A few weekends ago I remotely attended a class hosted by River Devora. Mostly just to see what it was about, but also to get used to interacting with other polytheists outside blogs and forums, because while I’ve been pagan in some way or another for almost 15 years, and animist ever since I could remember, all the other practitioners I’ve ever met were some variety of pantheist, subscribing to the “all gods are one god” thing or the Jungian archetype thing. I just don’t have an interest in working to make inroads with those kinds of groups anymore because they do nothing for me, but at the same time, I have no idea what I’m doing around other polytheists.
It was about 3 hours long, and while most of what was talked about was 101 material to me, it was still a good experience to sit and listen and interact with others – even if in a pretty limited way, due to attending via webcam. A few things were mentioned, though, by a couple of the other more advanced practitioners/priests, and it got me thinking, because this has been a pretty pointed feature of the pagan/polytheist communities ever since I could remember. I talked about it some with Heathen Chinese afterwards and it seems we’ve got similar thoughts on the subject too.
Basically: what’s with the tense, almost love/hate relationship between pagan clergy – to use this as a shorthand – and laity?
Why is it always clergy who talk about the importance of “hoeing onions”, or doing the proverbial gruntwork of being a lay follower?
Why do lay followers seem to glamorize clergy, and the responsibilities involved in occupying those positions, and rarely, if ever, speak of the merits of simply being laity?
I think it’s more complex than just being a case of the grass being greener on the other side, and actually has a lot to do with the concept of social capital.
Social capital isn’t just another marketing buzzword that hearkens back to the gift economies of old, it’s the driving force – and dominant currency – of virtually all interactions and relationships that take place online. Activists and political thinkers have been given a front-row seat to the CF that is current social media organizing, and they’re really beginning to talk about this. I feel that Crimethinc explains it the best, because I’ve fucking been there*:
We live in a society that teaches there is not enough of any valuable resource to go around, including selfhood. People on television or in books are held up as more important, more noble, more attractive than the rest of us. We grow up in households where our parents don’t have enough time for us; we are sent to schools that employ a grading system that permits only a handful to excel, and are discharged into a market that enriches a few of us while exploiting or discarding the rest. We internalize the values of this system. We become used to judging our value by what we are “better than.” We rush to despise others, their plans and ideas and habits and beliefs, in order to reassure ourselves that we have worth of our own. When we should be looking for what is positive in everything, we denounce and criticize instead—just to reassure ourselves! The most insecure among us are not even able to enjoy movies and music, because it is so important to them that they have “refined” tastes; they don’t realize that when they succeed in failing to enjoy something, no one has lost more than they. If you’re going to get anything out of any movie or song or interaction (so as not to have simply wasted time!), you have to take responsibility for finding ways to enjoy and benefit from it.
In its advanced stages, such hypercritical status-seeking can combine with a spectator mentality: from a distance, the critic passively votes for or against the efforts of others, unable to discern that such things as art, activism, community are entirely what he makes of them—and that he must make something of them himself in order to get anything out of them. This spectatorship reinforces the sense that everything everyone else is doing is uninteresting or unintelligent, and thus the feeling of superiority the spectator so desperately needs. […]
Those of us who would oppose this scarcity system often have additional challenges to face in unlearning its conditioning. Many of us have come to this resistance from a place of conflict and struggle, and this sense of struggle is still imprinted upon the way we approach all our activities. Having been abused, neglected, harassed, having had to fight peers, parents, teachers, bosses, police to establish ourselves, we see selfhood as something that is obtained by fighting.
The vast majority of us are first generation pagans and polytheists; that is, we came to be where we are with deliberation, and sometimes, at great cost. If we are teenagers, we are rarely safe to practice in our own homes. If we’re adults, we have professional reputations to maintain or landlords and neighbors to appease. If we’re parents, we have children to keep from being teased, or even taken away. Many of us have accepted the reality of a life of solitary practice for a number of reasons, and especially in those cases, our only company in ritual and worship are the Gods and spirits Themselves.
Many of us also come to paganism or polytheism from paths like eclectic, Wiccan-flavored paganism, where many of the resources assume the reader is solitary, and perhaps as a result, practitioners are often encouraged to undertake rather priestly responsibilities like invoking Gods, creating sacred space, and maintaining altars.
A few ideas on why there is an undercurrent of mistrust or hostility toward pagan clergy, given the above:
- Culture clash if you’ve come from a background of solitary work with an “everyone’s a priest/ess” implication
- Lingering mistrust of religious hierarchy from previous experiences with Christianity, etc.
- Building up cults of personality, elevating individuals to celebrity status
- The felt sense of threat from encountering someone who has a “closer” relationship than you do with your God/s
- The behavior or volume of a clergy member’s online or in-person following
- The attention received by clergy member’s “more interesting” or “photogenic” practice
The anxiety caused by last three, being the ones I feel like I’ve seen the most in my wanderings around pagan forums and blogosphere, are the ones that are predominantly rooted in scarcity thinking: that the attention of Gods and spirits, and that community and cooperation are all finite resources that we need to stake claims on.
To quote the Crimethinc piece again, I feel like this paragraph is relevant to every lay person who is encouraged to be content with being a follower, with “hoeing onions”, by a member of the clergy or someone else in a position of authority:
Considering the numbers of public relations agents, televangelists, self-help gurus, and other assorted fanatics and salesmen competing to convert them, the hesitance “the masses” show to get involved in any kind of social movement is actually a healthy self-defense mechanism.
If we operate in a world of scarcity, where even Gods can be unintentionally framed by the cold logic of resource extraction, then it would make sense that layfolk are suspicious of clergy – priests, spirit-workers, godspouses, and so on – every time we’re told that we shouldn’t necessarily strive to be where they are. Because this means that there is something good and rewarding that they are trying to keep the rest of us from getting. It sounds suspiciously like a rich person trying to explain to a poor person why financial security isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
And I think that this is where the pagan “fads” come from as well, in just the same way as fads happen in consumer culture: where the working or middle classes appropriate the style and effects of the ultra-rich, the same thing happens when the “spirit-poor” suddenly all start studying astral travel or animal familiars because that’s what a BNP is talking about at the moment.
When community is seen as a finite resource and zero-sum game, especially in the realm of social media, ugliness happens. When talking, again, about the backbiting and infighting found in online activist communities, Frank Castro writes this in his piece The Virtual Colosseum: Overcoming Social Media’s Dark Side:
[In] the arena of online activism we often treat the discourses surrounding our oppression how capitalists treat market share, vying to monopolize the discourse with our own lived experiences and intellectual prowess, to solidify our own positions, oftentimes through oppressive tactics. Individuals who can get others to invest in their ideas or lived experiences about a particular discourse obtain greater access to that discourse, wielding greater influence over it as well (the greater the following, the greater the ability to signal boost your own perspectives, or at least perspectives with which you agree). Popular activists can come to dominate online discussions this way.
Herein lies another problem. When conversations are dominated by those who have obtained large followings, the creation and enforcement of hierarchy emerges. This hierarchy revolves around not just competition for followers, but for credibility among those followers. Activists with large online audiences are thought to already have established their credibility — especially among the newly politicized — by showcasing their intellect. All too often, however, this showcasing takes the form of shutting down and/or delegitimizing other users’ ideas and lived experiences. To admit one might potentially be wrong, or even inaccurate, is to lose credibility and access to followers (social currency).
In pagandom, I’ve seen this kind of thing happen much more in forums and the likes of Tumblr than blogs: the dire need to be right all the time and the paralyzing fear of being wrong or even just saying the right thing the wrong way, all to avoid a real or perceived threat of character assassination. And in Castro’s Virtual Colosseum, discredit is death:
After a while it can feel like survival of the fittest. Sometimes it is. Just as billionaires have enormous resources at their disposal to manipulate the flow of power and preserve market dominance, social currency enables popular web-based activists to maintain dominance over online discourses. So while the visibility social media enables can be a valuable tool for the proliferation of alternative media, marginalized voices, and radical re-education, how that visibility is obtained and maintained can be painfully problematic.
Whether or not we consciously understand that this is generally how social clout functions unless deliberately counteracted, I think laypeople intuitively understand this. And so when clergy also become BNPs – which they almost always do, unless maybe, perceived to be bandwagoning – there may be a sense of betrayal, and deep misgivings may begin to form about what their priorities are. Combined with the scarcity logic above, this can create an ugly felt sense of something vaguely threatening. Clergy can then become symbols of monopoly: monopolizing the attention of the Gods, beings who may have long been our only confidants in solitary ritual or devotion, and monopolizing community, something that social media has been structured to function as a zero-sum game.
So, again, it is no wonder that the layperson’s reaction to this anxiety, this threat against their sense of selfhood and their relationship with the Gods and spirits, is to try to become clergy themselves; not at all unlike the working class person that might dream of being rich, whether through hard work or winning the lottery. Those who are god-touched occupy privileged positions in this economy of spirits, and those who aren’t are at the bottom. How many god-deaf BNPs are there? Hardly any I can think of; so while clergy may talk about the importance and dignity of being laity, the reality – little clout, no authority, few online followers or likes or reblogs – says otherwise.
What do we do about this?
I think it would be useful to make a concerted effort to recognize when we are perpetuating scarcity logic in our religious interactions – with Gods and people – and do our best to undermine that learned behavior. The Gods and spirits aren’t like gold or old growth timber; Their presence and power aren’t scare commodities that we need to secure for ourselves lest someone else get our piece of the pie. In fact, They function in exactly the opposite way: the more we honor, serve, and worship Them, the more They become. We know this.
For clergy – the priests/priestesses/godspouses/spirit-workers/temple-keepers/ordained/etc. – keep in mind the power that you wield in this economy of social currency. And please, if you have to extol the merits of being god-deaf, head-blind, and otherwise without priestly responsibilities, try to mind how you do it; it’s easy to come across as patronizing in a world where everyone is vying for likes and authority to secure their selfhood.
These are all just thoughts and suggestions, but I know that the phenomenon is real. I’ve experienced it. I see others experience it. If someone else would like to build on this and turn it into a full-fledged dialogue, please do. Even if I’m found to be wrong, I’d like to know what others are thinking about this.