A problem I have with Neil Gaiman’s “American God’s” is that the book and TV series do not give nearly enough credit to the staying power of the old gods. Mars, the god of war, is still worshipped by many Americans, as is Hermes, the god of commerce and communication, and Vulcan, the god of technology. But the goddess Libertas, the goddess of freedom, she virtually reigns supreme, evidenced not least by the homage given to her enormous statue in New York and the daily invoking of her name in American discourse. We may not make the connections as automatically as in the past but they still persist.
A problem with classifying world views as polytheistic or monotheistic or atheistic is that we’re not always using the word theos, that is, god, in the same way. Monotheistic worldviews that emphasise the oneness of God have rarely excluded concurrent belief in angels. Which begs the question: how exactly do we differentiate angels in monotheism from gods in polytheism?
In my experience the difference between polytheistic gods and monotheistic angels is less stark than we’ve made it. In fact I am inclined to suggest their equivalence and assert what monotheists call God is more akin to what polytheists have at times referred to as the unknowable god or formative chaos or ultimate reality from which all gods emerged.
This ambiguity besets dialogue between monotheists and atheists also. For not only are atheists mistakenly inclined to draw an equivalence between the God of monotheists and the gods of polytheists, but I have met many who identified as atheist whilst still holding to belief in angels without seeing any problem with that self identification.
I actually find the Dryghten closer to my understanding of YHWH than the various gods of Paganism. I found this Wiccan blessing particularly interesting:
“In the name of Dryghtyn, the Ancient Providence,
Who was from the beginning and is for eternity,
Male and Female, the Original Source of all things;
all-knowing, all-pervading, all-powerful;
“In the name of the Lady of the Moon,
and the Lord of Death and Resurrection.
“In the name of the Mighty Ones of the Four Quarters,
the Kings of the Elements.
“Blessed be this place, and this time,
and they who are now with us.”
In the western imagination YHWH and his messiah have most often been equated with Zeus, lord of the sky, and Apollo, his light giving son … or is it sun?
And yet, the scriptures again and again speak YHWH as Lord of earth, sky and sea and everything in them. Would it not be just as apt to imagine Jesus in terms of Dionysus, whom Greeks thanked for wine, or Demeter, whom Greeks thanked for bread? After all, the ancient Isaelites saw YHWH as Lord of the harvest and Jesus spoke of God’s harvest often enough!
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)
And I tell you that interacting with contemporary Pagans has given me greater appreciation for just how often the messianic Jews of the New Testament encountered and engaged with Greek mythology. Too often we skip over the explicit references to Hades (too many to mention), Tartarus (2 Peter 2), Artemis (Acts 19), Zeus and Hermes (Acts 14) and the more oblique references to Ares (Acts 17) and the Gemini twins (Acts 28) without a second thought to the mythological subtext. Yet they are all worth meditating on.
It makes me wonder, if Jesus had lived in India (now don’t start), would he have dropped mythopoetic references to Kali and Shiva instead? If the apostles Barnabas and Paul had journeyed through Scandinavia instead of Lystra, would they have been mistaken for Thor and Odin instead?
Maybe if we let our imaginations run free we may even see ways to engage more sensitively and substantially with the mythologies of our culture!
Personally I practice a very eclectic approach to Christianity. This is how I often answer NeoPagans who ask me about it:
I see plenty of justification for a flexible approach to Christianity in the New Testament. Indeed, the apostle Paul went so far as to insist on multiple occasions that getting hung up on STYLE undermined the SUBSTANCE of the gospel. As long as Christ is kept central, I can’t see any reason why Christians should not be very free with more peripheral aspects of Christian practice and teaching. Personally I have no issue of Christians greeting with “Blessed Be” as Jesus “blessed” others all the time, most notably when he gave the Sermon on the Mount. I have used mead in communion and worshipped in the round, in the open air, on multiple occasions. Of course, keeping Christ central requires us to reframe practices at times, before they are fully suitable for Christian use. But on the whole I would say cultural eclecticism is a very Christian thing. That’s one of the reasons why Christianity is so multi-cultural today.
Many people think of Christo-Paganism as an odd offshoot of Neo-Paganism, but it is far more common than that. Here is what Christian anthropologist Paul Hiebert had to say about syncretism and Christo-Paganism in Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices:
The danger in responding to folk religions is not so much heresy as it is syncretism — combining elements of Christianity with folk beliefs and practices in such a way that the gospel loses its integrity and message. The problem here is not with old religious beliefs, but with the underlying assumptions on which they are built. The gospel must not only change beliefs, but also transform worldviews, otherwise the new beliefs will be reinterpreted in terms of the old worldviews. The result is Christo-paganism. One important area needing transformation is that of the magical mentality that dominates most folk religions. If this is not challenged, Christianity will be seen as a new and superior magic. This magical tendency is not restricted to traditional religionists. It is just below the surface in all fallen human beings. Magic makes them gods because it gives them control over nature, supernatural powers, and even God, through the practice of the proper rites. This was the experience of Simon (Acts 8:9–24) the magician who, seeing the miracles of Philip, Peter, and John, wanted to buy their kind of power with money. Peter severely rebuked him for his old magical worldview. Simon repented, but he had learned a hard lesson—the gospel cannot be reinterpreted in other worldviews. It brings with it its own worldview that supersedes all others. Magic is the opposite of Christianity. In magic humans are in control. In Christianity they are called to submit unconditionally to God and his will. The difference between the two is not in practice. It is in attitude. Magic is formulaic and mechanistic. Christianity is based on worship and relationships. Prayer is magic if supplicants believe they must say the right things in right tone of voice accompanied by certain right actions to be assured of the right answers. It is worship when they kneel before God and cast their cares on him. The difference is often subtle. Christians can begin to pray seeking God’s help, but, when the answer is delayed, unconsciously begin to become coercive in their attitudes. They can read Scripture to learn and grow, or to gain merit that earns them their desires. Some carry Bibles in their pockets, confident that these, like amulets, will protect them from harm. Engaging worldviews is not only the task of new Christians in non-Christian contexts. The danger of becoming captive to non-Christian worldviews is as great or greater among followers of Christ who live in the West where Christian assumptions still often dominate. They are in danger of reinterpreting the gospel in terms of their own cultural categories—of equating it with Western civilisation, material prosperity, individualism, human rights, and freedom.
What is your view on moral absolutes?
I ask this because I have heard different things from different quarters. For example, former Pagan Carl McColeman has said, “while some Pagans might choose to believe in the existence of metaphysical principles like good and evil, others argue that such principles are useless or could even be harmful, for example if used to attack or malign others unfairly.” In a similar vein, Pagan blogger Gus diZerega wrote recently of “the Christian dichotomization of reality into good and evil” in a way which more or less implies that such dichotomies don’t sit easily with Pagan traditions.
I ask this because I have a more personal question:
In your view, were the burning times absolutely evil or just relatively evil?
I ask this because without hesitation I would say “Yes, the burning times were absolutely evil!” Don’t ever hear me saying otherwise. Yet if I take statements like those above at face value, I can’t see how you could agree with me without falling into logical and moral inconsistency. Yet, this doesn’t seem right either, as I know how strongly many of you feel about this issue, how many of you feel persecuted even today and earnestly wish for Christians to (dare I say it) repent from it. Hence my confusion.
So I ernestly wish to know, for those that this applies to: how do you reconcile your intellectual aversion to moral absolutes with your emotional response to religious persecution?
MailOnline has published a fascinating series of images from a Neopagan Imbolc ceremony in the UK. It’s well worth checking out.
There are a couple of interesting posts on the Christian origins of Wiccan rituals over at Pantheon. See Is Wicca a Christian Heresy? and The Watchtowers and Abrahamic Wicca. I’m glad this is coming from a member of the Pagan community. It echos my own surprise upon first reading the earlier Golden Dawn rituals, on how Christian they sounded in comparison to later forms of Paganism.