I am a Catholic - by birth, by choice, and by love.
And yet I spend large portions of my time hanging around with Pagan friends - something that often surprises Christians and Pagans both.
Growing up, I always lived in a multi-faith community. My community was dominated by Jews and mainline Protestants (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians) with a smattering of Muslims, Hindus, and Catholics, and a handful of Buddhists and Baha'is. I suppose that is where my first interest in interfaith dialogue arose - I was living it, each and every day. But my first serious exposure to interfaith dialogue came while I pursued my undergraduate degree in theology. I first learned about ecumenical efforts, in the context of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue (which is carried out in an official manner by a body called "ARCIC," which stands for Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission). Later, I did extensive work in Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue, with specific attention to post-Holocaust theology.
Now, and with increasing vigor, I find myself carrying out Christian-Pagan dialogue, and I have become deeply invested in the relations between the two communities. This is often viewed with suspicion on both sides of the fence. Some Christians have never met a Pagan, and are ignorant of Paganism as a religious system, tending to think of it in terms of "The Craft" - teenagers and wishful thinking. Some Christians feel that Pagans are either worshipping Satan on purpose or have been led astray by Satan unknowingly. Some Christians are ignorant that there's even a discussion to be had. On the other side, some Pagans view Christians as too misguided or closed-minded to bother talking to. Some Pagans are full of such anger and hate for Christianity that they can only react negatively when the topic is brought up.
All off these views are narrow-minded and short-sighted. Christian-Pagan dialogue is vitally important to both of our faiths, and I hope, after sharing with you some of the goals and methods and frustrations of this dialogue, to show you why.
I see four goals of increasing importance to be had in Christian-Pagan dialogue. The first, and most basic, is understanding. Only through talking to one another can we come to understand each other; only through dialogue can Christians come to understand that Paganism too is a religion of peace and joy, only through dialogue can Pagans come to understand that Christianity too is a religion of depth and meaning. Through dialogue, we can overcome stereotypes of Pagans as (at worst) Satan-worshippers or (at best) weird new-age occultists. Through dialogue, we can overcome stereotypes of Christians as (at worst) programmed automatons or (at best) people who aren't quite brave enough to step outside their family's faith.
Once we have taken steps towards understanding one another, we approach the second goal of interfaith dialogue: the betterment of the community that Christians and Pagans share. The modern world is an increasingly diverse one, and better and better communications only multiply the occasions on which we will come into contact with people who are very different from us. Religious organizations have traditionally been a major tool in the struggle to improve communities, doing everything from cleaning up the town to running charity organizations to marching in parades for community pride. As our communities become more diverse, we must work together to achieve such common goals as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and healing the sick. These may be corporal works of mercy for Catholics, but they are acts of human kindness for people of all faiths. When we share a community, we must work together to improve that community.
The third goal of building Christian-Pagan relationships is fruitful dialogue and mutual learning. Christians and Pagans who have broken down stereotypes and who have built relationships through working together in the community have built bonds of trust and can begin a fruitful dialogue and have a mutual experience of learning. When we learn more about others, we learn more about ourselves. The Catholic Church, my own community of faith, affirms that it "has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women," (Nostra Aetate, 2). Through dialogue we can celebrate these common truths found in our religions, and the religion of another often provides a mirror in which one can see oneself more clearly. Sometimes our thoughts about our own faiths grow muddled, because they are mixed up with emotion and experience. Seeing ourselves through the eyes of another can sometimes help us to look at ourselves with greater honesty.
Finally, Christian-Pagan dialogue helps both groups to live their faiths more deeply and honestly. Christianity and Paganism both acknowledge the equality of every person on this earth, and that equality must be expressed in respect. In learning to respect one another, we live our faiths more deeply, as we practice that which we preach. In time, respect will pass into love as we learn to love our neighbor.
How is this dialogue accomplished? Very carefully. Dialogue isn't easy; it demands that we temporarily leave the security and comfort of our own beliefs and listen to another's. We wonder, what if we are changed by it? And truly, how can we fail to be changed by it? We will listen, we will learn, and the knowledge that takes up its residence in our minds and hopefully in our hearts will change us. We must trust that it will change us for the better.
And we must be careful. We must be careful of ourselves and of each other. We must be wary of treading on one another's toes, but we also must be wary of telling half-truths to avoid treading on those toes. We must be honest, but we must be tactful. We must separate fact from feeling - and yet respect one another's feelings.
With some of my close Pagan friends, I find myself at the third and fourth levels of dialogue - learning from one another and living our faiths. But the dialogue that I myself do most often is explaining - very patient explaining. I explain the same things over and over again, because there are always new people with old misconceptions. This is the first level of dialogue, coming to understanding. I try to be patient, to be sympathetic, when I first meet a Pagan whose ideas of Christianity have been skewed by either poorly-taught history or bad experiences or a combination of the two. I try to withstand angry outbursts without becoming defensive. I try to explain in language a Pagan can understand - because we do, after all, speak very different languages when discussing our faiths. I try to listen to what is being said, and not just respond to the words, but respond to the meaning. And above all, I try to be honest and to force others to be honest. I try not to sugarcoat the history of Christianity, but I refuse to blacken it either. Truth is where all dialogue must begin. I try to be mindful of that.
I try. Sometimes I fail. But I try again, and sometimes I succeed.
And then I try, on behalf of my Pagan friends, to explain Paganism to Christians. This is usually easier in some ways - very few Christians have bad first-hand experience of Paganism, and we are speaking the same language to begin with - but harder in others, because most Christians have had very little exposure to Paganism while most Pagans have had a lot of exposure to Christianity.
It is a work full of frustrations, particularly (for me) when I am speaking as a Christian to Pagans. On the most basic level, false information, misconceptions, urban legends, and historical inaccuracies are probably among the most frustrating things I see. There are people who rant on and on about the Inquisition without ever letting a fact cloud their mental horizon. There are others who insist King James himself translated the King James Version. There are some who insist that every move Christianity has ever made has been political in nature. There are those who tell me that the Pope is not a holy man but a power-hungry despot. (Query: If you were a power-hungry despot, would you have agitated for Polish democracy? I thought not.) Some people will open their ears and listen to what I have to say, will consider it, will reconsider it. Others will tell me I am foolish, I am misguided, I am rude, I am brainwashed.
I do not consider it my duty to deny people's experiences. Many Pagans have had extraordinarily bad experiences with Christianity. Many others were victims of bad catechesis, which mainly involved coloring pictures of Jesus and was taught by incompetent teachers who either didn't know enough to answer questions or were terrified by those questions, and so refused to allow their students to ask questions. Children do not get over this - I never have. A question that stands unanswered becomes a question that must have a dark answer, an answer that is being kept from you because it is embarrassing or shameful. I recognize this impulse, and my own experiences of catechesis growing up were very similar. It wasn't until I got to college that some of those questions were answered. Dialogue is not about refusing to admit that people have had bad experiences with Christianity. Dialogue, rather, is about admitting that those experiences happened. But it is my responsibility to correct factual errors and misconceptions, and because these are so entangled with experiences, this can be very difficult. It is also difficult because I do not want to impede people's ability to discuss their feelings and experiences and beliefs, and if people feel that whatever they say will be discredited or attacked, they will not speak. So I must be careful of when and how I speak. Sometimes I am wrong. I can be very frustrating, both when I am wrong in speaking and when I do not speak, and must merely listen to people attack the church that I love. (Because we all sometimes forget that religions are not abstract bodies or collections of clergy, but living and breathing faiths that real people practice and love.)
Other things that I find by turns frustrating and amusing include this mantra of "I can't worship Satan if I don't believe in him" that I so often hear repeated. I wonder - do the people saying this honestly not understand the fundamentalist Christian belief (i.e., that you don't have to believe in Satan to be led astray by him - he's a deceiver) or do they merely think it's a clever little non sequitur to be tossed off? Either way, it's counterproductive. I am intensely aggravated by dumb Christians who don't know the first thing about the faith they practice, particularly by dumb Catholics who apparently have never met a catechism in their lives but feel fully qualified to discourse at length on the "true" beliefs of the Church. (And there's just no excuse for this, because as Catholics we have an indexed book of our beliefs available at any bookstore for $9.95.) I am frustrated by people who insist on viewing the past as the present, who can't comprehend that the middle ages are over, that the Enlightenment has come and gone, and that the world in general and Christianity in particular has changed. I am frustrated by people who insist on blaming me for things that happened four hundred years ago, who refuse to go forward because of the past. Those who do not learn from the past will repeat it, but those who refuse to let the past go will never move beyond it.
Finally, one of the deepest and most difficult issues in Christian-Pagan dialogue that I find frustrating is a refusal - often of both sides - to meet difficult issues head-on. Christians who refuse to acknowledge the uglier parts of Christian history will have very little credibility in a Christian-Pagan dialogue. Pagans who are preoccupied with insisting the Bible has no passages that pose problems for Judeo-Christian understanding of Paganism are being counterproductive. For example, the Bible does indeed say "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," (KJV translation). The Hebrew word might mean poisoner, but it almost definitely has overtones of magic, and more probably means "sorcerer" or "dark magician." (Of course, most Christians who are in dialogue with Pagans either understand the Deuteronomistic laws as being specific to that time and place, or know about language drift and that modern Witches have little in common with whatever that Hebrew word did mean, or are under the general impression that the Old Testament doesn't apply to Christians - which isn't exactly correct. The ones who will harp on the verse are going to be the ones that Pagans probably don't want to dialogue with anyway.) Whenever I see a young Pagan saying, "Well, it says 'poisoner,' not 'witch,' so there," I think, "Oh, dear child, you are inviting the well-educated fundamentalists to take their talons to you." Similarly, Christians are very firmly told to place no false gods before God, and that salvation is found though Jesus Christ. These beliefs need not be a roadblock to dialogue - but denying them almost surely will be. Dialogue must be honest and truthful. A dialogue that tries to pretend there are no differences, or that the differences don't matter, will be a weak and fruitless one.
Given all these frustrations and difficulties, why is Christian-Pagan interfaith dialogue necessary? Why bother doing it? Why not just let laws that guarantee religious freedom mediate disputes in court, and keep to ourselves?
The four goals of interfaith dialogue I gave above - understanding, community-building, fruitful dialogue and mutual learning, and a fuller and deeper life of faith - are good reasons in and of themselves. But there are even better and more fundamental reasons why we should actively pursue and promote Christian-Pagan dialogue.
We are people of conscience. The world can be a dark place, full of anger and hate and violence, full of sorrow and discord and pain. Our religions, different though they are, give us ways and means to fight against those things. With our consciences formed in our religions, we can meet hate with love, violence with peace. We can heal those in pain and comfort those in sorrow. We can strive to keep our voices from adding to the anger and the discord, leading by example as we show others the paths of peace and justice that we as Christians and Pagans walk together.
We are people of faith. Our beliefs are different, but we strive for the same thing. We both recognize that humans long for something greater, look for something more. We know that there we are more than this rude clay, and that begets a kinship between us. We have both caught glimpses and reflections of the divine, just enough to kindle the light of faith in our hearts, and that makes us brothers and sisters in a very profound way. As such, we must be in dialogue, to learn from one another and to deepen our own lives of faith.
We are human beings. We recognize our common humanity and our equality, and we must treat one another with dignity and respect. The Catholic Church teaches that "We cannot truly pray to God the Father of all if we treat any people as other than sisters and brothers, for all are created in God's image," (Nostra Aetate, 5). Christians and Pagans both celebrate the beauty and wonder of humankind, and it is right and fitting that we should celebrate each other.
Christian-Pagan dialogue is difficult, but its fruits are rewarding, and it is deeply necessary.
Yes, our differences our important.
But our samenesses are vital.
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