Review by John Schofield
At the end of the CRC seminar evening on Christians and Pagans in January 2018, I realised that I needed to find out much more about something I had previously kept behind a firmly shut door. So I bought a copy of Paul Cudby’s book The Shaken Path – a Christian priest’s exploration of modern pagan belief and practice. Despite the pile of unread books at my bedside, I got to grips with it almost straightaway.
It is a very interesting read. Paul outlines the practices and beliefs of Wicca and Witchcraft (not to be confused), Druidry, Animism and Panpsychism, Shamanism and Heathenism – distinguishing the latter from all the others because of its greater dependence on historic texts and well as its different approach to the gods. Along the way he draws helpful and often challenging comparisons with Christian beliefs and practices, as well as noting the differences.
The book is easy to read, despite being about something that is uncharted waters for many of its readers. There’s lots of very helpful narrative passages in which he recounts his own experiences, both from his own spiritual journey and from his and his wife Alison’s three months of visiting and getting to know many pagan groups while on sabbatical.
Some would find the spirit-filled world inhabited by the book very alien, yet surely we must recognise and grapple with the fact that for lots of people in this country, not to say the rest of the world, a spirit-filled world is precisely what they encounter and experience. We who believe in the Holy Spirit as one facet of God need to listen with attention to our own tradition as well as to others’ stories. And I have to say that there are lots of similarities in many pagan practices with things I have done or been involved with in my ministry, eg exorcising a house, or praying for a dead man’s spirit to stop troubling his widow.
Paul gives the lie to popular ideas about Pagans being involved with demons and devil worship. The more he met Pagans and attended, and sometimes shared in, their rituals, the clearer it became to him that this is not at all what modern pagan paths are about. For instance, the Wiccan Rede, An’ it harm no one – do what thou wilt testifies to the positive nature of many of the pagan religions, though he is also clear that for many pagans the experiences are to be appreciated for themselves rather than, as in the Christian tradition, for what transformation they may engender. He also warns against a too easy a correlation between paganism and New Age, in that Pagans tend not to drift from one practice to another as soon as they get bored; very often a lengthy period of learning or initiation is required.
One feature of paganism that I picked up from the book is its dualism. But to recognise this is helpful, and questions our own often easy and unexamined dualism. Though dualism is common in much Christianity, especially in those brands of the faith where the devil is pitted against God as equally powerful in a titanic struggle, this is not actually mainstream belief; and we should be very careful about how we use language.
In examining paganism, the book touches on many matters: freewill; the nature of God; psychology and archetypes; ways of reading the bible; the immanence of God, which many Christians, in concentrating on God’s transcendence, have lost – this is turn has led to a lack of engagement with the natural world causing many who seek this to look elsewhere. Even in an eco-congregation, deeply committed to campaigning about climate change, we need to ask how our worship and spirituality touches these things.
One theme that came over powerfully is how Paganism provides both place and empowerment for women, Wicca being a good example. On the face of it this may be thought strange, given that anecdotally Christian congregations have been majority female. But in an age which increasingly cannot accept the patriarchy of the Abrahamic faiths or the communities, cultures and nation states to which they have given rise, is this a surprise? It is certainly a challenge which the church is only just beginning to address.
Once or twice Paul veers into realms of speculation, e.g. the possibility of discerning a Trinitarian parallel in animist practice, or seeing the Holy Spirit as being akin to a shamanistic power animal. And sometimes his reading of scripture seems naïve, though I suspect that as a trained scientist as well as priest he’s actually inhabiting scripture with all the tools of critical method and of an understanding of story that is quite liberating. I would suggest, however, that he sells Christian orthopraxy short in his discussion about the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. As I understand it, Christian orthopraxy is more about how we live than what ritual similarities we share.
In doing the research for this book (which led him to become the Bishop of Birmingham’s Advisor on New Religious Movements) Paul was clearly challenged – hence the title The Shaken Path. But ultimately, the result has been not to lead him into the paths of paganism but to deepen his life in Christ. Yet he also calls us back again and again to the importance of the natural world and our, and God’s, relation to it. If studying paganism does nothing else, it calls us to order on this.