Reflections on Animism via Berlin

I wrote this post a week ago (related to some reflection for a course on animism I am taking) while I was in Berlin for the Wikimedia (Wikipedia) Conference, when I went for an early morning walk before the sessions started.

I am mentioning this as I cannot think of Berlin without considering the pain and suffering that happened to countless people here during the 20th Century, between the wars and Holocaust and Wall, struggle and oppression and violation seem almost palpable under the surface of the kind people and welcoming it seems many immigrants experience here. Granted, for anybody who may have traveled to Germany in the past number of years, the people are lovely and they have gone over and above most of their neighbors at helping with the needs of those fleeing brutal persecution in the Middle East.

I am starting with this as it is easy to miss the animistic notions of life or suffering that I saw some of my classmate colleagues mentioning this week, and one way of sensitizing to the suffering of other than human persons may be by noticing the sufferings of human person and, with that empathy, expanding it in wider ways.

I live in the middle of Manhattan, and the noise and energy that pulsates through the city has a way of drowning out the quiet that is needed for me to be present to suffering and those who are not loud or calling for attention. In this way, when I went for a morning walk through Berlin yesterday morning, I found myself in an amazing inner-city cemetery that felt more like a park as it had grass and plants and trees without seemingly everything in lines or order or over-planning,

and it was in this liminal (in-between) space between life — the birds chirping, the breeze rustling through the trees, the energy of the sun, the little bugs walking on the stone — and death, where I paused to say my morning intentions to the Spirits of Place,

that I had the opportunity to ground myself, breathe deeply, and be more present to the living presence of the earth around me.

I find that when I am in the countryside for longer periods of time, I get used to these things and they lose parts of their mystery as they become the new normal. Only when I bring myself apart in some way that the normal becomes somehow new or unusual (even if it is not markedly special in any single way) and I am able to think of and feel a presence much greater than I am.

Also on:

Animism and Earth Reconnection Course

Animism and Earth Reconnection Online CourseI am taking a new online course, Animism and Earth Reconnection, that begins today. As a Druid, I have a certain connection to the land and nature, though have not experientially studied animism per se, it has been more through formal educational studies. I thought this would be a great opportunity to expand my horizons, and while I do not practice, nor plan to practice, anything that I would consider shamanic at all, I thought this course description spoke to me:

Animism is a way of approaching life that emphasizes relationships. Animists see the world as full of persons, both human and other-than-human, and prioritize living in respectful ways with these others. Animism is largely about ethics or core values that get expressed through more or less fancy practices, rituals, and traditions.

Will look forward to sharing some of what I learn over the next couple months here on my blog.

The Layering of Cultures and Pagan Ritual: Concerns and Considerations

I started my new Fall 2017 course at Cherry Hill Seminary, Understanding Ritual Experience, with little knowledge of anthropology nor any formal training / exploration in Pagan nor other belief systems use of rituals. While during the first F2F class (on the spot) when we were asked about how we understand the notion of ritual, I defined it then as “Repeated symbolic actions we imbue with meaning.” Pretty good I think, as I somehow missed the pre-reading that may have helped this be a bit more informed!

Since then, I have had the opportunity to think more about this, and find that I am approaching this courses more as an academic exercise than direct application of this work, most likely as I practice in a solitary manner and have little direct experience of ritual beyond the comforting straight-forward straight-jacket of approaches from my earlier life as a Catholic. Straight-forward in that everything was already written out and rehearsed while straight-jacket as being written and rehearsed meant that there were few (rather, none) opportunities to personalize it. In this way, I was expected to make meaning of it regardless of how right or wrong it felt for me. To this point, with all due respect, reading the words written a hundred or so years after the life and death of a Jewish fellow in the dessert is hardly something I find easy to relate to.

Of course, as a Druid, I embrace the spirit of nature and its spirit of place where I am, regardless if this were inhabited by Celts at one time or another.

I digress . . .

Since becoming a Pagan, I have become even more present to the idea of culture being more layered and nuanced than I initially thought. I see it as something we are born into, though even in that way it is highly layered and more chaotic than initially considered, and as such these layers (religion, approach to pop-culture, politics, health, race, belief systems, perspective on the poor, education, and the like) are further shaped by our own thoughts and feelings and experiences of them that I am having more of a difficulty even considering the notion of culture than I did when we entered the course. The UNESCO videos we have watched even in themselves appeared to make culture more singular than is realistic. For example, speaking of Mongolian Shamanism (UNESCO, 2010), we have the notion of shamanism as something centuries ago, how it started to be practiced after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how New Age practitioners may be using elements of it — the question of what aspect of the culture we are speaking about, all reduced to our own perspectives when we black box the term “culture,” which is far from having a simple or shared meaning.

I have a firm belief that (part of) the purpose of education is to invite us to be present to levels of discomfort, namely through realizing that the more we learn or know, the more questions we have and become aware of how much we do not know. That is thus far the effect of thus course, as now in our third week I am even more unable to define culture or shamanism, two of the themes we have been working through.

I think this is a good thing, and as an advocate of actor-network theory, I welcome when we try to open the black box, or stabilized notion of complex factors frozen into place or overly-simplified and left unquestioned of beliefs (Latour, 2005; Law, 2009; Sayes, 2014; Solmeyer & Constance, 2015), that we have come to or with which we engage with others about only to find that we are not clear on what we mean. This is truer of the notion of culture than I initially thought, as this far into the course I still do not have a working definition into what culture is (or is not), something I can say similarly of the notion of ritual.

I believe this is an intentional pedagogical mechanism, as a too-early defining of fundamental terms may close off discussion rather than stoke it. How more engaging can we talk about culture and ritual in ways that will fit into our numerous frames of Paganism than by having terms that somehow are layered enough with complexity that they cannot be readily defined and frozen?

So, where does this leave me? For now, I am more convinced than ever that people often use terms in ways that unite or divide without being explicit in how they are using them. For my case, I am experiencing this in the notion of ritual and culture, two terms that are frequently used though not as often defined or at least clarified. In this way, I am really looking forward to see how the professor helps us to move through this messiness, something that while it would be nice to clarify first, likely has a more powerful effect when done later.

By the way, I do plan to add a few blogging posts about this experience, in the hope that somebody (anybody!) may find my own meaning-making while along my path useful (even for what to avoid!!).

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Law, J. (2009). Actor network theory and material semiotics. The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, 3, 141–158.

Sayes, E. (2014). Actor–Network Theory and methodology: Just what does it mean to say that nonhumans have agency? Social Studies of Science, 44(1), 134–149. doi:10.1177/0306312713511867

Solmeyer, A. R., & Constance, N. (2015). Unpacking the “Black Box” of Social Programs and Policies: Introduction. American Journal of Evaluation, 36(4), 470–474.

UNESCO. (2010). Mongolian shamanism. Retrieved from

This posting is part of my ongoing, shared journaling related to the Understanding Ritual Experience course I am taking during the Fall of 2017 at Cherry Hill Seminary.

You are welcome to join me on this journey!

Final Paper Submitted for Pagan Ministry Course

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Hurray; the paper for the summer course I took is now done and submitted! As I recently recounted, this course expanded some of my thinking and boundaries, and I am happy to report it is now complete!

The paper was ultimately called Pagan Ministry and Service to the Earth: An Actor-Network Explication of Ministering to the Spiritual Agency of Nature. It continues an idea I have been exploring, namely ways of thinking about Paganism from an actor-network theory perspective.

I have written many papers in my day (one that continues, thankfully!), though this is the first one in some time I can recall looking forward to the feedback from the professor. You see, I hope to expand upon this and submit it for a couple conferences / publications, so am actually looking forward to critically-helpful feedback this time.

Hope to eventually share it!

BTW, in case you may be wondering, I am using a fresco of St. Francis of Assisi (one who has distinct Pagan tendencies, to be sure!) as his sermon to the birds is about as Pagan as one can get. Hey, who doesn’t talk to birds?! It is along the lines of actor-network theory when we consider how our speaking to them is only one part of a very complex set of network experiences. With so many people looking forward to the Eclipse tomorrow, it is easier to envision how non-human agency moves us to act across networks. When this happens in a way that influences our spiritual response? Now THAT is approaching the area of inquiry in my paper!

This posting is part of my ongoing, shared journaling related to the Formations for Modern Pagan Ministry course I am taking during the summer of 2017 at Cherry Hill Seminary.

You are welcome to join me on this journey!

Implications for Ministry (Beyond People)

While my course on Pagan Ministry is drawing to an end, the questions for my next steps are just the opposite . . . I now have more questions and areas of possible exploration than I anticipated! I consider this a successful course, as I really appreciate learning enough in a course that I end it with deeper and more informed questions!

After all, who wants to take course to learn something new and NOT have any more questions or areas of future inquiry as a result?!?!

When I started the course, I began by thinking of ministry, or ministering to others, in a fairly traditional (i.e., Christian) way. How was I not to think of it as akin to my previous experiences?! Ministering to people was shorthand for helping people to spiritually move forward in a shared direction, and while good-intentioned, often was realized as a form of proselytizing. What better way to spiritually help people than by helping them to accept the same truth as I already have.

Ahh, how limited!!

Like medicine, where we go to a doctor for him/her to help us to the doctor’s perception of what is the best health (for us), or for us to take a taxi (where we go with the trust that they will bring us where we need to go, following the best directions they have based on their navigation apps). If we could do it all on our own, we would not need to seek the help of others, into whose hands we give ourselves. This works similarly with ministry, where it is also common to go to somebody in our tradition for their help to guide us in advancing through our tradition. This assumes that there are people who want to embody this role, though that may be a question for another day.

Yes, I have learned this is not the case when we speak about Pagan Ministry. We may know part of the journey ahead, or aspects of the path, though the ministry–better thought about as spiritual facilitation, support, or advisor–helps us advance in ways that are most comfortable and accessible for our needs. As this involves Pagan practices, which are in various Druidic traditions in my own case, there is less an emphasis on a single, correct path, and more a focus on a single, spiritual path for me right now. This would be even more important if seeking spiritual support and guidance from somebody from another pathway within Paganism itself! In this way, Pagan Ministry would not seek to make a Mini-Me, but rather help me to achieve the spiritual best of me, in whatever way that makes the most sense to me.

Ministering helps people, yet insofar as Pagans engage in the living earth as the source and end of energy and life and spirituality, then so to does ministry need to engage with this broader environment for where, or how, or for whom / what ministry entails. As Pagans are often solitary and eclectic in their practices, to engage in useful and helpful ministry must also encompass an awareness and acceptance of a diversity of meaning-making. If I were engaged in ministry, that means working with people and/or spirits in the earth and world around us.

In this way, ministry does not only involve groves or covens or groups of people, but the very real, spiritual being(s) in and around us. This is the main take away and area for further inquiry that I see coming from this course in Pagan Ministry. As my own understand has broadened, so have those implications and richness in how the experiences can be so much more inclusive than only with people.

As a result, ministry and the spiritual care and support of others has as the most important element–others. One cannot care for nothing, it must be for something . . . yet this something does not have to be limited in human capacity. We can minster to the earth, to the other living and spiritual forces in and around us, and to one another.

Ministry is much richer than I initially suspected, and as a result, I find it broader and more inclusive than simply limiting it to other people, like me. Ministry can be to others, to the Earth, the Spirits of Place, plants, animals, or any who need (spiritual) support.

I really need to consider this in new and expanded ways . . .

This posting is part of my ongoing, shared journaling related to the Formations for Modern Pagan Ministry course I am taking during the summer of 2017 at Cherry Hill Seminary.

You are welcome to join me on this journey!