Tonight in our Pagan Primer, I want to contrast modern Western monotheistic religions with neo-paganism. Not to say that one is inherently better, or right, but to take a serious look at our differences and similarities. The views I put forth will necessarily be somewhat sympathetic toward paganism ... I'm a pagan, and I suppose somewhat of an apologist. Still, I hope not to be unfair to my more traditional counterparts.
For those who haven't listened to PaganFM! before, and for those who don't know what neo-paganism is, Paganism is that group of religions, not of Abrahamic origin, typically polytheistic, and typically nature-based, and at least loosely based on the practices of our pre-Christian forebears.
Taking this last paragraph piece-by-piece, let's try to understand it a bit better before moving on.
First, i mentioned that Paganism is a group of religions. In fact, there are many groups, and many sub-groups. There are the paleo-pagans, who were not ever part of more modern religious movements. The ancient Romans, Greeks, pre-Christian celts, and even extant tribal and aboriginal peoples are considered paleo-pagans or "Old Pagans".
There are Meso-Pagans. Theses are groups of people who tried, with limited scholarship, to recreate early pre-Christian religions. They have, somehow missed the mark. In actuality, it's impossible to recreate the religion of a culture that no longer exists. We don't come with the same cultural baggage. For instance, to recreate authentic Druidism simply can't happen in modern culture because our culture cannot support the ideals of Druidism. Druids were counselors of kings, lawyers, doctors and such. Today these roles are adopted by people dedicated and trained in universities and outside of a religious context.
There are also the Neo-Pagans. These are people who are connected to the old ways, who wish to recreate some of what existed in earlier times, but recognize that we must do so in a new way. We don't live in the same world, and what we create will, of necessity, be new. In Neo-paganism, we recognize that what we're creating is brand new, even if we are basing it on excellent scholarship and careful study.
Neo-paganism consists of various traditions such as Norse Heathenism, Asatru, modern Druidism, various new-age movements and more.
Then I mentioned that paganism involves religions not Abrahamic in origin. Abrahamic religions are those of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All of these are followers of the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These are revealed religions, religions with scripture that is reputed to have been authored in some way by that God. Just as Paganism has many branches, so do the Abrahamic religions. In Christianity alone, there are hundreds of different denominations.
There are also groups of people who consider themselves to be both Christian and Pagan. While I disagree that one can be both, for this would require both monotheism and polytheism, such are not the wishy-washy sort that many consider Christo-Wiccans or Christo-pagans to be. Rather, these are syncretic religions, as are Voodoo and Santeria. Christo-pagan is merely a moniker which describes the roots of a religion that is a descendant of both, which retains elements of both, but is wholly neither.
A polytheistic religion is a religion that recognizes more than one God. Wiccans tend to believe in a Goddess and a God. Some recognize these beings by many different names, and some believe that the various goddesses and gods exist as real beings. Druids tend to believe in a great plurality of gods, and those who practice Asatru believe that their gods are real, rather than archetypes. The Abrahamic religions, tend to be strictly monotheistic. There are exceptions, such as the Mormons who believe that there can be more than one God, that we can ourselves become gods. Still, even in mormonism, there is only one god that humans may worship.
Some claim that Trinitarian Christians are polytheistic, in recognizing the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but Trinitarian Christians recognize this trinity as a single god. This might be a confusing philosophical relationship, but there is no claim of a multiplicity of Gods among Trinitarian Christians.
What really separates paganism from the Abrahamic religions is paganism's basis in nature. The three Abrahamic religions look to God as a creator of the Earth, but separate from it. God basically has no more intimacy with the Earth than the sculptor with the sculpture. The sculptor may intervene, create, change, but the sculptor is not part of the sculpture. For creatures on Earth, to become closer to deity involves separation from the creation, being in the world, but not of it.
Neo-pagans, on the other hand recognize that deity is intimately involved, and part of nature. Deity in Paganism is immanent, present, involved and part of nature as well as part of our lives. All of nature becomes metaphor for understanding deity, as well as our own lives. In the moon, we see the waxing moon as the maiden. The full-round moon represents the mother, and the waning moon, growing into the darkness represents the wisdom of the crone. These are all shown in the triple-goddesses of Celtic mythology.
We see the seasons represented in the life-cycles of deity, and indeed in our own lives. The 28-day cycle of the moon is also evident on women's menstrual cycles in a way that science has yet to fully explain. To claim coincidence is to ignore much.
The new Moon, dark, invisible, represents our time between lives, in our graves, waiting, in the dark of the Earth, for our return.
For men, there are also similar mysteries. In the spring the Sun begins its northward journey, the land begins to become fertile. The youthful male becomes virile. At the Summer Solstice, the man reaches the peak of his strength. The days begin then to shorten, and the Sun returns, journeying once again Southward. Darkness again begins to rule over light. The Sun sinks to the point where in the Arctic regions, it will disappear completely for a time, in its own grave, waiting for rebirth.
One of the attitudes for which pagans are sometimes called to task by Abrahamic religions is our views on sex. In Judaism, Islam and Christianity, sex is, or seems to be taboo. Strangely enough, this attitude is held with pride. Sex is tightly regulated.
In each of these traditions, women are the objects of control, somehow being held accountable for the attitudes and actions of men. Islam seems to be the exemplar of this, with some sects keeping women completely hidden from the world. The Bible says that sin came to the world through the actions of women. It affixes a price to women that is 1/2 that of men.
Paganism recognizes our sexual desires as a healthy part of who we are. Without sex, for most plants and animals, life is impossible. most species on earth utilize some form of sexual reproduction. It's the key to genetic variety and adaptation. Pagans recognize and honor this. We don't try to hide the fact that life is the direct result of sex. We strive to break the taboos that so many of us were raised with. This doesn't mean that we cheapen sex or value it less. Nor does it imply that we view our bodies as toys or irresponsible sex as laudable.
Pagans aren't afraid of contraception or sex education. Most of us look at abortion as killing. We recognize that at times, killing is necessary, but on average, don't believe that abortion should be illegal. We tend to think that more education and better communication would be a better method of reducing abortion than legislation. Making something unnecessary seems a better use of effort than making it illegal.
The men's and women's mysteries are tools which are designed to teach, in part, our young adults healthy attitudes toward sex and their bodies.
Going a bit further, many neo-pagans differ from Abrahamic religions when it comes to homosexuality. We tend to recognize that it exists in many species of creatures on our planet. We don't ignore nature but strive to learn from it.
Pagans don't try to exhibit or reproduce all animal behavior in our lives, but we strive to learn from the other creatures on Earth. In the animal kingdom, we see homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual and transsexual behavior. We recognize that if something exists in nature, that it is, by definition, natural. We understand that acting according to one's nature, so long as it does not infringe on the rights of others, is natural and good. Acting contrary to our nature results in disease and conflict.
Some argue that our intellect was given to us in order to overcome our base or natural instinct, desires and drives. To an extent, that might be true - we have the capacity to reason. We know that there are times for things and times to set them aside. But even in nature, we see that all creatures put survival first. Rabbits, those prolific breeders do much more than merely engage in sex. In the animal kingdom, we see creatures storing up food, protecting their young. Just because we have intellect does not mean that we must always deny that we have instinct and drives. It does not mean that we must deny our identity.
Human beings are intelligent creatures. From the dawn of time we've sought to understand and control our world. We've sought explanations for what we do not understand. We have discovered how to work together and to survive in parts of our world that can be quite hostile. We discovered that if we utilize common rules, that we are able to accomplish much more and to insure our own safety and survival.
Universally, we have encountered the concept of deity as an explanation for how we got here, as a source of wisdom enabling us to survive the ravages of our planet. Deity has also been looked to as a means to help us resolve interpersonal conflicts, or to understand life-changes such as birth, illness or death, and anything that is otherwise unexplainable.
There are many, many different religions on this planet, precisely because there are many people. It is human, as I've said before, to believe that if we are right, that other, conflicting or differing views are necessarily wrong. Many religions, especially Abrahamic religions, teach that to follow other religions, or even different implementation of the same religion, is wrong, and will result in eternal punishment. Perhaps this is a way to exercise greater control over population. It certainly helps in proselytizing and maintaining the tradition in families. One certainly doesn't want to see one's loved ones punished for eternity because they worship the wrong god or gods.
But as Pagans, once again, we look to nature for wisdom. What we find is that there is almost never a single best answer that suits all in every circumstance. Where is the best place for mammals to live? In trees? In caves? In burrows? In the ocean? In tents, igloos, buildings? Mammals live in all these places; and now, even in artificial satellites that orbit our planet. Soon, we will live on entirely different worlds.
Where is the best place for birds to nest? They live in trees, on cliffs, on the ground.
Is it best to sleep at night or during the day? In nature, we see once again great variety.
When we, as mortal individuals take on the task of describing something that is so far beyond ourselves as to be beyond description, beyond human words, it only makes sense that people with different world views will describe such things in very different ways. Again, to repeat a metaphor, two children describing their parents are likely to color those descriptions with their individual experience. The precocious child will describe parents possibly as harsh or controlling. The sickly child will describe them as comforting. The industrious might use such words as "supportive".
Christians see deity described through the eyes of Abraham and the pen of scribes, modified later by the teachings of Christ and further modified by the church which selected which works about Christ were to be considered authentic or reliable. The view of the Christian God is further modified by centuries of understanding and interpretation of scripture, but still, a great deal of disagreement persists about the nature of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This disagreement is even more vehement and stark when one considers the views of Judaism and Islam, who all follow that one same God.
In contrast, Pagans recognize that things can be seen differently. We know from watching nature that there can be few single answers to any question or situation. There is seldom one single right way to act. We know that even straight lines are an illusion. In space, any straight line is bent by gravity. Any flat surface is truly seldom flat.
Our universe is marvelous and beyond the ability of a single person to understand, let alone to describe. No metaphor can convey it. Likewise, any single deity able to take responsibility for the whole of it would necessarily be beyond comprehension or description. What we, as humans, are capable of possessing in our understanding of deity is but an imperfect analog. Fairy tales teach us something, but no story or book can tell the complete story.
Revealed religions, such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity claim that God presented them with a written description and infallible laws. This a matter of faith - faith that there is a god, faith that God did author their scripture, faith that all of the extant writings, faith that the humans were truly guided to select correct writings among many.
Pagans see almost everything as metaphor. The Earth, Moon and Sky are our scripture. The seed falling from a tree, dying in the ground, and sprouting the next year is a gospel. It is our "good news". We experience deity collectively as well as individually.
What Pagans, for the most part, don't do is to make claims of exclusive possession of all truth. We don't claim to have the one and only answer to all fo life's puzzles. Just as two engineers are likely to design two vastly different bridges for a single crossings, each which will admirably accomplish the same task, so can there be different human descriptions of deity. Each will articulate important aspects of deity, but they will still be different, imbued with our own insights and failings.
Perhaps the major difference between the Abrahamic religions and Pagans is tolerance toward other religions. Abrahamic religions make the claim that their God is right and all others are false. If their view is right, pagans are wrong, doomed. Pagans, once again recognize that there is likely more than one truth.
Paganism looks out and sees infinite diversity and concludes that if there is only one answer, that the question itself is likely not fully understood.
© 2008 Deirdre A. Hebert