Today’s Pagans Don’t Need a Prophet

Does Paganism need a prophet? This question was recently floated by John Halstead, and Anna Walther offered a response that Paganism needs not a prophet but a shared purpose. In a sense, they’re both wrong.

Point & Counterpoint

When John speaks of a “prophet”, he has a few things in mind:

  1. “[N]ot […] an authority figure[] but […] [a] ‘prophetic [person] [who] challenge[s] us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love’.”
  2. “Someone to call both supernaturalistic and naturalistic Pagans back from the extremes[.] […] Someone who can point the way beyond both the pre-rational and the rational […] to the trans-rational. Someone who can speak to the heart and the mind. Someone with the power to call forth the enthousiasmos and build lasting communities.”
  3. Someone “to lead modern Pagans out of the wilderness of superstition and self-absorption[] and back into the living, breathing world”.

John is thinking, of course, not of the dictionary’s first definition of “prophet”—an instinctively repellent notion for most Pagans—but along the lines of another common definition of the term: “a person who advocates or speaks in a visionary way about a new belief, cause, or theory” (OED online, definition 1.3). Anna counters, “Paganism already has prophets of various types; a shortage of inspired guides is not the source of our movement’s troubles. What we need is a […] common purpose. […] With a shared goal, we could hold different philosophical commitments and still respect each other.”

Assumptions Examined

While I agree with Anna that Paganism already has prophets of various types, with each generation of self-identified Pagans having brought forth its share, I’m not immediately persuaded by her first assertion that Paganism has an overabundance of “inspired guides” (though, I admit, she and I may have different ideas of what might qualify as “inspired” in this context). And Anna’s dichotomy between prophet and purpose is a false one: to be a prophet does not necessarily imply that one provides a shared purpose, but being able both to articulate a shared purpose and to put it into action would almost by definition identify a prophet of the sort John describes. Perhaps if Paganism needs a shared purpose, Paganism needs a prophet to provide it.

I’m not sure, however, today’s Pagans feel a need for a shared purpose or, therefore, a “prophet” to provide it. I would draw on an extension of John’s own “multi-centric” model of today’s Pagans to argue that Nature, deity, community, higher self, and individualistic self-expression, taken at a superficial level, suggest divergent purposes. Today’s Pagans centered on individualistic self-expression, for example, may not feel great need for Nature-centered Pagans’ principled environmentalism, while today’s Pagans centered on deity may prefer a solitary devotional practice and feel very little need for building community. Indeed, John’s exchange with Phil Anderson recounted in John’s original post touches on this issue.

Objections & Rebuttals

If today’s Pagans don’t feel a need for a shared purpose, then I think we’ll certainly not stumble upon one. To the contrary, as commented by Mark Green and Zendo Deb on John’s original post, today’s Pagans seem to believe, on the one hand, that being self-consciously antiauthoritarian and independent precludes listening (even critically?) to anyone who might be regarded as a prophet and, on the other hand, that anyone who articulates a shared purpose is trying to force everyone onto a single path. In my mind, Zendo’s contention (the latter) is merely a misunderstanding, but Mark’s observation (the former) may be substantially accurate as a description of a fundamental viewpoint common among today’s Pagans.

Mark overextends his argument, however, when he generalizes from his observations about today’s Pagans:

  1. “If speakers like Starhawk and Thorn Coyle aren’t having traction with large swathes of the community—and they aren’t—the idea of someone who might seems out of reach.”
  2. “[G]et a ‘prophet’, and you get ‘revelations’. The Word of the Prophet starts to be more important than core values. We’ve seen that movie, and it doesn’t end well.”

On the first point: even if we take as given Mark’s premise that Starhawk and Thorn Coyle (or others like them) aren’t “having traction” among today’s Pagans, still then we would not be “out of reach” to refuse to resign from dreaming and striving. On the second point: Mark’s statement, “[G]et a ‘prophet’, and you get ‘revelations’,” seems to be saying something like, “prophetic leadership inevitably leads to mindless obeisance and groveling obedience”. Mark phrases his assertion with more zing, and it alludes to a real difficulty and important concern, but to conflate difficulty and concern with inevitability is the familiar straw man of oversimplification.

Limitations of the Paradigm

This brings us to the limitations of each of the positions cited above: their paradigm looks only to the near side of the horizon, perhaps blinded from seeing further by assuming that Paganism consists of but the Pagans of yesterday and today. Such is the problem, in particular, with John’s expectation that a Pagan prophet would necessarily “lead modern Pagans out of the wilderness”—today’s Pagans don’t feel a need to be led out of any wilderness.

A Pagan prophet (if we would continue using that loaded term) might rather be someone capable of seeing beyond that which is already given and that which has already been tried among the Pagans of the past and the present; a prophet might articulate and implement a vision that seems hazy at present, an imagining of that which lies beyond the horizon, not already in plain sight. That vision may appear no less unrecognizable to today’s Pagans than the Paganism of today would have looked to the Pagans of hundreds and thousands of years ago. In a sense, a Pagan prophet may serve more the yet-unseen future of Paganism than today’s Pagans. Only time will tell.

I’m ambivalent about ending on a note that could have been quoted from the sacred texts of Abrahamic religions, but history independently bears witness to this relevant fact: while prophets sometimes lead their people out of the wilderness, at other times, prophets are without welcome among their own people. Perhaps the latter should be more the expectation of those who await a Pagan prophet to provide a common purpose for today’s Pagans who don’t feel a need for either.

Also published on Medium.

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