Pagans hate generalizations made about Pagans (he writes with a smirk).
That’s one generalization I feel confident in making.
In my last post I made some bold statements about the unwillingness of Pagans to accept the existence of the Christian god, knowing full well that those statements were not completely accurate (or, perhaps even close to accurate). I did so in order to get the conversation started, and I recognize that there are better ways to initiate dialogue. Many of my readers let me know as much. I’m grateful to those of you who spoke up, and I thank you for your willingness to call “bullshit.”
What I also failed to mention was that my post was informed by the current controversy around Dominionism, and its corresponding backlash from the Pagan community. If you aren’t already familiar with what’s got the Witches, Druids, and Asatru abuzz throughout the blogosphere, click here, here or here for some backstory.
All of my literary shortcomings aside, there were some interesting ideas written in response to my post, and I’d like to unpack a few of them now and gauge whether you are in agreement with them or not. Let’s see if if we can keep the dialogue going, shall we?
“It is impossible for an unreasonable person to be a reasonable person.”
Themon, an OBOD Bard and regular contributor to the comments at Bishop In The Grove, made this statement, saying that there is no way to have interfaith dialogue with an unreasonable person.
I asked my 16 year old step-kid if this was a true statement during a mind-breaking batch of geometry homework.
“Um… if it’s a given that the person is unreasonable, then yes — that’s true,” the wunderkind said with one lifted eyebrow and a shrug. Silly stepdads and their philosophical questions.
I wonder what we might consider to be “reasonable” when it comes to theology and religion. Some would argue that the whole subject is a bunch of hooey. Others, like the Dominionists, might argue that only their particular viewpoint is reasonable, and if you don’t believe them just ask their god… he’ll totally back them up.
Themon goes on to write,
“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.”
This seems fair to me.
Mrs. B. Confesses
Mrs. B., the beloved blogger at Confessions of a Pagan Soccer Mom chimed in with a statement about the way that she perceives Deity:
“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.”
Fascinating idea, really. So relational. I find the though of divinity this fluid and accommodating, this concerned with where I am at the moment of contact, to be very comforting.
Mrs. B. isn’t the only one who’s struck a theological balance in an interfaith marriage.
Literata writes about her Catholic husband,
“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.”
I know that many Pagans hold a different view; that each God or Goddess possesses his or her own individual consciousness. To some, the idea of “aspects” betrays something true about the individuality of the Gods. Personally, I lean more in this direction, but I also am attracted to the idea of one god with many faces.
Perhaps somewhere in between these two polarities exists some common ground between Pagans and Christians.
“There is no midway point in beliefs between paganism and Christianity.”
Perhaps the strongest tone found in any of the comments came from Kenneth, an active contributor to the conversations at various Patheos blogs. If what he says is true, I’m not sure where that leaves me – a person who feels compelled to find a thread of continuity between the tradition of my youth (Episcopal Christianity) and the tradition that resonates with me now (Neo-Pagan Druidry).
“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.”
I appreciate this statement. Ultimately, I think that’s what I’m striving for in the dialogue created on this blog. I would like to see more Christians voicing in about the way that their perspective of Deity informs the conversations they have with Pagans. I’d like to hear how a polytheist conceives of “spiritual unity,” or if that phrase is too ambiguous or not resonant in any way. I’d like to hear from folks outside of these two categories, too. I’m interested — fascinated, really — by the spiritual experiences of human beings, and I’m seeking to synthesize what I learn from you with what I feel in my heart, in my head, in my body.
The intention I’ve set for Bishop In The Grove, a blog initially started to chart my course through the ADF Dedicant Path, is to create a space for dialogue. We each bring our unique voice to the conversation, and we are all both teacher and student for one another.
If any of these ideas have inspired you, or if you’d like to weigh in on what I’ve written here, please do so in the comment section. If you’d like to help me broaden the discussion even further, you can share this post on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or by e-mailing it to a friend.
Teo, I’m wondering what drives your desire for interfaith dialogue.
You’ve mentioned that you come from a positive Christian background, and that you are now Pagan. So is this an internal synthesis you are seeking?
Or do you have relationships that are beating themselves to death over religious issues? For instance, I have a sister with whom I no longer speak because she’s verbally violent and abusive toward me over religious issues. A lot of people have mixed-faith marriages or families, and some find a peaceful resolution, and other don’t. So is it peaceful co-existence you are seeking?
You also mention Dominionists, and that sounds more like trying to find common ground in an abstract way with religious bigots: seeking, if you will, the Grand Unified Theory of all religion. So is it some ideal of meta-religion you are seeking?
These are three very different objectives. What drives this topic for you?
I am seeking internal synthesis. That’s where it begins. Identity can be both prescriptive and descriptive, active and passive, and I’m trying to be conscious about the what, exactly, I’m being and what it means.
I am seeking peaceful co-existence, but not because I’m surrounded by religious violence. I think even the most theologically liberal in my family would take issue with my polytheism, and while I haven’t shared much with them about my new tradition it’s on my mind a lot.
I hadn’t given much thought to a “Grand Unified Theory” of all religion, but I like the idea. At least, I like imagining humanity from such a distant lens.
I think I’m driven by the paradox of our utter sameness and complete difference, we humans. There are ways in which I can see myself in the face of everyone I meet, and then the next moment we’re strangers. I feel like I’m always trying to make sense of something that, ultimately, is a mystery.
I’d suggest you leave the Dominionists out of it, then. Unless you were one (which I know you weren’t), or have some in your family circle.
I don’t think any peaceful resolution with Dominionists is possible: they are “One Way (my way), now by your own choice, or later when we take over the government and return this nation to its proper Christian path and outlaw your Pagan/Secular/Islamic/Whatever abominations.”
I’ve found the peace-with-others has at least two general approaches that work pretty well. One approach is for both sides to agree to a little humility, and recognize that we don’t know a whole lot about much of anything. It does require cooperation on this. The other approach is a live-and-let-live disengagement, where you realize the other person is wrong, but it’s okay for them to be wrong. You can do this unilaterally.
This latter works even if I’m the one who is actually wrong. There are a few cases where I actually know I’m right: for instance, when someone says “quantum mechanics says blah, blah, blah,” I often find myself in a position of wanting to say, “quantum mechanics ACTUALLY says blah, blah, blah,” but then I bite my tongue because I realize they don’t know the difference between a superposition and a singularity, and don’t care — they’re speaking in metaphor, anyway, and while they’re engaging in the logical fallacy of appeal to authority (“Science tells us…”) their underlying point may be insightful or even brilliant. Or not.
But I also feel the same way about the “free trade” nonsense I hear, where I am not, in fact, as knowledgeable as I’d like to pretend I am, and maybe I’m the one who is wrong, though I sincerely doubt it. So long as I’m willing to back off and let them be “wrong,” we have a peaceful resolution.
Issues like “free trade” or religion are difficult, because we all have an inflated sense of our own importance. The truth is, even if I understood economics better than every other person in the world, it wouldn’t make any real difference — the world will continue to churn on in ignorance and short-term self-interest. The same is true of religion — if the One True God came down and handed me The Eleventh Commandment today, what could I possibly do with it? Start a blog?
Internal synthesis is more difficult, I think, at least if you insist on being honest with yourself. I haven’t really had to face that, because I’ve walked away from Christianity as a religion.
Many of the good things I enjoyed about Christianity were purely social — they were about the other people I met and hung out with. Every time I’ve moved, I’ve lost that and had to start over, anyway. When I moved to Fort Collins, I was already post-Christian and never connected with any Christian group I’d miss. I’ve recently been mixing with choirs (because of the Missa Druidica), and I have to say I do miss the singing every Sunday morning.
The mystical experiences were all mystical and therefore to some extent unknowable — so it’s very easy to reinterpret them in any number of frameworks, from Christian, to Pagan, to Buddhist, to purely neurological.
All of the theology that would have made the transition difficult, I’ve simply rejected. For instance, the idea that The Bible is The (exclusive) Word of God. I know far too much about the Bible to believe that, and that was true even when I was a Christian. Or the idea that God will punish me for “switching teams.” If God’s like that, f**k Him, and the choir of heavenly sycophants currying for His favor, and every wannabe suck-up in this world who wants to tell me about how angry God is with me. Or disappointed. They can all sod off.
This kind of came to a focus in late 2003, when I got completely fed up and formulated the following Intention: I want a good relationship with a good god. Period. None of this “sinners in the hands of an angry god,” the title of a famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards. None of the “Bridget slaps me upside the head with a 2×4,” I’d heard from Wiccan friends. No quibbling about what makes for a “good relationship” or debating fine points about the difference between divine good and evil. Just a good relationship with a good god, no different from a good relationship with a good person. It isn’t all that complicated.
That simplified the issue for me, and let me throw out a whole lot of accumulated junk being stored in my spiritual attic. It’s worked out pretty well.
I think perhaps something that can rationalize the discussion, is to realize that this debate is unprovable. Any spiritual or religious person is that way because of feelings, thoughts, emotions and subconscious stirrings. No one, not Christians, not Pagans, not Buddhist or Hindus etc… can say with the proof of scientific certainty “I know the one true god”. Many have tried, usually the proof is a book, a holy man, or perhaps they weight of a culture. But at the end of the day we all must simply say “I don’t know, but this is what I feel to be true.”
Admitting that your religion is only based on feelings is rather hard for most people, it may go against your pride, or your theology. But no one can refute that another person may feel differently about divinity, and if we think of this as respect for another person’s feelings it makes respect for another person’s religion at little easier (well, that’s how I feel anyway ^.^)
I like this idea, Pink – that our beliefs are extensions of our feelings. Perhaps that says something about my relationship with rationalism, but I don’t really care. If *feels* right. 🙂
What is is, I wonder, that leads people to “prove” their faith? Is it a lack of trust in their feelings, or something different?
My wife and I have a religious relationship similar to Mrs B’s. My wife, Debbie, is a Christian but she sees it from a henotheistic point of view. I honestly don’t give much thought to a “Grand Unified Theory” of religion.
It is what it is. My Gods and her God seem to get a long okay. 🙂
Personal peace is…well, personal. Good luck on your quest.
BTW We both seem to be going down a similar path, I have left the episcopal church and am looking into joining OBOD. 🙂
Thanks for your comment, Courerdubois. I’m glad to hear that there is another successful example of interfaith marriage, and that your Gods and her God are doing well together!
I’d love to know about how OBOD feels to you, especially considering that we are walking a similar path. Please feel free to contact me if you’d ever like to share your experiences.
Bright blessings to you.
I enjoy your writing Teo, always good food for thought. As I have been reading your latest there are a few things that come to mind. First, I get the feeling that some see acknowledging differences and honoring true diversity as a roadblock to Interfaith dialog. What is it we are looking to get out of such a dialog? Are we looking to break down fear of the unknown and lean to respect diversity, find our common bonds as human beings, that is what dialog is about to me. Or is it about getting others to acknowledge the validity of our own beliefs? Is it about dialog
to find one universal truth? Or worse yet, twisting our own traditions to fit into a neat little box of acceptability to fit others worldviews?
Whenever I see this topic come up I see people start talking about the “all
gods are one god” and “many paths up the same mountain”. “see, I am not really different” As a polytheist I love differences, I expect them from the start. I am not interested in going up the same mountain, I see the a mountain range of choices. There is nothing that breaks down dialog with me faster then telling me my gods are just a face on your one ultimate truth. That is just as offensive as the “One True God” approach.
As a Neopagan and a polytheist I have no problem with believing that the Christian god exists. Just not my horn of mead so to speak. I have no problem with differences, I expect them. I find learning of others beliefs and traditions fascinating. I don’t have to subscribe to them myself to respect that others do. I
have many friends that a Christian and we have no issues because we respect each other and our common humanity, we all want a better world, safer, kinder. What we share is humanity, we share a desire to help others in need, to ease suffering. Maybe those are the things we need to focus Interfaith efforts on and those are
the things that lead to greater respect of our diversity. Of course the Christians I am speaking of are not fundamentalists or “dominionists”, that is a whole different ball of wax. Those folks don’t tend to show up at the local Interfaith groups anyhow.
Sometimes I find it easier these days to dialog with Christians then with other
Pagans that hold the “Grand Unified Theory”. With Christians we are at least starting from the place that we hold different beliefs, so we are just learning about each other. To me any dialog that starts from the point of trying to make our
diverse faiths and our gods fit into neat little theological boxes is going to be a source of continued discord and not real dialog that builds any understanding.
Well, my 2 cents anyhow. Keep up the great work Teo. I look forward to more of your thought provoking blog posts!
Thanks for the comment, Fred. I’m glad the writing is resonating with you, and I appreciate you taking the time to leave such a thorough comment.
While there’s so much I could speak to, I want to focus on one idea that was inspired by what you wrote. This idea of “expecting differences” might be really useful, and one that I haven’t really considered.
I may be spending more time looking for similarities, as though the commonality is what provides us the ground for dialogue. But what you’ve written leads me to think differently about it. Perhaps by beginning from a place of difference, and accepting that difference is valuable — sacred, even — we may be able to move immediately to a place of mutual respect.
Thanks for keeping the dialogue going, Fred.
I agree with Fred about differences.
One of the sweet early experiences I had with Pagans was our eclectic Dragonfest gathering, where in 1996 I flitted from fire circle to fire circle and said, basically, “Tell me about what you believe.” If it was a group of five people, I’d get five different responses. Sometimes six. No one pulled out a big stick to hit the others.
In fact, I was impressed by the way they listened to each other, not as the knowledgeable teaching the ignorant, but as fellow-travellers saying, “Wow, that mountain you saw this morning was cool — wish I’d been there. I went down to the waterfall instead, and let me tell you about this bird I saw…”
I’ve got a couple of thoughts on this.
First, I’ve always been a bit of an agnostic pagan – ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and so on. I’ve had extraordinary encounters with Deities, so I’m fairly certain that at the every least the Ones I have met are real. I’m willing to concede the point that most gods exist, and I would categorically deny the existence of an Ultimate Evil (except in the minds of certain deranged individuals), but that doesn’t mean that I am willing to worship all of Them – there are a great many that I find abhorrent.
Secondly, I’m of the firm opinion that one’s beliefs _do_ _not_ _matter_. Only one’s actions matter. I can judge what kind of person you are by what you do, not what you think, considering that no-one can see another’s thoughts (well, regularly, anyways).
And lastly, I think that most religions spend far too much time talking about things that they have no control over (i.e. the afterlife). If it is there, great, if not, oh well – wouldn’t the gods be far more pleased with us to use the time we have helping our neighbors, taking care of our children, etc. than spending it talking to Them?
Thanks for your comment, Eran. I appreciate hearing your perspective on all of this.
I’m curious about how in your concession that “most gods exist” you determine which ones don’t. Do you have criteria, or do you base if somehow on the behavior of the god’s followers?
Your second point is also very interesting to me. Beliefs are connected to actions, are they not? Don’t the inform what we do? If someone’s actions are askew, or harmful in some way, either to themselves or to others, it may warrant looking at their beliefs to determine what motivated them. So, in that way, I think beliefs do matter. The question is, how do we discuss differences in belief in a constructive way. Do you have thoughts on this?
I do agree with you – our time is well spent doing service to our communities, our families, our planet. I imagine the gods would agree… of course, that’s just my belief. 🙂
Well, determining One’s existence based on the actions of One’s followers would certainly give Them motivation for policing Their worshipers, I’d think. 😉
I haven’t found any that I’d disregard outright (since that can be hazardous to my health and well-being), but I am a hard polytheist – I don’t see the gods as interchangeable or aspects of one another. I do think that the gods both change and grow as humans require, and as They Themselves change and grow. But I firmly and categorically reject any idea of an Ultimate Evil being: it makes no sense in a greater scheme of things way, and it makes said beings into caricatures. All life has a measure of self-preservation inherent in it, I don’t expect spiritual beings to be any different. That being said, there are definitely malevolent beings out there; the universe is not a nice place for small squishy things like humans.
I do not believe in apotheosis, in deifying other humans. Example; Jesus and Gautama Buddha were both valuable teachers, but I don’t believe either was a god. I am an ancestor worshiper, though, so call me a hypocrite if you like, the label doesn’t bother me. (shrug)
As to my second point, regarding belief; all I can say is ‘maybe’. I think it is useful and valuable to discuss beliefs, especially differences therein, because it helps us to organize our own thoughts and beliefs, as well as clarifying them within ourselves. As someone once said, “The only way to really know what you know is to teach someone else.”
Can you judge another on what is inside their head if they never let it out? I know I can’t.
EDIT: Also, Thank you, Teo for a excellent blog – I’m really enjoying your posts. I just read your newest post, and I think I see where you are going. I’ll post under that with some more thoughts.
I respectfully disagree with Kenneth. This statement really saddens me..“There is no midway point in beliefs between paganism and Christianity.”
I guess that all depends on which view a Christian has of their faith. I believe there is a midway point and that we can find things in common and go from there. Living a life of faith isn’t about winners and losers, it’s about linking arm in arm and advancing forward on this field called, Life. We can do so no matter what color the uniform is.
Thanks for the response, Lisa. As always, I appreciate the spirit you bring to the conversation.
I’m sorry I didn’t see this when it went up. I’m glad you thought my example was worth quoting.
I will point out that I don’t necessarily agree with my husband’s take on polytheism. I often agree more with Fred Bower’s statement that telling me my gods are part of what you already know will just tick me off. If you’re looking for further reading on the subject, Teo, I recommend Stephen Prothero’s book _God is Not One_. Prothero explicitly addresses why and how the “different paths up the same mountain” is not a tenable basis for deep, meaningful dialogue.
As far as “no midpoint between Christianity and Paganism,” I would say, first, a midpoint isn’t necessary for meaningful discussion: you can talk across a huge intellectual/spiritual divide if other conditions, like mutual respect, are present. Second, it depends on where you draw the boundaries: there are plenty of people who describe themselves as Christo-Pagan, so maybe they think they have a midpoint, and there are plenty of Christians who see Catholics as just barely a step away from Paganism and polytheism.
As far as the Dominionists go…I have written about them myself and am utterly flummoxed as to why you included them. They are a perfect example of why dialogue and synthesis or even interaction with all other religious traditions is simply unobtainable. They hate who I am and what I do, and their only desire is to change me, through force if necessary.
I wrote you anonymously about your previous post, and I’m pleased that you are continuing the conversation. I’m the “progressive, emergent” Christian with many pagan friends, and frankly, I prefer their company to the company of my Christian friends. They approach life with joy rather than fear, and they prefer to actually go out and do good works rather than sit around discussing “correct doctrine.” And they have a better sense of humor.
Now — I have absolute faith in Christ, and I do believe that the New Testament story of His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection is literally, historically true. When it comes up, I point out that Christ is the god of the harvest, the seas, the mountains, he’s the god of wine, he’s the god of peace, he’s the god of love. I believe all the other gods point to Christ, and that my pagan friends are — therefore — leaning in the right direction. My observation is that pagans have a deep respect for creation, for art and story, for community, and for gender equality — all things that Christ teaches! They know how to celebrate life! And they have little patience for hierarchical clergy, formalized doctrine, and religious organizations based on the American corporate business model.
I am ashamed of Christian TV and radio, most Christian websites, and the power-mongers who use Christ as a cover to advance worldly empires. If someone tells me he or she rejects Christ, I ask if the Christ s/he rejects is the one put forth by the “Christian Industrial Complex” because I also reject that Christ. The Christ I follow is the humble servant, feeding and healing the sick and downtrodden, the friend of the leper and the prostitute. Doubt and uncertainty are okay — when we doubt, we are right there with Jesus on the cross, at that moment when he felt God had abandoned Him.
And, of course, there’s no absolute metaphysical certainty. That’s why we call it “faith.” Thanks for the chance to contribute to the conversation. Blessings to all!
Just to clarify, my friends think Christ points to all of their gods, and they think I “lean” in the right direction, too.
That’s a lot of friendly pointing going on!
It is delightful to hear of your experience, Dana. It’s given me a lot to think about.
Thank you so much for being a part of this dialogue.