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