Exploring Possibilities in Pagan-Christian Dialogue
Article ID: 2393
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Diana Rajchel [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: June 15th. 1999
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Culture, according to Lustig and Koester, could be just about anything involving how human beings are taught to think and behave from infancy throughout their lives. The definition that I prefer involves the social heredity approach: new members of a culture must be taught the fundamental ideas, practices and experiences based on societal norms (Lustig and Koester 29).
I prefer this definition because I see the effects of culture and cultural perception as a method of setting limitations; although behaviors evolve from problem solving needs and experiences, many of these norms remain long after the problem or situation that created such an issue is obsolete. Values come from the level of importance placed on the norms (Levine, 85).
According to Lustig and Koester, values "involve what a culture regards as good or bad, right or wrong, fair or unfair, just or unjust, beautiful or ugly, clean or dirty, valuable or worthless, appropriate or inappropriate, and kind or cruel." This interprets as a labeling of behaviors as desirable and undesirable. Values and culture are indivisible -- culture establishes the values (Smith lectures).
Every institution within a culture is designed to support the values of the dominant group. Consequently, if the institution of education for all is important public schools will arise; if slavery supports both economy and culture then a complex of trading centers and hunting businesses will appear as a normal part of the culture.
Behaviors resulting from values usually have some logical history behind them. I come to this analysis as a member of a subculture, or counter-culture. I exhibit the low context behavior in my outer life, or "public life" as embodied by Hofestede: (L&K p.111). When I wish to communicate something, the message is overt and explicit, all my messages are plainly coded and my time is highly organized. In this, my behavior and values are "typical": I say what I mean and find the art of subtlety wasteful and damaging. I rush from place to place; rarely do I take time to relax.Within the Kluckhorn model, I believe that the majority of people in the U.S culture fall in the third category across the chart of doing.
At the same time, just having a sort of "dual life" indicates that a portion of my life is very high context -- I follow strict rules according to what and who I am "allowed" to say things to. I differ the most strongly from the majority in my attitude toward nature, my beliefs in human nature and the man-nature relationship. I come from a religious subculture referred to broadly as Neo-Paganism; the subsect which I practice is Gardnerian Wicca. Within this sect, I am a 2nd degree priestess and a member of my coven's high court. Within neoPagan society this status identifies me as someone who is qualified to teach about Wiccan spirituality and occult techniques, act as High Priestess (lead rituals, etc.) as occasion demands and act as a spiritual counselor for those who seek it. This status and assignment is meaningless to the dominant culture. Although in dominant culture religion, usually Protestant Christian, only genuinely affects idiomatic expression and social behaviors engaged in ranging from once a week to twice a year, Wicca affects all parts of a practitioner's life.
Much of the affectation occurs because the man-nature relationship shifts: in the dominant culture, according to the Kluckholn model, "Man's challenge is to conquer and control nature." Within Wicca, nature is viewed as Deity -- not so much as a subjugating force, since Wiccans also see themselves as part of Deity, but as a force where harmony means everything - - including harmony with what is commonly perceived as negative elements associated with nature. The most destructive storm or earthquake eliminates life to continue life. The entire religion is patterned around phases of the moon and their association with the ocean tides and phases of the Earth and its seasonal cycles in temperate zones. This same harmony affects my entire life -- I cannot step outside without stepping into my "church".
Human nature in dominant culture initially places trust on people and then withdraws trust as it is violated. In Wicca, the reverse happens. I have taken oaths of secrecy along with others along my path in practice; the world history of religious persecution creates a long memory. I have to consider where and how I will "leave the broom closet" and I deliberately try to avoid situations where my spirituality will conflict with my daily life. Although in my outer life I am very low context, within my coven environment all behaviors are very high context -- words are spoken only with diplomacy and only the High Priestess of the coven has the right to speak directly regarding any coven matters unless she asks my or another member of the High Court's counsel.
Social relations are very important within my coven. I consider my coven family in the literal sense that the dominant culture considers mother, father, sister and brother family. Within the coven there is an established hierarchy that demands the same loyalty as that given to blood; blood relatives, even those who do not practice the religion, are given the same consideration and loyalty as those who are members of the coven. Following an overruling tenet that we are all "children of the Goddess" even our relatives who meet our beliefs with hostility receive protection and prayer the same as an active member of the coven.
I also respect the hierarchy of dedicant to first degree, first degree to second, second to third and so on. Each person has a series of new concepts and duties to learn, and each degree level works with all degrees "below" it.
This only scrapes the surface of how my life intermingles with the dominant culture's; consequently, I need to analyze these before engaging two Christians in dialogue about their tenets. Before doing so, I need to place these reminders: First, Neo-Paganism is a highly individualistic and broad religion. What applies to me as a Traditional Wiccan does not apply to a person who practices outside of a coven, or practices with a non-Gardnerian theory based coven.Also, Wiccans are far from the only NeoPagans in the United States. The most recent group is the Discordian movement, a group of people who hide among academics and conspiracy theorists and make themselves cheerfully impossible to research.
Second, I am aware that Christianity shares this variety although as a religion it is not quite so individually oriented as Paganism (for this, interchangeable with Neo-Paganism). Every denomination has a slightly different take on the teachings of Jesus and the ideas of the Bible - some take the words of a little more literally than others.
At this point in the project, I am engaging interviews based on these assumptions about Christianity:
According to my research, based on childhood memory, interviews with several Christians and research on how secular culture assumes many parts of Christianity, I have come to a few of the following conclusions about Christianity in mainstream culture. The first is that, for the most part, Christians see themselves as individuals separate from the Christian church, and the church and its clergy are seen as primarily one entity. The church, for the most part, is not their answer to moral and ethical questions although its teachings and the teachings of the Judeo-Christian Bible, both apocryphal and King James version play a part in decision making, particularly during crises. Out of five Christians interviewed, none stated that they took the Bible literally. Four said that they used bits and pieces as they applied to modern life. "The Bible is a guide because I believe that Jesus at the time was a good man who did good deeds. The FIRST stories about Jesus was written 70 YEARS after Jesus died. I believe that Jesus was the son of God but some if not most stories were blown out of proportion buy the time they reached paper, " explained one respondent as to how the Bible is used.
- The majority of people in the United States are Christian.
- Most Christians will perceive my religion as evil because of its break with mainstream values, its refusal to dominate nature and its overt occult associations.
- What a person knows of Wicca in particular will be at best very general and likely based on television and film depicting witches (another term for Wiccans) as imaginary creatures or individuals with strange "powers".
The viewpoint reflected what all respondents said -- each respondent willingly ignores specific sections of the Bible, usually the Old Testament, excepting the ten commandments, and Revelations. The Old Testament wasn't used, according to one respondent's reasoning, because it had no connection to modern life. According to another respondent, Revelations wasn't used because it depicts an angry and judging God who has no relationship to that person's concept of Christianity's God.
According to Kluckhorn's model, Christianity as it was described to me by interviewees indicated that Christians as a group see human nature as basically evil, but entirely mutable. Based on the Creation story of the Garden of Eden, the respondents largely believe that man was once neither good nor evil, but totally innocent of either until the streak of disobedience came into the first man and woman. If a person accepts Jesus Christ into his or her life, then the person is put back to this neutral mutable state where the individual still has the capacity for good or evil, but now has the guarantee of good end so long as the sin meets correction.
How each person goes about accepting Jesus Christ varies from denomination to denomination. Usually this takes place as part of the sacraments, referred to later. Sometimes the choice depends on a crisis event or an epiphany within the individual's life, as referred to by two respondents.
With the Protestants interviewed, this usually occurred after some exploration within Protestant denominations. "I was baptized in the Episcopal and then Presbyterian churches through high school, without making any overt commitment during that period. After many years of study and experience in exploring other religions/philosophies (without commitment) I decided at the age of 34 to formalize my commitment as a Christian, " said a female Episcopal seminary student.
Also, using biblical backing from Genesis, Christians believe that man is to subjugate nature because it is a gift from God. There is a Bible verse indicating that God gave Noah dominion over the animals and that he was consequently allowed to eat them. This value is not as powerful among modern groups; among Christian congregations it seems there are some vegetarians and environmental sympathizers who believe that the Earth is their dominion in stewardship only (statements from interviews).
The social relations within Christianity also largely reflect lineality, particularly among Catholic, Methodist and Evangelical denominations. Some churches, like the United Church of Christ, do use collateral decision making but even this is couched within a hierarchy of elders (observations). Part of the social relations focus on rituals that mark coming of age and maturing in Christian faith. These rituals, reflect a mix of the values and expectations of each individual within the church by the church, and on another value, the expectations of the family members within the church(observations). The respondents who were involved with churches (4 out of 5) all described roughly different levels of priesthood as the final level, where individuals ascend through leadership roles in the church.
The first sacrament, baptism, involves the naming of the child and the agreement of his or her parents to raise him/her as a Christian. This reflects strongly on the value of authoritarian lineality within the Christian church: a child is expected to believe as is parents do, based on their authority regarding religion. Within this view there is an implicit denial of other choices regarding religious belief. This sacrament is so important that some denominations will actually require adults newly recruited as members of their congregation to undergo baptism again, being "born again" according to this tradition so that they totally submit to the authority of the church as well as to Christianity. One respondent refers to making a conscious choice to be saved at the age of five.
The next, first communion, sometimes comes with confirmation. First communion gives some reflection of time sense within the Christian church, although again, this varies. The communion involves drinking red wine or grape juice and eating bread as a symbolic gesture of the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth, called Jesus Christ . The Catholic church in particular believes that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of the actual Jesus, although some practitioners do not agree with this. One even stated that the wine only has a metallic taste because of the goblets it is served in. How communion bread and wine is dispensed actually colors the tradition of each church and sometimes each denomination; some insist communion be taken as a group lined up at the altar, while other groups distribute individual servings of bread and wine down the aisles (observation).
The confirmation is the time when an individual takes vows to be responsible for his/her own Christian faith. This is regarded as becoming an adult in the church and is a form of "coming of age". Within some families confirmation marks off the time when a person can drink alcoholic beverages and can usually decide for him/herself whether or not to attend church (observation).
There is also a sacrament of reconciliation within the Catholic church, where sins are confessed to a priest. When a Catholic respondent was told that Protestant churches usually do not engage in reconciliation, seeing confession as a private issue, the respondent expressed surprise. In all other denominations interviewed, this did not occur - - sins were to be spoken about directly with a male God in private prayer.
Upon study of Christian values and commonalities with Wicca, I found the following: Christians went to church as much for the social contact as they did for the religious leadership. One respondent, when asked about the type of people who attended church, talked about watching three 70 year old women who bickered all the way through the service every Sunday. Another respondent observed that since her parish is in an inner- city area, there are several homeless and elderly attendees who will often choose not to interact; at the same time, a parish she goes to in a more affluent area offers more modernistic services called "folk masses" and a younger group of people who socialize more.
The respondent's reaction to questions about witchcraft and the occult varied from total ignorance to sincere interest. When asked about what Witchcraft was, one respondent didn't know but responded with mild interest and amusement when I explained that I am a Witch . Three respondents already had some awareness of Witchcraft as a religion, although two mis-defined occult as "cult" and one stated she didn't know what the occult meant anymore, except that it had something to do with the meaning of "hidden."
Based on observations and interviews, I discovered a Christian's tolerance of other religions depends on the following factors; his/her church doctrines, his/her interpretation of the Bible (literal or symbolic), his/her level of education and/or curiosity about other belief systems and his/her positive or negative experiences with exposure to people of other faiths.
Most responded that beliefs based on other religions were really "all the same" although all generally followed that their clergy would emphatically disagree and it was not information they would express within their own churches. Questions about other Gods, or such possibilities, were usually not answered or caused visible discomfort.
Using this understanding of Christian beliefs and values based upon the statements of the respondents, there might be room for interfaith dialogue but such dialogue is entirely dependent on whether the individual Christian's doctrine would allow it. Dialogue is entirely possible with adherents to more liberal Calvinist Protestant churches and among some orders of Catholic priests. Fundamentalist churches, where much of the values onfocused on a war ideology have already designed their dogma and doctrine to prevent dialogue, including pamphlets on lectures on the dangers of opening the mind to "new age" and "satanic" influences (observation and interviews).
If interfaith dialogue is to take place, I recommend a few compromises. Negotiation can not take place until later in the process because both religions have standard assumptions and attitudes that must be set aside before any constructive interaction can take place (Wilmot and Hocker, 198). Both groups should know, always, that political perspectives should stay out of the discussion (Wilmot and Hocker, 131). Politics and religion are two hot topics. Mix them and neither party will ever cover a full issue.
Second, both the Christian and the Pagan need to know that on religious issues, no resolve ideology is possible. No one can win or lose - -even though both have strong faith and direct spiritual experience, knowing God or Goddess or the Messiah can not be proven empirically so it must remain an unknown (observation). Violent behavior on any grounds, but particularly based on religious belief, is unacceptable.
Neither Christianity nor Paganism genuinely endorses violence (observation). Consequently, spiritual warfare serves no purpose. Violence does include verbal and emotional violence, as well. Even though parties may disagree on beliefs, both are entitled to human dignity. Comparing ideology and theology is acceptable; proving one better than the other is offensive.
As part of this compromise, the following suggestions are made to each group. Gardnerian Wiccans, when engaging in an interfaith dialogue, will need to compromise on the following:
Christians, when ready to engage will have to face the following challenges:
- The possibility of going to hell. As a religion that supports "no one true way" it must also support the possibility that all of us could, indeed, be wrong
- Be aware that the secrecy of the religion has contributed to its bad reputation among those who do know of it. We haven't forgotten the Inquisition, but we also haven't written it down. We don't have squat to back up our story, and we don't have squat to prove whether we do or don't engage in the behaviors we do. Although most Wiccans have at some time held public rituals, they have still been harassed from complete lack of understanding about what they were doing. Bigotry has no justification, but neither does refusing to comply with the law by simply explaining basics. After all, the basics aren't secret.
- Acknowledge that historical evidence indicates a Jesus of Nazareth did exist and was imprisoned. There was a real person out there, somewhere, whose followers impacted the culture. No one knows if he really walked on water or if it was a metaphor for what happened after drinking strangely fermented wine. But somebody named Jesus did something interesting enough that he's a religion now.
- Myth is not valid history. Gimbutas and Stone do draw interesting paradigms, and myths certainly help us teach our beliefs to our adoptees. But we can't in truth claim them and we don't really know if they're the whole of what happened, either.
A healthy attitude for both groups, or a healthy motto, might be: there can be peace without resolution. A good way to begin a dialogue involves one group explaining its practices to the other group. Although Wiccans have familiarity with Christianity, denominations do apply different meanings behind their sacraments that are not common throughout Christianity and may place differing importance on seasons of Christianity, such as Pentecost. Wiccans should explain how sexual mores differ and are the same as Christianity, particularly with the focus on monogamy in Gardnerian Wicca.
- Do not attempt to convert a Wiccan to Christianity. Wiccans do not proselytize or recruit new Wiccans. As a religion of calling, those who are meant to practice Witchcraft find it somehow or are born into it and those who don't practice other religions. Attempts to convert to another religion is viewed as a form of psychic rape; it indicates an attitude of dominance and superiority that treads on free will. Free will, to a Wiccan, is sacred and violating it is a Wiccan's strongest concept of sin.
- Try to tolerate a new paradigm. Even among liberal Christian denominations, some clergy preach about the dangers of "opening the mind to Satan". Used as examples are "so-called white witchcraft" or "Wicca" usually grossly mispronounced by the person behind the pulpit (observation). Take some time to learn from a Wiccan what Wiccans do instead of asking a Christian. Much work takes place even now to clear the rumors and falsehoods.
- Exclude Bible passages as argument supports (observation). Supporting philosophy through biblical quotes makes sense when comparing theology among Christian denominations. A Wiccan will find reliance on a book silly and annoying when nature surrounds both of you as a source -- and nature, thus far, isn't quotable. For interfaith discussion, the Bible will have to remain an aside unless used to explore historical evidence with Biblical passage.
- There are parallels in Christian and Wiccan belief. The sacrifice of Jesus parallels the Sabbat mythology practiced by Witches on a yearly basis. Be aware that because of this parallel, Wiccans will treat perceptions of Jesus as mythological truth instead of factual truth.
- Christianity may not be perceived as a more logical or more superior religion by non- Christians.
- Witches survived the Inquisition. They are real. They are not going away.
The following topics might be good for Christians to speak on when providing background: for Catholic speakers in particular, any understanding of the Inquisition and its original intent would help. Also, most Wiccans today were raised Christian or practiced a duality of family witchcraft and attended churches to participate in their community --they know the basics of Eucharist, confirmation and the 10 Commandments -- if possible, talk about what they mean on a personal level. The "be-attitudes" expressed in the New Testament also closely parallel many of the values of the Wiccan religion, starting with the Wiccan ritual statement, "Blessed be!"
Wiccans in particular should explain the basics of the Pagan religion. If possible, set up an altar with the tools commonly used. Since Wiccans do use what most states classify as illegal weapons as ritual implements, explaining how they are used certainly reduces the fear factor when an unwitting Christian goes for a walk in the woods and sees someone running naked in a circle waving a dagger in the air. Talk about the deities and Pagan history and visualization and why Christians associate the Horned God so closely with Satan. Talk about ethical questions and how Wiccans confront them using the Wiccan Rede. The dialogue following this can cover different approaches to common beliefs and different approaches to those beliefs.
Christians and Wiccans together can discuss the nature of God, even within Christian denominations that adhere strictly to the concept of a male god (interviews). Both Christians and Wiccans struggle with understanding the relationship of human beings to divinity. Both work with ways to express their faith in everyday life. Comparing rituals and finding how meanings look the same can also facilitate discussion -- the blood and body of the Eucharist parallels with the fertility and sacrifice of the Sabbat and cycles and the nature of sacrifice itself can add to dialogue.
Healing through prayer, both spiritual and physical also can lead to discussion of the power of prayer and its psychological effect on practitioners of either religion. Through these discussions, Wiccans and Christians will likely find that they have some of the following elements in common:
It is my belief that Christians do form the majority of United States society and consequently affect the culture, particularly since among the first of the Caucasians to come to North America were Christians seeking freedom for their own views and practices. I do feel that there still exists an atmosphere of persecution towards non-Christians in the United States, and some intra-faith persecution as well, where Christian denominations claim all other denominations are damned. I hope that the ideas in this paper establish a comfort level, an area of understanding for two or more faiths to co-exist peacefully. I repeat the motto suggested: there can be peace.
- Wiccans and Christians are both Creationists. Both believe strongly in protecting children.
- Because of the Wiccan belief in reincarnation and free will even before birth, most are at least morally pro-life, as are all of the Christians interviewed for this paper. Although it appears that the Wiccan statement "Do as ye will, an ye harm none, " looks passive, it is as proactive as the ten commandments. Wiccans are expected to perform good works -- if they want good karma , they do good works.
- Dialogue is possible. Both Gardnerian Wicca and Christianity in its modern form have elements that allow for discussion. If both parties want to attempt it, the rules introduced in this paper do make it possible.
Hocker, Joyce L. and Wilmot, William W. Interpersonal Conflict. McGraw-Hill. Madison, Wisconsin, 1998.
Lustig, Myron W. and Koester, Jolene. InterculturalCompetence:Interpersonal Communication Across Cultures. 3rd ed. Longman, New York, 1999.
Levine, Bassis Gelles. Sociology: An Introduction. Random House. New York, 1980.
Smith, Shelly, PhD. Lectures on Intercultural Communication, Jan 1999-April 1999.
Interviews on Christianity:
(at the request of all respondents, data revealing their identity is withheld.)
Also, observations made from talking casually to Christians and from attending about 10+ types of church services and masses over a period of five years used in this paper. (Some information drawn from personal journals).
- 1 Catholic
- 1 Evangelical
- 1 Episcopal minister
- 1 Independent self-identified Christian
- 1 Pentecostal
Location: San Francisco, California
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