Toward a Postmodern Paganism

Copyright 1994 by Paul Connelly

What is postmodernism anyway? Why should we want to consider the postmodern viewpoint as overlapping or coinciding with Paganism somehow? Indeed, what is Paganism? Can we talk about a Pagan worldview when our Pagan community is so eclectic in its beliefs and practices?

In both cases, what makes these questions difficult to answer but fruitful to think about is that postmodernism and contemporary eclectic Paganism are living and evolving worldviews, incorporating many components of past beliefs and current insights to grow in new directions. The window of opportunity for shared growth and synergy is wide open!

In purely chronological terms, we can see cultures and belief systems as having passed from the premodern era into the modern era beginning in the very late 17th century. The postmodern era has only begun to dawn since the middle of the 20th century. The premodern era itself stretches back to the universal paganism of prehistoric times, and includes the classical period where older pagan religions began to be incorporated into state religions and the post-classical period where largescale organized and state-affiliated religions such as the Judeo-Christian-Islamic (JCI) complex turned on their ancestor traditions and suppressed them. At the cusp of the premodern and modern eras were many of the "burning times" that we remember now for their savagery.

The modern era saw the rise of the new religion of "scientism" out of the mechanistic view of the world derived from Isaac Newton's mathematical physics. An additional impetus was given to the widespread acceptance of scientism among the wealthy and powerful classes by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which they self-servingly interpreted to justify their "fitness" for economic and cultural dominance. At the cusp of the modern and postmodern eras, nation-states guided by the priests of scientism unleashed their own "burning times" against both the residual paganism of still premodern indigenous populations (via colonial imperialism) and against members of the weakened organized religions (as in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia).

Paganism in contemporary life has obvious ties to the paganism of the premodern world. We incorporate many of the gods and goddesses of premodern paganism into our beliefs and rituals. Yet we also have grown up in the decaying edifice of the modern world and we cannot have helped being influenced by its pervasiveness, even when our growing up has been done in countries far removed from the centers of wealth and power. In a dialectical sense, we can only resolve this opposition of thesis (premodern paganism and later religions) and antithesis (modern scientism) by reaching a new synthesis--a postmodern Paganism for the emerging postmodern era.

So where did the postmodern viewpoint come from, and what are its essential features? There are four influences that are worth noting, in order of their appearance.

First, the philosophy of existentialism and its own related earlier influence from libertarianism (existentialism having been articulated in its earliest form by Soren Kierkegaard in the mid 19th century and libertarianism by John Locke and others in the late 17th century). The notion of the primacy of the individual in exercising free will to create meaning and determine morality ("do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law") derives very directly from these traditions. Existentialism in the 20th century has especially grown to encompass resistance to all forms of "blind faith" and authoritarianism by forcing the individual to arrive at meaning and purpose without any respect for societal mores and institutional pronouncements.

Second, the discipline of comparative religion in a psychological context, as explored first by Carl G. Jung and later by Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, has underscored both the importance of spirituality to the human psyche and the commonality of certain forms (archetypes) of spiritual experience to far-flung human populations. The eclectic attitude of contemporary Pagans is very much mirrored in the respectful attitude of comparative religionists to the common themes and unique expressions of religious belief around the world.

Third, what is often called "process thought". Based on the writings of Alfred North Whitehead and some later members of his philosophical school (such as David Ray Griffin and Charlene Spretnak), process thinking recognizes that time is not a series of discrete states that can be frozen and viewed as the logical end of what has come before. Rather time is a fluid, ongoing process in which the agency of will creatively participates. Most of traditional morality is based upon a notion that there is some "end-state" at which various "rights" and "wrongs" can be tallied to arrive at a neat summation of whether a given choice is "good" or "evil" (in the JCI tradition there is an "end-of-the-world" or Armageddon at which this is supposed to happen in a very final sense). By rejecting the end-state model, Whitehead and his followers force us to constantly re-examine our choices and grow in our moral decision-making based on each dynamic "present" that we help to bring into being.

Fourth and closely related to process thought are the new disciplines of "systems thinking". As process thought forces us not to think of time as a series of discrete states, systems thinking forces us to look at space not as a grouping of discrete entities or objects but rather as a whole in which various levels of organization and connectedness can be envisioned for any apparently discrete object. Systems thinking has largely grown out of computer science, but it embraces many other holistic disciplines such as ecology and the "chaos-and-complexity" studies of Ilya Prigogine.

Postmodernism contains different schools of thought just as Paganism does. Some academic postmodernists (such as the well-publicized deconstructionists) embrace what we can think of as a "relativistic" postmodernism, in which each person is an isolated interpreter of a reality with no intrinsic meaning or spiritual life. This is really a view that comes from the nihilistic extremes of existentialist thought. Of more interest to us is what could be called "holistic" postmodernism, in which each person is a unique contributor to the whole unfolding of spiritual purpose in the world. This is the postmodernism of Griffin and Spretnak.

What does this all have to do with Paganism? If we look at the disparate themes of contemporary Pagan belief, we can see some that fit very naturally with theideas of holistic postmodernism.

We believe in the immanence of spirit/numen/God in the world around us. This "embodiment spirituality" (as opposed to the "disembodiment spirituality" of JCI and other mass organized religions) informs our view of the sensual body as holy rather than shameful and of the natural world as something to be embraced and preserved rather than escaped or mindlessly consumed and destroyed. In addition, rather than seeing spirit or God as something separate from ourselves, we recognize our essential unity and identity with Her, and our responsibility as creative contributors and participants in the unfolding expression of Her will. Because we see the nature of spirit/numen/God as what is versus what can be theorized in terms of logical absolutes (as the Greek logicians and JCI theologists had been prone to do), we don't weigh ourselves down with tortuous notions of omnipotence and omniscience and other theological paradoxes. We can know the nature of spirit by examining our own nature and that of the world around us, accepting its seeming contradictions (strength and fragility, power and fallibility, suffering and joy) as the ground upon which our moral choices will create meaning and manifest the flowering of spiritual intent. And we recognize the manifestation of spiritual force in the goddesses and gods of the natural world. Very much in the same way as Jung and Campbell, we celebrate the many "masks of God". And much in the same way as Whitehead, we see our lives as vital to the continuous process of creation of what is, rather than as helplessly being dragged along toward some final (perhaps even predetermined) state that should be.

Because we embrace a nature spirituality, we also see the world in a holistic way that mirrors what systems thinking has learned. We see the connectedness and unity of the living and nonliving and strive for the preservation of our natural ecological balance. In the same spirit, we see the balance of human society as under our stewardship, and find the strength in this understanding to resist social injustices and authoritarianism. So it is no accident that Pagans are in the forefront of battling threats to religious freedoms and of pointing out the self-destructiveness of rampant nihilistic materialism for our environmental health.

We also recognize the need for a new synthesis of the best of older spirituality with scientific knowledge. It is not coincidence that many Pagans are highly educated and that many are involved in high technology fields. The mechanistic scientism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is giving ground all the time to the shattering insights of relativity and quantum physics. No longer can the world be viewed as a dead clockwork construct of strict causal determinism. While organized religions have never accepted science in either its rigidly materialistic or more open-minded aspects, we are uniquely positioned to begin what Griffin calls "the reenchantment of science" out of the ashes of scientism. Because many of us share libertarian beliefs, we can see the "holes" in the strict causal model as the channels by which free will creates novelty and purpose in the world. To non-Pagans, this "magical thinking" is anathema, but science may find itself converging with "magic" in the future, as it once diverged from it just prior to the modern era.

As contemporary Pagans we are growing toward the same synthesis and developing many ideas similar to what holistic postmodernists are exploring. Although postmodernism is largely pursued in an academic environment currently, unlike Paganism, there are many potential "bridges" by which we can join efforts to create a new worldview that truly builds upon the best of the premodern and modern eras and forms a better basis for enabling the future spiritual and cultural growth of our world. This is the hope and the promise of a postmodern Paganism.

Originally published in a slightly different form in Circle Network News (1992).