The Three “Centers” of Paganism

3 centersThere is much debate within the Pagan community about how to define Paganism. This is due, in part, to the fact that Pagan­ism has at least three “centers” or sacred foci. Each of these cen­ters defines Pagan identity and Pagan authenticity differ­ently. Each of these groups has a unique way of defining and relat­ing to that “something” which is greater than ourselves. This makes defining Paganism in terms of a single set of princi­ples impossible. Rather than one Pagan Umbrella, it is helpful to think of the Pagan community as three overlapping umbrellas.*

Earth-Centered Paganism

Earth-centered Paganism includes those forms of Paganism con­cerned primarily with nature and ecology, the more local forms of Paganism, and the many forms of neo-animism that view hu­mans as non-privileged part of an interconnected more-than-hu­man community of living beings. The identity of Earth-centered Pagans as “Pagan” is defined by their relationship to their natu­ral environment. Authenticity for this group is defined by their ability to connect with the more-than-human world.

For Earth-centered Pagans, the Earth or nature is that “some­thing” which transcends the individual. Earth-centered Pagans seek to enter into an intentional relationship with the natural world, and a sense of wonder and connection is what primarily characterizes that relationship. An experience of interconnected­ness with the non-human or more-than-human world is a core virtue of Earth-centered Paganism. This sense of interconnected­ness is sometimes called “re-enchantment,” and it refers to an expanded awareness of the interconnected nature of reality and of our participation in the natural world.

Neo-Paganism exists in the overlap between Earth-centered Paganism and Self-centric Paganism.

Self-Centric Paganism

As it is used here, “Self-centric” is not meant in the pejorative sense of ego-centrism. The “Self” (which should always be capital­ized) refers to that larger sense of Self that extends be­yond the boundaries of the individual ego, the wholeness that gives rise to, but is more encompassing than, the normal con­scious identity that we commonly call our “self.” This more expansive identity is some­times called the “Deep Self” or the “Larger Self.” Jungian psychoan­alyst, Edward Whitmont, calls it “the non-I in the depth within.” Self-centric Paganism includes many Jungian Neo-Pagans, “soft” polytheists**, and feminist Witches.

The identity of Self-centric Pagans as “Pagans” is defined by spiritual practices that aim to develop the individual, spiritually or psychologically. Paganism is, for some Self-centric Pagans, a form of therapy or self-help. Authenticity for this group is deter­mined by one’s relationship with one’s Self. To put it another way, Pagan authenticity for this group is measured in terms of personal growth, whether that growth be toward psychological wholeness or ecstatic union with the divine.

For Self-centric Pagans, the Self is that “something” which transcends the individual. Self-centric Pagans seek to enter into relationship with the Self by disassociating from the ego-self and identifying with the larger Self. Insight is a core virtue for Self-centric Pagans, because insight is what enables us to distinguish the ego from the Self.

Self-centric Paganism stands in some tension with more de­ity-centered forms of Paganism.

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Deity-centered Paganism

The term, “deity-centered,” is borrowed from Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone’s Progressive Witchcraft (2004). Deity-centered Pagan­ism includes many forms of devotional polytheism and “hard” polytheism**, and many reconstructionist forms of Paganism.

The Pagan identity of deity-centered Pagans is defined by a dedication to one or more pagan deities. Authenticity for this group is determined by one’s relationship with those deities. In some ways, deity-centered Paganism resembles other theisms, including charismatic forms of Christianity and the bhakti reli­gions of Hinduism.

For deity-centered Pagans, the gods are that “something” which transcends the individual. Deity-centered Pagans seek to enter into relationship with the gods. Devotion is what primarily characterizes that relationship. Faith and devotion are core vir­tues for deity-centered Pagans.

Interaction among the Centers

These categories are not exclusive. They share overlapping circum­ferences. There is often tension between these three cen­ters in Paganism. Neo-Paganism overlaps with both Earth-cen­tered and Individuals who gravitate toward different centers may have widely different understandings of concepts like “god,” “spirit,” “magic,” “worship,” etc.

Some people who might otherwise fall into one or more of these three categories have rejected the label “Pagan,” because they perceive the label as having been co-opted by one of the other “centers” with which they do not identify. Thus, some poly­theistic deity-centered practitioners may eschew the Pagan label because, for them, it is associated with Self-centric or Earth-centered forms of Paganism. Regardless of the terminology which individual practitioners prefer, these terms remain useful for understanding the commonalities and differences among Pa­gans today.

Three Classical Paganisms

The three centers of contemporary Paganism correspond to the different ways in which the term, “pagan,” has been used by schol­ars of classical paganism. When Earth-cen­tered practitioners iden­tify with the Pagan label, it is often the ancient pagans of the countryside that they imagine, the people who worshiped the gods and spirits of the local landscapes where they lived (many of the names of which have now been forgotten).

In contrast, when deity-centered practitioners identify with the Pagan label, it is often the worshipers of the more well-known gods and goddesses of the poets and the state (polis) reli­gions with which they identify. The reason for this is purely practi­cal. In order to reconstruct an ancient pagan religion, one must have sources. Folk religions leave little trace. In contrast, the religions of the state are better documented in writing and in monuments.

Finally, when Self-centric practitioners identify with the Pa­gan label, it is often the participants in the ancient pagan Myster­ies, like the Eleusinian Mysteries, with which they identify. In fact, many Self-centric Pagans, like Vivianne Crowley attempt to draw historical and conceptual links between the classical Myster­ies and present-day Pagan rituals.

Three Pagan Reactions to Abrahamic Monotheism

The term, “pagan,” has also been used historically to mean “non-Christian.” To a certain extent, contemporary Paganism is a reaction to Christianity, or more accurately, Abrahamic monothe­ism. To the extent that this is true, each of the three cen­ters of Paganism represents a different reaction to Abrahamic monotheism.

Earth-centered Pagans reject the other-worldly focus of Abra­hamic eschatology and the dualistic separation of matter and spirit. They reject the conception of divinity as transcendent and the notion that nature is fallen, and they reject the anthropocen­trism of the Abrahamic narrative. Self-centric Pa­gans, on the other hand, reject the Abrahamic condemnation of the body, of sexuality, and of the feminine. They seek to reclaim all those aspects of the Self that have been repressed by Abra­hamic morality. Finally, deity-centered Pagans, who value plural­ism, reject monotheism and all it implies, including the notion that there is only one path to the divine.

A Fourth Center?

Some people have discerned a fourth center in Paganism: commu­nity. This may be due to the influence of Heathenry on Paganism.

Community-centered Pagans define their Pagan identity by belonging to the group that calls itself “Pagan.” Authenticity for this group is defined in terms of conformity to communal norms and participation in group rituals. For community-centered Pa­gans, the community (or “tribe”) is that “something” which trans­cends the individual. The relationship between commu­nity-centered Pagans and the community is ideally charac­ter­ized by mutual fidelity.

* John Beckett describes this model of the Pagan community in The Path of Paganism (2017), where he presents it as his own. I first de­scribed this model when I wrote at Patheos in 2012, and Beckett, who was also a writer at Patheos, first borrowed the idea in 2013. Though Beckett credited me at the time, he did not when he later published his book in 2017. What happened in the interim was that I, and two dozen other Pagan writers at Patheos, left the forum in protest of the Evangelical Christian owners’ support of anti-LGBT organizations and the increased corporate control over the content of the writing at Patheos. Beckett, who chose to remain at Patheos, became one of its most vocal defenders.

** “Soft polytheism,” in contrast to “hard polytheism,” refers to a belief in deities as symbols of natural forces or archetypes of the Self. “Hard polytheism,” in contrast to “soft polytheism,” refers to a belief in literal deities with distinct personalities.

Updated 2019

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