Wicca Questions Asked and Answered!
By Matt Posner
Nov 25, 2010
This is part two of my two-part explanation of Wicca for teens who are curious about it. I am fortunate to have attended college with a man who has now become an active leader in the Wicca community of Pennsylvania. Jonathan David White agreed to answer a series of questions for me about his faith. I will present my questions, his answers, and a few comments here and there to help readers to understand Jon's replies. I have removed some of the question-and-answer sets completely, but all Jon's replies below are unedited, just as he wrote them.
See: Part 1: Witchcraft -- Wicca -- Hey, What is That?
Matt: What branch of Wicca do you follow or practice, if any?
Jon: The Stone Circle Tradition of Wicca, which is based out of the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary of Earth Religion in Artemas, Pennsylvania.
Matt: Where do you stand on some of the points of practice in which Wiccans differ?
Jon: Many Wiccans understand the Divine primarily in terms of the dyadic God and Goddess. While I don’t disagree, in Stone Circle Wicca we speak of the Divine as “One and Many, Male, Female, Both, and Neither.” I tend to think of the Goddess as the Living Spirit of the Universe. I believe the purpose of ritual is to create “needs-focused, psycho-emotive ceremony,” designed to meet concrete emotional, physical, or social needs of those gathered in the circle. I believe in the Divine as both transcendent and immanent in the physical Universe, and I believe careful observation of and participation in the world is the best form of spiritual teaching.
Commentary: Jon is closer to being monotheistic than some other Wiccans. He believes in a concept he calls the Divine which is greater than questions of number and gender. He calls it "the Living Spirit of the Universe." For him, the Divine is everywhere and found in everything, and Jon therefore recommends that studying and being active in the world is the best way to be a spiritual person.
Matt: My sense of knowing you in college is that you probably don't have witches for parents. How did you come to adopt this faith?
Jon: I was raised atheist, the son of a secular Jew and a hippie Christian. I sought a long time to find a religion that embodied my personal values system and was congruent with my understanding of the world. That meant one that was pluralistic, accepting of diversity of belief in the world, materialist and empiricist in bent, mystical at its core, pro-feminist, pro-queer, environmentalist, non-ethnocentric, non-anthropocentric, life-celebrating, self-challenging, and world-transforming. For me, Wicca proved to be that religion. But it was hard getting to that point. I tried other religions on for size, but they either didn’t fit, or they chafed. I fell into Wicca gradually, guardedly. That’s as it should be. We don’t proselytize, and we accept converts only after setting up challenges to test their seriousness; the Goddess will call Her own to Her no matter what obstacles get set up.
Matt: What is your title, and what does it mean as far as your level of training and responsibility?
I am a Third Degree Initiate in Stone Circle Wicca. That is the last initiatory degree for Priests and Priestesses in the Stone Circle Tradition. What that means is that I studied for my First Degree Initiation as part of a group under a teacher, in which I learned how to create and conduct ceremony, and learned the core cosmological and ethical teachings of our brand of Wicca. Then I chose to pursue the Second Degree under the mentorship of my teacher, which is solitary (in fact, isolating), and involves a confrontation with one’s shadow, a journey into one’s personal underworld. Then, after that, I studied for the Third Degree, which is kind of like doctoral work: it’s focused on fulfilling a particular assignment from your teacher that only you can do. That whole process took me about 6 years or so. Since then, I have taught First Degree classes, mentored Second and Third Degree candidates (I am mentoring two Second Degree students now), led more rituals than I could count, and taught non-initiatory classes in the broader Pagan community. But—and this is key—I have no spiritual authority over anyone, take precedence over no one, and am no more likely to be spiritually right than the next character. The work is its own challenge and reward. That said, I do share with the other Third Degree Initiates of our Tradition the responsibility for guiding the Tradition as a whole.
Commentary: While Jon does have responsibility in his community, he doesn't claim to have any sort of religious authority that enables him to command others. He doesn't assume he's more likely to be right about spiritual matters than others. Saying this, I think he is trying to draw a distinction with other forms of religion which have a hierarchy -- some people being considered closer to God than others.
Matt: There are a lot of books in the new age sections of bookstores about witchcraft. Are any of these books sensible, useful, or in some way an accurate reflection of your beliefs?
Jon: There are some useful books about Wicca. Most, however, are basically crap, from my point of view. They are selling wish-fulfillment to teenagers and emotionally immature adults. Wicca is not about freedom from responsibility, but instead the freedom that is responsibility. The real teachings are rarely passed out in books. I can recommend some writers for those who would like to know where to start, but there is no substitute for the only real school of Wicca—the natural world—and from what can be gained by experiencing life firsthand and seeking guidance where appropriate from a spiritual mentor or teacher. Many of our most helpful readings for teaching First Degree students, for example, are not found in the “New Age/Occult/Pagan/Wiccan” section of the bookstore—they are science texts, mythic narratives from antiquity, comparative mythography, and philosophy.
Commentary: Mythography is the study of mythology.
Matt: How often do you think a member of your faith practices witchcraft for personal reasons, as opposed to just performing general worship?
Jon: There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. I am not even sure myself of the complete viability of the distinction between magic, ritual, and religion, although I recognize for teaching purposes the methodological usefulness of teaching them as separate. Real magic is about engagement with the world as it is, not retreat into an imaginary life, or wish-fulfillment. Actual empowerment is one goal of Wicca; so is acceptance of the limits of one’s personal power in the world. The World is the final horizon of the sacred, not my individual capability. I myself use prayer, meditation, and personal vision work much more often than I use magic of the spell-based variety. Spells, fundamentally, are a modality of prayer: prayer with symbolically rich physical objects. But the idea of “personal reasons” separate from worship in general, if I understand the question, has no meaning to a Wiccan. We believe in self-interest, but when I say my “self,” I also mean, my family, my community, the tribe, the nation, humankind, the Earth, the Universe.
Commentary: Jon's conception of magic is very community-oriented, which fits with his idea of God being in everything. For him magic is more like prayer. He practices witchcraft mainly for spiritual insight. He again states the important of getting involved with the world. In saying this, I believe he is expressing the belief that any action you take in the world is magic.
Matt: I have heard stories about members of the Wiccan faith suing schools for showing images of fairy tale witches who are old hags and so on. What do you think of that sort of lawsuit?
Jon: I think some people have too much time on their hands. That’s a ludicrous position for overzealous Wiccans to take, based on fantasies of persecution, and should be ridiculed. But moreover, it misses the point: many of us rarely or never describe ourselves in public as witches. In our tradition, we teach that you must be very mindful of your own reasons for using a term that is clearly designed to elicit automatic negative thoughts in others. To do so without accepting responsibility for the consequences of your own choices in speech violates an ethical life commitment every First Degree (in our tradition and in many others) makes: “I take responsibility for all the consequences of my actions, intended and unintended, foreseen and unforeseen.”
Commentary: Jon isn't interested in using his faith for social posturing. His claim that most Wiccans don't call themselves witches in public surprises me. I regret using the term that way in the previous article on this topic, and wonder how much popular culture may have affected my perception.
Matt: What precisely is the relationship between your religion and Satanism?
Jon: The only relationship is one of misunderstanding. Satanism is a variant on the Christian cosmology. Wicca has no concept of incarnate Evil, is not a morally dualistic religion, and thus could never create a “Satan” to which to pledge allegiance. Wicca and Satanism are simply incompatible worldviews.
Commentary: Jon says that Satanism is a reaction to Christianity, which contains the concepts of good and evil, while for Wicca, there is no such thing as dividing good from evil, so in the Wiccan worldview, there can't be an evil being like Satan.
Matt: How do members of the Wiccan faith view pivotal Judeo-Christian figures such as Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed? What about Hindu gods or the Buddha and his boddhisatvas?
Jon: At least for many of us, it seems clear that the Divine appears throughout history in an unimaginable variety of guises and manifestations. I have to assume that Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are all absolutely true and accurate reflections of their own spiritual Lights. I may disagree with the social and theological commitments of some variants of these religions—such as rejecting utterly the idea common to many monotheistic religions that only one religion is the One True Way to the One True God—but I have to believe that the Divine is as present in the G-d of Moses and Abraham, in Lord Shiva or Lord Vishnu, in Buddha and the many Boddhisatvas, in the Lord Jesus Christ, or in Allah, the Great, the Compassionate, the Merciful as in my own understanding of the Divine as One and Many, Male, Female, Both, and Neither. Anything else would be absurd egotism on my part.
Commentary: Jon believes that the Divine can be worshipped under many names, and so he accepts the holy figures of other religions as reflections of the same Divine that he worships. His only objection to other religions is that they sometimes claim they are the only way to God.
Matt: How is life in a Wiccan household different for children than life in a Christian household?
Jon: Depends. My wife is Roman Catholic; our son is being raised both Wiccan and Catholic. He loves Christmas. He also says “Hello, Lady,” whenever he sees the Moon. Wiccan children in households where both parents are Wiccan tend to have much in common with our son’s upbringing in that they learn early on that Nature is sacred, that animals, trees, etc. will teach them things if they pay close attention, that the Universe is alive and conscious. But the biggest differences are in adolescence; Wicca affirms the naturalness, sacredness, and healthfulness of sexuality, teaching responsible, safe fulfillment of sexual desire as a normal aspect of adolescent life; that’s very different from most Christian homes. Wicca has an initiatory understanding of the sacred Life Cycle, with ceremonies marking the passages of life—into childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood, older adulthood—with different spiritual and practical expectations of each of us based on our moment in life. Children need to be respected and treated as children.
Commentary: In a home with two Wiccan parents, children are raised to respect nature and to believe that the entire universe is one living mind. Jon talks about people who grow up in Wicca passing through transitional periods as they age and mature. He says further that Wiccan children are taught that sexuality is healthy and normal. Saying this, he indicates a difference between Wicca and Christianity, which he feels puts lots of restrictions on sexuality.
Matt: Under what conditions would it be sensible for a Wiccan priest to try to help with dangerous hauntings or exorcisms? What would be done in such a case?
Jon: I have never accepted a request to assist with anything of this kind (the more common request that I have refused is for help with “psychic attack”). Exorcism is not a Wiccan concept, nor can “haunting” be dangerous. The relationship with the Ancestors can become problematic only through the medium of behavioral health problems in the concerned individual. By this I do not mean that “if you think you’re being haunted you’re delusional.” Rather, it should be understood that the relationship to the Ancestors has become disordered through some emotional or psychological process that itself needs to be the focus of change in order to experience change in one’s relationship to the Ancestors. The power of the Ancestors in this world is potentiated by our memories and thoughts of Them.
Commentary: Jon uses the term Ancestors instead of terms like "ghost" or "spirit." He says that what is experienced as a dangerous haunting is a reflection of an unhealthy relationship between the haunted person and the Ancestors, and recommends that the haunted person receive psychological treatment.
Matt: If you went to Stonehenge or another stone circle in the British Isles, or perhaps to a Paleolithic circle in Malta or thereabouts, what would you want to do there from a religious perspective?
Jon: I have held a ritual circle at Glastonbury Tor, in England, at Ostara (Spring Equinox) 1999. It was very deeply moving and powerful. That said, it is more relevant, for Americans, to build our own centers of worship now. At Four Quarters (www.4qf.org), we have been building a megalithic stone circle over a period of many years, raising multi-ton stones by hand. I have led many rituals in the center of Stone Circle at Four Quarters, and that is very powerful, too, because I have helped to make it a reality.
Matt: Are there sites in North America that are particularly sacred to you?
Jon: Yes. Stone Circle and the rest of the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary of Earth Religion. Also Skyline Caverns in Virginia. Also this one stone outcropping by the Pacific Ocean in far Northern California. Also the woods behind my Mom’s house. Also my backyard.
Commentary: Jon likes sacred sites, but since he feels the Divine is everywhere, he can find a sacred space anywhere.
Matt: Would you please use witchcraft to make Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Christie stop messing with teachers?
Sure. Watch me: Find thirteen people who believe as you do about what teachers in New York and New Jersey need, and who share your same level of enthusiasm. Make an agreement with them to meet once a week for thirteen weeks to talk about the issue and what you can do together to change it. At each meeting, go around a circle saying, “We are going to change things for the better for teachers in our community.” Here, I’ll give you a very powerful Wiccan teaching, no strings attached: The best way to do it—is to do it.
Commentary: I was joking about this, as Jon surely knew, but being a wise man, he took my joke as an opportunity for a lesson. He advises that the best form of magic is just taking action.
Post-interview remarks: I have known Jon for many years, and I can tell you that he is a generous, well-meaning, kind, and socially conscious person. His intelligence and thoughtfulness and modesty, shown in this interview, are no pose. He has always been like this. As such, he is an excellent representative of his faith who does a good job demonstrating my assertion, starting with the previous article, that Wicca is not a harmful or threatening religion. In fact, I find that it has a great deal in common with Hinduism, the most common religion in my own multi-religious family.
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