There are some people who say paganism is too big and varied to be defined. I am not one of them and neither is Micheal York. In his book Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, York contends that paganism is an identifiable position possessing characteristics and understandings in common.
Pagan Theology has three chapters. In chapter one, York situates paganism as a world religion. That is, a legitimate spiritual perspective that exists globally. He examines living indigenous religions such as Chinese folk religion, Japanese Shinto, and Afro-American spirituality (i.e. Voudou, Santeria) alongside contemporary Western Paganism. Although most of these do not use the term ‘pagan’ to identify their beliefs, York contends that they all share enough common features to constitute paganism as a world religion that ranks alongside other broad categories such as Christianity and Buddhism. While there is no complete list of characteristics, among the features that emerge noticeably are animism, pantheism, polytheism, nature veneration, numinousness, and magic.
In chapter two, York explores paganism as a behaviour. York believes that paganism represents what he calls a root religion and that all other religions are offshoots or counter-developments of it. Here he surveys major world religions to identify ritual veneration that can be interpreted as pagan. For example, Christianity is not a pagan religion, but can be assessed as behaviourally pagan by examining its practices.
The eucharistic “eating of God” that constitues the pivotal sacrament of communion is a development from, if not a parody of, pagan rites of sacrifice and theophagy. The very notion of transubstantiation is pure magic. And while Christian holy sites (churches and pilgrimage centers) have been constructed over former shrines and temples understood as sacred to pagans, Christianity has likewise appropriated pagan holidays for its own ecclesiastical calendar.
In this second chapter, York also explores pagan behaviour in secular society. For example, he sees the legacy of the Bacchic cult in drinking bars and theatres where mind alteration and catharsis are still possible. Although largely unconscious and unfocused, cultic ritual is operative in Western society from dedicating one’s drink in celebration to offerings of gifts to the dead.
In chapter three, York concludes his book by exploring paganism as theology. An important distinction that he makes here is between spiritualities that are pagan in name and those that are pagan in kind. While some religions such as Platonism and Orphinism are nominally pagan, they are transcendentally gnostic. One important feature of paganism is that it is far more concerned with this world and it eschews any true hierarchy between this world and the other.
Pagan Theology is provocative. Many times I found myself nodding in agreement, other times I was nodding off a bit, and sometimes I thought the author was kind of stretching it. York is a religious scholar and he offers a short, intelligent, and mature book though some readers may find it dry and challenging.