Neo-Paganism vs. the Gnostic Temptation

Ascension_Fin_NK

“Ascension” by Nick Keller

Neo-Paganism represents a challenge to the “Gnosticism” of much of contemporary Western and Eastern religion. The “Gnostic temptation” refers to a tendency in religious thought toward denying the goodness, or even the reality, of physical existence. Michael York explains that most world religions have a transcendental or “gnostic” bias, by which he means that they see the material world as an illusion or as having less value than the spiritual world. In much of Christianity, for example, physical reality is seen something fallen from which we need to be redeemed.

In contrast, in the Neo-Pagan understanding, the spiritual is intertwined with the physical. Divinity is more immanent than transcendent (pantheism). To the extent the Neo-Pagan divinity is transcendent, it is a lateral transcendence, rather than a vertical one: the divine encompasses physical reality (panentheism), rather than being separate from it.

The Gnostic temptation in Christianity is expressed as the condemnation the body, sex, and the material world as the kingdom of the devil. Christians seek to escape this world either returning to an Edenic state of atonement or (re-)ascending of the ladder of being to a heavenly realm. The Gnostic temptation in Eastern religions is expressed in the view of physical reality as a mask or a veil concealing the divine Reality behind it. In many Eastern religions, the body is seen as a prison for our spirits.

Neo-Paganism, in contrast, has a this-worldly focus. For Neo-Pagans, this world is real, not illusory. Nor is it fallen. Neo-Pagans do not seek to escape or transcend the world, but rather seek to deepen their experience of it. Neo-Pagans are skeptical of spiritual abstraction or otherworldliness. While some Pagans believe in reincarnation, they embrace rebirth and celebrate the great round of nature, unlike the Eastern religions in which the wheel of reincarnation is something to be escaped from.

As Graham Harvey has observed, the Gnostic temptation does sometimes find its way into Neo-Pagan discourse too. This is due, in part to the influence of Western esotericism on Wicca, and through Wicca on Neo-Paganism. This can be seen most readily in ritual forms, like the casting of a ritual circle, which seem to separate participants from their physical environment, rather than re-connect them with it. Another source of the Gnostic temptation in Neo-Paganism is the New Age, which is sometimes conflated with Neo-Paganism. In contrast to Neo-Paganism, the New Age looks to spirit rather than earth and denigrates matter and darkness.

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Updated 9/5/14

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