Pagan misunderstandings of Christianity (again) and a new WA Pagan Mag

It seems my especial fate or personal quirk that I often find myself explaining what Neo-Paganism is to Christians and what Christianity isn’t to Pagans (see herehere and here for example). Ho hum. Anyway, I’ve just had another shot at this in response to an article in a wonderful new Western Australian Pagan E-Magazine, Pagan PensGo and have a look at the first issue here. It contains some interesting articles, including ones by Gordon Strong and little old moi. Congrats to all the folk involved!

Anyway, here is a classic ‘letter to the editor’ I just sent in response to an article entitled ‘Where the Christians get it wrong’. Enjoy or not :)

space

Cover of the first issue

Thank you so much for the first edition of ‘Pagan Pens’. :)

It was a delight to see Gary Wilmot’s comments on the inadequacy of simply ‘flipping’ the Wheel of the Year (‘Where the Christians get it wrong’). This has been an abiding concern of ours for 20 years, and I really hope more Perth and WA groups take up Gary’s implication to think it through deeper.

The rest of his rather starkly entitled ‘Where the Christians get it wrong’ left me wondering a bit. Firstly, as I and many others have noted elsewhere, Christianity is so diverse – much more so than modern Paganism – we cannot actually talk about ‘it’ without making generalizations. Gary, as so many Pagan commentators do, seems to be responding to what he thinks Christianity is, rather than what it may actually be in 2012 CE. Nor does he take into account the actual diversity, multiplicity and subtly of the development of the Christian religions in the early centuries of the Common Era.

The ‘hijacking’ of Christianity by the establishment as Gary puts it, had its most obvious manifestation in 380 CE by the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, we cannot say that the Roman Imperial apparatus was a new face of the ‘same old body’ of establishment that the Jesus Movements developed within almost immediately from the time of Christ’s death circa 35 CE. The ‘establishment’ then was very different, being mostly focused through the Jewish Sanhedrin.

The common Pagan understanding that Christianity ‘shaped its mythology around established practices and festivals’ is not an inviolable truth. The matter is actually far more subtle. Despite popular internet misconceptions of links between Horus and Christ, the core Christian doctrines of Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension have no prior occurrences in Pagan mythology. This is not the place to go into this, but the essential difference is that Christ was and is seen as GOD and human; not one God of a Pantheon, but the One Being. He was also clearly not an incarnation of a God, nor an Incarnation of the One, but fully human at the same time. This theology was and is radically different from the Pagan and Jewish religions extant in this era.

Despite the many boring photos on Facebook declaring Christianity ‘stole’ Pagan festivals the actual reality is again far more complex. The date for the birth of Christ varied between different ancient Jesus movements and Churches. It may have been fixed to the 25 December several centuries BEFORE it was even celebrated. Therefore this did not involve an appeal to ‘the masses’ as Gary puts it, but a handful of earnest theologians arguing among themselves. And of course this means co-opting the Roman Saturnalia was not part of the motivation for this dating, as there was originally no celebration. See, for example, “Everything you know about Christmas is wrong”. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2012/12/everything-you-know-about-christmas-is-wrong/)

Similarly with Easter; despite the popular myth that it all stems from Christian borrowings of the celebration of the Goddess Eostre, the reality is somewhat different. Firstly, the evidence for this belief is based mostly on a SINGLE source, the Venerable Bede. Secondly, the dating is all wrong. To quote from “Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday?: The historical evidence contradicts this popular notion”:

(http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/bytopic/holidays/easterborrowedholiday.html):

The first question, therefore, is whether the actual Christian celebration of Easter is derived from a pagan festival. This is easily answered. The Nordic/Germanic peoples (including the Anglo-Saxons) were comparative latecomers to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent a missionary enterprise led by Augustine of Canterbury to the Anglo-Saxons in 596/7. The forcible conversion of the Saxons in Europe began under Charlemagne in 772. Hence, if “Easter” (i.e. the Christian Passover festival) was celebrated prior to those dates, any supposed pagan Anglo-Saxon festival of “Eostre” can have no significance. And there is, in fact, clear evidence that Christians celebrated an Easter/Passover festival by the second century, if not earlier. It follows that the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, which originated in the Mediterranean basin, was not influenced by any Germanic pagan festival.

Nuff said?

Gary in his article goes on to write:

…the main problem, as I see it, is the fixed nature of the Christian mythology. Essentially we are dealing with a religion whose rituals, rules and beliefs were laid down more than 1000 years ago and more or less set in stone as, quite literally, “gospel truth”.

I am not sure what Christianity Gary is referring to in this extraordinary statement. It is certainly not any Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox Christianity, all of which have shown an incredible change over the last 1000 years, especially the last 100 years. It is hard to even know where to begin addressing such a bald, gross misunderstanding.

This view somehow ignores the whole Reformation from 1517 CE onwards which led to the creation of dozens of new Protestant churches, all of which created new and radical ways of practice, scriptural interpretation, theology and cosmology. It ignores the creation of the Anglican Church in 1534 CE, a Church which historically was the dominant Christian sect in Australia. And of course the impulse of reformation and reconstitution continues today:  new Protestant Churches are formed each day across the world with new theologies and scriptural work. The statement also ignores the Catholic Counter-Reformation from 1545 CE in response to the rise of Protestantism, let alone the amazing changes in the Catholic Church since Vatican II, 1962-65 CE.

The facts regarding Christianities are clear: the so called “rules, rituals and practices from those dim and distant times” as Gary puts it, simply do not exist. In the matter of Scriptural interpretation things have changed hugely in the last 1000 years. The classic example is that of Matthew 19:9:

And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

This is the ‘gospel truth’ Gary refers to. However, many Protestant churches now interpret this passage differently to how it was interpreted even 50 years ago, with good church folk divorcing each other regularly. So much for an invariable Christian truth from a thousand years ago continued today.

Exorcism…updated for today’s world

In the realm of practice, most of the liturgy within most Churches has been composed in the last 50 years. Heck, there was even a new Catholic Exorcism Rite in 1999 CE. Christian liturgies continue the themes and forms of the older churches but in newer vessels, like all developing religions, like Neo-Paganism. In the theological realm, Papal Infallibility was proclaimed less than 150 years ago in 1870 CE, and the Immaculate Conception was declared a dogma in 1854 CE. These are hardly small changes and show the unfolding development of all arms of Christianity. And today of course there are many more changes with women Bishops and Priests, meditation as a regular part of Christian life, and the composition of new forms of liturgy. I remember nearly ten years ago taking Communion to the strains of the Eurythmics’ ‘the Miracle of Love’ in a Mass that quoted the Upanishads, Starhawk and Walt Whitman among others.

While there are many problems with exoteric Christianity, many places the religions ‘get it wrong’, they are not the places indicated by Gary in his broad sweeping statements. And really, I cannot see why, even if it was accurate, there would be a need for this kind of article in a 2012 CE Pagan magazine. The readership is Pagan, all of us consciously have a Pagan path – why are we discussing the demerits of other religions, and why are we focused on Christianity? Thanks :)

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17 comments

  1. John W. Morehead · January 2, 2013

    I appreciate both the spirit behind this piece, and the specifics of the essay. We need more Pagans working toward understanding and engaging in dialogue with Christians. I’d encourage you to consider sharing your interest and involvement with a Pagan chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy that is currently being considered. Thanks again.

  2. Sio · January 2, 2013

    Your last line re: Pagan audience & Christianity hits it *exactly* on the head for me. Half way through this blog post I was wondering ‘what is this doing in a Pagan publication anyway?’ and secondly ‘who cares?’

    It seems an overwhelming number of Pagans used to be Christian. I’m not sure why that’s so significant to them?

    [written from a perspective of someone who wasn’t raised with any particular religion and adopted a pagan path in early-mid teen years)

  3. Monica Bilongame · January 2, 2013

    Good article. Certainly as the core festival of Easter was originally tied in with Pesach, the yearly commemoration would have reflected this – as it still does (Easter is a moveable feast, the date being the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the Spring Equinox). They may have used a local pagan name as a reference to the time of year it happened, but Easter is far more Jewish than pagan in origin. What is more likely is that the original celebrations of both Christmas and Easter have become paganised in their practice by the masses rather than a deliberate christianisation of a pagan festival.

  4. Peregrin · January 2, 2013

    Hi – thanks folks :)

    @John – will be in touch :)

    @Sio – yeah, good points. Why was the article there? I do not know the author, but many of these types of Pagan articles on Christianity are really exploring the author’s own wounding by some but not all Christian churches and theology. This is a fine thing to do, but I think it needs to be clearly labelled as such, and it will also help with the healing too. Of course, a problem comes when Pagans think their understanding of Christianity, often skewed because of the wounding, is actually Christianity itself.

    Who cares? Well, I care that info like the article is not produced unchallenged in Pagan literature. Otherwise we look like prats…and as I have said before, since we get to get around in the nude or in fancy robes and antlers, we don’t need any more help in that direction :)

    @Monica. Thanks. Excellent points. Thanks :)

  5. David Dashifen Kees · January 2, 2013

    @Peregrine (and @John)

    If you’re interested in working on the Pagan Chapter for the FRD, let me know. I’ve been working with people in the United States to try and get something together. Some new life was recently breathed into the process when members of Circle Sanctuary started to get involved so I’m hopeful to have things ready during early 2013.

  6. John W. Morehead · January 2, 2013

    I’m familiar with your good work too, David. Thanks and keep up the good work as well.

  7. Will · January 2, 2013

    I have been repeatedly told that evergreens and men in red suits are “Christian symbols”, which we are nefariously Imposing On Everybody.

    I wish all the factions of Christian-baiters would fight it out among themselves and THEN let us know who won, so we can settle WHAT we are supposed to feel guilty about.

    And how DARE those Romans impose their stupid “New Year” on everybody just because that is when they inaugurated their officials?

  8. Andrew · January 2, 2013

    Nice.

    We’re starting to see folks around here who were born into Paganism who don’t know ANY of the history or baggage of Christianity. It’s a little weird. Many have little-to-no theology or technique of any kind, and know none of the development of the movement or of its mythic or actual history…

    Heh. Actually, I was at a wedding of a prominent couple in the larger New England community; they have a very good working relationship with the their town’s Masonic lodge, and rented the whole lodge, upstairs and down, for their wedding and reception. Surrounded by the symbols of this very old tradition, and witnessing the symbols of this relatively new-old tradition in that context, I was deeply moved during the ceremony. So moved, in fact, that I said so afterward to a young person (college-age) who is the child of ANOTHER prominent couple in the community here, along the lines of, “It’s amazing to see the symbols of our tradition playing out here, in a Masonic lodge, and seeing how their symbols and our symbols interact, and how our tradition draws on the currents of theirs.”

    This young person stared at me, and said, “There’s no relationship here at all. Our tradition comes from a completely different place.” The person didn’t believe me AT ALL that there could be any connection at all between a bunch of fuddy-duddy old guys in a Masonic lodge, and the invocation of quarters or the calling down of energy from on high. I’m sorry to say that I laughed.

    Reporting this conversation later to one of the prominent couples (not saying which one, newlyweds or witnesses!), there was a rueful chuckle. “We haven’t done the best job educating our children in this, either our own or the community’s,” was admitted. “‘We pagans been here forever, has been the refrain… and yet that’s not exactly true, is it?”

    I think there’s a mythic history to be written here, but there’s a parallel and more complicated story of the combination of real historical events that contributed to the rise of this thing called “paganism”.

    For some reason, I’m reminded that the early Christians didn’t call themselves Christians… they called themselves “followers of the Way.” Hmmm.

  9. sionnanmaree · January 2, 2013

    LOL well, yes, I get why *you* care, however I’m not sure why the rest of the pagan population would otherwise ‘care’ about one person’s individual gripe and misunderstandings about Christianity. How does it influence their pagan path? What does it mean to them now? Tell me something significant about this wounding, help me understand why it’s relevant etc

  10. Peregrin · January 2, 2013

    HI Andrew – as always, a great response. And a very important anecdote and discussion. The wedding and connection sounds lovely and amazing… would have been very special, and I can quite see where you are coming from with the older symbols containing the new which were born from it. Very cool.

    i am not surprised at the younger person’s comments and beliefs. As I think I have recalled elsewhere, I once (back in the 80s) was stupid enough to talk about Masonic antecedants to a group of feminist Wiccans Starhawk style (though using bascially Alexandrian ritual). For a while I thouht their pacificism would evaporate and I made sure I was close to the door :)

    And as I keep saying, the actual historic events are mythic and inspiring in scope anyway, more so to me than the mythic stories :)

    Finally… yes, the Way :)

  11. Peregrin · January 2, 2013

    HI Sionnan – thanks for the comments :)

    Yes, well I think someone else may need to talk about this wounding, as I feel I have none (I WANTED to go to church as a child; my parents stopped me). All I can say, is that this may easily be a generational thing – as Andrew says also in another context, re the knowledge of the Pagan histories. In the mid 1980s I cannot think of a single person in the Covens I knew who was not a former Christian or raised as a Christian. Anyway, the point also is these sort of articles keep occuring – from the 1950s, through to 2012. They attack Christianity, often very obviously, sometimes more implicity, and they appear in all forms of Pagan mags. Earlier in MOTO I put up another letter on the same theme, responding to a silly article, this time in Gree Egg of all places. So from the smaller to the large international mags, these things keep getting published.

    OK…dinner needs cooking… thanks for prompting some thoughts… maybe another post will come from these comments :) THANKS

  12. Lee · January 2, 2013

    Yeah. I think everything has been said in your post & in the comments, but it was not without copious eye-rolling when I stumbled onto that article, and I was hoping someone would pounce on it.

    In the meantime I wish articles and submissions to publications like this were curated more carefully. Is it really necessary to put *all* the dross in? Editing something like this needs to be a more selective process or it is doomed to mediocrity and failure. If it weren’t for your writings and that of Gordon Strong’s, this would have been… awful. We have blogs to publish every brain fart that Persecuted Pagan X comes up with, let’s be more discerning when it comes to magazines and lift the standards! Take a bit of time with it! And yes, I am talking about the art and poetry as well… although I must say the illustration for the brownie recipe was AMAZING :P

  13. Peregrin · January 2, 2013

    Hi Lee – yes, Gordon is fellow Skylight Press author, one of long experience and repute. When I was mentioning about the new Pagan Mag in WA he kindly offered to submit an article there.

    From past experience, I do know how hard it is to get good copy for Pagan magazines. Still that was 20 years ago now, and I think there are a lot more thinking and articulate Pagans (and Pagan blogs) out there than then. Still, I agree about the need for more active and rigorous editorial input. These sort of articles really should be bounced or blue-pencilled out of existence :)

    And yes, great recipe illustration :)

  14. charles h. miranda · January 2, 2013

    i really and truly want to believe in a female Goddess as well as a male God; i
    may be just little bit feminist in me some how are another, of helping to fight for
    equality for all of the feminist in this whole world; i also want to get involve in the
    Goddess movement as well, so i’m beginning to open up and to believe in a
    female Goddess too; i just don’t see anything wrong in praying or to worship a
    female Goddess, like i said i just may be a little bit feminist in me; i’m a male
    and i’m also a transgender trap in a male body and i feel very feminine all the
    time. do a web search on: charles h. miranda or: charlesthepoet2003 or:
    charlesthepoet2004 or: thelovegoddess1321 thanks.

  15. srsd · January 2, 2013

    I love your work and your book and I am all for Christians and Pagans getting on, but with some of the points in this article I would like to answer, if you don’t mind, in defence of the Horus-Christ connection.

    “The common Pagan understanding that Christianity ‘shaped its mythology around established practices and festivals’ is not an inviolable truth. The matter is actually far more subtle.”
    – Not really…. all the basic elements are there alright , but just in a form adopted and adapted to the culture of its time.

    “Despite popular internet misconceptions of links between Horus and Christ, the core Christian doctrines of Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension have no prior occurrences in Pagan mythology. “
    – what about all those ancient Egyptian Tomb paintings showing the Pharaoh identified with the death and resurrection (ascension) of the sun? Also, this idea did not originate on the internet! – Gerald Massey was talking about it years before. The Christ-Horus connection was argued most clearly in the book “That Old-time Religion”. This is not some new age airy-fairy idea. Nor is it a popular idea. 99.9% of people are unaware of it.

    “This is not the place to go into this, but the essential difference is that Christ was and is seen as GOD and human”
    -The Pharaoh was considered to be the God Horus.

    “not one God of a Pantheon, but the One Being. “
    – Perhaps, but that then would be the only difference, but even there, anyway, the monotheistic idea is not original to Christianity – it was also found in Egypt under Akhenaton and the Aten.
    “Nothing new under the sun” is a most appropriate phrase here :-)

    “He was also clearly not an incarnation of a God, nor an Incarnation of the One, but fully human at the same time.”
    – Jesus himself said: “I and the Father are one” – sound to me like an incarnation of a God.

    “This theology was and is radically different from the Pagan and Jewish religions extant in this era.”– only because they rearranged it for their culture, the underlying constructs are the same.

    It is so easy to be distracted by the colourful narrative of a text that we miss the universal motifs. Like I say, just read “That Old-time Religion” by Jordan Maxwell. This is possibly the original source of the internet messages.

  16. Peregrin · January 2, 2013

    Care Sr SD,

    thanks for the comments. :)

    I am in the lucky position of simply pointing out general academic consensus and not having to defend it – the links I provided in the post do that very well. Have you watched/read them?

    But a couple of things:

    Identification of a ruler with the rising/reborn Sun is not the same as Christian Resurrection. The latter involves a human being, flesh and blood and the One, dying and then popping up for breakfast a few days later. The difference is very marked. While there is no doubt rising sun motifs were used by the early Jesus movements and the early churches, the Incarnation renders their use to be very different to Egyptian motifs.

    Gerald Massey is discredited and his theories largely disproved by modern scholarship. He was not an expert in these fields, anyway.

    Similarly, with Jordan Maxwell’s work, though I have not read a critique of the particular book you mention. But his works on UFOs, conspiracy theories I have briefly read and seen devastating critiques. I cannot judge the religion book, though, so may grab a copy since you have found it useful.

    The brief, ruler-down, flirtation with a proto-monotheism by Akhenaten cannot be compared with Abrahamic monotheism. Aten worship, imposed by Akhenaten, at first identified the Aten with the sun, and only later as a power above the Gods. Even then many, the common people for sure, and some in his court kept names and Steles and worship of the many Gods. Within a generation after his death, all his reforms were overturned and the Gods, many and varied, were back in the royal court. This was nowhere near Jewish monotheism where Christianity grew from.

    I am the Father are One – this is part of a mystical identity and not an incarnation. For a short period the early Jesus movements struggled with the understanding that Christ was GOD – the Jewish God, the ONE, and human, not an incarnation of a discrete deity like in some paganisms. There are plenty of surviving texts showing they did NOT see him as an incarnation of a god. Soon the doctrine of the Trinity was fully developed to solve this logical mystery – and as I have said elsewhere on MOTO, it must be experienced to be understood.

    Modern folk and non-Christians are free to view Christ as an incarnation of a discrete deity, no probs. But most Christians do not, and historically have not, seen it that way.

    Again, I do not think “the underlying constructs are the same” between early Christianity and contemporary Pagans or Jews. The very fact THEY thought there was a major difference shows there WAS a major difference. And remember plenty of Christians went to their deaths because they would not accept the divinity of the Emperor as well as Christ. The Roman authorities were quite happy to accept the Christians as another cult worshipping another god, so long as they also paid homage to the Emperor. The Christians did not see themselves that way.

    I do not think the “underlying structures” of the Incarnation – fully THE ONE and fully human in a human life – are their in Paganism circa 1c AD. Nor do the majority of scholars who work in this area.

    THANKS for making me think, but as I say, I am really just passing on the general consensus of those who study these matters. :)

  17. Sally N. · 21 Hours Ago

    It’s that time of the year again: when the “Christians stole our festivals” meme goes around like a particularly bad strain of herpes.
    Thanks Peregrine, for your thoughtful and detailed responses to this recent letter and previous iterations of the theme. I thinks it’s important to keep pointing out just how complex and different Christian theology is, compared to the cardboard cut-out versions which some pagans take issue with.

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