Friday, December 30, 2011

AAR Report - Michelle Mueller

I finished my first semester as a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union. The Unitarian Universalist church that I work for installed me as their Director of Religious Education on Dec. 18. We merged the Installation ceremony with a Winter Solstice ceremony (my idea). I collaborated with Worship Associate Christina to plan the service. Christina picked out some great Winter Solstice songs that my visiting Pagan friends loved. I had been in the position since August; an Installation is a ceremony formalizing my role as religious educator for the congregation. 

Now, I have some things to report from the American Academy of Religion meeting in November. It is important to understand that the American Academy of Religion meeting is not an interfaith meeting persay. AAR is a professional organization of Religious Studies scholars and theologians. The annual meeting is where professors and graduate students share their research and academic papers in the fields of Religious Studies. There are of course people of faith present. Some faith leaders (ministers, etc. or interfaith organization directors) choose to join the AAR or attend meeting. I noticed Paul Chaffee, Emeritus Executive Director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, present. Plus, Eboo Patel was in the program. Many Religious Studies scholars are religious or spiritual themselves. Many are secular, agnostic, or atheist. They share a genuine interest in the human capacity for religion--experience and/or beliefs. In general, Religious Studies scholars are respectful of religious experience, whether they are religious or not. There is also conjoining SBL (Society for Biblical Literature) meeting, which focuses on Biblical Christian and Hebrew scripture with a strong archaeological focus. The modern discipline of Religious Studies understands religion as a practice of humanity. Religious Studies scholars are therefore frequently friendly towards Neo-Paganism, understanding Neo-Paganism as a natural expression of this human practice of religion that is not better or worse than others. (Religion as a human practice is not exhaustive either, as there is the Animals and Religion section at AAR!) Still, there are Religious Studies scholars and theologians who are unaware of formal academic Pagan Studies or of Neo-Pagan movement. At every AAR (and I've been to quite a few), I always so some education around Paganism, NeoPaganism, and the Covenant of the Goddess. It is important for CoG members to be present for this reason.

I see the value in CoG Interfaith presence at AAR in the importance of educating the educators. AAR meeting is not, as I said, a proper interfaith conference; it is not an intentional meeting of people of many faiths. But, it is a place where CoG Witches can educate professors of Religious Studies about what Neo-Pagan practice looks like and who we are, so that they may return to their universities and colleges with information and experience. CoG presence at AAR will have a positive effect on public understanding of Witchcraft and Paganism.  

Many thanks go to Robert Puckett, the Director of Meetings for AAR, and a Pagan, who offered his suite for our NCLC reception for local Pagan representative leaders and Pagan Studies scholars.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dear All
On Thursday the 8th of December I received a request to please Send a Pagan speaker representing CoG to an organizational gathering in Fremont California, just an hour or less from my house. Very late notice indeed. I wrote back and requested that the person call me directly so that I might have a better idea of what the organization needed and who they were. None of us in this area had heard of this organization before. It is called “The International Center for Cultural Studies”. I love this web page.   Its front page has a changing marque that states the idea of more than on way to achieve a goal and the joining together of people of diverse cultures in order to achieve a greater vision.

It focuses on wisdom from ancient roots...which means the wisdom of pagan or pre-Christian religions.

Mr. Praveen Veldanda called me almost immediately and spoke to me for a few minutes explaining that what they were having a gathering at which they were hoping to have different Pagan practices explain the ways in which they were connected. I said that I would be happy to go and because the flyer that they sent out mentioned Romuva I called Prudence Priest and asked her whether she would like to come with me. Deborah Bender allowed as how she too would like to see what we did at an interfaith gather and so also came about your Weird Sisters.

I did explain that we are clearly a new religious movement trying to create a religion based on what our ancestors practiced but tailored for today's culture. While our wisdom was a ancient as we could determine, our practices were not. He said that he thought that this was fine and assured me that he wanted to hear from us. I painstakingly wrote a twenty minute talk on possible reasons why we are the fastest growing religion in Canada and the United States among the eighteen to thirty year old demographic and how we connected with other Pagan practices then, after consultation with a couple of other Interfaith Reps, left it at home.

This turns out to have been not such a bad thing since I was very late in the speaking order and was, instead of a prepared speech able to simply speak a bit to our growth and the reasons for it and then respond point by point to other speakers and our similarities to their own practices.

Prudence was delighted to discover that these folks knew Jonas Trinkunas and his wife Inija and they equally delighted to discover that she knew them. When I introduced her as Ms. Priest they immediately assumed, and in this case correctly that she was a Priestess of Romuva and asked her to be one of the four Priests/esses for the Hindu fire ceremony. Way better her than me as the entire thing was in a foreign language and she was familiar with the ceremony as a similar ceremony is conducted in Romuva.

It was an interesting atmosphere as the three of us were the only women in attendance. I wish that I could say that I was a smashing success. People did listen attentively. Deborah assures me that I did not make a fool of myself, and they have invited me back to speak to larger groups. Otherwise I cannot gauge my success in communication as everyone sat with a polite closed look and no questions were forth coming.

Prudence and I were both invited, nay urged to participate in an international gathering in March and I have been further encouraged on many sides to go. Unfortunately the gathering is in Delhi India and finances are questionable. They have assured us that all we have to do is get to the airport in India and they will cover all further expenses including board, housing, and conference registration costs. Now this actually sounds like a group used to dealing with Pagans.

Over all they were a very nice group of folks who were well educated, and appeared to be sincere in their stated goals to bring the Pagan world together around ancient wisdom from many sources. I will continue to work with them and perhaps Prudence and I will go to India in March. Funding remains a critical consideration. I will certainly continue to keep you appraised of developments. In the meantime I would highly recommend that you check out their website where they list First Nations of Canada and the United States, right along with Pagans and Druids; fun if nothing else.

In her service,
R Watcher

Monday, December 12, 2011

AAR Annual Meeting, Part V

Shawn Arthur of Appalachian State University presided over the Contemporary Pagan Studies session on Pagan Analysis and Critique of "Religion on Monday afternoon. 

Suzanne Owen's paper described "Definitions, Decisions, and Druids: Presenting Druidry as a Religion."  In England, where they do not have separation between church and state, residents are asked to state their religions on census forms.  For religious groups other than those of the state religion to thrive, they must be sanctioned or approved or in some way officially recognized by the government.  In recent years Druids have sought, and eventually received, such recognition.  Dr. Owens' paper detailed their efforts.  During Q&A, Patrick McCollum noted that this case in England has been useful in efforts here in the U.S. for inmates who are Druids (and other Pagan inmates) to assemble as a group in prison chapels for worship and ceremony.

Dr. Christine Kraemer, Cherry Hill Seminary, delivered an excellent paper on "Perceptions of Scholarship in Contemporary Paganism."  Of course, since Christine is Chair of CHS' Department of Theology and Religious History, I'm confident that she's knowledgeable and current on such matters.  She offers several examples of Pagan critiques of Pagan scholars and their responses -- Ronald Hutton, Ben Whitmore, Aidan Kelly, Don Frew, et al.  While confirming the value of these critiques, she also cites Richard Hofstader's contentions, propounded in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life , that this attitude is "historically rooted in deeply held American values such as egalitarianism and democracy." He claims that nineteenth-century evangelical religions have influenced American thought so that it expresses "more heart-centered than head-centered values," and that this attitude is found among modern amateur Pagans as well.

Helen Berger, Brandeis University, delivered a paper called "Fifteen Years of Continuity and Change within the American Pagan Community" that follows up on her earlier studies.  She noted that religions either die or change.1  Among the changes she found in her follow-up studies are: 
  1. The population of American Witches and Pagans2 who are female has increased from 65% to 71%.
  2. Pagans are geographically more evenly spread, pointing towards "normalization."
  3. Pagans are more educated than most Americans; 98% have high school diplomas compared to 87% for the rest of the population.
  4. There are fewer "older" Pagans.  I don't recall that Helen specified what age would be considered "older," but it appears that more of her respondents were "younger."  This fact, coupled with the fact that religions either change or die, reinforces the need for us to explore the notion of eldership, as I've been doing.3
  5. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed claim to be solitary; 86% of "younger" people consider themselves to be solitaries.
These data provoked lots of questions.  For me, I wonder if the fact that so many claim to be solitaries reflects perhaps: A dearth of teachers and/or training covens? An unrealistic expectation of what covens are? An indication of poor social skills and difficulty getting along with others or building trust with others?  A move away from a more private practice and towards a preference for larger-group or community rituals?

Caroline Tully, University of Melbourne, delivered the final paper, "Researching the Past as a Foreign Country: Cognitive Dissonance as a Response by Practitioner Pagans to Academic Research on the History of Pagan Religions."  Caroline is someone many of us have known for some years online, but on this, her first trip to the U.S., we had the good fortune to meet her and hang out.  Her paper reminded me once again of a phenomenon in Paganism that I call a "yearning for authenticity."  Many people, not just Pagans -- Christians are a fine example -- seem to require evidence of antiquity or of a long unbroken (or broken and reclaimed, revived, reconstructed) tradition to cite as a claim of authenticity, to claim credibility.  I am not among them.  On the contrary, I see much syncreticism in almost every religion of which I have some knowledge.  I don't think a religion is more or less authentic because of its alleged antiquity.  I think it's authentic if it speaks to its practitioners' spiritual needs, if the practice of its forms offers meaning and comfort,

Later I attended the Comparative Studies in Religion Section session on Noncanonical/Nationalist Reinventions of Religions' Narratives of Origin, Christopher Patrick Parr, Webster University, presiding.  Chris, who teaches religious studies and I had encountered one another at other sessions and we had a friendly chat before the meeting began.  The subject intrigued me.  Pagans have many stories of their origins. All religions and ethnicities and groups of people seeking to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world, or seeking to define themselves, and seeking a sense of group solidarity and cohesion, have narratives of origin.  We Pagans have a few ourselves.

I apologize ahead of time for confusion about which speaker was speaking about what, since the program only listed their names and not the titles of their papers.

The first speaker said that there were numerous neopagan nationalist groups in Russia who posit an advanced Russian civilization before St. Cyril, and that they claim a conspiracy of silence on the part of monks and others to suppress knowledge of this earlier time.  These groups are more bookish than outdoorsy and do not perform outdoor rituals.  They claim a mysterious Russian or Cyrillic or "planetary" alphabets comprised of 147 characters, and that the monks' theft of this alphabet paved the way for aliens and alien culture to proliferate in Russia.  Slavs had an autochthonous alphabet and writing before Cyril.

To me, the most interesting paper was about Buddha Shakyamuni and Mother Earth, or Mae Thoranee.  Mae Thoranee is a Thai and Laotian Earth mother figure found beneath the Buddha in statues and paintings.  The fingers of the Buddha's right hand touches the earth.  A tiny image of Mae Thoranee appears underneath the larger image of the Buddha.  This Mae Thoranee foundation upon which the Buddha rests reminds me of the appellation of Mary as Mother of God found in Catholic prayer.

Mae Thoranee, protrectress of the land and its fertility, exists in localized versions.  She is both animist and Buddhist; the soil is her spirit and the trees are her children.  Merit is stored in the water in her hair.  She is shown wringing water from her hair, pouring the waters of merit to redistribute it among any wandering spirits.  One of the slides showed a statue of Mae Thoranee in the act of wringing water from her air on the grounds in front of a civic building.

Another paper was about Takeuchi Kiyomaro (1874-1965), a priest of the Shinto sect known as "Takeuchi-bunsho," dating from the 3rd-4th centuries CE.  The speaker told of how this sect, and others, asserted the superiority of the Japanese people.

* * * * *

Tuesday morning, the last half-day, and which session to savor? I was interested in:
  • Ethics Section, Economic Ethics and Political Reform, in particular, "Whole Foods or Whole People?: The Madness of Neoliberalism and the Paradoxical Political Economy of Hunger" and "Reforming Economic Excess: Towards a Solidarity Economy."  I don't know how much effect a bunch of academics talking about these topics might have to influence economic change or to fill empty stomachs.
  • North American Religions Section, Industrial Effervescence: Manufacturing Economic Selves and Producing Religious Collectivity in American History, in particular, "Gilded Age Railroad Brotherhoods as Industrial Religion" and "Parts of a Whole: Ecological Consumerism in a Global Age." I find the whole culture of railroads fascinating, and know little about it.  I'm also intrigued by brotherhoods, lodges, and other "in-group" organizations.  I suspect we could learn more about creating group cohesion, group identity, group solidarity from studying these phenomena.
  • Women and Religion SectionPerforming Gender and Identify through Song in South Asia, "Dancing with the Goddess, Singing for Ourselves."
However, I attended the session on North American Hinduism Consultation, California Dreaming: South Asian Religions Encounter the Counterculture.

"Utopian Settlements, Californian Vedanta, Huxley, Isherwood, and Friends," presented by Smitri Srinivas of UC-Davis, described places and people I've heard of or encountered in my years in California.  It was interesting to hear these times spoken of from a historical and analytical perspective when one has some awareness of how they have influenced one's life.  I say that as a person who lived in the heart of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury during the 1960s.

"The  Reception of Kundalini Yoga in California and Its Relation to Sikh Dharma/3HO," was presented by Michael Stoeber, himself a practitioner of kundalini yoga.

"California Hinduism: The Shiva Lingam of Golden Gate Park, 1989-1994," by Eliza Kent, Colgate University, related to a new audience a story I like to cite when the topic of sacred images and sites comes up.  I remember when this occurred; it's a wonderful tale.

Jeffrey J. Kripal of Rice University and Shana Sippy, Carleton College offered thoughtful responses.  I'm familiar with Dr. Kripal from my readings about my matron, Kali Ma.  He wrote Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna as well as other writings on Kali.

I enjoyed comments from people of a certain age, myself included, during the Q&A session at the end of the session.

As I was leaving the room, I was pleased to encounter Samir Kaira, a friend from the Hindu American Foundation.  I had expected to run into others from that organization over the course of the Annual Meeting, but other than seeing Dr. Mihir Meghani at the Pagan studies reception on Saturday night, I saw no one.  No doubt this is because there were so many intriguing sessions and they probably focused on the Hindu related ones while I focused on the Pagan ones.

This concludes my reports on the 2012 AAR Annual Meeting.

In service to Coventina,
M. Macha NightMare


1.  Interestingly, it is our survival, and the changes necessary to ensure it, that motivate my work.

2.  She did not, to my knowledge, make a distinction between the terms Paganism and Witchcraft.

3.  Please see my survey on Survey Monkey  Note that this survey has been extended to January 15, 2012, so if you haven't already participated, I invite you to do so now.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

AAR Annual Meeting, Part IV

On Monday morning I attended the New Religious Movements Group on Religious Appropriation of Secular Culture.   All five papers interested me from a nascent-culture perspective.  First was "Haunted Ground: Nature's Nation form the American Metaphysical Perspective," followed by "Summer Camp and New Paradigms of Sacred Space in New Religious Movements," by Ann Duncan, Goucher College.  In past posts on this blog, I've commented about Reclaiming's Teen Earth Magic, a summer camp for adolescents.  Many of these teens are alumni of the annual Witchlets in the Woods family camp.  Summer camps have been a part of American religious life since at least the early 19th Century, if not earlier.  I attended both Girl Scout and Methodist Church summer camps in the 1950s.

"From HippieCrits an' Jesus Freaks to the Twelve Tribes: the Integration and Reinterpretation of Vietnam Era Pop-culture into a Fundamentalist Communitarian Movement's Ideology" had great potential, but I think this was the first paper the two young scholars, Bryan Barkley and C.A. Burriss, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, had ever presented because they fumbled a lot when their Power Point Presentation didn't respond as they'd planned, and as a result they lost time and had to abbreviate their talk.  It dealt with a Christian camp created by counterculture boomers, presuming to appeal to younger seekers, but the reality turns out to be that there's a lot of transiency.  People come but don't stay long.  I think only six people have been there any length of time.

I'm only minimally knowledgeable of the many Pagan attempts at creating Utopian communities, but I do know that it is a desire for, a yearning for, a belief in the possibility of a "better" world that motivates many Pagans.  "Better" means different things to different people, but one might reasonably assume "better" would include plenty of nourishing food, warm, comfortable shelter, clothing, loving family and community, the pursuit of "right livelihood," education, music, art, all in an atmosphere of safety, mutual love and trust, a spirit of cooperation, working together for the common good.

Shannon Harvey spoke on "'Eat Your Way Back to the Godhead': Reducing Karma and Calorie-intake Using International Society of Krishna Consciousness Cookbooks."

But it was the final paper that I found most intriguing, "Hoop Spiritualities: The Hula-Hoop and Embodied Spiritual Practice," presented by Martha Smith Roberts and Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand, both from UC Santa Barbara.  Both scholars are hoopers themselves.  They undertook this study because anecdotally they learned that hoopers underwent spiritual experiences when they got "in the zone," and they themselves had had similar experiences.  They surveyed many hoopers from around the country.  Hooping appeals more to women than to men, although among the men there are charismatic teachers.  Some hoopers spin for many hours a day.  Respondents described their experiences as being meditative, offering a sense of oneness with the universe, a sense of peace.  Hooping rebalanced them from the stresses of their daily lives.  It created an altered state of consciousness in the hoopers.  The sense of being a part of the world both increased and decreased with this sense of wellness.  It increased a feeling of interconnectedness yet allowed hoopers to let go of worldly concerns.

As Roberts and Gray-Hildenbrand described their findings, I was struck by all the parallels I was seeing between hula hooping and Pagan religious practices.  First, hoopers are literally working within a circle; most Pagans construct sacred space in a circular form.  Hoopers have no guru and neither do Pagans, although we do have organizers, ritualists, writers, and leaders among our illustrious co-religionists.  Hooping has no doctrine. We call the space we create one that is "between the worlds."  Hoopers feel suspended between the worlds.  Respondents described individual spiritual experiences in the course of hooping, as Pagans do of experiences in ritual, and their experience/learning is embodied.  More women practice Pagan religions, as more women spin hula hoops "religiously."  I spoke to Ms. Gray-Hildenbrand after the session, since any Q&A time had been eaten by delays of one kind or another.  She agreed with the similarities I had observed, and said that as it happened, a large percentage of their survey respondents identified as Pagan.

While I attended the NRM session described above, I forewent a Wildcard Session on Gods and Monsters of the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Imagination.  The session addressed ideological and material exchange among Greco-Roman, Anatolian, Mesopotamian and Levantine cultures in the form of shared religious and mythological themes from the Bronze Age to late Roman civilizations.  The five papers were "Hearing the Chaoskampf in Iliad 21," Further Parallels in Greco-Anatolian Disappearing God Rituals: the Hittite Kursa Hunting Bag and the Dios Koidion (Fleece of Zeus)," Syncresis and the Cult of Isis in the Greco-Roman World," The Greek Gigantomachy and the Israelite Gigantomachy: Giants as Chaosmacht in Israel and the Iron Age Aegean," and "The God Aion in a Mosaic from Paphos and Helleno-Semitic Cosmogenies in the Roman East."  Don't they sound juicy?

Monday afternoon I was tempted by several sessions.  In particular, the
  • Native Traditions of the Americas Group, Resilience and Revitalization in Indigenous California.  "Asumpa (To Flow): Native American Language and Cultural Revitalization through Hip-Hop," Melissa Leal, UC Davis.  This whole session sounded intriguing.
  • North American Hinduism and Yoga in Theory and Practice Consultations, panel on Mother India Meets the Golden State: California Gurus and West Coast Yoga.
  • Religion in Europe and the Mediterranean World, 500-1650 CE Consultation on the theme of Mapping Medieval Boundaries: Textual, Physical, and Institutional, two of four papers, "The Anachronistic Crone: Margery Kempe and the Hands the (Re/Un)Wrote Her Theology of History" and "From Dominican to Benedictine, form Benedictine to Dominican: Religious Women and Reform in Late Medieval Italy."  The second paper interested me because I have formed friendships with two Dominican sisters1 in MIC, and I have heard them speak of the powerful feeling they experience when they consider that they have 800 years of tradition behind their work.  I don't quite understand how Catholic religious orders work, but I understand that the Dominican Order includes friars, nuns, and congregations of sisters and lay members.  I also know that Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, Dominicans both, wrote the Malleus Malifacarum (Hammer of the Witches) that was so cruelly employed during the Inquisition against segments of the populace I identify with.  Regardless, the Dominican sisters I know are wonderful, caring women.              
  • Religion in South Asia Section and Hinduism Group, Mughal Bhakti: Devotees, Sufis, Yogis, and Literati in Early Modern North India. Paper entitled "Bitten By the Snake of Love: Jogis, Tantra, and Mantra in the Poetry of the Bhakti Saints."  The San Francisco Asian Art Museum's current exhibit, "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts" compliments this session.
  • Indigenous Religious Traditions Group, Sacred Mountains in Indigenous Traditions.  Of the five papers, two interested me: "Places with Personality: Sacred Mountains, Sacred Geography" and "Returning to Foretop's Father: A Sunrise Ceremony in Wyoming."
  • Mysticism Group and Music and Religion Consultation, Music, Mysticism, and Religion.  What can I say?  Isn't that a lot of what we are about?  The four papers that most appealed to me: "The Musical Self: A Nonemotive Reinterpretation of Schleiermacher's Aesthetics of Feeling," "'Drumming' Ritual Identity in Santeria," "From Breath to Dance: Music as a Language of Experience in an American Sufi," and "What the 'Strange Trip' of the Deadhead Community can Teach Us about Religion."  Well, duh!
  • Religion and Disability Studies Group, Metaphor, Language, and Corporeality, in particular "Of Gimps and Gods: Disability as Embodiment of the Divine in Yoruba and Diasporic Religions," by Amy Ifátólú Gardner, UC Berkeley.
  • Western Esotericism Group, Western Esotericism and Material Culture.  Five papers. Egil Asprem of the University of Amsterdam, who spoke first on "Technofetishism, Instrumentation, and the Materiality of Esoteric Knowledge, had joined us on our pilgrimage to Isis Oasis, et al. on Friday.  "The Use of Tracing Boards and Other Art Objects as Physical Aids of Symbolic Communication in the Rituals and Practices of Freemasonry," by Shawn Eyer of nearby JFK University.  (I'm fairly certain that Shawn's path has crossed with mine somewhere along the line, but I cannot place him at the moment.)  I had chatted with the next presenter, Stephen Wehmeyer, at the NCLC-CoG reception on Saturday night, but missed his talk on "Conjurational Contraptions: 'Techno-gnosis,' Mechanical Wizardry, and the Material Culture of African American Folk Magic."  Henrik Bogdan of the University of Gothenburg's paper was ""'Objets d'Art Noir,' Magical Engines, and Gateways to Other Dimensions: Understanding Hierophanies in Contemporary Occultism."  If I'm not mistaken, Bogdan published a book about Asatru a few years ago that caused a stir.  The final paper was "Storming the Citadel for Knowledge, Aesthetics, and Profit: The Dreammachine in Twentieth Century Esotericism."
Though many of the papers speak from the rarefied air of academia's ivory towers, one can also see how many are relevant to, and informed by, contemporary 21st Century (CE) culture.  Pop culture and embodiment flavor much of this year's studies.  The reader can see from the samplings mentioned here and in my other blogs how the AAR can be viewed as a banquet table laden with a glorious intellectual feast.

Please check this blog in a few days for more about the rest of Monday and Tuesday morning.

In service to Coventina,
M. Macha NightMare


1.  Sisters may be confused with nuns.  Nuns live cloistered lives.  Sisters live and work in the public world.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

AAR Annual Meeting, Part III

Here are a few of the intriguing sounding presentations I missed on Sunday:

  • New Religious Movements Group, Strategies of Legitimation in New Religion, one talk in particular:  "Jungian Archetypes, Metagenetics, and Kennewick Man: Scientific Discourses and Racial Theory in American Folkish Asatru," Carrie Dohe, University of Chicago.
  • Ritual Studies Group, Case Studies in Ritual Practice, three papers: "Homa: An Exemplary Asian Fire Sacrifice, Holly Grether, UC Santa Barbara; "Dismantling Gender: Between Ancient Gnostic Ritual and Modern Queer BDSM," Johathan Cahana, Hebrew University, Jerusalem; and "Ritual as Technology of the Body in Early Confucianism." Ori Tavor, University of Pennsylvania.  The second paper seemed especially helpful given ongoing discussions of gender within contemporary Paganism.
  • North American Hinduism Group, Constructions of Hindu Selves and Hindu Others in North America, in particular "Sightings and Blind Spots: The 'Protestant Lens' and the Construction of Hinduism," Michael Altman, Emory University.  Again, because we are a new religious movement, and because there is a phenomenon identified in the field of ritual studies known as "the Protestantization of religion," whereby immigrant religions strive for assimilation by adopting a Protestant church structure, I thought this talk might offer insights and ideas that might prove useful to us as we Pagans establish ourselves within wider society.  We can learn what methods and templates suit the organizational structures and institutions we create and adopt or adapt them, and we can learn what customs, roles, policies, and forms don't suit us and might compromise our uniqueness.  In other words, what to emulate and what to avoid.  As someone who's been deeply involved for the past ten years or so with establishing a Pagan seminary, I'm acutely aware of the tendency to parrot the "overculture" -- because it's easiest, because it's what we're familiar with.  At the same time, I try to consider whether these forms and roles are concordant with who we are.
  • Death, Dying, and Beyond Consultation, Death in Popular Culture, featured "The Power of Death and Dying: Images as a Means of Conversion and Modes of Shaping Afterlife Beliefs in Nineteenth Century America," The Guide of Souls: Characteristics of the Psychopomp in Modern American Media," (there's that pop culture theme again) "Shimmering Between the Symbolic and Real in Pan's Labyrinth and The Fisher King," and "Jewish Ghosts: A Content Analysis of Some Jewish Folklore."  This is just one of the death and dying sessions I'd have liked to attend.  I did, however, run into my friend Megory Anderson at Starbuck's between sessions.  Megory founded the Sacred Dying Foundation, on whose Advisory Board I serve.  We met when we were both researching books on death and dying; there is a Pagan blessing from The Pagan Book of Living and Dying in the alternative religions section of her book, Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life.
  • Anthropology of Religion and Ritual Studies Groups, Ritual and the Construction of Sacred Space.  Right up our Witchen alley, right?  Of the three papers, I was most intrigued by "A Trip to the Spring: A Four-Generation Water Ritual at Shingleroof Camp Meeting."  Summer camps seem to be one of the ongoing themes addressed this year.
  • Templeton Lecture, Martin J. Rees, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and Astronomer Royal -- pretty impressive title, huh?  It appears he's also titled, Baron Rees of Ludlow -- gave a lecture entitled "Our Final Hour: Can Our Species Determine the Fate of the Earth?" I figured that Dr. (or might the proper title be 'Sir' or 'Baron'?) Rees, a theoretical astrophysicist and winner of this year's Templeton Prize, would be offering his scientific perspective on this rather daunting topic and that he was probably well worth listening to, but alas, I had no time to attend.
  • PlenaryAddress, New Thoughts on Solidarity, considering the relationship between sexual and religious minorities in the context of the right to appear in public [?]... [and] the affiliative meanings of queer in light of new efforts to separate queer politics from anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles," Judy Butler, UC Berkeley, panelist.
  • The theme of the Body and Religion Group was Somatospiritual Development: Matter, Symbol, Transformation, again reflecting notions of both embodiment and the embodied spiritual experience and secular culture's influence.  Of five papers, one, "Muscled, Mean, and Sometimes Moral: Professional Wrestling and the Embodiment of Cultural-Ethical Tensions," Dan Mathewson, Wofford College, interested me most.  Our religion(s) is an embodied practice, meaning that we do our rituals, we perform them with our bodies and voices, rather than listening to an authority figure, often presumed to be more spiritually evolved or "closer to God" than the assembly, tell us what to say and do.  We often explain this to mainstream religious practitioners as being experienced rather than revealed (i.e., revealed to Moses or some other mortal).
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation held a session on Religion and the Internet.  Had I perfected the art of bilocation, I'd have attended this for two reasons: one is that I wrote a book called Witchcraft and the Web: Weaving Pagan Traditions Online, which discussed the effects the Internet has had on Paganism and the Pagan presence on the Web. The other is that I made the acquaintance of a lovely man named Dr. Ian Jamison, a Face to Faith Teacher Trainer with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation -- and he reads this very blog!

What I've listed here is just a sampling of the many sessions that I was interested in yet had to forgo in order to go to ones I felt were even more important to me to attend.  These should give you an idea of the breadth and depth of studies given voice at this annual meeting of 10,000 people -- religious studies scholars, religious leaders and practitioners, religion journalists, seminarians, publishers of religious titles, and many more.  You can also see how difficult making those choices is.  You can also see thematic threads having to do with pop culture and secularism, mixed and revived cultural and religious practices, legitimation, multiculturalism. All the while, the elephant in the meeting rooms, sometimes named, was Occupy San Francisco nearby and the Occupy Movement in general, as I've mentioned before.

Check back here in a few days for more detailed posts about the sessions I did attend.

In service to Coventina,
M. Macha NightMare

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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Student Panel on Interfaith Dialogue in Philadelphia

There is an upcoming interfaith event connected to Bryn Mawr College--where there is sufficient public Pagan presence--in Philadelphia. Jane McAuliffe, current President of the College and well known Islamic Studies/Religion scholar, will give opening remarks for a student panel on interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

“When Cultures Meet on Campus: Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue” 
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
at the National Museum of American Jewish History
101 South Independence Mall East, Philadelphia, PA 19106–2517

 4:45 p.m. - Docent tour of the museum 

6:00 p.m. - Remarks by President McAuliffe followed by student panel discussion and reception 
Register Online (Oct. 15 deadline)

I believe this is the new Jewish history museum in Philadelphia. I won't be at this particular event because I am in the Bay Area now. I look forward to hearing about the event though and sharing anything that I learn.
-Michelle Mueller

Monday, September 19, 2011

Hindu American Foundation Fund Raiser

On Saturday evening September 17th, the Hindu American Foundation  held it’s annual fund raising dinner.  Two of the Covenant of the Goddess’s National Interfaith Representatives were there to enjoy the dinner and witness the professional finesse with which this organization handles its only SF Bay Area fund raising drive. 
What makes this event of interest to us as Pagans and Wiccans, is that this religious organization holds so much in common with us, recognizes that connection, and is actually reaching out to us to form bonds of mutual support.   Rather than bore you with a blow by blow description of the evening let me instead mention some of the many reflections that occurred to me. 
The first thing that struck me so forcefully was the repeated mention of PantheaCon and their attendance at that event last year.  Samir Kalra made a point of coming over to join Macha Nightmare and myself prior to the start of the program to introduce himself as the HAF California representative this year.  He wanted to thank us for our presence and mentioned how much he had enjoyed attending the PantheaCon conference.  For those of you reading this who may not have attended the Convention last year, the Pagans and Hindus put on a ritual combining elements of both systems and everyone on both sides seemed to be very happy with the result.  Mihir Meghani, one of the co-founders also present at PCon, even mentioned  it during his main presentation.
I was struck by all of the ideologies, practices and beliefs that we share as the program moved forward. Army Oficer  Rajiv Srinivasan, of Roanoke, Virginia, now a recruitment officer for West Point, spoke of his isolation as a practicing Hindu, in the Armed Forces and how his faith was tested in Afghanistan as a platoon leader almost constantly in harms way.  As a Wiccan myself who was in the military I can very much relate to his feelings of being pressured to attend one of the religious services offered on base on Saturdays and Sundays and, having partaken of mess hall food can only imagine his difficulty in maintaining a vegetarian diet.  Many young pagans have spoken to me of similar issues.
They spoke of the difficulty that their children face in school.  Where Pagan children can sit quietly back and not worry that issues of their religion will arise, Hindu children must face that fact during the fifth and sixth grades here in California when, during Social Studies and World Culture, religions of the world are discussed.  Many of the text books are incorrect in their information on Muslim and Hindu practices and the children must face the decision to correct them, or set themselves up for ridicule from class mates during breaks and after school. To counter this mis-information on the Hindu religion, they have developed their own textbook in partnership with several Hindu scholars and professors which is due to be released in hard back within the next two weeks.
Their Gods, like ours are multiple and complicated and they emphasize the equality of power among genders.  Their practices vary as much as ours, and they respect men and women in modern practice equally.  Within this organization there were as many highly positioned and professional females as males. Many of their spokespersons are women.  
We do also have vast differences between us.  They worship in a congregational manner, with temples and all of the infrastructure that this implies. As I looked around the room I noticed that most of the people in it were Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, or  other very highly paid professionals.  A person at the  table next to us, during the fund raising part of the program, wrote a check for $20,000 without even wincing.  Can you imagine?  A Hindu comedian commented  that if you were an American Hindu male you had only four choices of career, doctor, lawyer, engineer, or failure.   Unlike most Pagans today, they have grown up with and have a deep commitment to their religion that goes back five thousand years over countless generations.  This means that they don’t even have to think about how much they wish to commit to this religion.  It is simply who they are. Many of these still fairly young professional families are donating a year or two away from careers to work full time without pay for this organization.
During the program they spoke about how they came to develop HAF and the plan that they implemented, which is certainly a model that we could all use.  The first step was reaction.  They took immediate action against articles and news reports that were incorrect and set forth to both correct and educate the people and organizations involved.  The second step was pro-action.   They quickly discovered that there was no “go to” place to get accurate information on the Hindu religion and so they set out to let those same people and organizations know about them.   The third step was activism.
This has been reflected in many ways.  They began a program to take back Yoga.  Over the course of many years here in the United State there had been a real effort on the part of health practitioners and the new age movement to play down and separate the practice of Yoga from its religious roots and connected practices.  The program was very successful with great news coverage by all of the major news media.  We received word during the dinner that several of the Lawyers in the room were flying back to Washing DC the next day to attend a congressional hearing on the case of the Hindus in the Kashmir.
There is much that we could learn from this organization and I believe that we will profit from the work that they are doing on behalf of Hindus and Pagans.   As a new religion I believe that Hindus have much to teach us about dedication to a belief, and as an organization I believe that HAF has much to teach us about organizational structure and how to use its members to their best and fullest ability. 
As a final note, all that this organization has accomplished has been done with only four paid staff employees and a budget one tenth the size of any of the comparable major religious organizations out there doing the same work. They raised approximately a quarter of a million dollars last night.  I wish us how to do THAT.
Rachael Watcher