Joyce and River Higgenbotham have written a new book, ChristoPaganism,  that I think will interest any Pagan concerned with the broader boundaries of our community, or any Christian interested in the long-term compatibility of Pagan and Christian spirituality.

When I first received their book I was skeptical of what I would find.  Long time readers of this blog know I am very wary of any watering down of Pagan practice to make it fit more easily into our society.  In addition, I was perturbed by the absence of the best book by a Pagan I know of on modern Christianity and Paganism – my own.  Authors really hate being ignored!  We have egos . . .

But as I read ChristoPaganism my attitude changed.  They did not so much ignore my book as it was irrelevant to what they were about.  And what they are about is very interesting: exploring that portion of our community that is attracted to both Paganism and Christianity, and maintains some kind of serious involvement in each.

Their volume is divided into three parts, the first I like, the second I have serious reservations about, and the third I think is very important.  To a substantial extent I think these parts exist independently of one another.  

I will begin with Part Three, “The Living Landscape” which I think is of greatest interest to our community.  It was certainly the one that I learned the most from.  The Higgenbothams have interviewed many “ChristoPagan” practitioners who have self-identified themselves at various Pagan gatherings.  The authors skillfully blended these interviews into a very interesting account.  The personal histories their subjects related were often fascinating, and I was impressed with many respondents’ balanced and thoughtful answers to the questions they were asked.  These people reminded me that modern Paganism is primarily a community of practice and personal experience, and the experiences of many appear to be as rooted in direct encounter with the Sacred as my own.

While I know this at one level, my love of theory can sometimes get in the way of fully appreciating it.  Every theory is a simplification, and within its framework often the nonconforming details can disappear.  The theorist’s great weakness is to try and squeeze people’s experiences into models developed without knowledge of them.

Given that the Sacred far exceeds human comprehension, the fact that many found their personal path spiritually fulfilling carries more weight with me than my belief that, at the level of doctrine, Christianity and Paganism are like oil and water.  After reading ChristoPaganism I no longer look at ChristoPagans as people who simply want to hold on to what is familiar while ignoring its incompatibilities with what they want to do that is new.  It seems to be a good personal spiritual path. I still am skeptical, to say the least, that it can become much more than that, and if it does I think it will become Paganism with an honored place for Jesus as teacher and sacred spirit.

Part One, “The Outer Landscape,”is also valuable, as it gives an overview of critical scholarly work on the Bible, with a bibliography for further study. I would add the impressive work of Bart Ehrman to their list.   This is a complex area, as one might imagine, but their coverage appears judicious and offers a clear discussion of the contrasting views of scholars who think Jesus was real, and so explore the practices and beliefs of the early church, and those scholars who think that in the final analysis there is no convincing evidence he ever existed and Christianity’s roots are often in Pagan mystery religions.  Part One also has similarly fascinating discussions of the Old Testament, but I am not myself acquainted enough with scholarly work in this area to offer an opinion beyond saying it gave me much to think about.

I am less impressed with their efforts at finding a means to theoretically blend Christianity and Paganism.  This blog post is not the place to explore this issue very far, but from a Pagan perspective Jesus has to be demoted to a wise teacher, Western Christian concepts such as original sin and the fallenness of the world must be abandoned, and the virtually universal Christian claims to exclusivity of worship of either Yahweh or Jesus must be cast aside.  Is what remains Christianity in any sense?  I do not think so.  But if any of this remains I do not see how it can be legitimately labeled Pagan.

Finally, there is Part Two. “The Inner Landscape,” that seeks to situate Paganism in Don Beck and Christopher Cowan’s “Spiral Dynamics,”  developmental schema, with some other spirals added on top by Ken Wilber.   While human development is an extremely important subject, it is incredibly tricky to describe it in a way that does not subtly load the dice to suggest that whoever is doing the describing is on the top of the spiral or whatever the shape might be.  Or at least above those of us who need to hear the news.  This means the spiral of development can become an incredible ego trip, perhaps with disturbing political and spiritual implications.  That Wilber’s spiritual partner Andrew Cohen    could write “spiritual practice, in any other context except that of Liberation alone, may even become the enemy”   should give us pause as Pagans as to whether this is a reliable framework for us.  Certainly that has been my experience with followers of Ken Wilber, although Ken and I were on quite friendly terms the last we met.  Beck and Cowan appear to have had their own falling out.  

I will offer two assertions that I will not back up in this post.  First, I believe spiral dynamics is on more than simply shaky ground in attempting to equate stages of social development with stages of individual development.  Societies are not simply collectivities reflecting in some ways the psychological development of their members. If anything, they are co-evolutionary, or devolutionary.  

Second, ultimately this model has very anti-Pagan implications, for it leads to a uni-dimensional model of spiritual as well as psychological development that Wilber and his followers have used to argue we are all headed ultimately to union with the NonDual.  I will assert two quick points on this issue.  

In the absence of violence against ‘heretics’ the actual course of spiritual development among religions over time is differentiation, not movement towards some common focus on the NonDual.  This is true in Buddhism, Christianity, Paganism, and everywhere else the brutal hand of violence has not been used to crush people whose beliefs or practices differ from those holding the truncheon.  In addition, having myself experienced the NonDual, while I think it is truly beyond words, utterly wonderful, and in some sense the ground of being, it is not in any sense necessarily the end goal of spiritual or human development.  I believe the Higgenbothams are on risky ground trying to root their analysis in the spiral dynamic model.  

I will devote a post to all this stuff about Spiral Dynamics later, as it seems to be proliferating in spiritual discussions.  Indeed, the issue has already popped up in earlier discussions on this blog.  

Meanwhile, if you are interested in the richness of our path, and its relation to Christianity, Part Three is wonderful.  If you are interested in historical studies of the Bible by peop
le who do not start out automatically assuming it is sacred, Part One is a very good starting point. The Higgenbothams have contributed a worthy volume to the growing literature in our field.

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