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Pantheism, Paganism, and the Soul of Democracy

Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1831 and published his justly famed Democracy in America  in 1835.  While admitting his personal sympathy with aristocracy, Tocqueville was an honest as well as perceptive observer, and provided an admiring report of the new American democracy, particularly as it existed in New England.  He was far less impressed with the South.

In a brief passage Tocqueville made observations about democratic culture’s long-term influence on religion. His observation is relevant to us today. 

In Europe and America alike, he wrote, “It cannot be denied that pantheism has made great progress in our age. . . . This appears to me not to proceed from an accidental, but from a permanent cause.” He explained “When the conditions of society are becoming more equal . . . at such times the human mind seeks to embrace a multitude of different objects at once; and it continually strives to succeed in connecting a variety of consequences with a single cause.”  Ultimately “he seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the Universe in one great Whole.” Of the systems people devise “to explain the Universe, I believe pantheism to be the one most fitted to reduce the human mind in democratic ages.” A good Catholic, Tocqueville strongly opposed this tendency.

There has always been a connection between how people conceived of divine power and of legitimate political power.  Influence could go both ways and the connections were sometimes complex, but the linkage was real, as in juxtaposing the divine right of kings with the image of God as King.

Tocqueville was studying what at the time was the least traditional and most democratic major country on earth.  It had outlasted its founders, and taken further steps towards democratization, particularly in the North.  When Tocqueville wrote men such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman were still young, but he picked up on cultural and spiritual currents they would later make indelible parts of American culture. 

It was during this time that new religious movements stirred, the role of women in religion became significant, and appreciation for wild nature grew rapidly at the popular level.  Interest in the occult also increased rapidly and millions of Americans were interested in Spiritism.  The Lincolns attended Spiritist séances and some were even held in the Lincoln White House

Perhaps building on the growing popular sensibility to nature’s value, it was also Lincoln who by setting aside Yosemite Valley and some giant sequoias for special protection, initiated what grew to become our national parks, America’s most lasting gift to humanity.   Here, in a celebration of nature’s intrinsic value, was a clear expression of a pantheistic sensibility. The world amounted to more than a storehouse of resources fit to be transformed into useful things by humans.

Abigail Adams had written a letter to her husband John who was helping write the Declaration of Independence , advising him to “remember the ladies.”  She had been ahead of her time, but the reasoning she used ultimately generated feminism. Instead of being a concern for the occasional exceptional woman, Adams’ views had become the basis for a broad recognition by growing numbers of women everywhere. 

Feminism’s first important organized statement  came a little more than a decade after Tocqueville’s visit. He had not picked up on this current but it was also an expression of the pantheistic current he had observed. Critics called it a leveling of the high to equal the low, but in reality it was a generalized raising of what had been deemed inferior to equality and respect with what had once been thought superior to it.

These developments were still expressed within a broadly Christian framework because that was the only framework most people knew about.  Over a thousand years of religious totalitarianism had its impact. But these new cultural currents were in keeping with Tocqueville’s insights about a growing pantheism.  The realm of spiritual value was expanding into heretofore belittled values and manifestations.

The traditional vision of God as king lost relevance in societies that had successfully rebelled against a king. People learned that hierarchies of power were not necessary for order in society or in nature, and were increasingly open to insights that such hierarchies were not needed in the spiritual world either.  

At the same time in societies where opportunities for greater prosperity and liberty were opening up for most, traditional ideas of fallenness increasingly failed to accord with people’s experiences. In the optimistic democratic culture that was developing here before the Civil War, old religious messages of world-rejection and human depravity were losing connection with people’s experience or relevance to their dreams.  For many the world seemed to be getting better, and was filled with promise.  When so many are relatively equal and prosperous it is easier to conceive the Sacred as in all things. When life is filled with possibilities it is easier to suspect the world is not only good, it is in some way permeated by the divine. 

American culture had many threads at this time, like any time, but the one Tocqueville picked up on gave us Transcendentalism, the writings Henry David Thoreau, and nurtured the cultural attitudes that, when reinvigorated in the 60s and 70s, led to the rise of NeoPaganism as a popular expression of these values. The first American NeoPagans brought together Western occult traditions with a veneration of the feminine and of nature.  They were an explicit manifestation of the pantheistic sensibility that Tocqueville found to be the inherent bias of a truly democratic society. 

This transformation has faced, and continues to face, many challenges and has suffered its share of setbacks, as any deep cultural change will. But the terrain on which this struggle occurs is inhospitable to the forces of the pre-democratic past. Perhaps that is why its greatest opponents are doing all they can to destroy the American democratic tradition and replace it with one whose roots lie in the genuine counterculture of the Confederacy.

An Old People a New People…

There is a delicious irony captured in the old NeoPagan chant “We are an old people, we are a new people, we are the same people, stronger than before.” Paganism and pantheism, considered broadly, comprise humanity’s oldest spiritual insights, existing in hunting and gathering cultures that lasted for millennia before the rise of agriculture. Over time agricultural societies became increasingly hierarchical and unequal, and as they did Spirit was increasingly kicked upstairs, out of direct reach to many and eventually to a purely transcendental realm. Life became something from which to seek salvation or escape. With the rise of democratic societies increasingly free from the authoritarian hierarchies that characterized agricultural civilizations, that original pantheistic insight is again finding fertile soil, but on a broader landscape. 

Many of us are a new people seeking to bridge and combine the best of our past with the best of the new. Many indigenous people today recognize our common similarity. In interfaith meetings they call NeoPagans “brothers and sisters” and see us as an “indigenous religion but not an indigenous people.”  Given that many of them now live in cities far from the lands that are the foundation for their spirituality, they can relate with that status.  We are like them, only for a longer time, and are now rediscovering those primal insights.

Today NeoPagans exemplify the many dimensions of how pantheism can manifest within a modern democratic society - from a kind of secular pantheism finding psychological value in nature to a continuum that ends with panentheism, where nature is completely an expression of a Sacred that also exceeds it.  It is we, and not the representatives of conservative Christianity let alone the horror of the ‘Christian’ right who at our core, are in deepest harmony with the visions and values of our founders.

 

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Gus diZerega is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca. He studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.Dr. diZerega has published widely on the social sciences in the academic press as well as on spirituality.  His second book Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources.  His third, coauthored with Philip Johnson, is Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue. His art frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter.DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing.His newest book, Faultlines: The Culture War and the Return of the Divine Feminine, received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. 

Comments

  • Jamie
    Jamie Monday, 28 October 2013

    Mr. diZerega,

    Thank you for another enjoyable post.

    'Classical' education, including the study of great Pagan authors like Homer and Plato, used to be a cause championed by right-wing people in the USA. Perhaps they abandoned it, in part, to appease the ascendant evangelical Christians within the GOP.

    I've become convinced that our 1%er de facto shadowy overlords, who help perpetuate so much of the Red Team/Blue Team mentality, have zero interest in seeing ordinary folk develop critical thinking skills and historical perspective. I believe that the documentary, "PoliWood", illustrates the dumbing-down of American political life very well.

    Newly-minted critical thinkers might ask troubling questions to both Republican and Democratic leaders.

    As an aside, I've often wondered how much influence the British Platonists, Thomas "The Pagan" Taylor and his wife Mary, had on early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. The Taylors' Pagan beliefs might have helped liberate the teenage girl's mind from the shackles of patriarchy.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Monday, 28 October 2013

    Thanks Jamie. Thomas Taylor is an interesting man who did much to help us learn the views of Classical Pagans. He also knew Mary Wollstonecraft personally, though not well. Apparently they liked one another.

    After Thomas Paine wrote "The Rights of Man" and Wollstonecraft wrote "A Vindication of the Rights of Women," he published :The Rights of Brutes" as developing ideas in Paine and Wollstonecraft. Here it gets interesting.

    I have not read it, but the work is almost universally considered a satire, taking their ideas to a ludicrous extreme to point out their absurdity. But Taylor was apparently a Pagan, and in England of the time often people with unorthodox beliefs either kept them secret or dissembled. But he made reference to Classical Pagan traditions that were vegetarian and many proponents of animal rights think the arguments are often very strong, and use them themselves.

    On the other hand, Classical civilization had no doctrine of rights and many, likely most, Classical Pagans engaged in animal sacrifice.

    I think it would be a good project to investigate Taylor's piece from a Pagan perspective and take a second look at the interpretation of it as a satire. I wish I had time to investigate this issue myself.

    Finally, regarding the political stuff, my deepest analysis of our political and cultural situation comes out Nov 1 as "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine" published by Quest. I will give a book talk Nov 4 at the Theosophical Society in Wheaton, IL, a lecture based on the book at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, Nov 7, and another book talk Nov. 14 at Longfellows bookstore in Portland, ME. You can read about the book (and even order in a way that most helps me and my publisher, by checking out http://dizerega.com/my-books/

  • Jamie
    Jamie Monday, 28 October 2013

    There is an irony in there, with regard to Classical variants of Paganism and their multi-faceted influence on us today. Axiothea and Lasthenia both studied at Plato's Academy, though the Pagan society around them afforded women few rights compared to today. Socrates is also believed to have said, "Once made equal to man, woman becomes his superior."

    We modern Pagans just try to take away what we believe to be the best, and leave behind the worst, of ancient beliefs.

    You are completely right, of course, about the lack of human rights as we conceive of them in most (if not all) ancient Pagan societies. They often had written legal codes, of course, but that's a rather different matter.

    I am an avid reader of your stuff, and I think a comprehensive political analysis by someone of your depth of thought would be well worth the price of admission.

    Thanks for the link to your website! You definitely just sold another book or two, if only for my Christmas list.

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