7 Feb 2012

Conference of Current Pagan Studies 2012 promotes great discussion

Posted by Joanne Elliott


Just as exciting as the last minute of Sunday’s Super Bowl game was the gathering of scholars and Pagans at the 8th Conference on Current Pagan Studies on Feb. 4th and 5th. The conference at Claremont University promoted much discussion around the theme, “Identity and Community.”

William Blumberg of Cherry Hill Seminary, the conference’s Operations Manager, presented a paper contending that “myths become the background assumption of our world views.”  He believes Pagans need to be careful of the myths they tell themselves, especially those that set Pagans up as victims. Some myths, he suggested, set up Pagans against Christians, which leads Pagans into a false dichotomy of being right and the other wrong. William says we can use theological examination to analyze these myths and how they affect Pagan ethics. He asks, “Should Pagans be telling myths about the past or a narrative about how they want to live now?”

During discussion William took note that oppositional claims in Pagan identity-building are not as important now as they once may have been. He and others stated that blending of paths is happening more and more in Paganism now.

Kimberly Kirner, presented “Living Paradox: Defining Community and Identity in Non-Exclusive Spirituality.” A cultural anthropologist at Cal State Northridge, she reported that she found through a research survey that many Pagans identify with a variety of Pagan traditions, as well as with religions outside the Paganisms, even the exclusive monotheistic religions. Kimberly found this across the board from Pagans who follow general paths to those on the narrower, specific Reconstructionist paths. She called the Pagan path a spiritual trip around “the neighborhood” and the Christian path a road trip, a straight line towards salvation. Christians say “I am Christian,” and point to a conversion. Pagans say “I am Druid, but I trained with a Wiccan and I’m a member of a Buddhist temple and affiliate with Unitarians.” Kimberly said Pagans are mobile churches and temples; they bring many things with them, and into themselves.

Dr. Kahena Viale, photo by Charles Elliott

It is an embodied faith, as Kahena Viale, the conference director and founder, spoke to in her paper, “Identity without Revelation: Embodied Knowledge as an Alternative to Revealed Text.” Kahena, who teaches at Cal Poly Pomona, said that performing sacred  dance helps one to know their beliefs in their own bodies, and brings “ecstasy and joy of spirit” not known to those who follow book-based spiritualties. In each dance you reflect the ancient motion of the cosmos, and “you may feel something different. Keeping fluidity of vision,” she added, “is the only thing that can save the world and save us.”

Another presenter, Amy Hale, an anthropologist from St. Petersburg College, suggested during discussion that Pagans are in a phase of institution- and policy-building. She considered how to balance the fuzziness of Pagans identity with the need to boil down who we are when explaining ourselves to the larger population. She mentioned that we pick identities because we are working for rights, and not necessarily because we need identities. It is politically strategic to pick a category.

Kim stated that society now seems to be more accepting of diversity in religions, so it’s time to have an identity that is political and not institutional. Presenter Seth Clark, an M.A. student at Claremont Graduate University, said that he hopes we “stay fuzzy,” because he likes the openness and reach of Paganism and how it answers the existential questions of body and earth that Christianity cannot. Kim said that we can stay fuzzy and not get stripped down like the Mormon religion – once a cult, now claiming to be a Christian denomination – which Doe Daughtrey, a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University, discussed in a presentation about newly-emerging Pagans within Mormonism.

Sam Webster, M. Div., presented “Can a Magician be a Pagan?” and said he thought Paganism could work like Hinduism, which isn’t a religion, but a set of cults. Under such an arrangement, one day a Pagan could be a Druid and the next a Thelemite, depending on the need. He did state it was important not to try to be both at once, but to honor each tradition as it is.

An interesting discussion occurred around the presentation of Alfred Surenyan, “The Goddess Sings: The Musical Identity of Modern Paganism.” Alfred, a composer with a doctorate in musical arts, discussed how chanting and drumming seemed to bring Pagans together under that larger umbrella. Audience members talked about the chants they used and how they began to realize, as they traveled to different regions, the ways a particular chant was slightly different in various regions. Chant is, even in this day and age, an oral tradition.

“The Pagan History Project: Toward a Cohesive Narrative of Actual Fact and Mythic Histories,” another important paper, was presented by anthropologist Murtagh A. anDoile. He said funding is being sought for a project to gather the history of Paganism in the U.S. during the 20th century. He said such a project should trace the early history of Paganism in the U.S. beginning around 1930 and continuing to the present. It is particularly urgent to conduct interviews and gather documents now, he said, because many elders are dying off. “Every year we get further from our origins and our primary sources,” he said. “We need to save our history before it is too late.” Murtagh noted that origin stories help validate who you are and to form your identity. Much of the discussion after this session centered upon this project, so it looks like there will be many eager to get involved in collecting Pagan history.

History of a particular movement was the subject of another paper, too. Wendy Griffin, a Cal State Long Beach emeritus, and Marie Cartier, who teaches at UC Irvine, presented “Herlands: Finding God/Goddess on Lesbian Land.” This movement to the land for women came about due to a split in women’s movements back in the 1960’s, they said. Some women thought you could change society from within and others thought change from within the system was impossible. The settlements where women lived communally and created a new life for themselves were revelatory and transformative for women, according to Wendy. In a world where women were mostly dependent on men and their institutions, women came to realize they could be self-sufficient. They began to heal by being on the land amongst other woman. The magazine “Woman Spirit,” published for 10 years beginning in the 1970s, started in one of those communities and became widely read, planting the seed of woman’s spirituality and women’s independence. Marie described the emergence of  “Theeology,” “a religion of friendship” with four major tenants:

1. To see each other and be seen (Baptism)

2. To have each other (Ecclesiology/Community)

3. To love one another (Eschatology/Salvation)

4. To see the other in ourselves and another (Testifying/Witnessing)

Some heated discussion came about during the Q & A after session six. Presentations in that session focused upon psychological aspects of Pagan community and identity. Whether Pagan leadership should be trained to deal with or at least be able to recognize when a student or coven member needs psychological help was discussed. Most seemed to agree that they should, since many said they were dealing with such things already.

Sam Webster, who presented, “Can a Magician be a Pagan?” mentioned that leaders in the community could get a clinical pastoral education and it is relatively inexpensive to do so. He also suggested that Pagans could take tools developed by the Protestant movement and gear them toward the Pagan community. Z Budapest took exception to that. She didn’t think anything from Christianity would be helpful, but Sam countered that they could and have and noted that many of these tools were developed by women.

The darker side of some Paganism was explored by Amy Hale, a Celtic Studies specialist, in her paper “Locating Identity and Authenticity in Radical Traditionalism and the Pagan New Right.” She said there is a more menacing element emerging within Paganism and within Heathenry in particular. That element is racist and supremacist thought. Some neo folk music groups have been very effective in getting people to emotionally hook to them without revealing the darker politics of their movement, she said. Some Paganism is being coopted into the New Right movement as a way of organizing people. Amy stated that Pagans like folklore, emphasize communion with nature, are attracted to tribalism, and may have generalized antimodernist attitudes. This sympathetic framework provides opportunities for the New Right.


Z. Budapest, photo by Charles Elliott

Z Budapest, a leading Dianic witch and women’s activist, was one of two keynote speakers this year. She told how her identity was formed by both her past as a Hungarian refugee and her work in the world leading Dianic rituals, lecturing, teaching classes, giving workshops, and writing. Z spent much of her life helping women. Los Angeles’ Woman’s Center was born from this life’s work, and her efforts there helped many women to learn to be self-sufficient. A woman’s bank was also created during a time in the 1970s when women couldn’t get loans or a credit card. She said that “women have to get over male worship,” and that “women represent peace.” She challenged us to stop any talk or action towards another war.

Hyperion, photo by Charles Elliott

Hyperion, the leader of The Unnamed Path, an emerging shamanic path for men-who-love-men, was the other keynoter. He showed us how we have varied ideas about what Paganism is by going around the room and asking. What was discovered was that those present were quite universalist. He said these universalist ways of defining Paganism create an absence of a place for minorities within Paganism. “There needs to be a space for all,” says Hyperion. “It’s becoming Pagan Unitarian Universalist, but that’s not the Aquarian Age.” He also warned that appropriating deities out of their culture does a disservice to them, and to their original cultures and contexts, and may unexpectedly unleash powerful negative energies. How do we balance what comes from the heart without blindly appropriating? He told us that when we are drawn to a divinity we should learn from a practitioner of the related faith and only then bring it into our own practice.

He also offered three things we really need to remember on our personal journey, three mystical questions:

1. Who am I? (Exploration of personal alchemy)

2. What is it? (God, cosmos, life – try to understand what you are in relationship with)

3. What is my role in it? (What’s my role in it and its role in my life)

This conference is an annual, two-day, idea- and discussion-packed event. Keynote Coordinator Alfred Surenyan estimated the 2012 attendance to be at about 60, which was down slightly from last year. Although I’d like to mention all 23 speakers who shared their research and ideas, space does not permit. Here I have tried to sample and share the ideas that might be of the most interest to the Pagan community at large. You can read about them all online via the conference website. And there are more pictures here.

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8 Responses to “Conference of Current Pagan Studies 2012 promotes great discussion”

  1. I am delighted to see other groups having meetings where Pagan studies can benefit from some of the tools of academia. Seattle Pagan Scholars started in 1994 and continues to this day. OBOD’s 40th Anniversary Gathering in 2004 took the form of a series of lectures on various aspects of druidry.

    Good to see more folks out there doing the work!


    Gordo n

  2. Wow! Great job Joanne!



  3. Thanks Tim! It was a great conference and I enjoyed the chance to bring it to those who couldn’t make it.


    Joanne Elliott/aka soulsprite

  4. Gordo, thanks for letting us know about those other groups. Pagan Studies has made great inroads in academia in the past decade. If you ever get the chance to check out this conference it is well worth it.


    Joanne Elliott/aka soulsprite

  5. Thanks for covering the conference Joanne! i hope to make it next year. I am particularly interested in the trends within the Mormon church.



  6. You’re welcome Rayna. It would be great if you could come next year. It is well worth it.


    Joanne Elliott/aka soulsprite

  7. Joanne, I did not phrase that well. From my perspective, Seattle Pagan Scholars and the OBOD Mt. Haemus programme are not really about making inroads into academia.

    Rather, they are about using some of the tools available in academic disciplines to improve discernment and spirituality amongst members of the communities that self-identify as magical or Neo/EuroPagan.

    I am only speaking from my own experiences as a field anthropologist, Crafter, Druid and OBOD Mt Haemus Scholar. Other folks certainly have other perspectives to bring to the table.


    Gordo n

  8. [...] February 4th and 5th, the 2012 Conference on Current Pagan Studies was held in California. Joanne Elliot has a wonderful write-up of the event at PNC-Southern California, with some follow-up pictures posted to her Examiner page. In addition, attendee and [...]


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