What is religion for? Is it something for drawing people closer to God, or for drawing God closer to people? Is it something designed to unite a tribe or nation or a way to discover the truth? Like religion itself the answer to that question has changed over the generations. Palaeolithic religion had a practical quasi-scientific function. It helped communities understand and control their environment. It had a supernatural element as well, of course, through its shamanistic practice, but that was also much concerned with human well-being through contact with the spirits and with healing. Religion ensured your survival either through the control of nature or the appeasement of those beings that controlled nature.
The religions that today we classify as World Religions have at their centre the notion of salvation. They tell the adherent what she must do to be saved. Of course, what you are saved from and what it all means depends upon the worldview each religion holds; you might be saved from a supernatural hell or from a disadvantageous re-birth; you might be gathered up into the presence of God or you may merge with God and cease to exist as an individual. Do you want to be sugar, or to taste sugar, to look upon the face of God or become God? Settle upon your ontological preference and one of the World Religions will guide you into the right way to think and the right way to behave.
But Western multi-culturalism has brought it own redemptive hazards. Simple logic demands not everyone can be right. So is religion a metaphor or are billions of people in for a nasty surprise, or, if the atheists are right, no surprise at all? The rise of secularist thinking and the material scientific worldview has also gone some way to the re-orientation of religious thought as we increasingly draw a line between the dogmatic objectivism of historic faiths and the spirituality that issues out of an encounter with a world that functions without the need for a belief in anything and yet in essence still seems to believe. What is religion for? It is for me.
The numerous New Age groups, the resurgent Goddess movements and the development of different neo-pagan paths reflect a society in an apparent state of religious and social change. The partial break down of central religious authority coupled with greater religious freedom and tolerance has produced a creative and imaginative explosion in the human expression of the divine. Many, of course, still follow the Man from Nazarethalthough the original exclusivity of their claims are now tempered by increasing awareness of other faiths, some older even than Jesus himself. Others look to the stars; this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Others still reclaim their past and recreate the once banished Gods of the indigenous people ofEurope. All bring something to the altar; a revisioned heritage, a feminising of deity, even Jesus born again for our time. But the religious journey of the West is a journey without end; like a pilgrimage without a destination our imagination, individual and corporate, moves forward into a future reflecting and expressing the ever-changing reality.
The greater religious freedom of recent times has allowed the West to re-acquaint itself with Nature. Christianity has always been always wary of Nature. It flirts with it at times; the rising Sun is a metaphor that is hard to resist, the raging storm is like the wrath of God and the fields of ripe golden corn reflect His beneficence. But Nature is uncivilised and unpredictable and civilisation and control are the things institutional religion needs to develop a sense of community or a following. Paul didn’t travel to the desert to proclaim the Gospel, he went to he settled populations where his message could take root in the community. But, ironically, although the way we live, in towns and cities, makes us the most communal society the world has yet seen, we less and less represent a religious homogeneity; and as dogma has been breaking down, so Nature has been breaking in.
Nature has always been there, of course, in Pagan traditions and folklore, but these were dangerous playthings to our Christian fathers. Merlin inhabited the dark wood, stirring at times like a memory, rising up in our unconscious. He reminds us of the sunrise we used to celebrate, of our passion for our homelands, of our communion with ancestors and of our loyalty to clan and to the land. And our mother too, the Goddess, she waited patiently in the background, like a mother does, awaiting the return of sons and daughters. Reclaimed in ritual, recognised once again as Our Lady and the Magdalene, as Isis and as Brigid, the Goddess is now the subject of festivals, a metaphor of healing and a fountainhead of Wisdom – the once and future Sophia.
In our current society, one dominated by the secular and the material, human beings demonstrate attitudes that are distinctly pagan. Pagan not only or just in the choice of allegiance to indigenous deities of old or in the upholding of what are presumed to be archaic or ancient rituals, but rather in the very way we live, think and respond to the world. Ideologies, meta-narratives to give them their post-modern nomenclature, are more often than not mistrusted and from within the loose bounds of democratic society individuals increasingly forge their own beliefs, make sense of their own world and give meaning to their own experience. It is, perhaps, that within Western society the condition of paganism has arisen once again; a condition both illuminated and sponsored by freedom of choice, growing understanding of the past and our place in it and simple acknowledgement that truth has a subjective quality and deity a poetic one.
So what have we discovered – is it simply a case of from Paganism we came and to Paganism we shall return? If our archaic or indigenous traditions do indeed ground us in our apprehension of our understanding of transcendence; if Merlin and Minerva do represent a return to a place we need to re-discover then doubtless from just such a homecoming we will one day journey out again upon another road to Emmaus, another voyage to Colchis, where the Gods wander silently awaiting our recognition; lost, found and lost again in a mythical hinterland of miracle and rumour.