Skip to comments.Strange Gods: Neopaganism On Campus.
Posted on 09/07/2001 6:44:52 AM PDT by marshmallow
My parents are witches. My grandfather was a witch. My great grandfather was a witch, and his spellbook is my most precious possession. When my partner and I were looking for a Wiccan commitment ceremony, we found important spells in his book."
Mr. Beltane (as I will call him) was angry. He spoke with little gulps that sounded like a prelude to tears as he defended the integrity of his beliefs and his anger was directed mostly at me, because I had been questioning whether "neo-paganism" ought to be one of the officially recognized religions at my university.
Witches and "neo-pagans" are a fixture on many American college campuses. They are part of the florid undergrowth of the contemporary liberal university, which tolerates or, more accurately, fosters destructive experimentation with personal identity. Some of this experimentation unfolds in the classroom (see "Outrageous Selves,") but the frivolity sprouts up everywhere. It was in the basement of the campus chapel that day last fall when Mr. Beltane and I exchanged views.
Although I will inevitably upset some neo-pagans in saying so, I don't think these folks are particularly dangerous. Confused, deluded, and generally dim, they gathered themselves like iron filings on the magnetic pole of campus nuttiness and they are content to stay there. Self-identification of fools is probably a good thing, at least in universities.
But I do worry about the campus chaplains who see neo-paganism and witchcraft as just further expressions of humanity's quest for spiritual fulfillment. On the occasion of Mr. Beltane's outburst, several of them were quick to point out that Harvard recognizes witches as a campus religious group, and so do many other colleges and universities around Boston. Somehow that doesn't seem to me the most powerful argument for extending official recognition, but I agree that it means something.
What it means is that religious life at Harvard and many of those other colleges and universities is devoid of intellectual seriousness. (To find the students who are religiously serious, one heads off campus to congregations such as the evangelical Park Street Church.) The widespread recognition of neo-pagans and similar groups shows how far the spiritual immune system of higher education has been compromised. Little inanities that once would have been brushed aside now settle in as opportunistic infections. Many of the clergy seem completely unable to articulate any meaningful difference between the two-thousand-year tradition of Christianity and the ad hoc formulations of late adolescents who freely admit that they are making it up as they go.
I have found, for example, that many campus clergy are ready to accept the Wiccan adage, "Do what thou wilt," which was invented in 1904 by a British libertine named Aleister Crowley ("Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.") as an ethical injunction to be set beside The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. Can these clergy draw a distinction between a jumble of magical formulas and invocations to miscellaneous gods and goddesses and the ethical guidance offered by Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism? Is a movement that disdains the goal of intellectual coherence a worthy addition to a university community?
When I have put such questions to various priests, ministers, and rabbis, some have offered good and thoughtful answers but most find the questions unwelcome and beside the point. On campuses across the country, campus ministers often see themselves as champions of tolerance and advocates of diversity, and if some group of students proclaims themselves worshippers of Ba'al, why then, they say, we should invite Ba'al to the table for an ecumenical meal.
So I was hardly surprised when the Episcopalian chaplain took umbrage at my willingness to leave the Wiccans to their own devices without the benefit of formal university recognition. She pointed out that people (like me?) used to burn witches, and that there were crusades against Communists, too, and that I could learn a lot about the ugliness of intolerance by reading Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witchcraft trials, The Crucible.
Neither the inflammatory language nor the reference to the Leftist dramaturge, however, persuaded her colleagues. An Orthodox rabbi offered an especially lucid explanation of why the neo-pagans did not belong in the company of legitimate campus religious groups, and on a narrow vote, the witches were cast out for the time being.
But as for the broader verdict, I am less sanguine. The ideology of diversity has, for the most part, muscled out simple piety. The stewards of important religious traditions frequently place a higher value on demonstrating their friendliness to other points of view than they place on their own teachings. As a result, religious affiliation becomes a matter not of persuasion but of preference. Religion is part of the student identity kit, rather than an inquiry into the ultimate nature of truth or a teaching about the ultimate nature of right and wrong.
Backing down from ultimate claims is, of course, convenient on campuses that welcome the adherents of dozens of religions, some with histories of mutual enmity. But religious openness doesn't require shutting away or trivializing the deepest teachings of one's own religion. The wisest councilors seem to understand this, and every major faith has its own traditions of religious toleration. The alternative to the Episcopal chaplain's vision of anything goes religious license is not witch-burning or sectarian violence. It is serious intellectual debate about the central ideas of competing traditions.
The infatuation of higher education with its smiling idol, Diversity, however, precludes most serious inter-religious debate. The idol smiles no doubt because he understands the irony. Higher education bows down to Diversity and Diversity renders all the same.
As for Mr. Beltane, I have not seen him since. Perhaps he was swallowed by his grandfather's book. The dean of the chapel who promoted the neo-pagans retired. Their faculty advisor is an eccentric English anthropologist who dabbles in the paranormal. I see him around. The neo-pagan students themselves show up in the news now and then enjoying their bit of notoriety. And higher education, such as it is, continues its wobbly descent into the cultural void.
Peter Wood is associate provost at Boston University.
Hmm... inaccurate. Actually, it's 'An' it harm none do what you will'.
Ahem. I believe I've discovered the problem here.
Peter Wood's essays are razor sharp.
"How do you know that she is a witch?"
One would expect a university provost to get his facts straight. What the Wiccans say is this: "An ye harm none, do what ye will", which is often stated as "Do what thou wilt, and ye harm none". This, of course is very different from Crowley's worldview, where the individual is free to do whatever he wants without any concern for the well-being of others. By quoting only the first half of the witches' credo he gives the appearance that they are in agreement with Crowley, but if he actually left his comfort zone once in a while he might see that there is a huge gulf between the two.
This is typical of those who attack Wiccans.
Believe it or not, it is possible to be Conservative AND Wiccan (particularly in the Britain, where it's much more formalised)
I thought that was by Anton LeVey?
I got better...
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