This post is about compromise. Now, you might be thinking, “what does compromise have to do with being Pagan?”
Quite a bit, actually – if you practice Paganism, you’re probably not going to get exactly what you want. You can expect that, whether you’re joining a teaching group, or hanging out to socialize with other Pagans, you’ll probably have to let go of some of the things you hope to get.
I mean, if you’re anything like me, you may discover that some deep part of your soul just sings when you do meditation. But you happen to be the only regular meditator within 50 miles, and therefore you have no opportunity for community or group work.
So – just so we’re on the same page, by “compromise” I mean “adjusting your actions, statements, beliefs, or wishes in order to better align with other people.” I know there are a few other definitions, but for this post I’ll just stick to that.
As Pagans, we want it our way
One of the coolest things I’ve noticed about Paganism, is that people tend to feel a sense of “coming home.” It’s an incredible feeling. I think most of the time, people who switch to Paganism are doing so because something shitty has happened in their previous religion. Sometimes it’s a logic problem, where the religion’s teachings don’t make sense. For example, trying to reconcile the pronoun “we” in the Christian Bible against the teaching that there is only one god. Sometimes it’s a theology problem, where the religion creates a tension with personal beliefs. An example of this might be a woman being excommunicated from the LDS church for trying to open up church leadership to women. Sometimes, it’s just a social thing. You get tired of being shamed for doing normal human stuff, or someone in the church treats you poorly or abusively, and it disrupts your belief that your religion is “good.”
So you find Paganism, which is a little scary but a little awesome, and you try a few things out, you meet a few really cool and accepting people, and you feel like you’ve found your home.
I mean, it’s pretty dang awesome.
And then, at some point when you’re learning about all this stuff, you get the message that you need to “follow your intuition,” or that you should “just do what feels right.” And your new community will stick up for whatever you choose to do for your spirituality, without judging, questioning, or criticizing you. I mean, how empowering is that, that your own path is honored and respected, no matter how unique?
I don’t want to discount anyone’s intuition about things. It’s an incredibly valuable asset, to be able to “gut-check” a situation and know whether it’ll be good for you or bad. Or even to listen to that quiet inner voice that nudges you in a helpful direction.
But when you apply that mentality to Paganism, you end up with a bazillion different individual Pagan paths. (Because each Pagan is following his or her own unique intuition.) And each is valid for its practitioner, but potentially incompatible with other people.
In many ways, this is a very good thing! It promotes a sense of personal empowerment and responsibility that I think this world really needs.
My way isn’t necessarily your way
The last time I did an invocation, it was for a public circle that a guy invited me to. I did the Greek invocation to Hekate, just because it’s what I’d been doing a lot of at the time. It ended up being completely out of place. His ritual was a very basic Wiccan-style circle, with one person standing in to call each element. If I remember right, there might have even been a little invocation to some generic “Teh Godz and Godessz” invocation. But there was nothing deeper than just the casting of the circle, and a statement of intent.
In retrospect, I think my invocation to Hekate marked me out as “too different” from the others in the circle. Either too foreign, too authentic, too spooky, too whatever. But I noticed that when I offered an open circle, no one from that group came out to attend.
Now, I could take offense at this, and consider that those people are judging me. (Which is probably true.) But instead, I just choose to interpret it that my way is simply too different from their way, and they just aren’t comfortable with that difference. And vice-versa – their way is too different from my way, and I’m not willing to adjust my spiritual practice to work with them.
If you pay much attention to the online groups, you’ll see a lot of tension between different folks practicing different paths. Are the grimoires an evolving tradition, or do you have to perform all the rites exactly as written? Do you have to have an initiation to be a real witch, or can you find your own way? If I experience Hekate one way, and you experience her in a wildly different way, which of us is “right?” Can you legitimately call yourself a Shaman without committing cultural appropriation, or without the deep training indigenous practitioners endure to become a Shaman?
These are all disagreements I’ve read. And I suspect in my local Pagan community, these sorts of differences are the reason we have a shitty turnout for our events. (Well, that and my suspicion that the members from the other circle are bad-mouthing me behind my back and poaching potential attendees from our group.) Each Pagan wants an experience that exactly matches their idea and intuition about what their path should be. And we simply can’t deliver.
So as Pagans, we encourage people to follow their own, individual path, regardless of where it takes them. But then each individual path develops traits that make it hard to find others with similar practices.
Based on what I see from folks posting in various online forums, I am:
- The only member of Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery within 300 miles
- The only follower of Hekate in 100 miles
- One of three AMORC Rosicrucians within 100 miles, or about 10 statewide
- One of about a dozen Pagans to attend live events, in a local online community of over 500
- One of about 6 followers of Buddhism within 100 miles, some of whom go to a Unitarian church (with a child molester)
Who, exactly, are my people? How do I find people with a similar mix of interests and practices? I can talk with folks online, but I’m finding that my “calling” has specialized me to a point where I don’t really “fit” into any groups. And most of the groups I consider myself a part of, there just aren’t enough of us to create a real-world community.
So, in order to hang out with people who have even remotely similar practices as me, I have to focus on a few areas of common interest, and try to connect with other people in that interest.
I think there are a lot of Pagans out there who do this. But I think there are even more who just don’t participate because whatever group is in their area “just isn’t doing the kind of stuff that they want.” If that’s you – may I suggest that your spiritual path is influenced more by what you put into it, than with who teaches you. And it’s probably worth taking some time to decide on which values are more important. Which is more important: community, or avoiding people who are different?
If we want community, or if we want to learn from a real-world teacher, or even if we just want to do ritual with other Pagans in the real world, we’ve got to decide which parts of our path we can let slide. I can relax most of my Hekate practice to work with light-side Pagans. I can minimize most of my Buddhist ideas to be more Pagan. (There is a group called “Dharma-Pagan,” which is awesome but under-represented.) I don’t even mention my Rosicrucian stuff around Pagans, because there’s so little overlap. (I know of precisely zero Pagan Rosicrucians.)
You might decide that, even though you’re not Wiccan, you want to learn magic from the local Wiccan teaching group. Or you might decide that, as an atheopagan, you want to socialize with the local humanist group and not spend time with a bunch of delusional believers of woo~. Or, as an atheopagan you might decide that the woo~ believing Pagans are more your people, because at least they try to honor and connect with the Earth. Whatever. It’s up to you.
Just try to figure out for yourself where are the areas you can flex.
One way I reconcile my beliefs against other, contradictory beliefs is by breaking them down into two categories. First are my primary beliefs, such as an animist worldview, acceptance of multiple planes of existence, spirits and deities, ghosts and ancestors, magic and the ability to change reality and probability.
But I know my primary beliefs cause friction with other people. So I’ve developed a secondary set of meta-beliefs to help ease the friction between my beliefs and other people’s. For example, I need a worldview that can accommodate atheism as a valid spiritual path, to help me see atheists as human beings instead of assholes. (Though some atheists make it hard to see anything but the asshole.) Likewise, I need a worldview that allows for Hekate to manifest differently for me than for someone else, without causing feelings of superiority or inferiority.
I reconcile these things for myself by putting beliefs (both mine and other people’s) in categories:
- False (illusion, delusion, wishful thinking, fantasy, deception)
- True for me (but not necessarily true for you)
- True for you (but not necessarily true for me)
- True for lots of people (but my results may vary)
- Historically true (but my results may vary)
- Scientifically true (generally true, with limited exceptions)
- Absolutely true (Like gravity, or Plato’s Theory of Forms)
An example of outright false would be fake psychics committing fraud. True for me (or you) might be Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) – it feels like a real experience, but it’s either super-personal or no one else sees it that way. True for lots of people would be more Verified Personal Gnosis (VPG), such as Hekate appearing to most people with keys, torches, daggers, and dogs.
I think the last ones are pretty self-explanatory. Anyone can do a little Google-fu and find reasonably accurate historical records. (Though, depending on your training, it might not occur to you to do research.) For scientifically true things, I’ve heard records of Tibetan monks who can defy physics, but I’d need some pretty compelling evidence to accept it. (Which has happened.)
I think, in general, most Pagans get along just fine, as long as we don’t run into the “you’re doing it wrong” argument. That one can be hard to take. And I think our community is pretty good about shutting down criticism of a person’s path.
Though I would add, if someone’s path is exploitive or illegal, then we should not feel shy about calling it out.
Hopefully, though, the previous list gives you a set of “shock-absorber” beliefs that will help.
Say for example you go to an open circle, and they perform an invocation to Dionysus. Which is totally cool, because you’ve done some work with the D-man, with ritual intoxication and riding that edge of madness. Only you get there to find that they’re using Dionysus as a generic stand-in for some Celtic horned-god. Now, you would be totally justified in thinking this is blasphemy. But with meta-beliefs, you can say “Well, maybe this is true for them, but I don’t get it, and I can’t see making this a part of my practice.” You complete the ritual, and can decide on the other merits of the group without having their weird UPG be a deal-breaker.
Another way you can take this, is say you want to take an online correspondence course in magic. But the teacher is really into ritual nudity, to the point where he requires it for the homework. You can choose to try it out, and see what ritual nudity is like. Or you can skip it. There’s no ritual police out there going to give you a ticket for not following directions. At worst, not following directions will (typically) just lead to no results.* Or, better yet, you can just go into the class thinking “This may not be ideal, but I hope to get xx out of it.” Do the work, be open to experience, but realize that what you get out of the class depends directly on your expectations and contributions. The more you invest, the more you get back.
Same goes for social groups. The more you invest in the group, the more the group will be able to give back.
*Note that if you’re going grimoire or goetic work, or anything involving conjuring Non-Physical Entities, there are some additional risks. This is magic, it’s supposed to be a little dangerous. But then, so are power tools.
But what if they really are wrong?
Because no one ever makes up stupid shit to sell a book, right? *cough cough* 21 Lessons of Merlin *cough cough*
One problem Pagans have to deal with is that there’s a lot of missing information about pre-Christian belief systems. Lots of folks have stepped in to fill those gaps, both ethically and unethically. So – assuming it’s not just a difference of opinion, or UPG, how do we compromise when someone is flat-out wrong?
For example, say someone is a victim of a fraudulent psychic. Is it right to challenge them? Is it better for the victim to learn for themselves? I mean, I would want to know if I was getting advice someone thought was fraudulent. But on the other hand, maybe there’s something being transmitted despite the fraud that person needs.
Or, consider when someone brings up the false figure of a million witches dying in the burning times.
I find it helpful to hedge a little in my response. I’ll use a phrase like “Well, in my experience…” Or “Well, according to most historians…” Something about starting with a concession that you might be wrong seems to help soften the message and make it easier for the other person to hear.
Going a little further, try to avoid pinning the other person down into being “wrong.” No one likes to be wrong. But if you give them a chance to save face it can smooth the disagreement. One way to do that is to “clarify.” You can say, “So, could you clarify for me, did you really think it was a million witches that were burned at the stake, considering there’s nothing in the records of the Spanish Inquisition that say so?”
Very often, offering the chance to “clarify” gives the other person space to change their position and save face. They might reply, “Well, what I meant wasn’t a million, that’s way too high a number. But it was a lot of people, and being burned for witchcraft is horrific.”
This approach does three things. First, it can help you get to a space where you can agree to disagree. Second, it can help you find common ground where you can more easily get along. Third, it might show you that you’re wrong.
You might be wrong.
Have you ever had a moment where you read something or hear something that shows you, unequivocally, that something you knew to be true was completely wrong?
I have. Gods, that’s uncomfortable. Awkward. Embarassing. Shameful.
But it happens. I think sometimes it helps when the other person is compassionate, allowing me to save face, and not rubbing it in that I was wrong. It also helps when I try to think in terms of “what’s right” rather than “being right.” In the former, I don’t care who’s right, it’s more important to get to something that’s true. In the latter, I’m trying to be better than someone by being right.
If someone calls you out for being wrong, you can save face by saying, “Wow, I wasn’t aware of that. Do you have a source where I can read more about this?” (Note: this phrase works whether the claim is true or false.)
So when I’m on the other side of it, I try not to be a dick about being right. Or about any of my beliefs. And I think that’s pretty much the best thing a person can do in the name of compromise.
So, none of us has the cornerstone on The One True Way™. We’re all individuals, sometimes with very low overlap with other people’s paths.
But we want something. Community, maybe. Clergy services. Training.
It works best, I think, if we go into it figuring we’re probably not going to get exactly what we want. It also helps if you go in with an idea of what you’re willing to give up or let slide.
One thing that helps is to think of a list of things we are and are not willing to compromise. I will totally compromise on your experience with deities. I’m happy to chat about different experiences with different spirits, deities, or NPE’s. But I do not compromise my standard about not hanging out with sex offender
What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s important in your path to be right? Do you need to have a very firm and unwavering set of beliefs? Or do you think that compromise for the sake of community (or other goals) is more important?
Please share your thoughts in the comments!