Friday, February 01, 2008

Pagans and Christians

Lately there have been a number of posts on the Pagan blogosphere about the relationship between Christianity and Paganism. Is it possible to be a ChristoPagan? Can a Pagan espouse "Christian" values? This has also attracted comment from my Orthodox friend, Methodius.

As results from the Belief-O-Matic indicate, there is considerable overlap between the beliefs of religious liberals from many different traditions. Some values, beliefs and practices are expressed in various ways in all the traditions - though they may receive varying emphasis from the different traditions. After all, we all occupy the same planet, have similar hopes and fears, and experience similar joys and sorrows.

The differences within Christianity are almost as great as the differences between Christianity and Paganism. It's a large set of traditions, and even the meaning of some key concepts, like salvation, is disputed. The Orthodox see salvation as a process which can continue beyond death; some of them believe in apokatastasis, the eventual reconciliation of everyone with God (even though this doctrine was declared anathema in the 4th century). The goal of Orthodoxy is theosis - the process of becoming divine. Contrast this with the judgmental doctrine of Calvinism, in which only the predestined elect are saved, and you can imagine the effect this might have on the rest of their doctrines. Also the Orthodox do not believe that human nature is totally corrupted.

The Unitarians are a fascinating case. They began as people who didn't believe in the Trinity (in other words, Arians), but soon expanded to include deists, humanists, universalists, the early druid revival (Iolo Morgannwg was a Unitarian), and the modern Unitarian movement still contains all these groups, including a vibrant Earth Spirit Network and many atheists who value spirituality. Their values are broadly similar to Pagan values - they celebrate Nature as full of the divine presence, they believe that human nature is ultimately good, that transformation will happen in this world; they are non-creedal; and they have mostly embraced a pantheist or monist view of the divine. Whether Unitarians count as Christians depends on what you mean by "Christian".

The other question is, would Jesus recognise Christianity as being what he intended to found? It has been suggested that he wanted to infuse a bit of Goddess spirituality into Judaism, and didn't intend to found a new religion at all. Certainly he seems to have had a very positive attitude towards women (Mary Magdalene, for example) and nature ("The Kingdom of heaven is all around you, but you do not see it"; "Consider the lilies of the field; they toil not...")

Many of the concepts in Christianity come from classical pagan Greek philosophy (Platonic forms, for instance) or the mystery cults of late antiquity (the concept of a saviour; the virgin birth; even sin).

Where Pagans disagree vehemently with Christians is on three main headings:
  • the notion of exclusivism - the idea that only Christianity is true;
  • the notion that this world is not really important because the Divine reality is better, and anyway it'll all be swept away at the Rapture;
  • the idea that sex is not holy.
Of course, many Christians would agree that these ideas are wrong - the idea that the world is entirely corrupt was the main source of dispute between the Orthodox and the Gnostics (the Orthodox held that physical reality is good, because it was created by God and still retains his goodness, his energies; the Gnostics said it was entirely fallen and was created by the demiurge to separate us from the Divine).

The view of most Unitarians is that values are more important than beliefs. So let's celebrate where we share values, and leave the beliefs up to individuals. I personally do not want Paganism to become a creedal religion, where you have to believe in a particular concept of the Divine (either polytheism, monism, pantheism, animism, duotheism, or monotheism), or you have to follow a particular pattern in your spiritual life (such as devotion to a specific deity). I am much more interested in shared values, which is why I am prepared to make common cause with anyone - Christian, Unitarian, Jew, Buddhist, atheist, humanist or anyone else who espouses the values of freedom (in the original sense, not the neo-conservative version), diversity, tolerance, and reason. They who are not against us are with us, as a certain rabbi once said...

So, is it possible to be a Christo-Pagan? Depends what you mean by Christian and Pagan. (If you are a Christo-Pagan, your best bet is to hang out with the Unitarians or the Liberal Quakers - they won't mind.)

Can Pagans embrace "Christian" values? It depends if the values are really Christian, or whether they are actually universal values. Of course we should read things from a Christian context with our critical faculties engaged - but we should read stuff from any context with our critical faculties engaged. With any text, one needs to ask where the ideas come from, what their connotations are, and so on.


Anonymous said...

"Can pagans embrace Christian values?" you ask. Depends on who is defining the term "Christian values" and when in history it was defined. The same "value" may be universal (and good in a pagan sense) at one point in history and twisted and cruel in another. I'm thinking about what it meant for the KKK to have sprung up, in part, as a means of protecting white womanhood. Is protection good or is it stifling and an excuse for oppression.
So, while I'm generically on board with you here (being a Unitarian-Universalist student of druidry) I can also see that words are slippery things.


Yewtree said...

Well, there's defence, and there's pre-emptive strikes. Also it depends whether the perceived threat is real. The "threat" perceived by the KKK was not a threat, so the women didn't need protecting (except possibly from their white supremacist relations...)

But I agree that values can be twisted.

Anonymous said...

Well for me Christianity equates to a path centered on Christ. Paganism however, even where it doesn't reject him, typically relativizes his significance. Christopagans try to have their cake and eat it too but really, what results is more of a split level Christianity or Christian influenced Paganism from much of what I have seen.