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Bold and Fresh. Not without difficulties, but well-argued.
on March 22, 2005
Michael York's book attempts to resurrect a category of cross-cultural religious understanding once thought to be irredeemably imperialist, archaic or Eurocentric. In examining Paganism, he is not concentrating on contemporary forms referred to as Neo-Paganism, but rather drawing thematic continuities to forms of worship across times and spaces. From Greco-Roman times onwards, York sees Pagan gods as essentially having an kindred affinity with Humans--different in degree rather than in kind. Fundamental "animism, polytheism, idolatry, corpospirituality, local emphasis," geosacrality, apotheosis, devotional reciprocity, regeneration, circular history, vitalism, phallicism, and most of all, celebration---these are the salient forms York finds in Paganism as a root religious type. Earth and Nature are the sacred texts for Pagan religions.
There is typically an "otherworld," but not a transcendent one. Rather, for York, Otherworlds in Paganism are earthly paradises, or at least realms that intersect with with this world and immanent, sometimes co-terminous, even "co-dependent" with this realm. Again, often a difference of degree, rather than kind. The flexibility and innovations of dioscuric triads and Shaman-Tricksters are common as well, and York connects this theme again across spaces, from the Norse trickster Loki to Hermetic Sacred Magic in the Western Tradition. Behaviorally, York draws on Peter Berger to claim that natural, spontaneous worship directed in this world is characteristic of Paganism, as well as the idolatrous bhakti devotions of vernacular Hinduism. Even Thai Theravada Buddhism is examined for its devotion to relics, veneration of images, and tradition of geolocal domestic spirit houses.
A number of different religious expressions are examined for these forms of devotion. Chinese folk religion (including but not limited to ritual Taoism), Japanese forms of Shinto, and vernacular (but not speculative or Brahmanical) Hinduism. Afro-Carribean and contemporary Western Paganisms are also examined as part of these ways of approaching sacrality.
This not to say that all Paganisms are the same. York makes sub-typological distinctions, such as geopaganism, recopaganism, and neopaganism. York actually places Neopaganism on the fringes of the typology, due to its alleged lack of actual polytheism. And he is careful to include significant doses of humanism, from Epicurus to Confucian ideology, that accompany different forms of Paganism. York also does not shy away from the "darker" aspects of Paganism. For if Paganism works by enhancing/restoring environmental equilibrium, sometimes both offensive and defensive modes are needed. Contrary to what some would argue, this makes Paganism more of an ethical religious stance for York than the transcendental or gnostic religious modes, as he later points out.
The first part of the book is largely devoted to fleshing out the typology, while the second section covers examples from these many cross-cultural traditions that exemplify parts of the typology. Thirdly Paganism is contrasted to what he calls 'gnostic' modes of religiosity or 'transcendental' modes, although all of these are found as modes within individual large religious traditions. Yet York sees 'world-denying' religions such as Christianity, Zororastrianism, and speculative Buddhism as more properly transcendental or gnostic religions. Some of these non-Pagan modes are found within the heritage of Western occultism. For example, York considers Platonism, Theosophy and New-Age more gnostically oriented than Pagan.
Its a bold book, and one that has merits. Some volumes work by claiming large amounts of ground, which is then refined and modified/challenged over time. This may be one of those volumes. There are some vocabulary archaisms, such as the terms "primitive," "cult" and "Lamaism," which communicate some of the unease associated with what some may see as imperialist throwback. I think there is significant merit in York's argument, although I see concerns as well. But York is to be commended for his boldness in articulating a major field of study. In closing, it is perhaps important that York himself closes with a mention of Pagan ethics, naming "honor," "trust," and "friendship" as an ethical triad. Paganism, after all, since it is at heart concerned with relationality and relationships, is an ethical religious stance before it is anything else.