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Michael York, Pagan Theology

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Michael YORK, Pagan Theology. Paganism as a World Religion. New York University Press, 2003, 256 pages. ISBN 08147024. £28.50

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1For Christian missionaries the word ‘pagan’ was a pejorative that implied ‘primitive’, either in the sense of devil worship or barren atheism. From this tradition the word has been associated with either the worship of the wrong gods immanent in the natural environment, or of a godless superstition relating to the spirits alive in nature. Of course, Christianity has been adept at incorporating a diversity of pagan beliefs, occasions and rituals into its colonising practice throughout the world, as have, to a lesser extent, the other major world religions. Thus arises the challenge addressed by Michael York: given the sheer variety of indigenous and other contemporary forms of paganism, together with the absorption of paganism into the major world religions, can a case be made for paganism as a world religion through the identification of a coherent and still intact pagan theology?

2As both a pagan practitioner and a religious studies academic, York seeks to make the case in this book for paganism as a ‘root religion’ that ‘confronts the earliest, the most immediate, and the least processed apprehensions of the sacred’ in ‘the world, the cosmos, humanity itself, and the nonempirical reaches of the imagination’. This scholarly, but wholly accessible, book is in three parts: Paganism as Religion, Paganism as Behaviour and Paganism as Theology. York admits that most surveys of world religions do not recognise paganism as a single world religion, preferring to treat separately indigenous religions of the world (sometimes under the heading ‘Witchcraft’) and the pre-Christian practices of Europe, using the word ‘pagan’ only for the latter in order to avoid the pejorative Eurocentric associations of the term. York argues that to deny the similarities between indigenous tribal religions and European paganism is not only an ‘ethnocentric blinder’, but a misunderstanding of the origin of the Roman sense of pagani as ‘people of the place’ who maintained a local religious system that was rooted in the physicality of place.

3Thus in the first section of his book, York seeks to establish pagan religions as unified by a recognition of the sacred in nature and a negotiation with the spirits and forces of nature’s ‘other worlds’ in order to maintain a satisfactory relationship, resulting in what York calls ‘a this-worldly attitude’. In attempting to identify the universal religion in local practices York discusses Chinese folk religion, Japanese Shinto, primitive tribal religion, shamanism, Amerindian spirituality (where there is no word for religion in these cultures), Afro-American Spiritism, and contemporary Western paganism in the forms of New Age Neopaganism, reconstructed traditions such as Wicca, and generic folk religions based upon places such as wells that York calls ‘geopaganism’. In most of these practices York finds common elements of paganism: ‘animism, pantheism, polytheism, immanentism, humanism, nature worship, numinousness, magic, organicism, festishism, and idolatry’. York resists offering a complete list of characteristics that could conclusively identify any specific practice as pagan, pointing out that the salient features of any religion are often a matter of debate from within as to who belongs and who does not.

4Here is the first of York’s problems. ‘Evaluating a religiosity is an intuitive venture,’ he says, admitting that, in his second section on ‘Paganism as Behaviour’, he comes dangerously close to basing his observations on the principle of ‘it takes one to know one’. The second section comes alive with a personal narrative of observing religious practice in a world-wide journey of two years learning the pagan elements of Hinduism in India, Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, Mahayana Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley and in Japan, Islam in Pakistan, and Christianity (‘much of its Roman Catholic and Orthodox practice is pagan’) everywhere. By this method of observation and identification of actual practices (as opposed to the official ideology of a religion) the evidence for paganism as ‘root religion’ is established. Harvest festivals, for example, in any of these religions are seen as evidence of the practice of paganism in the form of ‘the assertion of countercult propensities’. Under the heading of ‘Agnosticism, Atheism, and Secularism’ various forms of ritual and celebration are identified as pagan, from the Marxist state rituals for birth, marriage and death, to the 1960s Hippy activities in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in which the author participated at the time.

5Here lies the second problem in York’s argument. If everyday rituals of greeting (York sites ‘Good morning’) and toasting (York sites bar culture as a Dionysian legacy) are unconscious or unfocused pagan practices, do they constitute evidence for truly religious venerative acts or for pubs as shrines? Whether these behaviours constitute evidence of paganism as a world religion is for the reader to judge.

6The final difficulty presented by this book is the brevity of the final section, ‘Paganism as Theology’. Here York presents his conclusive definition of paganism as ‘an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by individual or community with the tangible, sentient, and nonempirical’ whilst ‘eshew[ing] any true hierarchy between the temporal and the permanent, between the physical and the spiritual, or between this-world and the other-world’. But instead of elaborating this definition as a theology, York addresses the fundamentalist developments of pagan fascism. What is surely needed is an explication of his notion of the way in which paganism as a theology ‘delineates purpose’. On the final page York suggests that pagan theology presupposes an ethical framework based upon ‘honour, trust and friendship’. This derives from his assertion that a distinctive quality of pagan celebration ‘is a festive rejoicing that also embraces service because service is likewise an affirmation of humanity, the world, and divinity’. These are notions that require a more fulsome elaboration if the claims of this book’s title are to be fully achieved. But perhaps this should be Michael York’s next book.

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Référence électronique

Terry GIFFORD, « Michael York, Pagan Theology », E-rea [En ligne], 2.2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2004, consulté le 15 décembre 2018. URL :

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