Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Public Theology

Earlier in the month, I took a week long intensive course with Dr. Hubert Locke called Speaking Truth to Power.  The class was about public theology, which Dr. Locke defined as what happens when a religious leader speaks, not to their congregation, but to the greater public about political issues of the day. Rooted in their spiritual knowledge and authority, historically this happened in Op-Ed pieces or letters to the editor. Classic examples of public theologians are folks like Reinhold Niebuhr or Martin Luther King, Jr.  The public theologian is alive and well today, though there has been a shift away from the slowly declining print media.  Now you are more like to find her blogging.

The question that became the core of my experiences in that class was simple.  What does Public Theology look like in Paganism?  Dr. Locke is an older gentleman and his knowledge of paganism was quite limited.  In fact, in our class of nine people, I was the only non-Christian.  While there was a clear sense of respect and welcome, there was also a very obvious lack of knowledge about pagan religious traditions.  As is true with all of my classes in seminary, I spent most of my time responding to questions geared for Christian clergy by first, explaining how paganism differs and then providing my best answer.

A great example of this came in the form of an overnight writing assignment.  We were tasked to come up with a game plan for approaching the board of directors at our church and convincing them to move the church's finances from a mainstream bank to a credit union.  This would include not only the checking and savings account, but the church's investments.  As the professor looked over and found the perplexed look on my face, he asked if I had a question.  I just kinda laughed.

"Um.  Well.  We have no money.  Not like we don't have savings, but we have actually no money.  We gather and all bring things or the clergy shell out money for the candles and herbs.  We have no buildings, no maintenance.  We worship outside.  There are no dues.  We have no money."  The class kinda looked at me surprised.  I decided to use the translation trick I have recently discovered.

"Okay, think early Christianity.  House churches.  Small meetings.  Where two or more are gathered...  That sort of thing.  That's basically where we are at, but pagan."

This analogy is always greeted with smiles and understanding.  Eventually the professor adjusted the assignment for me, but this is a good example of the creativity it takes for me to engage here in seminary.  The final assignment was to write a paper and Dr. Locke and I agreed that it would be best to write a paper to answer that first question:  What does Public Theology look like in Paganism?  I have a big long paper now that talks about the nature of public theology and the history and construction of paganism.  I talk about Gardner and Buckland, Cunningham and Starhawk.  And then I get to the real meat of the question.  Here are the last few paragraphs of the paper:

So where are our public theologians?  Where can pagan clergy speak up and out about political issues to offer guidance and insight into the challenges that our society faces?  I would argue that it is still in the written word where we can reach the most people.  Articles can be blogged and submitted to online and published magazines.  Bigger theories can turn into books.  But the individualistic nature of the pagan community makes this very difficult.  We aren't accustomed to being told how to think or what to think about a topic.  Our independence and individual right to negotiate theology and morality is a highly prized and hard-won trait.  Many of us left mainstream religion specifically so we wouldn't have to be told how to think any longer.
However, as I have been studying Zen Buddhism through the works of Thich Nhat Hanh, I am coming to realize that I have always gone outside of the pagan sphere to gain wisdom about how to be in the world.  Our religious traditions teach ways to think about God, rituals to facilitate connection with the divine, and tools to use in transformative magick, but there are no lessons on how to act.  These are the aspects of my spirituality that I have gathered from authors like Richard Bach and Dan Millman, self-help writers who are basically sharing watered-down, western-friendly Buddhist and Taoist philosophies.  I do not know if there is a shared need for these kind of teaching in paganism, but I know there was a need for me.
It is possible that the role of a public theologian, to inspire and guide people in how to engage the world and the troubles that we face, is not one that is compatible with pagan traditions.  If these influences are happening in pagan spheres today, they are being taught through the interpersonal relationships individuals have with their clergy.  On the other hand, perhaps this is a field of great growth within what is still a very young religion.  Perhaps this is a stirring call to action for pagan clergy, to explore a whole new area of pagan education.

I have been thinking about writing a non-fiction pagan book for many years.  The biggest thing that has stopped me is my resistance to force yet one more "How to be a Witch 101" book on a community that has very little guidance for anyone who has the basics down.  More than anything, I have been waiting until I had something truly valuable to say.  Perhaps this is my stirring call to get serious about writing pagan theology and sharing some of my approaches to what you do after you master the performance of ritual and perfect those incense recipes.