The Neopagan no-rule book.
None of which we premodernists took with the least seriousness. Splendid, rousing hokum it might have been; hokum, nevertheless, was hokum. There were no pre-Christian gods; there never had been any, save in pagan imaginations.
The pagan comeback in modern times is less a setback for old-time commonsense perceptions of paganism than a kind of window into the modern mind. Maybe the former gods weren't as gone as we thought they were. Maybe, like the Old Ones in H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, they've merely been hanging around on the doorstep, waiting to be beckoned back inside the world they once seemed ready to dominate.
Well, the door's wide open, it seems. We might be wary, at that, of what forms and shapes duly surge through. Just out of general sight and notice, a kind of people's paganism snorts, scratches, shakes its shaggy head, appearing to regard the contemporary United States of America as one vast mission field.
We'll get down to cases in a moment. First, a pullback shot, framed to take in something more of the course of human events. I do not think it wise to suppose there was ever a time when the outside gods--to borrow from Lovecraft--expired in the human imagination. The story of Adam and Eve and their memorable encounter with a talking snake fills that imagination, explicitly or only through suggestion.
As the Duke University theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon noted several years ago in Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, "Paganism is the air we breathe, the water we drink."
Whatever end-zone dances too-comfortable Christians may occasionally engage in, questions and wonderments of the most sensitive kind still tug at humanity's sleeve. Would Salem have hanged its tribe of witches (rather than honoring their contributions to religious diversity) but for fear of the darkness just beyond the light? Would Wagner have so gloriously advertised the Norse gods, before Gotterdammerung-ing them, if in his time and place their exploits had lost all resonance? For that matter, would so many flock annually to the Bayreuth Festspielhaus just to hear the brass section? The durability of the pagan impulse (so to call it) is astounding.
What goes on today, even so? I'll say this--you can get some peripheral ideas by checking out the World Wide Web, as I did. A lot of ideas are out there to be gotten. I quickly hit upon the Pagans Motorcycle Club, an "outlaw" motorcycle gang whose patch depicts the Norse fire giant Sutr sitting on the sun--the hot seat, I suppose we're to call it.
The Pagan Dating Service connects unconnected pagans in, no doubt, a friendly and helpful way--likely with better results than Wotan engineered in behalf of Brunnhilde. The service invites pagans to "Discover a community of Wiccans, Shamans, Druids, and Other Pagans looking for relationships." I suppose one could see this as revived paganism's reductio ad absurdum; maybe more than that, I think I see domestication of the idea that pagans are, shucks, just people, like Ultramontane Catholics. One pagan chick, Keri Alley, coordinator of the Eastern Maine Pagan Pride Association, affirms that "pagans are everyday people ... not scary or evil ... parents, friends, husbands, and wives." Most, she advises us, "subscribe to the Wiccan Rede: 'An it harm none do as ye will.'" It's a prescription that generally excludes love spells and the making of zombies.
The reference to zombies reminds me to give due attention to the variety of pagans out there in the land. Zombies and zombie fanciers, a segment of the American population growing almost as fast as Mormons, to judge from the publicity their movies and public events receive, qualify as pagans. We shouldn't expect to see them emerging from Youth for Christ rallies.
Keri Alley elaborates on the diversity angle:
[T]he average pagan believes in the existence of multiple deities, both male and female, who [have] equal power but differing talents ... [the] practitioner may find him or her self drawn to many, one, or no specific deities.
Among available deities: Brigid, the goddess of poetry, and Pan, the god of the wild woods. (I'm not trying to guess how many Pan followers have read Euripides' Bacchae, with its discouraging take on woodland revels.) There's even CocoMama, the goddess of chocolate and recreational drug use. I don't recall whether Euripides was at all familiar with this one.
Anyway, take your pick. And do your thing. Explains Keri Alley,
Some pagans practice spellcraft, some heal, some divine [in its active-verb sense], some sing, some write. In a mainstream world of steak and potatoes religion, paganism can be seen as a buffet.
The temptation to quote this stuff is hard to resist. I could go on and on. Just a little bit more might help set paganism in its rightful 21st-century context. I found on the web a site for Polyamorous Pagans, wedded as it were to the ideal of "non-monogamy." A good polyamorous pagan demands and, in our tolerant time, appropriates the right to love as his soul tells him to love: no rules, no guidelines, no teleology.
Another site I discovered--a Pagan Web Ring, actually, consisting of many sites--bans "racism, intolerance towards other ways of life, [and] ... separatist ideas of who can and can't be a heathen." It's come one, come all, I assume, and bring your inmost heathen convictions. There are no standards of membership, certainly no heathen Nicene Creed as a fence to protect the generality of views on display at the Great Heathen Roundup.
One more pagan comment, lifted from a pagan website, and it's on to a broadened discussion of what we might make of all this. "Pagans," our commenter writes,
are said to dance to the beat of their own drum. Nevernever land is what we make it, I guess. We carry heaven with us every day of our lives by living out those dreams ... We are, in fact, born [as] pagans, innocent and unassuming as we were meant to be.
HOW COULD THERE NOT BE a pagan resurgence in the United States--in the West--of the 21st century? Our times naturally encourage access to the notion of pick-your-own-delty: the deity, if we get down to brass tacks, who looks the most like his worshipers; the god of I'll-love-any-way-I-want-to; the god of don't-give-me-no-Christian-b.s.; the god of why-can't-I-smoke-what-I-want-to-smoke. The more gods, on these terms, the merrier; one for every human impulse, of which there are plainly a lot.
The spirit of modern times is splendidly individualistic--the right fit for the culture. This could go far toward explaining paganism's comeback as the code for the well-meaning American who doesn't want to impose his views on the community, desiring only to do his own thing, dance to the beat of his own drum. The nice thing about paganism is that you have your own god, even your own approximation of him (or her). Fix up the temple (if any) to suit yourself. Initiate such rites as seem right. Don't get hung up on dogma; that's somebody else's hound. The god you take to yourself makes no demands, issues no threats or, for that matter, promises. Remember the burning bush? "Put off your shoes from off your feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground"? That's for people who like standing around burning bushes, wondering what goes on. Relax. You won't find such strange observances in the No-Rule Book.
The No-Rule Book is the rule in many places today because a book of rules would impinge on free choice, making life annoying and disagreeable. True, the gods of antiquity had their little ways, all of which required accommodation. You had to tread lightly around them. Since their time, service has greatly improved. "Have it your way" seems to be the new creed.
The languor of paganism is easy to fall into, compared with the strictures and strains that go with observance of Christian faith and practice. Not that American Christians haven't proved themselves fairly often to be an awfully self-forgiving breed. The ease of overlooking this sin and that one is far more marked in some ages--ours, for instance-than in others. That rules exist, nonetheless, is clear. The Ten Commandments are one conspicuous example, the Sermon on the Mount still another, from a complementary perspective.
The American dislike for rules of one kind or another--manifest in the spirit of the frontier, the individualism that drives commercial and capitalistic achievement--is well-enough known. The peculiar strength of America, say, a century ago, was the general sense that respect for individual rights could never cancel out obligations that began with fealty to the Creator and extended to the communities that fellow created beings maintained out of respect for His authority. Some things were plainly right (though you could argue which ones they were and how their rightness could be construed), just as other things were plainly wrong. The natural law--the law written on the heart--was instrumental in sorting out differences of viewpoints on these great questions, as well as others.
Twenty-first-century paganism says, hey, wait: We believe a lot of that ourselves. Remember Keri Alley's encomium to the Wiccan Rede: Do as you like--just don't hurt anyone. OK. What does "hurt" mean, then? How will I know, for one thing? I have no way of knowing (if, say, I'm a financial manipulator) that Client A won't have the sense to stand aside from the hedge-fund wrecking ball. (If he doesn't, is it my fault? Did I make him dumb? Maybe in fact I'm making him smarter through bad experiences; that would make me a good guy.) What is owed, in any case, to other people I'm not even related to? For all I know they want to do me in.
Where is pagan moral philosophy in all this? Standing, predictably, in the only place it can possibly stand: around the fringes of the self-regarding heart. A few intimations about pagan intentions for the rest of us, once we acknowledge (with a nod to the towering 21st-century ideal of diversity) the integrity of pagan witness. You've wondered what's next after gay marriage? What about polyamory (see above): the right to sexual expression in any context whatever. No rules apply? Personal viewpoint is all? A "necrocannibal" pagan blogger from the Bronx, identifying herself as Ice, explains that "I am pansexual, meaning, I like guys, girls, crossdressers ..." I break off there in order not to labor the point and also to observe what formerly were known as the proprieties.
I don't think--does anyone, really?--that H.P. Lovecraft's Old Ones are about to break into our midst, with beating of wings and otherworldly ululations, the portal to our world having been thrown open by eager pagan hands. The prospect of living in an ever-more-paganized culture; one without norms; one unwilling to distinguish Truth from falsehood; a culture detached from religious conviction, save in the most formalistic, diversity-affirming way: Tell me a prospect bleaker than that one. Who needs midnight intimations of red-eyed, gibbering horror in order to keep awake!
I wouldn't call the neopagans a clear and present threat to all that's holy. I would call them a clear, and clearly disturbing, sign of what goes on among us, barely observed, so intent is our otherwise distracted culture on playing by the Diversity Handbook. Some backtracking, some reversals of form are clearly in order--and clearly possible once human will and purpose present themselves and eyes pop open, taking in all that goes on.
The pagan power, in Christian discourse and understanding, is as nothing compared with the power of the God Who gave the Commandments at Sinai and allowed to His Son the dignity and horror of the crucifixion. There was a time the culture that presently entertains thoughts of polyamory and finds no harm in CocoMama, not to say Pan, directed its prayers to the God Who in the psalm said, "Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord JEHOVAH; and blessed are the folk that he hath chosen to him, to be his inheritance."
Some choice, would we not say? Some plain and obvious choice--once examined.
Corresponding editor William Murchison is the author of Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity (Encounter).