Modern paganism to outside observers often seems like a patchwork of random ideas. True paganism isn't far off from that description, its practitioners agree.
Ivo Dominguez, Jr., a high priest in Dover, Delaware’s Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, a Wiccan sect, said that paganism is usually used as a general term for faiths ranging from Wicca's witchcraft to reverence of nature. It's hardly definitive, he said, and for most pagans, their beliefs are built from a range of personal experiences and trial-and-error.
"It (paganism) contains a broad range of traditions and pantheons. Many pagans are drawn to particular parts of worship related to their genetic ancestry, while others just like what makes their hearts sing. Overall, most people that find their way into paganism have an interest with direct personal experience with the divine,” said Dominguez.
He added, "While most religions are religions of the book, paganism is the religion of the library. There is no overarching structure that says 'this is what you must believe.' It breeds a lot of diversity."
Brendan Myers, an author on paganism and a folk musician residing in Gatineau, Canada, agrees, saying that a major distinction between Christianity and paganism is paganism's acceptance of polytheism. He said that pagans can worship one god or multiple deities, with practitioners deciding what best expresses their faith.
For Dominguez, worship entails daily meditation and contemplation. He also prays before private altars to various beings, interacting with different forces as his needs and desires change. Dominguez said he most often communes with Hekate, an ancient goddess representing transformation and change, and Cernunnos, an antlered Celtic forest spirit associated with nature and fertility. He claims it allows him to better understand the overall scheme of the universe.
Understanding such multiplicity, says former Santeria-high-priest-turned-evangelical-Christian-author John Ramirez, is vital to befriending and ministering to pagans. Christians need grace, compassion and mercy, he said, to connect with their pagan peers.
"It's important knowing why someone finds their beliefs attractive and how they got to that place in their life," he said. "I want to make people think and question what they're serving and why they're in the condition they're in."
Despite the diversity, the majority of pagans do share several common characteristics, including valuing individual freedom in pursuing a living, evolving relationship with the divine, noted Dorothy Morrison, the author of 14 books on paganism and a beginner Tarot deck reader. Many also seek harmony in nature, she said, and pay special attention to the four elements of wind, water, fire and earth.
James Beverley, a professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale University College & Seminary in Toronto, Canada, and the associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, comments about paganism in his book Nelson's Illustrated Guide to Religions.
"Witchcraft ultimately fails in the mythic and legendary nature of its gods and goddesses," Beverley writes in the book’s chapter on Wicca. "The Roman, Celtic, Nordic and Greek deities dwell only in the followers' imaginations. The lack of historical trustworthiness concerning Artemis or Zeus or Diana or Isis is in direct contrast the historical nature of the Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ."
Beverley shared a similar view with Ramirez in his book, writing that only compassion will help Christians understand pagans when they disagree. Without it, Christians and pagans can't even coexist, he said, let alone build closer relationships.
"Christian testimony must be rooted in gentleness and love," he writes. "Just as we expect witches to be open to self-criticism, so Christians must show willingness to face up to those blunders and sins that run through our own history, particularly in earlier times when the church had nearly ultimate power."
Note: This is the first of a 2-part series on paganism. The second part will examine Christian outreach methods and efforts to pagans.