We live in surreal times. This morning I made memes about magic to share with a presidential campaign’s Discord server over breakfast. I re-posted them to Facebook, and watched their spell spread slowly, received by hundreds of others in a sea of likes, hearts, and shares. I watched a video on Celtic mythology, and bookmarked a dharma talk to listen to later tonight. In the afternoon, I met with a client who caught me up on the success she’s found in treating an unrecognized chronic medical condition through traditional African medicine she learned about online.
This is our world. At our fingertips are the means by which to globally spread both contemporary philosophy and traditional knowledge across languages of written word and symbols. We speak instantaneously across borders via video and blogs. If we don’t know something, we can google it. We can appeal to one another without the limitations of how far our voices can carry. Religion, magic, and medicine today are unlike any generation’s before us. We are limited in our knowledge of multiple traditions of truth, healing, miracle, and meaning only by our access to the internet and willingness to search. Even in Smalltown, North Carolina, there are face-to-face communities of Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and several kinds of Wiccans and Christians. We can shop for traditional Chinese medicine, Western herbal medicines, Ayurveda, and more. Where these in-person connections are absent, digital connections form. Gods, their followers, and cultural traditions of healing body and spirit alike interact in ways human history has in fact seen before, although never at this scale (that we know of).
Our world is plural. We live with not just multiple broad ideas about truth and meaning, but many different micro-interpretations among them. American Zen is to Nichiren Shoshu what Southern Baptist is to Lutheran. Depending on who you ask, our world is dreamed alive by Vishnu, pushed out of mind by Vairocana, or perceived in the waking moments of a billion blinking Brahamas. The God who created us 5,000-some years ago continues to tell very different things to his divergent groups of followers. The El-Shaddai I love may or may not be the El-Shaddai you hate. The Hecate called up in a neo-Wiccan ritual may or may not be the Hecate called up by Hellenic neopagans or even the ancient Greeks themselves. Sometimes we smooth over these distinctions by looking for universal truths amidst them all. Sometimes they’re easy to find, other times they aren’t.
This modernity creates tension. How do we reconcile very different traditions with our society’s need for a consensus reality? How do we resolve different devotees claiming very different messages from the same source? We still hold cultural biases and traumas passed down across generations that make questions like these hurt. In the world’s not-so-distant past, our ancestors fought horrifically violent wars over religious and cultural differences which most of us, hopefully, have left behind. Living in this new, hyper-connected and innately diverse (if not outright contradictory) world requires new myths about our place in it, new understandings of identity and community, and tough negotiations not only through the traumas of our heritage but also through the other ills modernity burdens us with such as ecological collapse, social and economic injustices, and a cultural void yet to be filled by either rampant nationalism or consumerism.
Some respond to this tension by insulating themselves in an often imagined past free of contamination from outside ideas or people. For Pagans, this is perhaps pretty easy to see. Maybe you’ve been chastised for experiencing a goddess beyond the terms attested to in some ancient historical record. Maybe you’ve been not so politely told that your heartfelt relationship to certain gods is inappropriate, and that you better try limiting yourself to work with another pantheon instead. Or maybe you’ve just witnessed the number of overtly white supremacist, neo-nazi, and ethno-nationalist movements organizing under or adjacent to the Pagan banner.
This may feel like it’s a Pagan-specific problem–a sometimes ethically complex battle between contemporary, fluffy eclectics and real, historically accurate preservationists–but it’s really not. Look at how the Renewal movement is derided among some Jews despite its historical roots (hell, look at the Reform movement, and look at Conservative Judaism for that matter). Listen in on the intricacies of dialogue between polytheistic and animistic Buddhisms from Asia and the decidedly atheistic Buddhisms of the West. Watch how Methodists and other Christian denominations engage in heart-wrenching discussion about how Jesus would love LGBT+ people. Hear how some American Jews and Muslims are finding spiritual truth in one another’s traditions growing out of the solidarity this era forges between them.
Every religion is reckoning with some issue that our modern world has brought into the spotlight for them. And at the core of these denominational conflicts is, I believe, an assertion of more or less the same truth by many different people across many different traditions: that is, that our gods are still speaking to us.
In a post-enlightenment world, this is a rather radical claim to make. In general, we prefer our gods to be things of the distant or quickly fading past (whether we ‘believe in’ them or not). We’re an era of historical Jesus and historical Buddha, critical readings of Krishna’s depictions in relation to colonialism and Hindu political identity, bickering over whether Aset and Isis are one in the same, and then never-ending debate as to whether or not any of these figures are ‘real.’ To start talking about the Jesus who heals your cousin’s opiate addiction, the Lakshmi who welcomes you to the hospital during an out-of-body experience, or the Astarte (who not only bowed to Allah, but) who feels more clear and present than you expected to encounter in an ‘applied transpersonal psychology’ exercise contradicts not only the rational, post-theist school of thought in today’s dominant culture, but its theology-by-the-book foil as well. When and why did we leave the time period where gods spoke to people and informed our practice of religion? Who decided we’re finished writing the book of acceptable theology, and who gave them that right?
Beneath the supernatural overtones to these questions though is, I believe, a deeper concern about human and cultural meaning in the modern era. I think most of us agree that we have lost something of ourselves, of our identity or culture, through the brutal calculus of things like colonialism, Christianization, capitalism, and urban development. In many ways, non-Christians are cut off from the pre-Christian faiths and traditions of their ancestors. Our connection to the Earth as a whole or the lands which feature so prominently in our cultural myths are now deeply mediated, curated, domesticated, or off-limits entirely. And then for Christians of course, modernity places many of these often violent changes at the feet of your religious forefathers. I think we burrow into tradition–into what fragments of historical records and sacred texts we possess–in part because it offers us something concrete where otherwise this dynamic leaves us feeling insecure.
To open ourselves back up to mystical inputs–that is, to again listen for the gods, rather than to simply read about them–is to risk what little we may still have for only the possibility of benefits that could come from this sort of spiritual-populist chaos. But that possibility calls to so many of us. And in this sense, neopaganism (and all the other traditions asserting that their gods still speak to them) is potentially both a radical de-colonial project and a force for deep intergenerational and interpersonal healing in this world. It is resistance to the idea that loss, genocide, diaspora, and other tragedies necessarily equal our extinction. To use a term that fell out of favor for ‘neopaganism,’ this is the ‘Pagan revival.’
Just as neopaganism challenges us to seek out relationships to the natural world–no matter how far from us it has been torn–we also connect to gods and theologies that mirror the diversity of thought and culture modernity exposes us to. The Greco-Buddhists and Allah-revering Norse for instance are no longer exceptions to otherwise insular pagan cultures we might draw inspiration from, but the seeds of ideas we are now even freer to explore.
To discredit eclecticism, to shy away from the intimate inquiries arising in a pluralistic world, is, I believe, an understandable reaction to the traumatic heritage of every human’s history. It is also, however, a means of keeping our traditions and our gods dead, detached from this world, and limited only to what has already been said and recorded about them. The excitement, the uniqueness that neo-paganism brings to the long history of human religion, is its capacity to find magic in the world again and to not fear the differences that accompany its return.
We live in a time of such hyper-connectivity and relative coexistence. It is a blessing to choose a lifetime spent learning from scholars of many different faiths, to constantly be in critical dialogue with your own understanding of what you experience and believe, and to possess the humility to cultivate a life of inquiry where so many before you have instead chosen violence fueled by arrogant belief in the supremacy of their own ideas alone. To be a Pagan in this world is not just to seek the gods or the pre-Christian faiths of your ancestors. It is to know they are still speaking to us, and that our traditions are still forming, syncretizing, becoming messy, and growing to fruition.
By some reckonings, this is indeed a very surreal world. In the grand scheme of human history, magic, and meaning–it’s just another chapter in our story.