Paganism is often described as religion of “Nature Worship” or as “Earth-Centered”. Is it? Should it be? Is Nature, in how we use it, a euphemism for the wilderness, or the biological, ‘living’ part of the world, or is it a name we put on the world as a whole? Is Nature big enough for it to be a descriptive characteristic of our group spiritual life? Much depends on the definition of Nature. . .
Arkadian Anvil: Hammering out a Pagan Future
Steel is tested and shaped on the anvil. Here, we try every Pagan idea on the anvil of history, hammered by insight and intellect, to forge a Pagan Future.
Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.
Or, How Transcendentalism and Panentheism are theological notions unworthy of contemporary Pagans.
The view I take in these matters is Pantheist, which simply stated is the intuition that All is God (from Pan = All, Theos = God), for whatever value of ‘God’ you care to apply. Many Pagans today hold to some variation on this perceptive. The Pantheist view makes ideas like Transcendentalism and Panentheism logically untenable, and they have some further consequences for Pagans that make it worthwhile to remove them from our thinking.
Worship is the defining act of religion. Doing theology or philosophy is like reading the recipe, but worshiping is cooking and eating the meal. Only one of these two approaches is nourishing. Worship has many grades and equivocations, but is really constituted by a simple idea, one that is very important for us to understand if we want to talk about doing religion, or for that matter spirituality. We are fortunate to speak English as our word here discloses the essence of the act: ‘worship’ is etymologically ‘worth-shaping’. To worship is to declare, espouse, inculcate and promote the value (worth) embodied in that which is being worshiped. What we worship is what we say is good. The ‘good’ constitutes the values by which we live our life, embodies the character or spirit which we make part of ourselves, and the values we want more prevalent in our world. This makes worship unavoidably political. It is also a reciprocal process in that what values we really have are what we worship by our daily actions. Therefore it is vitally important that we understand what it is we worship and how we worship. You have a choice of Gods. Pause a moment before reading more: What do you worship?
Why are we not enlightened? In this case I mean why do we not experience ourselves, from the moment we are conscious, as an inalienable part of the Divine, with all Its resources and presence? Our fears and worries tell us that we are not immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, etc, etc. . .even when we know we are part of the Divine. We don’t feel it, at least at first. I think there is an explanation, and it’s a good one, if a bit weird. But, it requires a suspension of our assumptions to understand it. So, please give me a chance to lay it out. You see, God was bored. . .
What of the Many Gods? Are they really all One? Are they distinct individuals? Is it the same deity in many cultures? We continue our development of a Pagan Systematic Theology by addressing the Gods Themselves and some thoughts on how to think about our work with Them.
One of the really great questions humans have been working on for literally ages is “Is the World One or Many? You can find a long tour of this process in McEvilley’s “The Shape of Ancient Thought” [The kindle edition is cheap!]. We can see even in stone age mythologies efforts to express the general intuition humans have of the unity of the world.
Philosophically this is called ‘monism’ and all the great religions that develop deep self-critical literature have some form of this stance. The One of the Neoplatonists, the Tao, Shunyata for the Buddhists, are all very different ways of apprehending that unity. It is possible to confuse monism with monotheism as some scholars are doing today. (See Athanassiadi’s "Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity".) But as soon as you have other Deities in the system, as did the ancient Neoplatonists, it can’t be monotheism, which is specifically the rejection of all deities, except one. Indeed, in the ancient world Christians were considered and referred to as ‘atheists’ because they denied the Gods.
We discussed the world from the viewpoint of its simplicity and unity in my last blog-post, now we need to turn to its divine multiplicity. Gnosis published an early effort of mine on this subject in 1993 (What is Polytheism and how I became Polytheistic). Those were not bad ideas, but I would like to take a different tack today. . .
As promised, I’m beginning below the process of building a positive notion of the Divine, a constructive, systematic, theology. Of course, this is built on my own thoughts and views developed from my studies of science and the humanities, informed by the various theologies and narratives I have been exposed to. It is the output of that internal discussion and so I’m not constructing this as an argument, rather as something of a discursive story.
I presume your milage will vary, and well it should. I’m not writing this for you to agree with me (although you are welcome to), rather as an expression of my thoughts on the matter and as an example of one way to do this. We can debate forever, but at some point we need to make and here is my current product, ever subject to change. Frankly, you should do this for yourself, based on your own foundation. Nor do I claim the below is complete. I expect to be adding to it as time goes on and this is just the first layer. There are many issues with the Divine that need to be discussed but that won’t happen in one blog post. For now I simply invite you to read, reflect, and if you wish, respond.
I’ve very grateful for all of the on- and off-blog posts to me about the question of evil. It is gratifying to know that I’m being read. Before we go deeper into specific subjects, I want to take a step back and gain some perspective on our project. This blog is an experiment in what is technically called Systematic Theology. It is systematic in that it endeavors to cover core issues pertaining to a religious tradition, here Pagan, in an orderly, coherent, where appropriate rational, and hopefully complete way. This is different from Practical Theology, which has to do with applying theology to life (although we’ll do some of that too). Practical theology has a variety of sub-disciplines like pastoral, political or liturgical theologies, dealing with theology in the context of the practitioner’s service to a population, or in application to political or social discourse, or with respect to ritual practice, respectively. But now, I want to talk about the idea of theology itself.
Theodicy, the theological study of evil, is one of the stumbling blocks of religion. I have a few thoughts on the subject, which I doubt will end the matter, but perhaps shed a certain Pagan light on it. In general theodicy is trying to answer the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “Because God wills it,” to test or to strengthen the adherent, or “Karma,” the result of past actions, are two of the more popular answers. As a Thelemite, I am not so interested in what happened but in what to do, so I tend to look at this from the other side: “How do I avoid doing evil?” This leads me to a systems-analysis approach to evil that shows how hard it is to avoid doing Evil, but there is some hope in that too.
In our culture belief is the sine qua non of religion. We talk of ‘beliefs’, and ‘believers’, and ‘other beliefs’, as synonyms for religious doctrines, adherents and other religions. The problem with this is that only one religion on the planet actually cares about what you believe: Christianity. Most other religions relate to their doctrines or practices in very different and sometimes contradictory ways, such as having several unresolved and conflicting opinions in one person. For them, this is not a problem, but for Christianity it is. The history of Christianity is mostly about disagreements in doctrine and who had to flee, hide, fight, be killed, or submit to whom, about it. It is true that across human history religion has been an excuse for war or plunder, but that was usually about resources or dominance and not about technical points of theology. Christianity is different.
First, I want to thank all the folks who have posted kind words about my starting this blog. It is deeply encouraging to be so warmly received. Thank you!
Before turn to my topic for this post, I wish to reflect on the interesting conversation about the use of the term ‘pagan’ in this, its uncapitalized form. I’ve given my opinion already, in that I feel it has no referent, and that it represents a distortion of the past, but for that please see the original post and its comments. What is interesting to me is that folks would defend its use. It was and is an insult, as common in use as the ’n-word’ was at a time. By naming ourselves ‘Pagan’ we proudly turn that opprobrium into an honorable name for a new and defiant religion, ours. . . . . .
So, then, what is ‘religion’? I’ll start by citing a not-bad version of the dictionary definition for religion: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/religion)
You will no doubt notice the primacy of ‘belief’ in this definition. Ritual also gets a mention, as does morality, but only as a optional quality.
This is the inaugural post of the new blog Arkadian Anvil.
For the last thirty years, my whole adult life, I have been living in and serving the US Pagan community. Since the early 1980s there has been a lot of change and growth in our community. The population has exploded, the literature has grown vastly, Pagan and Esoteric studies are now gaining acceptance by the academy. There is even a Pagan effort at a seminary.
When I completed my Golden Dawn education and became an adept of the tradition I realized that my education did not prepare me to care for members of our community spiritually, something I have felt called to do since childhood. To fix that I decided to go to seminary and studied at the University of Chicago and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, both while under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalists. Part of my motivation was to find work, or rather a livelihood, doing what I feel called to, namely serving the spiritual needs of a community. Sadly I was too Pagan for them and while they were willing to grant me a degree as a Master of Divinity, they were not about to hire me.<sigh>