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A Pagan defence of theism

Page history last edited by PBworks 11 years, 5 months ago

A Pagan Defence of Theism

 

By Michael York

 

When I was reading for my PhD degree in theology at King’s College London, the preferred term for the preferred idea of God was ‘theism’. By this, what was meant, I quickly came to understand, was ‘monotheism’: the belief that there is one and only one supreme being who has created the world and who is conceived as transcendent, wholly other, perfect, omnipresent, omniscient, ruler of the universe and the principal object of faith and worship in monotheistic religions. ‘Theism’ was contrasted with both ‘pantheism’ (God is all; all is God) and ‘atheism’ (there is no God). ‘Polytheism’ was scarcely mentioned, if at all, as a primitive, undeveloped stage of thought not worth discussing. What did get some mention was ‘panentheism’, the term developed by such process theologians like Charles Hartshorne and Alfred North Whitehead. While I remain favourable to process theology (the idea that God is a perpetually developing phenomenon that represents the current summation of everything), I have always been sceptical of panentheism (‘all-in-God’) as a theist’s ruse to have his cake and eat it too. In other words, God is still considered as something greater or more than the universe; he/it contains the cosmos. However, while at King’s, I remember the now late Colin Gunther exclaiming against panentheism for “collapsing” back into pantheism. Horrible! But remember that ‘theism’ was at the time, if not still, the preferred term. This double possibility – my reacting against panentheism as a disguise for theism and Gunther’s condemnation of the term as a pantheist’s ploy – someone like Gus DiZerega applauds for its potential in pagan-Christian interfaith. But while the effort might be commendable, there is an unbridgeable divergence between the position that recognizes that everything is divine – everything that we see, feel, smell, taste and hear as well as everything beyond our empirical reach as well – and one that holds the divine (if it is really entitled to employ that term) as wholly and completely outside time and space. Pagans and Christians alike will often declare that the godhead is both transcendent and immanent, but I still feel that Robert Corrington has grasped the fundamental pagan position when he declares that there is nothing beyond nature – nothing including God.

 

Before I continue further, I want first to mention why I use the term ‘pagan’ in lower case. In the past, the position based on the victorious perspective of monotheistic standards judged the superstitious and lowly forms of previous religiosity as not worthy of being considered a religion, and the lower case ‘p’ usage followed. But as we have reclaimed such a term as ‘witch’, I would like to do the same with ‘paganism’. For me, by not having it follow suit with all other religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.), we can stress the uniqueness of this particular spiritual understanding; how it differs from all its contenders. I believe we are at a major turning point in human comprehension, and the long era of doctrinal intimidation, priestly manipulation, disgust of the material, fear and self-loathing has reached its terminal stages. As a species, we will henceforth either do without religion altogether or, for the more imaginative, return and resurrect the mother of all religions, that is, paganism in place of any specific Paganisms, a generic and universal paganism that supersedes each and every sectarian division. While Wicca, Asatru, Druidry, Romuva, Santerìa, Candomblé, Kemeticism, Shinto and many others will of course remain and be included within the wider rubric, it is paganism itself that unites them and expresses more fully the global perspective that simply entertains the earth as sacred and belonging to everyone. It is this paganism as something radically different than what was previously studied in any department of theology that I champion and which I wish to promote by employing the term in lower case and belonging to the people rather than to the seminarians and priestly cabals.

 

I recognize fully that others champion other positions. Keith Ward, for instance, is a theist. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are atheists. Bron Taylor promotes what he calls Dark Green Religion. Graham Harvey turns instead to his ‘new’ animism centred on personhood rather than soul or spirit. Along with many contemporary Western pagans in general, both Taylor and Harvey are espousing forms of naturism or naturalism – otherwise known as nature religion(s), nature worship, nature mysticism, earth religion, etc. I understand religion itself to comprise a shared positing of the identity, and the relationship between, the world, humanity and the preternatural in terms of value allocation, meaning assignment and validation enactment. While secularists dismiss the validity of the magical/supernatural, the dharmic religions reject the very world itself as a reality – seeing it instead as māyā or illusion. But both of these are taking positions – different positions, yes, but positions all the same – on the fundamental possibilities of existence as we know it. Paganism, I contend, is in its basics naturalistic, humanistic and theistic. It is rejecting of nothing that can be construed as positive and inclusive of everything that has utilitarian or hedonic value or both.

 

Naturalistic refers to the evermore popular understanding of nature as sacred in and of herself/itself. It comprehends the empirical world or worlds of time and space. On its own, it largely ignores the spirit as spiritual and notions of transcendental intelligences. To be fair, Taylor acknowledges the Dark Green possibilities of ‘spiritual animism’ and ‘Gaian spirituality’, but in essence, the naturalistic position eschews the supernatural. This last, it shares with secularism’s position, namely, that of humanism. While Taylor condemns the anthropocentrism and mind-body dualism of humanism and Abrahamic religion alike as attitudes that separate humanity from nature and consider ‘mankind’ as superior to nature, the humanism that is espoused by contemporary thinkers and is the humanism I understand as pagan is one that affirms a holistic ethics that is biocentric or ecocentric, that is, life-centred or ecosystem-centred.

 

So this leaves us with theism and what we might mean by it. Certainly, for a start, we are not talking about monotheism. Paganism is either bitheistic in comprehending divine reality as ‘The God’ and ‘The Goddess’ or, more traditionally, polytheistic – entertaining the possibility of many gods and goddesses. But ‘theism’ here is the substitute term for ‘supernatural’. Personally, I do not like this last and tend to avoid using it as much as is feasible. The supernatural as we know it is largely a Christian-derived expression from the idea that its ‘God’ is over and ‘above’ nature – material/empirical reality. It is this notion that is the target of secular and naturalistic animosity alike. Instead, rather than ‘supernatural’, I turn instead to the ‘preternatural’ that expresses the non-causal otherness of nature – one that comprehends the magical, miraculous, numinous, mysterious yet non-empirical quality of the sublime. Most important, however, the preternatural does not demand belief or faith but instead encounter and experience – whether through contemplation, metaphor, spontaneous insight, ecstasy, trance, synchronicity or ritual or any combination of these. As Margot Adler expressed it, paganism is not about belief but what we do.

 

If, however, we turn to dictionary and encyclopaedia definitions of ‘theism’, we will find most of them still labouring under Judeo-Christian bias. The Columbia Encyclopedia, for instance, explains theism as “the belief in a personal God” (p. 2122). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language scarcely is any better in defining theism as “Belief in the existence of a god or gods; especially, belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world” (p. 1334). A bit closer, but the ‘especially’ coda ruins it.  The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought elaborates further:

Belief in at least one God (Greek theos) as the Creator of the universe and Saviour and Ruler of human life, and as transcendent because eternal and infinite (i.e. free from the limitations of time and space) as well as immanent (i.e. present and active in time and space). (p. 855)

 

Certainly, the influence of a dominant Abrahamic thought processing is evident here. Likewise, the same is clear with The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy which identifies theism as common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

 

The belief that there is one God, a personal being with every perfection (perfect power, perfect knowledge, perfect goodness, perfect justice, etc.); creator of the world, manifested in the world, interacting with the world, but nevertheless existing entirely separately from the world; a being that is the one and only proper object of worship and obedience. (p. 561)

Despite the inherent and logical contradiction involved with an entity being totally benign and totally powerful – a dichotomy that has admittedly provoked the rich theological tradition that Christianity has produced, such a concept appears to be wishful fantasy and little more. For Hitchens, it amounts to “a baseless assumption that some undefined external ‘force’ has a mind of its own, and the faint but menacing suggestion that anyone who disagrees is in some fashion opposed to the holy and paternal will” (p. 201). In fact, this is exactly the pagan position, and if such a ‘God’ did in fact exist, pagans would still be opposed to it as arguably being

 the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (Dawkins describing the God of the Old Testament, p. 51)

 

 

With such a skewed understanding of the term ‘theism’ as well as the entity to which it largely refers, one might legitimately ask why do I wish to retain and use it.

My answer invariably comes down to one of not wanting to throw out the baby with the bathwater. ‘Theism’ derives from theos a good and bona fide pagan Greek designation for a deity. The Oxford English Dictionary comes closer to something viable for pagan sentiment – closer but still not perfect. I give here its four definitions but in reverse order:

 

d. esp. Belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler of the universe, without denial of revelation: in this use distinguished from deism.

c. Belief in the existence of God, with denial of revelation: = Deism.

b. Belief in one God, as opposed to polytheism or pantheism; = Monotheism.
a. Belief in a deity, or deities, as opposed to atheism.
(T p. 267)
 

But it is really with Webster’s Third New International Dictionary that we can glean what we want. Here theism is understood simply as “belief in the existence of a god or gods” (p. 2370), whereas a god is defined as “a being of more than human attributes and powers; esp: a superhuman person conceived as the ruler or sovereign embodiment of some aspect, attribute, or department of reality and to whom worship is due and acceptable.” (p. 973). While there is a separate definition of ‘God’, the understanding of ‘god’ generically and in lower case carries no necessary attribution of a supreme being, no creatorship of the world, no necessary causality behind anything but simply embodiment and titular ‘rulership’. The comprehension of the gods as stronger, more powerful or with greater capabilities than we as humans have is in full accord with most pagans’ understanding of the deities as embodiments or personifications of different aspects of nature. The dynamic linkage of nature and other-nature, of the natural and preternatural, is to be seen in, for instance, the sun-god as the sun itself and the god of the sun. It is in the finesse between these two parallel dimensions that the pagan navigates her or his encounter with divinity as both this world and the otherworld. It is this transcendent (for lack of a better word) quality of theoi (singular theos), the subliminal nature of deity, that allows the pagan of today to reclaim the word ‘theistic’ as a legitimate and bona fide expression for the preternatural and to contemplate through both ritual and meditation/reflection its interchange, exchange and gift of intrinsic benevolence with and to the natural as well as our responsibility and relationship with both.

 

By not being bound to a monotheistic understanding of theism, those pagans that so choose to do so are free to embrace the interplay and emotion as well as beauty that are inherent to a pantheon of deities. Paganism’s polytheism allows theism to be understood and approached as multiple and fluid. It also allows theism as multitheism to be a resource in the experience of the miraculous in our glorious world of nature as well as in the marvelous other dimensional world of the preternatural.

 
 

References:

  • Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
  • Bridgewater, William & Seymour Kurtz, editors. The Columbia Encyclopedia, third edition. New York & London: Columbia University Press, 1963.
  • Bullock, Alan, Oliver Stallybrass & Stephen Trombley. The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, second edition. London: Fontana Press, 1988.
  • Corrington, Robert S. Nature’s Religion. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.
  • Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. London: Bantam/Black Swan, 2006.
  • Grove, Philip Babcock, editor-in-chief. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam, 1981.
  • Harvey, Graham. Animism: Respecting the Living World. London: Hurst, 2005.
  • Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great. London: Atlantic Books, 2007.
  • Mauter, Thomas, editor. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy. London: Penguin, 2000.
  • Morris, William, editor. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. New York: American Heritage/Houghton Mifflin, 1969.
  • Oxford English Dictionary, The. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971. 
  • Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming.

 

 

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