The Viability of a Pagan Theology in the Post-Modern World

Michael York

Lyceum of Venus of Healing

Academy for Cultural and Educational Studies

Parliament of the World Religions


I am speaking this afternoon on the viability of a pagan theology in the post-modern world. The parameters of this subject are varied and multi-directional, and I have somewhat the feeling of the circus performer who attempts to hold various rearing teams of horses who themselves are attempting to run off in different directions. In my desire to control these steeds, however, I shall proceed to question first what do we mean by modernity, for this in turn is the predicate for understanding the post-modern as well as the pre-modern in which paganism finds its roots. I shall then attempt to outline a pagan theology and where it fits in the panorama of the major world religions and their respective understandings of the godhead. Let us begin with modernity.

The modern-postmodern delineation follows the tower of Babel metaphor. Modernity is a single project, the attempt to unite all understanding through rational logic and empirical observation. Its mechanistic paradigm is based on efficiency and the calculated return, and it seeks exclusively the new and innovative in its desire to root out the old, the archaic and obsolete. The modern employs language, Hegel's identity-logic of the Same, and the modern project is to convert or reduce all language to a meta-language of the Same understood as the dominant ideology of Western secular materialism. The epitome of the modern is perhaps best found in architecture and is that which is understood in our functional mega-buildings or skyscrapers based on the straight line, technological achievement, efficiency of design, and absence of all decoration: clear, cold and rational. The end of modernism is recognized by the architect Charles Jencks in the televised blowing-up of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Estate in St. Louis in 1972 - symbolizing the collapse of the modern Tower of Babel and the re-recognition that housing must consider the emotional needs of humanity in addition to any quest for utilitarian functionalism.

Turning now to the post-modern, there are three essential possibilities: First, the post-modern may be seen as the anti-modern, something which is critical of the modern. In this understanding, the post-modern rejects modernism's rejection of all accepted values from the past. Secondly, the post-modern is sometimes understood as `the completion of the modern'. In the modernization process itself, there is plenty of the obsolete and archaic still present, but as these continue to be reduced and eliminated, we are then said to arrive at the post-modern. From this perspective, the post-modern endeavors to extend the new rather than repudiate it; it seeks to graft onto the modern. And, finally, the post-modern is understood as something which overtakes or surpasses the modern. In post-modernity, the limits of modernism are by-passed.

In reality, all three of these understandings of the post-modern operate simultaneously. As Charles Jencks puts it, the post-modern functions as a multi-coding. The modern is now double-coded with the popular, the nostalgic, the romantic, the classical, etc. or all these together. We have now reached the post-Babel situation in which there is a multitude of different languages being spoken with the difference from the biblical story in that diversity is coming to be increasingly welcomed. But this pluralism inherent in the post-modern position has important theological implications with regard to concepts of `God', `Truth' and `Justice'.

If modernity itself begins with the Renaissance, modernity for the West coincides largely with its reception and subsequent development of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. For the pre-modern Judaeo-Christian position, truth is both real and objective and accepted in the doctrines and dogmas of the Church. From a modern perspective, however, truth which is methodologically ascertainable substitutes for truth which is proclaimed solely through traditional authority. The guide now becomes the voice of science; one tradition has been replaced by another. But while pre-modernity and modernity share in a quest for truth and certainty, through its later developments which include deconstructionism and the infinite regress of meaning, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and anthropology-sociology's elucidations concerning the acculturation processes affecting the individual, modernity has succeeded in producing a condition of relativism and uncertainty which is now understood as the postmodern perspective. In this state, the authority of an objective truth - so central to the pre-modern and modern alike - has been undermined and discredited.

In their respective ways, the pre-modern and modern both recognize a reductionistic and monocentric perspective. The postmodern, by contrast, assumes a multiple perspective which, while including both the traditional patterns of pre-modernity and the innovations of modernity, is more aptly subsumed under the potpourri rubric of the multi-cultural supermarket. In the postmodern condition, consumer choice replaces the previously established dictates of authoritarian fiat, and the individual alone now determines what is acceptable. The `self within' becomes the basis for selection and the emancipated source of authority. But this self can assume responsibility and authority only for itself. The postmodern ethic, relativised in its divorce from the a priori commands of an external source of authority, mandates the acceptance of other selves as independent determiners. The postmodern self can understand itself only while heterologically recognizing and respecting the other.

The pre-modern Judaeo-Christian tradition, in reacting to the shifting polarities of its pagan predecessor, identified the spiritual, the positive, the masculine and the luminous in a binary opposition with the material, negative, feminine dark. The modern innovation came to throw out the spiritual for a mechanistic paradigm which in other respects perpetuated the pre-modern Judaeo-Christian hierarchy. Matter is no longer contrasted with the spirit but instead sublates into energy and light. However, the positive remains that of the rational, the male, while the intuitive and feminine is still the dark and negative. But in its `re-weaving' of the traditional with the innovative, the postmodern approach seeks not only to break the fixed alignments of traditional Judaeo-Christian categories but also, while retaining to some extent the customary divisions, endeavours to understand these apart from an exclusive relationship of opposition. If religion is the association of like-minded selves, such postmodern religions as Goddess spirituality, New Age, Human Potential and Neo-paganism adopt non-traditional frameworks by which to transcend what are regarded as outworn binary dichotomies and the `power-over' syndrome in favour of `self-empowerment'. The utilitarian framework replaces authorized belief for a postmodern situation in which truth is regarded as either non-existent or infinitely regressively elusive, and the individual himself/herself is accepted as the sole locus of determination in framework selection.

The contemporary pagan or Neo-pagan theology is rooted on that of the pagan past and yet is fully a part of the post-modern `new religiosity'. For the Fundamentalist, paganism is denounced as Satanism, but likewise most of you who do not toe the line of a literalistic and exclusively biblical reading are labelled by the Christian Fundamentalists as satanic as well. For more liberal thinkers, paganism is often equated with atheism, the denial of God. But paganism is neither satanic nor atheistic. Indeed, it entertains different metaphors for the godhead than those traditionally employed by the Judaeo-Christian West, and it finds value and meaning in its metaphors more than literal truth. In fact, as part of the post-modern `new religiosity' in which truth is seen as contextual and relativistic and as always receding the closer we approach it, pagans emphasize instead what is done rather than what is believed. For the pagan, expression and experience take precedence over faith.

This does not mean pagans do not have beliefs, but in this framework the locus of belief is personal and individualistic. There are no dogmas or binding creeds which unite all pagans apart from the respect and cherishing of all life as sacred and the world as living and interdependent. Although I am an academic, I am speaking to you today as a pagan and as a guest and member of the delegation from the Lyceum of Venus of Healing. My views and beliefs differ from those of the Reverend Cara-Marguerite who invited me to be part of this delegation, but no pagan expects or perhaps even wishes that their beliefs - if they have any at all - will coincide with those of any other pagan. To the degree that our practices concur with those of one or more others, we gather together and celebrate. But any pagan collectivity is premised on the right and freedom to disagree with one another. As part of the post-modern `new religiosity', we adhere to the principle that the individual himself/herself is the locus of selectivity with regard to what is believed or not believed and how that belief is expressed, and we request that freedom, and the recognition of that freedom, as much as we request the freedom of belief and expression for all others.

But even without doctrinal beliefs, paganism possesses a viable theology. The essential theological divide between the world's religions is one between theism and pantheism. Deism may be seen as a special case of theism: the existence of a rational deity who has create the world but takes no part in it. Unlike theism per se, deism denies revelation. On the other hand, process theology has attempted to reconcile theism and pantheism in the likes of panentheism in which God infuses the all and the all is contained God, but God is not 'exhausted' by the all. Although panentheism works for some, I have heard theists express their feeling that it 'collapses' into pantheism, while pagans tend to suspect that panentheism is simply an extended version of theism under a different name. As polytheists, pluralists or ones who embrace a multiple understanding of the godhead, pagans are essentially pantheists who accept the all of reality as sacred and divine. For the pagan, the world is God as much as is spirit.

For the theistic position, God is transcendent and either wholly other or in some sense `outside' the world of matter. In the idealistic, transcendental religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism and Islam, spirit is distinct if not also opposed to matter. But in pantheism, matter and spirit are both recognized as divine and the all of reality. In pantheism, the divine totality opposes the void of non-existence, of chaos or nothingness. For Buddhism, the reality of the all is devalued, and, through non-desire, the ultimate quest is to obtain nirvana or the void itself. Likewise, Hinduism identifies the all of reality as illusion or my and endeavors to identify with the void as Brahman. But paganism, using essentially the same theological format, recognizes the all or reality as a fragile but open-ended advance against the entropic and non-existent `forces' of inertia and emptiness.

Paganism accepts the various polarities between matter and spirit, light and dark, the positive and negative, the masculine and feminine in ever shifting and unfixed patterns but ALL as components of the divine totality which includes death, disease, pain, and age as well as brightness, youth and beauty. In its acceptance of the post-modern deconstructive strategy to find new names through which the other, the marginalized and the neglected can speak, paganism as a whole employs a multitude of different names for the godhead and her deities - including that of the Goddess. For some, these theonyms and designations are used as referents for literal and contingent realities; for others, these are merely metaphors for an inexpressible and ineffable dimension of truth. But as a religion, paganism is a playful and fully inclusive one which celebrates and rejoices over the possibility of multiple possibilities.

Now, admittedly, along with paganism, I have presented you with a highly simplified analysis of the theological complexities of the world's other religions with which I expect many of you to disagree vehemently, but the point I wish to make is that pagan theology, at least in the West, has been long ignored if not outrightly denied. And yet, if we are to have a fully participatory theological dialogue, the neglected pagan voice must also be welcomed as a participant in the conversation between the world's religions. In the very least, paganism challenges the assumption of any ultimate transcendental signifier and in so doing seeks to forestall closure by opening all religious discussion to the possibility of the continual discovery of meaning, value and interpretation.

Let us now remember that the single and unified project of Babel's Tower and attempt to reach the heavens collapsed and was destroyed. In like manner, the mechanistic and rationalistc paradigm of Western secular materialism is collapsing all about us. And with it is the loss of the logic and exclusively empirical verification principle of science as the only & language which has supposedly legitimate credence. When the Tower of old collapsed, humanity became divided by a confusion of tongues. And once again, with the end of the monopoly of scientistic validation and assimilation to the identity-logic of the Same, a new diverse plurality of many voices and different viewpoints is beginning to be heard. In the post-Babel community, one can hear at last the voice of the other which includes our own voice as well. Our word 'Babel' derives from the Hebrew &Babhel and, even earlier, from the Akkadian Bab-ilu with the meaning 'gate of God'. This means that the Tower is a passageway, a point of transition, a gate rather than a penitentiary jail. When the collective effort for vertical ascendancy ended and the tower was demolished, in the aftermath with its many different languages, there emerged in its place and out of its ruins the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon - one of the classical wonders of world. Our post-modern, post-Babel garden of today offers the prospect of a renewed and diverse wonder and mutual exchange for one and all.