Pagan Theology

Pagan Theology:  A Practical Path

In thinking about recent world events and the terrible suffering many are facing, I found myself asking, “what would a ‘Pagan’ make of all this?”  What would, or should, our response be?  I kept thinking that my answer would be: “we are a practical path.”

What do I mean by saying we are on a practical path?  How might that relate to what is going on in the world, not just in Japan but also in North Africa and the Middle East, and, to a far lesser extent, within the US and our economic difficulties?  How might a “practical path” give us courage and strength amongst so much suffering?

The term “practical” lends itself to many different interpretations.  We could mean simply that we are a path of practice.  It is common to say that one is a “practicing” such and such, meaning that you are actively engaged in worship.  I am, for example, a “practicing Pagan” because I go to circle (at least) once a month and keep an altar at home.  But, theologically speaking, Paganism is also a practice, or a craft, that you do.  Instead of just attending someone else’s work, Paganism and Witchcraft allow you, yourself, to actively become engaged in the process of deific action in the world.  In other words:  we do stuff.  We do magic.

I think that doing stuff as part of our religious practice makes us different than many other religions.  While many Pagan traditions have a Priest and Priestess responsible for running the circle, once an individual is accepted in the circle they are expected to carry their weight.  Without all of us working magically and practically such a numerically small faith would not have progressed very far.  At the same time the ability to practice magic and invoke the deities independently of a Priest or Priestess gives each and every Pagan the opportunity to practice first hand what happens within circle.

We could also mean by “practical path” that Paganism is a “common sense” religion.  On the surface that really appears to be the opposite of what Pagans are.   We do tend to spend a lot of time with flowing robes, incense, magical devices, and mystical ideas.  We seek the Shaman’s experience of travelling with the Gods and Goddess.  And because we can do magic and interact directly with the deity, we are closer to the other side of the veil than many other religions.  But by “common sense” we can also mean “close to reality.”

Our deities are in the natural world.  They are our friends, our mentors, and our guides.  They are in the land and the air, in the sky and in the fields.  They are within us, and all around us.  We are grounded in the world, not in some far off divine paradise that may or may not come to us through good behavior and considerable luck.  We are here.  Now…  We are close to the world and the world is close to us.  We feel the cycles of nature and the comings and goings of all things.  We are part of the world, the same world as the Gods and Goddesses.
This practical aspect of faith grounds and ties us to the world.  What happens in the world, for good or ill, is part of us.  And so we know that when the earth shifts or an ill wind blows that it is not a judgment against us, it is not alien or different or “unworldly” but rather it is what the world does.  This acceptance of the world and all that is in it gives us a practical base from which to defeat despair.  The same world that changes and touches us can be changed by our touch.  Our actions, magical or temporal, change the world just as it changes.

The “practical path” says that, while you cannot, and should not, fight the world, you can work it and change it to the better.  Circumstances that are given can be changed, but those changes require our energy and attention and work [1].  We are not the busy, industry-focused, Puritans by any stretch of the imagination, but when it comes to setting up camp, pulling up the Maypole, or cooking a collective dinner, we get it done.   Spiritually we have a faith that encourages change through positive action, its called magic.   I will claim that the belief we can change the world through magic will makes us a very optimistic, pragmatic, and centered religious practice.  We believe we can shoulder the burden and change the world.

A practical path can also be interpreted as one that does not brook much nonsense.  And I would also argue that Paganism is a pragmatic religion.  Guilt, sin, and all of the other features of self-blaming are not part of the Pagan tradition.  Paganism tends to emphasize the positive virtues of loyalty, doing no harm, and respect for life.  Instead of telling us what we should not do, Paganism points us toward what we should do.  Instead of making us feel guilty, Pagan traditions empower us to create and change.

This tendency to emphasize positive action may arise from the underlying acceptance of duality in nature.  Instead of seeing disasters or misfortunes as punishment, imposition, or “something that god let happen,” Pagan theology would interpret misfortune differently.  Misfortune is not “evil” in the sense that it is created and deliberately directed by the will.  Instead the world contains within it both dark and light, both suffering and happiness, and one always changes into the other through the cycles of the seasons.

While this in no way endorses misfortune, it produces a mindset that says misfortune today will be followed by fortune tomorrow.  Perspective gained through the knowledge of the circles and seasons of the Goddess stops us from despair or hopelessness.  Instead we know that the Goddess reshapes the world constantly, and we suffer because we are in that world, not because She wishes us harm.  We, and She, fall under the rule of the world, and the inevitable changes that are required means sometimes we suffer, sometimes bad things happen, but always we remember that everyone is in it together.

Knowing that the Gods and Goddesses are in it with us and we all have the power to constantly remake our circumstances gives us the basis for a pragmatic response to tragedy.  We help those who have been traumatized through our words and rituals.  We give our time and resources to help those who are rebuilding to recover.   We can do our spiritual and practical work in order to keep things going and help everyone muddle through the event.  But we don’t see shifting plates or runaway reactors or despotic responses to attempts at freedom as something personal.  Tragedy is never the fault of the victim, never something brought on willingly by those in control of their fate [2].  Instead it is the nature of the world to shift and change and sometimes bring birth and sometimes bring death.  But it is how we respond to those shifts of fate that really defines whether they are ultimately “good” or “evil.”  If we respond in faith and charity with loving hearts and strong arms, we know that the circle will turn and good will come again.  We are a hopeful people that look forward to the next cycle, to the next turning, even as we mourn for what is lost.

So what might a Pagan response to all this tragedy be?  First to acknowledge suffering and send energy, prayers, and workings in support of those harmed, in harms way, or who have been indirectly harmed by the events; fate speaks, people suffer, and we console, support, and mourn.

But it also means we should get involved.  Do something.  It could be as simple as speaking truth about what is going on in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia [3] or as complex as travelling to the disaster in order to lend a hand (as many have done in New Orleans).   It might be sending our prayers or positive energy in support of recovery efforts or protestors [4].  This positive, optimistic, aspect of Pagan practice is something that the world could really use right now.  And we could benefit from acknowledging that it lies deep within our faith.

[1] An example of such a pragmatic approach is the Pagan Japan Relief effort, which can be found here: http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/Pagan-Community/doctors-without-borders

[2] Obviously people with mental conditions that prevent a realistic assessment of their situation often bring harm to themselves.  For them the tragedy begins earlier with the onset of disease.

[3] They don’t much like Witches in Saudi Arabia http://blog.amnestyusa.org/deathpenalty/saudi-arabia-set-to-execute-soothsayer-for-sorcery/ and Bahrain, and the entire region, is struggling with freedom http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/ml_bahrain_protests

[4] Like Selena Fox from Circle Sanctuary did (see http://wildhunt.org/blog/2011/02/pagan-community-notes-protecting-a-sacred-altar-in-athens-selena-fox-in-madison-american-mystic-and-more.html or http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150097997169285&set=a.104902039284.95857.50006939284&comments&ref=mf)