I’m privileged to get to hang around the computer in a discussion group that includes Michael York, well-known religious scholar and author of the groundbreaking “Pagan Theology”. He recently posted:
In preparation for a paper for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion’s annual conference, I am seeking answers from pagan practitioners to the following questions. The title of my presentation is “Religion and Theology: A Contemporary Western Pagan Perspective on Identity Formation and Modern Policy.” The analytical framework I propose to use is one that differentiates paganism (broadly of course) from Abrahamic, dharmic and secular religions or perspectives, but for the questionnaire itself that differentiation need not be considered if it does not seem to be relevant for any respondent. There are five questions overall and concern theological and other distinctions of paganism from other religions. I welcome any and all answers that anyone wishes to supply.
Here are Michael’s five questions, and my short answers, arranged in bullets so I don’t have to connect them too closely. These are not easy questions, and Michael leaves definition up to the answerer - as someone on the thread said, each question could produce a paper in itself…
1: How is Paganism different?
• Paganisms understand divinity to reside in a multitude of persons. ‘Divinity’ is in some ways identical with ‘spirits’, in that Paganism seldom makes an important distinction between ‘gods’ and various other kinds of spirit. The Ancestors, Land-wights etc may all be said to express ‘the divine’.
• Paganisms do not grow from the special revelation of a prophet or school of prophets. While schools of thought and practice do arise within Paganisms, the tradition itself is the origin of those schools, not vice-versa. In our Neopaganism this tradition is still tacit, and often reconstructed, yet we still resist the creation of codified opinions and methods.
• Paganism does not propose a moral separation between the natural world the spiritual world. The natural world, including human nature, is not ‘fallen’ nor are we subject to some original error that has deformed or poisoned the nature of life and the world.
• Paganism sees human nature as spiritually empowered. We are not the helpless pawns of the will of the divine, but rather we are individual actors, able to make our own way by our own wills.
2: What is the significance of its difference?
• Paganism emphasizes the delight and pleasure of material life. By finding blessing in wind and rain and sun and cool earth we also learn to find blessing in our own breath and sweat and heat and flesh. This can only create a greater sympathy for other living beings, since we know how sweet living can be when things work well.
• Paganism does not look to correct an intrinsic error in either the natural world or in human nature. The world is right and good as it is; all issues of whether human action is benefiting or harming us aside. Harm is normal when deeds are foolish, but what human effort has harmed, it can repair. There is nothing so broken in us or the world as to require a supernatural intervention.
• People do not owe fealty to a divine sovereign. The noble beings of the spiritual world are many. Some people enter fealty relationships with one or more divine persons, and wisdom suggests not insulting the powerful. However the worship of the divine is not mandatory. The core natural condition of the human spirit is freedom.
Pleasure, wisdom and liberty – there is the good.
3: What are the key issues in a modernity project?
• In making a modern religion out of Pagan roots, we face primarily the adaptation of ancient models to a modern liberal ethic. I entirely support a modernist stance on personal freedom, social mobility, ethnic and gender indifference, and sexual freedom. I think that modern ideas on these matters are more wise and true than the common opinions and customs of the ancient world. In the same way we modernize traditional practices such as sacrifice, pilgrimage, etc. We hope to tease out the wisdom of why the ancients viewed war as a holy activity, while reducing the dependence of individuals and society on violence. We hope to free individuals from gender-role restrictions while preserving the strength of clan and re-making extended families. It is a complex goal…
• I have some trouble conceptualizing what a ‘modernity project’ might be. If it refers to helping some underserviced settlement develop water, power and access to medicine, then that seems the business of governments, generally. I suppose a Pagan outreach might choose to do a ‘mission’ of that sort – would it involve encouraging the locals to retain their tribal ways and reject the local Romans? Hard to imagine Pagans doing such a thing on theological grounds, since our religion does not suggest that it is better for some distant people to be traditional rather than Christian. I simply don’t admire the notion of ‘missions’ managed by religious agendas.
• Since Neopaganism, at least in N. America, is essentially a modern phenomenon composed largely of western, liberal-democratic values, we don’t have a lot of reforming to do in order to meet modern standards. If anything we are a retro influence, to the degree that we are engaged with mythic matters while living modern lives. Paganism is a gate for the non-rational to re-enter western reality contained within a freedom-centered, empowering ethic. Despite all of the above, we are to some extent involved in a contra-modernity project.
• Paganisms do risk creating a moral dualism between an imagined pristine nature and the perceived social conditions of modern humanity. There is still a tendency to assume that we have erred, and that life is not as it ‘should be’. There is an imagined Golden Age against which modern life is measured and found wanting. Perhaps this contributes to our elements of contra-modernity, in encouraging Pagan rejection of modern life. Some Pagans think that technology is itself the problem, and that we must discard many modern tools and advantages, in order to regain natural advantages that are of greater spiritual value.
The social or spiritual values of such positions are debatable, but they certainly are part of our discourse, and may become either obstacles or fuel for whatever a ‘modernity project’ might be. Some might argue that wise anticipation of modernity requires preparation for low-tech or decentralized living.
4: What can Paganism contribute to these issues in contrast to contributions from other religions?
• I think Paganism can model pride and strength as spiritual virtues for those who are given little to feel proud and strong about by common culture. We can teach modern people to develop and manage their own relationships with the divine, without being micromanaged by the doctrines of religious superiors. Certainly a nature-centered mythology should encourage us to approach natural systems and living things as partners in the planet, not as mere resources. The same can be said of the ethic of reciprocity that lies behind a great deal of Pagan worship. If we must worship the forest we’re cutting in, it might make a difference in how we treat it.
(5) How can or does paganism work with other religions in addressing issues of economic imbalance, corporate power, industrial pollution, global warming, disaster relief and constructive cooperation?
• Again, not generally the business of religions. I suppose that Pagan values encourage individuals to hold political opinions about those topics, but there’s nothing in religion that ought to encourage individuals to either involve themselves actively in policy debate, or not.
As Pagan religious institutions grow we may get the chance to take a seat at the discussion between larger, more powerful religious bodies. While we will forever (in our time) be upstarts and new kids, we can stand as an example of a modern spiritual thought and practice that embraces material existence and honors human skill and will. We can model the turning of our will to the protection of natural systems, the provision of decent livelihood to the working masses and proper regulation of the profit-motive for the general good. Assuming, of course, that future Paganism shares my values : ).