I’m not very familiar with paganism, but I certainly appreciate aspects of the pagan approach to spirituality infinitely more than that of many religions. There is of course the belief in the sacredness of the Earth, there are notions like the principles of unity or co-creation, virtues such as beauty, simple living, service, wisdom and compassion (see Donald L. Engstrom-Reese’s website), and values such as the great erotic, passionate, wild love for life, that embraces dark and light and the whole cycle of birth, growth, death, decay and regeneration (Starhawk’s Dirt Worship blog). Heathens seem to know how to honour and celebrate life in its totality!
But dilemmas can arise, for example when you are concerned about the impacts humans have on the planet and you want to counteract our destructive practices on the one hand and have fun and live life to its fullest on the other. An interesting article written by Starhawk highlights this value predicament:
The greatest ethical problem at the moment, I think, for those of us who believe the earth is sacred is how to respond to climate change, to the immense potential loss of life and biodiversity it represents, to the personal and social challenges it poses. How do we both live with personal integrity and also help to galvanize a more effective public response? How do we make people aware of the urgency without plunging them into cynicism and despair? What sacrifices are we truly called to make, and how do we formulate a truly pagan response, that avoids falling into quasi-Christian moralism, that lets us continue to value pleasure, joy and beauty, that seeks to create abundance, regeneration and healing?
It’s very easy when we talk about environmental matters to fall into a kind of environmental moralism. A lot of our solutions involve exhorting people to be good, to give up things, to make sacrifices. We make people feel guilty and wrong. Well, maybe we should feel guilty and wrong for destroying the planet, and when we’re grubbing for flaccid, dying roots in the melting tundra in small, starving bands escaping the suffocating heat of the lower latitudes, we’ll wish we’d made greater sacrifices–but exhorting people to be good has limited effectiveness. And maybe a bit of it, just a bit–is a holdover of patriarchal religious conditioning, that pleasure is suspect and goodness involves austerity. I wonder what an ecological movement might look like that truly embraced Pagan values–that pleasure is good, the body is sacred, life should be full of beauty and delight, that all of life is alive and speaking and communicating and inviting us to join in the song? If we said, “Come join us in a world that is alive with enchantment, throw off the shackles of the poisonous world and the chains of production and run wild, eat fabulous food, have ecstatic sex, swim naked in clean-running rivers, restore the life and health of the world?”
Well said. Indeed, large parts of the environmental movement sometimes seem to embody a kind of religious revival – in their seriousness, earnestness, joylessness, cheerlessness and gloominess. They remind me of the early heydays of the political left in the 1970s when the spontaneity and fun-activism of the then anarchists was frowned upon by the upright, straitlaced Marxist-Leninist party faithful. And I agree: there is no compelling or imperative reason for not having fun when fighting to halt the planet’s destruction or battle the protagonists of global injustice!
While fun and activism are one area where pagan values can add a valuable dimension, another point to contemplate is the role darkness plays in our collective mind. Again Starhawk provides and interesting perspective:
Tuesday we heard a powerful presentation from the Beehive Collective, http://www.beehivecollective.org, a group that does amazing, complex graphics on giant posters about key political issues. They live collectively here in Maine but travel to tell stories and present their work all over the world. They’ve been working on the issue of mountain-top renewal and coal. James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate change scientists, says that stopping coal is 85% of addressing climate change. As for ‘clean’ coal—take a look at the 400 mountaintops in Appalachia that have been leveled, at the buried streams, at the dams of toxic tailings, at those flooded towns in Tennessee—and then define ‘clean’!
At any rate, on their research tour in Appalachia, they met at one point with an executive from the coal company. Among other things, he told them “Coal keeps the lights on—and the dark is scary.”
One of the Pagan Values I hold is to embrace the dark. We don’t identify dark with evil and light with good, but see light and dark as parts of the balance. The dark of the womb, the dark of fertile earth, the dark of the night sky all hold mystery, creativity, life.
Not that I don’t love electric light to read by, my computer and even the occasional movie of TV night. But I wonder—is our fear of the dark—which is connected to our fear of the wild, of the body, of nature, our fear of mortality and our denigration of the women’s bodies which bring us into this mortal life, our oppression of people whose skins are dark and our disdain for those who work with their hands in dark earth—is that connected to the denial and the disconnect that is letting us continue to destroy the very systems that sustain our lives?
It probably is, and the patriarchal Judaeo-Christian religions have contributed immensely to our disrespect for nature and the feminine, and to our fear of darkness. And like supplementing austerity with pleasure, it seems sound advice to begin to celebrate the dark and wild fearlessly for what they are – essential parts of life.