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Spiritual Contours of the Contemporary Pagan Worldview

by Dr. Dennis D. Carpenter

This article examines aspects of the spiritual worldview inherent in contemporary Paganism and begins with a discussion of relevant background contexts. First, spirituality is defined and described within the context of postmodernism. Then, the main themes of postmodern spirituality as described by David Ray Griffin (1988a, 1988b, 1990) and Charlene Spretnak (1987a, 1987b, 1989, 1991) are summarized in order to determine the ways in which these themes are descriptive of contemporary Paganism. The presentation of postmodern spiritual themes provides a context for the discussion of Pagan spiritual worldviews. Once these background contexts have been developed, this article identifies and describes the major spiritual contours of the Pagan worldview. Selected for examination are the theme of interconnectedness, the immanent/transcendent dimension, animism and spiritism, the monotheism/polytheism dimension, and the concept of magic. In summary, the main purpose of this article is to describe the major spiritual contours of the worldview inherent in contemporary Paganism. In presenting this information, it is recognized that the diversity that typifies contemporary Paganism makes it difficult, if not impossible, to identify a worldview that characterizes all Pagans. In recognition of this situation, this article explores Pagan worldview along the contours specified as revealed in some of the available Pagan literature.

Postmodern Context

In the broadest sense, this article focuses upon spirituality, defined succinctly by Griffin (1988a) as "a person's ultimate values and commitments, regardless of their content" (p. 2). In this definition, spirituality does not necessarily concern the sacred or the divine. In contrast, Spretnak (1987a) defined spirituality as "the focusing of human awareness on the subtle aspects of existence, a practice that reveals to us profound interconnectedness" (p. 24). Spretnak (1991) further described spirituality as the "sense of the sacred -- our human perception of the larger reality, ultimate mystery, or creativity in the universe" (p. 2). Drawing from these definitions, the term "spirituality" will be used in this article to refer to the ultimate values, worldviews and experiences which reflect human perceptions of the divine and give life meaning.

According to Griffin (1988b), postmodernism refers to a diffuse sentiment that humanity can and must go beyond modernism, i.e. the worldview that developed out of the seventeenth century Galilean-Cartesian-Baconian-Newtonian science. The basic argument for needing to go beyond modernism rests in "the awareness that the continuation of modernity threatens the very survival on our planet" (Griffin, 1988b). Spretnak (1991) supported this argument in enumerating the threats to human survival and global well-being that modernism has brought about which include ecocide, nuclear arms, globalization of unqualified growth economies, the plunder of indigenous peoples' cultures and homelands, loss of meaning beyond consumerism, loss of community and connectedness with other people, and loss of a secure sense of embeddedness in the rest of the natural world.

Griffin (1988b) advocated constructive or revisionary postmodernism in which a postmodern worldview is constructed through a revision of modern premises and traditional concepts, involving a unity of scientific, ethical, aesthetic, and religious intuitions. Griffin went on to say that this constructive, revisionary postmodernism involves a creative synthesis of modern and premodern truths and values, including premodern notions of a divine reality, cosmic meaning, and an enchanted nature. Spretnak (1991) advocated a similar form of postmodernism, called ecological postmodernism, which she described as "passage beyond the failed assumptions of modernity and a radical reorientation that preserves the positive advances of the liberal tradition and technological capabilities but is rooted in ecological sanity and meaningful human participation in the unfolding story of the Earth community and the universe" (p. 4).

Griffin (1988a, 1990) identified a number of specific themes which characterize postmodern spirituality and social thinking including: (a) the reality of internal relations or interconnections; (b) a nondualistic relation of humans to Nature and of the divine reality to the world; (c) the immanence of both the past and the future in the present; (d) the universality and centrality of creativity; (e) postpatriarchy; (f) communitarianism (versus individualism and nationalism); (g) the "deprivatization" of religion, meaning the rejection of the autonomy of morality, politics, and economics from religious values; and (h) the rejection of materialism, in the sense of economism, meaning the subordination of social, religious, moral, aesthetic, and ecological interests to short-term economic interests.

This postmodern context described by Griffin (1988a, 1990) and Spretnak (1991) is relevant to the discussion of contemporary Paganism, because Paganism represents an attempt to synthesize premodern notions of divine reality, cosmic meaning and an enchanted nature with present day life. In addition, certain of the themes identified by Griffin (1988a, 1990) as characteristic of postmodern spirituality will be shown to be descriptive of contemporary Paganism.

Theme of Interconnectedness

The theme of interconnectedness represents a fundamental component of the Pagan worldview fnord. Griffin (1990) and Spretnak (1987a) described the theme of interconnectedness within a postmodern context which helps clarify his aspect of the Pagan spiritual worldview. As mentioned before, Spretnak claimed that profound interconnectedness is revealed when human awareness is focused on the subtle aspects of existence. Spretnak described the true nature of being as nondualistic in saying "all is one, all forms of existence are comprised of one continuous dance of matter/energy arising and falling away, arising and falling away" (p. 24). Consistent with such a view, Griffin (1990) maintained that no feature of postmodern spirituality is emphasized more than the reality of internal relations, the idea that all things are interconnected and that these interconnections are internal to the very essence of the things themselves. Similarly, Starhawk (1989) identified one of the core principles of Goddess religion, or Witchcraft, as interconnection which she described as "the understanding that all being is interrelated, that we are linked with all of the cosmos as parts of one living organism. What affects one of us affects us all" (p. 10). Fox (1989a) offered a similar viewpoint when she said, "Mother Earth is the Goddess of Planet Earth. She is the Ecosphere, the totality of all lifeforms and substance here. She is the Web of Life of this world" (p. 27). This symbol of the "Web of Life" sometimes depicted as a spider's web or as a web of light around the planet has been used by many Pagans to represent the theme of interconnectedness. The following popular Pagan chant reflects this notion well: "We are the flow, We are the ebb, We are the weaver, We are the web."

Immanent/Transcendent Dimension

Related to the theme of interconnectedness, the immanent/transcendent dimension encompasses a range of viewpoints characterizing human understanding about the relation of the Divine to the world. The terms pantheism, panentheism and deism have been used to refer to aspects of this immanent/transcendent dimension. According to Runes (1983), pantheism means that "the essence of God or the Absolute is completely immanent in the world, i.e. is identical with it" (p. 157). At the other extreme, "Deism means that God is essentially absent or transcendent from the world" (Runes, p. 157). In between these two extremes, panentheism refers to: "The view that God interpenetrates everything without cancelling the relative independent existence of the world of entities; moreover, while God is immanent, this immanence is not absolute (as in pantheism); God is more than the world, transcendent, in the sense that though the created is dependent upon the Creator the Creator is not dependent upon the created. God thus is held to be the highest type of Unity, viz., a Unity in Multiplicity" (Runes, p. 239).

Griffin (1990) described panentheism with the context of the interconnected aspects of postmodern spirituality: "The reality of spiritual energy is affirmed but is felt to exist within and between all nodes in the cosmic web of interconnections. It is thus dispersed throughout the universe, not concentrated in a source wholly transcendent to it. Post-modernists who speak of God generally affirm a naturalistic panentheism, according to which God is in all things and all things are in God....The relations between things are regarded as internal to them, and as their participation in the universal web of interconnections, which is itself holy or sacred, being the source of all value and power" (p. 2). Sheldrake (1990) also described a panentheistic worldview when he said "God is not remote and separate from nature, but immanent within it. Yet at the same time God is the unity which transcends it" (p. 167).

The concept of the divine feminine, or Goddess, is valued by many Pagans as a metaphor/symbol of both the immanent and transcendent divine. According to Fox (1989a), "The Goddess is around us and within us. She is immanent and transcendent" (p. 3). Starhawk (1982) defined immanence as "the awareness of the world and everything in it as alive, dynamic, interdependent, interacting, and infused with moving energies: a living being, a weaving dance" (p. 9). Starhawk further described divine immanence from a Goddess perspective by saying that the Goddess "represents the divine embodied in nature, in human beings, in the flesh" (p. 9). Spretnak (1991) stressed the fundamental importance of immanence from a Goddess perspective, while adding a transcendent component: "The central understanding in contemporary Goddess spirituality is that the divine -- creativity in the universe, or ultimate mystery -- is laced through-out the cosmic manifestations in and around us. The divine is immanent, not concentrated in some distant seat of power, a transcendent sky-god. Instead of accepting the notion in patriarchal religion that one must spiritually transcend the body and nature, it is possible to apprehend divine transcendence as the sacred whole, or the infinite complexity of the universe. The Goddess, as a metaphor for divine immanence and the transcendent sacred whole, expresses ongoing regeneration with the cycles of her Earthbody and contains the mystery of diversity within unity: the extraordinary range of differentiation in forms of life on Earth issued from her dynamic form and are kin" (pp. 136-137).

Adler (1986) noted that many Pagans hold a pantheistic worldview meaning that divinity is diffused throughout the world and is inherent in all nature. Starhawk's (1982) conceptualization of the Goddess as a symbol of divine immanence also demonstrates such a pantheistic worldview. However, upon closer examination of Starhawk's viewpoints, a transcendent aspect emerges within the theme of "unity in diversity." As suggested by Griffin (1990), Spretnak (1991), and Runes (1983), "unity in diversity" is a central theme of the panentheistic worldview meaning that the divine is immanent, i.e. interspersed throughout Nature in the web of interconnections, as well as transcendent, i.e. perceived as a unifying whole. Fox (1990) acknowledged such immanent and transcendent aspects when she said, "I know that Divinity has many facets and I experience this through a variety of Gods and Goddesses. I also honor Divine Oneness, the Unity of All" (p. 45). Starhawk (1989) described the paradoxical aspects of this theme of "unity in diversity": "A mirror image is a reversed image, the same, but opposite, the reverse polarity. The image expresses the paradox: All things are one, yet each thing is separate, individual, unique...Witchcraft holds to the truth of paradox and sees each view as equally valid. They reflect and complement each other; they do not contradict each other. The world of separate things is the reflection of the One; the One is the reflection of the myriad separate things of the world. We are all 'swirls' of the same energy; yet each swirl is unique in its own form and pattern" (p. 39).

In summary, Pagans maintain immanent and pantheistic perspectives in which the divine is dispersed through Nature and is Nature. To the extent that Pagans also acknowledge the mutual existence of a unifying aspect or transcendent whole as have Fox (1989a, 1990) and Starhawk (1989), they may be more appropriately called panentheists.

Animism and Spiritism

According to Runes (1983), animism is defined as "the view that souls are attached to all things either as their inner principle of spontaneity or activity, or as their dwellers; the doctrine that Nature is inhabited by various grades of spirits" (p. 28). In other words, animism refers to "the attribution of a living soul to inanimate objects and natural phenomenon" (Simpson & Weiner, 1989, p. 478). Spiritism reflects the characteristics of animism, but adds an element of communicability in that ancestral or other spirits can communicate with humans (Runes, 1983). Another term related to animism is hylozoism which refers to "the conception of nature as alive or animated, of reality as alive" (Runes, p. 149).

Consistent with these definitions and closely related to the concept of immanence, Pagans view all of Nature as alive and imbued with spiritual energy. In addition, communication is said to be possible between humans and various aspects, or spirits, of the animated natural world. Over the years, I have heard these concepts revealed in a number of ways by Pagans including communication with plants and trees, working with power animals and other Nature spirits, connecting with the powers of place, working with ancestor spirits, and connecting with the Spirit World. Reflected in these practices are the beliefs that Nature is alive, that various aspects of Nature maintain an autonomous sense of spirit or consciousness, and that communication can occur between humans and these aspects of Nature. According to Fox (1989b), "the Wiccan Religion is animistic in that every human, tree, animal, stream, rock, and other forms of Nature are seen to have a Divine Spirit within" (p. 1). Fox went on to say that "many Wiccans have personal communication and friendships with various animals, plants and other lifeforms" (p. 1). Adler (1986) noted that the animistic worldview of the premodern world which did not conceive of a separation between "animate" and "inanimate" provides the inspiration for the reanimation of Nature by contemporary Pagans.

Fox (1990) offered her perspectives which further describe an interconnected and animistic worldview: "I am a Pagan. I am a part of the whole of Nature. The Rocks, the Animals, the Plants, the Elements, and the Stars are my relatives. Other humans are my sisters and brothers, whatever their races, colors, genders, ages, nationalities, religions, lifestyles. The Earth is my Mother and the Sun is my Father. I am a part of this large family of Nature, not the master of it. I have my own special part to play and I seek to play that part to the best of my ability. I seek to live in harmony with others in the family of Nature, treating others with respect, not abuse" (p. 44).

Consistent with the view of all Nature as alive, Pagans revere the Earth as a living being, often referring to the Earth as Mother Earth (Fox, 1989, 1990) or Gaia (also spelled Gaea), after the primordial Greek Earth Goddess (Farrar & Farrar, 1987). Lovelock (1979) also referred to this Greek Goddess in using the term "Gaia Hypothesis" to refer to the interconnectedness of all life on Earth and to the Earth's ecosphere exhibiting the behavior of a single living organism through self-regulation. Sheldrake (1990) expanded on the animistic nature of this "living Earth concept" to include the whole universe: "The organismic or holistic philosophy of nature which has grown up over the last sixty years is a new form of animism. It implicitly or explicitly regards all nature as alive. The universe as a whole is a developing organism, and so are the galaxies, solar systems and biospheres within it, including the Earth" (p. 125). Such perceptions of the Earth and all of Nature as alive constitutes a fundamental component of the worldview of Pagans which many believe fosters a sense of compassion and obligation to save the environment.

Monotheism/Polytheism Dimension

According to Runes (1983), polytheism is defined as the "theory that Divine reality is numerically multiple, that there are many gods; opposed to monotheism" (p. 258). Monotheism, in this case, refers to the theory that Divine reality is characterized by one god, usually believed to be transcendent. Adler (1986) defined polytheism from the Nature-based perspectives of Pagans as "grounded in the view that reality (divine or otherwise) is multiple and diverse. And if one is a pantheist-polytheist, as are many Neo-Pagans, one might say that all nature is divinity and manifests itself in myriad forms and delightful complexities" (p. 25).

Considerable variability exists regarding where individual Pagan practitioners and Pagan groups fit along the monotheism/polytheism dimension. As already described in the discussion of the "unity in diversity" theme, one of the most prevalent points of view synthesizes the polytheistic and monotheistic perspectives in recognizing the diverse, multiplistic aspects of the Divine, but also acknowledging a unifying aspect. According to Fox (1989b): "The Wiccan religion is monotheistic in that there is an honoring of Divine Unity. It also is polytheistic in that Wiccans honor the Divine through a variety of female and male deity forms -- Goddesses and Gods which are aspects of the Divine Female and Divine Male and their Unity" (p. 1).

Adler (1986) described the variability of perspective regarding monotheism/polytheism in that some Feminist Witches often hold a monotheistic viewpoint, worshipping the Goddess as the One, while many Wiccans "might well be considered 'duotheists,' conceiving of deity as the Goddess of the Moon, Earth, and sea, and the God of the woods, the hunt, the animal realm" (p. 35). For the most part, at least some component of the Pagan worldview is polytheistic which involves working with Gods and Goddesses from a variety of cultures, past and present, throughout the world.

Many Pagans metaphorically relate the concept of human sexuality and gender to the Divine as suggested already by the use of the terms God and Goddess in this article. The polarity of the masculine and the feminine is viewed as important by many Pagans including Jones and Matthews (1990) who addressed this theme of polarity in the following: "The polarity of the Goddess and the God in Pagan religion allows for the creative resolution of any dilemma through the interplay of equal and opposite principles, in contrast to the requirement of merely accurate submission to the One True Way which all too easily characterizes monotheistic, hierarchical religion" (pp. 34-35).

Consistent with the views of Fox (1989b) regarding monotheism and polytheism, Crowley (1989) discussed the concept of polarity from the perspective of the "unity in diversity" theme: "We therefore worship the personification of the male and female principle, the God and Goddess, recognizing that all Gods are different aspects of the one God and all Goddesses are different aspects of the one Goddess, and that ultimately these two are reconciled in the one divine essence. There are many flowers in the garden of the divine and therein lies the beauty" (pp. 11-12).

Some Pagans view the polytheistic aspects of the Divine as similar to Jungian archetypes within the collective unconscious. Crowley (1989) demonstrated such a point of view: "While the forms of the Gods have varied, there are certain concepts which have arisen in widely differing times and cultures and the psychologist Carl Jung called these archetypes. In Wicca, we contact the divine archetypes through the ritual and through the enactment of the ancient Pagan myths which express eternal truths about humanity and the universe it inhabits" (p. 12). Farrar and Farrar (1989) cautioned against viewing the Gods and Goddesses as only representing archetypes in the following: "But one must not fall into the trap of thinking: 'These are useful psychological devices, merely representing archetypes of the human Collective Unconscious. They have no reality outside that.' The Gods and Goddesses exist, and ensoul the archetypes. They are living, active faces of the ultimate Unknowable. And unless we lay intellect aside at the right moment and surrender ourselves to the mystery of communion with them -- unless we give free rein to an innocent sense of wonder -- the tuning will be in vain" (pp. 3-4).

As suggested in this section, considerable variability exists regarding the extent to which Pagans may be considered monotheists and/or polytheists. In addition, variability exists regarding how these monotheistic and polytheistic components are worked with. Some direct their worship toward a single aspect of deity, many focus their worship upon a Goddess-God pair, and others direct their worship to an entire pantheon. Some work with a pantheon rooted in a particular culture, while others work with a pantheon which includes Goddesses and Gods from many cultures.

Concept of Magic

Perhaps one of the most significant distinguishing factors separating Wiccans and Pagans from others who share some similar perspectives is the value placed upon magic. Based upon the theme of interconnectedness, but going beyond it, the magical worldview maintains that each part of the interconnected whole affects every other part (Starhawk, 1989). Given this model, many Pagans believe that magic can be used to gain insight from as well as to influence other aspects of the interconnected whole. Starhawk described magic as "the art of sensing and shaping the subtle, unseen forces that flow throughout the world, of awakening deeper levels of consciousness beyond the rational" (p. 27). Starhawk went on to say that ritual serves a magical function in stimulating an awareness of the hidden side of reality and awakening long-forgotten powers of the human mind. Starhawk further maintained that magical rituals are used to create states of ecstasy, of union with the divine, as well as to achieve material results such as healings.

Adler (1986) defined magic as: "A convenient word for a whole collection of techniques, all of which involve the mind. In this case, we might conceive of these techniques as including the mobilization of confidence, will, and emotion brought about by the recognition of necessity; the use of imaginative faculties, particularly the ability to visualize, in order to begin to understand how other beings function in nature so we can use this knowledge to achieve necessary ends" (p. 8).

Winkelman (1982) compared magic to experimental parapsychology findings regarding psi and cited evidence to suggest that some aspects of magical practice involve psi. Referring to various definitions presented in the Journal of Parapsychology, Winkelman defined psi as a general term used to identify personal factors or processes in Nature which transcend accepted laws and which are non-physical in nature. Winkelman noted that some magical practices and beliefs reported by anthropologists share certain of the characteristics found through research to be conducive to psi manifestations: altered states of consciousness, visualization, positive expectation, and belief. Orion (1990) asked her respondents to indicate the human faculties through which they believed magic to operate. The responses included one's own power or will, imagination, psychic powers or skills, creativity, and change of consciousness. These are consistent with the factors noted by Adler and Winkelman as central to the efficacy of magic.


This article has examined the spiritual contours of the worldview of a diverse group of people involved in contemporary Paganism, beginning with the discussion of various relevant background contexts. First, spirituality was defined as the ultimate values, worldviews and experiences which reflect human perceptions of the divine and give life meaning. Spirituality was then discussed within a postmodern context as described by Griffin (1988a, 1988b, 1990) and Spretnak (1991). Once these background contexts were developed, this article identified and described the major spiritual contours of the worldview of contemporary Pagans. Selected for examination were the theme of interconnectedness, the immanent/transcendent dimension, animism and spiritism, the monotheism/polytheism dimension, and the concept of magic. The theme of interconnectedness represents a basic component of the Pagan worldview and recognizes the fundamental interrelatedness of all being. The immanent/transcendent dimension describes the human understanding regarding the relation of the divine to the world. Pagans vary somewhat in their perceptions of this dimension with many best described as panentheists in recognition of both the immanent divine in Nature and the transcendent unifying whole. Pagans may be described as animistic in their recognition of all Nature as alive and imbued with spiritual energy. Pagans are also spiritists in their belief in the ability to communicate with various aspects, or spirits, of the natural world. Pagans tend to very considerably in their views regarding the singularity or multiplicity of the divine as demonstrated in the discussion of the monotheism/polytheism dimension. The magical worldview of Pagans recognizes the interconnectedness of all things, as well as the ability to influence other parts of the interconnected whole. Relying on alterations of consciousness, many Pagans believe that they can tap into natural human abilities to spiritually influence events in the natural world. This article has not attempted to provide a definitive statement regarding the Pagan worldview. Rather, the attempt has been made to identify some spiritual contours of the Pagan worldview which may help in your personal reflection regarding how you view the spiritual dimensions of life.


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