A Pagan Primer – 21


This week on our Pagan Primer, I want to talk a little about cafeteria-style religion and what I’ll call “rebellious adherence”.


I think that we all know what’s meant by cafeteria-style religion, and I’ll get back to that in a few minutes. But “rebellious adherence” might seem to be a bit of an oxymoron, so I’ll get to that first, and then talk about why I put these two phrases together.


There are lots of things in many religions that seem attractive to lots of people. Catholics have the solid foundation of a 2000 year history and the assurance of the veracity and trustworthiness of their doctrine. Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians have the assurance that the Bible alone is the source of unambiguous truth as revealed by God. Reconstructionist paths look to what can be proved about the cultures which they model themselves after, and short of that, what might be reasonably surmised. Wiccans have taken the basics put forth by Gerald Gardner and have developed a number of “denominations” or traditions based on his work.


Basically, every religion that has a name has some defining formula or scripture. The very point of giving something a name which separates it from something else is to define it – to develop a schema by which that particular thing may be described or differentiated from other similar things.


We know Roman Catholicism as a religion, led by the Pope, administered by a largely unmarried priesthood which is comprised of men only.


We know Dianic Wicca as a Goddess-oriented, women-centered implementation of Wicca


We know that Celtic reconstructionism focuses exclusively on the religion, gods, goddesses and culture of the pre-Christian Celtic peoples.


The point is that the terms we use describe something which we know.


What I mean by “rebellious adherence” is the attempt by some to use a name, but to utterly change its meaning.


Take Catholicism for example. There are those who are Catholic, but wish to have a democratic means of governance in the Church rather than the absolute authority of the Pope. There are those who wish to have married, or female clergy. Some have gone so far in recent days as to have ordained women, and then become upset when excommunicated.


There are people who might call themselves “celtic reconstructionist Wiccans”. Wicca though, didn’t exist until the 1950’s, and is based on many traditions that have nothing to do with the Celtic peoples.


There are those who wish to be known as Dianic Wiccans, but feel a need to have a God as well as a Goddess, who seek “balance” between the masculine and feminine, and who have both men and women in their covens.


By “rebellious adherence” I mean the adoption of a name, but the rejection of the schema.


Many Catholics will never set aside the name “Catholic”; they believe that their church was ordained by God, and that to leave it would result in damnation. But they hold on to the name, and strive to completely change the organization.


What they fail to recognize is that when they change what the name means, they rob the name of any valid meaning. If I were able, somehow to change a cat into a dog, but continued to call it a cat, I’ve at that point made the words “cat” and “dog” meaningless.


If one retains the name “Dianic”, but gives equal time and homage to gods for “balance”, if one admits men into “Dianic” covens, then what does the word “Dianic” mean? Do we create new terms like “authentic Dianic” or “Traditional Dianic” to accommodate groups who wish to use the term for something it was never intended to mean?


This is the essence behind the Catholic idea of ex-communication. Excommunication is not so much a punishment as it is a recognition that a person or group has so far strayed from the meaning of “Catholic”, that they can no longer, in good faith, be considered “Catholic”. It’s a means to keep the schema or the concept of “Catholic” pure. It’s a way to insure that the word “Catholic” retains some meaning.


In Paganism though, we don’t have that ability. We don’t have a central organization which will permit us to retain control of the words we use. I suppose that one could copyright a name, or retain trademark protection, but most Pagans don’t like to get that involved with legalities. Nor do we have the ability to begin an inquisition.


“Rebellious adherence” then, rather than being an oxymoron is a description of the oxymoron that results when we try to hold onto a name, but radically change the substance. By definition, a girl can’t be a Boy Scout, nor a boy a Girl Scout. As soon as either organization allows those of the other gender to be members, the name of the organization loses meaning.


“Rebellious adherence” results in the destruction of meaning. It retains a name, but the substance behind that name ceases to exist in a meaningful capacity.


Cafeteria-style religion is closely related to rebellious adherence and I think that most of the people who practice one, practice the other.


Cafeteria-style religion is the adoption of only those portions of a faith that one fancies. For the Catholic, it might mean communion is ok, but confession isn’t. Or perhaps they’ll go to church during lent, but still eat meat no Fridays.


To the Wiccan, one might cast spells, but never a circle, or they may celebrate only Samhanin, but not the other sabbats.


Someone once said “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck”, then it is likely a duck. Well, if we look at those who practice cafeteria-style religion, does that “duck” really look like a “duck”? If one looks at the definition of “Wicca” as a particular practice, and then looks at a person who approaches it cafeteria-style, are those who practice only a portion of Wicca actually “Wiccan”? What it comes down to is that a person, as in “rebellious adherence” is practicing something other than what the name of that practice implies.


Most pagan religions are very tolerant. We don’t put the restrictions on people that the mainstream monotheistic religions put on people. In general, it you want to believe something, that’s ok.


I think it’s a problem though to be so loose that we cannot have reliable descriptions or definitions. If we are so lax as to not have legitimate descriptions or definitions, we could (if we take such laxness to an absurd end), have a form of Wicca, led by male priests alone, who follow the Pope!


Of course, this is an absurdity; but when we have a female-centered, feminist branch of Goddess oriented Wicca, made for women only, that now seeks balance between God and Goddess, and now admits men into their covens, is Catholic Wicca really that far-fetched? We already have groups of “Christian Wiccans”, which at one time, and to some still does, seem an oxymoron.


We’re living in a world that centers around feeling good. It feels good to hold on to things. Change can be frightening. To go from Christian to Wiccan is uncomfortable for some, so “Christian Wicca” is created. Men feel left-out with feminist Wicca around, so now there are male “Dianics”. I can handle the “Christian Wicca” because it implies in its name a syncretism. But when we redefine things to allow people to be “comfortable”, we’re actually denying people rites of passage.


Adopting a new religion should be somewhat uncomfortable; we’re turning our back on something that was comfortable for us, and adopting something new. Hanging on to a term for comfort means that we haven’t really left that past behind us. We haven’t cut the strings. We’re still sitting on a fence.


It’s important for a Catholic to know that they can’t be Wiccan and Catholic at the same time. It’s important in Dianic Wicca to recognize that Dianic Wicca is a form of Wicca for women only. It’s important for Boy Scouts and the world to know that the Boy Scouts is an organization for boys, and that the Girl Scouts is an organization for girls.


Feeling good is fine, but when feelings come at the expense of reality and sense and reason, these are not good feelings.


If you want something that resembles Wicca, but isn’t Wicca, that’s fine. If you want to cast spells, and do some “witchy” things, but aren’t ready to celebrate the seasons of the year, or to cast circles or to adopt anything else that is “Wicca”, that’s fine, but perhaps another name for it might be in order.


If you like Cerridwen, Brighid, Lugh and Cernunnos, but still want to spend time with Isis, Osiris, Diana and  Athena, that’s absolutely fine, but that’s not  Celtic Reconstructionish.


It’s these mixing of terms that leads to a “fluffy-bunny sort of spirituality. It’s using terms but leaving them without meaning.


This isn’t a criticism of eclecticism. I don’t have a problem with people who wish to syncretize or even with those who wish to have Brighid and Diana in the same place. What I think is important though is to know what the terms that we use to describe ourselves mean.


(c) 2008, Deirdre A. Hebert