What Public Structures Can and Cannot Do For Pagans
Article ID: 8999
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,223
Times Read: 3,558
Author: B. T. Newberg
Posted: February 13th. 2005
Times Viewed: 3,558
Our own temples, community centers, festival grounds... There are a number of things Pagan public structures can do to serve the Pagan community, should we choose to create them. However, strictly speaking we do not need them. Through the arts and media our numbers are growing rapidly enough as it is. Communication is already facilitated adequately via the Internet. Most of our worship services are best conducted in-home or outdoors anyway. I propose, therefore, that public structures are superfluous within the Pagan community. We do need public structures, but not for us. We need them to interact with the non-Pagan community.
All great architecture is conceived in relation to its environment. Our environment is a community that does not share our beliefs, does not understand our beliefs, and sometimes fears our beliefs. Despite explosive growth in the last twenty years, we are still a miniscule minority group. As such we depend on and need to work closely with the larger community. We need to consider our environment as we ponder the potential of Pagan structures.
We require an attitude toward our environment in which we are part of a whole. Since the 1970’s Pagan paths have been going public. Because of this, we cannot hide in Witchy little holes anymore. Neither can we maintain the old siege mentality, wherein we envision circles and covens existing against a community engaged in perpetual Witch Hunts. Such an attitude only reiterates the problem through fostering an “us-versus-them” mindset. In sharp contrast, it is time to create an attitude of “us-and-them-together.”
We must begin to think of ourselves as members within a larger community. We must take active responsibility for our place in the whole. Public structures can help us do this. Whether our structures are temples, community centers, or outdoor parks, they harbor great potential. There are two main ways they can help: 1) By serving as visible embassies to the non-Pagan world, and 2) by fulfilling niche functions within the non-Pagan community. I’ll take these points one at a time.
First, public structures can help by acting as embassies. The mere sight of neighborly, welcoming meeting places is enough to influence public perceptions. If Pagan structures are clean, attractive, and not covered over in goat’s blood, a positive image will be fostered. People driving by will eventually get curious and stop in to find out “what it’s all about.” In the entryway they might notice a bulletin board advertising midwifery services, childcare, or book exchanges. Inside they may find local neighbors playing cards or practicing tai chi. On a bookshelf they can have a browse at the same books we read. Finally, if they are brave enough to attend a public ritual they can see for themselves that we are not rabbit-slashing baby-eaters. The mere presence of a Pagan structure in a neighborhood can work wonderful magic in this way.
Second, public structures can help by fulfilling niche functions. By “niche functions” I mean specialized roles within the culture for which we have an aptitude. Alternative healing is one such role. Another is midwifery. Nature conservation may be another. Personally I think the area in which we stand to contribute most is in the arts. All these roles are already operating within the Pagan community, and public structures can act as centers to organize, consolidate, and represent these services to the larger community.
For an example of niche functions in action we can look at Japan, where I currently reside. It is said that a Japanese “is born Shinto, marries Christian, and dies Buddhist.” This saying refers not to changes in beliefs throughout life but to specific roles that the three religions have come to fulfill in modern Japanese society. Shinto, which celebrates life and shuns death, is perfectly suited for rituals of birth and blessing. On the other hand, Shinto shies away from funeral rites. For these a Japanese enlists a Buddhist priest, whose ideology of rebirth and liberation offers appropriate consolation to the bereaved. Finally, the influence of Western culture has popularized Christian-style weddings, replacing kimonos with suits and bridal gowns. Through a kind of “division of labor, ” the three religions find themselves not in conflict but in harmony. They each fulfill their own niche functions, and thereby reiterate their inclusion within the larger culture.
Another example comes from India. There exists a very small sect called the hirja, consisting mainly of transvestite eunuchs. Although generally shunned, they have nevertheless survived down the years by fulfilling the function of wedding singers. Again, securing a niche enables inclusion within society.
In the end we as Pagans will be accepted not for our beliefs but for our functionality in society. If we find niches where we contribute positively to the culture as a whole, we will be perceived as “team players.” A positive image will grow and our personal safety will strengthen accordingly. When non-Pagans get the idea that Pagans are valuable members of society, the cultural playing field will shift from Pagan-reclusive to Pagan-inclusive.
To bring all this back to public structures, the niche functions that I am talking about can be brought together under one roof. If a center exists where non-Pagans can see the full range of Pagan activities, they may notice that the shadowy ritualists who meet every full moon are the same folks that maintain their children’s favorite playground, and also the ones who put on the puppet show every Halloween. The various niche functions that non-Pagans value will become associated with the Pagan community in specific, and the good image generated by the former will extend to the latter.
So, the dual roles of embassy and niche function center can be fulfilled by Pagan public structures. From this the Pagan community as a whole stands to gain. It stands to gain by fostering good relations with the non-Pagan community.
In addition to these benefits, there are a few other ways that public structures can improve our relations with non-Pagans.
First, the concrete tangibility of a visible Pagan structure is what will enable non-Pagans to relate to us positively. It is difficult to relate to a vague, generalized Other that is “out there somewhere.” Much easier is to see and enter a Pagan public space. Once a tangible presence can be associated with the Pagan community, the possibility emerges of engaging that community in dialogue.
As much as a tangible public space enables non-Pagans to dialogue with us, it also enables us to dialogue with them. It does so by granting us a solid foundation, a “home turf, ” from which we can confidently speak. Rather than hesitantly gathering for a festival on rented land where we may not be wanted, how much more confidently can we represent ourselves on our own land? We need ground to stand on where we can feel safe. We need a gathering place to serve as “home turf.” From that foundation, we can better engage non-Pagans in fruitful dialogue.
Finally, I’d like to consider those unfortunate few who insist we are evil no matter what we do to counteract that image. Even for those non-Pagans who are incurably suspicious of us, public structures can benefit. For without tangible structures, it can seem like Pagans are hiding everywhere. But with tangible structures, jumpy non-Pagans can feel confident that the Pagans are gathered comfortably across the road. How much better is this than a perception that they are hiding behind every bush? A structure gives the impression of a center, which can be avoided just as well as frequented. Thus even in the unfortunate situation of irresolvable differences, visible public structures can improve public relations.
These points show that for the purposes of dialogue with non-Pagans, and even for situations where dialogue is impossible, public structures can do a great deal for us. Now I’d like to consider more specifically the forms that our public structures may take. First let’s glance at our current public structures (for we do have them), and then outline some possibilities for the future. Last will be a few things that public structures cannot do for us.
At the moment the two main public structures of Paganism are bookstores and occult shops. The Internet is an intangible third. All of these are somewhat acceptable as niche function centers, but less than adequate as embassies, and incapable as dialogue-enabling presences.
First, bookstores are able to act as information clearinghouses for niche functions like alternative healing, personal development workshops, and other services. In Pagan-oriented bookstores, and possibility also in Pagan-friendly general bookstores, bulletin boards serve this role. As embassies and dialogue-enablers however, bookstores fail. They are generally not places of open meeting. Also, the constraints of marketing serve to our detriment. First of all, we are at the mercy of stockers who shelf us in the same category as New Agers, TMers, and a host of other groups with which we may or may not wish to associate. Second, booksellers must consider the possibility of alienating customers if they take stands on Pagan issues. Therefore, bookstores are unable to act as representatives in dialogue. As a final note, I have heard accusations that Paganism is a “bookstore religion.” Sometimes, to my dismay, I almost agree. We need a public structure that communicates not just an interest in the spiritual, but a willingness to act that goes beyond the armchair. Bookstores just don’t cut it.
The other tangible Pagan structure, the occult shop, is the only structure currently catering directly to us. Often both workers and patrons are Pagans. Yet occult shops suffer many of the same pitfalls as bookstores. Marketing remains a constraint. Shops must survive (often barely eking by month to month) by peddling whatever wares they can. If shops are to be seen as representatives of Paganism, there are problems. With aisles and aisles of trinkets, incense sticks, crystals, tarot decks, and collectables, all slapped with big fat dollar signs, shops put forth a slanted image of rampant consumerism. I myself have gone away from a few occult shops with a sick feeling in my stomach. That can’t be good for public relations.
The Internet, finally, is the last frontier for the Pagan. There we can find and publish information freely, chat and discuss issues in serious forums, and link communities across the globe. Embassy roles are possible. Niche function centers are possible. Dialogue is possible. However, this electronic Elysium is thoroughly intangible. No matter how digitized our culture becomes, it can never match the impressive power of a solid building. Further, the information on the Internet is un-policed and unable to be policed. This leaves us wide open to slanders and half-truths, including information posted by fellow Pagans, well meant but uninformed. We need structures able to act as reliable representatives of our community.
Therefore the public structures already in existence do not serve our needs. The present situation is inadequate, so now I’d like to look at possibilities for the future. The following is a list of twenty possible applications that public structures can realize if we choose to create them. All of these are potentially achievable by a single structure with its own surrounding land.
These are only the first twenty ideas off the top of my head. Many more applications are possible with a little creativity. As this list demonstrates, public structures offer great potential.
- Temple (see below for potential problems with this function).
- Art gallery.
- Festival grounds.
- Public playground.
- Nature walk/public garden.
- Nature conservation center.
- Inter-coven and inter-circle coordination center or council hall.
- Internet access point.
- Information clearinghouse, including niche function services, bulletin board postings, and events calendars.
- Class venue, teaching not only meditation and magic but also general interest workshops in the arts and crafts.
- Music and entertainment venue.
- Fund-raiser event center, including cookouts, dances, and concerts for charity.
- lnformation/disinformation management center, evaluating (rather than policing) published and online information about Paganism — can you imagine a five-star rating system awarding accurate reflections of our community?
- Safe hangout for Pagan youth.
- Meeting place for general interest clubs, including Morris dancing, belly dancing, historical reenactment, yoga, tai chi…you name it.
- “Home turf” for Pagans.
- Embassy to non-Pagans.
- Dialogue-enabling visible presence in the community.
- Symbol of Pagan values and the Pagan community.
There are roles they cannot fulfill, however. Before I close I’d like to consider a few roles I would not like to see.
First of all, I don’t think architectural splendors are appropriate at this time. We simply don’t have the economic base to create and maintain anything approaching a basilica, mosque, or pagoda. We would be much wiser to choose simple constructions beautified via creativity and loving care. Further, it is more appropriate to our values to exalt natural wonders than create our own.
Which brings me to my second point: Public structures should not and cannot replace nature as our primary worship space. It is only appropriate to an earth-based religion that nature should remain our chief point of communion with the divine. Public structures should not compete with or distract from nature, but should direct us toward it.
Third, public structures should not replace the home as a worship space. The home, the hearth, is the place where we live, love, and rear our children. It is a more appropriate place for Pagan worship than any public structure, no matter how beautiful or convenient. Further, the personal energy that goes into the event organization, ritual design, and shrine creation associated with home worship is vital to our robust individualist spirits. It should not be overshadowed or eclipsed by elaborate but impersonal public worship. Convenience is a terrible danger in this area. If we give up ritual creation to the folks at the public structure because we “don’t have the time or energy” to do it ourselves, then we effectively hand over our worship to a default priesthood. Soon we will lose altogether the aspect of personal responsibility so vital to our religion, and we will become little more than run-of-the-mill Sunday churchgoers. We do have the time and energy to create worship ourselves, and we must keep it that way.
My final criticism will not come as a surprise considering the last three. Frankly, I am against the idea of Pagan temples. Not only can they potentially steal attention from nature and home worship and centralize power in select individuals, but they can warp the perceptions of non-Pagans as well. Paganism is emphatically not a church-based religion, but temples will almost certainly be equated with churches in non-Pagan minds. If Pagan structures are perceived as places of indoctrination, their general interest roles will be disempowered. Non-Pagans may hesitate to attend arts workshops or charity cookouts for fear of being proselytized. This will severely limit the potential of our public structures for engaging the non-Pagan community.
In summary, Pagan structures cannot replace nature, diminish home worship, or serve as temples without considerable tradeoffs. Neither can they aim for architectural splendor at this time. What they can do is host a bountiful variety of services for Pagans and non-Pagans alike. Above all, they can serve as embassies, niche function centers, and dialogue-enabling presences.
This article has considered the ways that public structures can help us as Pagans. There are a number of related issues not considered here, in particular how to fund the maintenance of public structures. Those will have to be dealt with in due time. For the moment, this article demonstrates the many potential merits of Pagan public structures.
I’d like to finish with a quote I heard from a Christian conservative in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. Remarkably, he was speaking in defense of the Mormons of his town. He said he didn’t agree with their beliefs but he respected them nonetheless. “They are hardworking people who take care of the community, ” he said. Those words speak volumes for social inclusion. By putting forth a tangible image of a people who “take care of the community, ” we too can earn goodwill from our non-Pagan brothers and sisters. Public structures can help us do that.
Copyright: © Brandon, 2005
B. T. Newberg
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
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Bio: Although a newcomer to the Pagan community, Brandon has been a life-long spiritual seeker. Currently he is struggling to find his place in the diverse milieu of Contemporary Paganism.
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