Exploring mystery, trying on labels

It has taken me years to experience any clarity around my religious identity. I grew up attending Catholic mass but knew from an early age that I wouldn’t continue, once I had a choice. In adulthood I’ve cycled through Protestant, atheistic, New Age, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, and Pagan approaches to religion, in roughly that order. A lot of Pagans and UUs are trying to heal from negative experiences with other religions, and then to work out a new religious identity that fits, and I’m no exception to the rule. What follows is a lot of navel-gazing, so if you’re short on time or patience for that sort of thing, stop reading here, or simply scroll to the bottom for a nice toad-in-the-compost photo before you go.

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I’ve updated the religious labels in the tagline and biography of this blog at least as often as I’ve actually posted to it. I’ve identified as Pagan for around 11 years, since an experience I had during a Buddhist retreat. At the time, I understood Paganism to be a nature religion, centered primarily around a Goddess, expressed in sensual, seasonal ritual. But I’ve since encountered so many different ways of doing Paganism, some of which have nothing whatsoever to do with nature, that it’s not clear to me anymore what the label by itself even means.

For someone like me, who accepts neither the fundamentalist strain of polytheism nor the aggressively atheistic scientism that have dominated the Pagan blogosphere in recent years, it’s been hard to know where to peacefully and productively plug in to Pagan theology and practice. I’m active in my local Reclaiming community, and I treasure the ritual training and experiences that I’ve shared with other Reclaiming Witches. I plan to continue participating in New Moon Pentacle Walks at the Capitol, and I look forward to our regional Dandelion gathering next month.

However, even though I’ve used it, the label Witch often feels like an uneasy fit for me for a variety of reasons. I can’t imagine how instrumental magic would work from a distance, for example, nor can I imagine why a tumbled stone mined under questionable conditions from land thousands of miles away would be any more powerful or healing than the rocks that lie in the land beneath my feet. Among self-identified witches these sometimes seem like minority positions.

A second pillar of my practice in recent years has been UUism. My husband and I signed the membership book at First UU of Austin in 2013. That community and the Seven Principles of UUism continue to refresh, inspire, and guide me. Yew Grove, the Pagan Interfaith group at First UU Austin, held its last circle in 2016, but Meg Barnhouse and I are discussing the formation of a new “working witches” group at First UU in the near future. I’m excited about the project and hope to have more to share soon.

Recently I’ve experienced the click of recognition of many of my own views, passions, and practices in the writings of Graham Harvey, Emma Restall Orr, and David Abram. Maybe, as much as I’d like to wear the label Witch without reservation, the one that really fits is UU-animist. My animism leans monist–I honestly have no evidence for any world outside of this one–and it’s messy in every sense of the word. Fostering shared, everyday experience with the very real, always changing, other-than-human world in which I’m embedded involves getting outside and getting dirt under my nails.

Animism raises some very sticky questions about personhood, consciousness, the environment, and ethics that I can’t currently answer, but they’re the questions that I want to explore. In what sense can humans actually communicate with stones? I don’t know, and for the moment I’m perfectly fine with that. I’ve always found questions to be juicier than answers anyway, and I don’t mind if they multiply.

Instead of crying ‘One!’ or ‘Two!’, animists celebrate plurality, multiplicity, the many and their entwined passionate entanglements. Instead of the hero who struggles against one or other side of things in an attempt to discern the underlying truth, animist stories present tricksters who multiply possibilities in increasingly amusing ways.

–Graham Harvey in Animism: Respecting the Living World, pp. xiv-xv

How can I relate respectfully to a larger community of life? Who are the members of that community? How can community members be eaten with respect, as they must, in order for life to continue? What does it mean to live well in my particular place and time? These are inexhaustible mysteries worth my devotion, a devotion I’ve maintained for years already without a label for it.

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Gulf Coast toad in the compost pile yesterday morning, photo by Nathan Walther
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