Posted: September 3, 2010 06:37 PM
“My family is Jewish,” he said to me.
“My family is Protestant,” she added.
“But we’re pagan,” he continued, “and we want our wedding to have some pagan element.”
“Only we want it to be subtle,” she said. “We don’t want our families to feel uncomfortable.”
“That’s simple,” I answered. “We’ll honor the elements.” It’s a feature of most contemporary pagan rituals. “We all have to breathe. We all need light and warmth. We all stand on the earth that feeds and shelters us. We all need water to stay alive, whatever else we believe or don’t believe.”
The word pagan simply means country-dweller, although many contemporary neo-pagans are urban dwellers, as were many pagans in classical times. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, the designation came to describe anyone who was not a monotheist. Paganism isn’t really an “ism” at all. Pagan practices are specific to a time, place, and culture. Although Isis was at one time worshiped all over the Mediterranean world and the Rites of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis drew pilgrims from everywhere, no pagan community or practice (to avoid the charged word “cult”) has ever been hailed as a world religion. Yet all so-called world religions have pagan roots and practices that vary from one region to another. All the world religions have splintered into sometimes violently opposing sects. They also continue to make war against each other, or their more extreme practitioners do.
So who needs religion? you might wonder as you hum John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I am not going to answer that question beyond muttering, “Religions! Can’t live with ’em; can’t live without ’em.”
Paradoxically in its particularity, attention to the local (this mountain, this river, this cycle of seasons), the pagan approach offers a way to recognize our commonality, not just with our fellow human beings but with all the life on this planet. For most of human existence, religious practice had to do with ensuring that there would be enough food, that resources would be preserved, that the gods (source) in the form of rivers, springs, mountains, and soil would be honored, fed, and replenished so that the people would continue to thrive.
Whatever our religious beliefs, we know that we are made of the same elements as this planet. The sea is in our blood, the air is our breath, are bones are crystalline, the sun’s fire (in whatever form) warms us and fuels. Climate change, in which we play a role, has shifted the balance of the elements. Whether or not human agency is clear in every instance, we can’t help but be aware of elemental upheaval: tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, the devastating flooding in Pakistan, fires in the Western United States. We have put diverse ecologies at risk as we compulsively drill for what is in effect ancient sunlight. A huge glacier just broke away from Greenland, and the seas are rising.
Instead of regarding the elements as our enemies, something to harness, subdue, exploit or escape, maybe it is time to start honoring them again, restoring them, learning from them, aligning with them, recognizing that all life, not just our own, is sustained by the elements, of one substance with them. Maybe we all are pagan, urban and rural dwellers on this earth.