WitchVox Community Essay Series for March 2001
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Whithersoever Our Lammas
In this admittedly summary essay, I give my opinion that the greatest issue regarding the future of Neopaganism is: whether the religions of Neopaganism shall mature as religions.
To me, religion is a continuum: on the one hand is the experience with the Divine, and on the other hand is the expression of that encounter: the creed (what is believed), the code (how to behave) and a cultus (who or what is worshipped or likewise regarded).
But in the middle of that continuum is the dynamic, the thing that makes religion work. It's the inner dynamic of religion, as a whole and in its members: relating people to each other and to the Divine, by and through and because of the Divine, and thence and thereafter back unto the world.
When I look at Neopagan religions, it's clear that most Neopagans have somehow experienced or encountered the Divine (however Named or understood), and that experience has so transformed them that they must somehow express that, in the creeds, codes and cultuses of the Neopagan religions.
However, I don't see much evidence of that inner dynamic. I don't mean to say it isn't there; it is. But, there isn't much evidence of a focus upon the Divine in the writings (in print or online) nor even in the substance of the interactions I've had with many Neopagans.
Instead, I read and hear a lot from Neopagans about Nature, feminism and magic. Those three areas of focus are all well and good in religion, but (in my opinion) they are only good so long as they are treated as important consequences of a primary focus upon the Divine. Even for those whose primary hierophany (i.e., a "door" to experiencing the Divine, a term coined by Mircea Eliade) is one or more of those the things, I must still remark: the door isn't the destination; a door is only a tool to get to the destination. The Divine, however Named or understood, is the "destination" which hierophanies merely point to.
Making the Divine the primary focus of our religions is in one sense relatively easy: a conscious, daily focus on the Divine. But how to do so over time and throughout a community is another matter, for those dimensions require some kind of conceptual structure. And since Neopagan religions are new (either new creations or new expressions of what was), it is useful to review other pagan religions for ideas about how to structure a focus on the Divine.
In that sense, there are basically two pagan models: the primal pagan religions and the monistic pagan religions. Primal pagan religions were and are the pagan religions which arose before monotheism (Christianity, Islam) or monism (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism). Their basic model is the people (usually a tribe) as the primary means of focusing upon the Divine. In other words, a primal pagan religion is a group that defines itself as a people who live according to their own, specific experience of the Divine. Judaism, though it is monotheistic, is an example of this: it is a people that is also a religion, and it is a religion which is a people; its focus on the Divine is achieved through living according to its own law and tradition. So too are the innumerable tribal, native peoples around the world. However, many of those peoples have much of their identity (and thus their religion) invested in dwelling in a specific land; when that land is lost to them, their ethnic and religious identity is usually grievously wounded. Hence, Neopagans who wish to develop along these lines will need to build a religious-ethnic culture with at least a reference to some land but not a requirement of actually living there. In Neopaganism, the Asatru religion seems to be developing along these lines, based upon Germanic ethnic heritage and the Germanic pantheon and with reference to the Nordic areas of Europe. For other Neopagans to follow this model, they will need to find or create an ethnic identity and a corresponding pantheon, and then they will need to create an ethnic-religious culture which acts, in effect, as cultural reinforcement and religious focus. And that is a tall order, which is by definition limited to building religions along ethnic lines.
The other model is provided by the pagan monists: primarily the Hindus, the Buddhists, and the Taoists. The gist of monism is "All is One." Just what exactly the "one" is ... is the subject of numerous philosophies, creeds, codes an cultuses. But underlying these religions is what Aldous Huxley termed the "Perennial Philosophy." Paraphrasing Eknath Easwaran's rendering of it, it goes something like this:
Where these monistic pagan religions diverge is, chiefly, in how "to realize" the Divine. (And, by "realize, " I mean "to know by personal experience, " not just "knowing of" something.).
Taoism and Buddhism basically teach that realization must be done through a process, which in Taoism basically boils down to philosophy or magic and which in Buddhism basically boils down to meditation. Those processes can be very effective. However, not all people are equally gifted or cut-out for one process or another. So, for those people, they must use a "plug-in" to make the religion work, usually a pantheon of some kind.
Hinduism, though, observes that people are different and thus they will realize Truth (the Divine) in different ways. Hinduism further observes that people tend to realize in one or more of four general ways: through work, through knowledge, through loving-devotion and through psi/magic/mysticism. In short, Hinduism says: whatever works, just do it; realize the Truth. And the "doing" (realizing Truth) is quite simple and adaptable by anyone in any walk of life. (And that is usually done through renunciation, which is not necessarily giving up possessions but which is giving up the possessor, i.e. giving up focusing upon the ego so as to be able to focus upon the Divine.)
In my opinion, Neopagans would be wise to reflect on the monistic model for focusing upon the Divine through the Perennial Philosophy, especially upon the form of doing so as presented by Hinduism. I do not mean that Hinduism should be adopted or mimicked: there is plenty in Hinduism to be avoided, and there is much that makes up Hinduism that is meaningless unless a person is a member of that religious culture. But in terms of a model, it could work for Neopagans. Through a monistic premise of the Perennial Philosophy, there is a ready formula for focusing on the Divine. By not limiting such a focus to just one or another methodby allowing people to focus upon the Divine through work (whatever the work, so long as it is moral), through pursuing knowledge (science, philosophy, art... ), through loving-devotion (of others and/or of deities), and/or through psi/magic/mysticism (including meditation)anyone can focus upon the Divine, and they can do so in any circumstance or walk of life.
With this kind of model for religious focus, one need not be adept at a particular process in order to focus effectively upon the Divine. For example, consider magic. As Neopagan religions abundantly teach, almost anyone can develop a general ability to (sometimes) magically alter the probability of events. Instead, I refer by "adept" to those rare but real individuals who are so extremely proficient at spiritual processes (such as magic, prayer, mediation, etc.) that they seemingly work "miracles." In order to become thus "adept" is so enormous of a task, and often so requiring for a specific predisposition of talents and temperament, that I cannot explore it here. I can merely note the obvious: most folks are neither called to nor cut-out for this. Yet, the Perennial Philosophy can easily lead to the Perennial Error: assuming that people must become adept in esoteric techniques or even withdrawn into "recollected concentration" in order to focus upon the Divine. Nonsense, as the pagan teachings of the Bhagavad Gita (from Hinduism) clearly show and as Hinduism clearly practices: the Divine can be focused upon, through daily mindfulness of the Perennial Philosophy, as the Divine abundantly manifests Itself through the normal living of normal human lives.
Also, with the Perennial Philosophy applied to and expressed in any mode of life, one need not be physically present outdoors to focus upon the Divine. Most Neopagans (at least in the U.S.) live urban or suburban lives in various climate-controlled boxes. Indeed, most people in Western Civilization do not get outdoors very often, and when they do, the experience is often as a revitalizing treat. For modern members of Western Civilization, Nature has become a vitamin. (As an aside, I wonder sometimes if much of Neopaganism's focus upon Nature as a hierophany is actually reaction against life in the modern climate-controlled box) However, through Hinduism's model of the Perennial Philosophy lived in regular, daily life, people anywhere, in any setting (including in cities and suburbs and towns) can just as much and just as effectively focus upon the Divine as someone sitting skyclad in the outdoors and under a full moon... and nonetheless maintain a reverence for Nature.
In short, the model from the pagan religion of Hinduism could work for us in our Neopagan religions to focus upon the Divine, in our varied approaches to the Divine and in our often urban and suburban settings. We could use this model from the pagan religion of Hinduism (the Perennial Philosophy, practiced through and in every walk of life) as a skeleton, and we could flesh out that skeleton with our own religious forms and cultures and traditions.
However we choose for our forms, Neopagan religions must decide regarding their Essence: to somehow make the Divine the primary focus. As I mentioned earlier, I think religion is a continuum: on the one hand is the experience with the Divine and on the other hand are the outward expressions of that (creed, code and cultus). But, there is the middle -- relating people to each other and to the Divine, by and through and because of the Divine-- which is the "inner dynamic" of religion. Put another way, religion is a social mechanism, and relating to the Divine is the engine; without the engine running, we shall end up like a car that has run out of gas -- we'll coast for a while but then come to a stop. If we don't consciously and clearly make the Divine the primary focus of our religions, we run the substantial risk of devolving into a mere magic-using subculture of eco-feminist-new-age-plus.
But, if we do shift our religious focus to be primarily upon the Divine, and if we do so in a meaningful waymeaningful to all types of people, in all walks of life, and living in all types of places (cities and suburbs and towns as well as outdoors, for Nature/All is One)Neopagan religions really could mature as religions. And that would allow Neopagan religions to effectively meet a real and vital need for ourselves and our civilization - the realization of the Divine. We could do so through focus upon the immanence (as well as the transcendence) of the Divine: yes, in Nature and yes, through the Female and yes, through the processes of psi/magic/prayer/meditation but most of all through and in our regular, real lives -- whithersoever our Lammas.
Bio: John is a Witch of the Wiccan religion who is greatly influenced by the ideas of Hinduism. He wrote the essays "The Little Witch" and "Little Witch and the Christian, " both of which appear at The Witches' Voice website. He is available for comments and discussion at his email address. He is unavailable for flames, attempts to convert him to Christianity, requests for spells or for inquiries such as: 'hoW cAn I bEcomE a WitcH, DudE?" et cetera, ad nauseam, such correspondence being automatically forwarded to The Edward Abbey Institute for Advanced Curmudgeon Studies and to The Darwin Awards Center for Predictive Research, for appropriate consideration.
For this admittedly summary essay, I must offer equally summary references.
Easwaran, Eknath. See his translations of two critical sacred scriptures of Hinduism: the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. (Nilgiri Press; 1987 and ISBN 0-915132-39-7; 1985 and ISBN 0-915132-35-4, respectively) The former discuses the Perennial Philosophy as Hinduism has understood it; the latter discusses Hinduism's understanding of how to live the Perennial Philosophy in normal life. These two sacred scriptures are together the cornerstone of the best of Hinduism, and together they are the basis for the model which I proposed for Neopaganism in this essay. (Also, I paraphrased his statement of the Perennial Philosophy as it appeared in the introduction to Easwaran's translation of the Bhagavad Gita.) Each book is easily available online and in stores.
Eliade, Mircea. Where others might sputter, mutter or prattle, Eliade articulates: with precision and concision. See pretty much anything which the late professor wrote in his encyclopedic and sage studies of religion, wherein the Divine is treated as Real; see especially his three volume History of Religious Ideas (University of Chicago Press; volumes 1, 2, and 3 translated into English from French 1978, 1982, 1985, respectively).
Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. Though this book popularized the Perennial Philosophy, it must be read with care. First, though Huxley described his book as an anthology, it as actually an essay - which often reads like jaded or sarcastic journal entries. Second, Huxley seems to have made the Perennial Error regarding the Perennial Philosophy, thinking that it could only be lived through the practice of mysticism when, in truth, it is practiced through renunciationwhich is amenable to all walks of life since it is nothing more than shifting the focus of the soul away from the ego and upon the Divine. Still, the book can be useful and thus worth a look, but a careful look.
Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy. (Oxford University Press, 1928, English translation of the German original "Der Heilige" of 1917). Though it was a Christian work, Professor Otto's observations apply to all religions: the experience of the Divine (the "mystery tremendous") is primary to religion, in genesis of religion and in vitalizing and sustaining religion. This was a radical idea 100 years ago, when religion was often exclusively described philosophically or theologically; it is just as fresh today, when religion is often exclusively described anthropologically or psychologically. (Also, this was the book which coined the word "numinous.") Note: this is an old book, and it might only be available in university libraries.
Smith, Huston. The World's Religions. (HarperCollins, 1995, ISBN 0-06-067440-7) This is a sage, scholarly but popularly written guide to the world's major religions in an updated and beautifully illustrated edition. Professor Smith gets to the gist of each major religion (including the monistic pagan religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism) meaningfully and profoundly; it is a magnificent.
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