Eric Fritter Riley (fritterfae) wrote,
Eric Fritter Riley

Defining Paganism

I've spent the last few days combing through Michael York's book "Pagan Theology."  York is firmly of the opinion that we can construct a coherent superstructure to look at Paganism, if not as a religion, but as a "religiosity."  This is the same position that Jonathan Korman attempted to define in his post on The Pagan Sensibility.  Though York's definition is more all encompassing.
[Paganism is] an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by the individual or community with the tangible, sentient, and non-empirical.
Now, that's kind of a mouthful really.  Let's break it down. 

Affirmation: This is a recognition of some sort.  This could be a ritual, a devotion, a prayer, etc.  It is something that builds a connection between the participant and the subject of the devotional act.  York goes on to posit that Paganism is more than anything a religion of celebration.

Interactive: The Pagan is not a pawn, but an actor within a network of various forces.  This is material and/or spiritual forces.  Those forces that act upon us are also subject to our actions.  It is a matter of give and take, and in there is no distinction between the importance of either side.

Polymorphic: This goes back to my previous post where I posit that Paganism does not have any singular truth.  There is no canonical literature.  There is no spiritual hierarchy.  There is no one pantheon that is correct.  Pagan faith takes different shapes dependent upon the individual actor, and the communities of faith that have developed a practice.  No one tradition is any more or less relevant than any other tradition.  We can learn from wherever, bring back wisdom from wherever, and there is no universal orthopraxy.  Though I will say that the NeoPagan community has tried to maintain distinctions between tradition boundaries and recognize and respect cultural heritage.  Though we may participate in a ritual from another faith tradition, this does not necessarily mean that we are now of that faith tradition or can claim its titles. 

Sacred: One of the very important things that York points out is that paganism as a worldview is "spiritually materialistic." (63)  The realm of the sacred is continually contextually defined as part of this physical world, and ourselves.  While there may be a numinous other realm, the focus of Pagan practice is quite often on the here and now.  Valerie Warrior in her sourcebook "Roman Religion" states that "the aim of cultus was to gain the favor of the gods (pax deorum) and avert their anger."  The purpose of Polytheism in this case, and in many other cases was for material action here in this world.  York also makes a very specific distinction between Paganism and Gnosticism.  Where Gnosticism sees the world as illusion, a fallen state from the pure spiritual; Paganism sees the world as real, and equally as sacred as the spiritual.

Relationship: Paganism is very much a two way street.  To go back to Warrior's book, she identifies a principle of Roman Religion that is actually common to a lot of Paganism, do ut des, I give in order that you may give.  While in the Roman context this is fairly explicitly contractual (though never a certainty as the Gods benevolence cannot be taken for granted), this same principle is used in Isaac Bonewits "Rites of Worship."  Bonewits sees the Neopagan ritual structure as being an exchange of "mana" or a spiritual energy between the divine force being worshipped and the congregation.  It is a mutually symbiotic relationship.  Now, this kind of relationship is not explicitly Pagan, as Christian prayer bargaining is not substantially different, and as TM Luhrmann has explained in her book "When God Talks Back" that developing a personal relationship to deity is something that Christians can engage in as much as the Pagan.

Individual or Community: Paganism is not a faith that is necessarily bound by any particular church.  We have a strong history of solitary practitioners, who work within any number of traditions or no tradition at all.  Part of this is the cultural context of contemporary Paganism.  In the Western world Paganism is a minor player within a much larger body of faith traditions.  Christianity and Islam being the two largest.  There are very few places where there exist a substantial number of Pagans who can band together in a sense of shared community.  These tend to be urban areas, where population density enhances diversity of faith.  However, developing a relationship between oneself and the sacred is something that anyone of a pagan religiosity can do on one's own.  In today's world of global communications we are able to develop virtual communities of Pagans, and experiments in solitary practice in communion with a virtual group (such as the Solitary Druid Fellowship) are beginning to take root.

Tangible: This goes back to being spiritually materialistic.  The Pagan religiosity does not denigrate the physical world, or see it as illusory.  It is the world in which we live and operate.  Whatever comes of us after death, we are still a part of this place here and now.  We must eat food.  We must work.  We must develop connections between other human beings in order to survive.  The human body requires touch, and a human touch helps infants develop deeper neural connections.  The physical world is just as real and just as important as the spiritual world.  Our actions in the material world have consequences of which we must be cognizant.  Our place in this world is mutable, and through conscious (or subconscious) action we change the world. 

Sentient: There exists such a thing as sentience.  There is awareness in ourselves.  For some faiths there is sentience in animals, plants, rocks, and for some sentience in disembodied entities.  We talk to these things.  We build relationships with these intelligences individually, communally, and sometimes on behalf of others.  Shamanic practitioners tell us they develop relationships with the spirits of plants, and of animals.  They speak to them and tell them how they heal, or how they kill.  People undergoing a trance possession may become able to channel a voice beyond themselves.  The community can speak to that spirit, and the individual may never know or understand what he or she did.

Non-Empirical: These would be the Gods you never see, but whom you know exist.  They have no tangible form, and you may never see them manifest in the body of a channeler, nor do they embody any particular idol or icon.  They are numinous, and yet we still develop relationships with them.  Great Goddess, Horned God, any number of divine beings with many representations.  York makes a point though to state that  while "polytheism is a common corollary to paganism, as a feature it is neither necessary nor sufficient," meaning that Paganism may have a strong thread of polytheistic faith running through, one can be Pagan without polytheism, and similarly, polytheism alone is not enough to identify a faith as Pagan. Christine Hoff Kraemer deftly explained this in her Three Legs of the Cauldron essay on Patheos.

I believe that York's definition of Paganism as a religiosity can lead us to a position that we may be more cohesive than it appears at first glance.  We are a part of this world, and this world is real.  We develop relationships between ourselves, the natural and the supernatural world.  The purpose of those relationships is expressly for actions that will take place in this world, and hopefully to the benefit of the devotee.  There is no right or wrong way to develop these relationships, nor do we seek one.  We recognize and respect others relationships that they have built, and may learn from them as they learn from us within each other's ritual and mythological paradigms.
Tags: commentary, paganism

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