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 here, here 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 Pens. Go 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 :)
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”:
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.
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.
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 :)