inextricable from each other, but that’s a loaded and murky phrasing, which is probably why there are several branches within this philosophy. My pantheism says that Mind joins Spacetime in the continuum, since Spirit is agency and thus consciousness. In this way, my acts of magic can be understood not as delusions or coincidences, but as moments where my mind joined with a “stream of reality” rather than fought against it. My experiences of the Divine can be seen as encounters with consciousness present at a larger scale than the human frame of reference (daunting, unknowable, anthropomorphized and misinterpreted).
I believe this is an intrinsic part of the human experience, borne out by the historical record itself, where it is safe to assume accounts are sincere and not lies told by charlatans with ulterior motives. It is part of the neurobiology we are beginning to map and understand. It is an inherent result of evolutionary processes, a bit of mental chaos that got snagged on the thorny branches of natural selection. It is the potential inherent in natural systems that gave rise to consciousness as the storing and transmission of information already present in nebulae and micro-organisms.
Why is it pagan, then? Because I chose to honor those ancestors who refused to convert. Because the cultural myths etched in our society still speak of Odin, Hermes, and Osiris. Because I am rebelling against the patriarchy that burned women (and men!) for make-belief heresies, ignored Nazi atrocities, convinced homosexuals they were sinful and immoral, and condoned the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Who were my ancestors before all of this if not the Visigoths of Spain and the mystics of the Sahara, the Celtiberians in Galícia and the Hellenists of Cataluña?