Archives For Newsweek

The United States of America is a secular, pluralistic, nation that is home to hundreds of distinct faiths, philosophies, and traditions living, working, and playing side-by-side. Our diversity has often been touted as one of our great strengths, that we don’t succumb to endless internal wars, chaos, and strife, that the American experiment largely “works.” That said, no matter how “pagan” our democracy, our republic, is, we can’t but acknowledge that Christianity has been a driving force in our collective history, and in the history of Western civilization as a whole. Christian colonizers pushed out indigenous peoples and beliefs, and tried to build a new Jerusalem, a “city upon a hill.” However, partially due to the strife between Christian denominations, our nation on its founding erected “a wall of separation” between (Christian) church and state, and our history has experienced waves of disestablishment and religious “awakenings” ever since.

Today, despite the softening Christian character of our nation, our politics and culture are dominated by a Christian narrative (more than 3/4 of Americans identify as Christian), with almost mandatory public shows of Christian piety from the majority of our leaders.

In the cover story of this week’s Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan says that Christianity itself is in crisis, and that the “ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes.”

“All of which is to say something so obvious it is almost taboo: Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial—or that most Catholics, even regular churchgoers, have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been? That’s why polls show a huge majority of Americans still believing in a Higher Power. But the need for new questioning—of Christian institutions as well as ideas and priorities—is as real as the crisis is deep.”

In a live-chat discussing the story, Sullivan explicitly links the crisis of our current political dysfunction with the crisis of Christianity.

I do not think the crisis of our politics can be resolved without addressing the crisis of American Christianity. Because the corruption of Christianity has corrupted American public life and we must be rid of it to move forward. Hence my coinage of the term Christianist. I use it out of respect for real Christianity, as much as concern about its current partisan politicization.”

Reading the article, and the live-chat, the question came to me: what about us? What about the 22% or so of Americans who aren’t Christian? The “others” and “nones” on those surveys. How do we live in a society where the dominant faith is experiencing a crisis? How do we make our voices heard in a landscape that has devolved into “Democrat Jesus” vs. “Republican Jesus,” where all moral arguments are couched in the language of Christianity?

Where once President Franklin D. Roosevelt might utter the now-unthinkable phrase  “the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance,” today the spirit of that epithet may as well be launched at Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, and other faiths that are seen as odd, suspect, or foreign. Meanwhile, Christianity itself grows ever-more polarized and the ranks of those who claim no religion (“nones”) swell to over %15 of the population. The “pagan” answer to this problem might be a better pluralism, embracing that we are entering a new age, and provide more seats at the table for a variety of moral and religious perspectives. To remember a world where embracing many gods wasn’t seen as a weakness, but a strength.

Sadly, most Christians (right and left) see the answer to this crisis as a return to “true” Christianity (whatever that means to them). Sullivan writes the same prescription that hundreds, if not thousands, of Christ-following “doctors” have written before.

“This doesn’t imply, as some claim, the privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere. There are times when great injustices—slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation—require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well. They embrace nonviolence as a moral example, and that paradox changes the world more than politics or violence ever can or will. When politics is necessary, as it is, the kind of Christianity I am describing seeks always to translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all. But it also means, at times, renouncing Caesar in favor of the Christ to whom Jefferson, Francis, my grandmother, and countless generations of believers have selflessly devoted themselves.”

I’m truly sympathetic to the version/vision of Christianity Sullivan describes, but no matter how eloquent the words, or how in tune with my personal morality it may be, it still comes down to fixing a problem by doing Christianity “better” (or “purer” if you prefer) in some fashion. The problem with this is the triumphalist thread that runs through the roots of all exclusionary monotheisms. Sullivan himself inadvertently touches that root when he approvingly quotes Catholic monk Thomas Merton (from the “New Seeds of Contemplation”), saying his words are “at the kernel of what I believe is the struggle we are all involved with.”

“Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God Who delivered Himself to the Cross and suffered pathological cruelty of His own creatures out of pity for them. In conquering death He opened their eyes to the reality of a love which asks no questions about worthiness, a love which overcomes hatred and destroys death.

But men have now come to reject this divine revelation of pardons and they are consequently returning to the old war gods, the gods that insatiably drink blood and eat the flesh of men. It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.”

Even at its most poetic, its most refined, the ongoing slur within Christianity of gods that are not their God must always continue. I say that with sadness, because I greatly admire Merton, but even he was not immune to the notion that his faith was an evolutionary and moral step forward in religion. The idea that Christianity can be apolitical, except in times of great injustice, is a kind of folly as there will always be those who interpret the times as times of great injustice. For some, there will always be an “injustice” so long as other moral codes, other gods, dare to hold sway, or even stand their ground. When Sullivan endorses New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s new book (“Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”), I can only remember that Douthat is also preoccupied with fighting “Dan Brown’s America” (because, you know, Paganism) and is very, very concerned about Hollywood’s rampant pantheism.

My greatest concern within this crisis is how we tiny communities and groups, we of the 22%, weather the contractions of a post-Christian world being born. So long as our voices, our solutions, are ignored, I fear that we’ll always return to a status quo of Christianity competing with itself in a paper-thin American secularism, thinking its theological and political poles represent diversity of opinion and thought. Only a future of coexistence, not Christian dominance, is tenable for those of us who fall outside that faith’s borders. As the generational plate tectonics shift, as the anxieties of those in power grow, we need more who are willing to reach out their hands, to avoid the worst realities of such shifts. Make no mistake, we are caught in another faith’s crisis, and how that faith treats the “others” and the “nones” will reveal the tenor of our republic for generations to come.

First off, welcome to Patheos everyone! I’m still getting used to the new digs, but so far the hitches seem to be relatively minor. One thing, the comments from Intense Debate are still in the process of being exported to Disqus, our new commenting system. The comments themselves are safe, but it may take a bit before they all appear. So please be patient as we get that worked out. Now then, let’s start off with a few quick notes shall we?

Peg Aloi Talks Medieval Horror: Over at TheoFantastique Pagan media/movie critic Peg Aloi has a podcast chat with  John Morehead about religious themes in the film Black Death.

TheoFantastique Podcast 2.2 for 2011 is now available. In this edition my special guest is Peg Aloi, a religion scholar and film critic and who maintains her own blog at The Witching Hour, who engages me about the film Black Death directed by Christopher Smith. In this interview and dialogue, Peg and I discuss the film cinematically, as well as its religious elements (bringing together our different religious traditions, an idea I first suggested at The Wild Hunt), and how this film may, in the words of Smith, function as a dark parable for our times. TheoFantastique Podcast 2.2 can be listened to by clicking this link, and downloaded here.”

Peg’s work is always worth checking out, whether she’s interviewing exorcists or doing scholarly reviews, so head over to TheoFantastique and listen in.

Rachel Pollack on Tarot: In advance of the upcoming Omega Institute Tarot Conference Mary K. Greer interviews famed Tarot expert Rachel Pollack (of Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom fame) about her career, and how she keep the subject of Tarot fresh after 40 years.

“I have never walled Tarot off into its own corner.  To me, Tarot is the world, so as I learn more about anything I think of how it can apply to Tarot.  For instance, just yesterday I read an intriguing idea about the story in Genesis that God took a rib from Adam and made Eve.  At first glance, this seems very sexist, and has been used  to describe women as inferior.  But the writer I was reading looked at the fact that chimpanzees have 13 ribs and humans have 12.  Thus the creation of woman was the evolutionary change from ape to human.  Women can be said to introduce human consciousness.  How does this affect Tarot?  Well, for one thing we find Adam and Eve in the Rider version of the Lovers, so now we can consider new and interesting points about that card.  But it also opens up the relationship between the male and female cards, such as the Magician and the High Priestess, or the Empress and the Emperor.”

The whole thing is certainly worth a read. I had the privilege of  interviewing both Mary K. Greer and Rachel Pollack last year, talking about psychic services and the law.

The Extremism of Michelle Bachmann: Michelle Goldberg at Newsweek/Daily Beast does a profile of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s “unrivaled extremism.” Paying special attention to her history of opposition to gay marriage.

Lots of politicians talk about a sinister homosexual agenda. Bachmann, who has made opposition to gay rights a cornerstone of her career, seems genuinely to believe in one. Her conviction trumps even her once close relationship with her lesbian stepsister. “What an amazing imagination,” marvels Arnold. “Her ideology is so powerful that she can construct a reality just on a moment’s notice.”

Of course, she isn’t just extreme in her opposition to LGBTQ equality,  I’ve covered at some length her unfortunate views regarding the equal treatment and rights of minority religions as well, culminating in her support for pseudo-historian David Barton. Now that Bachmann seems to be holding pole position as the Christian conservative candidate to beat after her performance at the recent Republican presidential candidate debate in New Hampshire we’ll have to take seriously the possibility that she could be on the ticket in 2012.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

It’s been an oft-repeated assertion that during tough economic times the church pews fill up. In a recent Newsweek article economist Daniel Hungerman suggested this phenomenon is more due to a yearning for “interconnectedness” than with the popular “no atheists in foxholes” theory. Economics writer Ryan Avent thinks it all comes down to cheap entertainment. But does this pervasive truism of increased religious attendance during hard times apply to modern Pagan faiths? What happens when there is no “pew” to casually fill when times are tough? I’ve asked a number of Pagan leaders, clergy, organizers, and adherents about attendance levels, and anecdotal evidence from across the country seems to point towards the rising tide of economic hardship lifting all religious boats.

Near the San Francisco Bay, Pagan priestess Morpheus Ravenna, recently featured in a new documentary, and  co-founder of Stone City Pagan Sanctuary, said that there’s been a steady increase in attendance for the last few years, though she can’t say for certain if the economy has been a driving factor.

“…it’s hard to separate the influence of the economy from other factors. We’re just passing our first half decade in existence, and we’ve been in a rapid growth phase of our development in terms of infrastructure building and also in terms of exposure, so we might have had just as much growth in attendance regardless of the economy. There’s not enough history to know what our ‘baseline’ really is.”

Ravenna’s experiences though are mirrored in Montana, where author and local leader Raven Digitalis has noted an up-tick in attendance, noting that  “people seem to feel a greater need for community support — understandably!” In Georgia, Lady Charissa of the North Georgia Solitaries says that “we’ve gone from an average attendance of 12-15 to an average attendance of 30-35 at small Sabbats.” Others, like the Correllian Nativist Tradition (founders of the popular Witch School) and Aquarian Tabernacle Church-affiliated Covenant of WISE, Church of Wicca note spectacular increases in membership and attendance.

“Our numbers have more than tripled in the past 12 months. We have even had to expand operations to encompass our over seas members. I think there is a reaching out that occurs during a recession. If there is a decline in numbers at Christian Venues, I would attribute it to feeling like you NEED to tithe to attend. Money is tight. We as pagans offer services that accept donations, but we don’t expect them. We honor them, but we don’t demand them. It is more important today, and tomorrow, and into the foreseeable future that we provide a place for people to connect with the Divine then it has been in 90 years.” - Dusty Dionne, Church Summoner, Covenant of WISE, Church of Wicca

But while there’s been a seeming overall trend of increased attendance in recent years, it hasn’t always brought with it increased donations. Aquarian Tabernacle Church’s Archpriest, Pete Pathfinder Davis, noted to me that while attendance at his Washington state congregation has increased, donations this year have fallen sharply. Raven Digitalis remarked that his group “have had to put our feet down” concerning event fees “a bit more than usual”. A respondent from Illinois noted that he feels there’s been a decrease in attendance lately as the cost of  transportation rises. In addition, many of the groups that have experienced success also mentioned that they have worked hard to provide community services while keeping costs low.

North Georgia Solitaries recently held a successful festival drawing nearly 300 people in a fund-raiser for their newly-launched Pagan Assistance Fund to help their community members in times of financial crisis, while Stone City Pagan Sanctuary has worked hard to keep things affordable for the organizations that depend on their land for events.

“One thing we have done is try to keep costs low, both for gatherings that we organize ourselves, and also what we charge to host other groups’ events. For example, we don’t charge anything for kids, ever, because we know even half-price can still make it hard on families. I think that keeping costs low has helped us stay viable as the economy has gotten worse.”Morpheus Ravenna

While there has certainly been challenges for our communities during this ongoing recession, it seems that hard times haven’t equaled diminished numbers or attendance in many groups across the United States. I think this points to Pagan faiths being deeply rooted and mature enough to provide the sense of fellowship and “interconnectedness” that Hungerman describes in the Newsweek article.

“…maybe people’s desire for spiritual guidance is influenced by their perception of how the world’s doing outside of themselves. Church attendance may not reflect our own circumstances but our own idea of how the world is doing beyond us.”

So maybe the booming circles, groves, and events reflect that we are checking in with our own loose-knit communities, finding fellowship so we can weather this storm together.

Through much of April a very public debate has been raging over the practice of Yoga in the West, and whether its Hindu origins are given proper credit and acknowledgement by those who profit from it. One on side of the debate is Aseem Shukla, co-founder and board member of the Hindu American Foundation, on the other mega-selling New Age author Dr. Deepak Chopra, who seemingly bristles at calling himself a Hindu, and is trying to “sanitize” Yoga because there’s a lot of “junk” in the religious tradition from which it originated.

Some of yoga’s best-known—and most entrepreneurial—purveyors concede they’ve consciously separated Hinduism from yoga to make it more palatable. “The reason I sanitized it is there’s a lot of junk in [Hinduism],” explains Deepak Chopra, the New Age guru whose latest book, co-written with Marianne Williamson and Debbie Ford, is The Shadow Effect. “We’ve got to evolve to a secular spirituality that still addresses our deepest longings … Most religion is culture and mythology. Read any religious text, and there’s a lot of nonsense there. Yet the religious experience is beautiful.”

The Hindu American Foundation released a position paper on the subject, saying that there is no way to entirely de-link Yoga, no matter how secularized, from its Hindu roots.

“While HAF affirms that one does not have to profess faith in Hinduism in order to practice Yoga or asana, it firmly holds that Yoga is an essential part of Hindu philosophy and the two cannot be delinked, despite efforts to do so.”

In a Newsweek editorial published yesterday, Lisa Miller, author of “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife”, ultimately backs HAF’s stance (despite a truly bizarre opening paragraph), and talks to religion professor Stephen Prothero, author of the new book “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter”, to bolster that position.

“My friend the Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero has just written a book called God Is Not One, which argues that the good in any religion (e.g., yoga) necessarily comes with the bad (caste systems). By seeing religion as a single, happy universal force, we blind ourselves to tensions of great consequence to individuals and to history. “America,” he says, “has this amazing capacity to make everything banal. That’s what we do. We make things banal and then we sell them. If you’re a Hindu, you see this beautiful, ancient tradition of yoga being turned into this ugly materialistic vehicle for selling clothes. It makes sense to me that you would be upset.”

But, Prothero points out, Chopra has a point. The American creative, materialistic, pluralistic impulse allows religion here to grow and change, taking on new and unimagined shapes. “You can’t stop people from appropriating elements in your religion,” Prothero adds. “You can’t stop people from using and transforming yoga. But you have to honor and credit the source.” Prothero’s bottom line is also my own. You can read from the Dalai Lama in yoga class. You can even read from the Sermon on the Mount. But know where yoga came from and respect those origins. Then, when you chant “om,” it will resonate not only in the room but down through the ages.”

I suppose it all comes down to respect. If you practice and benefit from Yoga, it’s only decent to acknowledge that you are benefiting from a practice that has sprung from Hindu religion and philosophy. To do otherwise would seem to cheapen and insult the practice. What about you, my readers? Do you practice Yoga? If so, do you acknowledge it as a Hindu practice?

A loyal reader pointed out an interesting new essay by author and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham concerning the end of “Christian” America. Using the recently released ARIS data as a starting point, Meacham talks with conservative Christian luminaries like R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and talk-show pundit Joe Scarborough who both seem to be far more convinced of a post-Christian future than I am.

“Turning the [ARIS] report over in his mind, Mohler posted a despairing online column on the eve of Holy Week lamenting the decline—and, by implication, the imminent fall—of an America shaped and suffused by Christianity. “A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us,” Mohler wrote. “The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.” When Mohler and I spoke in the days after he wrote this, he had grown even gloomier. “Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society,” he said from his office on campus in Louisville, Ky.”

Meacham reinforces the ARIS data (and Mohler’s “gloomy” outlook) by supplementing it with some recent Newsweek polling that says 68% of Americans think religion is losing influence in American society, and that less than half (48%) now believe that religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems”. But as I’ve pointed out before, we should be clear that “post-Christianity” doesn’t mean Christianity is going away, or that America will soon be overrun by secularist stormtroopers, but that (as Mohler points out) there is a new narrative concerning religion that displaces Christianity as the lone voice of moral authority. What is this new narrative?

“In 1992 the critic Harold Bloom published a book titled “The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation.” In it he cites William James’s definition of religion in “The Varieties of Religious Experience”: “Religion … shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine.” Which is precisely what most troubles Mohler. “The post-Christian narrative is radically different; it offers spirituality, however defined, without binding authority,” he told me. “It is based on an understanding of history that presumes a less tolerant past and a more tolerant future, with the present as an important transitional step.” The present, in this sense, is less about the death of God and more about the birth of many gods.

In other words, a society welcoming to religious minorities and Pagans. The “others” that saw a growth spike in the ARIS numbers that Mohler finds so troubling. While Meacham turns introspective towards the end concerning Christianity’s place in out modern society, he does little to anticipate how much better a post-Christian society might be for those who don’t necessarily agree with the privileged place the dominant monotheisms have held for so long. That the “birth of many gods” will not lead to moral anarchy as Mohler and other conservative Christians fear, but a more (religiously) tolerant age.  Pagans will most likely be a very small minority for some time into the future, but there is a chance that we’ll see in our lifetimes the emergence of geographic regions where minority faiths like ours hold enough sway to influence elections and social policy. A time when what an elected official swears in on, or who leads an opening prayer, will no longer be seen as a possible front in a manufactured culture war. I, for one, look forward to this growing “post-Christianity” and hope the “gloomy” forecasts of conservative Christians aren’t simply a bout of self-obsessed pessimism.