PAGANISM is probably the fastest growing spiritual movement in Britain today, and Paul Cudby explores its appeal from his perspective as a Christian priest. The book begins with an account of his own faith journey, and a sabbatical that took him the length and breadth of the British Isles to meet self-described pagans. Exploring a spiritual path that is very different from the text-based Abrahamic faiths presents challenges, and I was surprised to find a chapter asking, “What do pagans believe?”— a question that easily becomes a way of forcing other traditions into a Protestant doctrinal straitjacket, and then finding them to be deficient. The chapter itself acknowledges this danger, though it persists in formulating the questions with reference to Christian norms.
The blanket term “paganism” is itself problematic, as the remaining chapters go on to demonstrate. They deal in turn with Wicca, Druidry, Panpsychism, Shamanism, and Heathenism. Unlike much Christian writing, these accounts are based on first-hand conversations with devotees of these paths — something that is undoubtedly the most valuable aspect of the book. The author openly acknowledges his struggles with understanding the attractions of paganism, in particular the reasons why its devotees can find the Church problematic. His observations here resonate with my own experience: all too often, pagans (and adherents of other “alternative” spiritualities) highlight authentic aspects of Christian faith that the Church has either ignored or forgotten, especially what Augustine called “the book of nature” — something that in different ways is important to all forms of paganism.
Cudby’s research revealed that many pagans have previously been Christians: some left as a result of abuse and bullying, others because they insisted on asking questions that were regarded as awkward, or because they were bored with an over-rationalised version of faith, or because they found that church offered them nothing practical for everyday living.
The apparent disconnection between the Church and the aspirations of pagans is addressed anecdotally throughout the book, and a way forward is proposed in the final chapter on Forest Church, which reflects a strand of the author’s own ministry. This is the shortest chapter, and for me it was the most disappointing, not least because it conveys little of the theological undergirding that has been provided by others who are involved in that movement. This was not the only point at which I found myself wishing the book offered a more gutsy theological reflection on paganism and Christianity. I kept wanting to place it alongside St Paul’s positive affirmation of the “unknown god” in Athens; and, while I appreciate the dangers of syncretism which Cudby wrestles with, I would myself be less cautious than he feels able to be. I would also like to know more about the alleged connections between paganism and Celtic Christianity which are hinted at here and there.
Having said that, I appreciate the personal vulnerability that is exhibited here, which is one of the book’s strengths, and an encouragement to take the risk of listening for the divine voice beyond the walls of the Church.
The Revd Prof John Drane lives in Glasgow, and (among other things) is co-chair of the Church of England’s Mission Theology Group.
The Shaken Path: A Christian priest’s exploration of modern pagan belief and practice
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