John Beckett, in “Paganism in Depth: A Polytheist Approach,” covers topics ranging from mystical experiences to community building. He is a blogger at Patheos Pagan – “Under the Ancient Oaks. As a Roman Polytheist, I decided to read his book to see how I could deepen my practice.
According to Beckett, Paganism (Note 1) is a movement, not an institution. It is a “Big Tent with Four Poles (Centers or Pillars).” (Note 2) Beckett explains, “These are poles you’re closer to or farther away from. Some Pagans are so close to one Pole, they’re hugging them – they don’t care about the other three Centers. Others are close to two to three or even all Four Centers.” The Four Pillars are – Earth (Nature)-centric, Self-centric, Deity-centric and Community-centric.
The Earth-centric Pagan seeks divinity in Nature. Beckett writes “I’m a Pagan because I have a commitment to Nature.” (Note 3) A Deity-centric Pagan defines their Paganism by their relationship with the Gods. Beckett continues, “my polytheism is informed by experiences of the Gods.” The Self-centric Pagan seeks the Divine within the Self. Beckett says, “I am a Self-centered Pagan because I can’t do justice to Nature and the Gods without a commitment to excellence in spiritual life. Community-centric Pagans find “the Divine within the family and the tribe — however they choose to define those groups.”
Beckett states that he is “looking to build a contemporary religion, for this place and time…It requires being open to spiritual experience that the mainstream tries to rationalize away and then examining them to see what we can learn and what we can do to build robust religious and spiritual traditions from them.” His goal is to “build a collection of ancestral, devotional, ecstatic, oracular, magical, public Pagan Polytheism worthy of our Gods and ancestors.”
Beckett’s stated aims are an example of what Tara Isabella Burton has observed about Neo-Pagans. In her book, “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World,” Burton writes “modern religious movements focus on the religious search for meaning, purpose, and identity on the individual disembedded from and often in active opposition in institutional infrastructure.” She continues “the roots of these new religions are from New Thought which treats the self as the ultimate source of authority and divinity.” People of these new religions follow the Doctrine of Emotional Authenticity: What matters the most is the personal experience. According to Burton, “the world view of Paganism is the promise of personal and political empowerment through untraditional and literally unorthodox avenues.”
Beckett, himself, has followed this pattern. He blogs of “escaping fundamentalism” and details his journey in his first book. Raised a Fundamentalist Baptist, he rejected that religion to become a United Methodist. He wanted a “kinder, gentler church” than the hellfire and brimstone of his original faith. He left Methodism to embrace as he describes it, “a vague deistic universalism.” Encountering Wicca, he dabbled first with that and then later Paganism. After he experienced the Gods first hand as a Pagan, he became a Druid Priest.
Beckett’s journey was of crafting his own faith by rejecting institutional structures. Beckett writes for the post-modern individual who is spiritual but not religious. Many of these individuals are refugees from various forms of authorities. They, like Beckett, stress self-sovereignty in all of their religious workings. Beckett writes in his book, “We can be faithful to the callings of our gods and ancestors and trust that doing something will be good and helpful, even if it may not be everything we wish it was.”
As for me, I could not reconcile his theology with the Roman Religion. I already do much of what he writes but with a different view of humans and Gods. The Roman values which stress piety and right relations are what I follow.
Note 1: Beckett refers to Neo-Paganism as Paganism and what he does as Pagan Polytheism.
Note 2: In 2012, John Halstead at “Allergic Pagan” (Patheos Pagan) attempted to develop a theology for Neo-Pagans. John Beckett expanded on his ideas and further fleshed them. His book, “The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice” details more fully this theology. However, in 2020 Beckett doesn’t see much hope for the Big Tent to continue.
Note 3. Beckett identifies himself as a “Pagan, Druid, and Unitarian Universalist.”