Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion

Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion

By Michael York
New York: New York University Press, 2003. Hardback, x + 239 pages.

"Paganism views humankind, nature, and whatever the supernatural mayor may not be as essentially divine." So writes Michael York in this groundbreaking book, one much needed to shed light on today's evolving spirituality, York, Director and Principal Lecturer of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cultural Astronomy and Astrology, as well as Director of the Bath Archive for Contemporary Religious Affairs, Bath Spa University College, UK, not only is an accomplished scholar but an active researcher.

At the outset, he reminds us of the correct definition of the word "pagan" which comes from the Latin word for "peasant." Christianity began in cities and country folk clung to the old-time religion, (I can vouch for this personally because 40 years ago I was studying Russian and needed to look up the word for "peasant" in my atheistic Soviet dictionary. To my amazement, one of the definitions was Kristian!) So paganism in the broadest sense is any religion that views the natural world as sacred. Further, York traces the word "cult" to its association with culture, agriculture, and cultivate. Thus he is not just writing about Wicca, Witchcraft, and magick but about the distinction between the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are monotheistic revelations given by God through a historic individual and those religions that celebrate the holiness of the seasons, the multiple personifications of archetypal processes punctuated by the movements of the solar system, the natural elements, and the divine interplay of masculine and feminine (creative and receptive) of gods and goddesses as aspects of a hidden source of Spirit. Buddhism seems a borderline case. Though Gautama Buddha was an historical figure, he never claimed to be a messenger of God, but offered the world a wise and compassionate way out of suffering.

Michael York centers his study on his rich personal and joyous experiences in India, Nepal, China, and Japan while living and participating, as well as documenting, the fervent earthy celebrations of the ordinary population in contrast to the transcendent views and teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. His accounts were riveting and brought a new perspective to many memories for me. I realized afresh that since many of us also believe in a "spirituous earth," that being a Nee-pagan is not necessarily a heretical posture but one leading us, with the help of theoretical physics, to a new appreciation of the spiritual glory and wonder of the cosmos (a Greek word meaning "beauty"). The book itself concerns paganism as religion, behavior, and theology. As one reads, one discovers the really valid aspects of the pagan approach despite the fact that the term itself is so encrusted for many by semantic prejudice and negative associations. By York's definition any dedicated environmentalist would classify as having pagan tendencies. Perhaps what many people celebrate unconsciously, more and more of us are approaching more consciously. There is a hilarious section on what the unconscious secular symptoms of paganism can produce.

Perhaps, York could have given some credit to the author of some of the Psalms, who praises the earth and its creatures, or mentioned some of the truly poetic passages in the Koran of the same nature, or even mentioned St. Francis and especially Celtic Christianity which never ever has excluded nature. Granted that these attribute creation to one God, but even in polytheistic religiosities there seems to be an underlying inference of an invisible Unity, the diversity of which is acknowledged as manifesting in aspects and relationships to be personified and worshiped. Hopefully there will be a sequel to this truly important work that will further address paganism in the West with more about the Celtic tradition which is corning to the fore.

As Jesus says in the Gospel According to Thomas, "Heaven is spread upon the earth, but men do not see it." Therein lies the wisdom of many pagans.

Michael York has laid the intellectual groundwork for a new approach to theology, one which hopefully might reconcile the appalling feuding ones of our time. We need to celebrate the earth, because though Spirit may give us Life, it is Mother Nature that gives life form, and perhaps that is a symbolic message of Incarnation.


January/February 2004