The Implications of the Nature Bias of Contemporary Paganism

Michael York, Sophia Center, Bath Spa University College


To understand the nature bias of contemporary paganism, it is first necessary to understand what we mean by pagan spirituality before we can assess what a contemporary version of this might be. We are all undoubtedly aware that in colloquial usage until relatively recent times, ‘pagan’ referred almost exclusively to primitive superstition, Satanism or atheism. Helped by the rise of feminist consciousness and more particularly by the emergence of Wicca or modern-day witchcraft as well as, more broadly, Goddess Spirituality, ‘paganism’ has been reclaimed as a term to designate by today’s standards what amounts to an innovative religious perception. This is one that questions and challenges many if not most of the religio-social assumptions embedded in the predominant Judeo-Christian heritage of the West. As a consequence, it has offered to many Westerners an alternative to what are perceived as outmoded mores and authoritarian dictates as well as meaningless rituals that have become empty vis-à-vis the quest for deeper meaning and values in the face of the rampant commodification and accelerated living characteristic of industrial/post-industrial society of multinational corporations, electronic communications, dizzying finances and calculated belligerency.

In this quest, especially those of us with an historical eye have frequently looked to the past as providing understandings and insights that have been uncontaminated by the relentless march toward progress and profit. Whether this regard has been tempered by critical and careful discernment or coloured by Romantic re-interpretations, the past is often viewed as more pristine and more in tune with our natural proclivities. The religious impulse has always seemed part of human association and development – until perhaps the advent of Marxist communism and the like. But inasmuch as religion has been a central aspect of human society, past religions appear to us less constrained by ecclesiastical control. This is not to deny the great bureaucratic priesthoods of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Persia and India, but in many of these there appears not to have been the rigid emphasis on dogma and doctrine such as we come to witness in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as well as in many of the Protestant sectarian splinterings.

By contrast, paganism both in the past but especially in the present is understood chiefly in terms of doctrinal laxity – in particular because it possesses little in terms of an overall institutional authority. For an increasing number of Westerners, paganism is virtually synonymous with spiritual freedom – perhaps even as the last frontier of freedom in an increasingly overregulated, stiflingly bureaucratic and economically paranoid social existence. Religious freedom, to the degree that it exists at all, may be our last bastion in the growing illusion of democratic liberty.

But if this is so, does that signify that paganism is about anything that the individual practitioner chooses it to be? Institutionally or confederatively, there is no provision that mandates what an individual must believe or do in order to self-apply the label of ‘pagan’ to her practices. And in this sense, contemporary paganism is little different from present-day New Age spirituality. Part of my own concern has been precisely in distinguishing New Age from Neo-paganism, and part of this process has been the broader concern with locating how paganism differs from the world’s major religions themselves.

I have concluded that there is no definitive list of features that constitutes paganism but that there is instead a general list of various features some of which any given pagan practice will share with other pagan practices. These general features include a this-worldly emphasis, animism, polytheism, pantheism, nature worship, humanism, idolatry and what might be considered a form of spiritual materialism. These features distinguish paganism for the most part from the Dharmic religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the secular religions of Marxism, atheism and agnosticism. There are overlaps between some of these features and aspects of some of the other major as well as minor world religions, but paganism as a rule incorporates more or most if not all of these features in its individual expressions. In addition, it may share gender equivalence of its godhead with Hinduism and Buddhism; multiplicity of its godhead with Hinduism and Zoroastrianism; transcendental possibilities of its godhead with Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and humanisation of its godhead with secular humanism as well as other religions. But in all cases, non-pagan religions stress attitudes and/or assumptions that contradict these essential pagan features as well.

But if there is a common denominator to paganism as a world religion, there is also a variety within paganism that rivals if not exceeds that of Christianity. And for most of us, there are some forms of paganism to which we resonate and other forms to which we do not. Among those forms of paganism that do not speak to me personally, I would include those Heathen and Classical traditions that I would assess as fascist; such forms of Santeria and other African diasporic practices that appear rigidly traditional and authoritarian-bound; and the Wiccan traditions that for my tastes are too Christian. There are other pagan pathways that I also do not find particularly pagan, namely, some of the cabalistic and ceremonial magical pursuits as well as the Platonic and Neoplatonic orientations. In the past, I have distinguished between what I have called generic and nominal forms of paganism.

But this being said, in lieu in part through my debate with Gus diZerega and his accusation along with that from some others on the Natrel list that I was mandating who is and who is not legitimately pagan, but more importantly, my subsequent discovery through a Journal of Contemporary Religion article by Dominic Corrywright concerning the emergent earth-spirituality within the Schumacher College-Resurgence journal nexus, I have modified my understanding of gnostic New Age spirituality vis-à-vis paganism. Whereas the former tends to see earthly existence as a fall from grace, a condition from which one endeavours to recover, paganism understands terrestrial life as a cause for celebration and open-ended growth. There is no Ultimate Source to which to return; physical reality is not the furthest and most degraded emanation from a sacrosanct One, the Platonic Good, but is instead the maternal matrix from which all growth and evolution is born and proceeds.

Consequently, I have tended to see New Age and gnosticism as essentially transcendental orientations that would see reincarnation as something to escape, whereas paganism entertains this-worldly immanence as divine in and of itself. Rebirth is a welcome return to earthly growth and aspiration. But I stress, this is how I have tended to see the contrast between gnostic and pagan religion. Now, by contrast, and in preparation for a paper for the ASANAS/Open University conference on New Age religion, I came to the conclusion that New Age is itself a form, a gnostic form, of paganism. I recognise that in contrast to Heelas, Newport, Faber, Streiker, etc. who tend to include self-exegetical Wicca and Neo-paganism as subcategories of New Age, I am now arguing that New Age is itself a contemporary gnostic spirituality that may be included under the pagan/Neo-pagan umbrella.

But whether any of what I have already said helps to clarify what is paganism and what is paganism vis-à-vis the other religious options the world has known, what are the implications of the nature bias in contemporary if not other forms as well of paganism? Any answer to this last necessitates answering that vexing and almost unanswerable question, namely, what is nature? When we use the term ‘nature’ and refer to ‘nature religion’ or ‘nature worship’, what is this nature that is being revered?

As Catherine Albenese and others contend, the notion of nature as pristine wilderness, untouched by human intervention, is largely a nineteenth century Romantic construct. Joseph Fontenrose (1959:219), too, has described the world-outlook of the ancient Near East in similar terms, only here untamed or ‘natural’ nature becomes the ‘encompassing wilderness’ of chaos that surrounds the ‘cultivated plot’ of the cosmos and represents all the forces of disorder that remain in the world still threatening the divine-human order: hurricane, flood, fire, volcanic eruption, earthquake, eclipse, famine, war, crime, winter, darkness and death. The underlying notion here is the polarisation between an ideal nature and manifest culture that Freud posited in his essay ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’. While this unrealistic understanding of nature led John Muir to promote the establishment of nature parks and wilderness preserves – something that ostensibly seems to most of us sane and wise and even necessary, not everyone agrees with this sometimes state-sponsored policy. The counter-position builds its argument around the idea that sequestering pristine plots of uncultivated land apart from human habitation results in a kind of environmental apartheid that does not recognise the wider picture of community integration and ecological balance.

Personally, although recognising that the Neolithic farming innovations constituted the first human, i.e., artificial, violations of the natural wilds, I welcome the metaphor of the garden as humanity’s working with nature rather than against it. Instead of seeking to dominate and subdue the innately given through some Genesis-founded mandate, gardening appears to me as the ultimate in land management – the marriage between socio-human needs for sustenance in terms of both physical nurture and aesthetic well-being and the spontaneous impulse of animal and vegetable growth structured by natural topography. In terms of civilisation, tilling the earth as the start of agriculture is that seminal feature – along with the domestication of fire and the development of communication symbols – that leads to the distinguishing of humanity from the other life forms that also share this planet. Moreover, the Romans used the same verb for tilling, colere (past participle cultus) to signify that act of ‘worshipping, praying’. Consequently, we cannot understand nature in terms of an opposition to spiritual roots and cultural achievement.

In place of Freud’s dichotomy between nature and culture, we need a different understanding that does not automatically place the lover of the natural into a luddite position of perpetual frustration. My own approach to understanding complicated and unclear concepts is to begin with etymology. In fact, along with study of humanity’s encounter with natural and cultural topography, the philosopher’s stones or golden keys as I see them are mythography, calendrical study and the etymological origin of words.  Nevertheless, the linguistic history of a word is not, in every case, particularly helpful. The word ‘nature’ is a case in point. It develops from the past participle (natus) of the passive verb nasci ‘to be born’. From this vantage, only the animal kingdom that reproduces through birthing would comprise nature. Not only are rocks, stones, mountains, valleys, springs, rivers, lakes and seas precluded, but also plants that non-natally reproduce through rhizomes or seeds produced through pollinated flowers.

But it is doubtful that excluding the vegetable and mineral kingdoms would conform to anyone’s understanding of nature. The word ‘nature’ itself includes a range of meanings that refer to disposition, temperament, substance, essence, class, type, kind, inherited or habitual conditions or tendencies, and so forth. ‘Nature’ may also refer to the entire physical universe and the phenomena that it comprises. Capitalised, ‘Nature’ is sometimes used to designate the force that controls the universe and its constituent phenomena. In its Romantic version, the natural state of humanity is often understood by the term – especially the simplified way of life that supposedly approximates this state. Related to this Romantic view is the obsolete understanding that many of us have of nature today, namely and simply, open space and natural scenery.

If we pursue the notion of essence, however, in coming to a viable understanding of what is nature, we might be able to bypass the inherited conflictual biblical dichotomy that posits humanity as something over and against the natural. The question we must all ask in the face of our specific Western cultural legacy is whether we as humans are part of nature, natural products so to speak of nature, or some entity that stands and exists in opposition to the naturally given? If, however, we accept that nature is the organic essence inherent or immanent in the physical universe, we humans may be seen as natural products of that ‘organicity’ and whatever we do, whether collectively productive or cataclysmically destructive, is equally a product of our natural proclivity and state of origin. In other words, there is no real divorce between the natural and the human or cultural.

If there is an opposite or other to nature, it is not civilisation but number. Reality is nature and number. And from this perspective, nature in essence is the qualitative that is distinct from – rather than in opposition to – the quantitative. And while we may have an engrained Romantic bias that prefers the earlier or original qualitative essence to the developments of industrial mechanisation and increasing urbanisation, these latter ought not be perceived as unnatural – let alone as anti-natural. They may be products of human hubris gone wild, a form of illness perhaps, but still one that is part of a natural course of development and one that, perhaps, stands in need of a cure that arises as well through the natural flow of ebb and change.

Let us look for a moment at this scenario through a theological framework. The ‘organic natural essence’ I referred to earlier as inherent in the physical cosmos may be seen as the divine immanent in the material world. The debate that has occurred on the natrel list has concerned the distinction between immanence and transcendence. Gus diZerega and Vivianne Crowley both understand the godhead as both transcendent and immanent. It may be, and I myself would certainly not want to discount the possibility or even reality of the transcendent or what I might prefer to designate the supernatural, preternatural or operative imaginal. But in the theological debate between theism and pantheism, I remain suspicious of diZerega’s ‘panentheism’ that posits the natural all as something within or embraced/enveloped by theos, the godhead. I will still insist that this position is one of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. Nothing perhaps wrong with the desire, but the cookie just does not crumble in that fashion. I remain in adherence with Robert Corrington’s proclamation that there is nothing ‘outside’ nature, nature is the all, and the idea that there is some anthropomorphic creator-mind that is beyond the all is the ultimate projection of human hubris. If there is a divine transcendence, I will argue that we have a form of theopantism, namely, the divine within or part of the all of nature.

The real debate between pantheism and theism, or panentheism as a redressed version of theism, rests with the question of origins. The pagan position, or at least what I would designate as the ‘deep pagan’ position, sees the cosmos as an emergent evolution, something that is born and develops increasing complexity through the dynamics of spontaneous self-organisation in which the whole becomes something more than the mere aggregate of component parts. By contrast, the position that I would call gnostic is one that does not begin with nature but rather with number – usually designated the ‘One’ and understood as the Source by Gnosticism and panentheistic Neoplatonism or the Creator in the Abrahamic traditions. Nature or material reality is a secondary product or consideration – in the Neoplatonic Gnostic understandings, the lowest and furthest emanation of the godhead or One; in the Abrahamic comprehension, the by-product of a humanoid abstraction. Number is the source and origin, and the world is fashioned artificially by a divine craftsman – whether the Demiourgos or God himself. The birthing Mother as the source of all is absent.

The implication that follows from how we perceive our origins and the origins of the cosmos relates to our teleological goals. What is the purpose of life? Where are we trying to get in all this? Do we, in the gnostic fashion, seek to escape the material and re-gain some original state of divine grace? Or do we, in the pagan fashion, celebrate the physical as the spiritual in and of itself and seek its endless – though cyclically renewing – complex differentiation and evolution? The choice between the two alternatives is a simple one, and while I am increasingly aware of the transcendental bias that comes with age, aging and/or the inevitable pains and losses of embodied life, paganism at its most uncomfortable stage will opt for stoic endurance and acceptance along with its convictions in ultimate recycling and rebirth or renewal. Paganism does not and will not reject the Mother but, in its worst hour when the chips are all down, will seek solace in her bosom and ultimate regeneration in her womb rather than reject the joys and vagaries of the life she has brought forth.

Consequently, the implications of the nature bias of paganism – and whether that paganism includes nominal forms of paganism, gnosticism, panentheism, Platonism, Neoplatonism and New Age spirituality – dictate a concern with, if not also a cherishing of, this stage of the evolutionary process: one that manifests as honouring the earth and her ecological cycles. If there is nothing outside or beyond the immanence of nature, even if we as humans constitute the transcendent in and of itself, and even as number is ultimately integral to nature (the natura naturans lurking behind and within the natura naturata), there is nothing to reject but everything to manage and harmonise. I return to my gardening metaphor. The full garden has its cultivated sections and its wild or ‘natural’ areas as well. Gardening is the coordination of all the separate parts into a whole that is or becomes something more. The real implication of the nature bias of contemporary paganism is the awareness of what we are all already aware, the need to care and preserve our planet as a living, organic, holistic and beautiful totality.