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Why Pagan theology is so unimportant among Pagans

When I first become a Pagan many years ago, I tried to find theological studies of What It All Meant within our literature.  I found many discussions of rituals, magick, and how Witches were correctives to patriarchy. But beyond some brief (and good) discussions in Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon and the Farrars' The Meaning of Witchcraft,  there was almost nothing on the underlying meaning of a Pagan reality.  As I learned more about the broad Pagan tradition I began exploring literature discussing African Diasporic and Native American Pagan religions. Here to, by monotheistic standards the pickings were remarkably thin.

In Brazil I learned most Pagan literature consisted of spell books and details about rituals.  Among the traditional Crow people in Montana, individuals had different interpretations of their practices’ deeper meaning and of the status of figures like Coyote, but no developed theology.  Within my own coven I learned my coven-mates had different beliefs about who the Gods were. Classical Pagan religious writing was rarely sectarian and the major one that could be so described, The Golden Ass, was more an adventure story than a treatise on the Gods.  Pagan cultures were not particularly peaceful, but I know of no adherents to a Pagan religion waging war on those of another for not worshiping the right Gods. Unlike the monotheisms, unity of belief didn’t seem very important in the Pagan world.

A Facebook friend recently described Joseph Campbell’s account of a Western sociologist interviewing a Shinto priest.  Even after visiting their shrines, witnessing their rites, and considerable study he said “I don’t get the ideology. I don’t get your theology.” After a polite silence the priest replied  “We do not have ideology. We do not have theology. We dance.” 

In the same FB discussion another friend reminded me of Z Budapest’s short essay “The slothwoman as ancient magician." ,Z wrote she is inside every woman who brings through the magic and she doesn't care about talking. She likes “music and dancing and shiny things.”  There is a pattern here very different from monotheistic religions. 

Pagan traditions care deeply about the form and quality of ritual and about how we best relate to deities.  Within our traditions arguments about how best to do these can get very contentious, as with current disputes in some reconstructionist circles about animal sacrifice.  But with regard to the ultimate Big Picture and who gets it right?  Not so much. 

The Pagan preference for singing, dance, and “shiny things” is not a sign of anti-intellectualism. Philosophy began in Pagan cultures but theology never played the role it did in Christian cultures.  For example, Pagan religions do not have sermons as a regular part of their worship, as Christians religions do not make dancing a part of theirs.

The major late Classical Pagan theological text was Sallustius’s On the Gods and the World. It was written primarily in response to Christian attacks, offering a Pagan alternative. Significantly, absent those attacks it would not have been written. 

In The Meaning of Witchcraft in chapter 13 Gerald Gardner described Sallustius’s essay as a general description of what Witches in the coven that initiated him believed.  But they focused little on such issues.  Ritual and magick were more important.

The rise of theology

In Christian times philosophy and experience were subordinated to theology. The world did not teach us about the nature of the Gods, God taught us about the nature of the world. He did so through revelations written down long ago by others. Since then God had been silent on matters of doctrine, so it was up to us to figure out what those old texts meant.

The threat of damnation made getting the message a life or death issue. Our own experiences could be misleading because what might appear a benevolent entity could be a demon in disguise.  Scripture and dogma trumped experience.

Because the Bible has so many apparently contradictory or absurd passages, there was ample room to come to different interpretations all claiming to be infallible. Because their deity was silent as to who was right, in over 2000 years there has been no end to theological arguments.

Today we are rediscovering Pagan religion, but from within a Christian culture shaped by Christian habits of thought. We cannot help but take some of this baggage with us, baggage we need to unlearn.

Like I had, many Pagans bring Christian attitudes wrapped in un- or even anti-Christian packaging. It seems to me one of these attitudes is concern with “getting Paganism theologically right.” I think the current “Polytheists are not the same as Pagans” discussions are examples of applying Christian theological attitudes where they do not fit. On that issue, more later.

Theology’s role in a Pagan world

In my view Pagan theology is more important for communication between Pagans and others than it is within our own community.  The dominant secular view of our world is incompatible with any claim Pagan practice illuminates life’s deeper meanings.  There are no deeper meanings.  The dominant Western Christian view considers the world God’s artifact, without intrinsic value or meaning in itself. At best it’s a “witness” to the Lord’s power.  Neither of these views is compatible with our experience. As in Sallustius’s time today there is a significant place for Pagan theology showing how our experience meshes with a model of the world superior to either traditional Christian or secular modern ones.

But it plays little if any role in what we actually do.

There is no “Pagan religion” in the sense there are Christian religions. There are religions we classify as Pagan, and those we do not. “Pagan” is a philosophical term encompassing many religions.  Whether a religion fits or not rests on standards external to it.  Pagan theology is not an alternative to Christian theology, it is an alternative to a monotheistic theology, assuming there is one.  Being a monotheist says nothing about whether you are a Christian, Jew, Muslim, or something else. Being Pagan says nothing about whether you are Wiccan, Asatru, Voudon or something else. (My most developed effort to define Pagan religion is here.) 

As with any classification, describing what makes something “Pagan” can be challenged by arguments for a better description, or that the entire category is meaningless. But how these issues pan out does not affect what Wiccan or Asatru or Voudon practitioners do, or how they think about it. Even the best possible system of classification does not render us better able to conduct a ritual and serve the Gods as defined within a specific tradition, be it British traditional Wicca or Asatru or Voudon.

Consequently, determining what constitutes a “Pagan religion” is of little intrinsic interest within a specific Pagan practice. Our rituals, our community, and our connection with divinities are what is important.  At this level there is no need for theology. 

I am not sure “Gardnerian theology,”  “Voudon Theology,” or “Asatru theology” even makes sense except perhaps as a part of something much bigger.  None of these religions make claims beyond their own circles of practitioners. Their obligations are ones of practice, not thought. They exist within a larger religious world, which is why many Pagans have no difficulty honoring and even engaging in other Pagan religious practices. The precise nature of a deity is not important, our relationship with it is. Our religious experiences often resist being captured by words, and the more important the experiences the more resistant they are. 

In a Pagan religion the structure and order of rituals takes the place of theology.  We learn from those rituals, not from texts.  For this Gardnerian celebrating the Wheel of the Year cycle provides a continual meditation on the nature of the world and of life, including my own.  For me it certainly beats any sermon. The ritual structure of other Pagan religions focuses on other dimensions of how we live with respect to the sacred. This is a major difference separating us from religions rooted in revealed texts.

Because our religions are rooted in a variety of spiritual and ritual experiences, a Pagan theology’s task is making sense of that abundance. (Just as Christianity, being rooted in a text, is based on making sense of that text.)  Pagan theology explores what kind of world is compatible with the breadth of Pagan practice and spiritual experience.  Certain kinds are not, such as a purely secular one or a monotheistic one, and so from a Pagan perspective are targets for criticism. But many other possibilities exist compatible with Pagan experience. We can debate the merits of these alternatives and our arguments will have little if anything to do with what we experience or the structure of our practice.

My book Pagans and Christians described Paganism as a coherent religious outlook with enormous variations within its spacious limits and also among individuals within a Pagan tradition. It addressed many traditional theological issues, such as the nature of evil, because it contrasted us with dominant American Christian views. It did not discuss what NeoPagan traditions were “most correct;” what approaches to ritual were “most Pagan;” or whether the dominant deities were masculine, feminine, both, or neither, except within a specific tradition. Variations in our practices were not problems to be solved but outcomes to be expected. To the degree this was theology it was a theology of permission, and like Sallustius, in this day and age also a theology of defense.

Unlike monotheistic theologies, which are rooted in sacred texts, a Pagan theology resembles a scientific theory. It attempts to find and develop an explanatory pattern compatible with reported experience. The nature of the experience studied is different than in science, but the nature of the task is similar.  This is why unlike monotheistic theologies, there is no inherent clash between ours and science.  Like science, no Pagan theology can ever legitimately claim to have discovered Truth, but only the best explanation so far for Pagan experiences. A Pagan theology is always tentative and always aware it could be getting the story wrong.

One need not be a scientist to live a rich fulfilling and successful life in the world.  One need not read Pagan theology to live a rich, fulfilling, and successful life as a Pagan. 

As Pagans, experiences of ritual and the Gods are sufficient. Theology is extra.


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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, 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.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Thursday, 04 June 2015

    I love reading your writing Gus! I would like to point out that those of us who call ourselves Christian mystics feel much the same way about theology - it's an interesting cognitive exercise, but the delight is really in the experience of the dance.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Friday, 05 June 2015

    I tried to "like" your comment but it doesn't work. So thank you!

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Friday, 05 June 2015

    Thanks, Gus. I think I'll print this for the men in the San Quentin circle.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Friday, 05 June 2015

    I also tried to "like" your comment Macha, but it doesn't work either. So thank you!

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
    P. Sufenas Virius Lupus Saturday, 06 June 2015

    Can you see the irony in the fact that you've defined Paganism as superlatively permissive, but then have marginalized an entire form of engagement within it as "extra" simply because it isn't something that appeals to you, personally (an evaluation which can be derived from your discussion above)?

    I'm not aware of anyone in modern polytheism who has said that engaging in theological discussion is "more important" or "better than" actually engaging in devoted practice or having experiences with our deities, nor that anyone has suggested it can be a replacement for such engagements. It really need not be an "either/or" proposition, which is what you seem to be making it.

    The word "theology" (as we understand it) was invented by Plato, a polytheist/Pagan. Homer, Hesiod, and many others would have been considered theologians in the ancient world. You're well-read enough to know this. So, even forgetting those who are writing theological texts these days, what about all of those who are artists, poets, and other practitioners who engage with their deities through such practices? Do you really want to marginalize and invalidate the authenticity of all of them as well?

    For myself, I'll say that engaging in theological thinking, discussion, and writing has actually improved my practices considerably, has refined parts of my practice that weren't working in given circumstances to actually work better and more effectively, and have allowed me to understand why certain things have occurred in my experience in particular ways while others have not, and even in some cases do not or cannot. You may not find that useful for your own practices in the situations I'm discussing (likely because we have an entirely different set of practices and interests), but it has helped others who are doing things similar to what I'm doing to work through and improve their own engagements with Deities and other Divine Beings.

    If you think that's "extra," you're free to do so; but, it's pretty dismissive for someone who is claiming to be as much of an authority on these matters as you are. If theological writing and thinking is really something more useful for the purpose of explaining how things work to those outside of a given religious movement (as you indicated was the case with one of the books you've co-written), the fact that you're dismissing the work and writings of a lot of polytheists as "extra" and (as your subject line indicates) "unimportant" also appears to be ignoring the obvious: that those writings are distinguishing what makes polytheists different from mainstream Pagans.

    If you don't care about Christian theology, that's fine (and understandable). If you don't care about polytheist theology, that's also fine; but then don't tell polytheists that we're Pagan (because you feel we should be, in your definition, along with several other groups that may not like to be lumped in to that category that you've named above, e.g. Afro-Diasporic religions, Native American religions, etc.) and then dismiss some of what we're doing as un-Pagan in order to censor and censure what you don't like within our religious engagements.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Monday, 08 June 2015

    Absolutely no irony here at all. None.

    Beginning in your first paragraph you distort my argument. I wrote Pagan religion is roomy and permissive compared to monotheistic religion, and Pagan theology is so as well. In keeping with that I never suggested radical polytheists are not Pagans even though I find serious problems with their own theological musings. No one was ‘marginalized’ as a practice and I rather explicitly marginalized every Pagan theology in terms of the core of Pagan practice. Theologies come and go but the practice seems deeply entrenched. Theologies reflect our attempts to understand the more-than-human. Our practice involves actually connecting with it.

    Your second paragraph continues the distortion. I never said any Pagan or ‘polytheist’ regarded theology as “more important” or “better than” than experience. I said that those making the case they are ‘polytheists’ and other Pagans are not ‘really’ polytheists are importing a theological emphasis rooted in Christian habits of thought. I have never made an either/or argument and in fact emphasized Pagan theology has an important role to play today in engagement with the non-Pagan society, religious and secular alike. In that vein I have written on it myself and will write more.

    Theology in the modern world, which is where we live, is not poetry and not myth. I am writing as a modern person addressing modern audiences and modern issues. If you want to say theology is anything written about the Gods, fine. Even then I’d say even back then was less important for Pagans than practice.

    I am glad you find theology useful for your practice, most of the rest of us do pretty well based on ritual and encounters with deity. Theology is a different kind of thinking for us, best done after ritual, to try and make sense of it in rational terms. You are too vague for me to write more on this subject.

    As for me claiming to be an authority, you might remember I said any Pagan theology was tentative and subject to evaluation by experience and alternative explanations. In that sense it’s like science. The best Pagan theology, like the best scientific theory, is only the current best view in the eyes of those studying the issue, not the Truth.

    As for those calling themselves ‘polytheists’ but not Pagans because other Pagans are insufficiently ‘polytheistic,’ I am saving my discussion of what I regard as their arrogant claim to arrogate ‘polytheist’ only to themselves for later. Be patient. It will come.

    As a person interested in theology, such polytheists interest me if they can make a case that their experiences are significantly unique compared to other polytheists and/or if their theology can make better sense of Pagan experience in general than can others I have encountered. So far I am not persuaded.

    As to who is and who is not “Pagan,” I rather explicitly said in theology because it is not a religion, “Pagan” is essentially a classificatory umbrella far many religions. It describes a suite of characteristics that go together and have been historically described as Pagan. As such the term can be criticized as either not applicable to the phenomena to which it claims to apply or by being replaced by a better classificatory scheme. Whether someone likes the term is not so relevant.

    I really do not care whether someone thinks of themselves as Pagan or not unless they know the definition I use, say it does not fit, and can explain why. By the definition I give African Diasporic traditions are Pagan and so are at least the bulk of traditional Native American traditions. The term refers to what these religions have in common. They obviously also have differences.

    People can say they are whatever they want. You can say you are a sentient jelly doughnut and not a human being. But if you fit what most of us regard as a human being and do not fit what most of us regard as a jelly doughnut, sentient or not, your personal opinion and wishes will not matter in terms of most discussions.

    [I have improved and clarified the wording of this reply from when I first posted it.]

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Tuesday, 09 June 2015

    I will add one more point about thinking theologically about our own experiences as a way to deepen them and perhaps improve on our practice. Of course! I obviously did not criticize doing so since reading the article closely would demonstrate I did this quite a bit myself.

    But that is light years separate from criticizing other Pagans' interpretations of their own experiences in order to claim exclusive use of 'polytheist' to refer only to your own pet theories as to their nature.

    [this comment has been edited to clarify my piont]

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