Pagans don’t want to accept the possibility that the Christian god is real. Doing so might open us up to a diatribe about salvation, our inherent sinfulness, or our “need for conversion”. We’ve had that talk a time or two, and – thank you – we’ll pass.
Christians are of the “One and Only God” camp. Not two. Not many. Not Columbia (probably not a god) or Thor (totally a god) or any of the other “false” gods. They aren’t having the conversation about how their god relates to other gods. It’s just God. Just the One.
This may not be a problem, except we’re all sharing space; physical and virtual. We’re walking the same streets, paying the same taxes, trolling the same Internet.
We just don’t know how to talk to each other.
A Math Problem
If Pagans or polytheists could concede that God, the Christian god, did in fact exist, but that this god was a part of a much more diverse and populated pantheon than what the Christians imagine, think how that would that affect the conversation. It would be disarming on one hand, and completely challenging on the other. The “One God” could have a place in the conversation — perhaps not at the head of the table, but certainly in the room — but there would be a new context; a new forum for telling our stories.
The problem here is that the emphasis on the “One” is so central to the Christian faith. Well, except when it’s 3-in-1, or One with a side of Mary. (No hate, Catholics. I think Mary’s pretty swell.) Christians can’t engage with Pagans in a dialogue about deity without first denying the primary tenet of their faith, the first line of their creed — “We believe in One God.”
I may be wrong, though.
My post, The Christo-Pagan Conflict, continues to stir up comments from Pagans and Christians alike, the most recent of which was from an anonymous writer who said simply,
I’m a progressive, emergent Christian with many pagan friends whom I enjoy and respect.
So, there are some Christians who have found a balance; who have discovered a way to respect their Pagan friends, and presumably their expressions of faith and practice, while still preserve their own Christian identity.
Of course, a self-identified “progressive, emergent Christian” is a far cry from a Dominionist.
Oh Bloody ‘ell.
Dominionist are all awash with the blood of Jesus, saying things like “We release the power of blood-covered light over you,” or, “We release perfect Blood-covered love into the core of your being!”
There is value in drawing a distinction between the progressives and the crazies. I’d imagine the friendly Christians would appreciate if. There are Christians out there who aren’t chucking Bibles or Jesus Blood from behind the bushes, and who really don’t feel the need to thrust their god onto you, me, or the local High Priestess. Their understanding of their god may inform the way they talk about the mysteries of life (i.e., the soul or the spirit, where we come from, where we’re going to, how we are all connected), but they’ve got a grip on the basics of civility. And isn’t that enough for us? Do we need them to believe in many gods, or just to respect and make space for our inclination to do so?
Perhaps there are concessions to be made. Maybe Pagans could accept the Christian god, but recontextualize him (either just to ourselves or in dialogue with others). Maybe we could be open to the mystical, mythological person of Jesus — deity or human — who unlike the blood font that’s presented by the Dominionists actually serves as an example of compassion, kindness and restoration from brokenness. The question is, can we do that without feeling that our own cosmologies and belief systems are being threatened?
If you’ve got an answer to any of these questions, please share it in the comments. I’d love to get some feedback on this subject. And, if you think your Facebook or Twitter friends might have something to say, I’d be grateful if you shared the post with them, too.
“Pagans don’t want to accept the possibility that the Christian god is real.”
I don’t know which pagans you’ve been talking with, but most of the ones I know don’t deny the existence of the Christian (or Jewish or Islamic) gods; belief and worship are two very different things.
Thanks for the comment, HR. You’re right about belief and worship being different things. I didn’t really touch on worship, but I guess making the distinction could be useful to the conversation.
Could you speak at all to the conflict, if any, that arises when one of the Pagans you know explicitly acknowledges the existence of the Abrahamic god but does not accept any of the theological tenets around his being the *one and only* god? I’m interested to know how they handle what seems to me to be an obvious problem and potential roadblock to interfaith dialogue.
I see no conflict – His claim to be the one and only was added by the priests to protect their own power. Historically, YHWH was worshiped alongside Baal, Asherah, and several other deities.
I’ve never for a moment doubted that the Christian god exists. Actually I believe that Yahweh exists, and I’m willing to entertain the possibility that Jesus exists as a deity (separate and distinct from Yahweh).
But that doesn’t really help me build bridges with Christians. First because I view Yahweh (on the evidence of the old testament) as a vengeful, spiteful, power mad and misogynistic deity. And second because I don’t really see many similarities between Him and His alleged Son.
Thanks for the comment, Shawn. I’m curious of a couple things.
First, have you had conversations with Christians about your thoughts on the existence of their god? If so, has that led to any of the conversations that I laid out in the beginning of the post, or did it feel like some spot of common ground.
Second, do you think there’s a way to have a conversation with Christians about Yahweh, or Jesus for that matter, without using the Bible as evidence? I’m not sure it’s really useful as a history of a deity as much as it is of a people in relationship to what is (in large part) a difficult to know deity.
It seems like your last point would be an interesting conversation starter. I’d be curious how a Christian might approach that conflict.
Teo – good questions. I have not tried to have that conversation with Christians. My ~40 years as a Christian suggest to me that the reaction would vary dramatically based on whom it was.
On the second point, I certainly think you could talk about Yahweh without citing the bible or necessarily assuming that the bible is an accurate reflection of his character — but doing so would be fundamentally disrespectful of most Christians’ beliefs. They take the bible seriously (even the ones who don’t take it literally) as the word of their god; if I was trying to have dialog with them I would need to be willing to grant that assumption.
Besides, my own view of divinity doesn’t fit well with a scenario in which Yahweh has been misrepresented by the bible and many/most of his followers. I’m a soft polytheist — I believe that at the highest level there is one god(ess)head, but that it reaches out to humans in different guises based on their needs, culture, and ability to understand. BUT, I also believe that as a given deity (or aspect of the One) is worshiped and related to by people, He or She actually becomes more distinct and more like what is being worshiped. In other words, worshipers co-create their gods and goddesses (with the initial seed of the god(dess) being the other co-creator). Once enough people have given energy to a particular conception of deity for long enough, that deity becomes somewhat set in His/Her nature. So, for example, Odin is who He is in part because that’s the aspect of male, father divinity that spoke to the Norse – and partly because the Norse made Him that way (or reinforced the initial seed).
So with Yahweh it’s hard for me to imagine Him being anything but an angry mountain god with delusions of grandeur who managed to frighten a large chunk of the world into worshiping Him and thus has become one of the most powerful deities in the world. And, IMO, the source of much of the pain and suffering in the world.
I had to make a break from the Christian mythology as a personal thing, else I’d probably be a Christopagan myself. I never had any issues with Jesus. His Dad is a different matter, and the sick, twisted version of his Dad I was raised with is a different matter again. That’s why I had to walk away.
I just read the Iron Druid trilogy (which ended on a note that says there’s more to come), and the last of the living Druids in that story gets an enchanted bow from Mary at one point (to deal with some creatures from the Christian Hell), and later has a beer with Jesus. He gets along with most of the pantheons, though in the last book he has put himself on the crap list for then entire Norse pantheon.
I’ve not had discussions with reasonable Christians about the matter. I’ve had discussions with the unreasonable ones, and that goes nowhere. But that’s because they’re unreasoning people.
I sure like the way you write, Themon. “I never had any issues with Jesus. His Dad is a different matter…” — that’s awesome.
Thanks for sharing your perspective on this. I’m curious what you think a “reasonable Christian” might be like. What would qualify a Christian as reasonable? This may seem like an overly simple question, but I’m wondering if it is reasonable or unreasonable to ask a Christian to accept a pluralistic cosmology as a prerequisite to interfaith dialogue with a polytheist. Does that cross a line somehow?
And thanks for the heads up on the books. I’ll keep an eye out for those!
I should clarify. I know people who call themselves Christian, and who are very reasonable. But when we talk theology, it turns out they’re actually pretty Pagan, at least in my view. They just aren’t willing to be so socially peripheral as to CALL themselves “Pagan.”
One of my dearest friends is a Methodist minister, and when I talk with her about my Pagan experiences, she’s very supportive and even a bit envious. But she has a place in her community, and if she went out and started dancing naked under the stars and praising Artemis, she’d lose her role and her standing, and her community would lose its leadership. There’s very little good about that scenario. She’s comfortable with the Jesus pantheon, where I am not. So there’s no reason for her to be “Pagan.”
Another dear friend is a retired Episcopal minister. We have a long history together, and we can sit and talk about Christian and Pagan issues all night.
I think the only real prerequisite to interfaith dialogue is mutual respect. It’s reasonable to ask to be treated with respect. It’s reasonable for them to want to be treated with respect.
But it has to be mutual, and it has to be real.
I think you hit the core of the matter in your question, “is it reasonable… to ask a Christian to accept a pluralistic cosmology as a prerequisite to interfaith dialogue…”
I don’t see any good purpose in interfaith dialog between Pagans & Christians. All it does is ask two diametrically opposite views to twist themselves until they hurt. We don’t need to understand & respect each other’s religions. We need to respect each others’ right, as a citizen and fellow-human, to hold whatever belief feels right to us without let, hindrance, interference or public slander from other people. The only reasonable reaction to other people’s beliefs is ‘no skin off my nose.’
That’s an interesting perspective, Dana. Thank you for sharing it here.
Interfaith dialogue, I think, has inherent value. It isn’t something that can be done without. As long as there are people with different belief systems there is a need for interfaith work. You may be right that we don’t have to understand each others beliefs, and I absolutely agree that our right to believe freely deserves protection. To me, though, the need for interfaith dialogue is clear.
I certainly believe in the existence of all Deities. There are many I choose not to worship, for various reasons. So I can’t agree with this generalization. Also, while I do agree that a theme that most mainstream Christians believe — at least nominally — in the exclusivity of their religion, some do not, and much can be learned by engaging them in friendly dialog. I think you make some good points, but what we need now in Pagan-Christian relations is nuance, not generalization.
Thank you for the comment, Anna. Glad to see your voice in the conversation.
I think it’s interesting that you say that you, “believe in the existence of all Deities.” I’ve never quite heard it worded like that. That a real openness. Does that present any challenges for you when talking with people who only believe in one deity? Or, those who don’t believe in the ones you believe in?
My generalization was bound to be incorrect, as I myself identify as a Pagan who believes that the Christian god exists. I was, to be honest, willing to step out and be bold with the risk of being a bit inaccurate. As you probably know, making a “Pagans are” or “Pagans believe” statement is a sure fire way to leave some people out.
As for nuance, I’m giving it some thought. 🙂
Love to know more about what you think.
Thank you for the comment, Anna. Glad to see your voice in the conversation.
I think it’s interesting the thou say that you, “believe in the existence of all Deities.” I’ve never quite heard it worded like that. That’s a real openness. Does your broad belief present any challenges for you when taking with people who only believe in one deity, or with those who don’t believe in the ones you believe in?
My generalization was bound to be incorrect, as I myself identify as a Pagan who believes that the Christian god exists. I was, to be honest, willing to step out and be bold – perhaps even a little provocative – at the risk of being a bit inaccurate. As you probably know, making “Pagans are” or “Pagans believe” statements is a sure fire way to leave some people out and tick other people off.
As for nuance, I’m giving it some thought. 🙂
As a Pagan in a very happy marriage with a cultural Catholic, the opening line of this post really ticked me off. I’m glad you’ve addressed that by acknowledging other Pagans who have disagreed, but please reconsider sweeping generalizations like that in the future. At least put a qualifier on it!
My spouse’s way of understanding polytheism is to think of different deities as different metaphors for what is fundamentally the same thing. It’s rather like the idea of aspects – “All goddesses are one goddess,” in Dion Fortune’s words.
My theaology has become more complex over time – I’m a panentheist, so I believe in a unity of spirit, especially in the world, but I often function as a polytheist, since I think that’s more appropriate in many situations. Accepting that the Christian god is real? Not a problem.
Thanks for commenting, Literata, and for taking the time to challenge what I’ve written. I appreciate that very much. Also, I’m glad that you’re in a happy marriage with your husband. 🙂
My “sweeping generalizations” were false. I admit it. But they were not designed to insult Pagans anymore than when Star Foster posted on Facebook that she has “never met a Pagan that didn’t like Loreena McKennett.” What I wrote was clearly incorrect, but it was presented in order to initiate a dialogue. After reading your response, and a few others, I’m reconsidering that approach.
I’m still hoping that someone can speak to the theological conflict at hand. You and your husband have been able to come to an understanding, which is great. There’s an ease with which Pagans and polytheists can accept the Christian god — why wouldn’t we? We accept all sorts of gods, after all. But for a religious Christian, one whose cosmology is built around the “One God,” there seems (to me) to be cause for more rigidity. I’m still looking for examples of how dialogue with that person would take place.
I would appreciate any more of your insights into how we might achieve this, and again – thank you for the comment.
I work under the idea that all Gods are one God and that s/he comes to everyone in the guise that is best for that person at any given moment. I can say that my Catholic husband feels much the same way.
Of course people are able to twist the teachings of that God in all sorts of ways.
Teo, I think the issue is with labels, and you’re being a bit too specific.
I don’t know any Dominionists, per se, and it’s difficult for me to see how a Dominionist could be a reasonable person, but it isn’t impossible.
It is impossible for an unreasonable person to be a reasonable person. Though simply stating that makes it clear that people may be reasonable in some areas, and totally unreasoning in others. You may be able to talk with them about beer making, but not about race relations.
The basic problem is that you can’t have interfaith dialogue — nor much of any sort of dialogue — with an unreasonable person. Period. And there are a lot of very unreasonable people out there.
I’ve also had very little success in “converting” an unreasonable person into a reasonable person. I think it’s best to simply give that up as a bad job, and walk away.
I recently had an exchange with Frederick Schmidt over on the progressive Christian portal, and he responded to my post with this:
We don’t always agree (and obviously we don’t in this case),but in a cultural climate in which differences sour quickly, I’m thankful for aconversation partner who doesn’t turn in a heartbeat from a difference ofopinion to character assassination.
That is kind of the crux of it. We had a profound difference of opinion (IMO) over the use of the word “war,” but at the end of the day, it’s a difference of opinion. I don’t think we came to any agreement on the point. But disagreement isn’t going to kill either of us.
Another question is in what sense might the Christian god exists? Would a Pagan believe that such a god exists according to the specific monotheistic, exclusionary theology typical of Christianity? Probably not. Or would a Pagan have trouble with the notion that YHWH, one god of a whole pantheon of ancient Near Eastern deities, exists but later monotheisitic theologies have transformed him into the god of Christianity? Are the two the same god? Are they different?
What a GREAT blog post! I follow Jesus, but consider myself of organic faith. I have found a way to be a student of Christ and yet explore my organic faith journey like pagans do. I left fundamentalism 3 years ago and my journey to seeking the organic way of listening to my God has been incredible. I am in fellowship with a grove in my town and they have been quite gracious to me. In fact, understanding more about paganism has deepened my own faith in Jesus and come to understand the pagan origins of many of the teachings in the bible. I’m open to the conversation. Ask away!
I don’t need Christians to believe in any part of my cosmology or anything more complex than my rights under the Constitution to practice my religion freely. Can I acknowledge the existence of their god? Sure, but I don’t see where it will be a useful concession in dialogue. There is no midway point in beliefs between paganism and Christianity. I don’t have an issue with the existence of Yahweh, but he’s just one of many in my book, and I’m not called to follow him or bound to him as a member of the tribes of Israel. I also don’t have any problems with the concept of a sacrificed and resurrected god. In fact, we did that bit LONG before Christianity came along, and virtually every piece of mythology in the story has been done before. I don’t accept the idea of one god for everyone, and I don’t accept the idea that humanity is “fallen” or needs salvation from anything. This is a Grand Canyon size gap between my religion and theirs. This fact, coupled with their Great Commission, means that there is no room for negotiated middle ground in belief. I am not just a goddess-loving New Age Christian, and they are not just pagans who happen to be monotheists.
We will not create a good space for dialogue by looking for commonality of beliefs. What we can do is to try to respect the depth and authenticity of each other’s beliefs. Even if you think the other person is dead wrong, remember that it’s their journey.
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My question is why does this not arise between different pagan theologies? I’ll admit I’m still new to the whole paganism crowd and still learning about the community but as I understand it to be pagan is simply to worship a non mainstream religion. The conflict as I see it is not in “One God” but rather “One Truth.” Perhaps that’s the inherent problem with Christianity, not that it’s a monotheist religion but rather that we’re (yes I’ve got a Christian background) trained that our way, our truth, is the only one; that truth is absolute. Even truth based on empirical evidence isn’t absolute since what it’s based on, observation, is subjective to the abilities, knowledge and beliefs of the observer and the technology available at the time. Spiritual, moral and ethical “truths” are even more subjective so perhaps the issue isn’t “One God vs Many Gods” or “My God vs Your God” but rather accepting that truth is not absolute and what one accepts as true is not the only truth that can be found. In essence accepting that just because party A’s belief’s conflict with party B and party A says “I believe this to be True” that that does not directly imply that party B’s beliefs are false.
Of course the Christian God is real! Everybody’s gods are real — at least to them. The problem is not with their God but with the bizarre beliefs they’ve built up around him/her/it.
“Everybody’s gods are real — at least to them.”
That’s a theological statement that deserves some unpacking. 🙂
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The problem I’ve often encountered online is Pagans saying they can have no dialogue with Christians unless the latter give up their belief in the uniqueness of their God. This is an unacceptable precondition. This would be like Christians saying we won’t have dialogue with Pagans until they admit that their gods are lesser spiritual beings that were actually created by our God and have since “gone rogue” (some Christians would call them demons). My rule: Dialogue without preconditions on either side, or no dialogue. Don’t ask me to believe Yahweh is a megalomaniacal deity and I won’t ask you to believe Aphrodite is a demonic whore.