Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Spirit Talk - Reflections on Pagan Theologies

I've finally completed the collection of theology articles from this blog. For regular readers I must warn that it is precisely collected articles from here - nothing you haven't seen. It might still be useful as something for Mom to read, or to sit in waiting rooms ; ). If you want a hard copy, you can get it here.
In any case, here's the introductory essay:
Talking About Spirits
The Seedlings of Pagan Theologies
 I am primarily an occult weirdo. My approach to spirituality and religion is shaped first by the practices and models of the English-speaking magical and occult movements of the last 200 years. My personal work is informed by my understanding of the ways of the Iron Age Celts, especially the Gaels, and I frame my practice in those symbols and terms. In addition I have worked to understand the practices and models of traditional contemporary polytheist and animist peoples, both in the European and post-European context and outside of it. From these elements I have attempted to build a meaningful and productive spiritual practice, and contribute to the development of public Pagan religion.
The notable thing about the above self-description is that I find it a satisfactory description of my work with no mention of what I believe, in the conventional religious sense. That’s because, like many modern Pagans, my religion is centered not in my beliefs or thoughts, but in my practices. My work is to design a set of practices that will allow me to experience the presence of the Gods and Spirits (warning, I capitalize randomly, or like a drunken German). It is not an effort to convince myself that I ‘know the truth’ about reality, material or spiritual, but rather an effort to live my life more fully and truly, with greater depth of insight and experience.
Modern Paganisms are religions of method, rather than of philosophy. Induction of trance is reckoned more valuable than deduction about the nature of the Gods. A rite well-performed is more characteristic than a member well-informed. It is not particularly required to believe anything specific at all in order to practice Paganism, though it may be customary to act as if certain beliefs were true. For instance in my ways it is customary to address Gods and Spirits as specific, individual people. We do not address an abstract ‘unity’, but rather approach the divine as many distinct persons. However this is a ritual convention – it governs style of language, choices in images and offerings. The system in no way demands that the ritualist have any specific opinion about just what the Gods and Spirits “really” are. Opinions among practitioners range from views of the Gods as metaphors to active personal involvement with them as persons. In ritual they are approached as individual entities, because that’s what custom requires, regardless of personal opinion.
Perhaps this helps us to understand why theological thought hasn’t become a common part of the Pagan revival. Since correct opinion or belief is not a defining characteristic of participation or of self-identification, it simply hasn’t generated much output. In many ways this reflects ancient Paganisms, which left behind only a small number of texts that might be considered ‘theological’ by later standards. Ancient Paganism didn’t really self-define theologically until multiple ethnic and tribal religions began to meet in the first cosmopolitan cities. It achieved its clearest delineation in contrast to (and under the influence of) early Christianity.
The modern situation seems similar. In the first decades of the Neopagan revival – the middle of the Twentieth Century - writers focused almost exclusively on ritual, producing dozens of versions of seasonal celebrations, initiation rites and common-meeting rites.  Theological discussion was usually limited to reciting the traditional (and neotraditional) tales of the gods. If higher-order discussions occurred they were usually framed in the doctrines of modern occult Hermeticism.  
By the beginning of the twenty-first century that was changing. Both study and the results of practice were leading Pagans to view the Gods and spirits (though initially mainly the Gods) as individual and specific beings, rather than as cultural markers for universal principles.  In my opinion the scholarship behind this trend is a combination of the study of what we know of the old religions of Europe, and   especially the study of modern polytheisms and spiritisms in practice, such as the African Diaspora traditions, authentic Tantra and the shamanic work of northern Asia. An anthropological look at those paths will not find post-Golden-Dawn duotheism.
From a more spiritual perspective, I think it is likely that Neopagans of the English-speaking world (the only milieu about which I am competent to speak) are succeeding in our decades-long preliminary invocations of the Gods and Spirits. In my own case, I began calling out to the Gods under Hellenic names as a young occultist. I used their names as little more than ‘words of power’ alongside names of the Hebrew and other gods and spirits. Youthful practical magical work (‘spellcasting’) involved more specific invocations of some of the deities, and my first sense of personal involvement with a god was with the Greco-Roman Hermes-Mercurius.  Later I completed ritual evocations of the elemental and planetary powers that helped me understand them as more than flavors of energy.  
Shamanic practice may have played a part in the change, as well. While the trend for ceremonial calling of spirits would not arrive for decades, ‘core shamanism’ (techniques borrowed from Asian and South American sources, stripped down to culture-free basics) introduced many western Pagans to the experience of direct individual contact with spirits. While initial efforts tended to focus on cultureless ‘power animal’ beings, the mythological impulses of Neopaganism in the 1980s soon applied the same methods to the gods and spirits of pre-Christian Europe, producing more direct conversations with persons of the gods than previous methods commonly produced.
Scholastically, the trend in the late 20th century was the study of the available remnants of pre-Christian religion. Moving away from occult literature into history, archeology and anthropology, Neopagans learned the details of ancient cult, and noted that the Unitarian and monist elements of modern Hermeticism were merely a concession to societally-enforced monotheism, whether in Edwardian England or in the fifth century c.e. In the early 90s a more energetic polytheism arose driven largely by the rise of ethnic revival Paganisms.
Pagan study turned, in the last decade of the twentieth century, toward the real religions of the ancient world. We read the myths, but also the work of archeologists and anthropologists as they began to piece together a more realistic picture of what ancient religion was like. The ritual forms of revival witchcraft – a combination of early-modern ritual magic with Masonic elements – began to be replaced with forms recovered from scholarship. The Scandinavian Pagans (‘Heathens’) were early adopters of the pouring of physical offerings in their rituals. Ar nDraiocht Fein, the Druidic group with which I work, took up the making of offerings into the fire or pit, and the presence of dozens of ADF congregations around North America has helped to spread the practice. Hellenic, Baltic and Latin Pagan groups also formed, discovering similarities and common ideas.
This is a personal document, and these essays are my personal notions and opinions. As a result they reflect my own preoccupations and interests. Thus, I have simply not addressed the portions of the Neopagan community that have trended in more monistic directions, referring to a single principle as ‘Spirit’, or even a God/Goddess or the like. Likewise I haven’t interacted in these essays with Goddess monotheism, or with feminist theology either Christian or Pagan. Some of those themes are addressed in some of these essays, but not systematically. I have no interest in ‘disproving’ other polytheistic models. While such modern constructions may disagree with my own perceptions of the nature of the Gods, that doesn’t preclude me from solidarity with those who hold those ideas. I have never been to a Pagan circle where they were concerned with my opinion of the nature of their Aphrodite, or whomever, as long as I would sing along respectfully.
My history leads me to a position similar but not identical to what is called, in this decade, hard polytheism. I think that most gods are individual persons, separate from one another to the degree that all apparent things are separate. I approach the gods and spirits as a crew of individuals, sometimes addressed collectively, but never as ‘aspects of a unity’. My meditative practice may vary somewhat from that position, but my ritual practice does not. However I feel that some hard polytheists take this rather too far, asserting that every variant name of a deity must represent a distinct person. In my opinion this is supported neither by what we know of ancient practices, nor by modern experience. However this point is perhaps too technical for this introduction.
Instead let me offer these short essays and snippets as food for thought. Perhaps my own history mirrors that of the movement, at least of some branches of it, and my conclusions have been well-received by some readers of my blog. Even should you disagree entirely I think there is merit in the questions being raised, and good to be gained by formulating your own opinions on these topics.

No comments: