Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Bones of Pagan History and Pagan Identity, Part One

What is the relationship between modern Paganism and ancient Paganism? That question splits people into two camps: 1. First of all there are those who hold that there is a significant relationship between modern and ancient Paganism. These people think of Paganism as "the Old Religion", although they might not use that terminology. 2. And then there are those who hold that there is no significant relationship between modern and ancient Paganism. These people think of modern Paganism as a purely "new" religion, lacking any deep historical roots.

Ronald Hutton famously captured the essence of the second position when he wrote that "the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name." (Although it should be noted that Hutton has himself consistently rejected this position at least going back to the publication of his Pagan Religions of the British Isles over two decades ago.)

If one is convinced that there is some significant (leaving aside for now how we define such "significance") commonality between modern Paganism and ancient Paganism, then one must conclude that modern Paganism therefore represents, in some meaningful sense, a survival and/or continuation of ancient Paganism. But it is precisely at this point that the fireworks commence. For there are those, including many who identify as "Pagan", who simply cannot tolerate any suggestion that modern Paganism can, in any way shape or form, be construed as a continuation of ancient Paganism.

To discuss these matters intelligently one must, before going any further, grapple with some thorny problems concerning the definition of terms. But where to begin? One might choose, for example, to quibble over what might be required to qualify as a "significant" relationship between ancient and modern Paganism. But the truth is there is no agreement about what is actually meant by saying that there is any "relationship", significant or otherwise, between one religious tradition that existed two thousand years ago and another one that exists (perhaps with the same name, perhaps not) today. But these are relatively minor questions compared to the core issue of how Paganism itself is to be defined.

It turns out, though, that the issue of how to define Paganism also requires us to investigate the question of relationships between various religious groups. For both modern Paganism and ancient Paganism, considered separately, each represents an extremely heterogeneous amalgam of practices, beliefs and experiences. This realization at first makes the posing of our question even more complex, and yet if we carry through without flinching at a little added complexity, the payoff is a coherent overall strategy for both defining Paganism and also for elaborating on the history of Paganism.

This general approach requires us to ask three questions:

1. What comprises the set of beliefs, practices and experiences that characterize ancient Paganism in general. That is, what did those ancient religious traditions that can be subsumed under the heading of "Paganism" have in common?

2. What comprises the set of beliefs, practices and experiences that characterize modern Paganism in general. That is, what do the modern religious traditions that can be subsumed under the heading of "Paganism" have in common?

3. What is the intersection of the two sets above?

The above three questions constitute a pretty bare bones framework for the elaboration of Pagan history and Pagan identity, and it highlights the fact that "history" and "identity" are simply two ways of looking at the broader issue of "commonality". The specific question of Pagan history approaches the issue of commonality in temporal terms. It will prove useful, at least in my opinion, to borrow from the lexicon of linguistics, and to refer to the problem of Pagan history as a problem of diachronic commonality. We can then also refer to the problem of Pagan identity as a problem of synchronic commonality.

Scholars who study historical linguistics address themselves to the way that languages change over time. This historical approach is referred to as diachronic analysis, a term that is used in contrast to the synchronic analysis of language variation at a given, fixed point in time.

Here is an attempt to illustrate how this combined concept of diachronic and synchronic can be applied to the investigation of Pagan identity and Pagan history:

Synchronic commonality 
Synchronic commonality refers to that which is held in common by groups that exist contemporaneously in time. This concept can be applied to the question of Pagan identity.

Example of synchronic commonality in reference to Pagan identity:  Christine Hoff Kraemer, in her book Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies, has proposed a list of nine "attitudes" that are found widely among modern Pagans. Kraemer is understandably very careful to not overstate her case: "most Pagans hold most of the following attitudes." My own opinion is that she has accurately captured  a significant amount of the very real theological and cosmological common ground that is often difficult to discern just beneath the surface of the chaotic and contentious world of modern Pagandom. Briefly, here are Kraemer's nine areas of common ground shared by many modern day Pagans (in some cases my wording is slightly different from hers):
  1. Pantheism
  2. Polytheism
  3. Reverence toward nature and the body.
  4. Looking to pre-Christian religions and to contemporary religions that have resisted Christianization.
  5. The importance of ritual practice.
  6. Trust in personal experience as a source of divine knowledge.
  7. Acknowledgement of the principles of magick.
  8. Virtue Ethics and non-harming.
  9. Pluralism.

Diachronic commonality
Diachronic commonality refers to that which is held in common by groups that exist at different points in time. This concept can be applied to question of Pagan history.

Example of diachronic commonality in reference to Pagan history: Ronald Hutton, in his paper The New Old Paganism, has proposed that there exist a number of striking similarities between modern Paganism and "certain types of ancient religion" that existed in late antiquity. Here are what I consider to be the eight most important of these similarities that Hutton claims to have found:
  1. "Private and avant-garde" in nature.
  2. The strong influence of Platonic philosophy, especially that of Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus.
  3. The denial or qualification of polytheism.
  4. The strong presence of "exotic" (non-European) elements and influences.
  5. An emphasis on certain Gods and Goddesses who were not prominent in "traditional" polytheism, such as Dionysos, Pan, Natura and Hekate.
  6. The prominence of magic, and especially the positive way in which magic is viewed in general, and even more specifically the way in which Pagan religiosity is viewed as intrinsically "magical".
  7. Egyptophilia, Hermeticism, and Theurgy.
  8. A focus on "mystery religions" as opposed to more "traditional" cults.
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It should be noted that while I largely agree with Kraemer's proposed areas of commonality with respect to modern Paganism, I have serious disagreements with a number of the claims and characterizations made by Hutton with respect to late-antique Paganism. Nevertheless, both of these examples stand on their own to illustrate what I mean by synchronic and diachronic commonality, and especially by how I propose these terms can be usefully applied to the study of Paganism. Not to mention that any serious discussion of Pagan history and Pagan identity (and especially how they are interrelated) must take into account both Kraemer and Hutton.

Although both Kraemer and Hutton provide helpful illustrative concrete examples of the kind of general approach I am proposing, there remains the crucial issue of how one, both in practice and in theory, defines the category of "Paganism". Whatever this thing called "Paganism" is, and even assuming that it really exists at all, it definitely comprises a collection of things that are not all the same. So how do we coherently fashion an overall conception of Pagan commonality without denying the underlying undeniable reality of Pagan diversity?