Respect should define who you are–not just what you do.
If Paganism were a building, respect would be its foundation. Respect for the gods or for the Divine, respect for the spirits of the land, respect for the cycles of nature, respect of the Earth, respect for life AND for death, respect for one’s self and one’s kin, respect for another to believe as they wish, respect for the will of another…at the heart of nearly all of our beliefs, in our individual paths is respect for the the divinity (by whatever names we call it) we experience outside of ourselves, respect for the the divinity we hold within and respect for the divinity within others (wether we have ever bothered to think about it and name it such or not.
But what exactly is respect? Its not exactly an easy thing to define. Quite honestly, collectively, we probably give respect the Justice Stewart definition “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it!” Goodness knows the dictionary isn’t even much help, “to honor or hold something in esteem, or to have regard or consideration for” –really, what does that even mean? Respect is an action, an attitute that we approach things with, a feeling we have (or pretend to have–I have been in the military for long enough to know the pretense is often just as effective) for ourselves and the myriad of things and people around us. Respect in and of itself is not unique to Pagans, but I think that overall we exhibit a multiplicity of respect that is lacking in many other religion’s world views.
An attitude of respect is, most generally, a relation between a subject and an object in which the subject responds to the object from a certain perspective in some appropriate way. Respect necessarily has an object: respect is always directed toward, paid to, felt about, shown for some object. While a very wide variety of things can be appropriate objects of one kind of respect or another, the subject of respect (the respecter) is always a person, that is, a conscious rational being capable of recognizing and acknowledging things, of self-consciously and intentionally responding to them, of having and expressing values with regard to them, and of being accountable for disrespecting or failing to respect them.
From a Pagan perspective, the respect for an outer divinity manifests itself in a myriad of ways. My Asatru co-worker honors the Landvaettir (I hope I spelled that right) of his home, I pay my own respects to Thalatta when I walk her beaches, my friend Rafe holds a feast for the gods that she has a special relationship with, and my two year-old daughter tells everything “tank you”, from the tree to the fishy and the moon to the Goddess, each night. The fact that we respect our gods isn’t really special–all religions respect their own gods, but the idea that most of us also respect the gods we do not worship in is somewhat unique, as is the sheer variety of ways in which it is acceptable to show that respect.
The idea of paying heed or giving proper attention to the object which is central to respect often means trying to see the object clearly, as it really is in its own right, and not seeing it solely through the filter of one’s own desires and fears or likes and dislikes. Thus, respecting something contrasts with being oblivious or indifferent to it, ignoring or quickly dismissing it, neglecting or disregarding it, or carelessly or intentionally misidentifying it.
Perhaps the bigger challenge to be found is in our ability as individuals and as a group to respect oneself and others, and more importantly, respecting the differences between ourselves and others (both within the Pagan community, and outside of it). Charity, hospitality, honesty, honor, tolerence…all of these are based on the ability to respect more than just the rights of another, but to respect that individual as a person. While we tend to do this very well in our views of sex and sexuality or cultural relavitism or individual rights; there is still a tendency to be very (hypo)critical in this regard (particularly in terms of Pagan vs. Christian, recon vs. eclectic, etc). Criticism is not inherently disrespectful either…you can respect a person’s right to an opinion without respecting the opinion itself. Respect does not mean that you have to agree. It does not mean you are a doormat. Infact, to blindly agree or be a doormat would show incredible lack of respect for one’s self. But it does mean that one needs to try and put aside their own issues and view the other on its own terms.
Respect is one of the most challenging aspects of our faiths, but it is one that is essential. Without respect, the rest is impossible.