Pagan Mysticism

Paganism as a World Religion

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Michael York
  • Newcastle-upon-Thyme, England: 
    Cambridge Scholars Publishing
    , January
     349 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Michael York sets out in Pagan Mysticism: Paganism as a World Religion to very broadly cover mysticism in the major religious traditions of the world—Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism—and also secular and materialist traditions, the New Age, and a variety of pagan and gnostic approaches. York is particularly interested in what he sees as pagan elements within other traditions.

With this scope and ambition it is not unexpected that his work is oddly erratic in quality. In some areas York is surefooted and interesting—describing Sufi mysticism or various Christian mystics, as well as in his discussion of apophatic and cataphatic approaches in mysticism—but in other areas he falters very badly.

York makes a case solidly for the fundamentally hedonistic and body centred, Earthy spirituality of paganism. He gives a broad definition of paganism as well, seeing it as the original and foundational spirituality of nature, underlying all of, and to some extent incorporated into, the monotheist and dharmic religious approaches as a counterpoint to the dominant themes in those traditions.

A point that York makes in his discussion of Hinduism, and returns to repeatedly, is the contrast of via negativa and via positiva. The via negativa approach, which includes penance and physical hardship and the attack on sensuality and the body, is the mainstream of mysticism in both dharmic and monotheist traditions. He contrasts this approach with the via positiva that embraces sensuality, pleasure, the body, and the Earth, which he identifies as pagan. So, wherever the cataphatic approach crops up, he asserts that it is a pagan aspect of these traditions, which is a bit of a stretch. Yet, his history of the Hindu traditions and their spread into the West is interesting and useful.

York verges on Islamophobia in his treatment of mainstream Sunni Islam. He spends a great deal of time on the small—although very attractive to the West—Sufi tradition in Islam, with his other examples principally coming from jihadis. Most glaring in a work of comparative mysticisms, he ignores the 20% of the Muslim population in the Shia traditions, which have a strong and well-articulated mystical core.

In his treatment of Judaism, York takes the discredited Khazar “13th tribe” notion seriously and urges Pagans to explore pre-Abrahamic roots to Judaism, rather than respectfully engaging with the tradition on its terms. His discussion of Kabbalah and Merkabah and the variety of Jewish mystical schools is interesting, but he is unsympathetic to the Jewish approach to God, and this discussion does not engage the reader.

York’s chapter on secularism and materialist mysticisms is particularly weak, with a great deal of personal anecdotes and stories, and limited evidence of other sorts. He touches on occulture, paranormal investigation, and entheogens, but does not develop these discussions well. The portion of the chapter dealing with mystic naturalists like Aldo Leopold, Henry Thoreau, and Rachel Carson is much more surefooted and useful.

Large parts of this book are unsupported exposition rather than scholarship. If we accept York’s premises, then we are asked to follow along on his discursive wanders on faith. Even this reviewer—a fellow pagan and strongly committed to a cataphatic world-embracing naturalism, a polytheist who is strongly critical of monotheist biases—still wanted him to support his arguments, and I found his treatment of Islam and Judaism inadequate.

The final two chapters on the varieties of paganisms and their mysticisms provide a number of nuggets that needed to be fleshed out into fuller form. A good editor would have trimmed away much of his discursive and unduly wordy exposition, and a less ambitious project would have produced a better work, and a less frustrating reader.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel Wagar is a doctoral student in Minstry/Practical Theology at St. Stephen's College.

Date of Review: 
September 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael York is Professor Emeritus of Cultural Astronomy and Astrology at Bath Spa University.


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