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Pagan Theology

Pagan theology: What good is it?

Given that I’ve written 27 of these columns I thought I’d stop and think a little bit about Pagan theology and the role it does, or should, play in our faith.

One of the things that makes Pagan theology complicated is that different people focus on different aspects of the theological question.  When you talk theology you can be referring to what we believe; for example, why do we cast the clockwise circle and what does it mean.  Or you can be referring to why the things we do work, what I would refer to as relating our faith to our existence in the world.  Our discussions about theology can focus on either “out there” or “in here” or some combination of both.  As I’ve said before, Pagan theology is different from book theologies in that it encompasses topics that deal with this world as well as abstract issues of deity and our relation to it.  This multiplicity of topics can lead to a lot of different theologies and theological approaches.  In order to understand where we fit in we can divide the different approaches up into broad categories.

The most relevant and perhaps inspiring approach to theology in the neo-Pagan movement so far has been what I would call the pragmatic.   In this line of thinking the poetry we make with our actions and words is the real work, the underlying reason or logical structure that upholds those actions is less important and typically glossed over without a lot of discussion.  That’s not to say those constructing the theology don’t have a deep underlying understanding of what it is they are doing, they just don’t see that as the primary question worth answering.  This very Pagan approach to things is to be found in much of the mainstream literature including Starhawk and many of the older writings.   Even the Penczak books, which include a lot of direct discussion on more esoteric matters, tend to be brief and somewhat vague [1] when it comes to the more complex theological questions.

Another approach is the Neo-Platonic, religionist, approach that attempts to build a logical structure upon which the clothing of faith can be worn.  Here we try and draw connections between different aspects of Pagan life, from magic to ethics to ontology.  We do this through a logical, analytical, structure that develops lists and definitions and categories [2].  We are essentially applying philosophical techniques to Paganism, asking questions about how current or past philosophical questions relate to what we are doing.  This is the line I try to travel in, and it seems to be dominated by folks like myself: amateur bombasts seeking to fill in a gap that for some reason we think is missing.  You find very little of this approach in mainstream Pagan literature [3], probably because many Pagans find this path to be alien to what they believe Paganism is about.  This is too much of a churchy, Christian, approach toward our religion, and puts many off.  The individuals who are most put off  by this approach tend to fall into the next category.

Earth-based theologies encompass a wide swath of the neo-Pagan movement, and can be boiled down to the idea that the Earth is our scripture, and the place that reveals all we need to know of the divine.  We don’t need no fancy thinking, we should just go out and experience it for ourselves.  This path leads to the “all paths” approach toward Paganism, and tends to encourage a great degree of skepticism about unifying creeds or principles for us as a movement.   There are those who experience the world in different ways, and the ones who focus on feelings and relationships rather than objects and ideas tend to be a major component of Paganism, and seem to embrace this theological path more than others.

We can easily extend this to make the “real world” our scriptures, not just the natural world.  An interconnected web of relation encompasses everything.  That interconnected we means we need to honor all things, including each other as well as the earth, because they are all a part of us, part of the nature that we inhabit.  This places relationships, between both nature and us and between each other, and us at the center of what it means to be Pagan.

Tribal and revival arguments make up another whole line of our thought.  Here individuals seek to reclaim specific practices and beliefs that were held by our ancestors.  Because much of Paganism was and is tribal [4], or at least a revival [5], there are elements of tribalism everywhere within Paganism.  The rituals of wiccaning and initiation are essentially tribal, creating two groups:  those who are of the kin (brethren) and those who are not.  Secrecy of some Wiccan sects also represents a form a tribalism: if you know the secrets you are of the tribe.

Many in Paganism got there through a strong desire to reconnect with their tribal or ancestral roots.  I know my very strong draw to the Celtic region’s Gods and Goddesses represents my connection with my ancestors’ lands.  This sort of tribalism, easy for Europeans or people who still reside on or near their native lands, is really tough for Americans.  If we try and reclaim ancestral roots in Europe, we are accused of shallow carpet bagging.  But where do we go if we don’t?  Appropriating Native American or other indigenous beliefs, while very attractive to some, can easily be called cultural imperialism by others [6].

Even if we stick to our knitting and focus on our actual, ancestral, tribes we have the serious problem the Reconstructionists face.   Despite a lot of ink being spilled on Druid and Celtic revivalism, very little is really know about beliefs and theologies beyond what was reported by others.  Even many of the Roman and Greek concepts of religion were either Bowdlerized by Christians, or so distorted that they are difficult to untangle from what the Christian authors’ viewpoints.

Finally, and I only mean “finally” in the sense we have to end this somewhere, there are the “magical” philosophies (which can encompass traditional philosophy as well as divinity-centered theology)  that make up a broad and tangential part of modern neo-Paganism.  The relationship between the occult movement of the last couple of centuries and neo-Paganism is complicated, but neo-Paganism has borrowed extensively from occult magical practices.  These practices, as we have discussed in other columns, have many different approaches to what is true, and how they work.  These represent philosophies of magic, or at minimum theories of how the world works at an occult level.  Many of these theories (e.g. “as above, so below,” the law of contagion, etc.) have all found their ways into various Pagan and Witch beliefs [7].   These philosophies are anything but clear, and they are often couched in symbology that is deliberately designed to confuse and require a lot of study in order to understand it.  Whether that is a good thing or not, it makes developing a comprehensive, philosophical or theological, concept of magic very difficult.

Stopping here gives us six different approaches to Pagan theology:  pragmatic, Neo-Platonic, Earth-based, tribal, revivalist, and magical.   That alone should say something about the diversity of experience that can be had in the modern neo-Pagan community.  We are a very complicated mixture of individuals; all striving to create a religion that embodies our calling [8].  Most of the six theologies will be woven into any one text or belief system, none of them are mutually exclusive or contradictory [9].   However each one addresses the problem of explaining Paganism differently.  They can be intermingled, but they are not the same, and they really do represent quite different ways to approach the task.

Now that we have got our catalog lets first specify up front that, because we are Pagans, there is no one, “right” way to approach the problem of understanding the Gods and Goddesses.  Paganism is fundamentally accepting of variety, and variety in the way we organize the world is certainly consistent with that deep feeling of acceptance.  However acceptance does not necessarily mean that we cannot be critical or intellectual.  Nor does it mean we should be limited in our ability to articulate who and what we are, and how we relate to divinity.

I believe the fundamental distinction within all of these approaches is the difference between feeling and thinking.  Neither one is worse than the other, and certainly they are not exclusive, but how you orient toward these two approaches is an important way in which you understand the world [10].   The people who orient toward feeling, and based on my experience that is a whole lot of people who end up in the liberal religions, tend to see no particular need for deep explanations of Paganism.  Rather they see it as experiential and not intellectual, that faith is something to know, not understand.  They embody the Eros of the Pagan faith, the sensual love of the Gods and Goddesses that is understood through emotion and relationships.

The Agape [11] of the Pagan movement, the paternalistic, intellectual, understanding of the Gods and Goddesses is not as common in our works and in our lives.  It represents the desire for understanding, for taking apart the world and examining it piece by piece.  My division of the Pagan intellectual tradition into Eros/feeling and Agape/thinking is exactly what someone in the Agape category would do.   If I instead understood the world through the lens of feeling this cataloging and dividing might never have occurred to me, or have much meaning.

I contend that we do lose something by eschewing the thinking aspect of the theological arts in favor of feeling our way through our religion.  I believe it limits how and who we communicate with, and it also leads to a lot of sloppiness intellectually as well as in term of faith.  If you don’t have a clear articulation of a theology it is much easier to fall for the latest New Age fad that comes along.  If you have to feel your way though faith with only a few slogans at your disposal, it becomes much harder to explain yourself to others, or to have a deep conversation with other Pagans.

I believe that we need that balance, between people who assemble and people who take things apart, between those who put people first and those who put ideas first.  That balance seems somewhat lacking, for many, many reasons (but especially because we have little or nothing from our ancestors to start with, for that we can thank our buddies the Christians).   In this column I am trying to push a little in the other direction, as are many others.  Sure, we’re amateurs, but try to make a living as a Pagan theologian.  (Or any other sort of Pagan faith-based profession).  We’re all amateurs.

But what I have found is that, in trying to articulate a theory of faith within Pagan Pages, I have become much better at both talking about faith as well as understanding what others are saying about their beliefs.  I can organize information about the faith; I can make connections between ideas and feelings and add those ideas to my ever-expanding understanding of what it means to be Pagan.  To me that suggests any work on theology, whether amateur or not, can be of benefit at least to the person who is forced to articulate what they believe.  But, ultimately, such actions by many, many Pagans will work to build a broader body of work upon which our faith can grow and cement its place as a modern faith movement.  One that will outlast us and become the beginning of a bigger movement towards acceptance, tolerance, and reverence for all of nature.

[1] This is not necessarily a criticism; instead I mean to distinguish those who attempt to construct an analytic theology from those who are more experiential or emotional in their theology.  Both hold truth, but they are different.

[2] I am not alone in this desire for definitions, lists, and catalogs; Isaac Bonewits also has a lot of material in his books where he attempts to do the same.

[3] Except perhaps Bonewits and the more academic approaches of Michael York (Pagan Theology) and Ronald Hutton.

[4] I’d claim that whether a religion is tribal or universal is one of the main features that can be used to distinguish “Pagan” religions from “book” religions.  The claims of universality by Christianity and Islam are very different from almost every other religious belief, and their willingness to include those from outside of the group in their religious beliefs and practices (conversion) is also relatively unique.  I’d contend that even those Pagan groups that don’t have strong ethnic or tribal ties can be “tribal” in the sense that individuals must be called, and somehow work, to join the group.  This calling effectively makes almost any Pagan group a “tribe” of like-minded spiritual people.  This is different from book religions where your calling doesn’t matter; they claim that you should change your calling to theirs and join them, and not those you are called to.   So where would that place Judaism which is often characterized as one of the “book” religions?  Perhaps reading the scriptures (“Have no other gods before me…”) and asking Sophia (one of the early Goddesses of Judaism) might clarify the situation.  Or, perhaps just asking if the Jewish religion is universal, or hereditary (mostly hereditary) answers the question in favor of it being tribal and not universal.

[5] After all the whole thing got started by a revival of the Old Religion under Gardner.

[6] Which I actually believe is somewhat true.  If Paganism is tribal, and it is, then appropriating other tribe’s rituals and beliefs is just plain strange (or New Age).  However, at the same time, Pagan beliefs have always been willing to welcome new Gods and Goddesses, and to incorporate them into their worship (just look up Sulis Minerva or any number of hybrid Celtic/Roman deities).  But I have yet to see this sort of hybridization and cross-cultural melding, rather rituals and concepts tend to be appropriated whole, something that I just find to be puzzling.  Notice that I say its strange and puzzling, not wrong.  It might be wrong; I just have not fully understood all the arguments for it.

[7] In all of my columns I tend to use the term “Pagan” to encompass the whole schemer of neo-Pagan, Wiccan, and traditional Witch beliefs and practices.   Witchcraft hews more toward the magical tradition, while neo-Paganism hews more toward the traditionalist tradition.  It’s all a big spectrum, or rainbow.

[8] While this is a Christian term I wish it was used more in the Pagan community.  We all have callings, some to be Priests or Priestesses, some to be academics, some to put on festivals, and some to just show up and worship.  Finding our callings, and doing what we are called to do very well, should be something that is discussed more, and done more, within the community.

[9] That gives us about 5040 different possible theological approaches to consider if you start combining.

[10] This is very much taken from the Myers-Briggs type classification, which includes a measure that distinguishes “Feeling” from “Thinking.”  While the Myers-Briggs classification is not 100% in line with the normal definition of these words, I do believe they capture the difference between people who orient toward relationships, and people who orient more toward ideas.   Note that these word do not imply a values question, “thinking” is not somehow better or worse than “feeling”.  Though our culture tends to reward thinking behaviors and punish feeling behaviors.

[11] I’m stretching it a bit here.  Agape in the Christian sense is somewhat equivalent to charity, it involves unconditional, voluntary, self sacrifice for another.  However Agape is often contrasted with Eros, Agape being the affection of a parent for the child while Eros is the all-consuming passion one has for another.  In that sense I am using Agape as something that is committed through thought, while Eros is committed through feelings.  At least that’s my story.