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Thoughts on Neo-Pagan Theology
by Virginia Stewart-Avalon, Sibylline Priestess and Elder

There seems to be a longing in the human soul to understand why we are here and why consciousness has been instilled within us to ask the question. Many have come to an epiphany and have written about it, thus religions have been spawned around the vision of one man or woman who offered hope to the despairing.

It would be disrespectful to our ancestors to discount their understanding, which survived for such long ages, and has so many individual experiences to lend credibility to their beliefs. Yet it is also disrespectful to ourselves, as intelligent beings, to discount our own capacity for creating philosophies and beliefs that meet our needs and make sense to us in our current situations.

Polytheism and reincarnation were the foundations of ancient religion, as held by such widely varied cultures as those of India and Tibet, Celtia, Sythia, Greece, and Egypt. They are still the tenants of the worlds largest religion - Hinduism. It seems that at one time, all the world believed that we came back again and again, and perhaps this accounts for the vagueness of descriptions of the afterlife, for it was not a permanent place, but rather a stopover between lives, to be spent either in contentment or punishment, depending on the actions of the previous life. Yet this reward or punishment was temporary, and the person received a second chance, or rather, many chances to evolve into a higher or godlike being.

Our understanding of the Universe has changed, or perhaps we choose to explain it in scientific terms today, rather than the poetic or mythologic terms popular in the past. When a Hindu says All is Maya (Goddess of Illusion), is that so different from a physicist saying, All is energy, and the forms we give it are a form of consensual hallucination? The ancients may have understood, and we do not give them the credit.

At the same time, most Neo-Pagans have no wish to return to the type of rigid, rule-governed societies that were the expression of those ancient belief systems. For those societies, civil law and religious law were the same, and infractions were severely punished, usually by death or banishment. Human sacrifice, for the purpose of sending an urgent message of needed assistance to the gods was not unknown, and many cultures sent young men and women to marry the gods by sacrificing them in fairly grisly ways.

As modern people, we reject the notion of human sacrifice, and perhaps also the notion that divinity must be appeased by certain ritual actions in order to win it's favor. Gone too is the rigid hierarchy of society, and the certainty of the ancients that we are at the center of an understandable universe of comprehensible beings.

We can sketch the shape of the universe and see that it is an expanding web-like shell of currents and patterns. The center appears empty to us, and the edges rushing ever outward into an unknown. Of the vast reaches of space, we are puzzled by the emptiness, and more by the presence of galaxies and streams of energy that seem to have no beginning, and no end.

Into this scientific observation, we are again faced with uncertainty. If the Universe is so vast, how can an individual life on an insignificant planet matter? Is there an afterlife, and if so, what is its form and meaning, where is it - here or another planet or dimension? Are there beings beside us, not just on other worlds, but here among us, perhaps assisting us or causing us harm, and where do they come from? Is there one vast Divinity, a pattern maker? Are there many deities on countless worlds, each concerned only with that world, or both the vast and the local, or neither? Is all of life random and meaningless, or part of a grand design? How can we be certain of anything?

Neo-Pagan religions, other than Thelema, rarely attempt to answer these questions in a uniform way. Upon learning this, some react with extreme discomfort. Orthodox religions exist primarily for the purpose of defining and explaining these very questions, and expect their adherents to accept them without doubt; this is called faith. Neo-Pagan religions are not founded on faith, nor on doctrines which explain these questions, yet they remain a central part of an individual's quest for spiritual truth. Neo-Pagans tend to believe that each individual is endowed with the ability to discern the truth for him/herself, and that this truth is valid only for that individual. "All paths to light are true paths."

Some traditions do maintain belief systems, but express them as myths which are to be understood symbolically rather than literally. There are no "holy orthodox books" in neo-paganism, only collections of myths, poetry, the experiences of individuals.

The term "gnosis", which means "light" literally, is the closest to a uniform belief as pagans are willing to get. This is the direct experience of embodying or being the embodiment of divinity, as it is expressed to that individual. Whether it is a recognizable Goddess or God form, an understanding of the inherent divinity of humans, or the inherent divinity of everything, is a matter for the individual to decide. Some believe in the literal existence of hundreds, perhaps thousands of individual deities, Gods and Goddesses; some in a divinity that expresses itself in many different forms - appearing to humans as being separate deities, but really only one; some believe that humans and other life on other planets are themselves divine, and will become a part of a larger divinity upon death. There are as many interpretations as there are people to think about them, and who can say if they are right or wrong? Faith is not certainty, and certainty for one is another's doubt.

There is a widespread, but not uniform, belief in reincarnation. This belief is also interpreted by individuals in ways that make sense to them. In terms of evidence, such as near death experiences and the testimony of those who have demonstrated psychic abilities, there is an overwhelming amount to uphold an afterlife that is far different from that expressed by orthodox Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions. There is also the testimony of those who seem to remember former lives, and of these, children who suddenly speak languages they do not know, and describe places they have never been, seems the most compelling. Yet there are other explanations for these phenomena in physics and in the view that the experience of life is a hologram, and we are expressions of energy that sometimes can "tune in"to wavelengths of energy similar to ours, because time and space are illusions, this "reception" is not limited to either the present, nor to current location.

Interesting dilemma, for this explanation removes the very comfort and hope offered by religions to those who need to feel as though life has purpose, and that their existence matters to someone or something beyond this earth or this lifetime. As people who have divorced themselves from easy answers and blanket dogma, Neo-Pagans must face these questions with the same courage which they originally asserted in leaving orthodoxy behind.

Our own experiences of the divine or the immortal are valid, and what they "really" are is irrelevant. What offers comfort and joy to the individual sojourning in this life is the only truth that individual needs concern him/herself with, and perhaps the only reason for the existence of the spiritual quest. As individuals, we may be certain for ourselves, but not for another. In this way, we avoid all of those traps of cults of personality and dogma that we sought to escape, and find freedom and respect for ourselves and others within the Neo-Pagan community. 

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