Quite a few people anguish over their personal answer to this question. We should all know what to say, but usually stammer around a little and say something vague. There is a discussion among Pagan intellectuals about whether your beliefs and practices can safely fall under the broad definition this term offers. The modern definition of Pagan arose with a pretty Wicca-centric focus, so the further your practices and beliefs get from that, the less safe this umbrella term may feel. Can we agree to a term or definition that works better in the future? I don’t know. Nearly everyone has a different answer, when asked, “So what is a Pagan?” I see the value for those who embrace the word in finding a good definition for the term we can all use. A definition that is accurate and inclusive, and doesn’t offend anyone. I will leave that to others to technically work out, it doesn’t interest me that much. I just like the term Pagan.
I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s when the word “Hippie” was kind of similar. For some it conjured up dirty, disheveled, long-haired lazy people, self-absorbed in mind expanding drugs and having loose moral standards. I never minded when someone called me one as hate speech. I knew they meant one thing, but it meant something else to me. I embraced the label for its vision. I saw it as representing a new way of looking at life, as re-assessing of what was important, and letting go of the expectations of others and our society. I liked the “Peace and Love” platform. I soon learned in personal application it often meant “my” peace, and “my” love, as interpreted at any moment. The Hippie movement quickly degenerated, maybe because it didn’t have a clearly articulated definition that guided and sustained people who claimed the term.
I joined the “Back to the Land” movement in the 70’s that had inherited much of the Hippie impetus. It was easy to sort out the people, based on what they did. There were those who talked endlessly about the network of living things, and those who weeded the onions and lived the network. Most of the people fascinated with the metaphysics of nature, experienced it, and then left for greener pastures, usually back in the cities.
A lot of exposure to radical left politics got mixed in here for me. As a reaction to what exists, political action is a powerful force. As a method of making change, I found it wanting because the significant changes start within. About this time I started remembering my youth experience as a tween. I spent a lot of time working within and enjoying the social network in the YMCA. I worked summers as an assistant counselor at a day camp for those younger. It was not a very “religious” program, and our weekly counselor sermons were about topics like strength when we work together in unity, or the value of speaking the truth, general topics. What I did come away with from that experience was a sense of magic. The magic of service to others; the tremendous impact one can have on individuals, and experiencing deity personally, through service to others.
When I discovered Paganism, I thought, “Great!” Here is a group who think for themselves, are reverent of nature, make their own choices, AND are guided by an intimate relationship with a broad vision of where the divine resides. Pagans respect all people and treat them with the sacredness that the divine would smile about. This was home, it had all the things I had integrated over my whole life experience within it. I started out assuming anyone claiming “Pagan” beliefs must be somewhat divine in character as a person. How could you embrace all these tenants and be otherwise?
Like all my life experience eventually disclosed to me, Pagans are just people, and they can be nearly divine and also be assholes. For me, what Pagan is, is all about what you do, not what you claim to believe or practice. When someone is introduced to me as a “Pagan” I nod, and if the conversation allows it, ask, “Well what do you do? “ When they start to tell me about their path, or pantheon, or philosophy I respond with natural curiosity.
What I really want in a spiritual sense is the answers to questions like these:
How does your relationship with deity help you be a better and growing person? How do you honor your gods by helping others? Do they ask sacrifice of you, how do you place the needs of others above your own at times? How do you make the earth a better place? Do your deities require a commitment from you, and how do you honor that? Is an oath serious business? Do you speak with truth to the gods, and how ardently do you hear their truth about yourself? Do you act with respect to others, even if they appear to do none of these things?
Really, I can’t know another’s relationship to the gods, certainly not by their words. How they answer the question, “What do you do? “, may give me some insight into their character. I want to know what their gift to humanity is, how do they actively help other people? How much time do they spend in wild nature? What do they do to preserve and defend it? Can I count on them when they make even a casual promise, will they follow through? Do they live their excuses and limitations, or are they stretching their talents and abilities? Do they speak with respect to all people? I want to know the practical things about a person.
As a declared Pagan, or of any other faith for that matter, I really don’t care what a person calls themselves, or the particulars of their spiritual belief. I want to know if they are someone I will be thrilled to know, someone who positively represents the Pagan “label” I embrace. Someone building something better for themselves and their community.
I see an optimistic future, sometimes it is a plague for me to see the world that way. Many of the social movements of my lifetime, are coming back. This time around they are rooted in doing, not rhetoric. There are many projects thriving that demonstrate the biblical invective of selfless caring for others. People freely offering the practice of inspirational and unconditional love. Communities struggling together, on a grass-roots level, to build networks, and to end the causes of violence and militarism. Settlers are back in rural areas committed to living in close harmony with the land. And yes, a diversity of relationships with the divine are blooming. All things that are being demonstratively done.
I think the next time someone asks me, “So what is a Pagan?”, I’ll say, “Someone who cares for and respects themselves, all people, the earth, and their community, and has relationships with some form of divinity. Someone who actively does things to demonstrate that respect and care.” Notice you could fill in most any belief system in this definition and make the case for it. Then there may also be a lot of talk of diversity, poly-topics, philosophy, and practices, but I’ll try emphasizing the first sentence. I’ll probably have to answer with the things Pagans do that demonstrate the care and respect Pagans have. I might be doing some fast dancing to think of some examples quickly. At least a positive declaration of what I hope “Pagan” as an umbrella term stands for, is out there in the answer first.
This definition of the term “Pagan” may be vague, and a stretch as a working definition, but it is a definition for me that I would be proud to embrace into the future. If you fit this definition, I am happy to know you as a Pagan. A Pagan; Someone who cares, respects, and does … and has relationships with divinity. I like it.