Religion, Spotlight

An Open Letter to John Halstead

Yesterday I highlighted an essay by Allergic Pagan John Halstead. There are parallels between John´s spirituality and my own developing path. This letter is for him, and for so many others.

Picture by Kiel Bryant

Dear John,

I share many of your beliefs. I embrace the gods even if they live only in our hearts. I love ceremony for what it does and not what it could do, and I find spirituality in the virtues and struggles of human hands.

Our style of religion will grow. It’s the religion of our century, it is nourishment for a questioning generation that wanders with a sense of meaning. A generation that feels the Infinite in quiet churches and bustling temples, yet does not submit to the teachings of those places. A people who wonder.

What path is this? Is there something to found, create, or nurture here?

I don´t think it’s fair to call it Paganism. That is the path that brought both of us to where we are, as well as luminaries like B.T. Newberg and Brendan Myers; but is that still the path we follow today?

There’s something precious in the word “pagan,” something guttural and full of meaning. There’s no historic reason we the faithless should be excluded from paganism. It was never a religion of faith—it birthed Western philosophy and the first known doubters. But today, Paganism has been thoroughly reclaimed by faithful theosophists and mediums. The word has changed. It irreversibly communicates certain beliefs: a soul, some gods, invisible powers.

I divorced “Pagan” because that word made communication harder, not easier.

Is there some other word we both should use?

We have many beliefs in common. Above all, we revel in the world as-is. The world is majestic and beautiful yet uncaring and destructive. It is at once the source of every joy and every misery we will ever experience. To love the joys and suffer the miseries is one thing, but to savor the joy and race the misery, loving the whole in honor of its perfectness, that is sacred awe. I believe we share this sacred awe.

We also share a certain deism. I hear you talk about gods; I do the same. It’s human to call out to these gods. They wear faces for us. But we don’t expect deities to change the face of the world. They are our silent tutors, we carry them in our blood. “Revere the gods but do not count on their help.”

We also have differences. I adore the practice of magic. Within limits I believe it works, and I suspect it works primarily by psychological means. I wouldn’t be embarrassed by a ceremony that gives out protection charms, because people act differently if they possess and believe in such charms.

And I maintain some hope that the gods are external, real. I remain on the line between theism and atheism.

So I wonder, is there enough common ground here that we are effectively practicing the same spiritual path?

Can formalizing it help others? Is this a path that can even be organized, or is it too individualistic? Are there practices that can help people reach and make peace with their doubt, and does it require crisis?

Our guiding light is a certain inner honesty. We are honest about what we know and what we don’t. If this is the future of religion, what can we do to be on the leading edge?

And dammit John—what is it called?

Who else has thoughts on these questions? What do you think? I hope John will have a response of his own and I´m happy to share it here.

Note: John responded here and I have a followup post here


27 thoughts on “An Open Letter to John Halstead

  1. You certainly are describing my path, for the most part. I am constantly on the fence between theism and atheism. I am certain that the divine exists within me and within everything/one I encounter (and not is some always feel good sort of way) and yet I don’t know if Divinity is an external thing–except (I can do excepts ad infinitum) that you are external to me and I find the Divine in you. And so it goes.

    I practice magic. I write spells. I came into that through my own meditative practices, practices gleaned from many places, if I’m honest, but congealed mostly from the Irish Cauldron of Poesy, which I’ve been studying and meditating on for a few years now. I didn’t expect to ever write spells or practice magic, but it organized itself organically within me. I am very clear about what I am doing in any given moment, but I don’t know exactly how it works. I agree that it is at least psychological, except that there are those occasions when . . . I have no explanation.

    I’ve never liked how the word “pagan” worked in conversations, though I love/hate it’s history. I wish I could use it in an ancient sense, but I live with modern, often ignorant, people. I don’t use it much.

    Part of me wants this kind of path to be organized so that I have a sense of community with people who understand. I largely settle for little moments like this post of yours. You understand. I know that you know that I understand. I have to be okay with that. Largely, I find that folks who want to join my Druid grove or Order mostly want a badge. They largely don’t want to do the work, the work of cultivating their own path. I don’t want to organize, any more, for badge seekers. I’d be okay with gathering with those who are doing the work and thrilling at the sorrows and joys of it all.

    Thanks for this post. Made my day.

    • I completely empathize with your experiences running a temple.

      Also, you wrote, “I wish I could use [pagan] in an ancient sense.” This gave me a spark of an idea. People who do old-style paganism often use the word “reconstructionist” which even reconstructionists admit is clunky, or some hard to remember/pronounce word in an ancient language. But what about the term “classical”?

      Simply saying, “I practice Classical paganism” communicates a huge amount of information in a single breath.

      Of course, this word is not as apt for northern European traditions, though it still refers to the right time period and there is a “classical” (earlier, iconic) form of any longstanding tradition. And anyway Classical sounds better than Reconstructionist, even for Celtic and Norse types.

      Just thoughts.

      • Yes. Good thoughts. I think that adding the term “classical” helps. As you well know, the Latin term “paganus” simply referred to people living in the countryside. They were also less easy to reach and coerce into Christianity when the coercions began. So, ultimately, the “pagani” were those who had not been forced to conversion, those who still practiced the Old Religion (and this happened all over Europe). So, I like “classical paganism”.

        Another note on your dislike for “Druid”. I actually appreciate the problem. My own Grove has moved to a position that those who are Druids are actually those who serve as priest(ess), teachers and administrators for a much larger, often otherwise, unorganized community. I have personally evolved in my own thinking and experience on this. My own path now includes the role of Awenydd/Fili aka “shaman” in other cultures. I really like the word Awenydd for what I do and how I experience myself, but it’s a word that means nothing to most people.

  2. Kilmrnock says:

    I tend to agree there are parts of paganism i too am ashamed to admit are part of our community , But i personaly refuse to give up my favorite descriptor of my faith . My path has diverged more to the Recon faiths . I more than not discibe myself as a Druid thes days . I am now Sinnsreachd /ADF Druid/Warrior .Sinnsreachd being a Celtic Recon type faith . My ADF grove also is Celt centered as they define it.Altho not my favorite term , most people , particularly within paganism have some idea what a Druid believes/does . But the Fluff bunny , Woo Woo stuff bothers me as well. Kilm

    • That makes sense Kilm. It’s funny, that usage of “druid” is specifically one of the things about mainstream Paganism that bugs me. In our tradition, a Druid is an accomplished and ordained teacher/priest; to call the religion Druidism would be like calling Christianity “Bishopism.” (Episcopal Church notwithstanding.)

      But that, I suppose, is why we follow different traditions. In any case I have great respect for the work that neo-druids and ADF do. Thank you for commenting.

  3. I have stayed out of this conversation as “not my business” … however, since this is the third time it has been discussed here, I’ve changed my mind!

    I strongly believe that the discussion needs to be changed – that, in short, you are asking the wrong questions. “Am I pagan?” is a good question… if you are questioning what you believe. But you already know what you believe. What you are questioning is how to present who you are to others. And, that being the case, the word “pagan” is the only thing up for questioning.

    The inescapable truth is that “pagan” has multiple different, equally valid dictionary definitions. You can write your own dictionary but you can’t change what is in other dictionaries. For the sake of this discussion, I consider two definitions to be pertinent. One is the common use of the word (which is not always in a dictionary, but the public at large generally know) and the other is the original meaning of the word.

    From what I understand, the common use is the one you have issue with. And I agree that when most people say “pagan,” they generally mean polytheist. In fact, one of the dictionary definitions I’ve seen describes polytheism. And, while this is NOT an official part of the definition, I agree that in our country people often think of polytheism’s loudest American sects, the Wiccan/New Agey/Druidy bunch. I can understand how you might want to distance yourself in discussion from these groups of people who do not think like you when you are trying to explain your personal view point. But also keep in mind that many of these people really do just mean polytheist when they say pagan, and that they may have only met Wiccan (or Druid or Reconstructionist or whatever) polytheists, so the congruence is a byproduct of that. Polytheism, and ergo paganism, if the words are used interchangeably, are umbrella terms. And you could be the one to open their eyes to the wider possibilities it contains. Well. That is slightly off topic.

    But the original use of the word, which is still one of the dictionary terms, is a definition of exclusion. “Not a follower of Christianity, Muslim, or Judaism.” Basically, a pagan is simply one who doesn’t follow the teachings of the monotheistic god, Allah. This is the definition of pagan that I, personally, was taught growing up, the one I use, and the definition I think of when I hear someone else say “pagan.” I know I can’t be the only one. So if you told me, “I’m not pagan,” and left it at that, you would be telling me that you are a member of Allah’s flock. And you aren’t. You can call yourself pagan or not as you like, but if you provide me with no more information, my interpretation will be the one described and I will hear exactly the opposite of what you intend.

    I feel that this is all just quibbling about semantics.

    Regardless of what you do or do not call yourself, you will have to explain it. Whether you spell it out or whether you explain it with context, whether you use the word “pagan” or not, you will still have to do it if you want others to understand. That’s just what happens when you have a severely minority religion, and it is pretty much unavoidable when you are writing your own religion.

    Are you pagan? I say yes, most definitely, whether you agree or not, due to my understanding of the word. You might disagree. But really, does it *matter* if you use the word pagan to describe yourself? I say no. I say call yourself whatever you like, that’s not my business. I say you should ask not “what am I” – a question that you already know the answer to, ask not, “what does “pagan” mean?” which is something you have very, very limited control over, but instead ask “how do I explain what I am” – that is really what’s happening here, I think. And the explanation and choice of words will have to change depending on your audience, just like any good teacher who presents any other subject to multiple people.

    • I should point out that this letter is not about whether I should call myself Pagan — the answer is definitely no! — it’s about whether John and others like him should also give it up. And what, if anything, we should call ourselves instead.

      I do like what you said, AMG. I wish this part were true:

      Regardless of what you do or do not call yourself, you will have to explain it.

      Sadly that’s not the case. When I used to call myself Pagan I never got to explain what I meant. Everybody, Pagan and non-, believes they already know what it means; they apply their loaded definition to me with no further discussion.

      This changed when I stopped saying Pagan and started saying polytheist. Everybody wants to know what I mean by that. Instead of assuming they know what I believe, they would ask, and then we’d actually communicate.

  4. Dave says:

    I salute the moon whenever I see him, like a lover being recognized with an airy kiss. He shines down brightly, like hope from heaven.

    I lie out beneath a vast blanket of stars and feel grateful to have ever been born. Being alive feels so good it hurts.

    I pour libations – effervescent, sanguine, and enthusiastic. I set apart who and what I love and remember them forever.

    I greet the dead throughout the day and hold close the living always. I revel in the bonds of camaraderie.

    The gods and spirits watch me, some curious, others playful, all loving in their own ways. All stupefyingly beautiful.

    I run and sing, laugh and dance, make music and art, and fuck like my life depends on it – it does. Love makes the heart sing.

    I don’t have a church, or an dogma, or a stately forbearance or respectability. I’m just one man who loves to be alive.

    I don’t want to be dead, but I wouldn’t mind it – I don’t want to live forever. I just want to live right now, for as long as that lasts.

    I guess that makes me human. So if people ask what religion is he, tell them that my religion is life well lived – through love and ecstatic joy.

  5. Wow, Drew! There’s so much to respond to and it deserves a better response than I have. First of all, your “letter” is a piece of poetry. I showed it to my wife and she started to tear up. Thank you for sharing it.
    To try to answer your question whether we are practicing the same spiritual path: As you said, there are some things that we share and some things we differ over. Right now though, the differences seem less important than the fact that we both value “reveling in the world as it is”. It is precisely those Pagan practices which seem “otherworldly” to me that bother me most. (Your kind of magic is not one of them, I think.) But I know that different Pagans have different ideas about what is and is not “otherworldly”.
    What has been the most unexpected outcome of my post is the way polytheists have responded positively to it. While I don’t theologically relate to hard polytheism, I do relate to the seriousness with which polytheists approach their gods. “Seriousness” is a word that keeps coming to my mind in this discussion, and I don’t quite know yet what I mean by it — especially when it is used to refer to a religion like Paganism than honors play as sacred.
    I guess I don’t know if you and I are practicing the same path, but I think we are going about it in the same way. Perhaps it is a matter of “style”, as you alluded to. Or perhaps what binds us is that we keep asking these questions.
    To try to answer your next question, “What do we call it?”: For me, the word “pagan” still resonates powerfully with me. When you speak of reveling in this world, I think “pagan”. When you speak of experiencing sacred awe at the beauty and terror of creation, I think “pagan”. And when you speak of honoring the gods, but not looking to them to save you, I can think of no better label that “pagan”. And when I read Dave’s beautiful proclamation above, my heart soars, and I think “Yes, one more pagan!” I love the term, precisely because it has been used by monotheists to distinguish themselves from those who found divinity in nature in all its diverse forms. I embrace the term in the same way that many feminists embraced the term “witch” in the 70s and 80s — precisely because it is a challenging term.
    And I admit that, when you divorced yourself from the term, I was one of those people who (while respecting your freedom to call yourself whatever you want) still thought of you as a pagan (maybe with a small “p”). I may eventually decide that the term is too fraught with confusion. But for the time being, I refuse to abandon the term to the “theosophists and mediums” who embarrass me. For the time being, we’ll just have to go on embarrassing each other.

    • John! Embarrassingly, I somehow missed that this comment came in. I’m so sorry not to have responded sooner.

      Thank you so much for this beautiful response. And for the kind words about the letter!

      I think my comment over at your post sums up my reaction, so I’ll quote it here:

      I agree that [small-p] pagan is a very accurate, and romantic, descriptor of what we both believe. Personally, I also find that that meaning is lost among its several other meanings, and that it’s hard for people to hear pagan rather than Pagan anymore.

      This is a case where Neopagans have, I think, successfully “reclaimed” a term, which is good for them but maybe not good for language purists or those who liked the 19th century version of the word.

      In other words I think it’s bad branding but, just as you respected my freedom, I respect your choice to use it anyway — and I can understand it much better with the explanation you offered here.

      I’m glad we have such a similar style in our spirituality, even if we call it different things. I’d love it if our paths cross at some point.

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