As traditional Christianity loses its appeal in the West many people look to other forms of spirituality. Some turn to the East and some to pre-Christian Western religions or, to be strictly accurate, modern versions thereof. In the book I made a brief comment about paganism, and I'm happy to expand on that in my response to this question.
Q. I belong to a pagan group and I disagree with the statement in your book that paganism is not on the same spiritual level as the revealed religions. Different paths suit different people and why should one form of spirituality be better than another? Are you saying we should not worship as we please?
A. First of all, nowhere do I say that people should not worship as they please though I assume you would draw the line at human sacrifice?
Next, may I ask if you would deny that some things really are better than others? Do you truly believe that there is nothing superior and nothing inferior in this world? If that is so then why even tread the spiritual path at all?
Let me now try to describe paganism as I see it. It is not the philosophy of Plato or Plotinus, even if most medieval Christians would have thought of those two as pagans. Paganism in its modern sense is a religion of Nature. That is why it grants such a high place to the Goddess who is none other than the personification of Nature. I do not say that such a being does not, in some form, exist and is not worthy of veneration. I think she does and she is. However I do say that she is part of the created world and it is precisely this that marks out the essential difference between modern paganism and the revealed religions. To the extent that paganism either denies or downgrades the transcendent Creator God, it is a lesser spiritual approach than one that fully acknowledges that God as the supreme source of all. Pagans worship or seek to propitiate the powers of nature and the beings of the inner worlds. Now, there are many powers in the universe, most, though not all, benign. But they are created beings not the Creator and a religion that ignores this fact is not on the same spiritual level as one that accepts it. That does not mean that a pagan may not be a more spiritually aware person than, say, a Christian but, just as the more enlightened druids accepted Christ as a higher revelation of the divine than that they currently knew, and the polytheistic pagans of Mohammed’s time saw Islam as an advance on their religion, so the truths enshrined in the major revealed religions are of a higher order than those in paganism. I should add that Hinduism is a little different as it includes everything within itself, both paganism and the highest metaphysical truths. That is how it has developed. This points to the fact that one need not reject all aspects of paganism though one must go beyond it.
Please don’t think that I am dismissing your approach. Any spiritual practice followed in sincerity and humility will bear good fruit. I do however still maintain that paganism, the worship of the energies of nature and the earth, is not, spiritually speaking, on the same level as the great revealed religions which see spirit as hierarchically superior to matter whilst not denying that matter, creation, is an intrinsic part of the divine, worthy of love and respect though not worship. Could it be that modern paganism has arisen partly as a response to the body-denying element of traditional religion which was an over-reaction to the correct perception of spirit as the pre-eminent divine principle?
There is a further point. Paganism, while a justifiable spiritual approach in its day, was superseded by the advent of the monotheistic religion of Abraham then by Christianity and then Islam. The pagan deities may at one time have been the transmitters of the divine impulse but when that impulse was withdrawn, which it was, starting well over two and a half thousand years ago, something was left which were the vehicles that had embodied that impulse on the psychic level. For when spirit ceases to animate a form it has at one time operated through that form still remains in the inner worlds though it will start to decay in just the same way as the physical form does when the soul has departed. There is this difference though. The pool of psychic energy left behind by an ancient religion may linger for a long time and can even be given an additional lease of life if attention is directed to it, by, for example, ritual or prayer. This does not mean it retains its spiritual virtue as God has withdrawn his gaze from it but it can give the impression of that to those who mistake psychic for spiritual light.
By the way, it would be my contention that the animating spirit has started to withdraw from all contemporary religions and that is why they do not satisfy as they used to, and why many people seek elsewhere for their spiritual sustenance. However to seek to revive past approaches to the divine is not the answer, not in the long term anyway, as all you will reanimate is the psychic element of the religion. You may also be giving energy to beings on the psychic level who may present themselves as the old gods but who, even if they are in some sense affiliated to past spiritual practices, no longer have a connection to the transcendent realm. The spirit has withdrawn and it will not be going back into old bottles. It never does.
The fact is not all spiritual paths are equal in the sense of being of equal vision and depth. No doubt all paths that have the worship of God/the gods at their heart can lead you upwards if followed in sincerity but some are purer channels to truth than others. And while some forms of religion have as their primary purpose to enable us live in harmony with nature and help attune us to the higher worlds, others have the higher aim of bringing about the transcending of ego and the going beyond form. I don’t believe that paganism, as practised, can do this because that is not its principal purpose. It is to help us live in the world rather than go beyond it. At the same time, the revealed monotheistic religions have the defects of their qualities and undervalue both nature and the body. That leaves a gap which the pagan religions can fill. However they, in their turn, are limited by their emphasis on what the monotheistic religions tend to ignore or downplay which is the Goddess principle. The Goddess is the Mother and specifically Mother Nature but you must go beyond Nature or form, in all its aspects, to find the source of your being which is in spirit or the Father.
I'd like to add a few words about modern neo-paganism. This appears to be almost entirely derivative with the main focus on nature worship but some metaphysical concepts added on, picked up from occultism, Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism (amongst other things), to give it intellectual credibility. But these are by no means central to the religion as practised which is proven by the fact that neo-paganism celebrates the natural self rather than seeks to transcend it. True religion doesn't deny the body but it does see it in its proper place as a frame, and it would never identify with it. Neo-paganism has to be seen as a homemade belief system for people alienated by materialism but unwilling to go beyond the psychic to the truly spiritual.
I know that some of the things I say here will not sit well with everyone but if you are serious about the spiritual path you must put away fashionable beliefs as well as conventional ones. Paganism and its companion shamanism are popular these days but, although there are certainly things we can learn from them, they belong to earlier ages and are more suited to psychic exploration than spiritual transcendence never mind the sanctification of the soul.