Naturalistic Paganism

Bicycle meditation, by Thomas Schenk

Cycling Through Old Railway Tunnel, by Alex Robinson

photo by Alex Robinson

I love to wake early on a Sunday morning and go for a bike ride.  Unlike the many people who pass me as I plod along, I do not ride for exercise or any other discernible purpose.  I have no particular destination, and no timetable.  I ride just to explore and look at the world, for though I have been exploring and looking for nearly five decades, I still find the world incredibly interesting and beautiful.

In the flow

I live in a city, and sometimes I ride through industrial areas or train yards, sometimes I ride through residential areas, and sometime I ride in parks or out to the countryside.  The distinction between natural and man-made is not of much use to me as I ride along; what’s there is there, and what’s there is what I am interested in seeing.

On some of these days, I become unaware of time and unconcerned with distance as I ride.  Hours and miles pass by, and I am absorbed in the sheer joy of exploring the world.  But inevitably, at some point this changes, and I start to desire to get home (this usually happens after I start back and hit the inevitable hill, for I live in a high part of town).  The moment I want to be home, the entire quality of the experience changes.

In that duration when I am unaware of time and unconcerned with distance, I am exactly where I want to be.  The moment that I want to be somewhere else, I become acutely aware of time and distance.  Up to that moment the miles passed effortlessly; after it the miles become an obstacle, and I am keenly aware of the amount of effort required to overcome them.  Whereas I had been completely content with where I was, suddenly I’m no longer content.

Between cycling and eternity

The 6th Century Zen poet Seng-ts’an wrote:

“Do not like, do not dislike, all will then be clear.  Make a hair’s-breadth difference, and heaven and earth are set apart.”

The gulf between nirvana and samsara, I suggest, is precisely the gulf between these two experiences of bike riding.  To be absolutely fulfilled in what you are doing, so that there is not a hair’s-breadth of desire to be anywhere else or doing anything else – that is nirvana.  To have that hair’s-breadth of desire, or an ocean’s width of desire – that is samsara.

The mystics through the ages have spoken of a place beyond the concerns of time and space, and what they are talking about is nothing more than a Sunday morning bike ride.  They have spoken of a place of suffering, and what they are talking about is nothing more than the itch to get further on down the road.  People through the ages have misunderstood them.  They thought this place beyond the concerns of time and space, which they call eternity, must be altogether outside this world. 

But instead, it is to be fully and completely in this world.

What better place to ride a bike than here and now?

The author

Thomas Schek

Thomas Schenk: “If asked, I’d call myself a Space-age Taoist, Black Sheep Catholic, Perennial Philosophy Pantheist, Dharma Bum.   In other words I am a kind of spiritual and philosophical mutt.  I’m not out to change the world, for I believe the world has a much better sense of what it is supposed to be than I ever could. But I do try to promote the value of the contemplative life in these most un-contemplative of times.  I don’t know if the piece presented here has any value, but I feel blessed that I can spend my time thinking about such things.  My version of the American dream is that here, as the child of a line of farmers and peasants going back through the ages, I have the privilege to live with my head in such clouds.”

Check out Thomas’ other articles:

Upcoming work

This Sunday

Thomas Schek

Thomas Schenk strikes again!  This time he shares with us the magic in the mundane, the numen in the normal, with an insightful piece on the experience of cycling.

Bicycle meditation, by Thomas Schenk

Appearing September 25th on Humanistic Paganism.

Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W. G. Collingwood

This coming week inaugurates a new feature: Thing on Thursday, a council on matters vital to our future.

Each Thursday until the Winter Solstice will explore a controversy.  Any and all are invited to participate – the more the better.  Based on these conversations, the direction of Humanistic Paganism will be determined.

Don’t miss your chance to shape our future.  Make your voice heard!

What controversy will we debate in our opening council?  Find out on Thursday!

The conversation begins this Thursday, September 29th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Next Sunday

Heather WiechNew author Heather Wiech asserts that myth is a symbolic language, and to avoid dogma we must keep inquiry alive.Science vs. religion: Mythology is poetry, not prose, by Heather Wiech

Appearing October 2nd on Humanistic Paganism.

Recent Work

The archetypes are gods: Re-godding the archetypes, by John H. Halstead

Ten years after 9/11: World politics is an existential condition, by B. T. Newberg

Balance within nature: An interview with Rua Lupa

The big news revealed

Shouting in the storm, by Lanier67

What's the big news? Find out below!

photo by Lanier67

Today’s the day that the big news is revealed. And there’s not one, not two, but three pieces of big news.

But first, a little about this special day…

The equinox

Today is the Autumnal Equinox, one of only two times in the year when the length of day and night are exactly equal.  It marks the beginning of fall in the Northern Hemisphere, or spring in the Southern.

Both Neopagans and Humanists recognize the specialness of this day.  Here are two of its lesser-known natural properties:

  • the sun rises due east and sets due west, making it an ideal time to mark exact directions on your property
  • sunrise and sunset occur fastest on the equinoxes, as opposed to the solstices when they are slowest

In Neopaganism, the equinox is often observed as Mabon or Harvest Home, a holiday of thanksgiving for the fruits of the harvest.  The ancient Mysteries of Eleusis were held around this time.  Chinese tradition associates it with West, the direction of dreams and visions.  And the Intihuatana stone of Machu Picchu was designed to predict the equinox as well as other solar phenomena.

The International Day of Peace is also celebrated worldwide around this time.

So go out and enjoy this wonder of nature today!

Big news #1: We’re moving up in the world

Within six months of its conception in April of this year, Humanistic Paganism went from a platform for its editor’s own explorations to a burgeoning spiritual community.  At present, so many authors are scrambling to be published here that posts are scheduled more than six weeks out.

With that in mind, Humanistic Paganism is moving up in the world.

You’ll notice a number of improvements around the site:

First, we’ve gotten our own domain name  Your bookmarks and links should be fine, but if not, try updating to the new URL.

Second, the tagline of the site has dropped the language of nontheism in favor of naturalism.  It is now: “A naturalistic way of nature, myth, and wonder.”  Nontheism was the right technical term, but it proved confusing.  Naturalism gets the point across better.

Third, we now have a tab for Community.  If you’re looking for a group or organization with naturalistic views on spirituality, you’ll find it here.  And check back frequently – we’re always adding new links as we discover how truly abundant our community is.

Finally, we’ve added a Store.  Here you’ll find our free ebook Encounters in Nature, along with other great buys.  If you buy through us, we’ll get a share of the proceeds (at no extra cost to you).  All proceeds go toward improving the site.  We try to keep an extremely low overhead – as close to zero dollars as possible.  But there are still some unavoidable fees.  A modest inflow of cash helps offset the enormous effort put forth by our all-volunteer team.

In addition to these immediate changes, we’ve also got ambitions for the future.  We’re courting a number of big-name authors for contributions.  It’s too early to announce specifics, but look for some eye-popping names in the year to come!

Big News #2:  Seeking submissions for our next ebook!

Announcing an all new ebook, tentatively titled:

Our Ancient Future: Visions of Humanistic Paganism

DUE OUT: Winter Solstice, December 22nd, 2011

Where did naturalistic spirituality come from?  Where are we headed?  Our Ancient Future will answer all this and more.

Part I will explore our roots.  Humanistic Paganism is not a new phenomenon.  In fact, we’ve been around since our earliest ancestors.  Naturalism in religion has a long history, from the Stoics of Rome to the Taoists of ancient China, and possibly even further into the prehistory of our species.  In every age of history, naturalism developed alongside its more theistic cousins.  This ebook will show that our path is as much in the tradition of our ancestors as any other.

Part II will explore our future.  What kind of spirituality do we hope to collectively discover?  What role should Humanistic Paganism play in the larger community?  What will be our contribution to the history of the human spirit?

This is where you come in.  We need voices with visions.  There are several ways for you to contribute:

First, each Thursday until the solstice will see a new feature called Thing on Thursday.  “Thing” represents both the generic word for, you know, a thingie, as well as the Old Norse term for a council of elders: a Thing.  And that’s what Thing on Thursday will be: a roundtable discussion on matters vital to the future.  Admission price: FREE.

Each Thing on Thursday will court a controversy.  For example, should we produce a mission statement, and if so what should it be?  Should the innumerable varieties of religious naturalism try to band together under an umbrella term, or would that be too limiting?  What should be considered the core elements of a Humanistic Pagan path?

Based on your responses, we’ll decide our next steps together.  Your opinions will determine where Humanistic Paganism is headed.

So please make your voice heard in the comments section of these posts!

Second, you can go even further by submitting your own personal vision for the future of Humanistic Paganism.  Just answer this question:

  • In the next ten years, what would you like to see evolve within naturalistic spirituality?

Accepted submissions will be published in the new ebook Our Ancient Future.

See our Submissions tab for submission guidelines.

As always, follow that simple phrase which has become a motto here at HP:

Speak your truth.

Finally, the first 10 people who volunteer to write a review of Our Ancient Future will receive their copy FREE!

Big news #3

Rachel and I

Rachel and I

photo by B. T. Newberg

Drum roll, please…

I’m getting married tomorrow!

That’s right, in a day your devoted editor will be devoted to one spectacular woman.  Rachel is a graphic designer, a Humanist, and a wonderful supporter of Humanistic Paganism.

We’re getting married on the weekend of the equinox, which is a special time for me.  It’s a time to look back and reflect.  The question I ask each year is always the same:

“A year ago, would I ever have thought I’d be here doing this?”

If I can say no, it’s been a good year.

My soon-to-be wife and I have big plans for the future.  We are applying to teach English in South Korea.  If all goes well, we’ll be shipping off at the end of February.

Will this affect Humanistic Paganism?  Not a bit.  Internet work is location independent, so our quality publications will keep coming at you from anywhere in the world.  If anything, the new cultural perspective should make this site all the better.

A year ago, would I have thought we’d be headed to Korea?


A year ago, would I have thought I’d be getting married, much less to a woman as wonderful as this?

No way.

A year ago, would I ever have thought I’d be the editor of a rising-star community blog about naturalistic spirituality?

Again, certainly not.

Damn.  It’s been a good year.

– by your editor, B. T. Newberg

The archetypes are gods: Re-godding the archetypes, by John Halstead

Put your thinking caps on today, boys and girls – this essay is worth it.  The critique of Neopaganism given here is provoking me to completely rethink the way I relate to the gods.  –  B. T. Newberg

We Neopagans often say that the gods are archetypes, but rarely do we hear how the archetypes are gods.

In the 1960s, Neopagans grabbed onto Jung’s conception of archetypes as a way of making polytheism seem legitimate in the modern world.  In the process, however, some Neopagans lost the sense of the gods as numinous.[1]

Psychologizing the gods

By psychologizing the gods, we have contributed to the ongoing disenchantment of the world which began with the Enlightenment.   We have humanized the gods, but in doing so, we have sometimes lost the sense of the gods as gods.

In reaction, many Neopagans in search of communion with the numinous Other have rejected Jungian theory in favor of a radical polytheism which sees the gods as beings existing independent of the human psyche.  This presents a challenge to Humanistic or Naturalistic Neopagans who cannot identify with this conception of the divine.

The disenchantment of the modern world is a common topic of Neopagan authors.  The phrase “disenchantment of the world”, coined by Weber, derives from Friedrich Schiller, who wrote about die Entgotterung der Natur, the “de-godding of nature.”  Neopagan myth and ritual is supposed to be a counter-movement to this disenchantment, a re-enchantment of the world or a “re-godding” of nature.

However, some of the pre-modern cultural forms which Neopaganism claims to reconstruct may actually be transformed in the process, so much so that the “enchantment” is lost in the translation.  For example, Wouter Hanegraaff has argued that “occultist” magic has survived the disenchantment of the Enlightenment by becoming itself disenchanted.  Hanegraaff explains how part of process of the disenchantment of magic was its psychologization.

In contemporary Neopaganism, we see the process of psychologization present not only in discussions of magic, but also in explanations of the gods.  This often takes the forms of describing the Neopagan gods as Jungian archetypes.  In the 1960s and 1970s, as the claims to historical continuity with an ideal Pagan past began to come under attack, Neopagans turned to Jungian psychology as a means for legitimating Neopagan practice.  Unfortunately, the Jungian interpretation of Neopagan gods came to be oversimplified as it was popularized.

Neopagans often describe the gods as archetypes, but sometimes we lose the sense of how the archetypes are gods.  In other words, the numinous quality of the archetype is lost.

The gods may be a part of us, but we must remember that they are also other than us, if by “us” we mean our conscious mind or ego-self.   It is not without reason that Jung called the archetypes gods.  He wrote:

“They are the ruling powers, the gods, images of the dominant laws and principles, and of typical, regularly occurring events in the soul’s cycle of experience.”

We experience the archetypes as gods, because they are beyond our conscious control and because they have the power to transform our lives.  A true encounter with the gods is not only an experience of re-enchantment (what Rudolf Otto calls mysterium fascinans), but also an experience which shakes us to our core (which Otto calls mysterium tremendum).

While the gods are part of the human psyche, we should always keep in mind that the Greek term psyche is better translated as “soul” than as “mind”.  Too often, in discussions of the psychological nature of Neopagan gods, the modifier “just” is inserted immediately preceding the word “psychological”, as in “So the Neopagan gods are just psychological?”

It is as if to say “So they are figments of your imagination?”  Not only is this a profound misunderstanding of Jung’s theory of the psyche, but it contributes to the disenchantment of the Neopagan concept of divinity.

In effect, the Neopagan discourse has de-godded the archetype.

Re-godding the gods

This in turn led to a backlash against Jungian theory in Neopaganism.  David Waldron writes how, in the 1980s, the Jungian approach to Noepaganism came under fire from a number of sources.  Feminists like Naomi Goldenberg criticized Jungianism as being Eurocentric and patriarchal, while queer scholars criticized Jung’s male-female polarization of the psyche.  As a consequence, Jungian psychology was gradually displaced as the dominant Neopagan interpretative paradigm.

Since the 1990’s, radical polytheistic theory has entered the foreground of Neopagan discourse.  Neopagans’ gods came to be described less as Jungian archetypes and more as literal beings that exist independent of the human psyche.  Radical (or “hard”) polytheistic discourse in Neopaganism can be seen as a reaction to this disenchantment of the Neopagan gods.  It is an attempt, if you will, to put the “god” back into the gods.

The de-godding of the archetype in Neopaganism is a consequence of a fundamental misunderstanding of Jung’s theory, namely a confusion of symbol with archetype.  Waldron explains:

“It is one thing to acknowledge that symbols and archetypal images have a deep impact on the human psyche through religious experience.  It is a profoundly different thing to believe that one can consciously and arbitrarily create and ascribe meaning to symbols, based upon that which is seen to be suited to consciously designated psychic needs.”

One of the most conspicuous examples of this is the practice of “using gods” in Neopagan magic, also sometimes referred to as “plug-and-play” gods.

Jung clearly differentiated between consciously constructed symbols and numinous archetypes.  According to Jung, symbols refer to, but are not identical with, the archetypes located deep in the unconscious.  While symbols have a conscious and known meaning, an archetype is always necessarily unknown.  Thus, the archetype retains a numinous quality.

The apprehension of an archetype by consciousness is always necessarily partial, never total.  The meaning of the unconscious archetype is inexhaustible.

The claim that any one symbol exhausts the archetype is the substance of what John Dourley calls “psychic idolatory”.  If a symbol can be totally explained or rationalized by the conscious mind, then it ceases to be an archetype.  While a symbol may masquerade as an archetype, it actually is a representation of the ego-self and becomes, in Waldron’s words, “a collaborator in the suppression of the shadow.”

Neo-Jungian James Hillman writes:

“Just as we do not create our dreams, but they happen to us, so we do not invent the persons of myth and religion [i.e., the gods]; they, too, happen to us.” (emphasis Hillman’s)

It is no coincidence that historically and cross-culturally, the gods have spoken to mortals in dreams.  As Neopagans came to consciously construct and “plug-and-play” their gods, we lost the sense of the gods as something that happens to us.  It may be said that we overemphasized the immanence of the gods and lost the sense of their transcendence.

The modern hubris

In ancient Greek tragedy, heroes who were guilty of the sin of hubris, disregarding the existential gulf between themselves and the gods, were invariably punished for it.  In contemporary Neopaganism, hubris takes the form of conflating the creations of the conscious mind with the numinous aspects of the unconscious.

On the one hand, this modern form of hubris results in the loss of our experience of the gods, a further disenchantment or de-godding of our world.  But on the other hand, it invites the retribution of gods, who may be repressed in the unconscious, but will not be ignored.  If they are not given their due honor, the gods will make themselves known forcibly and often with disastrous results in our lives.

In A History of Ancient Greek Literature, Gilbert Murray writes:

“Reason is great, but it is not everything. There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life. These things are Gods or forms of God: not fabulous immortal men, but ‘Things which Are,’ things utterly non-human and non-moral, which bring man bliss or tear his life to shreds without a break in their own serenity.”

To confuse Murray’s “things not of reason” with the conscious creations of our own mind is hubris, and we do so at our own peril.  The gods may be archetypes, but we must also always remember that the archetypes are gods.

As Neopagan discourse moves increasingly in the direction of radical polytheism, those Humanistic or Naturalistic Neopagans who find this position rationally untenable may find themselves (more) marginalized in the Neopagan community.  The pendulum which previously swung to the humanistic extreme by reducing the gods to symbols is now swinging to the other extreme of transcendental theism, denying that the gods are part of the human psyche.

Jung’s theory of archetypes offers us an opportunity to create a golden mean between these two extremes, one which may simultaneously satisfy the humanist or naturalist who sees the gods as products of the human psyche, while also satisfying the mystical longing for contact with a numimous Other which is greater than any creation of our conscious mind.

Dourley, John P. The Goddess, Mother of the Trinity (1990)
Hanegraaf, Wouter.  “How Magic Survived the Disenchantment of the World”, Religion, vol. 33 (2003).
Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology (1975)
Jung, Carl. The Collected Works: The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious 
Waldron, David. The  Sign of the Witch: Modernity and the Pagan Revival (2008)

[1] By “numinous”, I refer to an experience of that which transcends or is other than our conscious ego-selves, but is not necessarily supernatural.

The author

John H. Halstead

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neopagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation.  He maintains the website American Neopaganism and the newly-minted blog The Allergic Pagan.

Upcoming work

This Sunday

John H. Halstead

This piece rattles me.  John H. Halstead’s subtle essay, worthy of a journal like the Pomegranate, is revolutionizing the way I think about gods.  Put on your thinking caps, boys and girls.  You’re not gonna wanna miss this one.

The archetypes are gods: Re-godding the archetypes, by John H. Halstead

Appearing September 18th on Humanistic Paganism.

Big News on the Equinox

Shouting in the storm, by Lanier67

Some BIG NEWS is coming on the autumn equinox.

One part is a big event in my life, and the other is a big event for Humanistic Paganism.

What’s in store?  Find out on the equinox!

Revealed on Friday, September 23rd, on Humanistic Paganism.

Next Sunday

Thomas Schek

Thomas Schenk strikes again!  This time he shares with us the magic in the mundane, the numen in the normal, with an insightful piece on the experience of cycling.

Bicycle meditation, by Thomas Schenk

Appearing September 25th on Humanistic Paganism.

Recent Work

Ten years after 9/11: World politics is an existential condition, by B. T. Newberg

Balance within nature: An interview with Rua Lupa

What does your practice look like?  by Eli Effinger-Weintraub

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