August 15, 2011 by Lain
Like a lot of Pagan folk, I’ve been known to occasionally spout off about personal freedoms, religious tolerance and all those other good things that are important to anyone who follows a minority faith. But sometimes, I’m a bit slow to extend these courtesies to those whose beliefs are in conflict with my own. And I’m not the only one; many of us are guilty of a little Christian-bashing now and then. Having grown up within the usual patriarchal religious structure, I have justified my behavior with the usual excuses: Christianity’s oppression of women, gays and heretics (and almost everyone was considered a heretic at some point or another), the denial of the Divine Feminine, the excesses of manipulation and control, the epidemic of child sexual abuse, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Most of us have had this conversation before, so there is no need to elaborate. Awhile back, I was given cause to re-examine my attitudes, and what I found disturbed me.
Working the night shift at a shelter for women and children, we were often run off our feet for a 10-hour shift. But at those times when peace inexplicably ruled the night, the skeleton staff had to find ways to keep busy- and awake- until it was time to go home. The result was often long conversations about philosophy, sociology, and psychology, interests we all shared in common because of our jobs. One day, a co-workers happened to turn the topic to religion. In the interests of workplace harmony, we focused on elements that our faiths share in common, and we were both quite surprised by what we found.
My friend believes in one god, who encompasses a range of manifestations: creative, destructive, nurturing, etc. I believe in a multitude of gods, each representing a manifestation of the Divine Whole. She believes in the concept of sin, and in the doctrine of divine retribution. I believe in negative energy and in the Threefold Law. She believes that Jesus was the son of her god, sent to earth to teach us about spirit. I believe that we are all children of Deity, and that Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, etc, were all wise spiritual teachers.
My friend believes that the soul survives the death of the body, and goes to a place where all the mysteries of life are answered. I also believe that the soul survives death, and that the spirit in its true form is able to comprehend the nature of existence.
My friend believes in “Do Unto Others”, and I believe in “Harm None”. She believes in the ritual of transubstantiation, and I believe in magick. As our list of similarities grew, I began to wonder; could the vast wasteland separating our theologies be nothing more than illusion?
There came a point in our discussion where I had to ask the question that was foremost in my mind: How could my friend, an ardent feminist and social activist, reconcile the teachings of Christianity with her personal and political beliefs? She answered readily that the bible was written by mortal men in the prevailing context of an ancient culture, and therefore must be approached as metaphor, rather than as the literal word of the Christian god. While some books of the bible spew hatred directed at women, gays and polytheists, these are notably absent from the gospels, a series of remarkably similar accounts of the lived experience of Jesus Christ. My friend chooses to ignore material that is hateful and divisive in Christianity, interpreting it as mere political maneuvering between warring sects, across a landscape of two thousand years. Instead she studies the gospels, which portray Jesus as loving and peaceful, with a tolerance for alternative lifestyles that directly contradicted the ethics and morals of his time. Had he walked the earth in modern times, my friend believes, he would have been a social activist and agent for peaceful change. Just like her. Just like many people, of all faiths.
Is it wise to ignore ancient tenets of one’s faith simply because they don’t fit with a modern worldview? Well, why not? Druids no longer perform human sacrifices, most Wiccans have given up scourging, and plenty of modern Shamans now eschew the use of hallucinogens. So if Christians want to give up divisive doctrines that promote dissent, how can we object? If anything, we should applaud them.
Inevitably, the conversation turned to the remaining point of contention between our belief systems: the Christian claim to being the only true and valid faith. As a polytheist, this claim has always disturbed me; as an activist, it has angered me. My friend was quite surprised to hear this, saying she hadn’t considered that point before. She believes this claim to be just another grab at power and control by later church authorities, and not representative of Jesus’ teachings. Furthermore, she assured me, many of her Christian friends feel the same. In her words, “I think everybody should have a religion; I just don’t believe it matters which one. We’re all on different paths, heading for the same destination, so in a sense, we are all travelling together.”
That’s a compelling argument, and also a very Pagan one. I once read an account of a Cree trapper in northern Manitoba who went to live with the local priest at age twelve, after the death of his father. Years later, a reporter inquired how the man had managed to reconcile the differences between the spirituality he had learned from his parents, and the teachings of the Catholic priest. The trapper replied simply that he saw no conflict at all. He just figured that the Creator appeared to different peoples in the form in which they would best be able to recognize him. Or her. Or them.
In my twenty years as a witch, I have come to see the power in this statement. Plenty of Christians don’t hate or fear Wiccans, and in fact our beliefs share a great deal in common. I recently attended a healing ritual where a Christian woman was in attendance; she placed a bible on the altar, and invoked Jesus into the circle along with the rest of the healing gods. The energy was thick, electric; the participants fell easily into a group trance, developing a powerful bond that remained even after the circle was opened. The patient eventually recovered. And we all learned that we could work together, if we were willing to try.
In this past decade, more than any other, religious intolerance has plagued our entire planet, bringing death to thousands and untold misery to hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions more. As Pagans and peace-loving people, it is our spiritual task to work towards healing the hatred and bringing opposing sides together. It’s understandable that Pagans who grew up in a harsh religious environment might rail against those who once oppressed them. But if we want religious tolerance for ourselves, we must extend that courtesy to others. We must be the change we want to see in the world.
Ali is a writer, priestess, and mother.She is founder of the Ravenwood Circle, and the Congregationalist Wiccan Assembly of Alberta. She has recently appeared on Pagan Pathfinders Podcast. You can read about Ali’s contributions to the Edmonton Pagan Community at Northern Tribes’ “An Interview With Ali Ravenwood”.