Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Five Theology Questions

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 : ).


Michael York said...

Wonderful answers, Ian, and for which I thank you. Although I may (and will) question you on a few points, it never ceases to amaze me over how similar our mutual thinking is. Your groundedness and organic understanding are completely refreshing.

You mention supernatural intervention not being necessary to solve the problems at hand, and again I agree with this. But I also want to ask that our theurgic and other magical practices do not preclude our acceptance of help and assistance from the gods, spirits or divine? We can do it ourselves (and basically maybe ought to aim for such), but are we not also fundamentally practical enough not to eschew augmentation to our efforts from favourable others? I think the pagan trusts the supernatural and her ability to work with it (perhaps a major distinction of us from other religions) not to be intimidated by fear of the unknown. We dare to take the risk of treading on occasion into the non-empirical.

I agree that paganism is to some extent a contra-modernity project involvement but want to suggest that the Golden Age metaphor might be used less as a lost ideal past and instead as a future ambition. If technology is perceived to be the problem, I am reminded of Erik Davis’ *Techgnosis* in which he explains the origins of the word *technology* in the Greek *techne* meaning ‘magic’. Any pagan discarding of the modern is reminiscent of Max Weber’s call for re-enchantment of the world against the avalanche of modern bureaucracy and banality.

Whilst you say that the issues I have mentioned are “not generally the business of religions,” is not our concern for the planet and environment one that puts these issues at the centre of pagan spirituality? And at least to the degree that virtually all our competitive religions retain a vestige of pagan proclivities to one degree or another, do not these issues become their issues as well? Whilst pagans as a rule are not particularly concerned with goals of transcendental escape, this is probably once again a distinction between us and our religious competitors, I also think and want to stress that we have allies ‘out there’, and it is with these that I am searching for ways and platforms within which or upon which to work together.

Absolutely, this all is discourse and concerns discourse. My gratitude to you for that. I will (attempt to) post this on both sites.

IanC said...

Kind words, thanks. You probably know that I have little academic background. I do have a talent for mimicry ; ).

On the 'supernatural, this may be mainly a terminology matter. I never refer to gods, spirits and magical art as ‘supernatural’. Theologically I don’t believe that they involve a reality beyond nature, but are integral to nature itself.
More specifically, I see magic as a body of human skill applied mainly by human will.

Had you asked directly *how* Paganism might support certain social goals I might well have spent more time on the work of interaction with the spirits. If we wish to save a marshland or water-table from some commercial insult it makes total sense to build our relationship with the local spirits and ask for their aid. However that’s just human engineering and scheming, no different than recruiting the local newspapers.

What I meant, really, was that we do not need a New Jerusalem, or even a Harmonic Convergence, to ‘change (human) nature’ to make our better world occur. Whether we do it with shamanism or shovels, it will be human effort that deals with the eco-political issues of our day. I do agree that building alliances among the spirits only makes sense.

Yes, I think the concern about re-enchantment is just right. Modernity has lost the indwelling-story element of traditional culture. We no longer interact with our tech environment as though it (like the forest) was awake and involved. The ancients shaped faces on pots and swords and house-pillars, perhaps because they meant to create and maintain relationships with them. Now, of course, our cyber-toasters can in fact speak with us. Will Paganism make anything serious out of artisanal animism? It may be enough for the first round to re-enchant the forest, changing its category from ‘commercial resources’ to ‘living sanctuary’, maybe.

The return to the Golden Age is the classic Indo-European eschatology. Of course that is always preceded by various catastrophes, mass deaths, etc. Personally I half-think the whole model should be in the discard pile with patriarchy and war-captive slavery. So I don’t encourage the dream of a future green settlement of peace and self-sufficiency as a religious goal, though I participate in it to some extent as an outgrowth of my religious values.

I am firmly on the left politically but I know Pagans across the US political spectrum. I’m sure you know that the generalization of Paganism as ‘nature worship’ is fairly widely challenged these days. The outcome of the current whirl of discussion on defining and focusing Paganism for the future can’t be predicted.

As an old lefty *my* Paganism is centered in environmentalism, social justice and personal freedom. I’m certainly willing to preach it, to some extent, just as I preach my political goals in secular environments. The question of the relationship between religious forms and political opinion is an interesting one. I’m always led to point out the place of women in traditional Indian societies, among the various goddesses. I do hope that worshipping the soul of the land will make people care wisely for the body of the land, but only time will tell…

>Absolutely, this all is discourse and concerns discourse. My gratitude to you for that. I will (attempt to) post this on both sites.<

Thanks for asking! I love this stuff…

Yewtree said...

An excellent set of answers to the questions.

Michael York said...

Hi Ian, & Yvonne

One does not need an academic background to be educated. I would never have guessed otherwise. You (Ian) write not only well but with perceptive depth, and that in itself is a reward for the rest of us.

I am certain that the supernatural issue is largely a terminological one. It is not a favourite term for me, but I used it because you had, and, without doubt, it remains the colloquial standard. I have preferred *preternatural* but have a partner who vociferously objects to the ‘other natural’ but does accept my compromise suggestion of the ‘co-natural’. Consequently, I bounce between the ‘co-natural’ and the ‘non-empirical’ and fathom both empirical nature and the co-natural as viable aspects of nature. I agree, in fact, with Robert Corrington that there is nothing beyond nature. Nature is all there is.

Once again I can only say that I am in accord with virtually everything you express. Though sometimes I wish I were not, I too am firmly on the left – something that was brought even more at home to me when I found myself completely agreeing with “Tramp the Dirt Down” - George Galloway’s posting two days ago. What I am not exactly certain of is whether I am a Libertarian Liberal or a Liberal Libertarian.

I am unsure, however, whether “the Golden Age is [really] classic Indo-European eschatology.” I have understood the Four Ages as essentially a Levantine concept that seeped into Greece through Hesiod, Plato and the Orphics and also into the Indian Subcontinent with the ascendency of the Brahmans. A case can be made for tracing the same notion of cosmic inversion found with the Odinic cult influence on the *Voluspa* to the ancient Middle East. I agree with you all the same that the apocalyptic fire-and-brimstone precedence of mass-death and various catastrophes to the Golden Age metaphor is best dumped onto the discard pile – however plausible that scenario may seem in the current scale of mismanagement of our precious planet.

On this point, I would like to bring in Yvonne’s critique of the ‘modernity project’. I purposely did not mention the postmodern when formulating my questionnaire. When I first heard that term in lectures, I would invariably ask what was meant by the adjective ‘postmodern’ and as invariably receive the reply, “I was hoping that no one would ask that question.” The idea of something being *after* the modern, however, fascinated me, and I went with this construct for a long time – being influenced principally by Baudrillard, Lyotard, Derrida, Jameson, Jencks and Spretnak. I think today by virtual overuse, the paradigm has finally come to have lost its utilitarian edge, but Yvonne appears to have captured the nuance between the two understandings all the same. If the modern speaks through the meta-narrative of rationalism, empirically-based technology and an Occam’s Razor economy, the postmodern speaks through many different narratives. One understanding is that it is the *completion* of the modern rather than its *rejection*, but in any event it gratefully restores the emotional, the mythic, the organo-spiritual and the magical to an operative domain that still includes the achievements and even legitimacy of technology founded upon the mechanical understandings of science.

As with Ian, I find myself generally in agreement with what Yvonne says. I think I specially mentioned Contemporary Western Paganism (CWP) because it represents what Yvonne refers to as not being restricted to a particular ethnic group. Unfortunately, even among us in the West and certainly throughout much of Central and Eastern Europe, there are paganisms that can be described as chauvinist, quasi-fascist, overly romantic and even racist. This is a reality with which we all need to deal sooner or later.

[An HTML limit has been exceeded?!? I'll post the last paragraph separately]

Michael York said...

As with Ian’s “artisanal animism,” I adore Yvonne’s non-“cosmic necessity” in connection with the possibility of a pleasant afterlife. And surely in postmodern fashion, there is no monopoly on truth. The closest synonym for ‘postmodernism; I believe, is ‘pluralism’. Because we have the mythology and the stories to illustrate them, Yvonne argues that “Pagans are particularly well-placed to discuss environmental ethics and sustainability.” But Ian does not “encourage the dream of a future green settlement of peace and self-sufficiency as a religious goal” despite participation toward this ideal to some extent as a result of his religious values. Is it the dream itself to which you object and not the goal? Why do you feel this dream-goal is not religious? How are religious values then to be distinguished from religion? I wonder if we are really talking here about diverging understandings or if this is again a question of semantics. Unlike the Abrahamic and dharmic religions, paganism is principally concerned with the here-and-now, with this world, with what Yvonne describes as the integration of spirit and matter. How then can the sustainability and, when necessary, restoration of a green future not be a pagan religious goal?

IanC said...

I'm afraid that my thinking tends to run to the compartmentalised. I dislike the general effect of mingling religion with politics, and am suspicious of my own feeling that if we did it with Paganism the results would be better. I think my main concern would be of diverting religious effort from its primary goals.

I focus on religion as primarily a personal work of spiritual practice, and it's corporate extension. Religion is not, to me, about making a better world (that implies making other people better) it is about making a better life, a happier, more fulfilled individual and community. Since I don't assume that our society is broken, I don't assume that we must 'come away out of her' in order to find that fulfillment.

That stuff is why I hesitate to tie my spirituality directly to a neo-modern agenda (how d'ya like that one? ; ) ). If Paganism can help provide the spiritual support for such endeavors, good for us. However I'm just more focused on religion as the skill of producing spiritual experience, rather than religion as social influence.

I guess it comes back to my praxic-vs-doxic thing. Religion is the practice of methods of achieving spiritual experience. Religious values are the accretion of social ideas that grow up around (and perhaps as a result of) that practice. I have, personally, less respect for the latter than the former. I am especially suspicious of efforts to turn the latter into policy.

To summarize on the subject, I'll politically support any good effort toward sustainability, and import as much of my religious work into the effort as might be productive, but I wouldn't want the energy of my religious efforts diverted heavily to it.