Pagans, religion and a sense of wonder

Last weekend a friend and I attended the annual Albuquerque Pagan Pride Day fair. It was interesting and educational, partly because one of my hobbies is people watching and the crowd easily qualified as watchable.

The smell of string-tied sage and burning incense, the ethereal playing of harper Dave Hoover, not to mention the broadsword replicas and nifty helmets, kept me interested.

The belly dancing was a selling point too, as was watching a local coven bless canned food attendees were asked to bring for a local Unitarian congregation’s food bank.

But something else was at work, something deeper.

The event put me in a reflective mood. Ever since adolescence, it’s what I do after a mind-bending book, a moving film, a new experience. I ponder. Heck, even after a trip to a theme park with my kids sometimes I lapse into reverie. Seems age only has magnified that propensity.

So why drop in on a mixer that was equal parts Wicca fest, Renaissance Fayre and Doomsayers’ road show?

Put another way: Why would a 46-year-old former Southern Baptist with a Master’s of Divinity from a Presbyterian seminary hang out with a crowd of devotees and adherents of alternative beliefs?

Good question.

Maybe it’s my curious nature. Or the allure of the new, at least for me. Or the change of seasons; autumn is my favorite time of year, prompting in me a taking-stock-in-life contemplation.

Could be all of the above.

First, let me say I am not a pagan. I identify myself as a Christian. But beyond that I really don’t know what I am other than a middle-aged married guy and father of two who oftentimes bounces between awe and skepticism bordering on cynicism about life and the world in which we live. It’s a potent concoction that breeds a healthy respect, at least in me, for the inscrutableness of life. It makes me suspicious of any theology — fundamentalist — or philosophy — scientific dogmatism — that squeezes out mystery in favor of explicability.

Marry my appreciation for mystery to my love of whimsy and you get a better sense of who I am. Stir in my passion for nature and add in my keen sense that we are not alone, that there’s something beyond us, whether it is a presence, an intelligence, a ‘force,’ or a deity or deities, as put forth by the world’s great religions, and you’d be perceptive to think of me as open to the supernal.

So while adventurousness contributed to my going, curiosity played a big part too.

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I’m like a lot of Americans. I believe in something. Just don’t ask what it is because I haven’t really figured it out yet, though it’s not for lack of trying.

My childhood was spent going to church three times a week. The Southern Baptist congregation where I grew up was filled with decent people trying to do their best, and it was mostly a good experience.

In college I traded my churchgoing in for the usual callow pursuits. By my post-college years things were different. I spent my 20s and 30s buried in books, living out Kafka’s quote “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Theology, philosophy, literature, history, philosophy of science, I read it all, looking for answers.

The table at the center of the picture was the focal point of the opening ceremony of the Pagan Pride Day festival

The ideas in those books and others exposed me to new ways of seeing the world. I loved Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner’s concept of ‘anonymous Christians’ and felt a kinship to John Hick’s universalism as he explored the world’s great religions. Thomas Mann’s use of a sanitarium on top of a mountain as a metaphor for the Long Century in the Magic Mountain was brilliant while the wide-ranging, searching debates of Settembrini and Naphta, reminiscent of Plato’s Republic, served as a road map for the raging cultural debates that have torn this country apart for the past 25 years.

Meanwhile Richard Rhodes The Making of the Atomic Bomb introduced me to the wonders of the philosophy of science.

A few participants dressed like Renaissance Fayre regulars, which was all right by me

I’d like to think I alone was responsible for this inquisitiveness about the world, and how it works. But I’d be lying. It was my parents. They took my brother and me to museums, exposed us to books and included us in their travels to other countries. They’re the ones who planted the seeds of ideas that fully flowered when I became an adult, and the ones who encouraged us to follow our passions.

They also were the first adults, looking back on it, to acknowledge the human frailty and problems associated with the Church even as they remained loyal to it, working as leaders in the congregation.

It was that openness to holding the Church up to an interrogation that prepped me for Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and its most famous chapter — the Grand Inquisitor. In that chapter, one of the most famous in all of Western literature, Jesus returns and, instead of being embraced, is imprisoned by the Church.

Church experiences

The Brothers deeply resonated with me. Yes, my experience within the Church was good, but it also eventually felt confining. That probably says more about me than it does the Church. As I grew up I felt as if I didn’t fit into the culture, as if the space to explore, to think, to test out ideas wasn’t there.

More concerning to me was the lack of openness to mystery. The churches I attended emphasized the cognitive over a more holistic view of humanity, making one’s statement of belief the embodiment of faith rather than the recognition that we all are prey to the caprices of life and that faith is a belief in things hoped for, but not seen.

Don’t get me wrong. I think orthodoxy is necessary, just not for me, at least not the types I’ve run into.

A member of a local coven begins the blessing of canned food donated by attendees

So maybe my passion is for searching, of seeking out and making my own way on a journey to find a community. Maybe that’s why I wanted to go to last week’s Pagan Pride Day. It doesn’t mean I believe in magic, or subscribe to a new-age-y ‘We are all one’ living in a world that is just a shadow of the real.

Any religion that fails to acknowledge the horror, injustice and terror of this world and to question the order of things doesn’t interest me at all. I mean why am I the lucky one as opposed to some child in Darfur who has done nothing to deserve an early death, either by starvation or war?

My penchant for searching also doesn’t mean that perhaps I won’t wake up one day soon and find a Christian church I want to attend regularly. Age and distance have helped me see that there are many creative, open and devout congregations out there. Besides, many of my best friends are pastors. So is my mom.

But walking around that park where the festival was last week I felt the space I needed to be me, curious, open, interested in new things. And that’s enough for right now.


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