Krista's Journal: Recovering the Layers of Original Depth and Humanity

June 12, 2008

In its original sense, the word "Pagan" simply referred to country dwellers or peasants. Then, as early Christianity spread rapidly in the urban areas of the Roman Empire, "Pagan" became a negative term for those considered too backward to embrace monotheistic faith.

Today, Paganism and Neopaganism are umbrella terms for a vast array of loosely affiliated, new religious movements that revive ancient polytheistic ideas of Europe and the Middle East. There are an estimated one to three million self-described Pagans worldwide. But there is some overlap between these traditions and New Age spirituality, a range of practices that may touch as much as 20 percent of the U.S. population.

For a long while, I did not know how to approach this vast and loosely affiliated spectrum of beliefs. Adrian Ivakhiv gave me a way in. He is a young Ukrainian-Canadian scholar, an ecologist, and an ethnographer of religion — which means, he explains, that he does not dismiss any religious impulses without first understanding them. Where Paganism is concerned, he also has a personal sense of the pull of these ancient traditions, which have appeared in new garb in contemporary lives.

At a young age, he was drawn to a defining impulse of Pagan traditions — their strong emphasis on the natural world and a sense of place. Ivakhiv had begun a love affair with nature that would lead to a career in environmental studies. And he was filled with curiosity about the sacred place of his ancestry, Ukraine. But that part of the world was closed to him until the Soviet era ended in 1989.

So Ivakhiv traveled instead to other parts of the world revered as sacred — imbibing the raw rugged west coast of Ireland and Glastonbury in southern England, where the legends of Camelot swirl amid lush countryside and mysterious ruins. There, and later in Eastern Europe, he became aware of how Christian tradition was thinly overlaid upon ancient ways of marking time and meaning with the cycles and symbols of the natural world. He realized that aspects of his parents' Eastern-rite, Catholic faith — with ritual, light, song, and symbol — were in part manifestations of this layering of history and tradition. They were hints of how, from the beginning, the fundamentals of monotheistic faith mingled with Pagan insights and practices drawn from everyday human life close to the land.

As it turns out, it is not difficult to find Pagan impulses alive even in "old-time religion" once you open your eyes and ears to them. There are some wonderful "radio moments" in this hour — where sound works better than words. Adrian Ivakhiv describes his time spent with gypsies and wandering theatrical companies in rural Poland, where troops of actors create song and story with religious and Pagan overtones drawn from ordinary life. And we play an old LP record of the late J.R.R. Tolkien — an eminent British Catholic writer — speaking Elvish, a language from his Lord of the Rings saga. The recently cinematized Lord of the Rings, like the Narnia Chronicles of C.S. Lewis, creatively mingles Christian symbols of good and evil with supernatural imagery straight from Pagan mythology.

Indeed, as Ivakhiv points out, there is a fine line between the mystery and awe that Western religious traditions sanctify and the notion of magic that is nurtured in Pagan and New Age spiritualities. He speaks of how we commonly collect and cherish objects as relics of the past or of those we have loved: a lock of hair, a photo, memorabilia. We experience in them a capacity to impart presence, to evoke familiarity in unknown spaces, to summon memories and emotions. Music has an effect on many of us that one might call "magical," Ivakhiv points out; and isn't the brain itself — which we now know to be the alchemical center of the memories and emotions that music can evoke — a magical organ?

There is a slippery slope to all of this, Ivakhiv freely concedes. Once a person stops believing in general sources of accepted wisdom, it can become possible to believe in everything, without discernment and wisdom. And Paganism is not immune to the excess and distortion that can plague other forms of religiosity. When Adrian Ivakhiv was eventually able to travel to Eastern Europe, he uncovered a dark side to the Pagan resurgence in that part of the world — a return to nature that embraced a xenophobic, even racist, view of personal and ethnic identity.

Adrian Ivakhiv suggests provocatively, nevertheless, that the Pagan connection between identity and ecology could open other, more generous possibilities in modern lives. He wonders what would happen if human beings cultivated a stronger sense of shared reverence for the places in which we live — reverence for the land we inhabit, not simply for our nation. Might that ground us in a shared identity that could transcend the ethnic battle lines that divide so many shared spaces in this world?

I leave this program with the intriguing notion that a 21st-century Pagan revival might, ironically, help Christianity — and Christian-influenced cultures like the U.S. and Europe — recover layers of original depth and humanity. Thanks to all those who suggested that this would be an interesting area to explore. And we will do more.

Krista Recommends Listening To

Mortal City
by Dar Williams

I love Dar Williams' song, "The Christians and the Pagans," that warmly echoes some of the themes in this program and brings them to life in the sung story of a modern American family. A section is heard in the show this week. Also, hear and read the text of an eminently respectable British hymn, "Jerusalem," that takes the mingled Christian/Pagan lore of Glastonbury as a backdrop. There is a slide show on the Web site this week, too, of natural landscapes — Glastonbury, Sedona, and Slavic countries — that Adrian Ivakhiv describes as places of modern Pagan and Christian pilgrimage.

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is an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont and author of Claiming Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Politics at Glastonbury and Sedona.