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StJ’s Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements

UNDERSTANDING WESTERN PAGANISM Michael T. Cooper The terms “Pagan” and “Neo-Pagan” were once thought of pejoratively; however, they are increasingly looked upon as terms of endearment.1 Michael York has noted, “As a general designation in today’s more cosmopolitan world, it is time to rescue paganism from its historically negative connotations to be a useful and more affirmative endorsement of a neglected practice and marginalized worldview.”2 Those adherents to preChristian European traditional religions in one form or another are proud to be Pagan or neo-Pagan and do not shy away from using the terms. As one Christian observer has noted, the term is self-understood as: An individual whose interest in the religious sphere lies in patterns of belief which are non-orthodox and non-traditional in Western society and which more specifically pre-date Western society’s dominant belief system as represented, for example, by Christianity or Judaism.3 York, former professor of sociology of religion at Bath Spa University College and practicing shaman, has broadly defined the contemporary understanding of Pagan as it relates to mystery and folk religions of various people around the world.4 Etymologically derived from the Latin paganus or perhaps pagani or pagus, meaning either one who lives in the country, a civilian or perhaps “people of a place,” the term’s original usage described anyone who worshipped in the old religion of the Roman government.5 Ronald Hutton, professor of British History at University of Bristol and participant in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, nonetheless, notes that by the 19th century Pagan had come to be associated with people of the countryside.6 Pagan, as understood by Prudence Jones, former president of the Pagan Federation, describes a religion that is a nature-venerating theophany personified in the great goddess and the god. Hutton comments that Jones’ definition of Paganism might be desirable. He states, “To her it was not an invention of the forward-thinking imagination but an attempt to re-establish concepts and values which had existed in the ancient world and had survived vestigially in form which is appropriate for the present day.”7 Then, in Jones’ understanding, the resurgence of Paganism, while reviving the positive aspects of ancient forms, is a contemporary expression of preChristian belief systems such as Druidry and Ásatrú.8

Understanding Western Paganism

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Hutton notes that Pagans generally accept three components as representative to all Pagans. First is the component of the inherent divinity of the natural world. Second, all Pagans reject any dogma that prescribes the manner in which one should conduct life. Third is the acceptance of female as well as male deities. He comments, “Pagans today are people who hold those tenets and turn from symbolism, kinship, and inspiration to the preChristian religions of Europe and the Near East. . . .”9 York provides an instructive definition of Paganism when he writes, “. . . paganism includes (1) a number of both male and female gods, (2) magical practice, (3) emphasis on ritual efficacy, (4) corpospirituality, and (5) an understanding of gods and humans as codependent and related.”10 According to York, neo-Paganism is generally found in the West and is expressed in regards to the degree in which it relies on folk traditions, reconstruction of ancient beliefs or new religions altogether.11 Furthermore, Jones and Pennick point out that “neo-Pagan” is a term generally used by American commentators for all contemporary practices related to Paganism of any form.12 However, York finds that most academics and even practitioners utilize the term as a self-identifier.13 With this in mind, Paganism is delimited to religious expressions having roots dating to the preChristian era.

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Loren Wilkinson, “Circles and the Cross: Reflections on Neo-Paganism, Postmodernity, and Celtic Christianity,” Evangelical Review of Theology 22 (1998): 30-31. 2 Michael York, Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 6. 3 Quoted in Wilkinson, “Circles and the Cross,” 31. 4 See York, Pagan Theology. 5 Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe (London: Routledge, 1995), 1; York, Pagan Theology, 6, 12. Cf. Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Witchcraft (Oxford: Oxford University, 1999), 4; Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today (New York: Penguin, 1979), 9-10. 6 Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon, 4. 7 Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy (London: Blackwell, 1991), xvii. 8 “Followers of specific paths within it such as Druidry, Wicca, and Ásatrú aim to live a contemporary form of those older religions


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StJ’s Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements

which are described or hinted at in ancient writings. . . .” Jones and Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe, 3. 9 Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon, 390. 10 York, Pagan Theology, 14. 11 York, Pagan Theology, 61. 12 Jones and Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe, 216. Cf. Carl E. Braaten, “The Gospel for a NeoPagan Culture,” in Either/Or: The Gospel or NeoPaganism, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 7-8. 13 York, Pagan Theology, 60.

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