Burning Bridges

I have a pattern of burning bridges when I am moving beyond something.

It’s probably connected to how I look at the past–mostly a repository of mistakes I wish I could have avoided.

I’ve tried the more positive approach of looking at my past like a stepping stone to the future.  For example, I’ve tried to see the two years I spent as a Mormon missionary in northeast Brazil as necessary for my development.  I came to care about people for whom my own privileged life is an unattainable fantasy.  I came to see how Mormonism, far from being a universal religion, is a religion by and for White upper and middle-aspiring-to-upper class people.  It forced me to live my religion, rather than just think about it.  In short, it brought things to a head for me.

Four years after coming back to the U.S., I formally left the Mormon church.  Maybe if I hadn’t gone to Brazil I would have taken much longer to leave and ultimately “wasted” more time.  But in spite of the insights and life experience that my time in Brazil gave me, I still sometimes feel like the Mormon church owes two years of my life back.  And if I had the means, I would burn the whole institution to the ground.

Over the past few years, I have grown increasingly frustrated with the Pagan community. Mind you, I’ve always been critical of Paganism, almost from Day One.  But I always held out hope for it, because I see a great potential in Paganism to be a transformative social movement.

I’ve pretty lost that hope now.

Now you might be thinking that I’m talking about internet Paganism.  I’m not.  Actually, internet Paganism helped me hold onto that hope.  As long as I remained behind the keyboard, I could imagine that, somewhere, Pagans were acting out my ideal of what Paganism should look like.  And, no doubt, some are.  But the more I left my keyboard and joined the IRL Pagan community, the more disappointed I became.

Maybe this says more about me than it does about Paganism.  But it doesn’t change the disappointment.

I don’t intend to burn any bridges with the Pagan community … except when the fire might serve a positive function (like the Patheos exodus).  And I don’t regret becoming Pagan.  I still am Pagan, in fact (though maybe Pagan with a small “p”).  But I do regret the time I have spent trying to fit a round Paganism into the square hole I had designed for it in my mind.

I am aware that my disappointment has been reflected in the tone of my writing here recently.  Some of my readers have pointed out that there is a harder, sometimes meaner, edge to my writing now.  I see it.  I recognize it, because I’m feeling harder and meaner.  I think maybe part of it comes from the pain of the loss of the friendship of some people in the last year.

I don’t really don’t have any grand conclusion to this post, except to let those of you who have commented on the change know that I hear you and I understand what you’re saying.  I don’t know if that makes a difference.  This blog has always served as a document of my personal journey, a place for me to work out what was important to me … and what isn’t.  Right now, this is where I am.

But, if I know myself, I won’t stay in one place long.


14 thoughts on “Burning Bridges

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  1. Thank you for your honesty, Isometimes I feel kind of like this too. I grew up Greek Orthodox Christian Church with a lot of Roman Catholic influences, I eventually in 2005 I became an Orthodox missionary in the Philippines, I was sent by the only Orthodox Missionary Group in USA. I did not get any background to the situation I was walking into and I was sent alone, well to make a long story story short… the priest in Manila had his cousin stay at the church with him, and the cousin raped me. Well the mission group and the metropolitan got me out of the country so I did not get to persecute the the rapist. But he wrote a letter about what kind of person I was.
    It is as awful. The Metropolitan and the mission group, asked if anything in the letter was true.
    I have been having problems with religious group since.
    Now I am Not using any labels or not committing to any faith . There is wisdom in all.

  2. Hi John —

    Been where you are. Here’s what it resulted in: let me recommend my study of the Pagan Community here in the Twin Cities, “Paganistan” (Interlibrary loan it). The same questions I had and the same frustrations led me to an ethnographic study on how Pagan community was being attempted and what form it takes now. Paganistan’s been an active community since the 70’s, and has been up ad down and all over the place.

    Big Takeaways:
    1. There is a seasonality to these frustration points; they do pass. As new concerns enter the community, the reasons for its forming shift. You’re in the valley. There’s another mountain ahead. Press on.

    2. Rest assured there are elders and serious folks still making these communities happen; not everyone is a LARPing nincompoop. It sounds like you’re surrounded by folks like that, and that’s sad. But interestingly, those folks do tend to mellow out and fall away when it’s time for the community to get serious and show solidarity around an issue or a crisis.

    3. Rexamine your expectations about what a community is supposed to do. Much of community building is about learning to live together when we don’t line up perfectly, not about being a vector to change society. The San Francisco sources (Starhawk, et al) are seductive, but they document the unique history of a unique community that has as its legacy countercultural action and social change. It’s the same in other places in the country/world…
    The draw for many of us to this was a radical mystical spirituality ungoverned by any religious authority. We are a cantakerous, disagreeable bunch, us Pagans, The movement has always attracted those types. But what to be disagreeable about has changed, and will continue to do so. And we will continue to bang into each other… we learn with time to navigate around instead/ But it takes time. patience, and the abiltiy to even see the goofy ones as decent folks.
    It may not feel like it, but your frustration and hopelessness is a good sign. Maybe some illusions are shattering.

    Hang in there. I enjoy your blog, and admittedly was struck at your change in tone. But I figured I’d address it because I recognized it. Blessings to you.

    Murphy Pizza, PhD

    1. Thanks Murphy!

      For what its worth, I’ve been wanting to ready your book for some time, but the cost was prohibitive. Maybe I’ll get the Kindle edition now that I’ve stolen my wife’s Kindle.

      There does always seem to have been a tension in contemporary Pagan history between those who saw Paganism primarily as a kind of mystery religion (or radical mystical spirituality, as you said) and those who saw it as a way of re-enchanting society (i.e. Starhawk).

      I am curious about your reference to the community getting serious and showing solidarity around an issue or a crisis. I’m wondering what you had in mind. Most of the examples I can think of have been internal to Paganism, self-reflective, rather than examples of engagement with the broader more-than-Pagan community.

  3. Hi John, like others, I understand where you are. I grew up in a conservative church too and railed about the things I heard, even as a teenager. I tried Buddhism, Wicca, even Pagans, none of which served me. I tried different churches, and came to the same conclusions until I found a church that blessed with God Father/Mother and recognized what seems to me a foregone conclusion…the holy, by whatever name we call it, and all of nature, have both masculine and feminine energies. Now that’s my quest: to write and talk about the divine energies being complex in being. It’s a road that is hard for many to entertain, I understand that. But I keep on, as will you, when you find a spiritual path that fits all of you. There are no rules in spirit. There is only energy. The rules are made by humans in a particular time and a particular place that fit their evolution. I suppose the task for all of us is to understand and accept our own evolution.

  4. “But I do regret the time I have spent trying to fit a round Paganism into the square hole I had designed for it in my mind.” That and the quip about you trying to see paganism as a vehicle of social change. The two add up to “I want to remake the world according to my ideas of what it should be and there should be no room for anyone else’s point of view. Unless they agree with me.”

    That is why your writing has turned mean. You are disturbed by the fact that some of us have differing opinions about everything from economic systems to the meaning of the divine. To a host of other issues. This isn’t limited of course just to pagans.

    But it isn’t just you. The whole earth-centered/deity-centered schism could almost remind one of the Post-Reformation religious wars.

    That and (as DocMurphy guesses) the “LARPing nincompoops” who permeate the movement drive a lot of otherwise interested people (like me) away. (The “vampires” do a much better job at LARPing anyway.)

    But mostly, it is the assumption by 90+ percent of “the community” that we all think alike. They we all value the same things. That we all approach the spiritual in the same way. Sorry. No. Just like you can find Christians all over the political spectrum, you can find Pagans all over the place.

    1. It’s not an assumption that all think alike or that others have different opinions. Gods, I don’t know how many times I have heard Pagans respond to any form of critique by accusing the critic of wanting everyone to think alike. Such relativistic sophistry leads to intellectual paralysis.

      The issue is that public forms of Paganism are geared toward helping those rebelling from monotheistic religions to heal, which is good, but they don’t seem to help Pagans take the next step.

      1. Hi again John –

        Some examples are in the book. Specifically the Hidden Falls Park incident and the Veteran Pentacle action on the St. Paul capitol steps, among others…and maybe we can get you to Paganicon one of these years where you can see and hear more..

        Glad you heard of my work. Seriously, inteibrary loan it and save yourself some money. 😉


          1. Wow, small world. Steve’s Grand Sabbat will be held at Pagan-owned land of forest and flield, wild and juicy in sw WI. It’s in the “driftless area” and is an intact ecosystem.I’ll go out on a limb and say that you will find food and drink for your Soul here among folks that are both square and round pegs. :). Some of us even speak Jungian. Hope you can make the trip.

  5. Yes, it’s been quite distressing to watch, since well before P-exit. But you are a man of good faith and you will get through it. Doc Murphy seems to make a lot of sense, I hope you can hear him. And there is always growth, even when something was genuinely a mistake. I suspect that this particular crisis may have been necessary, and will yield wisdom in due course. But that can be only a guess, because I am not you. Nor are you me, or any other Pagan.

  6. Hi John
    Yes your tone had got a little mean and we noticed! But you are self aware and big enough a man to own that. Hell, I’ve been through my own recent mean period, in which I consciously gave leave of the pagan community for nearly 18 months after faciliating a druid group in the U.K. for 3 years. Like you I was tired with the whole earth centred versus deity focus thing. For sure it is a real divide, at the philosophical and emotional level between those who – as you so aptly put it once – have a real problem with the ‘theism’ in Monotheism and those who just hate the ‘Mono’ bit. I think of you as paganism’s John Hick identifying there really are two quite diferent versions of paganism out there as there are two very different versions of Christianity today; personal friendships can still span the gap of course, most of the time. But I wonder if you are not (pardon my attempt to fit you into a new pigeon hole) like me arguably part of an even greater 21st Century Holistic Spiritual Movement/Genus sub set/species “holistic pagan”. There are many ‘pagans’ and indeed members of other faiths – and none – looking for an earth focussed nature spirituality that is also not anti rational, and strongly progressive in its vision for people and communities all over the globe, including members who are believers and atheists. Your frustration with paganism is like mine because it is often so tantalisingly wonderful especially sometimes mid ritual – as I felt again attending my first druid ritual in over a year last week and ending my self imposed exile from paganism. At its best many expressions of modern paganism get very close but not quite close enough to the holistic ideal, though I suspect the same may be said of our mates among the Unitarians and Liberal Christians too! Regards, Phil Anderson also formerly known as ‘Whitehorse’, Wales UK

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