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Neopaganism: Is Dialogue Possible?



© By Andrew J McLean

This article was originally published in the Lutheran Theological Journal, 36/3, December 2002, pp. 112-125. It is posted at Apologetics Index by permission.

See also: About This Article.

It is easy to parody another religion, and neopaganism is a parodist's delight. One can easily brand its ritual as primitive or just plain weird.

Yet serious apologetics requires that one exercise a hermeneutic of respect in the attempt to understand another faith.

St Paul obviously spent time with the Athenians, reading their poets and watching people at worship before daring to address them.1 Only in this way can Christians begin to dialogue with pagans.

We need to put aside fifteen hundred years of offhanded dismissal and listen to pagans as having something intellectually serious and spiritually viable to say. This does not mean agreeing with them but having enough respect to listen and learn.

What is Neo-Paganism?

The word pagan comes from the Latin term paganus, meaning a rustic or country dweller.2 Christianity in the early years spread most effectively in the cities, thus the 'country dwellers' were those who continued to worship the local gods and goddesses longer than their urban counterparts. The term pagan began to have negative connotations near the end of the third century when used to mean 'nonChristian', with overtones of evil and possibly of Satan worship.3 Obviously, it has kept its negative baggage to this day. Similarly, heathen is a Nordic word meaning 'one of the hearth' who worships the gods of the land. The term neopagan is applied to those who loosely base their spiritual and religious practice on pre-Christian nature religions of the West (Adler: xi).4

Numerous traditions and diverse beliefs and practices come under the generic classification of paganism. The secretary of the Pagan Alliance in SA and Coordinator of the Temple of the Dark Moon, explains:

It is almost impossible to formulate a consensus viewpoint on the various aspects of paganism because it is a religious or spiritual path that has little or no dogma . . . Paganism can be viewed as an 'umbrella' term, covering a variety of differing spiritual paths which are basically centered about honouring and respecting the Earth. That is so whether its followers attune themselves to the nature rhythms (energies), whether the sacred days of the Earth (such as the equinoxes and solstices) are celebrated, or whether a lot of the differing traditions incorporate or are based on stories of mythology.

The more popular traditions practised in Australia are Norse Paganism, Celtic Paganism, Dianic Witchcraft, Druidry, Environmental Paganism, Ethnic Paganism, Male Mysteries, Shamanism, Wicca and Witchcraft (Pagan Alliance: 3-5). These traditions vary enormously, from highly ritualised formal encounters with the divinity to an 'unconscious mode of acknowledging and communicating with Goddess and God' (Pagan Alliance: 7).

Neopaganism, in short, is a nature religion. It has no central organisation, creeds or beliefs, is largely non-institutional, anarchic, eclectic, and is not mediated. There are no gurus or masters. Neopagans are not involved in mission; they take a 'come and see' approach to their faith and ritual. Neopaganism is largely an urban phenomenon, and many of those attracted to it are tertiary educated, 'a curious mixture of humanistic intellectuals and technical intelligentsia' (St John: 115).5 Almost seventy-five per cent fall into the twenty to twenty-nine age group.6 Some pagans practise alone, some join covens or other organisations.

The Pagan Deities

Neopagan communities are defined not by adherence to creeds or beliefs but by experience, ritual and common goals. That they have no dogma does not mean that they have no beliefs. It means that they will never enforce these beliefs on anyone else. The choice not to believe commonly held positions is acceptable.

Most pagans are animists, believing that all things are 'imbued with vitality' (Adler: 25). They 'revere the divine (life) force which is contained ... within every part of the universe' (Pagan Alliance: 6). There is no separation of the animate from the inanimate; the earth is one with humans. The drawing power of this belief is that people can participate in nature much more fully and naturally 'in a way that is not possible for most westerners after childhood' (Adler: 25).

The worshipper who stands in front of a grove of trees does not worship the trees but sees in them a divinity. They are 'transparent windows to experience' (Adler: 27). The art of animism is simply to see the sacred in the profane. Many pagans are also pantheists. Since divinity cannot be separated from nature, deity is present in nature and humans are divine. Some pagans realise their divinity in ritual, others, such as those in the Church of All Worlds, who greet each other with 'Thou art God', see themselves as divine at all times.

Most neopagans affirm the existence of a pantheon of gods. Unlike the ancient gods, these gods are not in competition with each other but are archetypes of one god. This is the view of Essa,7 a Wiccan high priestess:

Ultimately all gods are one god. The manifold personifications of the One God allow many to seek truth in their own way. Whether that is through God, Goddess, Gaia, Great Spirit or the Universal Principal is immaterial. To further complicate the issue, the many aspects of god can each be honoured in their own way, too. As one of my students once said, 'The concept of God is too big for a mortal to contemplate in one lifetime, unless it is broken down into manageable pieces'. - Source: (personal email, 3/9/01)

This seems to be the majority view of pagans. Anthony Kemp, a British pagan, writes:

Over the centuries she [the goddess] has had many names: Diana, Isis, Astarte, Rhiannion, Cerridwen, Freya, Hecate, Ceres, Dana. The list is seemingly endless. Each goddess has her legends and her worshippers, but at base each remains an aspect of the primordial Earth Mother-she was, is and always will be. All versions of the goddess stem from her. (78)

Pagans are quite happy to invoke any gods that will help them; often they are indigenous spirits. Each god has his/her own individual characteristic. The god Pan, for instance, comes with a warning: 'He [Pan] is not a god to be trifled with or invoked in vain; if awakened, his power can unleash all sorts of misfortunes on unwise magicians' (Kemp: 81).8

Some neopagans believe that the gods are not real personalities but symbols (Adler: 35). Since the divine is beyond human understanding, humans create archetypes which reveal aspects of the truth. The archetype can come as myth in the forms of Herne, Diana, Mercury and Merlin, or of symbol as in Tarot, or in fantasy and science fiction.9 These imaginary symbols 'become endowed with power through centuries of worship and ritual' (Kemp: 77). Thus it is possible to worship the goddess and not actually believe in her. Some pagans see the archetypal god as a symbol for the divinity of self. The real reason for creating their own divinities is that 'we create mental steps for ourselves, up which we can mount toward realizing ourselves as divine' (Adler: 173). Other pagans see the goddess as a real supernatural identity (Kemp: 76). While some Wiccans see themselves as 'duotheists',10 the feminist Wicca group could be called monotheist, honouring only the goddess.

Christians have often mocked polytheistic and animistic views as primitive, but Margot Alder, an American pagan, sees polytheism as the superior world view (26). Animistic polytheism is the 'default' and foundational view for almost all ancient and tribal cultures. Monotheism is seen as an aberration but 'particularly useful in history when small groups of people wanted to control large numbers of people'. She claims that monotheism 'has been responsible for more human misery than any other idea in known history' (35).

Neopaganism as nonauthoritarian, anarchic

In neopaganism no one person or organisation can claim the truth.

The American School of Wicca has come under fire since it claims ultimate truth for some teachings.

Some traditions have high priests and high priestesses, but they are not gurus and they certainly do not mediate between gods and people. Gurus have no place in neopaganism; all are welcome to add to the tradition's wisdom and knowledge.

The term 'anarchic principle' sounds dangerous to most westerners but not to neopagans. Almost all neopagans subscribe to a single creed: 'Do as thou wilt, only harm none'. Anarchy is self-rule based on this creed.

The pagan ethic is applied to every situation in life. Speeding, adultery, drug use and even turning up one's stereo early in the morning would be regarded by many as doing harm. Thus the pagan ethic is responsible and moral.

Paganism as nature religion

Urban living has cut humans off from the cycles of nature: fertility, life and death. The genuine respect a neopagan holds for nature and its cycles is obvious. Earth is sacred because the deity is immanent.11

Pagans are opposed to the abuse of any individual and of nature, both animate and inanimate. For pagans, abuse of the land is abuse of their mother. Mother earth provides and cares for them; to harm her is to harm self, so pagans go to great lengths to protect their mother. Neopagans insist on the need 'to acknowledge through symbol and action their connection to nature' (St John: ch 7, 12).

Acute awareness of the earth and its adversaries causes many pagans to clash with the consumerist, materialistic world of the west.12

Neopagans strive for non-violence, nurture, social responsibility, global awareness, and responsible cooperative economics - all lacking in the capitalist west.

Many blame Christian culture that

seems to act as though the earth were merely raw material to be used up in getting somewhere else (either to heaven or to a golden future). Neopagans respond: We are at home here. Hence, the passionate protests to save forests or to celebrate rituals that attempt to connect participants with the cycles of nature [Paganism is] the spirituality of the ecological movement. (Kemp: 74)

The body, sexuality and nakedness

Pagans also reject western views of sexuality. For them the body is sacred and pure. Public and ritual nakedness is affirmed by some, though probably not the majority. Tabloids and papers make much of the sexual perversion of witches, but pagans believe that society has a suspicious and dirty-- minded view of sex: it sensationalises and titillates. But sexuality is a part of life's cycle to be celebrated in an open and pure fashion. The intertwining of sex with religion lifts it above the perverse and shameful act that it has become in western society.

The conception of a child is the most honoured activity of humans. It is 'to accept responsibility for another life ... that will offer love and the promise of your family's immortality through its blood line' (Kemp: 176). The overtones of stewardship and regard for human life here are unmistakable.

Many who attend ConFest celebrate nudity publicly. They are not simply making a statement but discovering their inner self. When writing his PhD thesis, Graham St John attended ConFest and found that 'being naked in the presence of strangers was not as difficult as I had been conditioned to believe' (187). Nudity at ConFest is a matter of reclaiming nudity as natural, innocent and right.

A positive view of nudity is said to change one's self- esteem and respect for others (St John: 187). It helps to bring out the child, the carefree gaiety and uncontrolled fantasy that is the world of the child (St John: 180). Nudity is about breaking down the masks of western society, the masks of social and economic status. Public nudity is rare outside such events, but some Wiccans and Druids practise ritual nudity.

Pagans claim to have a very positive view of the body, unlike most westerners. The goddess in Wicca is seen to have three forms: maiden, mother and crone. All are seen as beautiful and have specific roles. Western beauty belongs only to the maiden. Adler suggests that many women have found in Wicca a spiritual framework for feminism. But it would be a mistake to think that this is the driving force of paganism.

History of Neo-Paganism

Neopagans argue that paganism is the oldest religion on earth (Pagan Alliance: 2). It was the religion of the Romans, but the onset of the Constantinian age marginalised paganism. Innocent VIII allowed the Inquisition to persecute witches, and persecution lasted until the seventeenth century. This sad part of history is referred to as the 'burning times'. Some pagans say that two million people lost their lives in the witch-hunts, though serious scholarship reckons with about 40,000 killed. Pagans feel this loss acutely. As Kemp says, 'It took centuries, and heaps of dead bodies, for Christianity finally to triumph over Paganism in Europe' (13).

Paganism was driven underground, libraries were destroyed and heresy was stamped out, but enough knowledge of the 'old religion' remained. Kemp believes that the Crusaders returned with texts and ideas from pagan lands, with 'truths' that were often set out in story, legend or code (runes) and were spread by invading parties or itinerant storytellers. To such belong the stories of the fairy folk or little people among the illiterate in rural Ireland. Some traditions were maintained by families that silently went about practising their craft while still practising Christianity (Adler: 71). These practices started as classical witchcraft. Despite having changed through the years, they are still recognisable. 'Family Tradition' witches or Fam Trads usually survived in the more 'mainstream' alternative spiritualities such as Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism in the eighteenth century, and Spiritualism and Theosophy in the nineteenth century (Adler: 71). However, paganism was all but lost in western society of the early twentieth century.

The Revival, as pagans call it, came in the 1950s. Often couched in pseudo-medieval language, witchcraft writings began to appear in the 1920s onwards. In 1952 it was no longer illegal to practise witchcraft in Britain. Gerald Gardner is attributed with having founded modern witchery. Literature and knowledge of the old religion was scarce and fragmented, but Gardner collected its liturgies, rites, practices and poetry. The Book of Shadows is well known today. Gardner's aim was to bring the old religion to the general public. Wicca, as he called it, began to be practised in the US, Australia and Northern Europe. To this day, Wicca remains a rather fluid enterprise, with covens free to adapt or create ritual as they please. There are many branches of Wicca, but all owe their existence to Gerald Gardner.

Neopaganism is based on the old religions, with adherents using ancient myth, story, runes (symbols from Nordic and Germanic traditions) and gods and goddesses to explore divinity. They are not simply reviving old religions but adapt beliefs13 and practices 'to suit life in a modern world' (Pagan Alliance: 2). The ancient Druids, for example, appear to have used animal if not human sacrifice14 - totally anathema to today's pagans. 'Today most revivalist Witches ... accept the universal Old Religion as more of a metaphor than a literal reality - a spiritual truth more than a geographical one' (Adler: 86).

Paganism is now the fastest growing religion in the western world. It meets the search of many for a lost spirituality, it deals with dysfunctional community, it restores broken historical connections, and it connects those estranged from nature. Life in our urban technology- and dollar-driven society is seen to be 'impersonal, neutral and dead' (Adler: 25).

Ritual in Neo-Paganism

N>eopagans strive to live in harmony with nature and tend to view human progress and separation from nature as the prime source of alienation. Ritual is a tool to end that alienation, though its practice varies enormously. Neopaganism is 'a religion of ritual rather than theology' (Adler: 170). 'You do ritual because you need to, basically, and because it cuts through and operates on everything besides the "head" level' (Adler: 161). The following best reflects what pagan ritual is about:

You don't need any ... tools. You need no special clothes ... You might make up a chant, a string of names of gods and goddesses who were loved and familiar to you from childhood myths ... easily repeatable like a mantra. And perhaps, as you say those familiar names and feel the earth and air, the moon appears a bit closer, and perhaps the wind rustling the leaves suddenly seems in rhythm with your own breathing or perhaps the woods seem strangely noisy. Or unspeakably still. And perhaps the clear line that separates you from bird and tree and small lizards seems to melt. Whatever else, your relationship to the world of living nature changes. The Witch is the changer of definitions and relationships. (Adler: 44)

Paganism is about experience, not teaching. It is about changing self, others and therefore reality through magickal15 acts. St John was witness to a rite at Confest where, after casting the circle and drawing down the goddess, over one hundred women danced in a circle, chanting, 'We all come from the Goddess, and to her we shall return. Like a drop of rain, falling to the ocean.' On another night, the actions were similar, but a different chant was used: 'The Earth is our Mother, we will take care of her. The Earth is our Mother, she will take care of us' (St John: ch 7, 15).

The practice of magic

Witchcraft is synonymous with magic, but 'most magicians, witches and other magical practitioners do not believe that magic has anything to do with the supernatural' (Adler: 6). 'Magic is a convenient word for a whole collection of techniques, all of which involve the mind' (8). The tools of magic are 'intention, imagination, and concentration' (Kemp: 62). The purpose of Wiccan ritual is to produce an altered state of consciousness in which people have access to and control over their psychic talents (Adler: 161). Energy is 'raised' and directed 'into the ether as a powerful thought form' (Kemp: 64). Football matches are excellent 'energy raisers' but the energy is not gathered, so it evaporates into thin air. A witch writes, 'I make no claim as a witch to supernatural powers, but I believe in super powers that reside in the natural' (Adler: 154). It is within an altered state of consciousness that 'magic happens'.

Wiccans use a variety of methods16 to produce these altered states: candle magic, dancing, drumming, chanting, daydreaming, meditation. They use props, costumes, theatre, plays, breathing exercises, herbs and mixtures, oils, colours, music, prayer, spells and incense. Such methods are designed to awaken the 'deep mind', to arouse deep emotion, enforce concentration and facilitate entry into an altered state (Adler: 157).

Monotheists need to remind themselves that an animistic world view does not include the 'supernatural', for all things natural are imbued with spirit. A Wiccan high priestess explains:

Wicca is the craft of the ordinary people. It concerns itself with honouring the earth and each other, the changing seasons, the best times to plant and sow and reap and mow, and the knowledge of one's self and one's place in the great scheme of things. On another level, simple spells focus the intent and/or the group consciousness on a desired result. Using supernatural powers, the conjuration of spiritual entities, is more the realm of the Ceremonial Magickian. Although related, this is another subject entirely. (personal email, 2/9/01)

Sexuality in ritual

Some groups use sexual magic or nudity in ritual, most do not. Gardnerian Wicca, a highly ritualistic British tradition, insists on practitioners being 'skyclad', weather permitting, but others are robed or in street clothes. Kemp believes that physic energy is easier to raise when naked (111).

Gardnerian Wicca uses the 'great rite', which is ceremonial intercourse - some groups use actual intercourse, others an acted rite. Actual intercourse is enacted only by existing partners and in private. Some rites include the consumption of the generated fluids in a spiritual/sexual communion reminiscent of the old religions. Kemp reminds us that any intercourse during ritual is not for self-gratification but part of 'high magic', which uses the 'creative force of the cosmos' to enact magick, not to fulfil human lust (175).

Mainstream Wicca has abandoned these rites. A ceremonial magickian is more likely to use the power of sex magic.

Wicca does have a sexual rite in which the high priestess plunges the Athame, a ritual knife symbolising a penis, into a chalice of wine symbolising a vagina. In addition, the maypole rite has dancers weaving red (symbolising menstrual blood) and white (symbolising semen) ribbons around a phallic symbol.

These acts remind the Wiccan that all power comes from the correct understanding of 'polarity' - the male/female balance. Kemp recognises that orgies do take place under the umbrella of the occult, but 'they are indulged in by groups seeking thrills rather than spiritual enlightenment' (163).

Holy days

Every day is holy, but pagans celebrate a number of festivals during the year. As paganism is a nature religion, the festivals fall on astronomical dates or at the change of seasons or are agriculturally derived. Wiccans call the festival calendar 'the wheel of the year'. Magick is particularly powerful on these 'power days'.

Each festival is a celebratory event with different rites/activities. There are eight Sabbats (festivals), four major and four minor. Each community celebrates those Sabbats that are important to it.

Ritual belongs to each festival. The basic steps of Wiccan ritual can be performed individually, in a small group or in covens. In the thirteen esbats17 per year the general ritual is followed with the addition of communion and meditation.

Sabbat ritual usually involves enactment of myth or 'theatre', and Sabbats are often celebrated all day with picnics, seminars and drumming (Ravenwolf: 89).

Barriers and bridges to Christian faith

Pagan-Christian relations are crucial for the church. The relationship as it stands varies from antagonism to coexistence or a syncretistic blending of the two (Hoggart-Creegan). These are not options for the church. An examination of paganism will

What most Christians fail to realise is that Wicca has something serious to say and indeed offers some significant theological challenges to the Church. Instead of dismissing Wicca as being devilish or humbug, Christians ought to take a first-hand look at what Wiccans advocate, At a very basic level, Wicca is a mirror in which we can see ourselves reflected for all the things we have neglected. (Johnson)

Philip Johnson believes that paganism, rightly understood, will have the same effect on the church as the early heresies - a (re)centering, positive effect - if we let it. We therefore ignore paganism to our peril. It was never easy being church in a rationalistic, modernistic world. Paganism reminds us of the need to be church in an age of spiritual searching. But to make paganism 'work' for the church we need to understand it. To understand it we need real dialogue. For dialogue to occur we need Christian apologists willing to enter into the pagan world.

Barriers and bridges to dialogue

Pagans often assume that much of western ideology comes from an inherently Christian world view. Pagan ideology clashes with western ideologies on many fronts: materialism, globalisation, consumerism, obsession with shallowness, sexuality, concept of beauty and ecology, to name but a few. A Wiccan expresses the general opinion of pagans:

Unfortunately, the obscene wealth, power and politics surrounding the church probably mean that [moral progress] will never happen. Perhaps the organised church will, one day, be consumed in its own filth. (personal email, 25/08/01)

Christian apologists need to face these issues with pagans.

Ecology

Philip Johnson notes that 'western churches have often aligned themselves with the capitalist industrialism that has so exploited the earth's resources'.18 Paganism can force us to reflect more seriously on our creation theology, which some Christians are doing. The Earth Bible project19 calls us back to the way God intended us to relate to the earth. Wilkinson, a Canadian professor, put his biblical creation theology into practice.

. . My wife, daughter, and I were involved in a blockade protesting the logging of the last large areas of old forest on the west coast of Vancouver Island. We were persuaded to participate by a new Christian who was impressed by the spiritual seriousness of the protest and the complete lack of any Christian presence there.

. . . We were coached in nonviolent resistance techniques by a grandmotherly, white-haired woman who said she was a Wicca priestess - a witch. We were given song sheets that included hymns to 'the earth goddess', and sat in the big Circle ... in a meeting conducted, we were told, under feminist principles of 'consensus and nonviolence'.

After the dawn arrests ... we returned from our brief time in jail to the bright, late-morning light of 'The Circle'. We decided to teach the group a song of our own, the words from Isaiah 55: 'You will go out with joy, and be led forth in peace, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands'. Many of the protesters seemed surprised that the words were in the Bible - as they seemed surprised at the Scripture texts we had posted:'The Earth is the Lord's', 'Creation groans' and 'In Christ a new creation'. But the biggest surprise ... for this earnest group of protesters was that Christians were even present at the protest. 'Do Christians care about the earth?' was a common inquiry.

Sexuality

Pagans link the western suppression of sexuality to the puritanical church of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Perhaps we need to recapture the message of the Song of Songs and celebrate the mystery of maleness and femaleness. Johnson asks the church to consider celebrating fertility through rites that celebrate puberty, menstruation, etc. Recognising infertility could also be in order. The Old Testament bears witness to the importance and effect of sexual relations, offspring and barrenness.

The spirit of the age

Neopaganism reminds us of the virtue of living simply. This is in keeping with the ethic of Christ, but we have often forgotten this.

Most Christians no longer think twice about buying the best house, car or computer. Pagans can pick it a mile off when we are driven by the marketplace.

Ritual versus world view

Neopagans have a satisfying religion; they are spiritually aware and have a healthy, positive view of life. They will not be convinced by cerebral argument, for their religion is ritual not dogma. This presents a problem for many Christians, for Christianity has become for them one world view or ideology among many. Pagans, like most post-modernists, are weary of ideologies and world views. They help to make sense of the world but they do nothing! Protestant Christianity has largely sold out to this idea. Worship becomes information, a 'head spin' and little else. The church needs to recapture the mystical action of God in its worship and ritual to become relevant to the pagan. The pagan needs to see our triune God as immanent, alive and active, working with power in absolution, holy communion and blessing, at work in creating, loving, caring and healing people. Christianity needs to return to its powerful ritual and throw off the shackles of rationalism. Our dialogue will be effective if we can point to our performative ritual.

This truth extends beyond worship to our catechesis. Instead of teaching people about the faith we need to teach the faith. Another symptom of modernism in the church is that faith has become an object to be studied, being reduced to a set of beliefs rather than practised as an organic relationship with Almighty God. Doing the faith has been replaced by learning about the faith. Faith must move from the page to ritual, in the personal, family and congregational sphere. Bible study needs to be followed by heart study. Christian spirituality is in dire need of rediscovery. Devotions should not simply be a thought for the day but a dialogue between the Creator and the created. We need to rediscover the meditative and contemplative aspect of faith. Many Christian fads could have been avoided if we practised the real presence rather than the real absence of God! Pagan spirituality at least claims to embrace a real presence.

Barriers and bridges – theological

Many neopagans work with an outdated view of the church and a caricature of Christianity. The Christian apologist must annunciate clearly the doctrines of the church and debunk the fables. Ideological barriers can, in the main, be broken down; most theological barriers are insurmountable. The gospel is the great stumbling block. The apologist must ensure that if pagans reject Christianity it is because of the gospel and no human stumbling block. We note a few non-negotiables.

Jesus - the only way

Clearly, polytheism and monotheism are mutually exclusive. Fiona Horne, Australia's most famous witch, 'digs Jesus',20 but neopagans will not accept the exclusive claims of Christ. Muchpain is involved as we see syncretism rise to new levels. Some pagans who dance outside to the light of the moon, praising the goddess in her aspect of Diana, 'see and feel no contradiction to going inside and lighting candles to Mary, the Queen of Heaven and Mother of God, the next Day'.21

The immanence of God

Pagan literature often comes up with the view that polytheism ruled most of the world for thousands of years until Judeo- Christian thought 'introduced the concept of a single, all powerful and external, transcendent male god'.22 Obviously, what is presented is nothing like the biblical deity. Apologists need to present the biblical God as one without human gender, who created both male and female in the divine image. We need to present God's 'maternal' qualities,23 likewise the immanence of God. God shares our flesh, becomes 'God with us' and suffers. This God comes to us corporeally in worship! There is nothing more immanent than the consumption of Christ's body and blood.

Original Sin

That Christian-pagan dialogue must come very quickly to the doctrine of original sin can be seen from a response from Essa:

No indigenous tribe has conceived so grotesque an idea as the assumption that man was born with a hereditary stain upon him and that this stain, for which he was not personally responsible, was to be atoned for by the death of another. Personally, I find it deeply offensive to be told that your god's son died for my sins. I hold no sense of 'original sin', and feel quite strongly that your church should not teach such esoteric, concepts to children. (personal email, 2/9/01)

Christian-pagan dialogue may stalemate at this point. However, we can assist dialogue by not arrogantly dismissing the pagan world view in the belief that Christianity holds the obvious, universal, irrefutable truth. Craig Hawkins, a Christian professor, measures pagan teaching with Christian teaching and concludes, among other things, that neopaganism is illogical (1996: 163). This is fine if you believe that Christianity provides us with a logical world view. It is hard to see how the idea of a god nailed to a tree is logical in any sense of the word, so to critique neopaganism on logic is simply not logical! Logically, animism may have a stronger case.

The pagan world view 'works' just as well as the Christian world view. The church needs to understand how it does its theology: not by logic or by popular vote but by revelation of God. But the word of God is normative only for Christians; it is not a universally accepted document. If one does not believe the word of God, the claims of Christ have no bearing. Hawkins has, I believe, missed the point of dialogue.

Johnson asks us to do something different, to share in gentle humility the hope that is in us.

When Jesus came to earth his purpose was to make people right again with God. Perhaps we have spent too much time telling people they are wrong, we have lost sight of Jesus' primary mission of enabling people to become right. Let us not bear false witness against our Wiccan neighbours by demonising them or ridiculing them as being irrational. The basic game plan of Jesus has always been about healing people and reconciling them with God. Instead of debunking or deconstructing Wicca, why not share the riches of Christ as the fulfillment of the quest? Wicca challenges us to have the love and integrity Jesus had.

Barriers and bridges – historical

The Christian church is seen as the victor that has squashed pagan religion by force and misguided missionary zeal. The 'burning times' are a painful reminder to many pagans of the evils of the church. We need to acknowledge that pain. A woman at the Melbourne 'Body, Mind Spirit Expo', on learning that I was a Christian, proceeded to tell me about the nine million24 witches killed by the church. She spoke not with anger but with pain. When I asked her for forgiveness her face showed that I had done the right thing.

Another great barrier to the gospel is the propensity to defame and misrepresent the pagan. Books such as Mike Warnke's The Satan Seller have developed the caricature of witchcraft. Warnke was found to be a fraud, his 'testimony' totally fabricated. Christian perceptions of paganism are deeply ingrained and involve such concepts as Satanism, infant sacrifice and black mass. Ignorance and fear have to be overcome before any dialogue will become reality. If we are to make any inroads into neopaganism we have to understand it, not misrepresent it.

The pagan ethic makes it difficult for pagans to hate Christianity. Most see Christians as misguided and ill-- informed. Many do not even reject Christianity, as can be seen from Margot Adler's extensive survey in America. Only two per cent of those questioned cited Christianity as a reason for moving into neopaganism, even though this 1975 survey found that almost eighty per cent of neopagans came from a Christian background. The 'Community of Hope' research at the 2000 'Mind, Body Spirit Expo' in Melbourne would confirm that figure, finding that a similar percentage had 'tried Christianity'. A surprising sixty per cent of New Age seekers stated that they were 'open' to Jesus; only seven per cent of those surveyed were not (Community of Hope: 3). This represents an opportunity for the church.

Clearly, nominal Christians are seeing the church as irrelevant, and many are moving to a spirituality that is 'real'. Many pagans see Christianity as a religion for the weak.

The Craft is not for everyone. To know it intimately demands a huge amount of self-discipline. There are those who have turned to mainstream religion simply because they feel it does not place the same demands on the individual. (email from 'Essa', 29/08/2001)

Conclusion

Neopaganism is, by all accounts, a satisfying religion. Christianity, however, is more than a satisfying experience. Christ is the revelation of divine mysteries, the way to salvation. Christ shows us that the Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, is for us and not against us. Neopagans need Christ, and they need the church.

The church also needs pagans to show where it has got it wrong. God may even use paganism to call the church to new life. Our challenge is to live and speak so that 'the unknown god', whom some neopagans are genuinely seeking, is shown to be Jesus. 'Then they will find that the ... mysterious circles of our lives, and of all Creation, are given a center and a meaning by the self-giving love of God which the cross proclaims' (Wilkinson, part 3).


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About this article

The publishers of Apologetics Index have long sought for a balanced presentation on the subject of Neo-Paganism. We are pleased to have received permission - from both the author and original publisher - to post this article. We encourage the kind of research and dialogue the author describes [See About Apologetics Index]

Neo-Paganism: Is Dialogue Possible? was written by Andrew J. McLean following research completed in his final year of study at Luthern Seminary, Adeladie, Australia.

Andrew McLean currently serves as the Youth and Family / School Pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran, in Everton Hills, Queensland. Email: andrew.mclean@lca.org.au

This article was first published in the Lutheran Theological Journal, 36/3, December 2002, pp. 112-125.

The Journal, edited by members of the faculty of Australian Lutheran College, seeks to provide theological information and stimulus for the pastors, teachers, and diaconal workers of the Lutheran Church of Australia. Contributions are chosen for publication on the basis that they address issues that are relevant for the life of the church, for ministry and mission in its congregations, schools, and other agencies. While encouraging theological exploration, the Journal seeks to reflect the confessional position of the Lutheran Church of Australia.

Copyright

This article is © copyrighted by Andrew J McLean. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.

Notes:

  1. Acts 17
  2. The term neopagan is technically correct, but we can use the shorthand term pagan, as neopagans themselves do.
  3. Pagan was also used derogatorily to mean a country hick.
  4. Paganism does not include eastern religions or philosophies. Recently, however, eastern religions and psycho-technologies are becoming more prominent, but Satanism is shunned by neopagans.
  5. Graham St John is referring to an Australia gathering called ConFest.
  6. Figures gathered from ConFest.
  7. Part of the Wiccan tradition is the 'renaming'. Adoption of a new name allows people to write without fear of being identified. Some witches and neopagans have lost jobs and been harassed by those who don't understand the nature of the religion.
  8. Kemp notes that this is the origin of the word 'panic'.
  9. Science fiction has become as much a part of the pagan way as the old myths.
  10. Worshipping the goddess and her male consort, the horned god.
  11. New Agers focus on the transcendent, neopagans on the immanent.
  12. Many pagans shun the media, some even refusing to own a television set.
  13. Most pagans believe in reincarnation, which does not have its roots in ancient western religion but has been imported from the East.
  14. Celtic ritual shafts, also known as 'offering pits', have been discovered in Ireland. Perceived as openings to the underworld, they date from as early as 2000 BC. Two hundred feet deep, many have a wooden stake at the bottom!
  15. Wiccans spell magic in this way to differentiate between Wiccan ritual magick and 'Disneyland' fantasy, a distinction made, it appears, in the last ten years. Adler does not use this spelling. Other newly coined words are Theaology and Wytch.
  16. Most pagans reject drugs and sexual activity as valid mediums, even though the ancients often used them.
  17. An esbat is ritual done at full moon.
  18. Many modernists cannot understand how neopaganism, with its lack of missionary zeal, structure, money and formal organisation, can be spreading so fast. Postmodernism will hopefully help the church return to its core: worship and ritual.
  19. The emphases of the Earth Bible mirror much of pagan ecology. Many pagans subscribe to the Gaia theory that the earth is a living entity.
  20. Keynote address at 'Magic Happens' Witchcraft Festival, Melbourne, December 2001.
  21. 'Frequently Asked Questions about Paganism', Temple of the Dark Moon, Adelaide.
  22. 'Wicca - Bringing the Ancient Teaching into the New Age', Temple of the Dark Moon.
  23. Johnson notes that some leading Christians have not hesitated to refer to the motherhood of God. 'Such figures include John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Venerable Bede, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen and Anselm [and] even the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther'.
  24. Gerald Gardner first came up with the figure of nine million.

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6 Responses to “Neopaganism: Is Dialogue Possible?”

  1. Wandering Star says:

    Thank you Mr. McClean for not only trying to understand us but for getting it right was well. I can not speak for all Pagans but I find my beliefs and ethics accurately reflected in your article.

    Thanks!

  2. Stuart French says:

    I agree. A common sayings of many pagans is "Our historical story encompasses those of the other religions, but theirs are not broad enough to encompass ours."
    This is a tacit acknowledgement of absolute truth and while many fringe pagans sharing the new age category would happily pick and choose the more liberal aspects of post-moderninity, most pagans - at least the wiccans I have spent time with - consider reason and tradition quite important.
    The real key here is their perception of Christians as arrogant and self-righteous considering they only have half the story. Our openess to dialogue and debate and strong focus on listening and questioning without judgement are critical, "off-handed dismissal" is a very apt description of the Church's past attitudes.
    That said, there is little for the studied Christian to lose. Conversing and being challanged by pagans and their objections to the truth of Christ and His gospel will not only strengthen us in our own beliefs, but often aspects of the truth are further revealed by looking closely at a counterfeit.
    The Wiccan tradition contains many common beliefs and principles to Christianity that can act as bridges to building relationship and respect. I encourage anybody with friends involved in this area take an interest and share Christ through loving action rather than bible bashing common in the past.

  3. Ally says:

    I completely agree. It's about time we realised that what we all believe comes from the same roots anyway - and people are people, regardless of what they believe. Both religions need to reconsider their hostility - nowadays, the chances that one faith will obliterate the other is very low, so do we really need to be so opposed to sharing and learning beliefs? The focus with religion is (or should be) on education nowadays, not power or control and I like that so much more - we should take advantage of it. Thankyou for this entry, I hope more people see the truth in it.

  4. Christian says:

    Wow! So much to say and so little time. I believe that all the previous respondents need to look up a term called "Law Of non- contradiction". This law of logic precludes both neo-paganism and Christianity being true. Both can be wrong but both can't be true because they have too many contradictions.

  5. [...] globe.  This was made keenly apparent to me when I ran across this online course on titled “Neo-Paganism: Is Dialogue Possible?”, written from a Christian perspective.  I highly encourage a full reading of this text, as [...]

  6. Andrew McLean says:

    I have only just found these comments.. As the author of this article, I am touched at the response I got here. "Christian", i'm not trying to see who is correct (which is what christianity is obsessed with), but how we can learn and journey together. We may never get to a point where we can 'worship/ritual' together, but if we can understand and honour each other - thats my point.

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This post was last updated: May. 21, 2013