If the recent debates and difficulties in the modern pagan blogosphere have demonstrated anything, it is that most self-identified pagans today–no matter how intelligent or well-informed in other fields they may be, including in analyzing and critiquing the religious notions of other religions–are woefully unprepared for actually engaging in theological discussion. Quite often, the theological underpinnings of a given practice or set of beliefs cannot even be identified by many pagans, and a great many have just “never thought about it” in relation to a wide variety of our religious activities. While this does not make modern pagans any different than people in most other world religions, at the same time it is something of a problem. As important as practice and ritual is for our communal identities, there are theological beliefs which underlie these practices and are reinforced by them, and our experiences in ritual and with the gods lead to formulations of new theologies and improved practices. But, if one has no in-depth knowledge of theology beyond saying “I’m a hard polytheist,” this process is much slower-going and more difficult.
Some blogs–including Sermons from the Mound on Patheos.com (by Christine Hoff Kraemer and Yvonne Aburrow)–have attempted to educate the wider pagan public about theology; and, in my own way, I hope that my present humble efforts in this blog have likewise provided some educational opportunities in that direction. But, few books have attempted to systematically lay out basic primers of theological discussion within modern paganism. We are neck-deep in Wicca 101 books, which are heavy on “how to,” but the occasional foray into “why” has generally been idiosyncratic and personal rather than systematic or organized. Michael York’s book Pagan Theology, for all the ways in which it is excellent, does very little to actually address the second term of the title or provide a basic pagan theological framework.
The book I am reviewing at present, Christine Hoff Kraemer’s Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies, does not (and self-admits that it cannot!) provide a basic theological framework for all of modern paganism, or even a large section of it–it is almost impossible and further undesirable to do so at this stage. However, what it does do, and does extremely well, is demonstrate the diversity of modern paganism, and the reality that there is no such thing as “pagan theology,” but instead a variety of “pagan theologies,” entirely consonant with the value of pluralism and diversity that is so cherished amongst many modern pagans.
For those modern pagans who are not familiar with theological jargon or technical terms (which is at least 90% of modern pagans, I suspect), this book will be an invaluable guide to these important concepts. The book is virtuous in a variety of ways, including its clarity, its utter lack of dogmatism, its comprehensiveness (especially given the limits of time and space), and also its brevity. While I could have done with a book twice this size due to my own interest in and desire for comprehensiveness, the current size of the book makes it more accessible and far less daunting to those who might be nervous in general around the perceived (and often overtly despised) intellectualism that tackling a book on theology outside of formal education might otherwise stir in a potential reader. It also does not ignore some of the major controversies in recent modern pagan history (e.g. PantheaCon 2011 and 2012’s trans/gender discrimination incidents), and provides a good basis for further investigation of some of these theological issues as well. I would recommend it to anyone who is not familiar with basic theological terms in any religion, and to modern pagans in particular; and in fact, I will be making it required reading in some of my Academia Antinoi courses in the near future as well.
One part of the book that nearly made me stand up and dance cheerfully and thankfully was the following, which comes in Chapter One, on the very basics of theology and the nature of divine beings:
The reader will notice that I switch freely between “the divine,” “God/dess,” “the gods,” and other terms in this section. I do this partly to reflect the views of the writers and theologians I will be discussing, and partly because none of these terms successfully encompasses the others. Within Paganism are practitioners who reject even the vaguely indicated oneness of saying “the divine,” and others who are uncomfortable with the separateness and distinction implied by “the gods.” As we will see, these two incompatible perspectives are linked by a theological middle ground where the majority of contemporary Pagans find themselves on a day-to-day basis.
I certainly have indicated that I am not at all happy with how people in a variety of religions, and equally as much within paganism, default to talk of “the divine” far more often than I think is useful, and in the case of many pagans, in ways that are actively counterproductive in terms of accurately describing their actual theologies. Being that I am a polytheist, this of course fits with my own views on divine multiplicity and non-monism. Not only does Dr. Kraemer specifically state why she varies her usage on this matter, but she also acknowledges the problem that many of us have with the term in doing so, while likewise giving voice to the critiques of those who do not like the term “the gods.” This is a difficult balance to strike, especially in an introductory book like this which serves to survey and summarize a great deal of the modern pagan religious landscapes, and Dr. Kraemer does it admirably and consistently throughout the book.
The book is almost free from errors–the few that did exist were not barriers to understanding by any means. One notable error that I would like to point out is in the notes and bibliography in relation to some of my own publications: they were not published by CreateSpace (though they were printed by them), they were published by The Red Lotus Library. Asphodel Press is its own publisher, even though Lulu prints its books; Circle of Cerridwen Press, likewise, prints its books from Lulu; and the same is true of a huge variety of publishers, even apart from the print-on-demand publishing world. Both Asphodel Press and Circle of Cerridwen Press books were listed in the bibliography and notes to Dr. Kraemer’s book with no indication that Lulu printed their books, as is the custom for professional and academic bibliographies in any subject. The same courtesy should have been extended to my books. I realize this may seem like nit-picking to some people, but my own publishing efforts deserve the same respect that these other fine examples of pagan initiative in the realm of self-publishing were given.
The only other major critique of the book that I have is one of medium: I would love it if this book were available in a printed form. As a person who is dedicated to environmental preservation, I understand why e-books are popular for conservation reasons; as a researcher, I understand why a searchable digital text makes referencing and navigation of even a short book more efficient; and as someone with limited income, I most certainly understand how the cost of e-books is far more sensible than that of producing physical books, even in a print-on-demand fashion. As a human being and as a pagan who is concerned with the body and the senses, however, I much prefer a physical book. The movement involved in holding a book and turning its pages, the weight of the object, the beauty of the cover, the smell of the paper (with smell being a sense directly tied to memory and the parts of the brain that regulate it), and the quite literal soul that the words of a good piece of writing gives to a book, is an understanding and an experience that fixes the content in the mind much easier than any flickering pixels on a screen can do. A physical book can accompany a person to the ends of the earth without requiring power or recharging, and this book would be one well suited to reading in your favorite natural and numinous spot, since pagan theologies are based in nature and in physicality as much as they are in intellect and the ability of the mind to reflect philosophically upon a given set of issues. As someone who does not have an e-reader, an iPad, or even a laptop or notebook computer, I was stuck at my desktop computer reading this book, and had the book not been as wonderful and enjoyable as it was, it would have been a real chore to have done so. Luckily, it was not a chore (though I found myself sore in doing so, just as I do from sitting and writing or reading anything on the computer for longer than an hour); but nonetheless, I’d be very willing to buy several copies of a “dead trees” version of the book if it were made available.
Without reservation, I would recommend this book to any modern pagan, whether they might be professionally trained theologians who are already familiar with process theology, feminism, and the importance of gender studies and queer issues to paganism (whether or not they need a refresher on some of these things), or they are a complete beginner who has only started to test the waters of the wide realms within modern paganism (whether or not they go on to think theologically by habit alongside their pursuit of a viable and vivifying practice). As valuable as the basis of modern pagan religiosities in practice and experience has been, and will continue to be in the future, reflecting on why we do what we do, and articulating in the best, most precise language possible what the details of our individual “why”s might be, is an important and desirable direction in which to move for the future. With the help of Seeking the Mystery and Dr. Kraemer’s skillful guidance in the basics of theology for pagans, this goal will be facilitated exponentially.
Four-point-eight Theological Propositions out of Five!