PAGAN INVOLVEMENT IN THE INTERFAITH MOVEMENT

Exclusions, Dualities, and Contributions

by Grove Harris

I am a Witch; a Wiccan priestess if you prefer; a Pagan to use a larger religious categorization, with an M.Div. from Harvard. I walk in many social and spiritual realms. I am a feminist. As a young woman, I recognized in the writings of the activist Witch Starhawk my own reverence for nature and felt a homecoming to this tradition that honors my body and self as part of nature. I recognized an honoring of sex and pleasure as sacred, along with a hunger for justice and a need to act politically, and felt myself at home spiritually. In my late twenties, life compelled me towards further spiritual development, and eventually I committed myself as a priestess of the Goddess, consecrated to Her work by the elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. My own participation in a religious minority informs my perspective; my personal interest in interfaith work comes from a desire for full religious freedom.

I take a risk by naming my own particular religious minority, by expressing myself publicly in terms that I often restrict to like-minded community. In a truly pluralistic society—one with full freedom of religion, with vibrant interfaith life that respects the commitments and differences of diverse religious traditions, with accountability to common civic principles—there would be no systematic risk, just the occasional individual prejudice.

In this essay, I will raise issues about exclusion, duality, and pluralism, and highlight particular contributions of Paganism to the interfaith movement. The inclusion of Pagans in interfaith work can be seen as a litmus test for tolerance.

Pagans have historically been misunderstood as the quintessential other, the personification of evil (as in devil worshiping—a Christian construct) or of amorality. Years of outreach and educational efforts, along with active participation of Pagans in national and international interfaith efforts, have clarified that Pagans are earth-centered spiritualists who hold all of life as sacred and honor the interconnectedness of all of life. Exclusion implies a dualistic framework that undermines interfaith work. Examination of Pagan inclusion in and exclusion from the interfaith movement highlights the need for tolerance and engagement beyond tolerance, within and among religious traditions.

The stakes are high, ranging from lack of religious freedom for individual Pagans, and notably Pagan youth who are at greater risk for depression and suicide, to critical issues for the entire American community and beyond. Theologian Harvey Cox comments on the American experiment with our phenomenal diversity, "We have people of virtually every religious tradition there is. Whether we are going to make it as a people, with this immense, rich, heterogeneous populations, or whether we're going to burst apart into some kind of fragmentation, is still a question in my mind."1 The interfaith movement can play a key role in helping Americans make it as a people, or it can reinforce fragmentations.

I work for the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, researching and documenting the new religious diversity of America. As part of this work, I attend numerous interfaith gatherings, such as interfaith clergy breakfasts, interfaith religious services and interfaith political gatherings. I regularly attend the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) annual conference and the National Conference on Interfaith Youth Work. Often my own religious tradition is not represented in these gatherings; I am there representing the Pluralism Project, not my religion.

I network and collaborate with many people working in the interfaith movement, and hear of different strategies, challenges and successes in interfaith work. I have attended the last two international Parliaments of World Religions, as well as the Goldin Institute for International Partnership and Peace (Fall 2003). I am discrete about sharing my religious tradition in professional settings, as there is social stigma and misunderstanding about Wicca and I do not want that to hinder my work for the Project. During years in divinity school, I answered questions about my "denomination" by saying I practice a feminist earth-based spirituality. The presumption of Christianity in the question is unmistakable. Advice to not mention my own tradition so I won't be pigeonholed with that identity, publishers cutting materials on Paganism, the remaining materials undergoing disproportionate scrutiny in reviews, an advisor with vehemently anti-Pagan views, all these have suggested caution in speaking my truth. Eventually, participating in interfaith settings without bringing my own tradition to the table became too painful and I began to integrate my self and my participation. I work for religious freedom in the largest sense; I want to experience it personally so now I practice it more.

National and International Interfaith Participation by Pagans

Pagans have made substantial efforts to participate in and contribute to the growth of the interfaith movement. The 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions held in Chicago has been described as a "coming out" party for Pagans, as their presence was most notable there. Earthspirit, a Massachusetts-based Pagan community, offered performances by their choral group, MotherTongue. A Full Moon ceremony, planned in anticipation of perhaps 50 participants, drew 500. One conservative Christian group inaccurately described the Pagan participants as godless (many Pagans are polytheistic, many pantheistic or panenthe-istic, perceiving divinity embodied in nature) to which some Buddhists reportedly replied, "that's what we've been trying to tell you about us!"

Wiccan Elder Don Frew has been active in interfaith work on the international, national and local levels for more than a decade. According to Frew, the convergence of a focus on re-sacralizing nature at the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago and the presence of Pagans offering over 20 programs brought unprecedented attention to what Pagans can offer to the discourse on religion and nature.

By the end of the nine days, the academics attending the Parliament were saying "in 1893, America was introduced to the Buddhists and Hindus; in 1993, we met the Neopagans."

From that point on, Neopagans would be included in almost every national or global interfaith event. At the 1993 Parliament, we ceased being a bunch of weirdos and became a religious minority.2

The Parliament of the World's Religions gathering in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999 had a significant Pagan presence, and the 2004 Parliament in Barcelona was served by the work of a Wiccan priestess on the organizing committee, as well as the attendance of many Pagans offering workshops, a reception, and a concert. Wiccan Priestess and Elder Deborah Ann Light, who has represented the Pagan community in many national and international interfaith gatherings, says that Pagans are now completely integrated in interfaith work on national and international levels. This integration involves full participation and consistent work in interfaith initiatives, not simply attendance at events or presenting informational sessions. The United Religions Initiative and the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions have both benefited from the ongoing efforts and contributions of Pagans.

Pagans are taking part and offering service. One motive is to present accurate information about Paganism to counter misunderstanding, prejudice, and discrimination. This is part of the struggle to achieve religious freedom. Don Frew directs his efforts towards positive change and care for the Earth. He writes:

For me, personally, the bottom line is . . . No significant change happens in the world without people changing their minds. Nothing has as much power to change minds as does religion. A movement to bring the religions of the world together in peace to work for the betterment of all is, potentially, the most powerful force for positive change in existence. As a person of faith, called by my Gods to care for and protect the Earth, how can I not be involved?

Interfaith work is, in my opinion, the best hope for the future of the Earth. Neopagans, especially many from the Covenant of the Goddess, are active at the heart of the global interfaith movement. This is our opportunity to be part of the change we wish to see.3

Local Participation by Pagans

Frew works locally as well as internationally, and in many settings. Pagans are full members of local interfaith activities, sharing the organizing work, offering portions of liturgy in interfaith services, and generally bringing their voices to the table. In a session at the 2004 NAIN/NAEIS conference, participants reported that Pagans are very positive contributors to their interfaith gatherings.

Some interfaith groups define their work and measure their success by their inclusivity. For example, in 2001 in Akron, Ohio, the Akron Area Interfaith Council moved an interfaith dinner from the hall of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church rather than exclude the Pagan singing group from the program. While the church's concerns were respected, the Council stood by their mission to promote freedom of religion, equality, and tolerance.4 In this case, the interfaith group went beyond simply including Pagans to respectfully stand up against a church's requirement of exclusion. This principled interfaith work is important to protect the right to religious freedom. The degree of religious freedom experienced by Pagans can be seen as a litmus test for freedom of religion for all.

Although Pagans have made a clear contribution to many prominent interfaith efforts, there are numerous examples of interfaith initiatives that do not include Pagans. The integration that is found in national and international interfaith work remains controversial or non-existent in some local settings. Sometimes this is because some religious communities openly object to Pagan participation. Conservative Christians and Muslims have theological concerns and misunderstandings about Pagans. Some interfaith groups frame their work as limited dialogues such as those among Christians, Muslims and Jews. There is no question that such dialogue is needed. However, if such dialogue groups are explicitly not willing to include any other faiths (rather than simply pragmatically limiting their focus) then their common ground is a negative one, that "we" are better than "them." While it is important that dialogue occur in many settings across many kinds of differences, it is unclear how any form of explicit exclusion can foster the good of the diverse community.

One very effective organizer of interfaith activism in a conservative state told me that in his context, Pagans are a political handicap, particularly when they show up at press conferences. Their tee shirts are often highly visible, and he gives them banners to hold that help block their political shirts. Atheists are also a political handicap, especially the ones that are so vehement he termed them "hyper-evangelical." In his very conservative context, highlighting the full range of participation by faith groups (and those of no faith) would undermine the particular effectiveness he has cultivated in the mainstream. While he is not discouraging active participation by Pagans, he tries to shape that participation so that it doesn't become its own focal point which would thwart his primary goals.

Another group that forms partnerships across religious and economic difference has determined that Pagan participation would be too controversial and would splinter and significantly reduce the current membership. In particular, participating members of conservative black churches are stretched already when asked to join in ritual that includes bell-ringing by a Buddhist group. The director told me that the inclusion of Pagans would mean the withdrawal of the black churches, which are a very substantial part of the membership. In short, there are limits to the configurations of the partnerships at this moment in time. In all of these cases, the "we" of the interfaith movement is divided into a preferred "us" and a less welcomed "them." This dualistic framework is problematic, and may undermine the long-term change these groups desire.

The Problem with Dualities

Dualities are dangerous. At the recent Boston Social Forum workshop (July 2004), Dr. Harvey Cox reminded participants to beware of dualities, such as constructions of "us versus them," because these dualities and polarization distract from work for social justice. The active and full inclusion of all religious traditions in interfaith work is one way to avoid this dualistic framing. Duality inherently excludes and cannot serve the full diverse community; reframing is needed in order to do transformative work. An "us-versus-them" framework is harmful to religious freedom because it establishes norms and penalties for falling outside of those norms. It misses the generative quality of a "we" orientation, and inherently limits the amount of difference that can be brought to the table. The difference within individuals is thereby limited, even if they technically fall within the "us" category. The power to set the norms may not be acknowledged, but it is obvious to those outside them. Of course, Pagans are not alone in bearing the burden of being made into the "other" at times and suffering from exclusion.

The quality of community we can achieve is at stake. We need new ways and models of including those who are cast as "other," retracting our own projections, confronting our own internalized dualities, confronting our scapegoat-ing, and our demonizing of the "other." Students working with Victor Kazanjian, Wellesley College's Dean of Religious Life, negotiated strongly held religious prohibitions against convening with Pagans by deciding to meet in two rooms with an adjoining door. The Pagans and conservative Christians were not to be in the same room, but conversation was possible. This creative solution is not an end, but an example of finding new ways to engage, even across intractable difference. Demonizing the "other," or defining one's self at the expense of another, is not a path towards peaceful and sustainable co-existence.

At the same time, complete inclusion cannot stand alone as the only goal or measure of interfaith work. Full inclusion can still be tokenism. Perhaps diversity is honored but the engagement that leads to pluralism may still be avoided. To say there is a seat for everyone at the table does not address the question of whose table it is. Who has the power to issue the invitations? Who establishes the norms of behavior at the table? These questions should be important considerations for those seated at the table, as well as for those whose invitation is provisional or non-existent.

Dr. Diana Eck writes that pluralism is "active engagement with that diversity . . . [it] requires participation and engagement . . . meeting, exchange, and two-way traffic."5 The aim and actions of including all may offer the chance to engage across difference, but this is not guaranteed. While full inclusion is one major objective, there may be other objectives as well. Some interfaith groups are issue-driven, focusing on concerns such as building housing or fighting economic injustice. Joint action may offer experiences and engagement beyond dialogue, and the invitation may be open to all who care to contribute, but outreach may be more limited. These two foci can be put on a spectrum, with exclusive focus on wide inclusion on one end and focus on other strategic objectives on the other. It can also be seen as differing physical stances. Some interfaith groups may stand facing each other, examining their differences and similarities, and other groups may stand shoulder to shoulder, joining in work that is more concrete. Focus on an objective such as affordable housing is not the same as implicitly excluding some religions from participating. An interfaith group can have an inclusive stance while focusing on particular action in the world.

These considerations lead to an ends and means question: will limited representation in interfaith efforts lead to social cohesion and enhanced religious freedom for all groups, or only for those represented? If the primary aim is addressing a social ill such as poverty, does a secondary aim of inclusion drain resources from the primary aim? What methods of social change are most effective? Columnist Ellen Goodman suggests the perennial questions:

Do you wait for people to be more comfortable to make change? Or do people only become more comfortable in the wake of change? Do you sacrifice incremental benefits by going for the whole enchilada? Or do small changes merely sustain the status quo?6

These questions are at the heart of theories of social change and they offer an important context in which to hold a variety of strategies. A dualistic, excluding framework maintains a status quo that is at best unfriendly to pluralism. It seems helpful to raise the issues to engage with others, rather than to stand in judgment on the work of fellow members of the interfaith movement.

While attending to issues of inclusion and exclusion and the breadth of religious difference, it is important to remember that most participants in inter-faith work are volunteers with multiple other commitments including paid employment, family, and friends. Economic and class differences are important considerations in the structure of interfaith work, as is race. The different perspectives coming from people of different races or social locations may offer crucial insight for interfaith or intrafaith work.

Consciously engaging with differences, and not just common ground, is crucial for both interfaith and intrafaith work. Otherwise, interfaith work may limit itself to progressive strata across religions. The need for engagement exists within religions as well as among them. Organizers at the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions see intrafaith dialogue as an essential part of interfaith work. Intrareligious dialogue can be every bit as challenging as interreligious dialogue, in some cases even more so. It may be easier for progressives to talk to progressives across religious differences, and for conservatives to talk to conservatives across religious difference, than for conservative and progressive elements of the same tradition to dialogue.

Pagan Contributions

Dr. Eck, in contemplating the movement towards a fully engaged pluralistic society, writes, "The music of America's cultures, perhaps more like jazz, depends upon having an ear always attuned to the genius of the other players."7 What is the genius, the particular contributions Pagans have to offer to the interfaith movement, and the larger community? Pagans generally have extensive experience engaging with internal religious diversity. Pagans are not afraid to express deep emotional, spiritual, and often political, commitment and connection to the elements of nature. For those wishing to reconnect or deepen their connection to the Earth, Pagans can offer a wealth of ritual suggestions that can often be adapted to other religious traditions. Many Pagan meditations resemble a sensible marriage between science and sacrality, and can be used in many contexts.

Don Frew has written about numerous Pagan contributions, including comfort with multiplicity, individuality, a broad range of practices, and an active appreciation of difference. Neopagans have organizational structures that come out of their understandings of interconnectedness and individual free will that can be useful to other groups wanting to structure organizations that preserve autonomy and yet have cohesion as a larger whole. Frew has advised on a project that brought Conservative and Evangelical Christians together in dialogue with Gay and Lesbian Christians. His Pagan background gave him valuable experience in tolerance, support for a range of sexual identities, including transgendered identities, and experience in dialogue across difference. Neopagans have experience born out of the necessity of bridging extensive differences within their religion that can be useful in interfaith settings.

The recent Between the Worlds conference offers an example of Pagans coming together across internal religious diversity. This November 2004 conference was timed to coincide with the astrological alignment of two pentacles of stars. The pentacle, a theological and meditative tool, as well as an alignment, offers an alternative to dualistic thinking. The magical working included 12 leaders from different traditions, 6 men and 6 women, who each contributed to setting up safety for the coming time. One participant described it as "a powerful symphony, each tradition like a family of instruments. We were able to maintain clarity, unity of purpose and harmony during the ritual despite our different styles."8 The pentacle for this ritual invoked Love, Truth, Honor, Courage, and Beauty, with Love banishing apathy and despair, Truth banishing uncertainty and delusion, Honor banishing injustice and disconnection, Courage banishing fear and paralysis, and Beauty banishing intolerance and envy.

Meditation on each point, and on the interconnections between the points, can offer inspiration and can suggest areas in need of more attention. The pentacle itself, is a complex, interconnected meditative tool and a particular contribution of Paganism; it is a complex model that may prove more useful than dualistic models that have inherent divisiveness and obvious limitation, as well as massive prevalence. The pentacle honors many inter-related factors in any given situation. This demands contemplation of a degree of complexity, and utilizes mind, intuition, and emotion in that contemplation. Dualities offer a right or wrong, red or blue, over-simplification that prevents analysis of the underlying factors, and can distract from efforts towards social change.

As the pentacle is complex so is any attempt to evaluate differing paths in the interfaith movement towards social change. It is useful to honor the multiple, varying forms of interfaith organizing, and to reflect upon them and study the growth and change of this movement. The aim of honoring diversity is well served by honoring diversity in the means towards that aim. Ultimately the growth, energy, and sustainability of the interfaith movement will be served by honoring the multiple manifestations growing out of different situations. It will certainly be served by honoring the "genius" of Pagan contribution, as well as all others' positive contributions. No religion should ever be excluded from inter-faith participation, but it is too simplistic to say that Pagans should be actively encouraged to join all forms of interfaith work. The ultimate goal is not the inclusion of Pagans per se, but the full lived practice of religious freedom, which is predicated upon inclusion. Interfaith efforts towards a civic fabric that will ensure that freedom rightfully take many forms and have different strategies.

Making it as a People

America is at a critical juncture, with civil and religious liberties under threat, socio-economic disparities that are increasing, climatic change, environmental degradation, debt that is skyrocketing, an unwanted war that continues, and a political climate that appears to conflate Christianity with American religion. Now more than ever, we need a renewed civic infrastructure of people standing together, "making it as a people." The interfaith movement can play a crucial role in strengthening a democratic social fabric even in the face of economic and social injustices and betrayals. We cannot afford to let dualistic divisions derail us from standing together. Now is the time to come together and reclaim a sense of ourselves as a people and as members of a global community of multiple religious traditions. As the Rev. Barbara Williamson of the Metropolitan Interfaith Congregations Action for Hope said, "It's not an us and them thing. It's a we. It's not the affluent people. It's being on the same team and that's just full of remarkable possibilities."9 Included in that metropolitan team are Congregationalists, Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Unitarians and Episcopalians. So far. Let's extend this to a global team, and include all of us. I will speak my truth and include myself.

Notes

1.  Harvey Cox, "Voices Of America," On Common Ground: World Religions in America, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

2. Covenant of the Goddess, http://www.cog.org/interfaith/. Accessed December 18, 2004.

3.  The Witches' Voice, http://www.witchvox.com/white/coginterfaith2.html. Accessed December 18, 2004.

4. Akron Beacon Journal, February 10, 2001.

5. Diana Eck, "From Diversity to Pluralism," On Common Ground: World Religions in America, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

6. The Boston Globe, December 16, 2004, Opinion A23.

7. Diana Eck, "From Diversity to Pluralism," On Common Ground: World Religions in America, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

8. Caroline Kenner, "Between the Worlds: A Grand Magickal Congress Warding the Turning of the Ages," http://www.witchvox.com/festivals/fest_btw04.html. Accessed December 18, 2004.

9. The Metro West Daily News, December 12, 2004.

 

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2005, Vol. 55,  No 1.