Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Catholicism, Paganism, Interfaith Dialogue and the Wild Hunt

In a recent Wild Hunt posting, Jason Pitzl-Waters discussed Elizabeth "Liz" Dodd, a onetime Witch whose spiritual quest led her to Roman Catholicism.  As always, Jason presented the case fairly and clearly.  His criticisms of "conversion narratives" and his questions about Dodd's motivations and research skills were trenchant without being strident or hysterical.  Still, I wonder if we might not approach the phenomenon of Liz Dodd in a slightly different manner.   Any interfaith dialogue must begin with people who do not understand each other's spiritual motivations.  And I wonder if Jason was unfairly dismissive when he wrote:
Dodd wants it both ways, she wants to be seen as the “real deal” when she talks about her time as a Witch, but her own biography is that of a seeker, a dabbler, who simply rebelled for a time against her childhood faith (later in the article she talks of a post-Pagan period where she was a “vegan Buddhist”).
If Pagan cyberspace is any indication, there are many Witches who are indeed seekers and dabblers rebelling against their childhood faith.  And Dodd is hardly the first Witch who was introduced to the faith by Silver Ravenwolf: neither do her motivations distinguish her from many another young Witch:
... As a teenager, with only a limited amount of say in what I'd have for dinner, for example, the idea of unmitigated supernatural power, coupled with such a self-governed morality, was very appealing.  My interest in Wicca increased, even in the face of frequent magickal failure. In the booklet I suggest that Wicca can be an important stage in spiritual growth for a young person. Like many of my generation, I was looking for a religious home. Wicca is far removed from mainstream western religion; it has no hierarchy or clergy, no central texts or commandments. It is a framework upon which young, spiritually hungry people can construct a religious identity independent of their parents.
Neopaganism/Goddess Spirituality in America is still largely a religion of converts.  We can expect to see a large number of "seekers and dabblers" passing through: many, like Dodd, will move on to other spiritual pursuits.  We can benefit from exploring both the reasons why they were attracted to the movement and the reasons why they ultimately found it unfulfilling. 

Dodd complains of a lack of depth and scholarship within modern Neopaganism and Occultism. I think it is fair to say that we have not yet produced a MaimonidesAvicenna or St. John of the Cross  and equally fair to say that there's a whole lot of sloppy scholarship and embarrassingly bad Neopagan material on the market and on the web.  That is not to say that there is no depth or breadth to be found in Neopaganism - but it certainly isn't as large, visible or accessible as in traditions with a longer history and greater social capital. 

Interfaith dialogue gives us the opportunity to rectify mutual misunderstandings.  It also gives us a chance to compare and contrast our approaches and to discover areas where we might be doing better.  We need not win Liz Dodd back: if she has found satisfaction in her Catholic faith, then why would we wish to take that away from her? But we should recognize her sincere if flawed attempt to engage with our faith and give her the same courtesy.

And before I go, two more minor nits.  I'd say that the "religion" Dodd was describing - Solitary Witchcraft/Solo Neopaganism - is indeed around 20 years old, having begun about the time Scott Cunningham released Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  I would also note that struggling with one's faith has a long and honored tradition within Catholicism and most other religious traditions.  If Dodd's struggles with her faith are a sign of "spiritual immaturity," then what are we to make of that poor bastard Job?


Anonymous said...

Good points all, Kenaz. While I think that having people to look to such as St. John of the Cross or St. Thomas Aquinas is a good thing, I would hope that, just as fervently as I want one from our corner, that we develop deeper as a collective whole than where Catholicism, in my experience, has stopped. As I see it, consistently challenging ourselves is the way forward, whether it is through religious debate, interfaith dialogue, or deepening our own understanding of our own theologies.

Anonymous said...

I read the story and I hail the writer for her audacity. God know why, pagans tend to be pretty harsh on "apostates", perhaps because many feel the same vague way about their faith.

Spiritual immaturity is a pretty derogatory term to use. Consider the common Pagan "conversion narratives" published on Facebook.

There is is just no other way than mutual respect, and nobody should try to psychoanalyze believers of other faiths and discard them for whatever reasons; the mysteries hide themselves in any religion and most people are mere neophytes.

I am personally an initiated Druid, Wiccan in training, Vodouisant adept for priesthood, newly found Catholic (in relation to Vodou) and you could probably call me Satanist as well or some other names. I keep parts of my practice hidden from many Pagans, they simply would not understand.

Many think you "can´t do" two traditions at once, meaning wicca and druidry, the human need to boxes is just so pervasive - I realize I am a pain in the ass for many.

Jason Pitzl-Waters said...

Thank you for the kind words about my essay. I'd like to briefly respond to some of the critiques you make in your blog post here.

First, I have nothing against dabbling, or experimenting. I think it's a wonderful thing. However, I don't think dabbling makes someone qualified to write an informational pamphlet on Wicca. I think the author acknowledges this, and spends time discussing how she went deeper (and darker) before her conversion process began. By "have it both ways", I mean that she tries to both claim to have been a serious practitioner, and that her time as a Witch was a fleeting teenage mistake.

As for "spiritual immaturity", I think writing distorted pamphlets against your previous faith is exactly a sign that you aren't truly comfortable or stable in your current faith. She's welcome to think Catholicism is deeper, more awesome, etc, and I welcome her to those thoughts.

Finally, regarding "Solitary Witchcraft/Solo Neopaganism - is indeed around 20 years old...", I'd agree with that framing if she had consistently used it. However, Dodd herself invokes Gardner, Crowley, The Golden Dawn, and Freemasonry, which in my mind means she's taking on Wicca as a whole, not simply the more recent "solo" movement. She never specifies that she's narrow-focusing her remarks to a specific phenomenon within modern religious Witchcraft.

PS - Our modern movement may not have a St. John of the Cross, but we also have the benefit of many ancient texts by pre-Christian/pagan thinkers and philosophers. I've seen many more Pagans utilize those sources than in the past. I'd also like to acknowledge that we have a wonderful and growing culture of scholarship and academic excellence within modern Paganism. It may not be a widely marketed, but Pagan Studies is a serious and vital thing, and grows all the time at events like the AAR's annual meeting.

OK, that's it! Again, thank you for the thoughtful commentary. Here's hoping we can meet in person sometime!

- Jason

Wes said...

All good points, but as Jason says, I have a problem with Dodd claiming she's an expert on Wicca. She can certainly describe her own personal experience, but we shouldn't consider her an expert if that path was so short-lived. In my years as a Christian, I "dabbled" in some Pentecostal offshoots, however, I don't claim to understand everything about it. And although, after roughly 40 years, I no longer call myself a Christian, I wouldn't write anything calling it false or dangerous. Like any faith, Christianity has its merits.

I suppose it's just so easy for Dodd's words to be used against those of us outside the spiritual mainstream--that's what's troubling. Of course, we do need our own scholarship to counteract those attacks.

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