Dr. Michael York. Pagan Theology: Paganism as World Religion. New York: New York University Press, 2003.
Up front I should say that I have a love-hate relationship with academia.
I love the exciting ideas that can come from a thoughtful, rigorous analysis and synthesis of a subject. I abhor the laborious, arid writing style that obfuscates even the most lucid concepts. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)
The author of Pagan Theology, Michael York, is the Director of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cultural Astronomy and Astrology, and Director of the Bath Archive for Contemporary Religious Affairs, Bath Spa University College, UK. He also teaches on-line classes for Cherry Hill Seminary, a pagan seminary based in Vermont. To answer the question of Dr. York’s own religious perspective, he states, “I am a “religionist.” I believe in religion itself and its central role in expanding human consciousness above and beyond immediate daily concerns… In my own pursuit and love of religion as religion, I have been particularly attracted to paganism.” (Preface ix)
York is able to give me what I love without subjecting me to what I hate. Yay! I will admit that this is the book I’ve been waiting for. Dr. York is my new pagan hero. Finally, a book about paganism that presents a well reasoned and researched argument for placing paganism within the context of world religions and makes some clear observations about pagan beliefs and practices. This is a book that you could unashamedly recommend to your scientific-rationalist friends who see themselves as intellectually sophisticated and secretly (or not so secretly) believe paganism to be silly and self-indulgent. It speaks to them, but it also speaks to pagans looking for something more…well…intellectually stimulating than the typical pagan pap for the masses. And yet, the writing keeps you awake and engaged throughout.
His first step is to define paganism within a religious studies context – quite different, I believe, than defining it for political reasons. York sees paganism as a “root religion” that historically all other religions are off-shoots and/or counterdevelopments of the root religion. (Preface viii) York is not advancing the ‘unbroken line of pagan tradition’ or ‘Wicca is 30,000 years old’ myths. He argues that paganism (of which contemporary Western paganism is only a part) represents the religious practices and beliefs that organically evolved with the earliest human impulses to sacralize and/or understand the world in which we live.
He acknowledges the difficulty in providing a definition or definitive list of necessary characteristics that would include every facet and manifestation of paganism and still be meaningful. Rather than create a concrete definition of paganism, York offers a “range of possibilities that we might expect to find in any bona fide pagan example.” (p. 13) These possibilities include: belief in more than one manifestation of god (polytheism), belief in spirits inhabiting the physical world (animism), worship of physical objects as representing or containing the sacred (idolatry), honoring the sacred through use of the body (corpo-spirituality), emphasis on one’s locale or local spirits and community, recognition and veneration of sacred places, “perception of soul duality, and either nature worship or nature as a chief metaphorical register expressive of the divine.” (p. 13) This is not meant as an exclusionary checklist – ‘Nope, sorry, your tradition doesn’t practice idolatry…you’re not pagan.’ Rather, if a tradition or religion contains many of these qualities, it is (under York’s definition) pagan.
The majority of the book is broken into three chapters – Paganism as Religion, Paganism as Behavior, and Paganism as Theology. In the first he examines religious expressions that stand in contrast to other world religions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. He looks for the common threads in these tribal or “primitive” religions that may give us a way of understanding them as pagan.
The second chapter, Paganism as Behavior, focuses on religious behavior within non-pagan religions that expresses the pagan impulse – practices of veneration within Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity that fall outside of the orthodox theological explanations of these religions.
In the third chapter, Paganism as Theology, York examines paganism as a “theological ideal type.” This chapter is the most academic with many $5 words. But I also found the implications of this discussion the most exciting and moving. (OK, at one point, I cried) “If there is a single concept or practice that encapsulates the essential orientation and identity of paganism, it is celebration. If the basic notion of Eastern spirituality is release and that of Christianity is preparation and salvation, pagan celebration is a festive rejoicing that also embraces service because service is likewise an affirmation of humanity, the world, and divinity.” (p. 167)
If only more Pagan authors were as thoughtful and thorough as Dr. York! Thank you, sir, from the bottom of my heart.