Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Personal Genesis Narrative: Relationship between my Paganism and my Christianity

It has been noted by some (Daniel) that I come to Paganism from "a deep faith in the God of Jesus." The question put to me basically was how and why that happened.


Of course, as many already know, I was reared in a very liberal Protestant household, the daughter of a country minister. I was a small child when my father was in seminary and lived on campus at Colgate Rochester Divinity School and Crozier Theological Seminary. Dad graduated from Colgate Rochester the same year that Martin Luther King Jr.'s nephew graduated and the King family was in attendance. There is a very strong Civil Rights connection at that seminary. Additionally, Walter Rauschenbusch (the Social Gospel) was also at Colgate way back when. That's my genesis narrative.

Following seminary, my father served several rural communities as a Methodist minister before he switched to the Congregationalist Church (UCC) when I was a teenager. His final church, which he served just before I entered college, was a dysfunctional church. It was after a really painful and public experience there that we "left the church." At first blush, it would look like this was the painful experience that led me to a rejection of my faith. Let me say, however, that it wasn't quite as simple as that.

Throughout my father's ministry, he grew increasingly liberal (a neat trick when you start off as a long-haired anti-war protester). We always said that our family was doing a dance along the spectrum until we finally dropped off the left-most edge. He started off introducing inclusive language and feminism to his churches in the '70s and ended by marrying a lesbian couple in the '90s. In the end, what we believed was that the institutional church discourages Christianity. Our faith in Jesus was never tested. Our faith in the Church was destroyed.

There Really Isn't Much Difference Between Me as Christian and Me as Pagan
I Had A Way Leftist Christology to Begin With

So is this where the Paganism comes in? Well, almost. It is important to note that from the beginning of my religious education, I was surrounded by my father's academic experiences. I watched him doing his research with his concordances and his interpretations and as I aged, I began reading these books too. At age 13 I received my calling to ministry and throughout my teen years was reading his seminary books, histories, sermons and theologies. He had lots of unorthodox stuff too so I was early introduced to the Nag Hammadi Library and the idea of Gnosticism. Dad didn't dumb down his conversations with me so conversations with him might be about the historical critical method, ethics, the Priestly author, or Jesus' sexuality. Not ordinary Sunday school stuff. By the time I was an undergrad, I had a really unusual view of the church, of religion and its history. And on top of this, I spent lots of time studying religious history with a particular interest in the development of Protestantism in the United States.

I mention all this because the idea that I lost faith in the God of Jesus assumes a couple things that aren't exactly true. Because I was taught to view Jesus' God (or at least the God of the primitive Christians) as an historical composite of multiple ancient traditions upon which generations of believers from multiple cultures overlaid their own assumptions, values, and interpretations. In short, I believed that the God of the Bible was an invention. I challenge the notion that the Bible was any more inspired than any other spiritual narrative. This belief was strengthened by my seminary and graduate work in religion studies. Because I was trained from day 1 to doubt the perfection and superiority of the religion of my childhood, I never experienced a crisis of faith as I've heard many other Christian to Pagan converts have experienced. My love for Jesus is as strong today as it was in my childhood; more mature and complex perhaps, but just as strong.

I've Never Sacrificed a Goat

So why Pagan? First off, to be more accurate, I am Neo-Pagan. The distinction is important. Paganism was brutal (as was ancient Judaism if we are to believe that any of the Bible was historically based). I am a New Pagan and we don't go in for things like sacrifice of people or animals. In fact, most Neo-Pagans are more gentle than most Christians I know. Lots of pacifists and vegetarians. Lots of people who literally wouldn't hurt a fly. (Do what you will shall be the whole of the law so long as you harm none and all that jazz.)

Also, My methodology is standpoint theory and I'm a postmodern thinker (can't help it. I was an undergrad in the '90s! lol). I am intentionally creating a spirituality from historical and mythological sources. But those are only some of my ingredients. With other "Goddess women" and spiritual ecofeminists, I am also brewing this new spiritual tradition from social justice traditions (feminism, civil rights, gay rights, animal rights) as well as stuff like midwifery, "alternative" medicines, natural health, environmentalism, pacifism, and psychology. Because we are doing this so intentionally, this gives us a good bit of freedom to discard elements that are inappropriate to our time and condition and to reshape others. While there are some Pagans who are attempting to faithfully recreate a Pagan past, my understanding is that most Neo-Pagans are highly aware of the creative process of creating a new spirituality out of old metaphors. We really wouldn't go back to the Bronze and Iron Age Religions any more than most Christians would really want to go back to first century Palestine. On the other hand, we do tend to elevate (and this is a topic for another day) Neolithic prepatriarchal religions. Paganism most folks know is a degraded form of an earlier, more egalitarian period. The anthropological jury is still out on this theory but we know enough to indicate that as well as having nasty and brutal ancestors, we also have peaceful and gentle precursors. How much of the Goddess Religion is based on supportable evidence and how much is based on wishful invention is not something I want to address here, but if we're going to make up a Pagan past to emulate, that's the one I'm going for! (For readings in this feminist branch of Neo-Paganism look to Marija Gimbutas, Carol Christ, Charlene Spretnak, and Mary Daly.)

Quakers in Funky Pagan Clothing

But I can't speak for other Neo-Pagans. We're too diverse. I will say that Neo-Paganism is dramatically different from the classical Paganism most of us studied in high school. Pagans and Friends have a lot in common at the practical level. They share deep concern for environmental and social justice; they share profound respect for the individual's direct communion with the Divine; and they deemphasize or reject the power and importance of professional clergy.

I believe (and have always believed) that the Divine Energy is imminent and that there is, in truth, no difference between us and God/dess. I very comfortably integrate my Christian ethics into my Neo-Paganism because there is no conflict between the command to love unconditionally with my Neo-Pagan fascination with cultural difference and ecofeminism. Finally, I am a process theo/alogian which puts a different spin on my ideas of the relationships between the Divine and the Mundane (which are all intertwined, merged and certainly non-hierarchical).

The Gods are Me. I am the Gods. And the Force is Still With Me.

I speak of Hel and Hecate in the same way I speak of Job and Mary Magdalene. The psyche is peopled by characters who teach us what it is to be human. Just as I never took the Christian scriptures literally, I never take mythology literally. I recognize that these were stories told by ancient peoples with pre-scientific worldviews. Such views continue to be helpful despite their apparently irrational origins. Indeed, they are helpful because of their irrational origins. I play with myths the way an archetypal theorist does. I find also that as a woman, I benefited from work with feminine archetypes from the Virgin Mary to the chthonic crone goddesses. Exploration of the Dark Mysteries, the Female Mysteries, is what helped me through miscarriage, pregnancy, and clinical depression. In fact, I am certain that this spiritual perspective saved my life.

None of this play means that I worship any of these figures above the One. I may be a complex monotheism or a pantheist (or maybe a pan-en-theist? It really depends on my mood), but the Force is still with me. The Divine remains inscrutable, ineffable, or as my first religion studies prof. said, "God is not some cosmic bellhop." I don't mistake either Christ or Isis for the Divine any more than I mistake myself as Humanity.

I had this dream about flying...

I had dream once in which I was in my Dad's church and I discovered that I could fly. I rose up to the ceiling and realized that I must fly higher but could not find a door out. So I smashed the stained glass windows and soared into the sky. The Church could not contain me, but I never forget that it is there that I first took flight.

So I sing hymns every single day and read my Bible. I also play with my tarot deck, speak to the spirits of my ancestors and wear an image of the Serpent Goddess around my neck. I write and teach about the connections between Paganism (out of which comes Judaism and Christianity) and Neo-Paganism (which arises out of Christianity and Judaism.)I find no conflict in this. I reject any Paganism that undermines my belief in the fundamental teachings of Jesus and I reject any Christian message that undermines my belief that we all (people and animals and plants and rocks and trees)belong to Mother Earth and that we share both Soul and Body. Practically what this means is that I am called to Love. No changes there.

My crisis has nothing to do with an interruption or violent breech between the faith of my childhood and my spirituality as it is today. My crisis arises out of motherhood, out of the maturation of my ability to love to a point just this side of terror. What if it is all an illusion? What if my religious experiences (which led to all that academic study and debt) are all just products of seizures and wishful thinking? What if like good old Granny Weatherall, I'll just blink out, forever divorced from the Soul and souls I love and to whom I've dedicated my entire life? This is the worm that twists in my heart and subject of a future post.


Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

Well anyone who can allude to Faulkner's story can't be all bad;-)

Since I just wrote a long comment on your last post, I will keep this one short (and will try and keep my own biases and perceptions out of this since you already know them).

It would seem that a problem with modern neo-paganism, at least in cases such as Carol Christ (as the tragic details in her short autobiography show) that such a faith can lead to tragic immorality and much superstition.

Of course, I realize problems exist in the Christian religion too.


Hystery said...


Religious belief in general can lead to superstition. I've seen in happen in Christianity and in Neo-Paganism too. I don't even know how to address that because I'm not sure I understand the mechanism at work there. What belief holds one up and what belief drags one down? Is it method, approach, theology, psychology?

I know that Carol Christ does a great deal of good today in her life. She's a scholar, not an exemplar. I think that's an important distinction. I still choose to imitate Christ, not Carol Christ but I do enjoy her scholarship and the delightful tensions between her perspective and that of Cynthia Eller and Rosemary Radford Ruether. I suppose that's pretty nerdy of me.

I've forgotten which thing you read? I fear you read something off- like when you ask someone to try your favorite food and that's the day the recipe fails. *sigh* I've not read her autobiography so I can't comment further on her past but I can point to a great deal of immorality in many beloved Christian authors' and thinkers' lives as well. Is it the belief system or is it their personality twisting itself around a belief system? Or is it both? I am reminded of the old saying, "Christianity is a great religion. Too bad no one has ever tried it."

In the end, what do we know? Not much. So much of what we believe is notional. If I believe anything firmly, I believe that we believe because we are too immature, unwise, and unintelligent to truly understand. In the end, I am left with just trying to be obedient to the basics. Love. Be gentle. Be kind. Be generous. Be genuine. Keep trying.

I'm glad you don't think I'm all that bad and pleased that I could pull my Faulkner reference out of my adolescent memories for this occasion. By the way, you're not half bad yourself. ;-)

Karen said...

You have a sexy, sexy brain.

Just saying. In a totally not-creepy-stalker kind of a way.

George Amoss Jr. said...

Thanks for helping me get to know you better. It seems that you and I have some part of the journey in common, although I came to it later and on my own: the critical study of religion and scripture. It seems, too, that your father and I are probably about the same age....

As you may know from my blogging, I have an interest in the concern about "blinking out," so I'm looking forward to the next installment, too.