One of the biggest issues I’ve seen in pagan community is the (sometimes heated) discussion around pagan theology, labels and individuality. As I have said before, for years I have refused to label myself as anything but spiritual. One of the reasons for this was to keep out of this type of discussion. But now as I start to become more involved in pagan communities I have realized that it is time for me to organize my own thoughts on the subject.
Labels can cause more pain than they can help. Eckhart Tolle talks about labels as being a part of the suffering in the world. The meaning in people’s lives is usually associated with what labels they think of as “good”, and this good is threatened by the labels people associate with being “bad”. Simply consider the question “Who are you” and you are inundated with them. Your answer will most likely include something like the following, “I am a Technical writer (a job title label), a pagan (a religious label) and at times I am a fencer and martial artist (activity labels).”
While these labels define us as people, they also can divide us on a spiritual level, especially when we start looking at the definition of these labels. An example of this is the discussion between Sarenth Odinsson and John Halstead. While I don’t want to get into all of the specifics, Sarenth basically started to discuss his belief system and how his definitions didn’t fit the beliefs of people like John Halstead. John replied, and a part of that exchange can be found here. After reading the entire exchange, my personal belief is that the whole matter comes down to one specific thing; the definitions of the labels of “sacred” and “holy”. These labels mean something different to Sarenth Odinsson than they did to John Halstead.
What’s my take on this discussion? I think they are both right. And I believe this to be a clear example of the problems when trying to unify pagans under a specific set of guidelines or beliefs. Inevitably those beliefs include labels that have different meanings from one person to the next. And thus the separations begin.
On the other side of the dilemma, I understand now that labels are necessary evils. Without them I cannot communicate. The problem is that there is a fine line between using a label to communicate a concept and using a label to communicate a division between two people. A theology, defined as a system of religious beliefs or ideas, depends on these labels in order communicate a specific set of beliefs, practice and experience. Therein lies the problem; if we cannot completely agree on a definition of a label that does not divide any part of the pagan community, how are we ever going to agree on a set of these labels in a theology?
Going further, how can we attempt to put a pagan theology around an entire mass of people that cannot even put a theology around a specific subgroup of pagans? I don’t think we can. We obviously don’t see it right now in one specific set or style of heathenism/polytheism/paganism that we have today. If it was, then we would have only had Gardner’s version of Wicca, not the various traditional and nontraditional versions. We would have had the Troth and not the Troth/Northern Tradition/Asatru/Vanatru/Rokkur and so on, and so on.
Individuals are as varied as the shapes of snowflakes, and this is reflected in our belief systems. Sure you can label a snowflake group as six-pointed, four-pointed, heavy, light, big or small, but when it comes down to the individuality of each there is no way to specifically group them with the exception of labeling them snowflakes.
Will things always be this way? I don’t know. Will this belief of mine change over time? Probably. But I don’t think it will happen until we as a collective whole recognize the like mindedness nature in each other and push past our human tendency to label and divide. We have to recognize that no matter how we pray, do ritual, live and interact with others that we all have something that guides us forward, no matter the label. Once that is accepted into the pagan consciousness, then perhaps we can start the process to unify. Until then, I believe it we will only be a significant number of groups with different belief systems and sub-theologies unified under a very loose terminology.