Monday, 22 June 2009

Karl Barth and paganism: toward a theology without nature

I’ll be presenting a paper on Barth and paganism at the Princeton conference tomorrow morning. Here’s a little excerpt:

“Within contemporary paganism, there are two main forms which this theologised nature-devotion may take. Nature may (this is the usual response) be celebrated as the caring, mothering womb, the source of all love and kindness. In this approach, all the emphasis falls on the sacred feminine; one reconnects with nature by dancing in a field, being kind to animals, practising vegetarianism, and so forth. Or nature may (as in some of the Nordic varieties of contemporary paganism) be revered for its dark and terrible power, its exhilarating cruelty and might. Here, the emphasis falls not on the sacred feminine but on patriarchal and hierarchical structures; one reconnects with nature by dressing in warrior raiment, by engaging in the hunt, by sacrifice, libation, carnivorous feasting. These two varieties of contemporary paganism have an uneasy relationship, since, on the surface, their attitudes and practices seem antithetical. But as Marion Bowman has documented, these very different pagan groups nevertheless band together and perceive each other to be members of a wider pagan family, united by their ritual and theological devotion to nature. For all their differences, they are sides of the same coin: a response to the theologisation of nature.

“Of course, the appropriation of paganism by contemporary Christian theologians and liturgists leans decisively towards the happy side of nature, so that everything centres on the sacred, nurturing kindness of Mother Earth; even the most progressive Christian liturgists with their flowers and their Maypoles would presumably have second thoughts about summoning the congregation to a bloody hunt in the woods as a means of reconnecting with the earth. The real problem with syncretistic pagan-Christian theologies and liturgies lies not in their benign adaptation of rural festivals, but in their uncritical adoption of this theologisation of the transcendental category of nature.”

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