A story on the growing popularity of Pagan prayer beads or “rosaries” has made the rounds to some of the heavy-hitters on the religious Internet. It appeared in somewhat truncated form on Beliefnet and now the media commentary site Get Religion has profiled the story.
“The story does a good job of making it clear that this kind of prayer rite produces a form of spirituality that may seem to create a bridge between different faiths. The experience is similar, as is the yearning for a physical object on which to concentrate while praying. But the contents of the prayers are different, which means the doctrines are different.”
This story brings up all sorts of questions concerning the mixing of Christian ideas with non-Christian faiths. “Christo-pagans” while odd-seeming to many Christians (and in many cases to other Pagans), aren’t really that unusual. When one religion is culturally dominant (as Christianity, in all its forms, is in America) syncretism often occurs among the other religions it encounters. While syncretism is a common occurrence within the history of polytheism, it is still considered very much taboo from a monotheist point of view. This was illustrated recently by Pope Benedict XVI who warned against inter-religious dialog that ventured into syncretism.
“In our world, evermore conditioned by the urgencies of globalization, a deep and demanding dialogue is necessary between cultures and religions. But this is not to diminish them with an impoverishing syncretism; rather, it is to enable them to develop in a climate of reciprocal respect so that each one works, according to its own charism, for the common good.”
These tensions point to very different perspectives on the nature of religious truth. While a polytheist may acknowledge that there are many paths to the divine (though they may think theirs is the best way), generally speaking most monotheist traditions warn against any activity that places foreign practices or powers on an equal level with their own.
“Monotheism was revolutionary and maybe, argues Leonard Shlain in the book “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess,” also dangerous. People who believed in many gods, he argues, respected the gods of other people and expected their gods to be respected in return. But to believe that only one God exists, an abstract God that different people might perceive in different ways, “loosed into the world an odious impulse,” he argues. The question of whose perception of the one deity is the correct one ‘has goaded monotheists to wage war with an intensity and purpose never witnessed in polytheistic cultures.’”
In the end, any lasting peaceful dialog between monotheist and polytheist points of view will have to address this underlying tension concerning the nature of religious truth (is their one or many ways). If this fundamental difference isn’t acknowledged misunderstandings and ongoing adversarial attitudes from both camps could prevail in the long term.