Pagan Theology

May, 2011

Pagan Theology:  Exegesis

One big advantage any theologian of the book religions have is the they, um, have a book.  That gives them a lot to talk about [1], even if it many times doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense.  The critical analysis of religious texts, more specifically Christian texts like the Bible, is called exegesis.  The word derives from the Greek meaning “to lead out.”  Exegesis takes on many different forms, it can mean the direct, religious, interpretation of the text either through inspiration or rational inquiry, or it can mean the “meta” analysis of the text where you look at the text independent of faith and assess its historical or literary meaning.

Exegesis is not just a Christian activity.  In the Hebrew tradition exegesis (Pardes) plays a big role in understanding of the law (Torah) and what it requires.  Jewish exegesis breaks into several useful sub-categories that expand on the idea of a practical or outer exegesis and an “inner” one derived from mystical insight.  Essentially most of these exegesis techniques were designed to aid in either the study or understanding of the simple or “extended” meaning of the Torah.

The Mimamsa school of Hindu philosophy is concerned with understanding dharma by a careful and close reading of the Vedas.   Again, as with both Christian and Hebrew exegesis, the emphasis is on the question of what the “law” or sacred book requires followers of the religion to do.  In this sense exegesis of sacred books can be seen as a proto-legal exercise, whereupon those interpreting the text make rational and reasoned arguments about what the texts’ (laws’) say a proper follower should do.

And, lest we forget, exegesis can be a secular activity as well, with a good recent example being the Tea Party’s relationship with the Constitution [2].

But what does all this mean for modern neo-Paganism? There are a couple of ways we can approach a modern, Pagan, exegesis.

The first is to remark how silly it would be for us to attempt to derive rules from text because we don’t really have either.   We don’t believe in rules, and we certainly don’t have sacred texts in the same way that other religions do.  Why worry so much about something that means so little?  Fair enough.  But the same argument could apply to Pagan theology in general, lets call it the “just do it” argument.  And I don’t buy it [3].

After all, we do have some rules to think about.  We have covenants between group members, oaths to the Gods and Goddesses, and “laws” of witchcraft and magic.  We actually have quite a few more rules than you might think.  The recent spate of discussions on “harm none…” and “threefold law” are examples, in my opinion, of exegesis about Pagan rules.  These enquiries attempt to construct a more complex set of rules out of these basic ones by using rational analysis.  While we don’t have the quality and quantity of rules about behavior that the book religions do, we do have enough rules that we can work with them.

And we do have some texts, though how sacred they are is open to discussion.  The text that comes the closest to a founding document would be Gardner’s original book of shadows.  However those papers are squirreled away with the Gardnarians’ in Canada and Spain who bought the Ringling collection and are unavailable for general study [4].    Otherwise all we have are the legends and other writings from European late indigenous traditions [5].   Other than the Northern traditions, and some of the reconstructionists, we don’t do a lot with these texts.  Many of these texts are narratives of heroic actions or conflicts, stuff that requires thought and some understanding of context in order to properly analyze.   It would be very useful to have a detailed discussion about the origin, meaning, and context of texts like the Ulster cycle, however those discussions seem to be elusive, at least to me [6].

Even more elusive when we consider ancient texts is the Pagan context of those texts.  Take, again, the Ulster Cycle.   The manuscripts we have are 12th to 15th century, written by Christian monks.  The cycle documents a lot of things that might be associated with Paganism, such as druidry, but scholars debate how realistic and accurate the cycle actually is.  Many of the translations date back to the 18th century, and so do many of the commentaries.  Some say that the texts are actual representation of what life was like during Pagan Celtic Ireland, others don’t.  We could (but we won’t here) develop a detailed narrative of these texts, how realistic they are, and how they apply to modern Paganism.  However the layers and layers of meaning already laid on them, starting with the 12th century monks who wrote them down, will greatly complicate what we would need to do [7].

Of course we don’t necessarily have to go all the way back to original texts in order to develop a rational enquiry into written “scripture.”  If we define a Pagan “scripture” (itself a bit of an oxymoron) as the key texts that are used to inform and form our faith, we have a whole bunch of 20th century texts that can be the subject of a Pagan exegesis.  Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance is perhaps the best example of a 20th century canon for Paganism.  Similar arguments could be made for Buckland, Farrar, Valiente, and, of course, Gardner.  Gains could be made in overall Pagan thought and faith if these and other texts were read closely and trends and themes developed.  Already we have a growing body of exegesis on the work of Hutton [8], for example.

Rules and texts are available for a more detailed exegesis, and the long, complicated process of developing them can be done.  But to do so we’d need an interested audience, or at least an audience forced to listen to part of it.  My suspicion would be that the audience would be quite small.  Quite small.

But there is a third response to the question of exegesis.  As Pagans we find meaning in the natural world, in our direct experience.  This is different from the book religions, which have a mediated experience through their Priests and their texts.  We seek meaning directly in the world, both as an end in itself as well as a way to get closer to the Gods and Goddesses.

So what would an exegesis of the world look like?    Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions of existence and what is in the world.  What is an object?  What is time?  How is the world constructed?  A world exegesis might look a lot like metaphysics if we defined the scope of our enquiry broadly enough to encompass the more fundamental questions of existence and reality.

However there is also the possibility of a narrow exegesis of the world, one that concentrates on the phenomenology of experience.  The relationship we have with our and other’s ideas of the world and our emotional and physical experience of the world.  This is more immediate and “practical” than a metaphysical enquiry, and more suited to the grounded, world-based, magic that Pagans engage in.  But if it’s a practical sort of enquiry, then we should be able to define it much more easily than we can with text-based exegesis.

What questions would a world exegesis ask?  Each individual would have their own answers, and their own questions.  Everyone has their own way of seeing and reacting to the world.  However some example questions might include the following:

  • What emotions occur within me as I experience the world?  Do specific things or sights cause those emotions, or are they an excitement that translates across my experience?
  • How do I see or feel the presence of the Gods and Goddesses in the world?  Do I have a direct experience through meditation or contemplation, or is my experience an internal emotion or thought?
  • What do I see in the world that is beyond the world?  Is there more within what I see that is hidden and requires a certain attitude, preparation, or foresight to find?
  • How does my magic work within the world to shape my and others perceptions of both reality and what is beyond reality?

The answers to these and other questions can begin to piece together an exegesis of the world, a drawing forth of concepts and ideas that shape our faith and experience.  The world becomes our text, and our reading is the time we spend contemplating it.  By drawing out the meaning in the world we can better understand the Gods and Goddesses and their, and our, place within the world.  Which, ultimately, is what faith is all about.

[1] Should you doubt, and I doubt you would, you can just go here:  http://www.clerus.org/bibliaclerus/index_eng.html or here http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_INDEX.HTM

[2] For a nice article on this subject go here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/14/weekinreview/14liptak.html

[3] As I explained very early on in this column, I believe we can get something out by reasoning about Paganism.  And I believe the more thoughtful and considered discussion we do have the richer and more interesting our faith will become.

[4] We have a lot of books that claim to be original, and several who have worked from the original manuscripts (e.g. Steward Farrar and Janet Farrar, The Witches Way, Phoenix, 1984), but no facsimile (that I know of) of the actual book.  See, for example, the discussion in Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon, Oxford, 1999 about the Toronto text.  The reference to Spain is from Janet Farrar, personal communication.

[5] The whole European “first peoples” question seems complicated to me.  Who was first?  The peoples who made the stone circles and dolmens?  Or those who followed with their own, Celtic, traditions?  Or the Romans who influenced a large part of Pagan England when they ruled it?  Or even the late Anglo-Saxons and others who maintained a lot of early traditions while at the same time adopting Christianity?  Modern neo-Paganism seems to draw a lot from all these sources, which really complicates the decision as to which legend/theology to examine.

[6]  A proper exegesis of certain historical writings would be extremely useful, but I have yet to find anything that resembles a helpful discussion.  For my area of interest, ancient Irish stories and documents, there are a lot of texts, most of which don’t get discussed much on this side of the Atlantic (see, for a really good example, http://www.ucc.ie/celt/, a project of the University College Cork (UCC) to put online a large number of historical Irish texts).  We tend to either have books that say “here it is, good luck with that” or meta-analyses like Joseph Campbell which look across texts for meta-themes like the hero.  Detailed discussions of individual texts, with the authors talking about provenance, details of what they do and why, and the cultural context of the time seem to be missing.  I have had a bit of trouble finding something that does this clearly.  Academic journals may be a possibility but can be difficult if they are in Gaelic and you don’t speak the language.  Another potential source of interpretation is older academic texts, many dating to the 18th and early 19th centuries, but the feeling is always that these are out of date and must be somehow supplanted by more recent scholarship.

[7] This problem of various layers of interpretation and historical fiddling with texts is most on exhibit in the Bible itself.  Recent (19th and 20th century) scholarship has done a lot to unpack all the various versions of the bible, and how and why changes occurred as it was passed along.  See, for example, Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, Harper One, 2007.

[8] Hutton’s history of Paganism and Witchcraft, Triumph of the Moon, is perhaps the most important Pagan work to come out since Starhawk and Adler.  It has also generated a lot of discussion, specifically:  Ben Whitmore, Trials of the Moon, Reopening the Case of Historical Witchcraft, Briar , 2010 and Dave Evans and Dave Green (eds.), Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon, Hidden Publishing, 2009.  While these texts are mostly focused on the historical and sociological issues points raised by Hutton they fall squarely into the academic tradition of discussing the sources and accuracy of a text.