Today I finally got to give my one-and-a-half hour presentation on paganism. Despite being relatively early in the morning (9AM) and on a Sunday, at a time when you’d expect most regiomontanos to be in church, the room was almost full, probably because in my previous panels and random conversations I’d been telling people that this was the thing to go to if they wanted to learn about our traditions a little more in depth.
This gave me a chance to address in greater detail some of the questions and comments that various people had raised in my previous presentations, chief among them the use of the word ‘pagan’. This is, of course, a very common and quite understandable concern which a lot of us have long ago learned to anticipate. The most effective way I’ve found to deal with it is to suggest that when people react at all negatively upon seeing or hearing the word ‘pagan’, what they are in fact experiencing at that very moment is the surfacing of a very old, inherited, internalized prejudice which more than likely they didn’t even know they had – a classist, cultural and religious prejudice which I, too, held once upon a time. Most often, people will not have thought of it in quite that way, and if it is presented in an evenhanded manner, without any sense of placing a guilt trip on them, they will generally be intrigued by the idea and open to considering it.
Then I go on to explain the origin of ‘pagan’ as a neutral term, in Roman times, to refer to the farming and herding peoples that lived beyond the walls of Rome, in rustic villages on the edge of the wilderness, and, by extension, their customs and traditions, and I also point out that the Latin name for such a village, pagus, from which ‘pagan’ derives, comes from the very same root as our word ‘pact’; hence, the original pagans were the ‘people of the soil’ or ‘people of the earth’, the ones who retained longest their pact or bond to the land. Then I move on to the later use by the Romans of ‘pagan’ as a pejorative label equivalent to the modern ‘rube’ or ‘hick’, and implying a general contempt toward their way of life, their spirituality, etc.; and, finally, to the eventual Christian adoption of that term, with an even more generalized negative or contemptuous meaning, to apply pretty much to anyone who wasn’t Christian, whether in Europe, or subsequently among the various indigenous populations colonized by the Europeans. In closing, I make the case that ‘paganism’ is simply the most accurate and useful generic label for the indigenous, pre-Christian traditions of
In my experience, most reasonable people, upon realizing that they’ve been harboring some sort of prejudiced view, are more than willing to be open-minded and let go of it. This is especially the case among members of the interreligious community, who are particularly sensitized to the harm that various forms of prejudice have caused, and continue to cause, around the world, and are keenly aware of the very common patterns of social injustice perpetrated by colonialists against the indigenous populations of every continent.
After my talk, probably close to twenty people mentioned how eye-opening it had been for them to think of their responses to the term ‘pagan’ as a form of prejudice. One particularly gratifying comment came from a middle-aged Catholic nun, who told me something like, “I am very involved in promoting diversity and social justice here in México, and I detest any form of prejudice, and take pride in being very open-minded and accepting. But that word ‘pagan’ has always bothered me, and I came here this morning prepared to be offended, and even to argue with you and to defend my religion. And if you had just talked about the original meaning of that word, I would still have argued semantics with you, and I would have told you that it didn’t have that meaning any more for most people, and that it simply wasn’t a good word to use. But by talking about prejudice, you made me look at it not as something external, like the meaning of a word, but as something much more personal and internal, like my own feelings, and where they were coming from. So I want to apologize to you and to your people because I’ve realized that I was, in fact, being very unfair and prejudiced toward you, and even if it was in thought and not in deed, it was still an injustice on my part, because I was still keeping alive in my heart some of the same prejudices that caused very real injustices to be committed against the indigenous tribes of Europe, in a way that sounds so similar to what’s happened here in my own country. Don’t get me wrong, I am a practicing Roman Catholic, and very proud of it, and I was born a Roman Catholic and expect to die a Roman Catholic. But there are some things that have been done in the name of my religion that I am not proud of, and today I found a little bit of that inside my heart, that I didn’t know was there, and that really bothered me. But now I can be rid of it, and even think that, despite being Catholic, maybe there is a small piece of me, after all, that is also pagan, and that makes me a little excited!”
As rewarding and delightful as that interaction was, the good feelings from it were soon tempered by one of the panelists at my next event, a discussion on ‘Religion and Values’, which struck the single discordant note among all my experiences at the Encuentro. The moderator began with a clear, comprehensive exposition of the importance of values as the actual practical manifestation of spiritual beliefs and concepts of the Sacred, the vehicle through which one’s spirituality is actually lived. But as soon as the panelist (a very conservative lay Catholic who apparently is something of a ‘religious media personality’ in México) spoke, he reminded me of several of the more dogmatic and self-righteous teachers I had as a schoolboy – unordained men who nevertheless adhered to a much stricter orthodoxy than did even the ordained clergy.
He immediately took umbrage at some of the terminology used by the moderator in his opening remarks, calling them intentionally vague and relativistic: “Hay que llamar al pan, pan, y al vino, vino,” he pronounced (“we have to call bread, bread, and wine, wine – the Spanish equivalent of ‘calling a spade a spade’, only somewhat more emphatic.) “What is all this talk about ‘spirituality’? The proper term is ‘religion,’ of which, as we well know, there is but a single true one. And what about this nonsense of ‘the Sacred’? The correct term is ‘God’ – singular, masculine, and almighty.” It went downhill from there…
The panel format which the Parliament adopted for the Encuentro hardly left any room for panelists to have much direct interaction with each other. I imagine this was a deliberate choice in order to minimize the possibility of confrontational exchanges – in its events, the Parliament always emphasizes the importance of sensitivity, respect, and positive dialogue among the various religions, yet knowing full well that this can be, at times, a very difficult standard to maintain. That was certainly one of those times for me, and, had the panel structure allowed greater interaction, I don’t know if I would have had the patience to refrain from challenging some of my co-panelist’s more offensive comments, even if only to point out the incongruity of adopting such a dismissive, disrespectful attitude at an event whose official theme was ‘With All Respect, in Every Respect’. Then again, there was probably not much point in engaging someone whose opening statement was, “I am going to be addressing my remarks exclusively to those here who are Catholic, or believers in the One True God” – not exactly the concept of ‘interfaith dialogue’ as it is generally understood.
Still, I was glad that there were people like this man at the Encuentro. One of the more common complaints voiced throughout the interfaith movement is that these gatherings typically draw only the more liberal or progressive members of the various religions, and that, for true dialogue to occur, and for real meaningful and lasting changes to take place, we must figure out ways to also engage the more conservative religious groups. Often, when conservatives or fundamentalists attend interfaith events, it is with the intention of proselytizing or of seeing ‘what the enemy is up to’, which, of course, can simply lead to greater polarization. But perhaps if more people like the panelist in question get some direct exposure to the interfaith movement, and are able to let go enough of their preconceptions or their cynicism toward points of view different from their own, an actual, fruitful dialogue can begin to develop.
In the afternoon, I attended the world premiere of the film ‘Rumi Returning’, a beautiful, sensuous film about the mystical Sufi poet, timed to coincide with the 800th anniversary of his birth. The film features interviews with various Rumi scholars, and scenes from places where he lived, along with readings of his poetry. In these times, when there is so much misunderstanding and prejudice toward Muslims, this film highlights some of the most inspiring and profound elements of Islam – if nothing else, just experiencing the passion for the divine in Rumi’s poems can be enough to induce a sense of sacred ecstasy in anyone, regardless of their religion.
By the end of the movie, I realized just how tired and sleep-deprived I was, so I decided to skip the evening plenary and maybe get to sleep early for a change. When I got back to the hotel, though, I ran into my ‘Three Amigas,’ who invited me to go out for dinner with them. They took me to ‘El Rey del Cabrito,’ one of the best-known restaurants in
The place was a trip – large, gaudy, and loud (not so much in a physical as in a psychic sense). There were stuffed animals of all kinds everywhere (I’m not talking about toys here, their taxidermy bill alone must have been astronomical…): antelope, rams, snakes, birds, goats, bears, squirrels, and, at the back of the ground floor, two African lions mounted as if they were fighting. The second floor (accessible via a tiny, wooden elevator that could scarcely fit the four of us) was a tad more sedate, commandeered by a huge bronze statue of a sitting Buddha. The food, though, was great; I’m generally not all that fond of goat meat, but this was easily the tastiest I’ve ever had.
By the time the Amigas drove me back to the hotel, I was definitely ready to hit the sack, especially since the next day, my first presentation was at 8:00 in the morning.