Sunday, 26 February 2012

Christianity and Modern Paganism

I've been looking at people who like to blend Modern Pagan and Christian traditions. I think there is a good deal of value in both traditions, and each has something to learn from the other, but I think they should be kept distinct, and in some respects they complement each other. I don't think that hostility is good, as it invariably leads to efforts to purge one side or the other of insights that they might find valuable.

Of course, like the old Venn diagrams we used to have in school mathematics, they are like circles with an overlap; there is common ground. But each has its own distinctive nature and voice, and I've seen various attempts (from 2004) to combine the two - Christian Wicca, for example.

Fundamentally, there are inherent contradictions between (for example) the God / Goddess duality of Wicca and the Monotheism of Christianity. That's not to say that those can't be smoothed over, but what you have is something that is not quite Christianity or Wicca.

John Macquarrie (a writer I much admire) wrote "The Mediators" in which he looks at seven figures each in a different religious tradition whom could be called "mediators"; it's a clever choice - "saviours" wouldn't fit all the different people. Macquarrie likes that phrase both because he sees such persons as conduits of the transcendent and because it seems more inclusive (and less given to misunderstanding) than "saviour" or "prophet" or "sage." The "mediators" are Moses, Zoroaster, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Krishna, Jesus, and Muhammad.

In the book he tries to "put forward as faithfully and impartially as I can accounts of nine great mediators of the spiritual life, and in order to do this, I try to confine myself to facts and hypotheses which are open to my readers", and says he wants to show that these mediators all brought "to a group of human beings a new or renewed sense of holy Being" (again he finds a term which is more neutral than "God").

In it he wrote:

In 1964 I published an article entitled 'Christianity and Other Faiths'... [and] I continue to hold the views I expressed then... I believe that, however difficult it may be, we should hold to our own traditions and yet respect and even learn from the traditions of others. I drew the conclusion that there should be an end to proselytizing but that equally there should be no syncretism of the kind typified by the Bahá'í movement.

There will be no attempt to show that any one of [the mediators] is superior to the others... what has already been said... has shown the impossibility of any such judgment. No human being - and certainly not the present writer - has the exhaustive knowledge of the several mediators or the requisite criteria for making such a judgment. Neither does he or she have the detached situation that would enable a purely objective view of the question. Only God, I suppose, could make such a judgment.

I do not deny for a moment that the truth of God has reached others through other channels - indeed, I hope and pray that it has. So while I have a special attachment to one mediator, I have respect for them all and have tried to give a fair presentation of each.

In this respect, I think an analogy from language can be useful. Language users naturally borrow and adapt loan words from other languages, but they incorporate them into their language in such a way that it is still recognisably that language. English borrows extensively from everywhere, but is still English. Where French borrows from English, it remains French. That I think is like the way different religious traditions may borrow and adapt from each other - which is something we certainly see with Christianity in its long history.

A premature syncretism, in this model, is more like Esperanto. It is a language designed to be a universal language. But it is not universal, for the simple reason that languages don't work like that.

Macquarrie is against syncretism as such because he sees it as a method "prematurely merges the different traditions and is in grave danger of becoming shallow and sentimental." I think there's a degree of truth in that, which is why don't think it's a good idea to deliberately merge the traditions.

What I think a more deliberate syncretic approach will probably do is create something that inhabits a kind of no-mans land between Christianity and Paganism, and like a no man's land, it may be difficult for those inhabiting that space not to get criticism from both sides. Their language, like esperanto, will not be something which will be understandable by ordinary people. In that respect, it may end up more cut off than either tradition.

He also says "We have got to recognize that grace and revelation are present and universal. This, however, does not mean that all religions are to be merged into a syncretistic faith, for we cannot travel on all the roads at the same time."

1 comment:

Matt Stone said...

I like your Venn Diagram and Esperanto analogies. Matches my own thoughts. While there are points of overlap and potential agreement between the two traditions, that which is most core to each is often that which is most distinctive. Any syncretism is liable to create a third religion not a reconcilation between the two.