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Internet Book of Shadows, (Various Authors), [1999], at

Paganism at the Crossroads

by Skytoucher

These are tricky and dangerous times. Paganism has grown in size to the point where we no longer enjoy the luxury of obscurity. We now face a choice that all initiatory paths face at some time in their development: Whether to remain a viable initiatory path, and if so under what circumstances; or to devolve into a mere religion.

I'd better backtrack--some readers may not understand what an initiatory path is, or how it differs from a religion. Others may think paganism is a religion already, and wonder what I mean by suggesting it is or could be something else.

A defense often used against fundamentalist Christians and others who attack paganism on a religious basis is to say, "We are not like you, only different in a few not-so-important ways. We are a religion, like you, another belief system, harmless, ordinary. We worship the Earth, the Goddess, the same way you worship your abstract God. You should extend tolerance to us for the same reason you extend it to Muslims or Buddhists or Catholics or Jews. When you single us as something weird, you are exhibiting hysterical paranoia." It's an effective defense, but somewhat disingenuous.

We are different. We aren't just a religion. We are at present, and in my view we should try to remain, a path of initiation. It may be inevitable that a religion grow up around us. It may even be desirable to employ such a religion as a cloak, or a doorway, to both. But a Pagan religion is also a threat to the Pagan path of initiation. We need to ensure that the growth, if it occurs, is that of a tree from a seed, not of a pearl from a grain of sand.

A tree produces more seeds. A pearl only hides the sand to save the oyster from discomfort.

What is an initiatory path? And what, then, is initiation? We touch here upon a word badly misunderstood by many Pagans. Initiation is one thing; an initiation ritual is another. A person is not an initiate, in the sense I mean here, just because he or she has passed through an initiation ritual. Initiation is a personal experience in which one becomes aware of mysteries--realities that were previously hidden, that cannot be communicated by one person to another in words or symbols, that must be experienced directly, firsthand. This last point is crucial. One finds "mysteries" communicated in coven initiations or even at festivals, but these are only hidden meanings of symbols and tools used in the Craft, or of stories told about the Gods. The fact that they can be communicated makes them not true mysteries, only secrets.

A body of teaching, practice and ritual that facilitates initiation is an initiatory path. Most religions start out as paths of initiation. Religion tends to be conservative. Initiation, however, is always revolutionary.

Initiation transforms a person's life, bringing inner peace, greater insight into the workings of fate, and awareness of the connections linking all things, as well as magical power. If it were a commonplace event, if people went through initiation as surely as they go through puberty, we would have a far different and better world.

Even if the circle of initiates included a significant minority of the population, the magical effect of such a number of altered minds on the world would be profound and positive. Of course, this very fact means that initiatory paths will be opposed by those interests, both human and non-human, that are opposed to positive change. The opposition is not really a conspiracy; it seems more than an automatic reaction, a law of nature.

Initiation is not an instantaneous event, but one that occurs through years of effort and devotion. It seems likely that there is no end to the process, and that the idea of there being a "fully enlightened being" is a peculiar Oriental fantasy. There are times, it is true, when revelation comes in a flash like lightning, but such moments are exclamation marks punctuating a story that unfolds chapter by chapter.

Many tools and methods for achieving initiation have evolved over the ages. Some are intellectual, aiming to expand consciousness through thought: Vedanta and the Qabala come to mind as among the most impressive. Others are ritual or devotional, such as Bhakti Yoga, chanting the names of the Gods, drawing down the Moon, the meditations of the monastics. Some are also physical: Hatha Yoga, Sufi dancing, some forms of the martial arts. Some aim at expanding consciousness directly by stretching it to its limits: meditation, Raja Yoga, guided visualization, vision quests. Then there is sex magic, drugs, drumming, austerities, the use of talismans, self-discipline, and so on. Most of these techniques evolved outside a pagan context, but they are amenable to incorporation in a pagan framework. Initiation rituals, of course, are another method, but they are seldom sufficient by themselves.

Initiates can be found in the context of any religion, including those least similar to Neopaganism. St. Francis of Assisi was an initiate, and many a Sufi and Qabalist, Buddhist and Yogi, Taoist and shaman. A modern Neopagan initiate has far more in common with them than with an illiterate, superstitious pagan of the Roman Empire, gobbling the flesh of sacrificed animals while contemplating how to backstab his competitors. All initiates of all paths have a common heart; it is religions that circle the periphery of the sacred that differ.

But, while Christian, Jewish, and Muslim initiates do exist, the established religions don't make it easy. For every illuminated Catholic saint, there are hundreds of burned heretics. Indeed, many post-Constantinian saints escaped burning themselves only by miracles greater than those for which they were canonized. Burning is passe nowadays, but condemnation for heresy is not, and thrives as well in most Protestant denominations. So bound about with the fetters of faith is the Christian that initiation is virtually impossible, except for their boldest and best minds.

This is no accident.

The tragedy of Christianity is that it began so well and decayed so quickly into such a parody of its beginnings. This is a recurring phenomenon. Again and again, the initiatory message has presented itself in some new form and met with some success, only to be hidden in a maze of illusion, crusted over with barriers and restrictions. There are always counterattacks from outside the new path, from established religions, but the truly effective counterattacks also come from within, so that what began as a bright new hope becomes a mere religion. The priests, the figures in authority, forge an instrument for the furtherance of their own authority, to which genuine initiation is a serious threat. The initiatory impulse is carefully bled into harmless channels, and all magic outside those channels is ruthlessly suppressed.

There is a great deal of magic in Christian monastic orders, and more still in Hindu and Buddhist ashrams, or wielded by wandering saddhus. But many of these illuminated souls, both Western and Eastern, are sworn to poverty, chastity and humility. Many do not reproduce, ensuring that, if there is a genetic component to magic, it will be weakened by removing its best practitioners from the gene pool. Too, in renouncing the world, they ensure that their spiritual insight will play a small role shaping events. In contrast, a few secret initiatory paths remain active and true to their original mission. These paths, which include Hermeticism, the Qabala, surviving shamanic traditions, and a few branches of Sufism, have made themselves nonthreatening in a different way. They continue to live in the world and to learn and teach practical as well as spiritual magic, but in such tiny numbers and in so furtive a fashion that they hold little promise of genuine large-scale transformation. There is not really anything wrong with this; such secret orders have acted over the centuries to preserve the Mysteries, not to spread them. Without them, efforts to break the chains on a large scale would be to no avail. But Paganism is different.

Neopaganism is unique--at this time, though not historically--in that it is a genuine initiatory path that has grown large. Moreover, in its diversity and flexibility, its protean and progressive nature, it promises to incorporate all the virtues of the other surviving paths. It may not be the most advanced, the most powerful, or the most aesthetically refined, but these characteristics can all be absorbed from the smaller paths that possess them, for Paganism is an all-gobbling magical amoeba, sucking up the myths, methods, and knowledge of every other path in existence. Once again, an initiatory path threatens to break out and make some changes in reality.

On schedule, opposition has begun to arise.

As always, some of the opposition is from the outside, but I don't think we need to be concerned about that. A strain of paranoia is built into our origin myths and traditions, and is always a greater danger than the persecution we fear. The external opposition has seldom been very effective against any path. Some right-wing Christians are beginning to engage in Witch-hunting of a relatively genteel sort, mostly involving propaganda. However, propaganda is legitimate (they have a right to express their opinions about what we do, as we have the right to speak in counterpoint). There may be more serious difficulties, even occasional violence, but the Burning Times are gone for good, barring a complete collapse of civilization. We have more important things to worry about within our own ranks.

The rapid increase in our numbers in the last few decades means there are many newcomers. Newcomers are ripe for exploitation, both monetarily and politically, and both have begun to occur. The first fills me with amusement and outrage. The second is more alarming.

There seems to be a growing desire in some quarters to commercialize Neopaganism and profit from it. That's only natural, but when crystal athames go for $1,400 and classes are taught in return for a pledge of a percentage of the students' income in perpetuity, somebody is getting fleeced. This is bad enough, but not nearly as bad as what might happen in reaction. Better a crowd of poorer and wiser novices, the hucksters filling the role of the Dweller on the Threshold, than a Paganism reduced from a path of initiation to a mere religion, its bright promise gone dull, as have so many others.

The seeds of this development lie chiefly in individuals we might call Pagan politicians, and in our response to them. They may not be high initiates or powerful magicians, but they are skillful at organizing; they like to strike poses in public, and they know how to work the media.

Sometimes they appear on television to say, "This is what Paganism is. This is what Witchcraft is ... ," self-appointed spokespersons for the entire Pagan community. Their power over the Craft may be small, but it could easily grow as the Craft grows, as they sink their hooks into more and more beginners.

An experienced initiate is unlikely to be moved by a picture on television, or a story in the newspaper. It is otherwise for a novice. When first appraising something, it is the surface one sees. And there are two dangers in this trend:

1. Insightful, intuitive, independent people--the kind who would make good Witches--may be turned off by the media spectacle. (Analogy: What is your reaction to the words, "new age"?)

2. Those who are not repelled may develop a kind of mundane "Neopaganism," a mere religion, based as other religions are on faith, dogma, and prescribed observances, conservative (in the sense of resisting progress, not of voting Republican) and anti-initiatory. There may be points in common between it and us (such as an environmental ethic or "worship" [how I despise that word!] of a Goddess), as a baboon might wear a tuxedo, but the heart and soul would be gone. Anyone who sought initiation would have to pass the gauntlet of this other paganism first and then unlearn this religion to approach the new path. Few could be expected to do so.

It is important to recognize these politicos for what they are. They are our would-be clergy who, like Christian priests, Muslim mullah and Jewish rabbis, would be religious leaders but, with rare exceptions, no initiates. Their authority would derive from knowledge of accepted doctrines and from political acumen, rather than spiritual awareness. Pagan pontiff pretenders are not necessarily malevolent, but they do not comprehend the purpose of initiation or the fundamental ways in which Paganism differs, not just from this or that religion, from all religions. Consequently, they do not understand that priests, ministers, rabbis, and so forth are not good role models for Pagan spiritual leaders, even if allowances are made for differing value systems. Paganism, as currently practiced, is not simply a different religion, but a different category of thing altogether.

The bishops who created the Catholic Church were not particularly evil men. But they were misguided, and the result of their labor was disastrous. Yet some movement on this road is inevitable. It is the fruit of growth, a sign that a path of initiation has matured into a serious threat to the status quo. It represents a counterattack by the forces of inertia.

Let's not be unduly alarmist. We are not in immediate danger, but the clouds can be seen on the horizon, and we need to prepare ourselves, and consider whether anything can be done to avoid the usual fate of an initiatory path at the crossroads. All our predecessors, on reaching this juncture, have taken the wrong turning. But we have advantages former initiatory paths lacked. That no one has succeeded up to now is not so imposing an an obstacle as it might seem.

One of our advantages is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and similar provisions, in fact and tradition if not law, guaranteeing religious liberty in all Western democracies. It is literally impossible for a Pagan Catholic Church, even if one comes into existence, to exile or execute dissident Pagans, as was done to dissident Christians after the council of Nicaea. It is unlikely that any pagan organization, or that of any other religion, could get a modern Western government to do its dirty work to any significant degree. Overt persecution is reduced from a terror to a nuisance. That's no small achievement.

Another advantage is modern information technology. Communication of ideas is now so easy, and suppression of them so difficult, that to contain, channel, or eliminate the initiatory message will be harder than ever before, and may be impossible. Of course, the downside of this development is the proliferation of blatant nonsense. But I think that is an acceptable price. Better the truth be heard whispering through shouted lies and bellowed folly than that it not be heard at all.

The third, most subtle, and possibly the greatest advantage we have over our predecessors is science. By science I do not mean any particular bit of knowledge that has been uncovered by scientists, although all that is useful as well. I mean the attitudes of science. I mean the methods of science. Above all, I mean the vision of science. Thanks to science, we no longer think of all knowledge as being handed down to us from the past. Thanks to science, we can consider magic not only in its sacred and spiritual and aesthetic dimensions--though these are certainly important--but in its technical dimensions as well, and seek the laws and principles that underpin magic, analogous to the laws of physics that underpin technology.

And best of all--thanks to science--we are not limited to what we know today. We understand that even our best picture of reality is only an approximation, that we will have a better picture tomorrow. This gift promises to upset the creeping authoritarianism that has ruined so many paths of initiation and created so many religions.

These are potent advantages. I believe they allow us the possibility of success. But not the certainty. As we approach the crossroads, there are a number of things that need doing. Some of these steps are simply a matter of keeping our attitudes in the right places. Others involve research, development, and artistic creation. Others still involve magical tasks.

We need to understand that modern Paganism, though built on the past, is not limited by it, that we are capable of improving on our ancestors' wisdom--even to the extent that we can make sure that their wisdom is not just a product of our own romantic imagination, which in large measure it is. We need to recognize, once and for all (and say so), that our myths of origin are just that--myths. Wicca is not a survival from the pre-Christian past, but an eclectic/creative construct meant to imitate what such a survival should ideally be. Its resemblance, and that of Neopaganism in general, to ancient paganism in any of its multitude of forms is slight and ultimately beside the point.

We need to make these changes of mindset because they will allow us to take the next step, which is to expand Paganism, as a path of initiation, to its potential. We cannot do that as long as we are locked into an old model--real or romanticized. The initiatory paths of the past have failed. Therefore, we need something better than what has gone before. We can take the essentials of Neopaganism, the broad strokes of its mythology and ritual, as a starting point, but we must go beyond that start.

First, we need to penetrate beneath the level of religious symbolism to what might be called the physics of magic, the nuts and bolts and laws of nature that account for what magic does and is. Next to the initiatory experience itself, which can never be communicated or replaced by anything--that point cannot be emphasized too much or too often--the physics of magic would be the deepest level of understanding, accounting for all forms of symbolic knowledge.

Secondly, we need to improve our tool chest of spiritual methods. Much of the work has already been done by initiates outside Paganism. All we have to do is translate it and incorporate it within our own framework. At the same time, an expanded and improved body of poetic ritual would be useful.

These things have already begun to happen, but the pace should be accelerated. A common recognition of both the possibility and the need would be a valid step. We must acknowledge that yoga can meditate us into a corner, that the Qabala theorizes rings around us, and that any good shamanic lineage works magic to put us to shame. We must also insist that Paganism has advantages over these that should not be surrendered, and work to incorporate what other paths can teach us into our own framework.

These accomplishments would serve to strengthen and fortify the initiatory path of Paganism. It will need all the strength it can get if it is to resist turning into a religion. But there are other things that need doing as well, on both the communicative and magical fronts.

Those of us with active pens can communicate the idea of an initiatory path that lies within the mythical and ritual structure of the Pagan religion. There is, at present, no established Pagan doctrine or dogma, no established Pagan clergy, and no established Pagan pantheon, and this also must be made clear.

The magical side of the battle may be the most important one. Here, the guiding principle should be a clear visualization of what we want Paganism to be. Should exoteric Pagan religions grow up around the initiatory core, then, ideally, we would want the priests or priestesses of this religion to be initiates. But this may not be practicable. First, many of us are unsuited for (or uninterested in) the role of ministering to those who are unready for initiation. Second, there may be too many newcomers to Paganism (by some estimates the fastest-growing religion in North America) and too few initiates.

I believe we could agree on two goals. A viable and visible initiatory tradition must be maintained within the religion, and no exoteric priesthood must be allowed to gain preeminence over the path. To those ends, then, the following magical workings are suggested.

Weave the Net: There is a tenuous telepathic link among all initiates. This can be invoked as part of the opening of any major magical work, which will strengthen both the work and the net. Some covens and individuals already do this. Reach out the heart's fiery hand and feel the love of one another, both within the coven and beyond it, setting aside the quarrels of the mind, poles of a tipi each supporting each, moving faster and faster circles made of love. In this way, a synergistic entity, a collective consciousness, may be generated, incorporating all our diversity--yet stronger than any of us alone. This consciousness can be invoked like any deity, and can be a guide and an empowerment. We can give it names; there will be private names known to individual covens or solitaries, but among us all the name is Love.

Shine like a Beacon: Another working, which I feel is appropriate to a Full Moon ritual, is one to avoid the light-under-a-bushel syndrome, to illuminate all minds equipped with eyes to see. The metaphor of a lighthouse beacon seems appropriate; we can visualize this light shining brightly, overpowering any attempt to hide it, so that truth cannot be hidden from those able to understand it, initiation cannot be denied to those capable of attaining it.

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom: Or, divide and rule. Assume that a mundane Paganism must arise; above all we must not allow any one sect or denomination of the Pagan religion to achieve preeminence over the others. It doesn't matter how much we like or dislike what the leaders of this or that sect are saying. Any Pagan doctrine will always be wrong, even if it's right, because initiation cannot be conveyed in words or symbols. We can, through our magic, encourage diversity and creativity in the ranks of newcomers and non-initiate leaders, preferring chaos to conformity, and subtly bend the path of discourse so that it leads towards initiation rather than away from it. We must avoid the temptation to encourage a unified, strong Paganism, and that temptation will arise! A fractious, splintered, disorganized, and confusingly multi-headed Paganism may be somewhat embarrassing when it appears on network news or in Time magazine. But if the initiatory tradition is clearly visible within, we will be far better served by chaos than by an order that serves its own purposes and not ours.

I believe--certainly, I hope--that these steps can preserve the Neopagan path of initiation, prevent its burial under the mantle of religion, and permit what has never before happened: genuine, large-scale, beyond-the-point-of-no-return breakout of the Mysteries, leading to the transformation of human culture and this planet--assuming, of course, that civilization survives the crisis of the coming years.

Next: Witches Rede of Chivalry (Ed Fitch & Janine Renee)