Christian-Pagan Dialogue and Pessimism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 18, 2008 — 26 Comments

I’ve positively mentioned the book “Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue” before on this blog, and have actively engaged with Christians involved with the project. While I think that creating better relations between Christianity and the modern Pagan religions is important work, I can also deeply relate to the skepticism and pessimism conveyed by fellow Pagan blogger James R. French concerning the project (and others like it).

“It boils down to the question of what “religious pluralism” really means. From where I sit, it should mean that we acknowledge that many systems of belief are valid. Not that they “contain truth” as [Beyond the Burning Times reviewer Gerald R.] McDermott says. That is a dodge. It sounds something like “well, they’re heathen, but they have some good points.” True pluralism means that each system is valid on its own terms. This is something that Pagans can accord Evangelicals that Evangelicals cannot accord Pagans. It is almost a tautology to say that the only way to gain the soteriological benefit of Christianity is through Christ. A Pagan simply does not wish to gain this benefit. She has no reason to object to others doing so. It’s simply not her Path. An Evangelical cannot, by the very nature of their beliefs, have such an attitude toward Pagans. To do so would redefine what it means to “witness” so drastically that it would not be accepted among most adherents. Hence my pessimism. While part of me is hopeful when I see at least a few Evangelical Christians recognizing that Pagans are humans and not either devil worshippers or morons, I find the prospect that much will come of this fairly slim. The “softer” approach appears too elitist to appeal to most mainstream Evangelical Conservatives. Too “liberal.” Especially in America, where Dominionist eliminationism gets most of the airtime.”

The progressive and open-minded missiology of folks like Matt Stone, John Morehead, John Smulo, Lainie Petersen, and others, while refreshingly different from the hellfire-throwers, are an admittedly tiny minority of the larger global Christian mission. They, sadly, cannot be typified as representing the mainstream of typical Pagan-Christian dialogues. A far larger contingent are still stuck in the same ruts of filtered and impaired communication or outright hostility. In this environment it is all too easy to become cynical and pessimistic concerning truly better relations.

Which isn’t to say that books like “Beyond the Burning Times” aren’t important, they are, but both sides must acknowledge the large hurdles to overcome before we reach something that resembles mutual respect and trust. We need to get to a point where Pagans don’t feel that efforts at dialogue from missional Christians aren’t “an attempt at domination”, and Christians don’t think Pagans are asking them to “give up the centrality of Christ”. Monotheism and polytheism have had throughout history at best an uneasy truce, and at worst, attempts to eradicate the other. It may take decades of “baby steps” before we reach a point of mutual understanding and a general sense of improved relations.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Peg A

    A reasonable response. But I have not received a review cooy yet so I can’t comment directly. I may have to just go ahead and order it.It is a difficult argument since one can’t rail against a religion for sticking to its defined rubric. The reviewer seems to wish for a more open-minded approach to discourse but Evangelicals seemingly can’t achieve this with their current definition. Change happens; we can hope there is an opening of minds in time. This book is at least a start, even if it doesn’t change the perspective of more extreme sects of Christianity.

  • John W. Morehead

    Jason, thanks for sharing this post. I was not aware of French’s commentary on our book and the Pagan-Christian dialogue process.I am not discouraged by French’s concerns, shared by other Pagans. But this is no reason to dismiss a more positive form of dialogue between us. We should be willing to take advantage of Christians who take a different view of Paganism and the interreligious diaogue process so we can discuss important issues like religious pluralism. I acknowledge the tremendous hurdles we have to leap as we build mutual respect and trust. One of the reasons I wanted to be involved as editor in the Beyond the Burning Times project was to move us beyond the stereotypes, misunderstanding, and suspicion of the past. The book represents the first hurdle, and I hope others will join those in the project in order to move things forward.Skepticism, yes, and again, it’s understandable. But let’s not stop the process just as it’s getting started because it will be difficult and we disagree on some important issues.

  • Lonnie

    It’s an interesting topic. I for one have found that there’s a victim complex that many pagans have which tends to create a self fulfilling prophesy. In other words, the Pagans that seem to complain the most about how mistreated pagans are, tend to be more likely to be mistreated. A friend of mine told me about a group that didn’t want to participate in PDD because they were afraid of persecution, while in the same town open dialogues between druids and fundamentalists had been occurring for quite some time. We’ve got alot of baggage and issues as a community, some from real persecution, but which can create some pretty dysfunctional behavior at times.As the years go by, I confess that I’m also increasingly challenged as to how I feel about words like “Pagan” and “Witch”, and whether we are using them for the right reasons. I started using them to affirm the worth and dignity of non-Christian earth centered beliefs, but I feel too many people are attracted to them for their shock value. Anthropologists stopped using the word Pagan long ago in favor of other more specific words like “animist”. Now even the media generally uses this word when describing paleopagan cultures. I’m wondering if we are helping or hindering our ability to describe our faith to others by using these words? This is still an honest question I’m struggling with. I’ll probably always use “pagan” to describe myself to my own community, but is it the right public word to really convey my true meaning? Or, is it just a big victim stamp on my forehead? I once believed in the activism of using that word, but now I wonder if it merely confuses more than it clarifies? For now though, I’m still publicly “Pagan”, but I have doubts and serious concerns about the future of our community, especially if we don’t start dealing with our own shadow.

    • seithman

      It boils down to the question of what “religious pluralism” really means. From where I sit, it should mean that we acknowledge that many systems of belief are valid.I respectfully disagree with Mr. French’s understanding of the prerequisites for pluralism. I for one do not feel that anyone needs to believe that my or anyone else’s religion is valid. They simply need to acknowledge that my religion is different from theirs, that I have a right to follow my religion despite the fact that it’s different from their own, and that I’m fully human and therefore deserving of the same dignity and respect as they are. Beyond those points, their opinion of my religion is quite unimportant to me.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “…can you cite evidence to back it up?”According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Evangelical Christians make up 26.3% of all religious believers in America. That’s a bigger percentage than any other religious grouping. Add in politically and theologically conservative Catholics, Mormons, and mainline Protestants and the percentage of Christians who don’t look kindly on Pagans becomes a pretty sizable majority.http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations

    • Alkhemia

      I, too, am disheartened by pagans who wail and moan about persecution, the Burning Times and Christian interference. However, one simple fact remains; not aligning oneself with so-called “normative religious practices” invites negative assumptions about your character, intelligence, etc., from even “moderate” monotheists. I fail to see how ignoring the elephant in the room advances any cause.Regardless, I am mostly concerned that modern paganism seems to be defining itself in relation to Christianity or what the Judeo-Christian religion defines as “normal religion.” Frankly, these interfaith books seem, to me, to be reflective of a paganism that is insecure, undefined and needing the validation of the dominant religious paradigm. At the risk of consigning myself to vampire mall-goth irrelevancy, I don’t foresee gaining much from interfaith dialogue. “Can’t we all just get along?” sounds good in theory, but I cannot see it working in practice. Christianity makes certain truth-claims and assumes certain values that I reject as anathema to my worldview and/or know objectively to be untrue. The pagan community, in its quest for toleration and acceptance, seems to have a difficult time with defining itself independently from Christianity and Christianity’s “values” – lest any Christians be offended/excluded. In fact, a strong argument could be made that calling oneself “pagan” is a nod to the sloppy, pejorative and offensive labeling that sought to differentiate uneducated Roman hillbillies from the “educated” Christian intellectual elite. Instead, we consent to this label and try to be as inclusive as possible while an exclusive religion, like Christianity, seeks to assert its own ahistorical claims to “truth.” As I said on James’ blog, a few things need to happen before true interfaith dialogue can occur: Paganism needs to stop the rampant victimization, tendency for revisionist history and dearth of self-reflection. Christianity needs to honestly assess itself, its mythology and its pagan origins.

  • Jordan Stratford+

    Jason – I think you need to clarify that this is a specifically American experience (Dominionism). More than 85% of all the world’s Christians are Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican, who in the modern period have not had this kind of eliminationist bent. The kind of whackjob Protestantism that characterizes American Christianity is a highly localized extreme.I’m not saying that prejudice doesn’t exist, I’m just saying that as an American you’re getting a peculiar perception of Christianity.As a non-Christian, and as someone who frequently is engaged in interfaith dialogue, the only time I get any flack is from American Protestants of one stripe or another.We need to avoid fueling the fires of them vs. us.Jordan

  • Chas S. Clifton

    A simple test for Jordan and others: Ask the Christians with whom you are in dialog whether they endorse The Great Commission or not. If they say yes, then you can have a social and civic relationship, but they will never fully accept your religious path.

  • Chas S. Clifton

    Sorry, I forgot a hyperlink:The Great Commission.

  • Jordan Stratford+

    I don’t expect *anyone* to fully accept my religious path. Hell, 90% of the time I only partially accept it myself.Lots of religions have an “I know something you don’t know and we’re better than you” clause. Everybody wants to be the Chosen People in some way. I’ve met Jews and Asatruar who are just as guilty of this. I think that’s okay. I try not to let it get in the way of compassionate dialogue and learning. I also don’t want “inclusivity” to become an excuse to exclude those whom I deem less inclusive. You see the trap.

  • Hecate

    I just want them to leave me alone and quit shoving their ugly religion down my throat. I don’t want a “dialogue” with them. I want them to leave me alone. I don’t trust them, I don’t like them, and I don’t want to interact with them. Xians who want to be “nice” to me only do so in order to “convert” me. I know. used to be a xian. Just leave me alone. And get your paws off of my government.

  • Jordan Stratford+

    I wonder how that kind of anti-Christian sentiment is any better than anti-Semitism or racism or homophobia? Would most Pagans be okay with having someone say they wouldn’t like or trust or interact with any other slice of the demographic pie? Is it really okay to denounce ALL of Christianity as an “ugly” religion? Even the overtly Pagan bits?Our Christian neighbours and family members are not going to go away, nor should we expect them to. But in a pluralistic, tolerant society, are we not obligated to step up by being pluralistic and tolerant? Or at least, less of a jerk than our initial reactions may compel us to be?

    • Makarios

      Just stumbled on this, in USA Today:Most American religious believers, including most Christians, say eternal life is not exclusively for those who accept Christ as their savior, a new survey finds. Of the 65% of people who held this open view of heaven's gates, 80% named at least one non-Christian group — Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists or people with no religion at all — who may also be saved, according to a new survey released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.Full article at http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2008-12-18-saved-heaven_N.htm

      • abbadie

        By the way, Chas S. Clifton does make a good point which makes the possibility of dialogue somewhat scarce, but there is another important point, at least with catholics (in my country they are majority and there are other countries where this applies). In the Second Vatican Council, it was clearly established that while catholics have the moral duty to converth non-catholics to catholicism, they ALSO have the ethical duty to respect their rights to follow other religions according to human and social rights. That at least is an important point when dealing with catholics -sadly, most are unaware of this but I’m always happy to illuminate them ;-)-, in the case of the missionary I mentioned in my previous comment, she was clearly unaware of this; if whe hadn’t, we would have avoided an hour of pointless debate in which I patiently dealt with lots of offensive statements.Trouble is, Ratziger is said to be reconsidering taking back several things from the Second Vatican Council, so this will probably not be helpful for long.

  • Makarios

    In the “Dialogue Decalogue,” Prof. Leonard Swidler writes:“Dialogue is a conversation on a common subject between two or more persons with differing views, the primary purpose of which is for each participant to learn from the other so that s/he can change and grow. This very definition of dialogue embodies the first commandment of dialogue. In the religious-ideological sphere in the past, we came together to discuss with those differing with us, for example, Catholics with Protestants, either to defeat an opponent, or to learn about an opponent so as to deal more effectively with her or him, or at best to negotiate with him or her. If we faced each other at all, it was in confrontation–sometimes more openly polemically, sometimes more subtly so, but always with the ultimate goal of defeating the other, because we were convinced that we alone had the absolute truth.”The problem with missiologists–but definitely not all Christians, is that the interactions in which they engage are not genuine dialogue. Since they believe that they possess the final, definitive truth, there is nothing that they can learn from adherents of any other faith, and they believe that change, or even serious self-criticism, would be a betrayal of their own faith.That having been said, I concur with those who have opined that this sort of attitude is not representative of the main stream of Christianity in North America. To expand on Msgr. Stratford’s first post, my impression is that the evangelicals speak with a louder voice than their numbers warrant because the media find that extremism makes more interesting news–and because their block voting has, in the past, been the key to Republicans gaining office.

  • Lonnie

    Some further thoughts…Why would we want to define outselves in relation to mainstream Christianity? Because in many ways, Neopaganism itself can best be though of as a Protestant tradition. Bear with me here… Neopaganism wasn’t birthed in a void, or based on the direct advice of ancient native people. You see from the begining most of the people involved in the movement were in some way reacting to what they objected to in mainstream Christianity. Even more interesting is just how many elements of cerimonial magic came from Jewish or Islamic mysticism (not to mention Gnostic Christianity). The parts of neopaganism that trace themselves directly back to some real ancient practive, are few and far between. Most legitimate parts of paganism that we have were reclaimed from Christian traditions that coopted them (thus allowing them to survive). So, from this perspective, Neopagans are not unlike Martin Luther, or other people who sought to reform mainstream religion. This is probably the best reason of all for dialogue, because we’re really cut from the same cloth. We may have chosen to dye ours black and add glitter to it, but underneath all that have the same questions, challenges and a whole lot of shared history.

  • John W. Morehead

    I appreciate all the discussion Jason’s post has generated. My additonal two cents would be in response to Makarios for sharing an excerpet from Swidler’s “Dialogue Decalogue.” I have posted on my blog on this topic in the past and suggested that it be considered in relation to Mormon-evangelical dialogue. It might also be applicable to Pagan-Christian dialogue as well. In context, Swidler seems to have been writing about dialogue within Christendom, but with the appropriate modifications his decalogue provides helpful considerations in application to other contexts.I accept Swidler’s decalogue, with some modifications, and I see this as compatible with my work as a missiologist. By bringing missiology together with a desire for accuracy in understanding, respect in relation to my discussion partners, and a desire to learn as well as to inform, I am able to participate in genuine dialogue. In addition, I believe that new understanding, change, and self-criticism are an essential part of my task as a missiologist engaged in dialgoue. There may not be many of us in Protestant Christianity who are doing this, but it can be done.

    • Graywalker

      I don’t think it is acceptable to ask me to Tolerate a religious sect that has as one of their main beliefs the eradication of all other beliefs. They are commanded to destroy other faiths and societies by converting everyone they meet to their faith. And they have been very militant and successful so far.To me, that is unacceptable behavior. I could no more accept that than accept the idea that killing children or raping women is okay because it is a basic part of a religion.The conversion process is 1) break the person’s spirit or begin at an already horrible time for them as a death or great loss. 2) ensure them that converting will make it all better. 3) instill a fear of the consequences of not converting.”go ahead and convert, just to be on the safe side, or you may wind up suffering pain and torment burning forever and ever.”

      • Robin Artisson

        I can’t speak for the more “new age” forms of Paganism or Witchcraft, for they are consumed with many Eastern religious and spiritual ideas- “karma”, “reincarnation” and such things. But I can speak for the mainstream of “Reconstructionist” Pagans, as well as the traditional or non-Wiccan Witchcraft that I myself have learned and worked with over time: compared to Christianity of any stripe, traditional or revivalist Paganism and traditional Witchcraft have basic features of worldview that are perfectly and fully in conflict with the basic features of the Christian worldview. We can never- never- look to our religious beliefs to find common ground. The only option we have is to look to our humanity, and look to our various understandings as more unique contributions to the “big questions” of what it means to be human, and admit that no one can really truly “know” what this universe truly holds, or even what it truly is. This being the case, all of our beliefs are “attempted answers”- and no matter what they are based on, our beliefs are crucial to our very persons, to our personhood, and to our happiness in this life. We cannot compromise on our most deeply-held beliefs, because without them, we could not be the good people we are. If Christians cannot see that the humanity and free choices of other people are regions of personal dignity that cannot be transgressed, and cannot be trampled upon in the name of “conversion” into another faith that does not itself offer any more assurances than the original faith (and, indeed, in some cases offers less) then nothing can be done with them. There is no dialogue possible. If we want to re-focus the dialogue on the necessity of the existence of alternative views regarding “the big questions” of human existence, then we can all accord one another the liberty that is our natural birthright.My religious beliefs are not things that I present as my “positions”, open for criticism and possible change at the hands of an opponent who is superior at debate. Some of my positions may in fact be vulnerable to a clever enough argument-crafter. But that does not trouble me; my beliefs don’t have to be the “best thought out beliefs” on the block to do for me what they do- they make me happy, at peace, and allow me to be at home wherever I go. They allow me to be a good man, a good father, a good writer, a good healer, a good therapist. Whatever weakness they have in the face of another argument is nothing compared to that value, which can never be overcome except by organic change from within me, when the conditions of my life fatefully call for such a change.If we want a good “dialogue” with Christians or anyone else, we need to focus that dialogue on how humans from all times and places have approached the deepest questions of life, so that we can see that our age is not different, truly, from any other in that respect- always have there existed countless answers to the questions posed to us by the vastness of this world and universe. Thus, all of our beliefs are appropriate and needful. Nature doesn’t make anything in small quantities- there is no such thing as a field with a single blade of grass; no beaches with just one grain of sand, and no void of space with just one star. There’s millions of species of butterfly! And there are countless perspectives from behind the eyes of human beings.My belief in the needful multiplicity of religions should not indicate that I think that all religions should be “tolerated no matter what”- it is clear from history (ancient and recent) that some philosophies are directly destructive to societies, to human lives, and to the human mind and mental health. Those philosophies which, due to unhealthy cultural entanglements, stray into the direction of deciding that violence is acceptable as a tool of changing other people, or that it is acceptable to marginalize and mistreat certain populations (like women) or certain minorities (like homosexuals) must be seen for what they are- dangerous threats to the sacredness of the human life process. To encourage their proliferation in the name of “tolerance” is to become a part of their crime. The proper approach to these sorts of religious movements is to cease passively allowing their growth through a “hands off” attitude- we must protest them, but never use the same wicked means they use in the pursuit of justice against them. Such religions are naturally changing over time, and in the distant future, I do not believe that the deadly, barbaric fundamentalism that we see among certain Muslims and Christians will exist anymore. But in the meantime, we have a clear moral imperative to protect ourselves and the people of this world from their agendas. They do not represent a “needful answer” to the questions of being human; like a tumor in a healthy organism, they represent a warped growth out of what was once a necessary and natural human search.

  • abbadie

    The great problem with dialogue between religions is the question of mutual admission of at least possible validity. Only last week I had a discussion with a catholic missionary who actually made very good points against paganism -from a catholic theological point of view. From a pagan point of view, they were empty arguments. The problem was, I kept trying to explain to her that theological arguments were good for catholics but not for reaching a mutual understanding with me, and she would not have it; theological truths, to her, were plain truths and she expected me to acknowledge them as such. It took me a couple of hours to barely get through to her.Good points have been made above from various angles, but it all boils down to acknowledgement. Do I want tolerance or do I want acceptance? Tolerance is sometimes condescending, sometimes unwilling, let’s face up to that. Do we want christians to acknowledge and respect our rights to follow other beliefs in equal social terms, even if we know that they keep to themselves the belief that we are all doomed souls following either illusions or demons? Or do we actually expect them to acknowledge that other religions may -just may- lead to Divinity and illumination or “salvation”? Is it so very important that we get an acknowledgement which is actually denied by christian dogma?I myself do believe other religions may lead to Divinity even though they may be very different from mine. But no, I do not believe that all religions do; and I have encountered in close quarters what at least one “esoteric school” calls illumination and I most assuredly do believe they are being lured into a false achievement, for example. Concerning both catholics and other christians, I do believe there is some good stuff in some of them, but while I have my own opinions, I am certain of one thing: it is not up to me to decide whether they are good and true religions or not. AND I am not obliged to acknowledge that any or all of them contains a seed of truth or leads to Divinity.I do not expect them to acknowledge mine as a valid, spiritually “true” religion; I expect them to acknowledge mine as a religion, period. Just as I acknowledge theirs as religions, but I will have my own criteria as to whether, from whatever I know of them, any of them might be spiritually “true” or not, which is of no actual importance to me after all.I agree with a lot of what Robin states above, but I would give his proposed stance a different slant: we should oppose all the destructive, impositive ways in which some religions try to overcome other people; extreme proselytism, public distrespect or outright condemnation, boycotting and shunning of people with different beliefs, missionaries trying to impose their beliefs on people in need (missionaries are very helpful in other ways, they should not use their social and educational help as bribe to get indigenous groups to accept their faith)… All those attitudes and actions we should oppose, but not the religions themselves. Let them know that we would not say one word against their beliefs or churches if they did not infringe on the human rights of others. Otherwise, we will be feeding a war between beliefs, and that will be bad for everybody, especially us minorities.

    • Steve Hayes

      As I see it, there are four aspects of interreligious dialogue:1. What you think of your religion.2. What I think of my religion3. What you think of my religion4. What I think of your religionI’m not sure what preconditions about “validity” or “pluralism” have to do with this. The only preconditions are a willingness to listen, and to try to understand, even if we disagree.

    • Ran

      My thought is that those interested in promoting minority religious diversity might consider getting involved with projects like Harvard University’s Pluralism Project (see http://www.pluralism.org/). I believe that there is just one Wiccan involved at this point in time. Projects like these are considered more seriously by the general public as they spring from respected institutions that can be easily recognize.