PantheaCon was the largest Pagan convention in the world.
Started in 1994, PantheaCon developed into one of the most important gatherings for the growing neo-Pagan community. Held at the DoubleTree Hilton in San Jose, California as an annual conference, the event became a national focal point where Pagans of all sorts could network and advance new ideas.
As a Christian researcher on worldview issues, PantheaCon had been on my go-to list for a long time. Ironically, the first one I attended was to be the last. PantheaCon 2020, from February 14 to 17, was the final installment in its 26 years of operations.
Why? Because the Pagan community has been experiencing internal tensions, particularly regarding LGBTQ issues, racism, exclusionary practices, and personality conflicts. And to the point, PantheaCon itself had become central to these dramas.
Adding to this was the event’s increasing size and complexity. PantheaCon’s core team was experiencing burnout, and it was announced months before the convention that this would be its last hurrah. A looming question hung over the conference: Was it really over? On the last day we were told another group would take the helm. As the new group explained in a Facebook post, “[we] will be creating a new and truly inclusive convention to replace PantheaCon.”
Imposed tolerance hovered over the convention like an unseen force. This is noteworthy given that the Pagan community is, broadly speaking, politically and socially left-of-center, highlighting progressive and radical ideals. The irony, of course, is that its own virtue signaling had become overbearing.
Helping attendees navigate this space was a zero-tolerance policy on racism. However, on the first day I experienced an interesting hick-up. Upon discovering I was a religious researcher from Canada, I was invited by a Hispanic Witch to attend the Pagans of Color Caucus (POC). I was thankful for the offer but pointed to the POC program description: “The caucus is a space for self-identified people of color only.”
Briefly I explained that I didn’t color identify, and that we are all humans irrespective of skin tone. The Witch agreed heartily, beckoning me to attend under her auspices.
“But that would be hypocritical,” I responded, stating that as I didn’t identify as a person of color – and that POC had placed upon itself racial limitations – I must be excluded by default. Recognizing the double bind, she quietly said, “I see your point.”
Other tensions were evident. The program guide for the Trans Caucus said: “If you’re cis, please don’t come – this is our time.” And the description for the workshop on 21st Century Norse Paganism had this sentence: “Known promoters of bigotry are not welcome here.”
While these stress lines are noteworthy, my research interests were broader.
A special area of attention was the issue of post-Christian identity. Of those Pagans attending, would I find any claims of being formerly Christians? If so, what church branches or denominational connections could be made? And could I recognize points of departure from the Christian faith?
Although I didn’t conduct a formal survey, the general observation was that many had a Christian background. In one workshop a coven priest explained he had grown up in an evangelical family, and that he had attended Bible college where he focused on apologetics – his aim, at the time, was to become a pastor. Christian backgrounds emerged in other workshops, and it was evident more than a few attendees were Biblically literate. Some had emerged from Roman Catholicism, but I heard more voices of former Protestants and evangelicals than Catholics.
Four main points of departure could be ascertained. Regardless of what you or I may think about reasons for people leaving the faith, this is what had been generally communicated,
- Paranormal experiences: Individuals claiming to have paranormal encounters and/or psychic abilities, and when/if they approached church leadership about this, they were told to ignore it or given non-answers. The search for answers then went outside the faith.
- Theological problems: Receiving pat-answers or non-answers to personally troubling questions of faith, resulting in frustration and non-resolution, and then distancing from church. Meanwhile, interest in spirituality remains, so the quest resumes outside the Christian faith. Quandaries I’ve heard while attending Pagan events – God’s apparent vindictive personality in the Old Testament, God’s seeming indifference to present suffering, Jesus’ exclusivity and the issue of good people going to Hell.
- Social concerns: Some blame church hypocrisy or lack-of-interest regarding LGBTQ issues, climate change, and privilege politics. As the Pagan community is typically left-of-center, this becomes an attractive home for spiritual activists with progressive notions.
- Transformative Experiences: Christianity is dull or dead, so the argument goes. Paganism, on the other hand, embraces wonder and ecstasy through experiential encounters. Often borne out of a curiosity in the occult, and the desire to partake in something mysteriously alluring, the person dabbles with and eventually makes the switch into Paganism.
Lessons can be learned from these points, especially the need to listen to those who are struggling or having unusual encounters, and then to seek true and meaningful answers together. Counter positions could also be made, particularly regarding experiences, such as the fact that Christianity is primarily a trust in God irrespective of ecstasies, individual feelings, or supranormal occurrences. That said, a Wiccan who was once a church youth leader writes, “Somehow Christianity has made the resurrection of Jesus – think about it for a second, it’s a guy coming back from the dead! – boring.”1Jason Mankey, Transformative Witchcraft: The Greater Mysteries; Llewellyn Publications, 2019; p.2
Do we Christians sometimes hide our joy? Have we turned our faith into routine? Is there room for wonder and excitement? Yes.2I see within the song of King David (2 Samuel 22) a transforming model of wonder, joy, excitement, and grandeur – an outpouring of worship we can appreciate in considering the finished work of Jesus Christ.
As important as the Christian-to-Pagan question is, my research purposes included other dimensions: to better understand Pagan belief systems, to identify cultural intersections, and to recognize new developments. This meant collecting literature, listening, and having conversations, going to workshops, and quietly observing rituals.
Over four days I attended nineteen sessions. Here are some thoughts from six (each heading is an event title).
Indigenous tribal peoples were recognized as the first on the land, and ancient spirits were welcomed – including Persephone, goddess of the underworld – to bless and guide this gathering. The four directions were honored, and non-binary deities were invoked. A circle was cast, and founder Glenn Turner explained that its power was magnified beyond the room, encompassing the hotel and parking lot. She reminded everyone that Paganism is, by its character, a religion of nature – a spiritual connection to the Earth.
After watching the ritual, I had a conversation with two Witches on the topic of internal tensions. It was interesting to hear how this community reacts to the virtue signaling from their own ranks. For example, I was told the non-binary invocation was a response to trans-sexual complaints. Another conciliatory act was placing “Gender Neutral” signs on most of the main-floor restrooms, irrespective of what other hotel patrons thought.
Has Paganism Gone Mainstream?
Much of this workshop focused on requests for Pagan chaplaincy services in hospitals and prisons. Paganism was the third fastest growing religion in the American prison system in 2012, it was noted, and the need for outreach services had dramatically increased since then. This was followed by a lengthy discussion on community development: the importance of attaining land for communal and spiritual space (cemeteries, youth camps, temples), the planning of a Pagan Credit Union, and creating Pagan-friendly social services and legal representation.
It was said that many people in the general population are already pagans in their veneration of Nature but are unaware of the religious expression. In other words, a large swath of the public has unwittingly accepted the premise of Witchcraft without formally recognizing it as such.
Finally, the Christian influence in prisons, hospitals, and the military frustrated those in attendance. One person, however, recommended that successful Christian institutions be studied. This person’s employment allows him to work closely with seminaries and church organizations, and he suggested Pagans needed to think about how Christian groups network and build infrastructure – then apply these lessons for their own growth.
Eco Activism & Climate Change.
Selena Fox of Wisconsin’s Circle Sanctuary, Charlotte Bear – a Climate Reality Leader trained by Al Gore – and Andrew Bear of Extinction Rebellion inspired those in attendance to take action in service to the Earth.
Fox said that this panel was an Earth Day 50th anniversary preparatory event and encouraged us to create community rituals for eco-rights. Moreover, as a participant at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, she touted the importance of interfaith work, including reaching out to the Christian evangelical community. In this respect she highlighted Christian-based eco-activism, such as the “creation care” movement, and explained that alliances were forming with Christian groups under the banner of interfaithism. Andrew stated that the Evangelical Environmental Network was a positive step, and Charlotte talked about the Green Bible (endorsed by Desmond Tutu and Eugene Peterson), saying it countered the Christian “alt right,” “fascists,” and “religious fundamentalists.”
Andrew suggested targeting groups not normally associated with activism, specifically mentioning rural communities for the intent of building coalitions. Charlotte encouraged us to use personal stories in order to create empathy when talking to others about climate change. And Selena reminded us to phone public officials as the call goes on record; if enough calls are made, it gives the impression that a base of support exists within the voting jurisdiction.
Charlotte and Andrew reminded us that the eco-centric perspective, the heart of Paganism, is a fast-growing worldview with the purpose of saving the planet. As Selena said: “We are doing eco-ministry.”
A Goddess for Every Need: Divine Feminine in Ancient Near East.
Archeologist Jehon Grist gave an academic talk on goddesses in the ancient Near East. The lecture turned to the Old Testament, and a question: Did Yahweh have a wife?
Dr. Grist argued that Asherah was the bride of Yahweh. As a Semitic goddess, Asherah was the consort of the Ugaritic supreme deity El, and as Grist contended, this divine union was eventually transferred into the Hebrew belief system. Grist pointed to select Old Testament passages such as 1 Kings 11:5, an acknowledgment that Solomon pursued goddess worship, albeit as a negative development. Proverbs 3:13-19 and Proverbs 8:22-9:1 was considered in light of “Asherah” inscriptions from archeological sites. Hebrew cult artifacts were also used to show veneration of a divine Mother.
His argument was favorably received. Nevertheless, other Near East and Biblical scholars have debunked this idea of a union between Yahweh and Asherah – it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But Grist was correct in that the Hebrew people worshipped the goddess in various forms. Indeed, an Old Testament theme is Israel’s syncretistic and idolatrous worship, and Yahweh’s plea to faithfully return.
The audience’s response was telling. Remember, many Pagans have a church background, and Grist noted his own Christian past. It was soon evident this union argument bolstered their position. Here, finally, was proof that Judeo-Christian monotheism was really pagan at core, thus justifying their own path.
Getting Straight with Spirit.
The speaker of this workshop was raised in a Christian home, yet intense paranormal encounters, prophetic dreams, and spirit visitations marked his childhood. This was perplexing but being raised Baptist and attending a private Christian school, “I clearly wasn’t going to tell the church about this.”
He attended a public high-school, and then took a personality test plotting gender identity and sexuality. The results aligned with androgynous. Later he had an unusual experience leading him to gender-identify with his spirit, and not his physical body.
After reading Witchcraft books in his teenage years, he stepped into the Feri Tradition, which remains his Pagan home. Hence, Feri origin cosmology was shared with our group, as this underscored the discussion: Before time began, the divine s/he – “God Herself” – looked upon the void curvature of space and saw her own reflective beauty. As the deity and image embraced in an act of “holy lust,” her orgasm burst forth a stream of creative energy that birthed the physical universe and the realm of spirit – including Shining Ones and humankind. Sprit and matter are, therefore, intertwined fractals of “God Herself.”
Both the speaker’s history and Feri cosmology formed the basis of this workshop. How is gender culturally understood? Why does spirit “need gender”? How are we interconnected? The tension over gender politics, it was understood, was a positive sign; society is refashioning itself – a necessary move to achieve Oneness.
The Biblical narrative, primarily the Genesis account, was briefly explored in the Q&A. Because of the Christian background of many, there is an interest in approaching the Bible through a symbolic restructuring; that is, the re-interpretation of Biblical stories through the Pagan lens of polarity and union, myth, and continuity.
The final takeaway was this: As humanity discards the gender binary we move into a new phase of evolution. And as we dissolve our gender, freeing ourselves from the bonds of separation, so too Mankind will be liberated when we become One with Beings of Light, with Faeri and Angels – then, as sentient species blend, We return to “God Herself” as the Divine-Androgyny. Thus, gender fluidity becomes a quest for Oneness.
Spirit Marriage: Cultivating a Bonded Relationship with Spirits.
Spirit marriage is what it sounds like, a contractual union between a spiritual entity (sometimes multiple beings) and a person. Dr. Megan Rose – a former Pentecostal, now of the Faery Faith tradition – led the talk, outlining her own spirit marriage. It was admitted, matter-of-factly, that spirit marriage is an act of possession wherein the spirit feels and experiences through its human partner and may even re-wire the host’s brain and nervous system.
Dr. Rose has been actively studying the phenomenon, giving examples of unions from Hindu and neo-Pagan contexts. Normally the spirit entity initiates the relationship, she explained, choosing the person it wishes to enter. While accepting a spirit’s proposal was described as voluntary, it was clear that to decline is dangerous to the person. The implication was to accept the advancement but negotiate boundaries.
I left PantheaCon with much to think about; the troubling nature of the Christian-Pagan switch, gender identity and spiritual dynamics, interlocks with the environmental movement, the potency of human-spirit relationships, tensions within the community, and the reach and scope of the worldview shift underway in the Western world.
Indeed, we are living in a Romans 1 reality, the exchange of the Creator for creation.Ω
Carl Teichrib is a researcher, writer, and lecturer focusing on the paradigm shift sweeping the Western world, including the challenges and opportunities faced by Christians. Over the years he has attended a range of internationally significant political, religious, and social events in his quest to understand the historical and contemporary forces of transformation – including the Parliament of the Worlds Religions, Burning Man, and the United Nations Millennium Forum. Since the mid-1990s, Carl’s research has been utilized by numerous authors, media hosts and documentary producers, pastors, professors and students, and interested lay people. From 2007 until the end of 2015, he edited a monthly web-based magazine, Forcing Change, documenting and detailing the worldview revolution underway – points of pressure, forces of change.
He frequently speaks to church groups, in conference settings, and occasionally teaches a modular course on Secular/Pagan Trends at Millar College of the Bible.
Carl’s book, Game of Gods: The Temple of Man in the Age of Re-Enchantment, was released in October 2018. You can find him online at: Game of Gods: The Temple of Man in the Age of Re-Enchantment
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|↑1||Jason Mankey, Transformative Witchcraft: The Greater Mysteries; Llewellyn Publications, 2019; p.2|
|↑2||I see within the song of King David (2 Samuel 22) a transforming model of wonder, joy, excitement, and grandeur – an outpouring of worship we can appreciate in considering the finished work of Jesus Christ.|