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LONDON, ENGLAND — After ten years of work, scholar Michael York has released his book Pagan Ethics, the second of three books in the series Paganism as a World Religion. The volume was preceded by Pagan Theology and will be followed by Pagan Mysticism. York’s work seeks to distill from Pagan religions those common elements that tie these disparate faiths together.
The Bath Spa University professor, sociologist, and Cherry Hill Seminary instructor told The Wild Hunt that this new book discusses what he feels are these common elements and then ties the principles into a variety of hot-button topics as illustrations. It’s a book about Pagan ethics, but with it York would like to “engage in an ethical conversation with everyone,” because he feels that “Paganism has a huge role to play” in that ongoing dialog.
“Paganism ranks like Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism,” York said. “[They all have] a broad religious perspective. What would be the ethical context that goes along with that? Is ethics even integral to any spirituality? Ethics impacts our relationship with the gods. This is trying to look at what a Pagan perspective would be on ethical positions.”
York argues that, in order to find those common ethical elements, one almost has to “strip away the spiritual aspect” of Pagan religions, including the rituals, specific deities and practices unique to those traditions, and regard them from the perspective of a Humanist or Atheist perspective.
“I think Paganism encompasses that position,” he said, noting that a number of his fellow scholars would likely consider themselves Atheist, or at least secular Pantheist. He said, “If you can approach it on that basis, then one’s spirituality follows, rather than precedes” one’s ethics.
What the book presents is a Pagan ethical framework divided into seven of what York calls “virtue-values.” Very much in the spirit of Western philosophy, these virtue-values “interchange, overlap, and are fluid, but all can be reduced to them.” The first of these if freedom, specifically “freedom from coercion and to do what one wants.” The second, comfort, which York understands to be controversial. However that doesn’t make it any less important to recognize. “Human beings desire comfort,” he said. “We have to take that on board when negotiating relations with others,” including people, non-human beings, non-corporeal beings, and the world itself.
Then, he describes health broadly as the virtue-value of completeness, or the idea of being complete. Next is worship — although York says “honor” could also fit. He defines this as the “formal pursuit of beauty and ritual/art.” The reason for blending the two, he said, is that ritual and art can be seen as cognates. “Putting something together properly and completely makes them more than a mere sum of their parts,” he explained. “A painting is not just canvas and paint; it goes beyond the physical components. It’s the same with a ritual: if it actually functions, it achieves a wider end” than simply performing each of the steps in succession.
The fifth, sixth, and seventh ethical principles, namely pleasure, productivity, and generosity, have enough interplay that York found it easier to explain each of them in relation to the others. As with comfort, he said “It’s important to recognize that pleasure is important and not be ashamed of that. It can be accepted as part of the gift of life, and we honor godhead by accepting the gifts of life.” Pleasure for its own sake is lacking, however, which is why he went on to say, “It’s not enough in itself. We have to somehow contribute; we have to produce something even if it’s only a tomato plant. Our contributions to the world are not all going to be Homer and Shakespeare as long as it’s something.” He also noted, “Many of us produce only our children,” which in his estimation fits the bill. Generosity proceeds from productivity as productivity might been seen as proceeding from pleasure and is the recognition that sharing what we create with others increases its value to ourselves and the world.Other issues that York explores in the context of these virtue-values including a most-wanted list of flame-war causes such as same-sex marriage, intoxicants, birth control, and the environment. The book seeks to answer the question: “How would a Pagan in pursuit of these virtue-values address these issues? He said, “Freedom always comes in there.” However the others are also evident. “Is it a healthy pursuit? Does it complete the person? Is it out of sync with the natural flow? Is it honoring or respecting other people? What one does is ask, ‘who am I hurting or reducing in the process? Can we pursue this without being detrimental to someone else?'”
A succinct way of answering these questions, he suggested, is by understanding the golden rule – a version of which he says exists in all religions. “It was derived from Christianity, but they inherited it from Greco-Roman society. I look at ancient classical schools” to understand the roots of the concept, with a preference for his favorites, including Plato. Building upon those philosophical roots, York said he also counts Spinoza and Nietzsche among his influences. “Neither are Pagan,” he acknowledged, but “they contribute to a Pagan perspective, as well as the overall ethical conversation.”
York said that it took a lot of time to trace that world conversation and to understand the Pagan contribution and position within it. He added that it was more of a challenge to get this second book published than one might expect. New York University Press, the publisher of Pagan Theology, felt that the second volume was less about religion than it was about philosophy, and so declined to pick it up. Pagan Ethics is published by Springer, which has brought its own challenges. The book is hefty at 400 pages, but its price tag — $249.00 hardcover, $189.00 for the ebook — is heftier still. York said that he was surprised by that number. “I found out what they were charging when it came out,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
York remains hopeful that the paperback will be more affordable. For those interested, individuals chapters are available for sale for a lower price. However, York is also encouraging people to ask their local libraries to stock the book. “The more they ask; the more they will consider it,” he said. In this way, a reader can enjoy the completeness of the book within the comfort of home, deriving pleasure not only because the book is more than the sum of its chapters, but also because the finished product was shared generously through the use of a library card.