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
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
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
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.