Now the thing with Facebook and suchlike social media is that I get exposed to a lot of stuff I would never ordinarily see. Being associated with both the Christian and Wiccan-Pagan communities this is very interesting, as I am constantly being forwarded stuff from one that misrepresents the other. As I wrote to a friend the other day, considering the fact during the same period Gardner that was (re)creating Wicca he was being ordained as Christian Priest by JSM Ward, there really should be no antagonism between the two faiths. Sadly, however there is.
A while back I wrote a post, Short rough and ready thoughts on Wicca and Christianity, to give my perspective on some of the common themes and ideas often missed by either “side” in this relationship. Today I want to briefly outline some further issues I see that limit real dialogue and understanding. Now, I have read little on Christian-Pagan dialogue, and am mainly coming from my own experiences and those shared with me, for what they are worth. Really, this is an opening salvo inviting response.
First off, as many wiser folk have noted, I discovered as a kid there were and are many different Christianities. Christianity is actually far more diverse than modern Neo-Paganism; its dominant form in any time and place just tends to hide the other forms very, very well. For instance, did you know there are Christians who still sacrifice animals? Well, there you go. And that many Christians don’t actually think US Republican Mitt Romney is a Christian at all – his membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts him well and truly outside the pale of ‘proper Christianity’. There you go.
So when we talk about ‘Christianity’ we are being very conditional as really about the only thing that unites ALL Christians is their use of the name. To say ‘Christians believe… or the problem with Christianity is…’ is like that saying ALL Pagans work in circles, believe in the Great Mother and Horned Lord and have a three degree initiatory system. It is that limiting, and really, that useless. So for the remainder of this post, I am going to adopt St Bob’s suggestion and refer to ‘sombunall’ Christians and Pagans – ‘some but not all’.
The Great Commission
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew 28:18-20)
One of the comments that inevitably comes from sombunall Pagans when discussing this topic is some variant of: “I’m fine with Christians; if they leave us alone, we’ll leave them alone”. Now, as I discussed in my previous post, this is a tricky one. A key article of faith for sombunall Christians is what is called ‘the Great Commission’ – where there is a requirement to spread the Good News, even if only through living a good Christian life and staying stum most of the time.
Sombunall Christians really think that unless we are all saved by accepting Christ’s love we have a nasty road ahead of us. They are sharing their faith because they genuinely care about the rest of us. I think we have to accept this, even if we do not understand it or like it. I came to this realisation at 16 watching my ‘Mormon’ friend cycle off each weekend in 35c heat to share his religion in the face of hostility and threats . I was impressed at the commitment and over the years have wondered what it would take for most Pagans, including myself, to do something similarly active.
Sombunall Christianity is a missionary faith – it sets out to share, proselytise and offer its religious forms and wisdom to all who would take them. This rather annoys sombunall Pagans. Interestingly though sombunall Pagans are not so annoyed by the contemporary superstar missionary faith in the west, Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism. And from anecdotal experience, I’d say there are far more ex-Pagan Buddhists than ex-Pagan Christians around. So the Pagan community has little to worry about, methinks.
And just some personal experiences: despite the occasional run in with wild eyed loony Christians over the years, on a sheer number basis I have had more problems with other Pagans and magicians than Christians. Sombunall Pagans and magicians think their way is the way as much as sombunall Christians. Christians didn’t break into my old Order’s lodge rooms; Wiccans did. Christians didn’t vandalise my friend’s house for his anarchic views on Wiccan authority; Wiccans did. Christians haven’t abused me up hill and down dale on the internet; magicians have – the naughty, naughty boys
Christianity as the Way
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14:6)
One the main stumbling blocks to Christian-Wiccan/Pagan understanding is this doozie above. The line seems incontrovertible and very clear, unless we want to go all esoteric on it – like the Golden Dawn does, incorporating it into the wonderful Adeptus Minor initiation. John 14:6 leads many (but not all) Christians towards a mode of thought expressed well by the Rev Dr Gregory Tillett, someone with plenty of esoteric as well as Christian experience:
Christianity makes a number of exclusive claims: it does not represent itself as one religion among many, as simply a better alternative, let alone an equal option. Jesus declared: No man comes to the Father except by me. One can accept or reject that claim, but the claim is clear and unambiguous.
However, other mainstream non-esoteric Christian scholars have a different take on the matter. The video here is of Marcus Borg whose Christian credentials are impeccable and if you take the time to watch it all, you’re in for a treat. However, for our purposes, watch from about 41 minutes onward to get a sense of a different, but traditional approach to this stumbling block of a scriptural verse.
Borg emphasises the practice of Christianity as the Way, a term used by the original adherents of any number of religious forms, Taoists, Buddhists, Christians included, to describe their path. When Christ says he is the Way, his indentifying his personhood, his being as the method of living life fully connected to the One (God) – for Christians. As Borg says, the Way is different for different religious forms, but all are Ways to approach the Mystery.
These passages which speak of Salvation being only in the name of Jesus and so forth reflect the centrality and the utter decisiveness of Jesus in the lives of these early Christians. These statements that Jesus is ‘the only way’ can be understood as exclamations of devotion flowing out of the experience of having found access to God through Jesus…. this language is best understood as the “poetry of devotion and hyperbole of the heart“. … Those statements are a little bit like the language lovers use for each other: when the lover says to the beloved, “you’re the most beautiful person in the world!.
Borg continues with this telling statement, “whenever one makes doctrine out of hyperbole one is creating problems”. This is exactly what has occurred with this passage and its contemporary explanations. I know many Christians who are lovely people and try to be open and loving towards members of other religions, but stumble over this (and a few other) passages which seem to suggest Christianity is the Way for everyone, that there is “no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
It is only by realizing that Christianity was once, and in my humble opinion should still be, about practice not belief, that we can get away from the confines of limited, out-of-context- exoteric translations of passages like these. Taking these passages on face value and developing a doctrine where one can only be saved “in the name of Christ” is, as Borg says, “almost talking about salvation by syllables”. Now of course, there are sombunall Christians who engage openly and honestly in inter-faith dialogues, who are lovely people and who do not agree with Borg – who still think Christianity is the Way in an objective, sense. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The Old Religion (and I don’t mean Catholic)
One of the things I find confusing is that sombunall Pagans keep on insisting their religion (and in a few weird cases their practice) is older than Christianity, and somehow therefore better. This does not make for a pleasant inter-faith dialogue, any more than sombunall Christians insisting their religion is better ‘cos the Bible says so. Now the actual facts of the matter are clear: the inspiration for Neo-Paganism may or may not be ‘older than Christianity’ (and in the case of Paganisms like the Church of All Worlds it certainly isn’t) but the religions are new. And, in my opinion all the better for that – which explains why Paganism as a modern religion has no problem with modernity whereas pre-modern religions, like sombunall Christianity does. If we examine the actual history of the religions themselves, most pre-modern Paganisms would not be attractive to most modern Pagans. The entrails and forced worship of divine Emperors alone would be a drag
I was fortunate that as I was typing this, the Emissary for the Secret Chiefs (and those who really control the Internet), Morgan Drake Eckstein wrote a great blog post outlining some of the same points: Witch trials and the survival of paganism. So scoot on over and have a look. On a related note, have a look at Wicca and the Christian Heritage: Ritual, Sex and Magic which shows just how much the two religions have in common, in some ways.
Giving to each other
To finish I thought it’d be nice to suggest one ‘gift’ each religion can give the other, among many others for sure.
Sombunall Christianity offers to Paganism a rich history and heritage of religious thought and exploration on divinity, humanity and life. As I’ve watched the Pagan community develop over the last 30 years to include academic courses, chaplains, conferences etc, I often see explorations of territory covered centuries ago by the Church Fathers and Mothers. And it’s all recorded somewhere
By being a modern manifestation of the eternal Mystery, sombunall Paganism offers to Christianity an opportunity to witness a revelation of divinity in a culture recognisably our own; urban Britain of the early 20th century. It provides a chance for Christians to see the unfoldment and expansion of revelation in real time, with people who are our neighbours rather than ancient gentiles and Jews, and within our own backyard rather than history books, and perhaps a spur to imagine how different Christianity would be if it was revealed today, right here right now.