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Towards a PolyTheology:
Developing a Neopagan Theology

Papyrus Fan, abstract of blue, turquoise & green

Up-Loaded 05 August 1997
Modified 19 October 2007


  1. * What Is Theology?
    • An Introduction to Theology
  2. * What Are the Main Issues of Theology?
    1. Theology - The Study of the Origins of the Deities
    2. Theogony - The Story of the Origins of the Deities
    3. Cosmology - The Study of the Origins of the Universe
    4. Cosmogony - The Story of the Origins of the Universe
  3. * Ethics - Systems of Social and Personal Behavior
    1. Normative Ethics and Meta-Ethics
      1. "What is Good?" versus "What is Right?"
      2. Stressing the Good - Axiological Ethics versus Teleological Ethics
      3. Stressing the Right - Deontological Ethics versus Formalistic Ethics
    2. Ethical Objectivism versus Ethical Subjectivism
      1. Ethical Naturalism versus Ethical Intuitionism - the Good and/ or Right as Objective
      2. Non-Cognitivist Ethics - the Good and/ or Right as Subjective
        1. Emotivism
        2. Cultural or Ethical Relativism
    3. Situation Ethics
    4. Some Stated Ethical Principles in Neopaganism
      1. The Wiccan Rede
      2. The Law of Threefold Return
  4. * What is Sin? (a theological concept, not an ethical concept)

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* I. What Is Theology?

An Introduction

Theology is not the mere quoting of scripture to tell you the word of god, although that may be what some fundamentalists do. Literally it is "a (rational) discourse concerning god," from the Greek theos( god) and logos (discourse or reason). The Christians are not the only ones to carry on such a discourse. As theologia, it began at least with the ancient Greeks, with such people as Hesiod, with his collecting and organizing of myths, and continuing with philosophers like Aristotle.

Thomas Aquinas distinguished between truths of faith and truths of reason. Other thinkers bound philosophy and theology tightly. Still others saw theology as quite separate from philosophy. Protestant theology tends to rely less on reason than Catholic theology and more on faith, scripture, and revelation. Natural theology is considered to be a theology which rests on reason rather than revelation.

Even within one single sect of Christianity, not all theologians agree on all the issues. Judaism has its theology and, just like Christianity, answers to the basic questions will vary from one branch to another (Orthodox, Chasidic, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or Renewal). Islam is primarily divided among the Sunni and the Shi'a along issues including those of theology. Buddhism as well has its many ways with differing issues. Theology in any religion remains an on-going discourse.

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* II. What Are the Main Issues of Theology?

A. Theology (thee-AW-lo-jee) (light "th")

1. Theology basically concerns itself with three questions:

  1. What is God/ what are the deities?
  2. Where did God/ the deities come from?
  3. What is the Nature of God/ the deities?

2. In traditional theology, there are three basic arguments for the existence of god/ the deities:

a. Cosmological argument
The cosmos is not self-explanatory and requires an unconditioned being, god, as its explanation. Typically, the argument proceeds from the condition of motion, causality, or the contingency of the world to the conclusion that an unmover, the first cause, and necessary being must exist. Both Plato and Aristotle developed cosmological arguments for the existence of a prime cause.

Many Neopagan creation stories fit within the cosmological argument, often including "The Star Goddess" as the first cause, moving from a oneness, monism, to a duality, a male and a female deity, to a plurality of being, all the deities and worlds and beings.

b. Ontological argument
starts from the definition of god's nature as a perfect being and moves to the conclusion that god exists. This is basically a matter of faith, not reason or discourse. One is attempting to prove that god exists based on an a priori acceptance that god exists and then saying that, since humanity cannot imagine a greater being, therefore god exists, a rather circular reasoning. It is considered among modern trained theologians to be invalid, a rather "dead" argument.

Ontology as a philosophy regarding the knowledge of being, asking "what is the nature of being?", is quite alive, however. What IS the nature of being? Neither scientists, philosophers, nor theologians have even come close to resolving this, and the discussion remains lively, particularly among scientists.

In contrast with theology and cosmology, ontology can be considered the universal doctrine of being, theology the doctrine of absolute being, and cosmology the doctrine of finite and relative being.

c. Teleological argument
takes the purpose, order, or design of the universe as premise for the conclusion that god exists, from teleology, literally the discourse regarding ends, a philosophy with the doctrine that ends, final causes, or purposes are to invoked as principles of explanation. Certain ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Anaxagoras prepared the way for a view of the universe as purposive, which was used by Aristotle.

As science has developed, the credibility of both teleology and the teleological argument have been greatly reduced.

* What is the position of Neopaganism on the issue of God?

There is NO ONE SINGLE position

Answers like this drive Fundamentalists of any religion wild, for they have their answer either in their holy book or told to them by their teachers or preachers. For any larger religious community, however, this is a matter of discussion with no absolute answer accepted by all. This is as true of Christians as it is of Neopagans. The individual congregant may not have the same understanding as other congregants nor as the minister of the congregation. The ministers of one sect of Protestantism may have a different understanding from the ministers of another. Catholicism sees things differently from Protestants, and there is really no absolute unity of position even among Catholic theologians.

Perhaps many will, however, agree that it is difficult to PROVE the existence of a Divine Force, Energy, or Being. We can look at the Universe, or as some have it, the Multiverse, and say that some force or principle much greater than humanity brought it into being and causes it to continue to be and to change. Whether it is sentient, conscious, or willful is another matter.

The Gaia Hypothesis, held as a Belief by some Neopagans, says that the Earth is a unique organism behaving as a single organism, and perhaps suggests consciousness or sentience on some level, which among some Neopagans is held to be at a fairly high level. This attitude can be extended out to include the entire universe. For others the issue of sentience, consciousness, or will is moot. Things just BE and we are all part of BEING, not even necessarily separate from it, our unique individuality an illusion. This attitude is highly influenced by Hindu and Buddhist thought. Some Neopagans hold to the absolute existence of their deities as unique and distinct from humanity and not dependent upon humanity. Still others feel that deities are human intellectual or psychological constructs to deal with issues that are greater than the scope of the individual human.

What is important here is not to find THE answer, but to give the issue consideration and thought, and at least come to some position as an individual. Naturally, this position can change as an individual's life experiences change.

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B. Theogony (thee-AW-go-nee) (light "th")

The Story of the Origins of God/the Deities

Seems to be rather left out of Christian discussions of Theology, since their god is assumed to exist a priori. But it was of concern to the ancient philosophers and still concerns us today.

Some forms of Neopaganism include a theogony, a story of the coming into being of the deities. These stories vary from tradition to tradition. Often they begin with undifferentiated energy which gradually takes on form, becoming the originator, usually a goddess, called in a number of traditions the Star Goddess. She brings forth, in some manner, at least one other deity, usually a god, with whom she has sex and from their union eventually come forth the rest of the deities and the cosmos.

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C. Cosmogony (koz-MAW-go-nee)

The Origins of the Universe (from Greek, kosmos, world, plus gignesthai, to be born)

Refers to the accounts of the origins of worlds, and applies equally to the speculative accounts of modern astronomers and the mythical accounts of various cultures, including the Bible.

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D. Cosmology (koz-MAW-lo-jee)

The branch of metaphysics concerning questions of the origin and structure of the universe, its creation or everlastingness, vitalism or mechanism, the nature of law, space, time and causality

As differentiated from ontology, cosmological analysis seeks to discover what is true for this world, and ontological analysis to discover relations and distinctions which would be valid in any world.

The philosophy of cosmology may include the contingency, necessity, eternity, limitations, and formal laws of the world, as well as questions of human freedom and the origin of evil

Currently the chief cosmologists are scientists - astronomers, theoretical physicists, and mathematicians - speculating on the origin and development of the universe as well as its present structure.

There is even Acosmism (from Greek "a" meaning "no, not" and "cosmos" meaning "world") in which Hegel posited that the world is unreal and that only God exists. This actually fits, to some extent, various forms of pantheism and even Buddhism, although for Buddhists there is no being which is god; rather, there just the ultimate oneness of all. And while there are deities, the deities, too, devolve into the prime oneness.

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A System of Social and Personal Behavior

Ethics comes from a Greek term ethikos, from ethos meaning "custom" or "usage." Moralis was introduced by Cicero as the Latin equivalent, although there is considered to be some difference today between ethics and morality. In general, ethics is understood to concern acting in terms of the good and the right. This begins a series of arguments concerning the definitions of and origins of these terms and behaviors.

As usual, there are no simple approaches to the issue, and no simple answers. Neopaganism proposes some guidelines, but leaves most decisions up to the individual. Since once again there are no absolutes, Fundamentalist Christians will often claim that Neopagansim has no ethical teachings. This is untrue, as the issues of ethics have never been resolved in any absolute way by philosophers of any culture or theologians of any religion.

Among the issues under consideration are:

* Good
What is the nature of Good?
Where does Good come from?
Is there an Absolute (Objective) Good?
Why or how can humans be encouraged to live Good lives and perform good behaviors?
* Evil
What is the nature of Evil?
Where does Evil come from?
Is there an Absolute (Objective) Evil?
Why or how can humans be discouraged from living Evil lives or performing evil deeds?

The problem here is that for many Christians and Moslems there is an absolute evil, usually called Satan or the Devil. But the relationship of Evil to God and to humanity varies from one sect of Christianity to another, depending on whether one accepts free will, predestination, etc.

Moreover, the existence of an Absolute Evil is NOT common to all, or even most religions. That it does not exist in Neopaganism is no "error" on the part of Neopagan theology. It could, perhaps, be pointed out in arguments with Christians, that the Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus do not believe in absolute evil. This won't matter much to a Fundamentalist, but it puts Neopagans in "good company."

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Developing through philosophy and religion, one arrives at a number of ethical systems. One arrives at systems of Normative Ethics, designed to provide guidance in making decisions concerning good and evil, right and wrong, and systems of Meta-Ethics, analyzing the logic of usage with respect to "good" and "evil," "right" and "wrong." Most ethical philosphers have combined the two into their systems, but as ordinary Neopagans, we may be most concerned with the issue of Normative Ethics.

* A. Normative Ethics

1. What is Good? versus What is Right?

* a. The Good

The ancient Greeks concerned themselves with good, distinguishing between intrinsic goods, which are those things good in themselves, and intrumental goods, which have their value in making possible another good.

Good extends beyond "what ought to be done in the way of conduct where the actions of individuals intersect." Not only does it include those actions, but extends into the aesthetic, that which deserves to be appreciated and the true, that which deserves to be believed.

The Greek philosophies concerned themselves also with the summun bonum, the highest good, but they do not all agree on what this is. For Aristotle, it was eudaimonia, happiness; for the Epicureans, pleasure (which has a rather specific definition within their philosophy), and for the Stoics, serene resignation. For the Confucians it is li, translated as propriety or good manners. For Christians it is agape, love.

* b. The Right

The right is often considered to be "what ought to exist in its own right," while good is "what one ought to do." Right has also been related to both reason and eternal law, and is sometimes considered to be Objective.

* c. The Good Compared with the Right

For some modern ethicists, good derives from attitudes of approval in society, while right derives from attitudes of disapproval, such as prohibitions. Good is sometimes considered to include such qualities as creativity, pleasure in the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Within an ethical theory only one, either good or right, will usually dominate.

2. Stressing the Good - Axiological Ethics versus Teleological Ethics

When the good is considered to be the key to ethical behavior, the ethical theory is characterized by value fulfillment, right becomes one aspect of that fulfillment, namely the set of obligations to others which must be respected in reaching the good. These theories are termed either Axiological, stressing their value aspect, or Teleological, stressing their orientation to final goals.

Teleological Ethics analyzes the right in terms of the ends of actions. The emphasis is on the consequence likely to flow from a decision. Since the good is an end to be achieved, teleological ethics may be said to be the approach to ethics which evaluates the conduct in terms of its likelihood to produce good.

3. Stressing the Right - Deontologica versus Formalistic Ethics

When the right is considered to be the key to ethical behavior, the ethical theory is oriented to the ideas of obligation and duty, centering around the statement of principles of behavour, rather than, as in the former case, in the tracing of consequences. These theories are termed either Deontological, stressing obligation, or Formalistic, stressing principle.

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* B. Ethical Objectivism versus Ethical Subjectivism

Both good and right can be viewed as either objective, standing for a real factor in things, or subjective, simply standing for a human proposal, thus Ethical Objectivism or Ethical Subjectivism.

* 1. Ethical Naturalists versus Ethical Intuitionists

Those which regard the good and/ or right as objective may be further divided. This division turns on the epistimological question of how the good and right are known. Those who claim that the good and right can be known as natural objects are known, and that empirical verification is possible in ethics, are called Ethical Naturalists. Those who claim that the good and/ or right can be known only by a special intuition are called Ethical Intuitionists.

* 2. Non-Cognitivist Ethics

Those whose theories hold that ethical terms do not stand for anything objective may be called Non-Cognitivists, since for this group ethical terms and judgments stand for emotions, attitudes, proposals, recommendations, etc. The Non-Cognitivists can be further subdivided. Those who ground ethical terms in emotions expressing attitudes of approval or disapproval have been called Emotivists. Non-Cognitivism in which the attitudes of the group determine the meaning and the force of value terms may be called Cultural Relativism, or Ethical Relativism.

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* C. Situation Ethics - A relatively recent development in ethics

First propounded by Joseph Fletcher in Situation Ethics, published in 1966, its position is that any action may be good or bad depending on the situation. What is wrong in most situations may sometimes be right if the end it serves is sufficiently good. There is also a school of Christian situationism which turns on agape, a love characerized by "thankfulness." An example may be murder - this is considered wrong, but if someone is tryng to kill you and the only way to prevent this is to kill them, one is in such a situation. If one feels one's own life doesn't matter and ethical principles matter more, one is not a situationist. Perhaps an even stronger example would be a situation in which someone is trying to kill your small children. Most parents would consider doing whatever is necessary to protect their young. Another situation may be theft - this is considered bad. But if the choice is stealing some food or starving to death, one may find oneself stealing. Living is a greater good for most individuals than obeying an ethical principle.

Situation ethics is a principle underlying many Neopagan decisions. Other than the two "laws" stated above, there is no well-developed ethical code within Neopaganism like the "Ten Commandments." Much teaching is presented on a case-by-case basis. Stress is placed on the responsibility of all individuals for our actions, and that we will each experience the consequences of our actions. Of special concern is the use of magic. When is it permissible to do magic involving people other than the magic worker? Is a particular type of magic NEVER to be used? Or is it perhaps only suitable in extreme situations, when one is willing to bear the attended threefold return, because the end good as a whole is more important than consequences to the individual magic user? For every act of magic, the magic-worker must consider this.

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* D. Some Stated Ethical Principles in Neopaganism

The Wiccan Rede and The Law of Threefold Return

Two ethical principles are often stated as being part of Wicca and are cited by many Wiccan-influenced Neopagans, who are not necessarily Wiccans in the true sense of the word. These two principle are commonly known as "The Wiccan Rede" and "The Law of Threefold Return".

* 1. The Wiccan Rede

The Wiccan Rede is a Formalistic Ethic. At its core it says, as long as it harms no one, you may do whatever you wish. This is frequently seen as, "An it harm none, do as ye will." The Rede may be considered to be akin to the so-called Golden Rule, most commonly stated as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Sometimes The Rede is couched in a doggeral poem, designed to be easily memorized.

Most commonly this idea seems to apply primarily to humans, and harming another human is considered to be unethical by the standards of most Neopagans, whether out of dislike, anger, or vengence. Some Neopagans stretch this to include animals and become vegetarians (eating eggs, dairy products, and honey) or even vegans (eating and using no products of animal or insect origin whatsoever).

Hot debates arise in the Neopagan community regarding the ethicality of hunting, meat eating, using or wearing leather or fur. Another "hot" topic is whether soldiering and fighting of any sort, even in self-defense, are correct according to "the Rede." Some Neopagans stress a stand of non-violence beyond that practiced in the political arena. I think i would be safe in saying that at least MOST Neopagans agree that there is no need to hunt rare or endangered wild animals just for their furs, and that such behavior is unethical. Those who do not eschew fur and leather will get theirs from animals raised by humans for this purpose or from animals common in the wild, such as most species of deer.

* 2. The Law of Threefold Return

The Law of the Threefold Return, a Teleological Ethic, probably has relatively recent origins. Most likely it was derived from Theosophy which developed in the latter quarter of the 19th century. Theosophy brought some elements of Hindu thought and belief, including but not limited to Chakras and Reincarnation, into Western, European society. There is no hard evidence of this so-called law existing before that time in Western philosophy, religion or folklore.

The Law of the Threefold Return reinforces the Wiccan Rede in that it states that whatever [behaviors, energy, magic] one does will return to one three times as strong. This is meant to deter doing any unethical behaviors or harmful magical acts. Many Wiccans hold this belief, as do most Wiccan-influenced Neopagans whether they are actually Wiccans or not. However, not all traditions of Wicca or of Witchcraft hold this belief. As i said, it is basically a reinforcement of "harm none", for it suggests that if one does do harm, one will feel that harm three times over. In some Neopagan traditions, this appears as The Law of Tenfold Return, but this is less common than Threefold.

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* IV. What is Sin

Sin is a theological concept, not an ethical concept. Most religions do have concepts of right and wrong, that is, a system of ethics. But the concept of sin is distinguished from a moral wrong in that, while the latter is committed against humans, a sin is a transgression against God.

Of course, the issues of right and good, of wrong and evil, concern Neopagans. But as sin does not exist within Neopaganism, this is an issue which does not really need to be deeply addressed by Neopagans, except to understand it as a concept. In fact, the concept of sin also does not exist within many other religious systems.

One must beware, however, when reading translations of the works of other religions, for often the word "sin" is used to translate a concept which is really somewhat different, and while it may be a "moral wrong" or an "error of behavior", it is not identical with "a transgression against God." The use of this term reflects the religious beliefs of the translator and not necessarily the system presented in the text.

The concept of Original Sin is entirely unique to Christianity. The idea is that humans are born in a state of sin because of what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Even. It did not enter Christianity with Christ. Early Christians were without this concept. Nor have all Christians since the time of Paul accepted the doctrine of Original Sin. Obviously, this is not an issue for Neopagans, except, again, in dialogue with certain Christians.

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