Monthly Archives: May 2003

Review of Pagan Theology

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.

Ethical Guidelines

The following statements serve to guide me as I work with others in a ministerial/spiritual capacity to help ensure that my actions in such a position of trust are ethical and respectful.

Working for the Good
I shall conduct myself in ways that respect the common good, with due regard for public safety, health, and order. I shall use special care to help direct the energies of those I serve, as well as my own, in responsible ways that reflect a loving regard for all life.

I shall seek to represent the best interests of those I serve.

I shall affirm the religious and spiritual freedom of all persons

I shall demonstrate respect for the opinions, beliefs and professional endeavors of my colleagues.

I shall make referrals or obtain consultations when it is in the best interests of those I serve and I shall maintain interdisciplinary and inter-professional relationships to foster these practices.

I shall discuss any costs associated with my services in an upfront manner with those I serve. However, I shall not withhold my ministerial and community services strictly because an individual or organization does not have the ability to pay or make donations.

I shall not knowingly use or permit others to use my services or my influence to secure unfair, harmful, or exploitive personal or professional advantage over others.

I shall take responsible action when I become aware that I am physically, emotionally or spiritually unable to provide competent, caring, and ethical services.

I shall serve all persons without discrimination regardless of religion, faith group, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, or disability.

I shall refrain from imposing doctrinal positions or spiritual practices on those I serve.

Multiple relationships
I shall endeavor to be aware of the influence my position as clergy has on my intimate, social, teaching or financial relations with people within my faith community.

I shall openly discuss the impact of multiple relationships with those with whom I may have these relations.

I shall not enter into intimate or financial relations people that I have served through extended pastoral counseling, nor shall I enter into an extended counseling relationship with a person with whom I currently have intimate or financial relations.

Informed Consent
I shall disclose to those I serve any elements of our spiritual work together that may be unfamiliar, or that could reasonably be seen as presenting physical or psychological risks.

I shall openly affirm that participation in any religious practice, spiritual work, or consultation must be voluntary on the part of those I serve

I shall disclose my professional and personal boundaries, competencies and ethics to those I serve at a level appropriate to the service provided.

I shall hold conversations between individuals and myself I serve as confidential unless to do so would directly endanger the safety and well being of themselves, other individuals, or the common good.

I shall refrain from relating experiences that expose the vulnerabilities of the people I serve or their families to derision or ridicule.

I shall seek to guard the identities of those served in any consultations, presentations or publications unless the person served, or their family if the person cannot give consent, has given me written permission for disclosure of the relationship.

I shall respect the private communications of colleagues unless to do so would violate the safety and well being of others or be in conflict with the laws or policies of the state.

Connections and Growth
I shall accurately represent my professional qualifications and affiliations to those I serve and the greater community.

I shall maintain and nurture an active relationship and good standing within my local Pagan community.

I shall pursue ongoing personal growth and professional development in theology, spirituality, pastoral skills, and other areas that enhance my professional proficiency.

I shall endeavor to nurture my personal relationship with my Gods and maintain an awareness of the ebb and flow of the universe.

Blessings from a full heart.

Ethical Foundations

The following principles serve as a foundation for my personal life path and my interactions with others and the world around me. Because no one is perfect and we are all learning how to live as we go, I frame my language in terms of goals, rather than attainments.

The lowest common denominator is also the highest.
We are each of us human.
We are each of us divine.

Seeing with both eyes
I seek to view the world in a balanced way, to remember that each individual embodies multiple dimensions, that everyone has the potential to do good and ill, and that all stories have multiple perspectives.

I seek to treat others with common decency, to show consideration and appreciation for the strengths and vulnerabilities of others, to acknowledge the divine within each person, and to uphold the individual’s autonomy and dignity.

I seek to understand the situations, feelings, and motives of others, to act in accordance to this understanding, and to not unfairly judge others without this empathic consideration.

Honesty & Integrity
I seek to deal with others in an open and honest manner, to not participate in the manipulation or deception of others or myself, and to express myself, my beliefs and practices with a sound and whole character.

I seek to fulfill any commitments I make and to not make any commitments that I cannot fulfill. I commit myself to live my life fully, to honor my ancestors and the Gods of my people, to aid those I can, and to better my community.

Personal responsibility
I seek to take full responsibility for my actions and to be accountable for the consequences of my actions; therefore, I seek to always think before I act.

I seek to establish and maintain harmonious relationships with others, to make connections that foster love and compassion, and to commune with the divine within myself and within others. Such relationships are built on mutual trust and respect. I will not force such relationship on others, nor force myself to continue in relationships where these elements are not present.

Blessings from a full heart.