Interview with Gus diZerega

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Author and academic Gus diZerega is one of the strongest Pagan voices on the importance of Christian-Pagan dialog. His 2001 book “Pagans & Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience” was a bridge-building work that sought to begin a reconciliation between Pagans and Christians, and emphasized a need for more communication. Now, the journey that started with “Pagans & Christians” continues with “Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue”, a truly open conversation with Australian theologian Philip Johnson that explores our differences and similarities. I was lucky enough to conduct an e-mail interview with Gus diZerega concerning this book, what he learned from the experience, and why Christians seem to worry so much about the Pagan resurgence.

Gus diZerega

Gus diZerega

While there are certainly tensions between Christianity and other non-Christian faiths, there seems to be something about modern Pagan religions that especially troubles certain factions within the larger Christian community. What is it about Paganism that makes some Christians worry about us so much, even though we are relatively tiny in size?

I think there are a number of reasons. It’s a complex matter. First, we have arisen within a Christian culture, a very self confident one, and we explicitly reject its Abrahamic spiritual tradition as being good for us. Not only that, we look to the pre-Christian past for inspiration and grounding. We represent the rise of something Christian leaders thought they had vanquished long ago, and we should never forget that initial vanquishing involved the sword far more than persuasion. Add religious liberty and the outcome would have been far different. For the most rabid of our attackers, our reappearance also seems evidence that we are in the end times, a time of religious war, at least for the likes of Dispenastionalists.

It matters that many of us have ‘fallen away’ from our childhood Christianity. In my experience, strong believers of secular ideologies are least tolerant of those who once shared their views, and now differ. I suspect it is no different here. We saw the ‘truth’ and rejected it, which from a believers’ need for certainty, is worse than being ignorant.

In addition, modern Paganism locates the sacred in the world as well as above it, fundamentally challenging Christianity as it has usually presented itself. Many lay Christians are potentially sympathetic to our position because it is in accord with their own experience of the sacred. We didn’t come up with terms like “God’s country,” after all. Experience has often been at war with dogma in Christian history and our emphasis on almost anything but dogma is very hard for dogma to rebut or dogmatics to tolerate.

Our emphasis on divine immanence also undermines many dimensions of conservative and Fundamentalist Christian theology. Most of the world’s major religions emphasize a salvational or similar purpose for us in this vale of tears. We reject this spiritual problem as relevant for us, and so our challenge is deeper than our rather small numbers suggest. We open a very threatening door that others might pass through.

For example, we honor the Divine Feminine as first among equals. That portion of the Christian community that most viciously attacks Pagans also has also most thoroughly eliminated the feminine from their image of the sacred. They have almost nothing to offer women spiritually beyond preserving their ignorance that alternatives exist to their psychological and spiritual misogyny.

More liberal Christians are now seeking to inject or rediscover the feminine into their conception of deity. Our existence has encouraged many within the Christian community to recognize the feminine face of deity. But doing so strikes at the core of fundamentalist theology which privileges divine power over divine love. So we are a double threat, first by our example, second, by others encouraged by our example to recognize a stronger feminine role in their own tradition.

We also recognize the sacred as it manifests within the forces of nature, and our holy days explicitly honor natural cycles and seasons. As I explained in Pagans and Christians, even the Old Testament shows a powerful ecological ethic. It does not find nature to be sacred, as we do, because the tradition generally sees nature as God’s artifact, but most certainly the sacred is seen to manifest through nature. This aspect of Christianity has been largely ignored until recently, excepting small but important examples like Saint Francis.

But modern right-wing Christianity is deeply committed to dominating nature, subjugating it, and in its most pathological forms, using it up since we are supposed to get a new earth after Armageddon. Their God is a God of will and domination, and they seek to replicate these characteristics in their relations to the land and towards people who differ from them. Our very existence helps expose the poverty, narcissism, and arbitrariness of their view of the sacred, and for many people we provide an attractive alternative to such stuff. This kind of Christian will always be threatened by us.

But this implacable hostility is not true for all Christians. Philip Johnson certainly is not guilty. We Pagans need to remember that Christianity is incredibly diverse. I myself have come to think of Christianity as a umbrella term for a variety of competing monotheisms, a kind of closet polytheism: pick the God you want so long as it is male, and worship only it. Catholics, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals and Methodists worship very different Gods. Their Jesus figures differ as well. That is why Pentecostalist Pat Robertson could describe Methodists as being in the spirit of the Antichrist. It is why whenever I offer a criticism of Christianity, I seem always to be told that that is not true for all Christians. Probably nothing is true for all Christians except their use of the name.

Now many Christians are innocent of the problems I outlined above, other than the polytheism issue, but these are not the ones you asked me about.

Your book, “Pagans & Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience”, which came out in 2001, sought to “reconcile” Paganism and Christianity. Now, with the publication of this dialog in 2008, do you think we are any closer? Is there more understanding and trust between our faith communities?

Let me dispel a possible misunderstanding. The term “reconcile” was not mine. I will be very happy with mutual toleration. A great many Christians believe their old claim that they are the only way by which people can be saved from Hell, and as Christians they have a duty to ‘witness’ in order to save us. Pagans by contrast do not believe we are the only spiritually valid path, nor do we believe we have any duty to bring the truths of Paganism to others. If others are interested, we are happy to invite their participation, and unlike earlier times, we can now be public. We do not go door to door, we do not stand on street corners with literature or megaphones, we do not finance missionaries, we do not attack other spiritual paths if they leave us alone.

I did offer a pretty straightforward Biblical interpretation that pointed directly towards spiritual pluralism. If that or something like it were accepted, reconciliation would follow as they recognized the legitimacy of multiple paths. But that choice is theirs.

So the real task of reconciliation is on the part of Christians, not Pagans, because we have no problem with Christianity so long as it respect
s our own religious freedom. Christians need to recognize they are one (well, many) spiritual path among many others, of which Pagans are only one.

In fact a great many Christians are coming to this recognition. Christians getting involved in interfaith work discover their path is far from the only one speaking to sincere people in spiritually valid ways. They take their discoveries back to their own faith communities. The fundamentalists who attack interfaith claim it is part of a plot to create one world religion, but anyone actually involved knows this is delusional or dishonest. We are all learning to respect one another, and when that happens, no reconciliation is needed.

As a result of many Pagans getting involved in interfaith dialogue, today we can see we have made incredible strides in dispelling false beliefs about who we are and what we do, and among the more liberal Christian community We have also forged many strong personal ties of affection, regard and respect. There we have seen enormous progress.

On the other hand, and here I speak of the United States only because I do not know whether this madness strongly afflicts other cultures, the eruption of an aggressive fundamentalist, authoritarian, politicized Christianity has increased the level of nasty rhetoric and potentially also of nasty actions against us. Christianity is bifurcating between traditions who recognize they are part of an irreducibly religiously plural world, and those who see themselves in a life and death struggle with beliefs different from their own. This latter group is powerful, but I think they have over played their hand, and so I am optimistic that the positive changes will ultimately count for more than their hatred, and that the needed reconciliation will mostly take place.

In the section on interfaith work, you said that Pagans can be of great service to the larger spiritual community. Could you elaborate on what qualities make Pagans so well-suited for interfaith activities?

As a religious community, we are relatively unusual in being free from that orientation, thoroughly conversant with modern values, and unusually well represented in the computer and internet technologies so useful in building interfaith networks. I know these traits have helped interfaith work in California and even more droadly, and I would imagine they would be equally helpful elsewhere.

Because of our openness to the validity of other spiritual paths, Pagans are well suited to be “honest brokers” in interfaith discussions. In addition, we have already played a significant role in empowering many aboriginal and indigenous spiritual communities in part, at least, because we do not look down on them as primitive or ignorant. After all, much of what they do, we do. In general, the stronger the interfaith community; the safer the Pagan community.

In your conclusion, you say that Paganism “decenters” religion, just as spirituality “decenters” the self. Could explain to my audience what that means, and how this phenomenon within Paganism differentiates us from Christian religion?

When I said spirituality decenters the self I meant it puts our personal concerns in a larger and deeper context, the largest and deepest we two leggeds can encompass. When I am focused on my own self as separate from everyone else, I can end up obsessing over even very tiny slights or misunderstandings, growing them into mountains of resentment and anger. We probably have all had the experience of focusing on some problem, making it a Big Deal, and we then see someone in a wheelchair. What seemed so big suddenly becomes very small. Spirituality puts everything we experience not only into a bigger context, it is a context characterized by meaning, compassion, beauty, and love. Such has been my experience anyway. So the self ceases to be the center of our universe once we begin to grasp this larger context.

Paganism does the same for religion by demonstrating one can be genuinely and deeply religious without saying my or any other path is best, and that every religion as we practice it illuminates only a portion of the whole divine picture. We free ourselves from equating genuine spirituality with a particular path or expression of the sacred. Instead, it is a quality of engagement found within many paths.

Think of your family. You are likely very devoted to your family without thereby thinking all other families are inferior. They are simply not your family. Same with religion. Now think back how grim the world was when people honored and trusted only their families. Where such attitudes survive, as in Southern Italy, they contribute to suspicion, violence, and oppression.

Religions are different recognitions and celebrations of humankind’s encounter with that which is superhuman. They are perhaps the most fulfilling expressions of human creativity in this world, bringing together all of our arts, our philosophies and theologies, our hearts and our minds, all in a recognition and honoring of the sacred that underlies and manifests in our reality.

To pick another mundane example, each religion is akin to a composer of beautiful music. It is as silly to confuse a composer with music as it is to confuse a religion with spirituality.

Now that you have engaged in this dialog with Philip Johnson, in what ways do you feel you have deepened your understanding of Christianity? Has it altered how you envision them in any way?

I was quite taken by his evident sincerity and with the good will underlying this sincerity. Philip Johnson challenged in a happy way the impression I had formed that most evangelicals were arrogant, regarding others’ spiritual and religious practices as Satanic errors or a sign of deep and catastrophic ignorance. The best of them were good people but very narrow in their appreciation for others.

Before working with Philip the only significant exception to my unhappy conclusion were a very few people I had had the pleasure of meeting who were associated with the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. Philip Johnson and Lion Hudson Press have sensitized me further to the great complexity of the evangelical community.

We will probably never agree on the ultimate nature of spiritual reality, but we don’t have to. Philip may still think I am destined for hell, I don’t know. But I am convinced he is willing to leave that issue and its outcome up to me and God.

His example makes me more optimistic than ever before that we will be able to live together with mutual good will and respect.

In the book’s “responsive thoughts”, Lainie Petersen criticizes you for “raising the specters” of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in the section on culture wars. Do you think Pagans overestimate the influence and power of these men (and men like them)? Is it “unfair” to name-check the most “bombastic” of fundamentalists when engaging in a dialog?

I do not think it is unfair at all. If I did not mention them, they would be the 500 pound gorilla in the closet. Why did I not address them? They have largely defined what Christianity is in the American media for many years. It is a false picture, promoted by the corporate press for political reasons, as well as lazy and craven reporters who have lost all competence in doing their job, and right wing politicians using them to split the public so they would get what Pat Buchanan described as the ‘bigger half.’ But it has been the dominant picture nonetheless.

Second, so long as a religion claims to be fundamentally more true than any others, it will encourage a certain kind of narcissistic believer to lord it over everyone else. Give those people access to political power and you have the possibility of their creating Hell on earth. In terms of how they would want to treat others the only major difference between people like that and the Taliban and Al Qaeda
is lack of sufficient power.

Third, the culture war is basically an assault on the feminine in the name of a pathological masculinity, a masculinity that is not only out of balance, it denies that balance is even an issue because the feminine can be ignored. At its core modern NeoPaganism is a recognition of the feminine as equal to the masculine in ALL things. And so the culture war waged by so-called ‘Christians” and their secular right wing allies is at its core an assault on what is must central to our spirituality.

Fourth, the rest of the Christian community seems for the most part to have not denounced what is done and advocated in its name. They should not be surprised that we treat these people as Christians. They themselves do.

Christians cannot have it both ways. If the ‘Christian’ right, including certain conservative Catholics, are considered legitimate Christians, and they spread hatred and lies about us, and have access to political power, in self-defense we will focus on them and the threat they poses. If other Christians strongly denounce these people publicly, and reject what they do as Christian, then on matter of dialogue we can spend much more time on more interesting topics.

From excommunication to shunning, Christians have a variety of ways of demonstrating someone is no longer a member of their community. It is past time they did so with these people.

If you could transmit just one idea or fact about modern Paganism to Christians, what would it be?

We are not trying to proselytize. We certainly are personally committed to our own path as a good one for us and are happy to share it. But it is of small moment to us whether you join us or not. If you do – welcome! If you do not, we wish you fulfillment wherever Spirit may lead you. Get your house in order and then, if you want, visit ours as a guest.

Now that this book is out, what is the “next step”. What advice would you give Christians and Pagans wanting to continue the work begun in this book?

Get involved in interfaith work in your local communities. False beliefs about us are best dispelled through personal contact. It is easy to believe falsehoods about people we do not know. And of course that cuts both ways. The Christians you meet in interfaith work will be among the most committed and caring in their community. So it is a win-win situation for us all.

One of my fondest memories is organizing an interfaith tree planting in Berkeley, California. Each religious group conducted their own planting in their own way. But we planted them together. The dark forces unleashed by those worshipping power and domination are best undermined when we do not divide ourselves into exclusive communities looking distrustfully out on everyone else. That is why those forces seek to sow distrust. We all have our own communities, and that is as it should be. But we can leave our doors open to the neighbors.