Pagan Institutions vs Counterculture

There has been a lot of discussions lately about whether the Pagan community should develop institutions or whether larger, permanent institutions will tend to make Paganism lose what is special about the movement. The topic is not exactly new, but the recent activity was spurred by Jason Pitzl-Waters in his article on The Wild Hunt. I am coming into this particular round of conversation very late, but since it is an ongoing topic, I thought I’d share my thoughts.

Many strands of modern American Paganism (and this is likely true in other places as well) grew up in the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s and the feminist movements of the 70’s and 80’s and a distrust of institutions is ingrained from this heritage.

Like John Beckett’s response on Patheos Pagan, I want to see both institutions and plenty of room for the wild mystics and visionaries. I see a lot of wild mystics and visionaries. I see a lot of groups built around a charismatic individual, and often wonder if that group would collapse without that person’s presence.

There are precious few Pagan temples in this country, in the sense of actual permanent buildings that are dedicated to religious and spiritual practice. There are a couple of Pagan seminary/higher education institutions, but they are small and operate largely online. I’m not sure about libraries (sadly, physical libraries of any kind appear to be on the wane, so perhaps it’s understandable that these are a rarity). There are a smattering of other types of institutions larger than local groups or internet followers of a particular person.

At some point in my path, probably in 2012, I came across an article about a Celtic Reconstructionist temple that built a building in Minneapolis. I was thrilled about it, and since I travel to the Twin Cities 2-3 times per year, I was going to make a point to visit. My path does not center on Celtic Reconstructionism, but I was so excited that I may be able to actually visit a permanent structure dedicated to modern Paganism. After a little more research, it turned out the Temple closed less than year after it opened and the guiding force behind it sold the property and left Minnesota for Louisiana.

I was stunned and hurt. I felt like a fantastic project had been abandoned basically in its infancy. I felt angry that the priest who had spearheaded the building and who owned the land it sat on would so hastily dump the whole project in the scrap heap, after clearly it had been a labor of love for so many, and it seemed like a beacon to others, like me, who dreamed of Paganism with real infrastructure, sacred spaces, institutions that would last for generations. My emotional reaction to this was, frankly, a little out of proportion to the actions of a small religious group, none of whom I had met, that had all happened at least a year before I found out about it.

Since then, I have read various blog posts from Drew Jacob, the priest in question. It seems pretty clear that as a man in his 20’s with a yearning for travel, he probably wasn’t the best choice as the cornerstone for a permanent institution, and sadly, it doesn’t appear that anyone else (or group of others) in the group could take over when he let it go. His path kept evolving and he is clearly not a strict Celtic Reconstructionist as that group was (he mentions Hellenic and Vodou deities in recent blog posts).

I would apologize to him for my over-reaction if he ever reads this, since I was laying some kind of expectation on him that was clearly unfair. But I think my own emotional reaction was telling of something bigger. I want, sometimes desperately, to have institutions in Paganism to hold on to.

We have annual festivals and even some conferences, but that’s not the same. That doesn’t feel right to me as an expression of my spiritual path. I do feel the sacred out in the forest and I know the power of group rituals, but somehow those two don’t translate into me wanting drive long hours to camp out in the woods with hundreds of strangers. I want places that I can walk into and know that the gods and goddesses have visited there and been with their people. I want a place that has been cultivated for the purpose of meeting the divine and being together in community. I want a place that has been created as sacred by the will of a community over generations.

I grew up as a Catholic, and that has given me an appreciation for the use of architecture and art to create sacred places and perhaps it has colored my understanding of sacred places. I am not saying that Paganism should ever try to imitate the giant, bureaucratic, top-down monster that is the Catholic Church – clearly not. There will never be a Pagan Vatican City (although it would be nice if they would give some of those ancient statues back to the temples where they were pillaged). Paganism could never be anything like that kind of institution, and thank the gods for that.

But I would love to have temples, libraries, colleges, shrines, charitable foundations and other institutions along with the stable, multi-generational knowledge that goes with it. I suppose this hasn’t been much of an argument, has it? It’s just the statement of one Pagan’s desire, perhaps even need, for something more.