A rose by any other name?

Erin has asked a great series of related questions:

In your opinion/experience, how do the terms most Christians commonly use for so-called “Pagan” belief systems differ? (Specifically Pagan, Neo-Pagan, Wiccan, and Heathen.)

In your opinion, is one term more correct or appropriate than the others when speaking generally of such belief systems? Is there another term I have not mentioned that is more acceptable for Christians to use?

Part of the problem with a lot of these terms is that not everyone can agree on what these terms mean. As such, many of the more common definitions tend to be rather broad and even vague at times in order to gain wider acceptance.

My personal definition of Paganism would be a collection of religions and spiritual traditions that are based on and/or inspired by the pre-Christian, polytheistic religious cultures of Europe, India, and Northern Europe. Such religions and spiritual traditions have many common (though not necessarily universal) themes running throughout them. These themes include:

  1. A pantheistic or panentheistic view of Divinity
  2. An understanding of Divinity that encompasses both male and female genders
  3. Some degree of polytheistic belief
  4. Reverence for all of creation and a strong belief that humanity is just another part of that creation

As an aside, I’ll note that many, if not all, of these themes are pulled directly from Gus Di Zerega’s own discussion of the common themes of Paganism in his book, Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience.

Now, if you pick at this definition too closely, you will likely find a Pagan religion that doesn’t quite fit the description. You might also find a non-Pagan religion that fits the description. Like I said, definitions are not perfect.

The term “Neo-Pagan” was a term adopted by many (and Isaac Bonewits certainly helped get the term out there by using it in the name of his website) to distinguish people who are following modern Pagan paths from the ancient pagan paths they are trying to reconstruct or reinvent. However, many of us, tend to use the words interchangeably. (Personally, I figure most people can tell whether I’m talking about the Paganisms of today or those of centuries past based on context.)

Heathenry is a term which has been adopted by many people who base their spirituality on the myths, legends, and cultures that came from the Germanic tribes. This includes both lore of the Icelanders and the Anglo-Saxons, as well as a few other sources.

Wicca is a term which I find particularly hard to define. This is partly due to the fact that a few years ago, I chose to use a very limited definition of the word on my blog. That’s actually still my definition of choice for this blog. However, much of the greater Pagan community disagrees with me.

As near as I can tell, the majority of Pagans tend to define Wicca as a specific religious tradition that honors a Divine Pair in the form of a God and Goddess, celebrate eight solar holidays a year along with lunar observances, cast circles and call Quarters (most often views as Elemental guardians) as a part of their rites. But in the end, you’re probably best off asking a Wiccan what they understand the term to mean in conversation.

As for what word to use when talking about people generally, the most widely accepted word would be Pagan. The only group that doesn’t seem to care for that word are the Heathens (and even their reactions can vary from individual to individual), as they often prefer to keep a certain distance and distinction between themselves and (other) Pagans.

4 thoughts on “A rose by any other name?”

  1. Good question and the answer was good. You see, I blog with someone that is posting her journey from being Mormon or something like that, sorry about being vague, to being neo-pagan. Funny how I came here and found this question because I know there are different definitions. I think you explained it very well Jarred. Man, my brain is like a sponge when I read your posts.
    That’s good, right? 🙂

  2. Thanks for going over all that for me again. It’s funny to go from being an anti-pagan Christian to being a want-not-to-offend-the-Pagans Christian. I think because so much of what I’ve been taught would be offensive (because it’s simply wrong and fear-mongering), and so for me the best way to know how to avoid offense is to simply ask. I know it’s still likely I will offend someone at some point, but it helps to be informed.

  3. Erin: I agree. Also, one of the advantages to being informed is it helps you understand the kinds of questions to ask and where some sensitivity might be required.

    I have to admit, though, that I have a hard time imagining you as an anti-Pagan Christian. Then again, I think most people have a hard time picturing me as an anti-Pagan, anti-gay Christian. And yet, there was a time…

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