Christians and the New Pagans

Nicola Hoggard Creegan

 

We can see twelve billion years back into the past, and we have almost completely decoded our own DNA. Scientists are devising increasingly complex models for the workings of the brain, and can send probes far into space. We are in control. At the same time, surprisingly, there is a groundswell of something very old, and apparently irrational in scientific terms - paganism.

Today as paganism is increasing, Christians read the New Testament with renewed interest. Paul acknowledged links with the worship of the unknown God, and did not demand that pagans adopt the culture and ritual of Judaism. What can we learn from Paul? What is the good news in a world that is becoming more pagan? Where are the points of continuity with Christian faith, and where is there conflict?

On the one hand, pagans themselves sometimes define the difference. In Daniel Quinn's very popular novel The Story of B, for example, the hero expounds at great length on the perils of Christian faith and the need for a return to a pre-Christian, pagan animism. More than any Christian proselytiser, he draws Christianity and paganism into antagonistic contrast.

On the other hand Ian Bradley, speaking appreciatively of the pre-Christian Celts, argues that "their pagan past almost certainly helped them to grasp the idea of the Trinity and the mystery of God who is both one in three and three in one."1 Christian fantasy writers C S Lewis, Tolkien and Madeleine L'Engle also make connections between pagan and Christian belief.

Who is right? Are paganism and Christian faith in conflict, or is this resurgence of faith in an old spirituality grounds for optimism?

Neopaganism is an attempt to rediscover the old religions displaced when Christian faith moved into European and tribal cultures. Some of its appeal is environmental - advocates like Quinn blame the Christian legacy for the ecological crisis, and our estrangement from nature. Paganism also covers a wide range of beliefs and practices, from nature god or goddess worship to finding god in the self, or in the energies of nature. It ranges from antagonism to Christian faith to quiet coexistence or a syncretistic blending of the two.

But paganism is attractive to many people because it is easily accessible, largely non-institutional, and countercultural, and perhaps because it imposes so few social obligations and taboos. Whatever its cause this newly emergent paganism is a genuine search for a lost spirituality and for hidden historical and natural connections.

Christians, however, find this resurgence of paganism confusing because it has been spreading successfully without any institutional presence or proselytising zeal. Where does all this come from? Confusing also is the fact that pagans are often more spiritual and more open to religious experiences than are Christians.

Where are neopagans found? If neopagans have no institutional presence where do we go to find them? A few months ago neopagans throughout North America staged a day in the open, publicly gathering to commune with nature and make their presence known. And in Wellington last year pagan wiccans held a winter solstice meeting that was reported in the news.

But paganism more often has little public presence, though according to anthropologist Dr Kathryn Rountree, there are at least a thousand self-identified witches in New Zealand.2

Your local bookshop is a good place to find traces of paganism. Most bookshops will have special new age sections featuring books on alternative spirituality including references to the goddess phenomenon. Children's fantasy and video games designed for children are also turning to pagan themes, as are books on ecology and the environment - and even many novels.

In a resort bookshop recently I found three categories, fiction, non-fiction and new age. The bibles were in the new age section, along with Tolkien, Celtic spirituality, homeopathy, other fantasy and more truly new-age speculation. (A few miles away in Russell, Pomapallier House is testimony to the extraordinary sacrifices missionaries endured to bring the Bible in Maori to a pagan world a century and a half ago.) This conflating of all spiritualities certainly reflects our current market, but it also reflects a considerable confusion and superficiality that bears little resemblance to the original power of either pagan or Christian religion.

Religions are sometimes treated as interchangeable weak forces, to be blended together for better effect. Paganism has become just one among many of these weak forces, confounding the problem of locating its centre.

Similar trends

There are many other trends that seem to be working in tandem with the neopagan movement. Contemporary science brings us technological control and efficiency - but cosmology and atomic physics also take us to the edge of what we can understand or 'map'. No longer can we envisage the world as a neat machine wound up by a benign deity. Rather we see nature as strange, and thus mysterious.

Feminists have described how the western tradition has labelled women as nature-bound and inferior. Because of this some women have established a solidarity with nature, nature religions, and other oppressed nature-bound forms. Then there are women breaking free from traditional support systems and institutions who often seek spirituality elsewhere - in the new age and neopagan ritual and symbol - safely far from the father god of their Christian roots or Christian heritage.

Neopaganism is encountered in the Maori, Aborigine and American Indian renaissance, with the rediscovery of a heritage that belonged spiritually to a particular place and time, and which appears to have had a more benign relationship with the environment than ours. At a recent conference I attended an aboriginal woman testified: "I have Jesus in my heart, and the Dreaming." She went on to talk about how easily she identified with the whole Old Testament world, not something commonly said by a convert to Christianity.

Today there is an unprecedented searching after our roots and our history which goes much beyond the religious. We want to know about our ancestors - history and genealogy/whakapapa matter to us. The fact that bitter warfare like that in the Holy Land or in Eastern Europe can escalate over events that date hundreds of years or even millennia or more back, shows us that our sense of 'difference' and 'identity' has roots in the distant past. Part of this search for our history is in our pagan ancestry, whether it be Celtic, Anglo Saxon or Maori.

In the continuing debate over science and religion, we are moving towards a more dynamic understanding of God's presence both in the world and over and beyond the world. At the same time the close connections between humans and animals are becoming evident as animal intelligence is being discovered and researched alongside the ongoing study of the nature of human intelligence and consciousness. The ecological crisis, too, has forced us to look again at nature and its precarious beauty - to recognise that we may be inducing a planet-wide extinction of life.

All of this is part of a trend that is much wider than neopaganism. A trend that is inclined to see God in the world, to rediscover the sacred in nature - to 're-enchant' the natural world in a way that does justice to its God-drenched and God-derived nature.

Neopagan spirituality

Thus neopaganism, to the extent that it can be defined, is not basically negative. Thomas Cahill, for example, has shown us in How the Irish Saved Civilisation that Patrick - the Christian missionary to Ireland - chose to work with concepts that were already part of pagan Irish culture. The result was a rich incarnational spirituality in which the pre-Christian concepts of trinity and sacrifice were transformed by Christian faith rather than supplanted.

The Irish, like the New Zealand Maori, renounced revenge or utu when they converted to Christ. Too often a concern that people believe in the right spirits, or the right doctrines, has supplanted an understanding of the heart of the gospel and its demand for grace, love, hope and forgiveness.

Pagans are right in pointing to the vulnerabilities of the church and its long engagement with technological western culture. Perhaps the great pagan strength parallels a weakness in western technological society. Neopagan and Eastern religious spirituality often works toward restoring balance or harmony, and attempts to see the person holistically. In contrast, western scientific reductionism is more often preoccupied with an emphasis on the sin or the disease at the expense of the whole person or the health of communities.

We seem to have some sort of dim collective memory of the force nature must have been in the lives of our ancestors. Green parties, environmental work and our propensity to 'go bush' in order to get away from it all, are evidence of nature's continuing lure.

Pagan belief and practice attempts to dig deeper, turning back the clock on the centuries of technological intervention which have deprived us of nature's rhythms. Even in our incarnational religion the sacraments are our only ritual contact between the spiritual and the physical and in these we often struggle to find meaning.

The trinitarian God and nature

Are there any reasons, then, for going beyond nature? Is paganism enough? After all, a friend of mine who does organic gardening says all her friends are witches, and they are most content to leave well alone. She can be a Christian, but they continue privately with their pagan rituals.

Along with a pagan respect for the mystery, power and spirituality of nature, however, was a belief that we were bound by nature's laws - its cycles and its ultimate death. But monotheism has freed us from this despair. It has given us hope grounded in the promise of God's reign and the salvation of human and material existence in the fullness of time.

The challenge the church faces, then, is to continue to strive for communication with and from God - to keep alive the inclination to be attuned to, and listening for, the Word of God. We should not be content with merely recognising God's hand in nature - thus giving nature itself the status of a god. Rather we should continue to search beyond nature as we reach out to a God who is transcendent, incarnate and immanent.

We should expect to find the Spirit of the Christian trinitarian God in nature, but this communal God should also draw us out of ourselves and nature into relationship and nurture. The Christian God does not just direct us to nature, but promises us that all things - the powers and principalities, and the social and political spheres - will eventually be redeemed in the promised kingdom of God. Nature, human community, the world and the cosmos are all God's concern.

Biblical faith may have tempted us to dominion and control over nature and animal and plant life, but in its transcendent, moral orientation it has also inspired us to preach the good news, to visit the sick and those in prison, send emissaries to foreign countries at great personal cost, or start and maintain the institutions that build societies.

The church prays for the world, makes space for repentance and transcendence, practises hope in the face of death and decay, and breaks the power of revenge or utu in Jesus' name.

Making connections with pagan people

For a growing number of people the church door is a barrier. Even Jesus would retire to the countryside to pray, not the temple.

As we go out from our churches to make contact with the world, a different form of gospel proclamation will be required. It will be helpful for us to rediscover emphases that provide some connection with paganised people - the wisdom literature in Scripture, the deep Hebraic connection to nature, and the ubiquity of nature images for God, Spirit and Kingdom.

And to remember that, strangely, at the heart of the Christian story is the visit of the eastern magi: a reminder that God in Christ was being clearly recognised and responded to by some who were not part of the covenant people.

Two thousand years ago these kings, who were both scientists and seers, were able to link Christ to celestial events. The church's future may be in welcoming the three astrologer kings and their gifts, while guarding against the darker side of any pagan renaissance, offering Christ to a newly paganised community.

 

NOTES

1 Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way, (Darton Longman, 1993) p. 43

2 Quoted in an article in Stuff on the web at HYPERLINK http://www.stuff.co.nz October 31, Fairy Tale Image of Witches Paints a Wrong Picture, by Melanie Appleton and Dionne Christian.

New Zealander Nicola Hoggard Creegan has recently come home after 15 years of studying and teaching in the USA. After completing undergraduate work at Victoria University in pure and applied mathematics she did a Masters degree at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts and a PhD in theology at Drew University in New Jersey. Nicola was appointed lecturer in theology at the Bible College of New Zealand in July and is actively involved in research in science/religion/healing, and in feminist/evangelical theology.


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