Jesus Christ! You’re acting like one of those Christians
"He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in!"
– Edwin Markham
The room was filled with Pagans, Witches and a few Asatru. The discussion had flowed from "what is evil?" to "is suicide ethical?" and many other esoteric and thoughtful topics. Finally, somehow, we started debating congregational Witchcraft. In the midst of the many pros and cons of the subject, a young man stood up and declared that "if they don’t want to join a coven like the rest of us, they should give up Paganism and go back to being a Christian."
An embarrassed hush fell over the room. He had accused the pro-congregational folks of the ultimate Pagan sin, of being like – shudder – a Christian.
Sometimes we are so used to having the circle drawn to leave us out, we too join in the drawing of boundaries. Where does Christianity stop and Paganism take up? Is there no such thing as a congregational Witch? What other practices of Christians are forbidden to Pagans, so as not to offend Pagan Purists
Human Needs, or Christian Needs?
One of the biggest errors we make as religious members of the Wiccan faith, is to assume that virtues of our members are present solely because of our choice of religion. It is in our worldview to believe that all people are Children of the Gods, even if they do not refer to themselves in that way. We know that they hold within themselves the divine spark that is part of all that is – Nature, Gaia, The Gods, The Lord and the Lady – however we choose to name it.
In order to address the issue of whether or not we are imitating other religions, we must first see what is intrinsic to human nature. We must ask "Why do humans gather together?" Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) spent years working out a theory that addressed not just that question, but which seems also to address our broader issue concerning coven, congregations and Witches, oh my! Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is widely used and probably the most popular theory of management in recent time. Although there may be flaws, it works beautifully as an organizing tool to examine our motivation and choices. He believed that each person has five categories of needs, which we will break down into rather broad categories
First and most basic are physiological needs, such as food, shelter, drink, rest, etc. When those are present and satisfied, we then have time and energy to look to the next level of needs
Safety needs are met when a person is reasonably assured that they are not in immediate danger of life and limb. The concept can also extend to psychological safety. When we are comfortable that we have protection from danger, and have obtained security and order, we can turn our attention and energy to other types of issues. Pagans believe in a personal responsibility for providing safety within their home and communities. At many festivals and gatherings, both Pagan and Society for Creative Anachronism, knives are a common feature in costuming, especially for women. Carrying knives may or may not reflect an actual need, but are always a reminder and symbol of personal power and responsibility.
Safety also means safeguarding personal rights in society. Many of us have faced legal discrimination because of our beliefs and there isn’t much an individual, coven, or even church can do. So to fulfill our social safety needs we need larger organizations through which we can influence our representatives. We already have many organizations doing such work – the Lady Liberty League, the Military Pagan Organization to name a couple. Pagan Organizations of this type tend to be reactive rather than pre-emptive. Recently there has been a large push by Congressman Bob Barr and Senator Strom Thurman to ban Wiccan worship on military bases. This type of religious discrimination would be simple if we were still small scattered groups of autonomous covens, but as we gather into larger groups and organizations we also multiply our political influence, making it much harder for evangelical politicians to write new legislation through which they would enforce their personal bigotry.
When safety needs are met and stable, we move on to other issues.
Typically, those issues will now concern themselves with predictable environment, which I translate to mean social, or inclusion in community. These needs include community membership, social acceptance, giving and receiving love and affection. These are not trivial issues. Such social acceptance offers comfort, sexual access, predictable futures, good homes for our children. And, again, we are talking about moving beyond the first level of survival to a point where we have time to think about our world, our origins, what it all means, and why are we here. At this point questions arise, we look for those with answers, and we begin to develop the philosophy of religion to respond to these inquiries.
Social acceptance is one of the main reasons Pagans gather. I was a practicing Witch for over three years before I met another person involved in Wicca. Recently I attended a Unitarian Universalist Church service were they called the directions and called on the Lady and Lord to bless the service and congregation. I honestly did not expect to see such a service in my lifetime.
Such mainstream services provide social acceptance both of the individual within the congregation, the religion, and its concepts within the wider culture. The larger congregational gatherings also provide another ladder of hierarchy benefit, that of the giving and receiving love and affection. Many of the covens I know frown on or ban new romantic relationships between members of the coven. A coven is such an emotionally intimate group, new romantic relationships would first cause a focus of attention between those involved, to the detriment of the relationships with the rest of the coven, and sometimes emotional extremes as the relationship progresses can be very distracting. If the relationship proves unsuccessful, it can cause enough strife to doom the coven as a working group. A coven is a very small social equation, and one or two people can overset its equilibrium.
A congregation’s larger group dynamic can help defuse the tensions of romantic relationships and allow a much wider selection of potential mates.
If the social issues are stable, we then have the urge, the time, and the opportunity to attempt to become recognized within our community, by our peers, family and friends. This is the time within any group of people that we begin to see structures form which allow for efficient organization and specialization within a social group or community. Leaders arise, and structures and standards – formal or informal – develop based on the cultural norms of that group. Finally, people have enough information and predictability on safety and social standards, to know how to succeed, what honor consists of, what the community will value and recognize as individual contributions and achievements.
A sad consequence of our modern consumer society is that achievement and self-esteem are usually measured in dollars, not in service to others. The modern Pagan uses money as a tool, not an end in and of itself. The next rung of our ladder, that of self confidence, respect and social status are gained in Pagandom by service to our community. By community we don’t just mean the folks across the street or in our town. By community we mean the web of life that supports and nurtures us.
As we serve our community, we, in turn receive support from community. As we contribute our talents, we build self-confidence. As we allow others to contribute their talents to us, we build trust and respect.
All of these phases of life situations culminate to provide an environment where people can not simply expect to survive, but actually become successful. Although not an absolute, our lower needs, food, safety, love, need to be at least partially met before we can attempt to meet our ultimate, self-actualization needs. We will move in and out of our particular levels of focus as these hungers are satisfied. For example: if you know you are a excellent leader, you may no longer focus on community recognition and support, but decide to become a hermit in order to explore your mystical or spiritual aspects.
For those who are fortunate and thoughtful, this culmination of physical, social, ego will weave together in their quest for understanding to provide that ultimate experience – the mystical contact with something larger that ourselves, or our local identity. And that self becomes awakened to the greater presence which is the infinite mystery. Some call it Goddess, some call it the Divine, others see it simply as that force which binds reality and sparks existence. To touch this, to interweave it is to know oneself as enmeshed and immersed within the whole of life. In self-actualization, people feel the need for pushing beyond perceived boundaries to accomplish and claim our deepest desires. In Wicca, self-actualization might mean becoming aware and deeply enmeshed in the Lady and Lord, and web of life on earth
For the Pagan, to be self-actualized is to be fully and completely aware of your place in the web of life. To be self-actualized, is to have made your choices of who and what you are. True freedom can only come once those choices are made and acted upon. Each of us is a work in progress
Bringing it all together
So, are we "just like them damned Christians"? We share much in common with all the tribes of Earth – animal, plant and human. There is no one answer.
Rather, let us say, that we are all human, molding ourselves towards our individual visions of completeness, and we choose through the vision and generosity of our many gifts to share and succor other humans on their path through the common needs of all people.
Every person who gathers as coven or congregation has a variety of needs. Does a Wiccan Church or Coven have any responsibility to help fulfill these needs that allow us to move from one situation to the next level of opportunity? Yes. We are all Children of the Goddess and God. If we have it to share, would it not be a travesty to deny our neighbors the basic needs of life while our extra goods and talents lay wasting?
Pagans fiercely believe that each and every one of us is divinity incarnate. And with a belief system that honors each individual for their spiritual and sacred attributes, for their unique contributions and paths, it would be unseemly to categorize, generalize, or systemize who qualifies for our help. If thou art Goddess, thou art God, then thou wouldst surely know if you needed a pound of flour and a couple eggs.
Pagans value self-reliance and self-dependence. These are fundamental Pagan principals. We believe in community values that include helping those in times of need. Long before Christianity, Pagans had organized charities, and the tradition continues to this day. However, there is the issue of how to help.
Pagan church, coven or individual gladly helps with basic needs. There are many Pagan food banks around the country. Many a Pagan found someone a couch or a bed for the night. Most of us share job openings when asked. But more importantly, Pagans, with their deep belief in self-reliance and independence, sponsor efforts that help an individual until they can provide for themselves. The emphasis is on empowerment, so that success continues in the absence of outside contributions. Like any good parent, we know we will be most successful when that young person can stand on their own two feet, say, "No, thank you. I can do it myself." and then moves on to contribute to others when the need arises.
The main difference Pagan assistance offers, is that Pagans do not attempt to use such aid as a wedge into someone’s personal theology. We do not attempt to convert or evangelize those we assist. We do not attach significance to the adversity which brought someone to this place, and we do not attempt to use their misfortune to prove their philosophical or religious choices are wrong. Now, we will all endlessly discuss any and all possibilities if invited to, but that is the nature of a people who come to a religion through reading and study. We have lots of ideas, theories and opinions, and we will gladly chat for hours. However, we do not see that anyone must agree with our conclusions, simply because those conclusions suit our needs and preferences The average Pagan or Witch doesn’t worry, nor care, if a person believes in anything or nothing, as long as they allow others to pursue their own choices freely.
Thus the Pagan truly offers a gift – no strings attached, no conditions. So, to that extent, Pagans are also extremely open-handed. We believe in a philosophy which celebrates the joy and mystery of life. We have received much, and are glad to share. That energy and path will continue and be strengthened through our joy and gifts.
Just like them?
We are not a copy, poor or otherwise, of any other group or religion on the planet. And such complaints as are sometimes voiced, are the concerns of those folks once so entrenched in their former religious hierarchies that they feared never to escape to a place of celebration and joy. They guard newly gained joy and truth through a defensiveness that has not yet developed the serenity of long-held freedom. They may be fierce now, but will later understand tolerance when the fear subsides. Pagans are human, and some must heal of earlier chafes and constraints.
Keep it Simple
Every organization that ministers to the needs of people follows certain obvious paths. As we can tell, religion does not dictate the needs of people, but rather religious organizations attempt to provide for those needs, and offer opportunities to attain greater recognition and achievement through its organizational structure.
To that end, all ministries offer the greatest gifts they have – time, energy, resources and counseling. While our messages and methods may differ, our essential aim is the same. And all such gifts are honorable contributions to the body, mind and spirit.
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