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Impressions of PantheaCon: The Aftermath

I find that every year, it takes awhile to process my experiences at the convention and to wade through the aftermath. I posted about my direct experiences here, but I find that now that it’s been three weeks, I’ve had enough time to really think about my experience, and read about others’ experiences. For the first time, I find myself considering not going next year.

In short, I was disappointed in this year’s PantheaCon. The overall vibe of the Con felt off somehow, scattered. There seemed to be conflicting agendas; maybe large factions within the Con were at cross-purposes. Whatever the reason, I never entered the flow, because I didn’t sense any flow.

Part of the problem may or may not be that the convention itself doesn’t seem to have a mission statement or guiding objective. In the FAQs, under What is PantheaCon?, it states, “We are a conference for Pagans, Heathens, Indigenous Non-European and many of diverse beliefs that occurs annually over President’s Day weekend. Well over 2000 people attend more than 200 presentations that range from rituals to workshops and from classes to concerts.” There are no directives to share your tradition(s) with others, or to provide inter/intra-faith discussion, or to showcase the diversity of the greater “big-tent” (or big umbrella, or whatever metaphor you prefer) of the Pagan community. In other words, it’s buffet-style and you make the conference your own.

I mention this lack of an overall objective potentially being a problem because it means that everyone comes to PantheaCon with their own agenda. I go to the conference to be inspired, learn new techniques, methods, songs, and to gain exposure to other traditions. Others seem to attend PCon to engage, and perhaps resolve conflicts.

The past three years have been filled with conflict. It started three years ago, when transwomen were barred from participation in a female-only workshop. The struggle continued online in the Pagan blogosphere, where it seemed to reach crescendo at the following PantheaCon two years ago. This year, the conflict started online between groups which could be loosely defined as devotional polytheist Pagans and reconstructionist Pagans, and other groups loosely defined as eclectic Pagans, Wiccan Pagans, and those who use Wiccan ritual forms and methodology. The struggle continues online, as it would seem that the grievances were not resolved at the convention.

A bit of self-disclosure is required at this juncture. I technically can identify with both groups on either side of this current conflict, though I tend to favor the devotional polytheist Pagans. Long before I was an initiated Gardnerian Wiccan, I was a devotional polytheist. As a small child, I had a burgeoning relationship with the Gods of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. My devotions were simple and intuitive: spontaneous prayers, a bit of incense, a candle. In short, I had a personal, active, and visceral relationship with a variety of Gods and Goddesses. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, I don’t believe in Gods. I know that the Gods exist, of course. I know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.

A few years ago, I was quite shocked to learn that many Wiccans do not share my knowledge of the Gods; in other words, they are not also “hard-polytheists” (gross – I despise that stupid term, but if you are familiar with this ongoing theological debate, you’ll perhaps understand my use of that ridiculous word). In fact, many Wiccans seem to view their tradition as a practice, much like yoga asana is a practice, regardless of what one “believes.” This emphasis on praxis, and not religion (or “belief”) makes it very easy for initiates to maintain an atheistic or humanistic weltanschauung. In my naiveté, I assumed that everyone in my coven knew the Gods as real, individual divine beings with their own agenda, agency, and ability to influence the world. How wrong I was.

With the popular disco-ball theory of divinity – that every name of the Gods and Goddesses is merely a facet of The God or The Goddess, or even of an ultimate Source, performing ritual becomes like cooking with a recipe. One simply inserts the name of whichever deity (ingredient) into your ritual (recipe) to “gain” the “results” one desires. I’ve always found it disrespectful and lacking in integrity, though I’ve participated in more than one ritual where that was the norm.

So, why might this be my last PantheaCon? Because I’m tired of the silly conflicts. I can’t believe these are the things we are arguing about! The Wiccan-influenced Pagans can’t see how privileged and “standard-issue Pagan” they have become? Really? I don’t get why they don’t get it. I also don’t understand why everyone who identifies as Pagan can’t embrace and encourage our diversity. Why do some seem to want a monolithic “Pagan” definition, agenda, and methodology? It’s good that we discuss and attempt to solve these problems, because clearly there are problems. I’m just dismayed that these are the types of problems we are having.

Maybe I do not play well with others; maybe I’ve grown too curmudgeonly to flourish in a group setting. Perhaps I am meant to spend the rest of my time as a solitary polytheist Pagan. I did learn one thing about myself during this time – I will never return to Wiccan practice, at least not as a member of a coven. It’s too difficult to really know and trust that you are committed to a group of people who share your values and perspective. Unless I can find some way to connect with the devotional polytheist Pagans and reconstructionist Pagans, I fail to see the value in spending an entire weekend attending a preponderance of workshops and rituals focused on the Wiccan-influenced Pagans. I hope there is a diversity of offerings at next year’s conference, or I may decide to spend my four day weekend elsewhere.

5 comments… add one
  • Kathy March 8, 2014, 12:45 PM

    “I also don’t understand why everyone who identifies as Pagan can’t embrace and encourage our diversity.” Hammer. Nail. Head.

    To the extent that people conceive of their own spirituality as special — as “more” (authentic, meaningful, correct) in any sense *except for themselves, as individuals expressing their spiritual impulse* — that’s the extent to which it isn’t about diversity. At all.

  • Sue March 19, 2014, 1:19 PM

    If you aren’t seeing the events you want to attend at PCon, please submit your own for 2015. Please don’t expect anyone else to make it happen for you. The programming staff are always looking for new, different, and diverse presentations, but they can only schedule what the larger Pagan community offers.

    Full disclosure, I’ve been a member of the conference staff for 18 years. Even though I rarely get to any of the presentations – except the ones where I’m working – I keep coming back and working year after year because I see my efforts as being of service to the greater Pagan community. I hope you’ll consider what you might be able to offer to our community too, rather than choosing to withdraw.

    • Tonja March 19, 2014, 10:47 PM

      Thank you, Sue for your comment.

      It may surprise you to learn that I have submitted proposals for programming in the past, but haven’t had the opportunity to present anything. I’m not adverse to submitting another proposal in the future, but I’m not convinced that other attendees are into the things I am into.

      PantheaCon is a huge event, which is very well organized and administered. I can only imagine the hundreds, if not thousands of hours that go into planning and executing such a professionally produced conference. I realize you can only work with what the community offers. Some years are better than others, for myriad reasons.

      As a small side bar, much of my frustration has nothing to do with the diversity or lack thereof. It seems to me that for the past three years, the conference has been colored by the crisis du jour in the greater (online?) community. This isn’t anything that the PCon staff has any control over. Part of this is me, flailing about and throwing a temper tantrum, and asking why we can’t just all get along. Part of me resents being a captive audience to a group’s conflict resolution process. I’m glad that as a community, we aren’t afraid of addressing grievances and discussing uncomfortable topics. However, that’s not at all why I’m at the conference and I feel drained by the palpable tensions floating around.

      I hope that makes sense. I’m happy to discuss this further if you have more questions.

      • Sue March 20, 2014, 2:39 PM

        That seems very clear and well-thought-out, to me. Thank you.

        And I also want to say thank you for all your kind words about the conference and the staff.

        No I’m not surprised that you’ve submitted previously, but not been selected to present. My understanding is that programming is getting at least twice as many proposals as the conference has time and space. I do NOT envy them the difficult task of wading through all of them, and trying to select those that will have the widest appeal.

        “why we can’t just all get along?” Oh, if only. That’s the problem when dealing with humans, isn’t it. We seem to find as many opportunities and reasons as there are of us in any group or gathering, for not getting along. And I’m afraid you’re right, the solutions are avoiding groups/gatherings, or putting up our shields (as best we can) and focusing on the good stuff, while not getting sucked into the conflicts. Not everyone has the time/energy/what-have-you to put themselves through it.

        Blessed Be,
        Sue
        (with apologies for using my Wiccanate privilege – wink)

        • Tonja March 22, 2014, 12:24 PM

          The praise for PantheaCon and the staff is well deserved. I’ve been in attendance for several years and in my experience, the overall organization of the conference gets better every year. For instance – the addition of extra tables at the main hotel restaurant to better serve hungry PConners. Another example – I’ve never seen a single presentation derailed by technical difficulties. The conference as a whole is really well done – that’s a fact.

          It’s no surprise to me that I wasn’t selected as a presenter, especially when far-better known Pagans submit a proposal for a presentation on a nearly identical topic as I. I totally get that people like Amber K and Christopher Penczak will attract a much bigger crowd than little ol’ no-name me. It’s hard not to be disappointed however, when it feels like a popularity contest instead of a decision based on merit or credentials. Ultimately, it’s not a problem because the internet has been the great equalizer. Just because I can’t get airtime at PCon doesn’t mean I can’t present my ideas here on my blog.

          As far as the interpersonal conflicts and the question of privilege – I think there are a few things at work:

          1. People attend PantheaCon for a variety of reasons and has their own agenda. Some people seem to attend, at least in part, to attempt to resolve interpersonal conflicts face-to-face. I can respect that. I’m just dismayed at how large conflicts seem to affect the overall vibe of the conference, especially when

          2. I’m pragmatic by nature and have little patience for being splattered with other people’s emotional baggage. I get that we all have our own problems, tender spots, and predilections, however, it’s just rude to burden everyone else with those personal problems. I am attending PantheaCon for reasons that have nothing to do with dealing with the Pagan community’s* battles of the day. This leads me to resent the panel discussions and other arenas provided for fighting, I mean addressing these so-called problems.

          3. I say so-called problems because it seems that there is a large portion of the Pagan community can’t seem to agree to disagree. In other words, the goal of a great many Pagans is to have a monolithic, standardized definition of who and what we are. Interpersonal disagreements are seen as areas that must be addressed to bring conformity to the community as a whole. I’m not sure if this is driven by some kind of inferiority complex that the bigger, older religions of the world won’t respect or recognize Pagan as a legitimate religious path if we lack a standard definition, or if it stems from a fear that Paganism will fade and die out without a cohesive, safety-in-numbers structure. This unfortunately leads to

          4. Discussions of privilege and identity politics. Frankly, I love the fact that we are weird, varied, and non-conformist. I have no interest in being a Pagan apologist looking for the approval of others – especially the larger religions of the world. I don’t understand why ambiguity and difference are not embraced, why structures that are based on the bigger religions of the world are seen as desirable, or why there seems to be such a need to get everyone who identifies as Pagan must sign on to some agreed-upon definition.

          Ultimately, I would love to see us stop beating each other over the head with conflict. As a meta-problem, I see a lot of assumptions floating around. We have lost our curiosity about each other – we no longer ask questions about our experiences, practices, weltanshauung, or rationale. It’s become a screaming contest – whomever is loudest gets heard. Those who don’t care to try and drown out everyone else simmer in resentment until they reach their boiling point – and the cycle of crisis begins once again.

          *I use the term “Pagan community” as short hand for the loosely related Pagan, polytheist, magical, or related religious and/or spiritual groups and peoples.

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