Chris Clement is a minister with Summerland Grove Pagan Church, based in Memphis, TN.
Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?
Chris Clement: I am a minister with Summerland Grove Pagan Church. Part of my duties include teaching parts of our training system which we refer to as the realm system after the typically recognized 5 elements. The first three, while they do not teach a specific path, last about a year each and will teach everything one needs to have a solid foundation and a dynamic spirituality. Our fourth realm is our minister training and lasts a minimum of two years. The last realm is basically OJT for those ordained as ministers. Over the years we have been refining our training system with the eventual goal of getting our training program accredited so that we might offer bachelors of divinity.
When referring to my particular spiritual path, I refer to it as a Path of Chaos. This is because, in the balance of the elements, as I see them, (7 elements: earth, air, fire, water, spirit/will, law, and chaos), I find myself typically aligned with chaos. For a more accurate, and slightly more precise answer, my path is eclectically based shamanism; though I am normally hesitant to admit to that based on my general opinion of how modern paganism utilizes eclecticism.
I can’t specifically tell you when I came to my path, but I can point at most of the things that led to it. My father was something of a cross between agnostic and atheist, but certain…attitudes were ingrained in me: a love and respect for nature, a habit for recycling, not bowing before someone just because they think they are your spiritual superior. In grade and middle school, I went to a small Episcopal church, and the father there encouraged my questions and didn’t think my age should have any influence on my desire to learn and to serve. In high school, I had a “Born Again” experience. The church I went to initially focused upon having the most dynamic and personal spirituality possible. At the time, I was also on the speech and debate team…so certain “habits” and “skills” were learned. At one point, I toured over the summer with the Continental Singers, a Christian ministry group. Their training program had me memorizing over a thousand bible verses…the verse, the context it was taken from in the passage, and the general “counseling” category it fit into. Their training also taught me about other faiths, and how to witness my faith with honesty, respect, and questions, much like if you were simply having a conversation with a friend. When my home church shifted its focus towards “simply” converting the masses/winning over numbers, I left because of the hypocrisy but maintained my faith. Over the next couple of years after graduating, I continued to pursue and question my beliefs and path. If I found something that worked, it was incorporated. If something no longer worked, it was discarded. One day a friend brought me into a pagan book store in New York and I came to the realization that I was pagan. I was rather surprised and had (and have) no clue when specifically it happened. That realization was in late ’89. My love of theology has only increased since then.
Skepoet What is your academic background?
Chris Clement: I attended the University of Memphis in pursuit of a Psychology Degree. However, tho I had completed far more course credits than normally required (mostly in Psychology, Sociology, and Philosophy courses), I did not graduate. Certain, complications, occurred in my life, and my focus shifted to being a computer tech. I’ve recently returned to school, Ashford University, to complete my Psych degree. My goal is to attain my counseling credentials. I still thoroughly enjoy philosophy, theology and a good debate.
Skepoet How do you see these interacting with each other?
Chris Clement: I see these as inextricably linked. My training and experience with debate, philosophy, theology, and even the social sciences of psychology and sociology have taught me how not just to create logical, reasoned arguments for those things that I find myself believing in, but also in how to do the exact same for the opposite point of view. This has allowed me to develop an ability to see both sides of practically any circumstance and to make my decisions, or leaps of faith, based upon that. My classwork in psychology and sociology have also given me insights to the nature and reasoning behind beliefs and mythology, as well as the how and why of the average “religiosity”.
Skepoet Do you consider the elements to be physical or metaphysical concepts or both?
Chris Clement: A bit of both. For all of their assumed properties, representations and alignments, they are most definitely metaphysical concepts. That said, there is a basic physical, pragmatic, and even psychological aspect to them as well. The “primary” ones (earth, air, fire and water) are easy enough to identify because they are so frequently extremely literal in their representation. The others, not so much.
As I see it, the other 3 each have 3 distinct aspects to themselves which are very practically, and pragmatically, evident in the physical world.
For instance, Will or Spirit is seen as an absolute base, animistic instinct, and reasoned or distinct thought. A rock is. It reacts a certain way to various forces, and will change appropriate to certain influences. It will and can do nothing less or more. An animal has the basic will to act and survive, to learn and adapt, but not to reason or make arbitrary decisions that are not based on meeting some basic need. People can decide a flying spaghetti monster exists, come up with the mythology around it, and then not only believe it, but come up with reasoned and rational arguments in that beliefs defense.
Order has pattern, structure, and stagnation. The pattern is the blue prints the thing will follow in development and decay. The structure holds its pattern and provides stability and strength to the thing. Stagnation is when it has been held within a part of the pattern, or a singular structure maintained pristinely against change. Like a pool of water deep in a cavern, that lack of change makes it stagnant and tepid, unusable “as is” for any significant purpose.
Chaos is change and growth, entropic destruction, and the very substance from which everything is made…infinite possibility. The base substance/possibility of everything I think needs no example. Change and growth occur for as long as something exists and either grows, evolves, learns, or develops. A child into an adult, a seeker into a master, stellar dust into a star. Entropy gets a bad rap. It’s not just destruction, it is the necessary wear and tear that allow for growth and change. It is the necessity to balance pattern and structure so that stagnation does not occur. It is the necessity that ensures something new can come along.
So yeah, I see all of these elements as having both definitive and literal physical as well as metaphysical properties.
Skepoet How do your tradition view deities?
Chris Clement: I’m a polytheist. (Technically, a soft polytheist.) I believe there are multiple gods, but a limited number of them; as opposed to nigh unlimited. I believe that the various core aspects that the gods represent are represented by the same god, regardless of pantheon/culture; however, their appearance, demeanor, and methodology vary by historical period, culture, and geographic region. For instance, “the trickster” is the same, regardless of name: Bacchus, Coyote, Raven, Loki, ect. Where the culture was more “intellectual”, he was a drunkard and sex fiend, where the culture was nomadic and strove to live in balance with the land, he is an animal spirit, where the culture is war like, aggressive, and naturally stubborn, Loki is willing to injure or kill to get his point across.
It’s similar with the other gods and the aspects they represent.
Skepoet In a way you sound like you are describing archetypes. Would this be an over-psychological way of reading your statement?
Chris Clement: Nope. Archetypes are exactly the way to describe my statement. Considering my (almost complete) degree is in Psychology, my love of debate, philosophy and theology, it would be foolish to think that these things would not have some (significant) influence upon my spirituality and my perception of deity.
Perhaps two things will help elucidate my perspective.
On the hand, whenever faced with that age old question: Which came first? (Chicken or the egg? The Gods or mankind?) I’ve always tended to answer “Yes.” Why? Because when both are inextricably linked, a specific causality doesn’t matter to anyone except those who prefer the exact letter of the law to the spirit of it. As I see it, we would not exist were it not for the gods, however, the gods would not exist were it not for our belief and myths. Sort of a theological perpetual motion machine without any real beginning or end. It, we, they, simply are.
On the other hand, I know several different creation stories from several cultures. I also know those same cultures flood myths. Does this commonality give credence to “creation” (as opposed to Big Bang-evolution) or to some “world wide flood?” Only to a limited extent. It’s more that these are stories with lessons upon lessons within their words. From a more scientific bent, these stories represent a commonality (and argument in support) of the universal unconsciousness. From a spiritual perspective, they are simply stories to explain a time long before we were around to ask about or observe these things. Take the story, and their lessons, and the point, the “why”, is attained.
Skepoet How does your tradition relate to other pagan traditions?
Chris Clement: Not sure I get the jist of that question, but I’ll go with what I think you mean.
My tradition/beliefs do not “rate” other paths as either superior or inferior; at least for the most part. There are many ways to perceive and understand truth without requiring everyone to follow the same path. For instance, consider the color green. There are many shades and varieties, but they are all “green”. Now, I’ll pretty much guarantee that the type of green you were envisioning was different than mine (I had in mind a blended lime and forest green that’s surrounding a picture not far from me right now), but it is no less green than mine. Now, if you were to try and tell me that candy apple red, fuscha, or hot pink were the same as “green”, then we’d have a problem.
When it comes to others paths, I learned and hold people to 3 basic rules. If they follow these rules, then everything is good. If they don’t, then…well, I guess you could say, we don’t “relate” well….
Rule 1: Know WHAT you believe. Doesn’t matter if you’re christian, heathen, shaman, wiccan, whatever. If you claim to believe something, know (or be learning) fully what it is and all that that entails.
Rule 2: Know WHY you believe. “All my friends are.” “My parents were/are and I’ve always been as well.” “I never gave it any thought, this is just so much easier than actually having to put thought into my faith.” These, and similar responses are NOT acceptable answers. Belief and faith require a certain understanding and deliberate forethought.
Rule 3: Possibly the most important: WALK your (m/f’n) talk! If you aren’t practicing what you are preaching, you have less value to me than the average politician or garden slug.
It doesn’t matter if your answers to these might be Science, or Athiest/humanist, or even “I don’t know yet…I’m still seeking”. These at least are honest answers, and demonstrate you are treating your beliefs with the gravity they deserve.
Skepoet Have you seen any demographic shifts in the The Summarland Grove Pagan Church?
Chris Clement: Could you be a bit more specific. that’s kind of overly vague.
Skepoet What, if any, changes have you seen in the make-up of people attending
Chris Clement: Technically, the demographic of our members has remained fairly consistent over the last 10-15 years. I think this has more to do with the what and why of Summerland Grove, rather than any flux of newbies starting to explore paganism (or folks leaving it for the “big 3”).
Summerland Grove Pagan Church is designed to be a resource for the entire Community. As such, we’ve ministers with many varied paths (from BTW to Asatru to my shamanistic path. We never intended for SG to take the place of individual groups/covens/kindreds, more to be a networking and training hub. So, we have regular meetings, and we get together to celebrate the 8 “standard” sabbats, but otherwise we don’t do regular rituals as a church function. Our training program, however, will provide someone with all the tools they need to discover and develop a vibrant path of their own. (Focus is more on the theological and practical makeup of the spirituality, not any specific path’s theology.) The advanced level of our training is for those seeking to become clergy, regardless of their individual path. Our aim/goal is to have our Realm System accredited as a full Bachelors program.
The down side, a lot of the “newbies” don’t come to us. At least, not initially. Those who are set on their path or whom are looking for a coven/group to celebrate esbats and sabbats with, generally gravitate to one of the local covens or the ATC wiccan church here in Memphis. When, or if they decide they want to explore the “meat” of their spiritual path, then that’s when they generally come to us at SG.
Did that explain it well enough?
Skepoet: Yes, thank you.
There prior interviews in this series can be found here, here, here here, and here.