Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Contemporary Pagan Studies Sessions at AAR -- Report II

This is the second installment of my reports from the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting held in San Francisco last weekend.

There are always dozens of alluring presentations going on at the AAR; usually the most compelling are scheduled simultaneously.  This year was no different.  I passed up so many that I wanted to attend, but unfortunately I have not yet learned to bilocate, or even trilocate.  Sunday was a big day for Pagan Studies.

The first morning session was a joint one presented by the Contemporary Pagan Studies and the Religion and Ecology Groups on the theme of "Elemental Theology and Feminist Earth Practice."  Starhawk and Rosemary Ruether shared the panel, with Marion S. Grau, Jone Salomonsen,1 and Heather Eaton responding.  Naturally, due to the theme of the session and the fact that Occupy San Francisco is only a few blocks from Moscone Center West where we were meeting and some AAR folks visited the encampment (not to mention the fact that Starhawk and others are there nearly daily), the subject of the Occupy Movement arose, as it did in several other sessions.  This also led to talk about group organization, leadership and no (overt) leadership, egalitarianism, consensus process, and related aspects of group dynamics and movement health and sustainability.  One of the first questions addressed to Starhawk and referring to groups and group process was whether we (meaning, I assumed, any of the groups in which she's active, but after speaking to the querist after the session, learned was Reclaiming) had any "rituals of reconciliation."  Wow!  This took me aback.  I had never thought of such a thing, yet it seems so obvious.

Rumination on Reconciliation

Most of the groups I've worked in over the years, 95% of which have run by consensus process, have had problems with divisive issues, difficult people, personality conflicts, and similar disturbances.  This is just part of being human and interacting with other humans.  As often as not these episodes (or ongoing disputes) lead to one or more members leaving the group.  These individuals are usually hurt by the leave-taking, and in addition their loss to the group can leave a rend.  The group itself can ritualize the leave-taking, and sometimes they do, but that doesn't account for the disharmony within the leave-taker(s).  Of course, it is not a group's responsibility to heal the person who is longer a member; if that were possible, the person probably wouldn't have taken the extreme measure of disaffiliating in the first place.  So where does reconciliation come in?  Somehow I can't imagine that some of the people I've seen leave a group would seek to reconcile.  Not that I don't view that as a positive act towards the ultimate healing of all parties involved.  I do.  Perhaps it's worthwhile for us to consider how we might create such a ritual, even when we have no candidate seeking to be reconciled.  I do think we're all in this together, and we are best served by at least operating in harmony with each other, with other groups and such, even if from a distance.  So enacting a ritual of reconciliation, with or without the presence of the hurt former member, could have beneficial effects on all parties involved.  This is something I'll have to ponder.

The afternoon session of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group addressed "West Coast Pagan Practices and Ideas."

I had been looking forward to my friend Kerry Noonan's paper on "Wish They All Could Be California Grrrls?: The Influence of California Women on the Goddess Movement and Neo-Paganism," but unfortunately ill health prevented Kerry from being there.  This paper was about us!

Dr. Christopher Chase of Iowa State University spoke on "Building a California Bildung: Theodore Roszak's and Alan Watts' Contribution of Pagan Hermeneutics."  I always appreciate and learn from Christopher's presentations and this one was no exception.  Learning more about influential people you know or know of and who are of your time and place is so much fun.

Kristy Coleman was the last presenter, on the topic of "Re-riting Women: Dianic Wicca."  This is another topic I know fairly well; it's of my time and place.  Dr. Coleman pointed out that Dianic Craft, as promulgated by Z Budapest, Ruth Barrett, Circle of Aradia, and emanating from Los Angeles and beyond, will be meeting to celebrate their fortieth anniversary this December.  An impressive milestone that speaks to sustainability and ongoing relevance.

Fritz Muntean, co-founder and Editor Emeritus of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, responded.

The final session I attended on Sunday was the Religion and Ecology Group's "Author Meets Critics: Bron Taylor's Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future" featured panelists Sarah Pike, Lisa Sideris, Laurel Kearns, and John Baumann, Bron Taylor responding.  The panelists read papers critiquing Bron's book and pointing out what they saw as weaknesses, oversights, or distorted emphases.  The general tone, but for Sarah's paper, was that it wasn't "Christian enough."  Bron disagreed, and so do I.  This is an important book that I hope many people will read.

Sunday evening's Special Topics Forum featured a "Conversation with Gary Snyder, 2011 AAR Religion and the Arts Award Winner," presided over by Mary Evelyn Tucker.2  I've long admired Gary Snyder and his work, even have a quote of his on the back of my business card: "Find your place on the planet.  Dig in, and take responsibility from there."  Alas, I wasn't able to make it.

Because of my involvement in the world of interfaith relations, I had also wanted to attend the Wildcard Session on "Institutionalizing Interfaith: Emerging Models for Educating Religious Leaders in a Multireligious Context," addressing "How do we train the next generation of spiritual leaders, rooted in their own religious tradition with the skills and motivation to work across faith lines?"  The panel, as listed in the program, was comprised entirely of Abrahamics.3  All the more reason for me to have been there, since I would have spoken up about my own real multireligious experiences working in interfaith.  I guess it's good that they're addressing this topic as being seminary-study-worthy.  We Pagans have been developing interfaith trainings for nearly 20 years, and in fact, Cherry Hill Seminary's 2012 Leadership Institute, "Transforming Our World," will include a session on "Our Place in the World of Interfaith."

In service to Coventina,
M. Macha NightMare


1.  Dr. Salomonsen is the author of Enchanted Feminism: The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco.

2.  I have never met Mary Evelyn, but have known of her work since the late '90s when I served on The Biodiversity Project Spirituality Working Group with her husband, John Grim.  Not that he'd necessarily remember me, except that I was the lone Witch among the dozen participants.

3.  The Abrahamic religions are those that sprang from the legacy of Abraham, i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving Eve Celebration

Once again this year I joined the Rev. Paul Gaffney and the folks at Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy for a Thanksgiving Eve celebration with the homeless population of our city.  A significant part of the ceremony is the gathering of offerings -- primarily sleeping bags and socks -- and blessing them for their use in keeping people warm and cozy through the cold, wet winter months.

Some of the ritual contributions, mostly drumming, poetry, and singing, came from the homeless population.  I've come to know a few of them over the years and to appreciate their talents.  In particular, we have enjoyed the singing of Cup Bach Pham, a woman from Southeast Asia.

Among the religious leaders who participated were Fr. John Balleza, the new priest at Church of St. Raphael and Mission San Rafael Arcangel; Dr. Laura Stivers, a religion and philosophy professor at Dominican University; Qayyum Johnson from Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, the Rev. Dr. Curran Reichert of Community Congregational Church of Tiburon (site of the 9/11 Contemplative Service for Peace reported on earlier); the Rev. Dr. Liza Klein of San Rafael First United Methodist Church; and others.

Most touching, to me, was a personal story told by Clair Mikowski from Congregation Rodef Shalom about her parents' immigration to this country and some of the things her mother taught her.  She delivered this story on the day her mother would have turned 100 years old.

Among the musical offerings, Taneen, from the International Association of Sufism, sang an evocative sacred chant.  They have performed at MIC events in the past and I always look forward to hearing them.

Corby usually accompanies me to this annual event and sings with me.  This year he was away for the holiday.  I was fortunate in that my friend Gwion from North Bay Reclaiming joined me as a Pagan presence.  I told an abbreviated version of the story of the abduction of Kore, later called Persephone, by Hades and the searching and grief of her mother, Demeter.  It's a familiar story to many non-Pagans, and since we are celebrating harvest and the fruits of field, orchard, and barnyard, it seems perfect.  We followed the brief story by singing "Demeter's Song" by Starhawk.  I love the song.  I love the melody and harmonies.  And I especially love the theology, or worldview, it illustrates.

After the service we moved to a room nearby to share seasonal comestibles.

In service to Coventina,
M. Macha NightMare

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Report from 2011 AAR Annual Meeting, Part 1

Ritual in the UU World

Before the big NCLC-CoG-hosted party on Saturday evening, I attended the Unitarian Universalist Scholars ad friend Discussion on the theme of "Celebrating Embodied and Transformative Worship and Ritual."  As a ritualist, I was intrigued by the topic, and as someone scheduled to teach liturgical design at a UU seminary, I was doubly intrigued.

The first panelist, Dr. Robert N. McCauley of Emory University, explained that in UU there are two kinds of members: anti-ritualists and non-ritualists.

The former are those who were reared in religious traditions with extensive, prescribed ritual practices.  They were pressured to participate in and perform these rituals and they experienced pressure to conform and censure for non-participation.  In addition, many carried the Protestant attitude that rejected the elaborate rituals of the Roman Catholic church in favor of simpler rites.  Further, one would assume, they did not find the rituals to be satisfying or enjoyable, the result being that they were anti-ritualists.

The non-ritualists, on the other hand, had little experience with religious rituals in childhood, perhaps from being brought up in secular families.  They were uninformed and indifferent; hence, non-ritualists.

Both groups overlook some of the benefits of shared ritual practice.  Rituals help create a shared identity and enhance group cohesion.  They foster a sense of "morality and ritual connection."  They separate the shared ritualists from non-belongers, and increase in-group cooperation while fostering out-group hostility.  They way I would put this is that shared rituals create bonding among the participants.

One of the examples Dr. McCauley used to illustrate his points was the cargo cults of Melanesia, a fascinating phenomenon of which I had been ignorant.

"Special agent" rituals, "those in which the relevant supernatural being is the agent of the action," acting either as the giver or the receiver.  They are performed only once, since the result is considered to be permanent.  Rites of passage are special agent rituals, which usually involve high levels of sensory pageantry (music, aroma, garb, implements, lighting, etc.) and are done once for each "ritual patient."

I'm intrigued by Dr. McCauley's work and intend to explore it further.

The Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones of the First Unitarian Church of San José (California) spoke of using storyteller's art to embody the other. [her emphases]  This is a familiar ritual technique in Reclaiming Tradition Witchcraft, particularly in the contexts of WitchCamps.  Embodied learning and experiencing the divine in the physical body is a distinctive characteristic of the Craft.

Dr. Emily R. Mace addressed the phenomenon of rituals within the overall UU world that draw liberally upon other, non-Christian sources, usually interpreted loosely.  To me, this tends to foster a reliance on scripture over lived experience.  While this borrowing from other religious sources acknowledges a wider range of wisdom, it also brings up the problem of cultural appropriation.  I'm sensitive to this phenomenon, yet I view most religions, including the Abrahamic faiths, as being syncretic in many ways.  In addition, we live today in a wildly diverse multicultural world, one where we are exposed to all manner of religious and artistic expression of the spiritual dimension of our beings.  If we learn from those exposures, if we find value in their teachings, if we consider that those teachings enhance our spiritual lives, can incorporating them into our personal practices be wrong?  I know this topic is a big bugaboo, but we do need to view it clearly and discuss it honestly.

The Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake of Starr King School for the Ministry, serves the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, "the nation's first interracial, interfaith congregation," founded in 1944, whose mission was "to create a religious fellowship that transcended artificial barriers of race, nation, culture, gender, and social distinctions," is a dynamic presence who speaks in a deep, resonant voice.  He explained that the church is comprised of folks from diverse backgrounds who do ritual together.  They create shared experience; they find common ground.  He claims that members don't have to be religious, they only need to share values and want to do ritual with others.  "Isn't that community?" he asked.

He claims that "worship is radical."  An individual may be nobody in society but in ritual he or she is somebody.  Shared ritual deepens the spiritual lives of the people who participate.  He explained the overall format of the Fellowship ritual, which follows the sequence of Matthew Fox's Cosmic Mass, i.e., four phases progressing from via negativa (grief and sorrow experience) to via positiva (dance of joy, delight and celebration of existence) to via creativa (communion with the divine) to via transformativa (receiving energy of the ritual to, as Dorsey says, "fire souls with the energy of apostleship," or to transform society).  These phases include meditation, which can be yoga or breathing or standing and singing; drumming; music for "sitting in the presence"; "the word" (sermon).

The speaker and I share the goal in ritual of not having it become routine with too much repetition, but rather to mix things up, add elements of surprise, and make them participatory.  We also both believe that singing without reading the words can allow for "singing from the heart."

Where we differ on ritual practice is the inclusion of preaching.  I want ritual to foster an experience, or experiences, or lead to insights or clarity or serenity, or whatever.  I don't want to listen to someone tell me how to live or what's going on around me.  That doesn't mean I don't love an eloquent, inspiring orator; I definitely do.  But I don't necessarily want sermonizing as part of my ritual experience.  Perhaps this antipathy comes from my Christian childhood, which was full of preaching, but in any case, in ritual I prefer embodied experience .

The Rev. Clyde Grubbs, recently retired from the Throop UU Church of Pasadena, was the last to speak, but not before I had to leave.  This session has refined my thinking about ritual and inspired me to follow up on some resources I hadn't known of before.

Yours in service to Coventina,
M. Macha NightMare