Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Christ Has Come to Teach the People Himself: Part 1 of the Pagan Chronicles

The word "Christian" is an historical/cultural term that references those who take the Church as a source of authority in their lives. The Church is a fractured, fallible, historical, contextualized construct. Obedience to its authority and teachings is in no way the same as obedience to Christ. Therefore, it can also be said that those of us who reject the historical construct of the Christian Church are not necessarily rejecting the message of the one who was called Christ. Christ and Christianity are not synonymous.

On many occasions, I have heard others who share many of my beliefs make the statement that they are not willing to forfeit the name "Christian" to those who would use it falsely. To a point, I would agree with them. Christianity is diverse. Why let one group call the shots and set the terms for the rest of us?

So why have I decided to leave off calling myself a Christian? For two personal reasons. First, I don't believe that the teaching of Jesus was unique. I follow his teaching because it supports my conclusions as a rational human being dedicated to the principles of compassion, non-violence, equality, and community. Christian terminology, history, and mythology, no matter how liberally expressed, cannot fully describe my spiritual experience as an eco-feminist, a mother, or more generally as a woman. Second, I do not call myself Christian because to do so is to waste valuable time explaining to others why I bear a label that is so clearly linked to the history of the oppression of women and the denigration of the image and positve legacy of the Divine Feminine.

My argument with Christianity has never been with Jesus and his teachings as interpreted by the Gospel writers (although I am probably place a good deal more emphasis on them as flawed interpretations) but against the phallocentrism of the religion he inspired. Although he does not impress me as a God, he does impress me. He emerged out of both Hellenism and Judaism but stood strongly opposed to the inhumane qualities of each. As Lucretia Mott reminded us, "Christ was a bold nonconformist." His criticisms of religion as practiced in his day were unflinching. His was a religion written on the heart and emerging from direct relationship to the Divine and uncompromising Love for those beloved of God.

Unfortunately for all of us, his followers seemed to usually miss the point. Rome conquered Christianity and appropriated its symbols. The evils of the world with all its injustice, cruelties, and power games were incorporated into the emerging philosophy of the Church. For women, this meant that the dominant beliefs of women's inferiority were written into the theology. We were left with a Father God, a male hierarchy, and a dualistic philosophy that placed light, spirit, reason, good and men on one side of the dichotomy and darkness, carnality, chaos, evil and women on the other. Revulsion at women's bodies, traditions, spirituality, customs and very presence was woven throughout the fabric of Christian art, theory and practice.

As time passed, the Church did too. One would not expect the modern church to behave in the same way as the medieval church. Indeed, by the nineteenth-century, American Christians were increasingly vocal about the need to recognize human dignity and equality regardless of rank or station. Insofar as women are the beneficiaries of their men's status, this move toward justice lifted women. However, the belief in women's inferiority as inherent and divinely ordained was too persistent a component of orthodox Christian belief to offer women any genuine relief. In 1854, at a women's rights convention in Philadelphia, a man stood up against the idea of the right of women to assume equality with men. "Let woman first prove that she has a soul," he demanded. "Both the Bible and the Church deny it." (Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman,Church,and State, 1893)

I'm certainly not saying that the Church in all its manifestations over 2000 years of history was universally patriarchal. In fact, I make it my business to learn about those Christians who despite the weight of history managed to follow the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. But I can't get away from the ugly reality that overwhelms their efforts. Christianity's history is grotesque in its phallocentrism. I'm not going to bother developing this argument further in this post. I think it very likely that we all could name at least a dozen books, articles, and recalled examples from our own lives to attest to this fact. So while I am not willing to say that Christianity has been universally bad news for women, I am saying that from the first generation of Christians to the current generation, "the woman question" has never been fully answered. Ecclesiastical and theological misogyny has not been accidental and it has not been without consequence.

"But then what of Paganism," one might ask, "Has that been woman-friendly?"

To that question, I'd have to ask, "To which Paganism do you refer?" If you are speaking of Bronze or Iron Age Paganism, the Paganism of the Sumerians and Babylonians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Germans and the Celts then I would have to agree that Paganism's history has been at least as violent, at least as misogynist as Christianity. There have been different emphases in the violence and hatred but I have no delusions that historical Paganism, in the general sense, is better for women than Christianity has been.

But I'm not bothered by that because I'm not a Roman Pagan or a Hellenistic Pagan or Sumerian, Babylonian or Egyptian Pagan. What they did or didn't do to women is irrelevant to my experiences. My Paganism is a Neo-Paganism, a new Paganism that emerges out of nineteenth century Transcendentalism, Progressive Quaker activism, Theosophy, post-colonialism, romanticism, environmentalism, the Civil Rights movement, Spiritualism and feminism to name but a few influences. The word Pagan is far more general than the word Christian and it makes even less sense to stereotype those who call themselves Pagans than it does to stereotype those who call themselves Christian.

To have Pagan infanticide and animal sacrifice tossed in my face as a Pagan is every bit as obnoxious as it is when someone tosses the Inquisition or witch burnings in the face of a liberal Christian Friend. When we are talking to each other, it is simply not enough, and it is simply unacceptable to use historical generalizations to characterize another person's spiritual source of authority. You actually have to look at the person's life and listen to the person's words. You have to let them define their Paganism, or their Christianity, or their Buddhism, nontheism, or Judaism. You have no right to do it for them. Here's why. To put words in another person's mouth and to define their beliefs for them is rude. It is also an inefficient and inaccurate approach to communication. This is particularly true of Friends who, whether Christian or as Pagan, are very likely to surprise the hell out of you with their ability to transcend the historical baggage of organized religion.

So that brings me to why I, a spiritual feminist inspired by the teachings of the human body and the matrix of Nature, find myself at home among liberal Friends. They are not, and have never been the kinds of Christians whose faith was based on a phallocentric interpretation of the biblical texts. Simply put, they don't hold the Christian beliefs I reject. By elevating a belief in Spirit's ability to directly connect to the human soul, they were no longer subject to the teachings of the ancient Church. As revivalists of the primitive Christian tradition, they placed themselves at the feet of Jesus rather than at those of his disciples, the church fathers, clergy, and theologians. They rejected the most injurious components of Christian religion with its obscene justifications for slavery, misogyny, corruption, war-mongering, power-lust, and hierarchy.

What they said was that we could bypass all that bullshit. Christ has come to teach the people himself. When they listened to Jesus, they heard a far simpler (although far more challenging) message. They heard that the only sure way to God was the way embodied by Jesus of Nazareth who taught a message of uncompromising love. Rather than fussing over complicated notions of belief, sin, and salvation, Quakers have let their lives speak. If their collective and individual behavior in the world is indication of the teaching of "Christ" in their lives, then I recognize them as brothers and sisters. Quakers make good Neo-Pagans. ;-)

If one looks at this introductory website to Quakers, one finds statements regarding general characteristics of commonly held Friends' beliefs. They believe that communication with the Divine is unmediated and that the way one chooses to live one's life is an outward manifestation of this inner connection. That's what spiritual feminist Neo-Pagans believe too. And that is why in the United States there have been strong connections between spiritual feminism and Quakers for over 150 years beginning with the 1848 Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls and lasting to this day.

So where does this blog entry leave me, apart from tired? Well, it leaves me with a great deal more work to do. The need for patient, careful, specific, thoughtful, and informed communication is absolutely necessary if Christian and non-Christian Friends are to move beyond coexistence to communion. It also means that there are elements of modern Friends' worship and belief that I must continue to confront as remnants and rebirths of Hellenistic, Pagan, and organized Christian phallocentrism. Associations with Amy Post and Lucretia Mott won't let someone off the hook if they go off in Aristotelian or Calvinist directions. So this is not one of those "Can't we all just get along" kinds of posts. It is an ornery post. But in the end this is the message:

I am a feminist. I am a Pagan. I am a follower of the teachings of Christ. I reject the historical Christian Church. I am devoted to the faith and practice of the Religious Society of Friends. I am not conflicted. Confused? Don't make assumptions. Ask me about it. I will extend the same courtesy to you.


Lone Star Ma said...

I like this post. I like the way you give specific props to the story told by the Gospel-writers. I like the Gospel writers. I can dig Peter even in the limited amount that I know about him from reading the Bible (in English). Paul is not my homeboy. I think he was sort of the beginning of the problem. He and I have issues.

Hystery said...

I'm just the opposite. I don't mind Paul too much. Most of the bad press he gets is from the Deutero-Pauline stuff for which he is not responsible. I don't care for Peter and see him as antagonistic to Mary Magdalene in Gnostic lit.

George Amoss Jr. said...

I was reminded of something from George Fox's Journal: "After this I met with a sort of people that held, women have no souls, (adding in a light manner,) no more than a goose. I reproved them, and told them that was not right; for Mary said,'My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour.'"

Lone Star Ma said...

I'll have to read up - maybe I'm not fair to Paul.

Nate said...

Personal opinion: that anti-feminine stuff came in with the second generation when the developing clergy was making a religion out of the faith and incorporated neo-platonist ideas into their perceptions.
Your point about rejecting the structure that had been built up by later "followers" is excellent, and part of the re-examination those of us who try to follow Jesus as embodiment of the Christ need to make. I think the first council of the church at Jerusalem in which it was determined that followers of Jesus were not required to become Jews has some good lessons for us and that's the subject of my blog post: http://mild-side.blogspot.com/2009/08/modern-council-of-church.html#comments
It's a small contribution to the conversation.
Lately, I have been considering the question of "The Atonement" with all its various problems as a very shaky foundation for the construction of a "religion" around the teachings of Jesus.

Hystery said...

Lone Star Ma,
I don't think you are wrong in your assessment of him as a sexist. At best he was ambivalent about women's equality and I think we can see that tension. He doesn't leap off the pages as a feminist to be sure. Still, we do have:

"For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ.There is neither Jew nor Greek;
there is neither slave nor free;
there is no male and female.
For you are one in Christ Jesus.
(Galatians 3:26-28)

His reference to Prisca of Corinth as his "co-worker" and the fact that her name appears first when paired with that of her husband, Aquila, seems to indicate that at least in some interpersonal relationships, Paul accepts a practical equality. He also references several other women by name as deacons, sponsors and patrons.

In browsing through a couple books I have here on Pauline teaching, I find that there is good evidence that Paul's attitude regarding women was evolving not only within the context of the first century Jesus movement, but also in reaction to competitive religious gender ideology from the traditional Judaism from which he emerged and the increasing popularity of Gnosticism in the Hellenistic churches. (See Robert Jewett's Paul: The Apostle to America- Cultural Trends & Pauline Scholarship).

We also know that, as is typical of so many periods of tension and social change, women play more critical roles. When the dust settles, men's authority reasserts itself and women are sent back into the shadows. The deutero-Pauline writers operate in this time period of dust settling and the misogyny evident in their writing indicates as much. It has not been helpful, from a historical perspective, that they wrote in his name.

One of the reasons I find the bible (w/out commentary) so unhelpful is because it is nearly impossible to understand it apart from extensive scholarship. Our understanding of Paul must be revolutionized by our emerging understanding of history, and particularly of Gnosticism. A straight out reading of Pauline texts (or any biblical text for that matter)may lead us to exactly the wrong conclusions about the authors' intentions.

Hystery said...

Nate, I'm glad you stopped by. I also am interested in the concept of atonement especially since reading a lengthy debate between "Paul" and "Amicus" (which is now one of my favorite books of all time). It will not surprise many that the entire concept of atonement is not one of my favorite concepts. I find it problematic to say the least.

George, thank you also for your comment. One finds that behind the trivialization of women, however lighthearted, is a far deeper, more disturbing energy that I think must be called out.

Kristen said...


I'd been out of touch and then out of town, and realized tonight that you appear to be gone from quakerquaker. This makes sense, but I really would like to keep in touch. Is there a way I could send you my email without making it public here?


Mary Ellen said...

Hystery, as always, I find you exceedingly clear and lucid on these issues. Confused - not at all. In many ways, I find Paul a kindred soul, except for his being first century and a guy and all that. Mixed in with the limitations is a hard-working, loving soul, devoted to nurturing his little communities. I wouldn't mind some of his energy in my Meeting. And I too don't exactly call myself "christian" because of what christian exclusivity walls out. (And because fear-based teaching is bad for the children.) Thanks for taking the time to put these thoughts together so clearly.

Hystery said...

Mary Ellen, while the interplay of Pauline doctrine and the nineteenth century women's rights movement has become a central theme in my research in that area, I've never been able to muster up any antagonism against Paul himself. I think it helped a good deal that my father preached from the epistles but, being a feminist and a decent biblical scholar, did not use the bullshit sexist or homophobic deutero-Pauline material. In undergraduate and grad school, I took courses to clearly differentiate between Paul's work and the stuff that followed. Hooray for primitive Christianity (at least the first time around. Some of the later primitive Christians...well, not so much.)

Kristen, I'd love to hear from you. I can be reached as Hysterywitch at my gmail address.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this splendid read.
As a mature woman who walks a lone path, I find a sisterhood in things that you share.
Long ago I lost interest in Church and in Christians and their continually need to fight and judge. The Quakers, I find a pull to but in the sense of how you and other non-Christians, even the Non-theists relate and interpret the Path.
I have no interest in the Bible yet seek 'just the words and teachings of Jesus'...any suggestions? I believe in peace and non-violence, I'm eclectic in my spirituality..a little bit Buddhist, a little bit Avalonian..maybe a little bit Quaker. :O)

This woman deeply appreciates all that you offer here..please do continue...I consider it a teaching everytime I arrive.


Chris M. said...

I like the boundary you draw around explaining someone else's theology for them. It seems like that's the source of much of what goes off kilter in online discussions among different flavors of Quakers. People make assumptions that come across like this: "Well, if YOU choose that label, then you are going along with blah-de-blah, or at least you aren't explicitly disowning it!" One has to carry a user's manual plenty of hyphens to explain one's views. (That's actually why Robin coined the term "convergent," as a sort of loose bundle of tendencies... but that's a different topic.)

Anyway, I have long felt that I share a somewhat similar sense of Christianity to you, yet I do choose the label. Maybe it's easier because I'm male? In any case, it seems to fit, and to have integrity as far as I can tell.

I look forward to Part 2.

Hystery said...

Chris, I value your comment here. I get in trouble because I'm extremely curious about spirituality, my own and others'.

I don't think I have the right answers. I don't even assume I have the right answers for me but that I'm in a constant state of evolution. I believe the only way to understand the complexity of Spirit is to allow complexity to develop in our explorations and conversations. We have to be willing to stand together in paradox. Whatever "God" is, S/He will not fit in a box.

I can only know what I know as a limited being with a limited view. You can tell me things I don't know because you are you...because of your education, feelings and experiences, because you are male, Robin's husband, your parents' son, a member of your profession, a father of your children. These are experiences I can't have and yet they are divine gifts that provide you with spiritual revelation. The only way I can touch that revelation is to respect your experiences as gifts of as profound as my own and to be open to your interpretations of those gifts.

Hystery said...


I am so honored that you find value in what I write here. That's a pretty cool thing to read and makes me feel lots better.

I wish I had some good reading suggestions. I find that most of what is of interest to me is pretty boring to others. Perhaps if others could make suggestions about books that involve Buddhism and Christianity. I know my friend, Daniel, has mentioned books of this nature.

As a spiritual feminist, I might suggest books by Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza who are both Christian feminist theologians. Fiorenza's Jesus: Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet reframes christology using a feminist hermeneutic and Ruether's Gaia and God approaches theology from an ecofeminist perspective. Both have written other good books as well.

Michael said...

Dear One,

Thanks so much for this, both your core themes and the rich dialog this post is drawing from your commenters.

There are a few things I want to affirm.

First, your summary of "The Problem" is about the clearest, most succinct I've come across:

"The word 'Christian' is an historical/cultural term that references those who have take the Church as a source of authority in their lives. The Church is a fractured, fallible, historical, contextualized construct. Obedience to its authority and teachings is in no way the same as obedience to Christ."

Second, you pose very clearly the painful choice many of us have been wresting with, between "not [being] willing to forfeit the name 'Christian' to those who would use it falsely, on the one hand, and not wanting to "waste valuable time explaining to others why [we] bear a label that is so clearly linked to the history of... oppression," on the other.

You and I and many others have struggled for much of our lives, because we personally have touched and been touched by the living and numenous truth beneath and behind the "name."

We long to share that truth in community with others who profess that name.

Yet we hold back, as George Fox would have us do, because the Light compels us either to wait in silence or to speak the truth, rather than to profess a name.

I continue to long for what one of your comments calls "primitive Christianity, at least the first time around."

Nonetheless, I am glad you have decided not to waste time and, instead, to give us the ministry of what you are led to know and to say as one who is not confused.

Thank you, and

Bless├Ęd be,

Michael said...


A comment I didn't want to clutter the previous note with:

I've gotten excited in recent years as I've been learning about the "rehabilitation" of Paul by scholars like John Dominic Crossan.

Last year I read Crossan's In Search of Paul: How Jesus' Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom, in which he begins to do for the historical Paul what he has been doing for the historical Jesus--stripping away the layers of historical/cultural interpretation to find what we can about the unique and genuine man.

I'm looking forward to Crossan's new book, which he wrote together with Marcus Borg, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon.

The blurb says "there are actually 'Three Pauls' in the New Testament: 'The Radical Paul' (of the seven genuine letters), 'The Conservative Paul' (of the three disputed epistles), and 'The Reactionary Paul' (of the three inauthentic letters). By closely examining this progression of Paul's letters—from the authentic to the inauthentic—the authors show how the apostle was slowly but steadily 'deradicalized to fit Roman social norms in regards to slavery, patriarchy, and patronage'."

I think I share your sense of Paul, and recall that my preacher daddy, just like yours, seemed to have been able to peer through the bullshit to find Paul's love.

And I resonate with Mary Ellen's comment:

"I find Paul a kindred soul, except for his being first century and a guy and all that. Mixed in with the limitations is a hard-working, loving soul, devoted to nurturing his little communities."

More fun to come.


Hystery said...

Michael, thanks for both comments.

Growing up as a PK meant that I was exposed to the process of biblical criticism from an early age and never assumed that the bible was an infallible source nor even specially inspired (at least not any more than any other text. I always got more out of C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle). Indeed, again and again I was shown its inconsistencies, its problematic passages, and its corruptions. It is clear to me that not only do we have to contend with the difficulties of interpreting these texts out of the centuries of complex historical context in which they were created, but we also have to contend with the inclusion of some really wretched material which Renita Weems has called "Texts of Terror" in her book, Battered Love.

What we are left with are human authors of limited experience. At times, they will not be able to speak to us because the chasm between their culture and our own is too wide. We also must remember that they weren't speaking to us, at least in their own minds, at all. They were speaking to other folks who shared contextualized knowledge of specific events, writings, and personalities that are lost to our record. We are entering the conversation very late and didn't hear the juiciest half of the story. The challenges the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts have given biblical scholars is just one example of that phenomenon.

Poor Paul. There was a whole lot going on. He was doing the best he could addressing the issues, questions, bickering, and drama of his communities and had no way of knowing that his letters would be treasured, preserved, and canonized by people who couldn't possibly fully understand the interactions of the tender, unique human souls he addressed in those missives. I figure he would have been more careful if he had known. In his letters, I think you get a real sense of a man in process. (And I'm excluding the deutero-stuff).

In my thinking, the canonization process is deeply problematic for spirit-centered life. When any of us, whether we are Paul or the authors of the gospels or of the Pentateuch or Shakespeare are considered to have access to spirit than others, it discourages folks from encountering the Divine on their own terms.

I don't mean that we should not engage with text but that we should do so with the understanding that "God" did not love Paul more than God loves us and did not give Paul revelation beyond what is available to us. And God did not make Paul, or any other of the bible writers infallible. All human words are approximations and interpretations of the authors' experiences. A writer's words may resonate in us and inspire us but they are poor substitutions for our own embodied experiences.

Hystery said...

Btw, here's the link to Battered Love by Renita Weems.

Anonymous said...


This is my first comment here though I've been back in the shadows admiring your stuff for a while now. With this one I think you hit it out of the park. I believe it speaks to our condition as a nation (in a time when an idolatrous preacher prays openly that his demiurge will assassinate Obama and send him to hell) — and to my relationship to Christianity generally (like you I do not so identify) during a week in which, revolted by events such as the one I mention, I have been so tempted to simply say "a plague on all your (steeple) houses" and found myself feeling uncomfortable even with my membership in the unprogrammed SoF (which I otherwise love). Your piece provides me timely balance and perspective. Thanks.

btw, regarding Michael's comments re Borg & Crossan: I have read, and reread parts of, The First Paul and for me it makes the time and place, and the faith communities he founded, come alive. Highly recommended. Based on which I believe that Paul was very much true to his personal vision of the great teacher he never met as living man and it's unfair to blame him for Christianity being sucked back into the Greco-Roman cultural norms after his time even if things in the inauthentic Pauline letters might appear to make him complicit in this. As you say, Rome conquered Christianity. What a pity.

Go and stay well.

Francis sirfr AT earthlink etc.

p.s. Would you say my take on Christian scripture is somewhat like yours: precious gems strewn over a huge minefield and potentially life-threatening if read without deep discernment.

Hystery said...

I would say that any canonical writing of any tradition is a minefield when not read with discernment and with the hermeneutics of suspicion. I am always far more curious about the motivations and context of any text than I am in the "data" or "facts" it contains. What was going on in that time? To what is this author reacting? To whom was this addressed and for what reason? I think we ignore these questions at our own peril.

But you are also right that there are gems strewn throughout the gospels and epistles and it is rewarding to find them.

tommyschmitz said...

"Christ and Christianity are not synonymous."

Amen, Sister Hys.

I like your blog.

Looking forward to part 2 of the P.C.

Tommy Schmitz

Anonymous said...

I found and read your blog for the first time this morning, and I'm delighted to have done so. You see, I've been struggling with these same issues for many years now, caught somewhere between feminism, paganism, and Christianity, yet struggling even more to find the means to express the struggle. You've done so beautifully and precisely. I suddenly don't feel quite so lost in the mists and can't wait to dig into Part 2!

Hystery said...

Thank you for your comment. This blog has been my way of reaching out beyond the confines of my rural village. It helps me feel much less isolated to hear from people like you who think about these questions too.

marry said...

Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!

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