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Pagan theology

Page history last edited by Yvonne 13 years, 10 months ago


Ancient Pagan theology



What would a contemporary Pagan theology look like?


Yvonne Aburrow


NB - what I mean by "a pagan theology" is "a distinctive pagan theology" NOT "a single unified pagan theology".


  • It would have to take into account the wide variety of beliefs within the Pagan movement (Polytheism, Animism, Duotheism, Henotheism, Pantheism, Panentheism, Monotheism, even Atheism);
  • It would describe how the various beliefs can exist alongside each other;
  • It would be descriptive not prescriptive (it would describe people's beliefs and practices rather than telling them what to believe); as a result it would also be multivalent and have multiple perspectives;
  • It would need to account for the problem of evil (theodicy), since the majority of Pagans do not believe that the world is fallen;
  • It would focus on the mutuality of theory and practice (you can't have one without the other);
  • It would draw upon both current and ancient sources, without treating them as canonical;
  • It would explain how Pagans can identify as Pagans without having to subscribe to a standard set of beliefs (and in some cases, without ever reading any books about it at all, or going to events)
  • It would explore ethics - can or should they be codified? Are virtue ethics enough?
  • It would be about embodiment (being in the body, in the world, actually practicing one's religion); but it would also discuss the nature of the soul and what happens after death


To start with, one would probably need to focus on quite small areas (like theodicy, ethics, or a particular tradition), rather than trying to cover the whole topic.


At the moment there are a few books on Pagan theology, and people are starting to discuss it, but it's not a full-blown discourse as yet, more a bunch of memes; hence my question, what would it look like (not what does it look like).


What should it be called?


To most people, "theology" implies dry-as-dust arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (The answer is, an infinite number, obviously.) But that is not what theology is about. It's about how the divine realm interacts with this world.


Theo = god

Logos = word, reason


Apparently the term theology was coined by Cicero in De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods).


Christian theology has no problem naming itself because it deals with reasoning about a male god. But for Pagans, the term "theology" is rather problematic. The "theo" part is difficult because most of us don't believe in a single deity, and for those who do, it either has no gender or is a goddess.


The term logos is rather problematic as well. Whilst we want things to be reasonable, most of us don't believe that reason alone can access the ineffable. Jung put forward the idea (based on the four elements) that consciousness has four main modes, Sensation (Earth), Intuition (Fire), Emotion (Water), and Intellect (Air). We need all of these to access the spiritual; and Logos implies only one, Intellect.  A Quaker, L. B. Callid Keefe-Perry, has suggested the name theopoetics for a discourse that would include postmodern thought, process theology and poetic understandings of the Divine.


The excellent book, Sophia: Aspects of the Divine Feminine, Past & Present by Susanne Schaup (a Christian and psychotherapist), makes the case for the return of the divine feminine, Lady Wisdom or Sophia. Sophia includes Sensation, Intuition and Emotion, creating a synthesis based on direct mystical and sensory experience.


So maybe we should call Pagan theology "theasophy"? But it sounds too much like theosophy, which is already in use. I tend to use the term in the plural (theologies) to emphasise that we are not trying to create an orthodoxy, but rather to explore the multiplicity of perspectives. We could call it philosophy, the love of Wisdom (but that term is also in use).


But won't having Pagan theology/ies mean the imposition of orthodoxy?


Hinduism (also an umbrella term for a selection of heterodox beliefs) has theology, and it is not a single overarching theology, nor does it impose orthodoxy.


We tend to have orthopraxy (consistent practices, literally 'right practice') in Paganisms, rather than orthodoxy. But as soon as there is an encounter between different belief systems, you get theology and frequently syncretism. So in a way, theology is necessarily an interfaith and comparative activity, even though each tradition (and individuals within traditions) have their own distinct theologies. I do not think it is possible to impose orthodoxy within Paganisms (and it is certainly not desirable to do so).


I am using the term in the plural to imply that there are distinct strands within Pagan theology, but I don't have a huge problem with using theology in the singular, as other academic disciplines do, even though they may contain mutually exclusive philosophical positions. For example the discourse of psychology contains behaviourist and social constructionist views (which are mutually exclusive), but we do not refer to "psychologies". However, for the benefit of those who think that the term 'theology' implies a discourse that must be internally consistent, I am using the plural. If I wanted to imply an internally consistent set of views within the discourse of theology, I would either say 'a theology' or prefix it with an adjective to distiguish it (e.g. liberation theology within Christian theology).


I am not trying to define anything here. What I want to do is describe what is happening out there. To open up avenues for discussion (but not debate, which tries to narrow things down until you find the "right answer"). To share our world-pictures so that by getting an overlapping, multi-perspective view, we can transcend our temporally- and spatially-focused individual perspective and walk in others' moccasins (but not try to fit everyone to the same style of moccasins).


From Constance Wise:

I agree with Yvonne that Pagans need to do theology, (or thealogy if one is speaking of the Goddess), and a number of us try to do just that; an example would be the AAR Pagan Studies Panel on "Polytheism in Theory" that Michael York, Graham Harvey and I did this past November. The results are plural -- theologies -- which is actually true of the theological work of other religions as well. Christianity, for example, has the disciplined system of Thomas Aquinas, but also the radical challenge to all oppressions voiced by Liberation Theology, and across the spectrum to much more conservative theologies from the right wing in the U. S. Indigenous peoples around the world who are Christians usually have more conservative theologies colored by their cultural context. Thus a theology does not have to be normative (require all members of the religion to believe the same thing. "Systematic theology" just tries to be systematic -- to cover a number of topic in a coherent way -- a nd only becomes normative when an institution makes it the one and only accepted view -- as the Catholic Church did with Thomas Aquinas' theology after first rejecting it as heresy. A term I like better is "constructive theology" -- ideas about religious beliefs that are under construction, a process rather than an end point. So I will expressing a normative view, thoug hwithout the clout of any institution to make it required, it is only a suggestion, which is the best way to present even normative views. I think that Pagans should get over our fear of theology and some Pagans should get on with the creative, open-ended work of constructive theology. That's what I try to do in my book Hidden Circles in the Web (Rowman and Littlefield Press, 2008) and York and Harvey do n their books. Pagans in general tend to employ creativity and imagination, and some of it going to theology is OK. Other Pagans engage instead (or concurrently) with the creative, open-ended work of ritu al design and leadership; others are involved with peace and justice issues. All these tasks contribute to Paganism without any need to close it down, either as practice or belief. As far as constructing an open-ended taxonomy of current Pagan theologies, it's not a bad idead if it is presented as just that, open-ended, under construction. It might help theologians from other religions understand us better, and a better understanding of Paganism from any sector of the larger population is good.

~ Constance Wise


Criteria for good theology


'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

~ John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn


I think any explanation of the nature of the universe should be elegant and the simplest possible solution to the problem (so it could actually be quite complex, whilst still being the simplest possible explanation). Physicists often talk about elegance and simplicity as criteria for their theories about how the world works. Also I think we should distinguish between theories (large bodies of complex reasoning backed by copious amounts of evidence) and hypotheses (propositions about how the world works that have yet to be proven).


Theological explanations should also be internally consistent and logical (even if the logic is different from conventional forms of logic), as well as consistent with the fact that there are millions of people with a different explanation. Pagan theological formulations usually take into account the plurality of religious beliefs; Christian theological formulations signally fail in this regard.  For example, most Pagans say that other people are following their own unique spiritual path in their own cultures; there's no drive to convert others to Paganism (Jews and Sikhs also believe this).  Most Christians believe that Christ is the only means of accessing the Divine, and many believe that non-Christians won't be "saved" (this fails to explain why other faiths are so satisfying for their adherents).  Theologians should also practice triangulation, comparing their explanations with those of other religions and philosophies, and with science, to see if they still make sense.


Many theologians claim that theology is resistant to logic because the Divine is paradoxical: but   paradoxes can often be resolved by looking at the thing from a different perspective.


"I am using the plural 'theologies' here deliberately. A polytheistic religion gives many different accounts of the divine beings, and these accounts, or theologies, reflect the divine patronage of their inventors. People sometimes raise their eyebrows when they hear of Pagan theology, but in fact the word 'theology' dates from Pagan times and was first used concerning Pagan deities."


from Pagan Pathways essay on "Pagan Theologies" by Prudence Jones, Page 32.

Further thoughts...



From Judy Harrow:


I guess a lot hangs on what we mean by "theology." If it means developing some dogmatic required belief system, I know I personally want none of that and neither do many other Pagans that I know. But for me, theology means reflecting on the practice, teasing out what my religious experience means to me, what guidance and empowerment it contributes to my life.


Some forms of Buddhism are non-theistic. They were very loud and clear about that at the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions, and they certainly have a seat at the Interfaith table now.

It seems to me that, if we accept a very narrow, and essentially Abrahamic, definition of what a "religion" or a "theology" is, we are putting our rights at risk, and losing a chance to advocate for our own core values in the ongoing conversation that guides collective behavior.



From Grant Potts:


Part of what I have noticed over the years is that contemporary Pagans tend to reject the idea of a Pagan theology because they associate the latter primarily with the formation of intellectual doctrine.  This neglects the reality of contemporary theology, even within Christianity, which often understands itself as more of a rhetorical practice than as the hammering out of a body of doctrines.


My suggestion would be to avoid the practice/doctrine, practice/theory split within evolving Paganisms, and to advocate a theological conversation which also sees itself as a practical affair, engaging the intellectual and imaginative dimensions of Pagan life just as ritual and performance tends to engage the more embodied dimensions.


I would also argue that most pagans do use theological concepts already in their religious practice.  I notice assumptions about the nature of deity, humanity, and the cosmos come flying out of Pagan mouths in conversation about their religious lives.  What I note is a resistance to the formalization of such concepts, a resistance that seems more rooted in a concern for avoiding a universal body of doctrines then it does for a preference for practice.


Whether such a concern is valid or not, the fact is formalization does not necessitate creating a universal set of doctrines.  I think one of the strengths of Graham Harvey's Animism book is that it really provides a set of relatively open-ended formal concepts for engaging in a conversation about Animism, both in critical and constructive discourses about the subject.


From Constance Wise:


I agree that to achieve credibility in the academy, our various Pagan traditions need to develop theologies that can be discussed at an intellectual level. Said theologies, however, need to express or at least be coherent with the practices of the tradition they address. They also need to have sound philosophical grounding. To this end, I have proposed a thealogy (spelled with an "a" intentionally) for Feminist Wicca based on process thought, a twentieth-century philosophical system. I present this proposed thealogy in my book just out in the Alta Mira Pagan Studies Series, Hidden Circles in the Web: Feminist Wicca, Occult Knowledge, and Process Thought. In it I suggest thealogical concepts in the areas of epistemology, history, anthropology, cosmology, thealogy (formal study of the Goddess) and magic that I believe address the beliefs and practices of Feminist Wicca.


More thoughts from Constance Wise

Some ideas from Bo Williams

Here's a list of writers, thinkers and schools that I think we might be going along with, in reverse historical order:

  • Feminist theo/alogy (Carol Christ, Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Reuther, et al.)
  • Hillman and other post-Jungians
  • Jung (and Freud before him, though any reading of Freud needs to deploy Richard Webster for the prosecution as well as, e.g., Adam Philips for the defence.)
  • Whitehead and Process Theology/Philosophy
  • Heidegger (useful for thinking about language and ecology, best outlined by Bate, who raises the difficult questions about Heidegger's Nazi sympathies)
  • Nietzsche (especially Beyond Good and Evil and The Birth of Tragedy)
  • Coleridge
  • Spinoza 
  • Ficino 
  • Plotinus 
  • Plato
  • Heraclitus
  • Camille Paglia

Some over-arching questions

- What is the nature of the gods? 

- What is the nature of the soul? 

- In what ways might we, compellingly and with coherence, conceptualise the relationship between the gods, the soul, and the world?


Further questions


1. Is your theology active or passive?

2. Is your theology interactive or canonic?

3. Is Godhead Transcendant or Immanent? Is it both? Is it neither?

4. Do the Gods form a Pantheon or a Tribe of the Gods?

5. Is devotion to a specific God, Goddess, Sacred Couple or Cluster considered a) Cultish b) Heretical c) Normal d) Hickish/ Clannish / Tribal (aka Pagan) e) "elitist" (and here you bring in the whole idiocy

of religio-political-ideological behaviors)

6. Is there a designated Priesthood? (Does your Paganism follow the "Clergy and Sheep" Model?)

7. Does the Religion consist of nothing but a Priesthood? (and therefore practitioners mediate between the World of the Gods and the Middle World for themselves and their loved ones and group worship consists of a

group mediation as Peers - another term for this is Mystery Tradition)

8. What practices are regarded as "Sacred?" What practices are regarded as "Profane?" Are supposedly "profane" behaviors actually sacred acts according to core tenets of the theological model?

9. What specific Acts of Worship illustrate parts of your theology or Canon Beliefs?

10. What is the relationship between your Place of Worship and your Theology? Do your rules about Sacred Precincts contradict other portions of your theology?

11. Does your theology contradict itself? Are the contradictions Paradoxes that teach theological lessons or are they Theological Flaws / Hypocrisies?

Further reading




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