Paganism is focused on practice rather than on belief. Ritual – whether we perform the rituals of a particular tradition, innovate our own, or a bit of both – is at the center of most Pagans’ religious lives. We build altars, sing chants, leave offerings, drum, and dance. But the ritual of reciting a creed, a doctrinal statement of belief, is notably absent. Pagans may recite liturgy together, but none of it begins with “I believe.”
Unfortunately, in our attempts to distinguish ourselves from the strongly Protestant Christian culture of the United States, we’ve rejected more than the idea of creed. Even the idea of having beliefs –and of having theology, a framework for discussing beliefs – has become suspect. And in refusing to acknowledge belief as an intrinsic part of practice, we’ve dulled our understanding of ourselves. Even worse, our resistance to the idea of building Pagan theologies may have slowed the development of a new, distinctively Pagan intellectual culture.
I want to help change all that.
So let’s begin with a simple question: In a Pagan context, what is theology?
For me, theology is a vocabulary and a framework for thinking about spiritual issues. It also the process of doing that thinking – of framing the questions and exploring their answers. Questions like, “What is the nature of the Gods?”, “How can humans have meaningful relationships with the land on which they live?”, or “How do we understand death?” are all theological in nature.
Because Paganism is so highly individualistic, Pagan theology is inherently personal. As Sam Webster wrote recently of liberal theology (and I think most Pagan theology fits that definition), much of what theologians do is develop spiritually pressing, provocative questions, as well as some potential methods for answering them. The answers themselves come from individuals and their communities, all in dialogue with each other.
Let me be clear: theology need not be a practice where an educated elite creates rigid systems of belief for the masses to embrace. It is not the same as doctrine (a codified system of beliefs), nor dogma (beliefs declared by a religious group to be absolutely true). Rather, it is an ongoing, cyclic process: through practice, we have religious experiences and come to know ourselves and divinity (or, perhaps, divinity in ourselves). Our experiences resulting from practice inform our beliefs about the world, which in turn shape our practice.
The discipline of theology describes this integrated system of practice and belief. When we share our ideas about the nature of the Gods, discovered through practice, we are doing theology. When we consider why one ritual is more spiritually effective than another, we are doing theology. When we discuss the nature of the human soul, the spiritual basis of gender, or the necessary foundations of religious community, we are doing theology. Theology, at the core, is an expression of our holiest experiences and our deepest knowing, integrated with the clarity and eloquence of the rational mind.
Many Pagans do theology all the time. We just haven’t been calling what we do “theology,” nor have we been consistently doing it with all the depth or complexity we’re capable of.
Without a commitment to developing theologies with a sophisticated vocabulary and continuous traditions of thought, Pagans have a tendency to reinvent the wheel. Multiple communities have the same discussions about the role of offerings in ritual, for instance, but those communities do not have significant contact, and little may be written down. Innovations in ritual appear, are briefly spread, and then are lost, only to be innovated again with much fanfare in a different community. Different practitioners write articles about the nature of the gods, sometimes making the same arguments, but without any awareness of their fellow writers. It is difficult to stand on the shoulders of giants when we don’t know who they are.
The Internet, happily, is changing this situation, as is the ease of self-publishing. We are not isolated in our local communities or individual traditions the way we once were, and niche books – books that larger publishers won’t buy, because their intended audience is too small – are now widely available. We are undertaking the next step in our movement’s development: building theological traditions through dialogue.
Many of us have begun to publish formal or semi-formal Pagan theologies, in book or blog form. One of the purposes of my recent book is to provide an overview of recent, theologically innovative Pagan writing, as well as to present entry-level vocabulary for those who want to contribute to Pagan theological discussion. But the next step now is not just to publish theological work, but to read each other’s work, and read it deeply.
It’s time to study contemporary Pagan and related theologies with the same seriousness that other religions give their theological traditions.
It’s time to teach and take classes, to debate in an atmosphere of collaboration and support, and to push each other towards ever-deepening connection with being, toward ever-deepening truths.
It’s time for Pagans to take their beliefs as seriously as they do their practices, and to affirm that thinking is as important to being human as feeling.
We are passionate people, deeply committed to our practices and our relationships. Pagan theology can give us an intellectual framework to support and sustain that practice.
Come: with warm bodies and full hearts, let us reason together.
48 thoughts on “Opening a Pagan Theological Dialogue”
Christine, I agree with everything you’ve written here, and I’m excited by the challenge/invitation to devote more time and effort to developing our Pagan theologies. One of the points you address in your book is that of language, and the rejection by Pagans of a lot of traditional theological language. I suspect that the first step to enriching Pagan theological dialogue is adopting or refining our use of that vocabulary for our own purposes. We can not talk about something if we don’t have words for the concepts we’re discussing.
That reminds me of Audre Lorde’s comment: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I don’t know that we’re trying to dismantle Western theology — I’m not; I’m more interested in expanding it — but you’re right, we need to examine its terms carefully for their assumptions. For me, the assumption of a mind/body split is a pervasive problem.
That’s also a problem with the rejection by so many of “labels.” Does this also constitute a rejection of our “humanity” in the first place?
Such rejection pretty much invalidates one of the greatest reasons why we are “humans” in the first place. The creation of abstract symbolism, and the ability to manipulate the symbols and their relationships which eventually resulted in all of the languages of our world, living and dead. With language, we built civilizations, mathematics (a language all its own), sciences, power structures, and of course, philosophy.
Without “labels” it becomes impossible to construct “elevator speeches” altogether, and every conversation is multiplied by many more minutes of exposition, once covered by those “labels.” All a label is, in effect, is an indication of what area of knowledge is contained within — just like the labels on filing-cabinet drawers. It is NOT the contents itself, just an indicator.
What we really need to teach against, is the tendency of the intellectually lazy to use the stereotypes which have become associated with certain labels, instead of bothering to observe that what is before them is NOT that stereotype entire and without difference. It’s kind of like the Strict Adherence of republican politicians to the Talking Points they have been given, and not actually get involved in any way, shape, or form with the topic being discussed at all. A lack of independent thinking imposed from above is bad enough, and rather totalitarian in political outlook, but when imposed by the individual on him- or her-self, is a sad indicator of the future of our species.
Agreed. Some use of “labels” — common language, I would say — is necessary for community. We just need to guard against using them dogmatically, and for me, creating the context to do that is a big part of the work.
This is a wonderful post, thank you.
I do want to question if it holds true for all Traditions under the Pagan umbrella. As a Hellenist, I discuss theology all the time: face to face, on forums, on my blog, etc. Theology is the very foundation of my Tradition. I wonder, then, if this post applies to Reconstructionistic Religions as it does Wicca or ‘Wicca flavored’ Traditions, or even Traditions (mostly witchcraft Traditions) where deity doesn’t play a role at all. For those practitioners, theological discussion may be outside of the scope of their belief system.
Still, that doesn’t take away that there seems to be a ‘shame factor’ in discussing deity outside of the ‘accepted’ pantheons like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and–perhaps–Hinduism in its many forms. In my own life, I have found that I am sometimes hesitant to open a dialogue with a non-Pagan about worshipping the ancient Hellenic Gods, but I never feel that reserve when in the presence of Pagans.
Food for thought, this post. Again, my thanks.
You are very welcome.
In keeping with some of the theological developments of the twentieth century, I use “theology” in a broad sense that doesn’t *necessarily* assume a concept of deity (although I do tend to assume that the irrelevance or nonexistence of deity will be a topic). I figure, if Buddhists can have theology, so can nontheist Pagans — because if either Buddhists or Pagans say “We don’t have theology,” then they automatically exclude themselves from discussions where they actually have a great deal to contribute. The term may not be wholly appropriate in nontheist traditions, but it’s usually easier to change the rules of the game after claiming a seat at the table, not before.
I do notice that reconstructionist traditions are more enthusiastic about the prospect of theology. I don’t think of myself as specifically addressing Wiccans here, though — more the eclectic, largely solitary Pagans that now make up the majority of the movement (perhaps as many as 79%, according to Helen Berger’s most recent survey).
Yes, yes, a 1000 times yes. In a lot of ways, I connect the desire to further explore theology with the oft-heard desire for information beyond the PAGN 101: Introduction to Paganism books that are readily accessible. Granted, books discussing religious techniques (divination, trance-work, ceremonial leadership) that go beyond the 101-quality of some texts are out there, but what we don’t usually have is a deeper discussion of theology, motivations, ethics, ideals, etc.
I look forward to further thoughts of yours on this matter.
Very good! Thanks for visiting.
I was, some time ago, having a discussion with my father’s fiancee (who is a religion professor) about the state of pagan theology, and after I described the way many pagans reflexively back away from all of this stuff because of backlash against creedal religion and belief-oriented structure, she nodded in understanding and said, “So, you’re like Baptists.” I cherish this thought for its joyous ironies.
I write theology all the time. My second book will be straight up theology. And recipes and sex tips, most likely. Not that these are entirely separable subjects….
I love it! Both the Baptist comment and the potential book. 🙂
A very well-written and thoughtful article. I absolutely agree with a need to take our theology more seriously. How are we to be taken seriously in the larger religious community if we don’t take ourselves seriously? And whether we like it or not, if Paganism, as a religion, is going to have any longterm power in the world, then we need to be taken seriously in the larger religious community. In a way, we’re talking about the end of Paganism’s adolescent stage, and movement on to religious adulthood.
Also, I purchased your book; so far I find it extremely helpful in many ways, including helping me define my own perception of Deity. Thank you for all the work you’re putting into this process for the entire Pagan community.
And thank you so much for the support.
I certainly agree that one can’t have a religion nor practice a spirituality without doing theology in some sense, even when it is not recognized as such.
I do agree with Elani, however, that some sections of modern Paganism and polytheism have been doing theology for a very long time, and are doing so very deliberately and by the name of “theology” very definitely and openly–including myself. However, I also know we’re not the majority, and even though a few people know me and my work exist, not that many read it or care about it (nor, perhaps, should they!); and, there are definite elements elsewhere in more mainstream modern Paganism putting about the notion that theology is not appropriate to us (even though the basic notion that there is a goddess and a god is theological in nature!) and was invented by Christians (which it most certainly wasn’t!), and those voices aren’t often being challenged as loudly or as effectively as they ought to be. Hmm…
Yes, in this case, you are not my intended audience. 😉 The portion of Pagans that are theologically interested and sophisticated is still fairly small, in my perception — but I feel that’s about to change.
“Many Pagans do theology all the time.” Heartily agreed! One of the joys of becoming a Pagan, in my experience, was doing the theology. A chord was struck, I read voraciously, and I sorted through what it is that I believed, what theologically underpinned my emergent Pagan practice, and my worldview. I’m still honing it to this day, 20-oddyears later, and take pleasure in it. I look forward to the burgeoning of Pagan the(a)ology(s)!
It’s a neverending process — and it can be such a joyful one. Glad you’re finding it to be so.
I am a Pagan living in an area of uk where i only know of one other Pagan (wiccan) and so use the internet alot in research as well as books bought mostly from the internet , s i have developed i a way my own theology and it seems to me that rather than using ritual so much my relationship with the gods has developed the ritual side of my comunication with the gods ..if that makes sense . I dont think there is a right or wrong in this mostly for m i find i can spend time with the gods just walking in the hills or on the beach the danger is peopledevloping a theology which says “this is paganism” and not having the flexability to allow for differeing experience which i think is one problem with organised religion like christinity removes the flexabily of a real personal relonship with the god they worship
Just some random thoughts
I think of Paganism as “disorganized religion.” 😉 We may have to organize a bit to take care of our own needs, but I’m hoping to keep the spirit of that disorganization by refusing to settle on any one form of anything, including belief systems. Our pluralism is our strength.
Thanks for your thoughts!
Very interesting article. Many Pagan groups do actually ascribe to the establishment of a “Belief Statement” or creed as such, as does the Women’s Mysteries Organization and Spiritual Community of the Daughters of the Sacred Grail. This is a Religious Order for women, and their Beliefs are published on the website for all to see. Perhaps this is not pertinent to your article, but it resonated with me and I think that it is important that Pagans push ahead in developing such statements and making them available for all to see, otherwise, those of the general public have only their own non-pagan sources to use in making decisions about what Pagans really are, as well as Pagans who when asked about beliefs, are at loss for the words of explanation.
Enjoyed your writings!
I knew if I wrote that about Paganism being non-creedal, someone would give me a counterexample. 🙂
What do you value about group creedal statements, as opposed to individual statements of belief?
Fine observations, Christine. It’s also worth noting that both Christian theology and, before it, Jewish theology, were deeply influenced by – it’ could very nearly be said, founded upon – Classical and Hellenistic theology, which in turn was the Hellenic expression of a single, broad discussion occurring also in Egypt, India, and elsewhere.
This last bit means that Pagans engaging in theology, as you are suggesting, means opening up to something that might be different for many of us: a phase of Paganism that is *by tradition, international*. Something to consider whether you’re devoted to a single tradition or are eclectic.
Some of the
Yes — and in fact I’m hoping to solicit an article on those pre-Christian theological roots for Patheos soon.
> a phase of Paganism that is *by tradition, international*
I love this thought! Even as I’m unable to see the full implications. Thanks for suggesting it — it bears more exploration.
Thank you for broaching this topic. I think it is good for both Pagans and Christians to understand. For those interested, I edited a volume by Gus diZerega and Philip Johnson, Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2009), where an American Pagan and an Australian Christian discuss the issues related to our differing approaches to the sacred. Let the dialogue, understanding, and conversations continue!
Thanks for mentioning Beyond the Burning Times — I suspect I should put together a list of books relating to Pagan theology for the blog.
Very interesting piece but I admit to a sinking feeling as I read wondering if developing a more cohesive theology might end up as dogma and creed. As a priest in the Christian tradition I recognise how limiting that can be but maybe wide ranging dialogue and a strong intent not to concrete in beliefs will result in sensational spacious conversations. I hope so.
You have a legitimate fear. I hope the commitment to a process-based, adaptive belief system will help control the urge toward rigidity (although fundamentalism arises in every religion — Pagans already have some!). Pluralism and process orientation need to be core values of a successful Pagan theology.
If a group is to function and continue to exist, doesn’t there need to be at least some “amount” of commonly-held tenets that all of its members can subscribe to?
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Yes, it is a wonderful article. And, yes, it’s time to start talking and working together. Best regards from Slovenia. 🙂
I’m still reading your book, so I may have more to say when I’m done.
The key point for me is that the kind of theological understandings one gets “at the altar” or in ritual, such as the nature of the gods and what they mean to one, don’t make much sense “in the coffeehouse” of abstract philosophical discussion. I’m often reminded of this when I hear folks rattle on about their beliefs in monism, hard & soft polytheism, pantheism vs. panentheism etc. It all seems like missing the point.
Nevertheless we in the coffeehouse certainly should be thinking about what’s going on with contact with the gods, and what role that might play in our lives. My starting point (following Alain de Benoist) is that the sacred is what one has unconditional respect for, and this is how it arises from our “ordinary” lives.
Tell me more about what you mean. Is it that religious experiences are difficult or impossible to put into words, or that overly intellectual, ungrounded discussion distracts from them?
I should have said, not that one should not discuss religious experiences later on, but that one should not construct theology without reference to religious experience. Understanding of the gods only happens at the altar and not in the coffeehouse. When someone talks about pantheism or whatever, I want to dig back to understand the experiences that led to that identification, because experience is the valuable part, not the subsequent construction of belief. Or if someone says they’re a religious monist, that means they had some kind of experience of one-ness; but this kind of “monism” doesn’t work as an argument against competing theories. Such discussions miss the point. When people talk about religious stuff, I want to feel the experiences. Isn’t mythology supposed to work this way, to reveal the gods in story?
Right now my understanding of a religious experience is that it involves feeling a kind of respect which is unconditional. It’s that feeling of connecting to and revelation of one’s values.
Also now that I’ve finished your book:
You quote Sarah Kate Istra Winter: “I fear that paganism may not have the strength to last in the long-term if we ourselves do not firmly believe in our spiritual reality.” She should have a look at Shinto, which has been around for thousands of years but does not have a specific doctrine. Actually I think we could learn a lot from Shinto: it has deep roots in both the nature and culture of Japan, which gives it a sort of timeless beauty, at least from the outside.
You define indigenous religion as place-based, which would seem to exclude us. Is place-based paganism possible to those who are not indigenous to where we live? What about those of us who were born here, do they belong here and can they sacralise that belonging? I mean they don’t belong anywhere else. Strictly this doesn’t include me: I live in the Pacific Northwest but I grew up in England, and pagan religion in the latter has a strong place-based aspect, with attachments to sacred sites and local legends and folklore and so on (particularly druidry). I miss that; there isn’t much sense of special places here.
Thanks for writing again!
To take your questions out of order:
> Is place-based paganism possible to those who are not indigenous to where we live? What about those of us who were born here, do they belong here and can they sacralise that belonging?
Yes and yes, definitely! Let me recommend the place-based spirituality blog that we just began at Patheos, A Sense of Place. I think it’s tremendously important that Pagans learn to connect to the land and environment where they actually live, although this is a challenge for those of us who are mobile. Place-based spirituality for transplants is one of the topics over at A Sense of Place, I know.
> You define indigenous religion as place-based, which would seem to exclude us.
Yes, because contemporary Paganism is not, for the most part, indigenous: at best, it’s diasporic. We do not have a religion or culture that has been informed by living for centuries in a particular place and being shaped by its weather, flora, fauna, and landscape. Some of us are looking back to the indigenous traditions of our ancestors, but few of us live in the lands our ancestors came from, or necessarily even know who our ancestors were. I think there is a lot we can learn from indigenous traditions — and I’m sure there are some Pagans who are exceptions, because their families HAVE been living in the same place for at least some hundreds of years. But for the most part, I don’t think we fit a reasonable definition of “indigenous.” (There’s a good article by PSV Lupus that I largely agree with on the topic, “The Indigeny Debate.”)
I appreciate your point about Shinto, although it’s a complex topic because of the way Shinto has sometimes been used as a political tool to shore up national identity. I think you’re right that its situatedness in a particular place and culture gives it cohesion without much doctrine.
I don’t think Shinto is separable from Japanese national identity, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But it would probably be intolerable if it demanded particular beliefs, like Protestantism and Catholicism in European history. I’m more concerned about how Shinto was used to shore up the state: unconditional respect for someone in political power leads to bad politics.
I definitely agree that us non-natives in North America have no claim to call ourselves or our stuff indigenous. I’m more concerned about a kind of ambivalence towards our connection with the land. P. Lupus’ post has something which I thought might be an example of that, which I pointed out when he posted it:
which is fine so far, but this caught my attention:
The thing about guests is that they eventually leave. This is fine in the sense of “we’re all guests on this planet”, not so much in the sense of “non-indigenous are guests on indigenous land”.
For place I was really impressed with Barry Patterson’s essay when I read it back in the early 90’s, and I’ve just started reading his book. I’ll have a look at the blog you mentioned too.
You make a good point. Care to write an essay about it? 🙂 If so, contact me: ckraemer at patheos dot com.
What’s the title of the Patterson essay, by the way?
I linked to a page about it; it’s called “Finding Your Way in the Woods: The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci”. He wrote it in 1991 and sold it at pagan conventions which is where I found it, then turned it into a book in 2005, which is now in my to-read pile.
I talk a bit about attachment to place in my (long) review of Alain de Benoist’s book “On Being a Pagan”, which you can find at http://summerisle.dreamwidth.org/353.html .
Thanks! I didn’t realize the book was one long extended essay. Will have to check out your post over the holiday break.
Oh I don’t think it is, I think he just used the essay as a starting point for the book.
Interesting perspectives laid out in this blog post. They do seem very foreign to me, but I respect your ideas.
I stumbled upon something that was very foreign to me, as well. A Christian pastor who preached a sermon that is titled, “I believe that I cannot believe”. It starts out with religious language for about 5 min. , but the last 1o minutes is so different than anything that I have ever heard before coming out of the mouth of a preacher.
I thought someone here might be interested:
[audio src="http://theoldadam.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/i-believe-that-i-cannot-believe.mp3" /]
The role of doubt in liberal religion can be refreshing! I appreciate the willingness of liberal Christians and Unitarian Universalists, especially, to struggle with the issue.
The core question that I think underlies this discussion is this: what is the appropriate place for the intellect in a tradition whose contemporary roots and practices are often deeply committed to embodiment, intuition, and experience? This question is also a significant part of my practice right now, so I’m looking forward to exploring it with you!
This is a very interesting discussion, I’ve always been very confused about the Neo-pagan beliefs, and their consequences on daily life. I knew a girl growing up who was a Wiccan, and she never could articulate what it meant to her in any organized fashion. I tried to study the matter, fascinated by the resurrection of the “mystery cult” in the modern era, but the literature simply didn’t exist. I read what did, and was simply more confused. I see, checking back into things years later, that the movement has coalesced somewhat on the Internet. It is an interesting and very cutting-edge phenomena, perhaps a response to the utter desolation that materialism and post-modern thought tends to inspire. I wonder what drew you to it? That is the heart of my interest, really. What do people get out of Neo-paganism, and what drew you to it? Thank you for the interesting discussion.
The short answer? I get powerful spiritual experiences, community that affirms women and GLBT people, and ethics that make sense in the context of environmental crisis.
There’s actually quite a bit of academic material on contemporary Paganism. This list is a good place to start (from the American Academy of Religion site): http://www.aarweb.org/Meetings/Annual_Meeting/Program_Units/PUCS/Website/page.asp?FileName=AARPU139-4
Christine, thanks for the shout-out!
If I may intrude my own view here, I have to raise the issue around ‘belief’. It is important to note historically that the interest in belief in religion is a Christian notion. Your readers, living in a Christian milieu, approach religiosity with the need to determine and hold beliefs. This is alien to the ancient world as well as the non-Christian. Rather than taking an attitude of “current hypothesis” or “best guess” folks then use beliefs as a structure in their identity and to identify with their group. This tends to make them very defensive about their beliefs, but also their identity and their in-group. This kind of focus looks only destructive to me, and from a historical perspective, not Pagan. Centering ourselves on our experience, in part rooted in practice, and then formulating our understanding about those experiences, while ever-willing to change those understandings on the basis of further experience and learning, puts us in a healthier relationship with our theories about ultimate (Divine) things. Belief, besides its identity issues, can shut down experience or distort it by confirmation bias. In this way belief becomes an impediment to religious/spiritual experience. We can end up with a dead religion rather than a vibrant spirituality.
If it weren’t for occasionally running across articles like the ones about “Twilight”-based Wicca, and other foibles of the (presumptively) “brain-dead” playgans out there, as well as the “new age” weirdos and fraudsters, I would have liked to be able to call modern Paganisms “knowledge-based” rather than “faith-based” philosophies for living.
I think your concerns about belief, when held dogmatically, are valid (especially the part about confirmation bias). But the way you’re defining belief is narrower than the way I would. When I think about belief, I do think in terms of “working theory.” If we engage in a practice, for example, we do so because we believe that it’s effective. We don’t practice in an absence of conviction or theory.
Protestantism has worked to define “belief” as a doctrinal speech act. Yet, when you poll Americans about their beliefs, the answers produced aren’t limited to this definition — although some Americans’ beliefs center around creedal statements about the validity of the Bible and similarly black-and-white issues, large numbers of Christian-identified Americans (even evangelicals!) will also own up to beliefs around reincarnation, the nonexclusivity of religion, and more that I hear as “working theories,” not as doctrinal commitments. (Can dig up recent Pew Forum studies if you want to see details. I also like the book _Spiritual Marketplace._)
I don’t think we have to remove ourselves from conversations about belief because Pagan belief tends to be in process and flexible. The reality is, the beliefs of most other religions’ adherents are similarly flexible — they’re just not the ones who are dominating the rhetoric about what “belief” is.
To me, this is yet another area where it’s not useful to let the religious right define the rhetoric. “Belief” is not a word we need to be afraid of — we just have to put it in its proper context.
P.S. I hope you’ll write about this more extensively at some point — I think there’s a lot more to hash out, one of the issues being how to deal with conservative Christian conceptions of belief intruding into our developing theology.
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