Beliefnet
A Pagan's Blog

The first open thread is wonderful.  I will try and stay out of these open threads, but occasionally ‘mine’ some themes for my own purposes.  This is one of them.

I want to reverse one of the arguments given by a Christian participant: that Christians have unity because they agree on doctrine.  They are curious as to how we have any coherence as a community when we have so little in the way of common beliefs. Except the story of Christian unity isn’t true.


Even when people agree on the words (and there are different Bibles and different translations of the ‘same’ Bible out there), they never seem to agree on what the words mean.  

What does scripture really say?  The early church was filled with different perspectives until the Roman state crushed groups the dominant group termed ‘heretical.’  But the unity that followed was not one of belief, it was one of power.  Whenever freedom of interpretation raised its head for one reason or another, schisms developed.  Always.  Freedom of at least the Christian religion has been longest established in the US, and far from there being any tendency towards unity, we have more sects than anywhere else on the globe.  

Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has recently published Jesus Interrupted, focusing on the enormous number of quite significant out and out contradictions in the New Testament.  The Old Testament is no better.  Any contradiction can be interpreted in at least two ways, and so the tendency for belief to fragment is inherent in the written word.  Faith or good works?  Or a mix?  People died in droves over a point that basic, let alone others such as the nature of the Eucharist, because most Christian leaders have always insisted its unity must be doctrinally based.

I think this internal differentiation is inherent in any religion.  The difference is that with Pagan religions no one seems to mind very much.  Christians, for all their talk of honoring the individual, seem uniquely threatened when some individuals read their sacred texts differently from others.  

Until I needed to move away for a teaching position, for many years I was a member of a Gardnerian coven.  We had very low turnover and interestingly, a very high rate of people who interpreted what we did in very different ways.  Some were Neoplatonists and saw what they did through that perspective.  Others were influenced by Carl Jung and his theory of archetypes.  Others saw what they did in a more Celtic framework.  Others through a more shamanic perspective.  More than one had been powerfully influenced by ritual magic.

We never had a disagreement that I can remember on the meaning of what we did.  We worked together harmoniously and when problems arose, they were ones rooted in personalities, not disagreements over doctrine.  Our practices were devotional and practical, never theoretical.  This has been the case with Pagan religions world-wide.

When belief matters more than practice, the seeds of oppression and even totalitarianism are sown.  Modern totalitarianisms like Nazism and Communism were secular religions demanding unity of belief while over turning the ‘old order.’  Conformity of practice was not enough.  The roots of this attitude, this making of new men and women by force, were in the erlier demands of the Church for conformity in thought as well as deed.  I think the first revolutionary totalitarian movement of modern times was the Taiping Rebellion in China.  It was Christian, and initially supported by Christian powers.  20 million people died.  

Virtually everywhere it has existed Pagan traditions have been unified by common practices.  The term ‘Pagan” arose when Christians used it to describe those people who practiced the old ways.  Initially Pagans themselves never used that term.  Their religious practices had grown up in the process of people living their lives and dealing with the issues that arose the confront them, 

But the Christians who came up with the term had a point.  ‘Pagans’ were different from themselves, and those differences held together as a way of relating to the sacred that eschewed doctrine and monopoly and coercion to follow a single path.  Once conformity was no longer an issue, religions could arise to address whatever problems and spiritual encounters people experienced. 

The logic of Pagan spirituality is compatible with the logic of a free society.  Unfortunately the logical consequences of Christian claims to monopolize truth is not.  That is why political freedom had to await the expulsion of religion from politics, and is threatened whenever t tries to re-enter as the senior partner.

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