Saturday, 15 September 2012

On Policing The Boundaries

When behaviour irritates me, it's often because I recognise it as a failing in myself.

That's a difficult thing to admit. Like many people, I like to think of myself as flawless. This is a defence mechanism - I obviously know that I am very far from perfection. But the alternative - being aware of your failings as well as your strengths in a mature way - is really, really hard.

Which is why, when I read a blog post today that made me deeply, profoundly angry, my first response was to draw boundaries. I am not like them. They attack and exclude others. I include others. I am a better, more spiritually mature person than them. Bullshit, of course - but that's how I reacted.

Photo of a boy drawing a line in the sand, by Wookiee (creative commons licence)

Who shut up the sea behind doors... when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’? - Job 38

The blog post in question, which I won't dignify with a link, was a response to a recent article on the subject of natural polytheism by a writer who I happen to admire very much. I read that article yesterday, and I loved it - and it seems I wasn't alone, based on the positive responses when I linked to it on twitter. So when today's post emerged in response, the author dismissing this inspired, creative theology as not only immature and stupid, but also as deeply threatening to their own theological position, you can start to imagine why I got pissed off.

When I joined the Pagan community, it was partly because I was looking for something different from what I had found in the Christian religion. In particular, I was tired of all the boundary-policing. Some Christians (not all Christians) like to draw lines in the sand, and then stop people from passing those lines. These people are not like us. They are sinners. They are heretics. And, at the extremes: they are not Christians. Lots of Christians, of every flavour, decide that their theology is superior to someone else's, and then they draw the line in the sand and refuse to let the outsiders into their community. When I was a Christian, there were people who were offended by my very existence, mainly because I was a bisexual woman in a same-sex relationship who had the audacity to call myself a Christian. But I got the impression that my theology, not my relationship, was the real threat. I was blessed with the belief that God's grace and love were truly infinite. That was a threat to people who wanted to draw the boundaries - who wanted to say this far and no further. I think they believed it was a threat to their way of life. If Christianity was on a slippery slope to liberalism and inclusivity, their exclusive beliefs started to look more unacceptable, and that meant losing power. They didn't want to lose their status as the most legitimate, intellectually 'acceptable' form of Christianity.

This phenomenon is common - so common that sociologists have complex theories about it (they've studied the way that communities create 'in-groups' and 'out-groups' and then police the boundaries between them). So while I talk about Christianity here because that's the religious community I'm most familiar with, I also know that every other religious community from Islam to Hinduism has members that like to police the borders of that religion. It's a very human thing to do. Maybe it goes back to our tribal roots - maybe we want to know who is 'us' and who is 'them' because the world feels safer then. Of course, all that really happens is that the world gets smaller.

At the very beginning of my research into Paganism, I thought that the Neo-Pagan religions were naturally predisposed to do less of this. I thought that the diversity of faiths under the Pagan 'umbrella', all co-existing relatively peacefully, was a major shift in the nature of modern religious movements - and that it was a great example for inter-faith relations. I still do, on some level. But I've also been disenchanted.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love theology. I love to it a disturbingly geeky level. Meditating (and researching) on questions of the nature of deity is central to my spiritual experience. Talking about it gets me obscenely excited. (Really. If you want to see this mild-mannered little trainee academic get so animated that she ends up breaking things, ask her about her current thinking on the nature of the gods.) Theology should be something beautiful, something that gets us closer to the gods, or to the essence of spirituality. It should be intellectually, emotionally and spiritually blissful. It should not be used to police the boundaries between us and them - especially when we're all Pagans. If theology is important to you, can you not imagine how important it might be to someone else? And do you really need to feel so threatened by someone else's alternative theology that you start making accusations of oppression, of not being allowed to believe what you believe? To me, this sounds an awful lot like the conservative Christians who feel threatened by the liberal Christians. But what if we don't get to define what [insert religion here] is anymore?

I was at a disability studies conference this week. It was a great experience - I got to see how the academic community is really trying to be useful to people who are among the poorest and most oppressed in our society. Almost everyone was making a positive contribution - except for one person. This man, who is a bit of a disability studies 'celebrity', went out of his way to be dismissive of other people, to say how pointless the conference was, and generally to show how much his head was up his own arse. But he was happy because he knew he was RIGHT. What a shame for him that he didn't see what a wasted opportunity his commitment to 'right'-ness was.

A wise friend of mine made the observation that there are far more commonalities than differences in modern Paganism, and that clinging to some kind of moral high ground involves a failure to recognise that. I agree. I don't think there's much else to say. Except...

...that I keep coming back to this idea, that what irritates me most is usually a failing that I recognise in myself, on some level. I like to draw lines in the sand and say this far and no further, too. I especially like to police intellectual boundaries. Have you thought about something 'enough'? If I don't think you have, I'm probably going to dismiss you. How many wonderful opportunities, relationships and connections I miss as a result. How easily I could slide into isolation and bitterness if I continue to let myself do that.

I'm also still very afraid of having lines drawn against myself. In my Druid group, I've been afraid to say too much there about what I really believe, because I know that some of the ways I define myself and the gods could be controversial. What opportunities I'm denying to other people who might want to connect more deeply with me, as a result.
At our Midsummer ritual, I told the gods (the universe, the Divine, whatever) that I was done with fear. They're taking me extremely seriously. I refuse to be limited by the fear of being the outcast. I refuse to be limited by the threat of others' beliefs. I choose to look for the commonality, not the differences.

Picture of St Brigid's well, County Kildare, Ireland. Photo by me. 

Macha, goddess of right relationships - with the land, with the gods, with each other, within ourselves;
Brighid, who transforms everything I offer to her, including myself;
May I honour you authentically, and in so doing, honour myself.
And may I recognise how much bigger than my tight, tiny boxes you really are.


  1. Sophia, this is a wonderful post. The desire to police boundaries exists in all human social groups, sadly (especially, sad to say, amongst religions and academics!). Even when we find 'our people' it happens disturbingly often.

    I love your commitment to reflecting and taking action on how this manifests in you yourself.

    Elinor x

    1. Thanks, Elinor - really kind of you to comment. I think you're right to link this phenomenon with finding 'our people'. Maybe we think we're protecting ourselves and our own by policing these boundaries.