Back when I still considered myself neopagan (yes, I did at one point in my life, for about five years), I had the opportunity to attend the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions as part of the delegation for the Fellowship of Isis. During that event, I got to know one of our suitemates, whose name I knew from a couple of books I'd read that, shall we say, were not exactly bunnies and light.
If the neopagan movement had a trickster god, Isaac Bonewits was surely it.
Here was this guy who came off like some maniacal Brooklyn Jew with mad scientist hair and a rabbinical beard, who could talk circles around you about almost every subject you could throw at him and then some. He wasn't afraid to be honest even when it hurt people's feelings - and somehow that never lasted because he had the charm and the grace to help those he'd offended understand that he really didn't mean anything (much). He showed us the emperor was skyclad. He dared to question the foundations of the movement, and then ended up being an elder in the same movement, its gadfly and conscience.
During the week we were at Parliament it came to his attention that our mere presence had offended some of the attendees. In particular, some of the more conservative Christian organizations were bothered that the CPWR had permitted people who worshipped female divinities (gasp!) to attend and be recognized as delegates. Did he complain? Did he go out and protest as some of the group decided to, or organize an open ritual so they could see what "goddess worship" looked like, as some of the others did?
No, because being Isaac, he had something even better in mind.
The afternoon before the final plenary, where there would be a parade to the venue where the Dalai Lama intended to speak to all of the delegates, Isaac burst into the suite with a giant blue roll of paper and a look on his face that I can only say reminded me thoroughly of the cartoon Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes. Printed on its face in huge letters was the simple sentence:
THE GODDESS: You will never be able to ignore Her again.
He took the banner and held it proudly through the entire plenary. It made it onto television and into the papers, and it was the source of lots of amusement and pride for some time to come.
Isaac held up a banner for many people who were coming to ancient religions from a modern world. He told us it was all right to worship divinities who might or (might not) be part of our ancestral makeup, while being very careful to remind us that those divinities were real, deserved our respect, and were not just there for our amusement. He taught by example as well as through the considerable academic talent he acquired, and unlike many of his contemporaries always managed to do that with a sort of embarrassed grace that said "what?" as if we shouldn't treat him any differently than anybody else.
Even though I left neopaganism not long after I met him -- and he was one of the first people to know I was going to do so and approve, after he sat me down over an awesome BBQ dinner and wanted to hear the entire story and make sure I wasn't making any rash decisions -- I always had tremendous respect for him and what he was doing to keep the movement honest to itself.
Isaac passed to the Beautiful West this morning, after a long battle with cancer. Now the battle continues for Phaedra, who will need all of our love and support, and for everyone in the neopagan movement who might not realize yet just what they lost today. He was too young for this assignment, I suspect, but like everything else he managed to do in his life, I am certain he's taking it in stride.
Rise with Ra, Isaac. Or whichever god or goddess you're talking to today. I suspect They'll all want to spend some time with you; after all, you have plenty of stories to tell.