Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “Neopaganism”

Christianity, paganism and witchcraft

I’ve been asked to read a paper on the Christian understandings of paganism and witchcraft at the conference of the Association for the Study of Religion in Southern Africa (ASRSA) in May.

The following book, announced by John Morehead, will be released too late to consult for my paper, but I’d welcome recommendations of other recent books that might throw more light on the subject. Meanwhile, I might mention the forthcoming book as a p[ossibly useful one on the topic.

Morehead’s Musings:

I am pleased to be able to begin promotion for the forthcoming book, Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega. This volume was approximately three years in the making from conception to finished product, and it is now in the final stages as Lion Publishing prepares for its marketing and publishing. I was privileged to serve as editor and project coordinator for this book, which represents a major step forward in dialogue and understanding between Paganism and Christianity

Pagans and Neopagans

In a comment on another post Yvonne Aburrow writes:

Small grumble… why do Christians (even lovely ones such as your good self) always insist on the “Neo-” prefix? Is it to emphasise that you don’t believe we have continuity with pagans of the past? Sure, we don’t have the equivalent of apostolic succession (we call it initiatory lineage), but there is a continuity of ideas via the Western Mystery Tradition, and many another strand of thought and feeling. Also, the pagans of the classical world didn’t call themselves Pagans, so I don’t give them a capital P – but I do give it to modern Pagans because they identify as such.

Of course, given that you belong to a tradition with unbroken apostolic succession, maybe you should call all other forms of Christianity Neo-Christian…

This post is an attempt to respond to that.

I should say right at the start that in addition to being a Christian I am a curmudgeonly language pedant. I tend to be fussy about language and usage, and distinctions between the meanings of words that some might think hair splitting.

And for me, “pagan” is a general term, whereas “neopagan” is a more specific one.

“Pagan” started off as Christian slang for non-Christians. As the historian Robin Lane Fox puts it in his book Pagans and Christians:

In antiquity, pagans already owed a debt to Christians. Christians first gave them their name, pagani… In everyday use, it meant either a civilian or a rustic. Since the sixteenth century the origin of the early Christians’ usage has been disputed, but of the two meanings, the former is the likelier. Pagani were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believers, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christians’ view of life.

“Pagan” continued to be used as Christian slang for non-Christians right up to the middle of the 20th century. Paganism was not a religion. It was the state of not being a Christian. In Europe, perceptions of religion began to change with the growth of modernity. I don’t want to go into that in too much detail here, but should just point out that modernity gave rise to the modern conception of “religion” and “religions”, and the idea that Christianity was one instance of something that belonged to a wider category, one religion among many. Such a notion would probably never have occurred to anyone before the 17th century. What it led to was a notion among some people that the term “pagans” applied to adherents of non-monotheistic religions, so that anyone who was not a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim was a pagan. But still, no one was a self-described pagan.

In the 19th century, though, some people did begin to describe themselves as pagans. They accepted the Christian understanding, with an extension. Not only were they not Christian, they were not religious. Those who accepted “pagan” as a self-description were secular humanists.

An example of this usage can be seen in a book by Rosalind Murray, The Good Pagan’s failure. It was a book of Christian apologetics written by one who had been a Good Pagan, but had become a Christian. I used to have a copy, but can’t find it. The following excerpt from a review, however, should make it clear what the book is about, and how the word “pagan” is used in it.

The Good Pagan’s Failure. By Rosalind Murray. (Longmans, Green, 7s. 6d. net.)

Miss ROSALIND MURRAY has attempted to interpret liberal humanism to the Christian, and Christianity to the humanist, to examine the misunderstandings which inevitably arise between the supernatural outlook of the “totalitarian” Christian, and the cultivated, “moderate”, humanitarian worldliness of the Good Pagan. Miss Murray is singularly equipped to make this attempt, having known both worlds, and she has achieved a work of immediate value.

At its best (and Miss Murray knew it at its best) that humanism possessed qualities of culture, moral refinement, honour, and humane sensibility which were remarkable; today its essential weaknesses have worked themselves out, and the Good Pagan stands back in hurt surprise at the sight of a world in ruins. His intentions were so good, his heart so kind; what has gone wrong? Miss Murray examines his failure with intelligence and sympathetic insight, and shows how by his exclusive preoccupation with this world, his confidence that with bread (and kindness) alone man could be happy, the Good Pagan was forced to shut his eyes to the world’s imperfections, to the facts of suffering, poverty and sin. But “by excluding Heaven we have not abolished Hell, by denying redemption we have not been redeemed, the sinner is still there, in the world and in ourselves”.

Rosalind Murray, as the reviewer points out, was a member of both worlds. Her father, Gilbert Murray, was a well-known advocate of secular humanism. And Rosalind Murray’s use of the term “pagan” was fairly widespread and well understood for the first two-thirds of the 20th century.

When I was teaching in the theology faculty of the University of South Africa (Unisa) in the 1990s, the faculty issued formal tutorial letters to students to say that they should not use words like “non-Christian” and “pagan”. Their intentions were good. The people who compiled the letters thought that these terms were insulting, and that it was not good to be rude to people. The problem was that they were a little naive, and did not see how their own prohibition was actually a manifestation of an attitude of superiority. If it is bad to call someone a pagan or a non-Christian, that implies that one thinks that Christians are superior to non-Christians, the therefore it is rude to imply that a person is so inferior as not to be a Christian. I doubt that many pagans would be fooled by this disingenuousness. It actually patronising condescension at its worst.

At the same time, and especially since the mid-1960s, many people were happy to call themselves pagans, not because they were irreligious, but because they were religious. Many of them were consciously trying to revive the ancient pre-Christian religions of Europe. But even in this sense, “paganism” did not refer to a single religion, but to a group of religions, some of which had their own names. Asatru, for example, as the revival of ancient Norse religions, Hellenism was the revival of the pre-Christian religion of the Olympian gods. There were new composite religions like Wicca.

Yvonne objects to the term on the grounds that it implies a lack of continuity, and in a sense it does: Asatru is not a continuation of ancient Norse religion. Hellenism is not a continuation of ancient Greek religion. They are revivals. The term “paganism” also covers what some have called “paleopaganism”, which includes not only the ancient religions of Greece and Rome, but also religions that are still practised at the present day, including African and American traditional religions. And many modern pagans themselves have come up with, and are happy to use, terms like “neopaganism” and “paleopaganism” and indeed have helped to define them. While I don’t agree with everything in that article, I think it does help to clarify the definitions of the terms.

Perhaps, as a postscript, I should say a little more about the question of “superiority”, as manifested in both the Unisa tutorial letters and in the article referred to in the previous paragraph. After all, I remain a Christian — doesn’t that mean that I regard myself as superior to pagans, whether neo-, meso- or paleo-?

And the answer for me, at least, is no.

Someone once likened Christian evangelism to “one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread”.

It’s a good analogy. A beggar who finds bread is not necessarily better than one who has not. He may be “better off“, but he is not “better”. That is the point of the discussion of the Good Pagan’s failure. Why the epithet “good”? The point is that the failure is not necessarily a failure of ethics or morality. Many pagans live better and more moral lives than many Christians, and some indeed have higher ethical and moral standards than some Christians. The moment that Christians assume that they are morally superior to others simply because they are Christians, they’ve lost the plot. And, as Isaac Bonewits points out in his article cited above, that has happened quite often, There is nothing in the Christian faith to justify such attitudes of moral superiority. And when we do adopt those attitudes, we simply show how much we are still sinners.

Neopagan discussions of Christianity

A few months ago a group of Christian bloggers had a synchroblog on Christian-Neopagan relations, and now a similar thing seems to be happening spontaneously among Neopagans. MetaPagan:

It must be something in the aether…Discussions of Christianity are breaking out on Pagan blogs everywhere.

It’s odd, but whenever I post anything related to the subject of Christianity at my own blog, the number of hits and comments–from Pagans–goes way up. Maybe I’m not the only person to have noticed this, because over the last few days, numerous members of the Pagan/Heathen blogosphere have posted entries on the topic of Christo-Paganism and related topics. Some bloggers are concerned, some are puzzled, and some are embracing at least some Christian concepts, if not Christianity, per se.

Generally speaking, a Blog Carnival or a Synchro-blog event, like the Brighid in Cyberspace Poetry Reading described below, is planned in advance. This one, however, seems to be just happening.

Visit Metapagan to see the links to some of the posts.

Happy Holidays!

I will not wish everyone a “Happy New Year”, as that may be offensive to some, and it is decidedly religiously insensitive and politically INcorrect.

I could, of course,

  • wish the pagans a happy Janus day.
  • The Christians a Happy Circumcision and St Basil’s Day
  • And the secularists a Happy New Year

But wishing everyone a “Happy New Year” is showing religious prejudice and insensitivity.

Pagan comments on the Halloween synchroblog

The Halloween sychroblog has got some interesting interfaith dialogue going between Christians and Neopagans, which Yvonne has blogged about on Metapagan.

Towards a theology of religions

Since the August 2007 Synchroblog on Christianity inclusive or exclusive, I’ve posted several more-or-less connected pieces on the general theme of Theology of religion. Now it is time to wind up the series, or at least to draw together the threads of this long rambling discourse, though I have no illusions that this will be the last word on the subject, even from me.

In the second posting in the series I pointed out that

Alan Race, in his book Christians and religious pluralism (London, SCM, 1983), quotes Wilfred Cantwell Smith as saying

From now on any serious intellectual statement of the Christian faith must include, if it is to serve its purposes among men, some doctrine of other religions. We explain the fact of the Milky Way by the doctrine of creation, but how do we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there?

Race quotes this at the beginning of his book, on page 2, yet one may read through to the end and find that he has still not even attempted to explain why the Bhagavad Gita is there. The same applies to Paul Knitter, and most of the other so-called theologians of religion.

Throughout the series I have maintained that the question whether Christianity is, or should be inclusive, exclusive or pluralist is the wrong question as far as “theology of religion” is concerned, as is the related question whether “salvation” is to be found in other religions.

I have also tried to show that there is not one single “theology of religion”; instead there are “theologies of religions”. A Christian theology of Islam will not be the same as a Christian theology of Buddhism or a Christian theology of neopaganism. An Islamic theology of Christianity will not be the same as an Islamic theology of Buddhism or an Islamic theology of neopaganism. One Islamic theology of Buddhism may have been expressed by the Taliban’s destruction of Buddha statues by artillery bombardment, but the fact that the statues existed for hundreds of years in a predominantly Muslim society shows that the Taliban’s response was not the only Islamic theology of Buddhism.

I should also point out that what I say here is not part of the dogmatic theology of the Orthodox Church. Though I write as an Orthodox Christian, this is not a statement of official Orthodox teaching. It is rather a theologoumenon, an opinion put forward for discussion.

I take as a starting point the previous article in the series, from the September 2007 synchroblog, on Christianity, paganism and literature, in which I looked at the views implied in the works of members of the literary group known as the Inklings, and in particular C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. There I wrote

Consider, for example, C.S. Lewis’s The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. A child from the normal everyday world hides in a wardrobe during a game, and finds herself transported by magic into another world, where she has tea with a faun, a figure from ancient Roman pagan mythology. A faun is half human, half goat, and the encounter is an introduction to a world of intelligent talking animals – beavers with sewing machines and the like. Lewis has no hesitation in blending Christian and pagan mythology in his Narnian books. There is even salvation. Salvation is at the centre of the plot of the book, but one would have to look hard to find it attributed to any religion at all, Christian or pagan.

Of course Lewis was known as a Christian, and his conception of salvation is a Christian one, but in this particular book he does not deal with what seems to be the central question for many Western Christian “theologians of religion” – the question whether there is salvation in “other” religions.

The next book in the Narnian series, Prince Caspian, is even more populated with pagan deities – Bacchus and Silenus, nymphs and Maenads, and even a river god. Lewis does not identify these with the forces of evil – they are not “satanic”, as many Christians seem to think pagan deities ought to be (and many neopagans think that Christians think neopagans’ deities are). They are rather part of the army of liberation, and are themselves liberated from the powers of evil in the course of the story.

Now it might be argued that since Lewis had a classical education he incorporated these pagan deities simply for the sake of a good story. They featured in stories that he himself had enjoyed, so he incorporated them in stories that he wrote. But there is more to it than this.

In an earlier post, Notes from underground: Of egregores and angels, I wrote:

Charles Williams, in his novel The place of the lion describes what happens when the powers get loose, and when men worship them independently of the power of God. C.S. Lewis sees them as belonging not just to human groups within the earth, but to the planets themselves, the principalities, archontes, princes he calls oyeresu, and each planet has its oyarsa, or planetary ruler, and this was the basis of astrology.

And someone responded

This paragraph is written as though this is a belief of CSL, not a creation of his imagination, which is what it is. CSL “sees” is not the same as believes. This is not ‘theology’ or even something approaching church doctrine held by CSL or CW for that matter. You are referencing here works of fiction, right?

Right, I am referencing works of fiction. But wrong, I am going to explore the doctrine expressed in these works of fiction. I could argue why I think such a procedure is justified, but it would take too long, and might require a post on its own, or even several posts. Suffice it to say that I believe that the works of the Inklings that I refer to are not simply fiction, but are mythical, and, as Nicolas Berdyaev has pointed out, “Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept.” I shall, perhaps foolishly, try to link some of these myths to concepts.

There are several indications in the fiction of the Inklings of the way in which they see various deities and spiritual forces and powers. The Narnian stories feature a river god, Bacchus and several others. Lewis’s “Space trilogy” features the ancient Graeco-Roman gods, Mars and Venus, under the names Malacandra and Perelandra, and several others. Charles Williams writes about the Tarot in The greater trumps, about Islam in Many dimension and about the principalities and powers in The place of the lion. Tolkien writes about the creation of the world in The Silmarillion, which also contains a mythical retelling of the Fall.

The Christian Symbol of Faith begins “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Among the invisible things are those to which Williams, Lewis and Tolkien have tried to give visible form in their fiction. The “Father Almighty” (Patera pantokratora, Pater omnipotens) has nothing to do with the “omnipotent god” of the atheists, and whether he can create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it. It is a translation of the Hebrew YHWH Sabaoth, which can also be translated into English as “Lord of Hosts”. And what are the “hosts”? They are the “invisible things” that God has created.

These invisible things are described in various ways, and have been pictured in various ways by people. Sometimes they are described abstractly, love, beauty, power, strength, justice. Sometimes they have been represented symbolically in pictures, for example in the Greater Trumps of the Tarot, where there are cards representing force, justice, death and so on. At times they are represented by animals, as in Williams’s The place of the lion, as lion, snake, butterfly, eagle. In one scene Anthony Durrant asks if what Dora Wilmot saw was Aaron’s Rod that turned into a snake (Exodus 7:8-13). “I think the magicians of Pharaoh may have seen Miss Wilmot’s snake,” Mr Foster said, “and all their shapely wisdom have been swallowed by it, as the butterflies of the fields were taken into that butterfly this afternoon.”

Williams was writing fiction. Anthony Durrant, Miss Wilmot and Mr Foster are fictional characters in his book. But I think it is fair to say that Williams believed that the shapely wisdom of Pharaoh’s magicians was swallowed by the snake he described.

In Prince Caspian Lewis brings in Bacchus and the Maenads, dryads and fauns, and the river god. Such creatures are found in classical mythology, and Lewis, like many of his generation, and those of several generations before, had had a classical education. British poetry since the Renaissance had many classical references and allusions, and is sometimes difficult to understand without a knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman mythology. But this Renaissance classicism was cold and dead, like the bare marble statues of the gods, for decoration, not for worship. The temples were in ruins, or converted into churches (like the Pantheon in Rome), and even the old statues had lost the gaudy paint that once covered them in the temples.

But Lewis brings Bacchus and his devotees to life, in a fertility rite that produces a feast, and Susan says, “I wouldn’t have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.”

Nymphs were spirits of nature, of trees and springs. Dryads were spirits of trees, sometimes appearing in human form. Nereids were spirits of the sea, though in modern Greek usage the term may be applied to any nymphs, and in some places, even today, people believe that whirlwinds are caused by nereides dancing. In classical times, before chopping down a tree, the spirit of the tree needed to be propitiated. In premodern hunting societies, in many parts of the world, when an animal is hunted for food, its spirit needs to be propitiated.

Lewis weaves this premodern element seamlessly into his story, and in this demonstrates a Christian theology of religion.

If God created all things, visible and invisible, and pronounced them good, then both the trees and their invisble spirits are part of the good creation. Wine, “that maketh glad the heart of man”, and Bacchus, the spirit of vineyards, are part of that good creation.

This, in part, answers the question with which this enquiry was begun. We explain the fact that the Milky Way is there by the doctrine of creation, and we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there by the same doctrine of creation. In another of his stories, The voyage of the Dawn Treader Lewis introduces a retired star. ‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.’

The stars sing at the creation of Narnia, and in the Ainulindale 0f Tolkien they sing at the creation of Middle Earth, but even in our world God asks Job, ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Who laid its cornerstone when all the stars of the morning were singing with joy, and the Sons of God in chorus were chanting praise?’ (Job 38:4-7).

So a Christian theology of religion, based on the doctrine of creation, could say that the gods of the Bhagavad Gita were there among them, joining in the chorus. And there among them too were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, or as Lewis calls them, Viritrilbia, Perelandra, Malacandra, Lurga and Glund. Lewis calls them gods and angels, as do the Christian scriptures. In Christian parlance the term “heavenly host” could refer to either the stars of the sky, the angels of the heavens, or both.

At this point some might say, Wait, didn’t Boniface chop down the oak of Thor? Didn’t Christians go to their death rather than participate in the emperor cult? Didn’t missionaries call the gods of the heathen demons?

And the answer is, Yes, Christians did all these things.

St Justin Martyr, one of the earliest Christian writers to discuss the relation of the Christian faith to other religions, says:

We do not worship with many sacrifices and floral offerings the things men have made, set in temples, and called gods. We know that they are inanimate and lifeless and have not the form of God (for we do not think that God has that form which some say they reproduce in order to give honor to Him) — but have the names and shapes of those evil demons who have appeared [to men].

In Orthodox ikonography God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are never represented in material form. Jesus Christ, as the incarnate Son of God, is indeed represented graphically in ikons, because though “no one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18). During the iconoclastic controversy the iconophiles made their position clear: “an idol was the image of a creature which was worshipped as God, as was the case with the pagans.” The iconophiles relied a great deal on St Basil the Great’s contention that the honor of the image is transferred to the prototype. For a theology of religions the important question is therefore not so much the image itself, but the nature of the prototype. If the image is of Christ, then honor to the ikon of Christ is honor to Christ, and it is therefore not idolatry. If the image is of the Theotokos or of one of the saints, then honor to their ikons is not idolatry because they are not mistaken for God. The essence of idolatry is worshipping the creature instead of the creator. For St Justin Martyr, the pagans not only worshipped images, but regarded the prototype as God himself, whereas Justin himself thought that the prototypes were evil demons.

In the Christian view, God created all things, visible and invisible, and pronounced them good. But they didn’t stay good. Evil entered the good creation of God, and this fall from grace meant that the human race and creation itself was alienated from God. There is thus both a positive and negative view of human religion, at least among Orthodox Christians. Unlike Calvinists, Orthodox Christians do not believe in total depravity, that everything on earth is so tainted with evil that nothing of God can be seen in it. Human and religion and human worship, like everything else in the world, is fallen, and at best can only give a distorted vision of God. As Father Thomas Hopko notes

While affirming that God is indeed unknowable in His innermost being, and that there are indeed a multitude of manifestations of God and revelations in and toward His creatures, and that there are indeed an immense variety of forms and categories of expression and explanation proper to God in human thought and speech, the Orthodox tradition remains adamant in its insistence that not all of man’s thoughts and words about God are “adequate to divinity” (to use a traditional expression), and that indeed most of man’s ideas and words about God are plainly wrong, being, as they are, the inventions of the vain imagination of creaturely minds and not the fruit of a living experience of God in the actual reality of His self-disclosure.

Yet Justin’s view is not the only possible one. It is also possible that the “idols” of the pagans are false images of the true God, as St Paul seems to suggest (Ac 17:22-31) or of created spiritual beings, not necessarily evil (Col 1-2).

Father Michael Oleksa, the Orthodox missiologist, notes that it was St Maximus the Confessor’s opposition to the monothelitism of his times, and to the Platonic theology of Origen, that laid the foundations for the positive view which Orthodox missions have generally had of traditional societies in central and eastern Europe in the 9th & 10th centuries, and across central Asia and into eastern Siberia and Alaska over the next 800 years.

Orthodox evangelists felt no obligation to attack all the pre-contact religious beliefs of shamanistic tribes, for they could perceive in them some of the positive appreciation of the cosmos that is central to St Maximus’ theology. They could affirm that the spiritual realities these societies worshipped were indeed ‘logoi’ related to the Divine Logos, whose personal existence these societies had simply never imagined.

This is the last of a series of five articles on interreligious dialogue and theology of religions.

It has also (a year after it was first posted), been incorporated into a synchroblog on interreligious dialogue. To see links to the other articles in the series, and other articles in the synchroblog, please go to Notes from underground: Interreligious dialogue

Easter – Christian or pagan?

It has often been claimed in some circles that Christians “stole” Easter from pagans. The claim has been repeated so often that it has become a factoid (a piece of unreliable information believed to be true because of the way it is presented or repeated in print).

I was prompted to write about it because in this month’s synchroblog Julie Clawson mentions it in onehandclapping: Rejection, redemption and roots. Since it is not central to the main point of her article (which is very good) I thought it was worth discussing separately.

I first came across this idea in The golden bough by Sir James Frazer, which I read when I was in high school. As the Wikipedia summary puts it:

Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king. This king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the earth, who died at the harvest, and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend is central to almost all of the world’s mythologies. The germ for Frazer’s thesis was the pre-Roman priest-king at the fane of Nemi, who was ritually murdered by his successor

This implies that the disciples of Jesus, some time between his death and the writing of the gospels, decided to apply this myth to Jesus, and to proclaim him as such a dying-and-rising king. The problem of the argument that Christians “stole” it from pagans, however, is that Frazer claims that it is universal to all religions. So if Frazer’s argument is true, they all stole it, or at least all but the first one to come up with it, and it is very difficult to know which that one is.

I don’t, at this point, want to discuss the historicity of the resurrection. That the resurrection of Jesus was a historic event is central to the Christian faith, but proving by historical methods that that event took place as described is a different matter. What we can discover using historical methods, however, is what Christians believed at various periods. And what we discover is that very early on Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead, and that this was linked to, and seen as the fulfilment of the Jewish Passover.

As one Easter hymn puts it:

This is the day of resurrection, let us be illumined, O people. Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord. For from death to life and from earth to heaven has Christ our God led us, as we sing the song of victory: Christ is risen from the dead

This may be more familiar to Western Christians in J.M. Neale’s paraphrase:

The Day of Resurrection
Earth tell it out abroad
The Passover of gladness
The Passover of God
From death to life eternal
from earth unto the sky
Our Christ has brought us over
With songs of victory.

I’ve had several debates and even arguments about the topic previously, mainly with fundamentalist Christians who claim to have got the idea from a book called The two Babylons by Alexander Hislop. The first time this happened I could not find Hislop’s book, but I checked every historical reference I could find, and found the claim was without foundation. When, some years later, a friend lent me a copy of Hislop’s book, I found that Hislop didn’t claim it either, at least not in the form that the people who made the claim said he did. They played fast and loose with their own source, never mind any others.

Their argument (which, as I say, went considerably further than Hislop himself did) was based on the word “Easter” itself, and involved the most extraordinary historical distortions and anachronisms, not to mention fanciful etymology, and extraordinary debates about the translation of “Pascha” by “Easter” in Acts 12:4 of the King James English version of the Bible.

Their argument was that since the English word Easter was derived from the name of a pagan goddess, therefore the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ was a pagan one — which brings us right back to Sir James Frazer’s point, and the only conclusion of their argument that I could ever discover was that they were saying the Jesus never rose from the dead because the disciples nicked the story from some pagan source, but not even Hislop claims this.

The fact is, however, that Christians celebrated the resurrection of Christ long before the word “Easter” was used, and the word they used for the celebration was Pascha, which is derived from and linked to the Jewish festival of Passover (as the above hymn shows).

So where did the word “Easter” come from?

It’s time for a lesson in Christian missionary history.

When part of Britain was ruled by the Roman empire, Christianity spread there, as it did to the other parts of the Roman empire and beyond. Romano-British Christians evangelised Ireland, and Irish Christians sent missionaries to northern Britain to evangelise there among the Picts. Roman Britain was multi-cultural and multi-religious. There were Christians and a variety of local and Roman cults, and mixtures of them. In the 4th and 5th centuries Germanic “barbarians” were invading the Roman empire from the East, and at the beginning of the 5th century Roman troops were being withdrawn from Britain to help defend Italy against the Visigoths. By 410 the withdrawal was complete, and the British were told that they were on their own. The Emperor wrote a letter to this effect to different cities, as there was no longer any central authority. The “barbarians”, Angles and Saxons from the continent, the ancestors of the English, arrived in Britain in increasing numbers. Sometimes they settled peacefully among the British, but at other times they embarked on violent conquest (this was the time of the legendary King Arthur), and by the middle of the 6th century they ruled most of what came to be called England, driving the Romano-British and the Celtic population to the north and west — Cornwall, Wales and Cumbria.

Christian missionaries then evangelised the English — Celtic missionaries from Ireland and Scotland in the north, and a Roman mission led by St Augustine of Canterbury in the south, which arrived in 597.

A couple of centuries later the English monastic historian Bede wrote his History of the English Church and people and other works on Christian festivals, about which there had been some contention. Among other things Bede tells us about the origin of the word “Easter”. The English word Easter comes from the Anglo-Saxon name for the month of April, which was known as “Eostremonath” in the AngloSaxon tongue, and since Pascha was most often celebrated in Eostremonath, the English Christians began calling it “Easter”. Bede surmised that the month was named after a goddess Esostre (nothing to do with “Oestrus”, which has another derivation altogether), and there is also no demonstrable connection with “Ishtar”. Bede tells us very little about Eostre, and there is nothing about her in earlier or contemporary sources. Bede is the earliest reference.

English missionaries to other places, like Germany, took the term “Easter” with them, and so German Christians called it “Ostern”, but the rest of the Christian world called it Pascha, or derivatives thereof. So to claim that Passover/Pascha was “stolen” from pagans because the English called it “Easter” several centuries later is anachronistic nonsense.

Pagans might agree with James Frazer, and say that Christians “stole” the idea of a a dying-and-rising king from pagans, but if they do, perhaps they should stop and ask themselves where they themselves “stole” it from, because Frazer claims that it is universal.

But Christians who accept this factoid as a “fact” would do well to ponder St Paul’s words: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (I Cor 15:14).

Christianity, paganism and literature (synchroblog)

Christianity and neopaganism – synchroblog

When I have read or participated in electronic discussions on religion in general, and the relation between Christians and neopagans in particular, I have commonly found an expectation of hostility. Christians are expected to be hostile towards neopagans, and often are. Neopagans are expected to be hostile towards Christians, and often are.

Much of the hostility I have seen in electronic discussions arises from ignorance. Christians and neopagans do not so much attack each other as they attack caricatures of each other. And when they really get into the swing of the attack, they sometimes start behaving like the caricatures too. I believe the writings of the Inklings can go a long way towards removing the caricatures.

Some Christians have never heard of neopagans, and wonder what they are, and there is even disagreement about that, so here is a brief description. The word “pagan”, as used by Christians, originally meant someone who wasn’t a Christian. It was probably derived from Roman military slang, where it meant a civilian as opposed to a soldier, and for Christians it meant someone who had not enlisted, by baptism, in the battle against the evil “Prince of this World”.

As a result of this origin, in the early days of Christianity, pagans were not aware of being “pagan”, though as time went on some doubtless became aware that Christians called them that. They had many different gods and cults and philosophies, depending on where they lived. But whatever else they worshipped or didn’t worship, citizens of the Roman Empire had a universal obligation to participate in the Emperor cult. Christians were awkward in refusing to do so, and this sometimes got them into trouble with the authorities, and there were sporadic persecutions of Christians.

In many of the places where Christianity spread people stopped worshipping their old gods altogether, and became Christians; sometimes this happened because they wanted to do so, sometimes their king or other local ruler became a Christian and then forced all his subjects to do the same. For whatever reason, though, the worship of the old gods ceased.

In the 19th and 20th centuries a movement of secularisation spread through Europe and other parts of the world. Religion ceased to hold a central place in people’s thinking, and in some places, the so-called Second World, it was actively suppressed. The Western world had become post-Christian. People who were nonreligious, for whom God meant nothing, often called themselves, and were called by Christians, “pagans”. But some people were dissatisfied with a secular worldview, and many were spiritual searchers. Some of these searched in the pre-Christian religions of their countries, and began worshipping gods that had long been neglected. And they came to be called “neopagans”, new pagans, to distinguish them from those who had worshipped those gods before the coming of Christianity (who were sometimes called “paleopagans”). These revived pagan religions were not the same as the originals, and had a totally different social base. Many neopagans were eclectic, choosing gods who had never been worshipped together, and some worshippped gods of their own devising. It is impossible to describe all the different varieties of neopaganism here. Some have particular names: Asatru, the worship of the old Norse gods; Hellenism, the worship of the old Olympian gods of ancient Greece; Wicca, the worship of a goddess, and sometimes a god who is a consort.

As a result of some fanciful and now-discredited ideas propagated by Margaret Murray, some neopagans, and Wiccans in particular, came to believe that the Great European Witchhunt in Early Modern Europe was actually a persecuton of a pagan religion (labelled The Burning Times), and that the “witches” then persecuted were precursors of modern Wiccans. This fuelled the hostility that some neopagans felt towards Christians, while some Christians accused neopagans of being satanists and devil worshippers, and in some cases neopagans experienced real persecution in the present, and did not need imaginary persecutions of the past to make them aware of hostility.

One thing that strikes me about the fiction of the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien et al) is that they are often enjoyed by Christians and neopagans alike. These three authors, and perhaps others who write in similar genres, may provide a way for Christians and pagans to communicate with each other without such hostility.

Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were Christians, and I am a Christian, so what I say here, I say from a Christian point of view, and I am mainly addressing my fellow Christians. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want neopagans or others to read this. Anyone who is interested in the topic is welcome to do so. It’s just that I don’t advocate a neopagan viewpoint here, and nor do I pretend to a neutral “objectivity”. So if you are a neopagan, you’ll probably disagree with a lot of what I say. A lot of Christians might disagree with it too.

Tolkien’s Lord of the rings is probably the best-known and most widely read of the Inklings’ works. In the rec.arts.books.tolkien newsgroup, there are periodic discussions on whether it is a Christian book or not. Christians often claim that it is a Christian book, whereas non-Christians often claim that is is a “pagan” book. The elements of pagan mythology are plain to see, whereas there are none of the externally-recognisable elements of Christian “religion”. The characters don’t read the Bible, they don’t go to church, and Christ is never mentioned. There isn’t even a recognisable Christ-figure, like Aslan in the Narnian books of C.S. Lewis, to provide a reference point.

It is also fairly well known, at least among Inklings fans, that there was some disagreement on this point between Tolkien and Lewis. Tolkien disliked allegory, and said that he regarded the Christianity in Lewis’s books as too explicit. Some neopagans also find the Christianity in Lewis’s books too explicit, and avoid them for that reason. Others enjoy them, and either ignore the Christian references, or regard them as another “path” that they themselves do not need to take, though they acknowledge that it may have been legitimate for Lewis and others.

Lewis’s fiction works might be a good starting point, however, precisely because they are most explicitly Christian. Even though this is so, one could also say much the same of them as many have said of The lord of the rings – there are no church services or Christian ministers, or any other religious activities. There is no religion in them. But there is quite a lot of pagan material in them.

Consider, for example, C.S. Lewis’s The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. A child from the normal everyday world hides in a wardrobe during a game, and finds herself transported by magic into another world, where she has tea with a faun, a figure from ancient Roman pagan mythology. A faun is half human, half goat, and the encounter is an introduction to a world of intelligent talking animals – beavers with sewing machines and the like. Lewis has no hesitation in blending Christian and pagan mythology in his Narnian books. There is even salvation. Salvation is at the centre of the plot of the book, but one would have to look hard to find it attributed to any religion at all, Christian or pagan.

Of course Lewis was known as a Christian, and his conception of salvation is a Christian one, but in this particular book he does not deal with what seems to be the central question for many Western Christian “theologians of religion” – the question whether there is salvation in “other” religions.

The next book in the Narnian series, Prince Caspian, is even more populated with pagan deities – Bacchus and Silenus, nymphs and Maenads, and even a river god. Lewis does not identify these with the forces of evil – they are not “satanic”, as many Christians seem to think pagan deities ought to be (and many neopagans think that Christians think neopagans’ deities are). They are rather part of the army of liberation, and are themselves liberated from the powers of evil in the course of the story.

One could give more examples from the other books in the series, but the picture one gets from all of these is far removed from some of the common Western perceptions of the Christian attitude towards paganism and pagan deities, whether seen from the point of view of Christians or of neopagans. That is, the perception that Christianty and neopaganism are, and perhaps ought to be, hostile to each other.

This hostility was not always around

Back in the early 1970s a group of us were trying to set up a Christian commune in Windhoek, Namibia. We made contact with other groups with similar interests, largely through an exchange of underground magazines in something called The Cosmic Circuit (a kind of hard-copy Webring). One magazine dealing with communes was produced by a neopagan group in Wales, and was edited by Tony Kelly of the Selene Community there. We sent them our Christian magazine Ikon in exchange for their publication Communes. They also sent us a few copies of their neopagan magazine The Waxing Moon. There was no hostility that I could discern. The people who published The Waxing Moon appeared to want to revive the pre-Christian nature religions of north-western Europe. It seemed to be part of a wider “back-to-nature” movement, a reaction against the urban-industrial society of the 20th century with its wars and political systems.

Then we lost contact. Our community in Windhoek was broken up by deportation and banning, and we went our separate ways and got involved in other things. In the 1990s I once again came into contact with neopagans, mainly through electronic computer links, such as bulletin board conferences and reading Web pages put up by neopagans. The bulletin board conferences were more informative, because they were more interactive. But there seemed to be differences from my experience of 20 years earlier. There was a hostility and suspicion that I had not noticed before. It also seemed that where there was this hostility, there was also a lack of communication. Christians and neopagans did not so much attack each other as attack caricatures of each other. The electronic media made it possible for people who might otherwise never meet to talk to each other, but when they did, they failed to communicate and just talked past each other. As someone once put it, these new electronic communications media made it easy to communicate with people of other countries and cultures, but very often it is communication without community.

One difference, which may be significant, is that the neopagans we were in touch with in the 1970s were in Britain. Most of those I encountered in the 1990s through BBSs were American. And some Americans, at least, seem to get a lot more aggressive and bitter about things, and were more inclined to divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys”.

But what I think may be even more significant is the time. I got the impression (which could be mistaken) that the neopagans of the 1960s and 1970s were engaged in a search for spiritual values in reaction against secular modernity. They failed to find those values in Christianity, because many Western Christians had sold out to secular modernity. The most influential Christian books at the time were all about how the Christian church must come to terms with modernity and secular values: The secular meaning of the gospel (van Buren), The secular city (Cox) and Honest to God (Robinson) are a few of the better-known ones. Anyone looking for spiritual values at such a time would have been hard-put to find them in the Christian churches of the West. While Christian theologians were saying how difficult it was for “modern man” to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the youth were marching in the streets in their thousands with posters proclaiming that “Che Guevara lives” and “Chairman Mao will live for 10000 years”. The theologians who were trying to address the “with it” generation were quite obviously “without it”.

In the 1990s, however, when I began communicating with neopagans and others electronically, I got a different impression (which could also be mistaken) – that many people who had turned to neopaganism in the 1990s had reacted not against secular values, but against religious ones, and those religious values were those of Christianity, or, perhaps more accurately, those which American sociologists have called “Judeo-Christian” when trying to describe the middle ground of US culture. The difference between American neopagans of the 1990s and British ones of the 1970s was that the former were rebelling against a “Judeo-Christian” upbringing, whereas the latter were rebelling against secular materialism, and could therefore more easily find common ground with Christians who were rebelling against the same things. Those who are rebelling against a “Judeo-Christian” upbringing might on that account be more inclined to be hostile towards Christianity.

What happened to make the change?

I suspect that one cause is that in the 1970s many Western Christians rebelled against the “secular sixties”, and changed. This rebellion took several different forms. One form was radical Christian “Jesus freaks”. Another was the spread of the charismatic renewal, with its rediscovery of a sense of miracle and mystery. It is possible that in the 1970s this attracted many who in the 1960s might have been attracted by neopaganism.

By the end of the decade, however, a reaction had set in. The charismatic renewal had become institutionalised and domesticated in a kind of Protestant neo-scholasticism. A thousand loose-cannon prophets receiving direct revelations from the Holy Spirit (so they said) found that these revelations seemed to concern all the other groups and teachings but theirs, and began calling on the faithful to “Come out of Babylon” and join their particular version of the New Jerusalem. The denunciations became stronger, and the tolerance of deviation less, and euphoria of the 1970s led to the hangover of the 1980s, which some called “charismatic burn-out”. The miracle and the mystery had been swallowed up in a sterile intellectual rigidity. (I’ve been toying with the idea of a research project into the history of the charismatic renewal in South Africa to test some of these hypotheses).

Having observed this process among Western Christians, I am a little disturbed by signs of something similar beginning to happen among Orthodox Christians in the West, only three decades behind the Protestants and Roman Catholics. There seems to be an idea going around that Orthodox Christianity must be inculturated in the West by having clean-shaven clergy in business suits, with pews and microphones and musical instruments in the churches. Orthodoxy could be beginning its own sell-out to secular Western culture. Not entirely, though. Groups such as the Youth of the Apocalypse, with their slogan of “Death to the World”, affirming the countercultural character of Orthodoxy, might provide a counter weight.

So much for the background (as I see it) to the hostility between many Christians and many neopagans. What does the fantasy literature of people like Lewis, Tolkien and Williams have to do with it?

In the 1960s Lewis and Williams’s fiction was reprinted in paperback, and so became more accessible. Tolkien’s Lord of the rings was reprinted in 1966, and enjoyed a new popularity. Until then, Lewis had been widely known as the author of popular works of Christian apologetics. In a smaller, more specialised circle, he was known as the author of some works of literary criticism. Williams continued to be known mainly by a fairly small circle of enthusiasts. All three writers based their work, mainly or in part, on premodern myths and legends.

At the same time as professional theologians were writing works extolling the virtues of modernity, of the modern world-view or “paradigm”, and calling for Christianity to be “demythologised”, these authors were in effect reaffiming the value of myth. At the same time as the publication of Robinson’s Honest to God, which caused such a stir in the West, J.V. Taylor published The primal vision. Both Taylor’s and Robinson’s books were discussed at conferences of the Anglican Students Federation of South Africa, and their somewhat incompatible messages seemed to cancel one another out. Demythology was very trendy, but Taylor included in his book a quote from Nicolas Berdyaev, who pointed out that “myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept”.

But the best means of communicating the value of myth is myth itself. The primal vision is almost forgotten, but the demand for the works of the Inklings has grown over the last 30 years.

I’ve already mentioned the appearance of pagan themes in Lewis’s Narnian books, and have discussed the appearance of some of these themes in his Cosmic trilogy, and especially Out of the silent planet on another web page. The third novel in the trilogy, That hideous strength, comes closer to the writings of Charles Williams. It has been described as Lewis’s attempt to write a novel in the style of Williams. Like Williams’s novels, and unlike the other two in the trilogy, or the Narnian books, the setting is this world, rather than an imaginary one, or a setting on other planets.

hidstrenIn That hideous strength spiritual powers manifest themselves in this world – the ancient Greek and Roman deities, who are also the planetary rulers, show themselves in human society, and, in alliance with a revived Merlin of the Arthurian legends, confound the powers of evil. The Arthurian theme has echoes of Williams’s poetry in particular. It has echoes in the children’s novels of Peter Dickinson, who wrote of a revived Merlin whose awaking provoked an atavistic fear of modern technology among the inhabitants of Britain.

Alan Garner, whose children’s novels The weirdstone of Brisingamen and The moon of Gomrath were first published in the 1960s, wrote of a wizard, Cadellin Silverbrow, who is guarding a company of sleeping knights, who are threatened by the evil power of the Morrigan and Nastrond. The sleeping knights are to waken when Britain is in extreme peril.

The return of a half-forgotten power from a mythical past to battle an evil in the present is common to That hideous strength and the works of Garner. Lewis uses Graeco-Roman mythology in developing the characteristics of the planetary rulers, and also uses Romano-British mythology and folklore for the idea of a revived Merlin. Garner uses Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and modern folklore – the idea of the “old straight track”, for example, which he uses in The moon of Gomrath is a recent one.

Unlike Lewis, Garner’s books do not have many clearly-identifiable Christian elements. Yet for Christians, Garner’s books are as enjoyable as Tolkien’s. Neopagans have sometimes recommended Garner’s books as an introduction to a pagan worldview and pagan values for children. I believe that the attraction of these books could offer a key to understanding the common ground shared by Christians and neopagans, and also the differences between them.

One of the attractions for Christians is a struggle between good and evil powers, which is a central feature of the Christian worldview. In That hideous strength Lewis asserts Christian, liberal and democratic values against those of a fascist technocracy, and suggests that the latter are part of a satanic cosmic plot. This happens at several levels. For the modern worldview, nature and politics need to be demythologized (see Harvey Cox, The secular city). Lewis effectively remythologizes them. For the early Christians (and for most of their contemporaries) political and spiritual power were inseparable. The emperor cult, which Christians refused to participate in, bore witness to this. Lewis shows how this power operates in a modern setting.

In Garner’s books the struggles are for the possession of the symbols of power – the weirdstone of Brisingamen itself, for example. But there is the same struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

In Tolkien’s Lord of the rings the primary symbol of power is the One Ring carried by Frodo Baggins to Mount Doom, to be destroyed in the fire in which it was forged.

Where does that take us?

This article has been nearly ten years in the writing. I posted it on a web page, and have added to it from time to time, as new ideas have occurred to me, but the main point has been to pose questions rather than to give answers. In the blog format it is easy to respond by comments, and I hope that it may be the beginning of a conversation. The conversation need not be limited to a blog, and could take place in face to face discussions, or even in a reading group.

Here are some of the questions that occur to me. I hope that if this provokes any ideas, you may respond in comments, or even with other questions.

What values do you see in the writings of the Inklings? Which ones are common to Christians and neopagans? Which ones do you think are incompatible with one or the other?

For Christians: what kind of Christian theology of religions to you see behind the works of the Inklings? What are the similarities and differences between it and that of your community or tradition?

For neopagans: what do you think of the view of pagan deities in tho books of the Inklings? Do you find it hostile, friendly, condescending, cooptive?

[ Continued at Towards a theology of Religions ]

See the other Synchroblogs on the theme of Christianity and neopaganism:

This article is loosely based on an article I posted on my web pages about 10 years ago, and have been adding to since then. An older version may be found at Christianity, paganism and literature

It is also a continuation of a series of posts on Theology of religion, which bedan with the August synchroblog on Christianity, inclusive or exclusive. The instalment previous to this one can be found at Theology of religions and interreligious dialogue. The next instalment is at Towards a theology of religions.
See also an earlier post on Beats, Inklings, Christian literature and paganism.

Christian responses to witchcraft and Wicca

About 10 years ago I wrote an article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery, prompted mainly be the prevalence and frequency of witchhunts in what is now the Limpopo province of South Africa.

I recently found an article on Wikipedia, Christian views on witchcraft, which quoted my article at one point, and was rather confused and patchy, and would probably be confusing to most readers. One reader complained that, since many students used Wikipedia as a tertiary source, the article was frustrating, as it did not really give any references to secondary sources, and so was practically useless.

I tried to do a quick patch — wrote a historical introduction, and tossed in a couple of bibliographical references, but such a thing really needs to be a collaborative effort, and so this is a call for discussion and help in trying to improve the article.

I’m not sure how much of the rest of the article is usable, though, and it may need to be completely rewritten.

One problem, which I touched on only briefly in my original article, is the confusion between witchcraft and Wicca. Russell (1980:12). defines “witch” as follows:

What really is a witch? One answer lies in the roots and development of words. ‘Witch’ derives from the Old English wicca (pronounced ‘witcha’ and meaning male witch) and wicce (‘female witch’, pronounced ‘witcheh’) and from the word wiccian, meaning ‘to cast a spell’. Contrary to common belief among modern witches, it is not Celtic in derivation, and it has nothing to do with the Old English witan, ‘to know’, or any other word relating to wisdom. The explanation that witchcraft means ‘craft of the wise’ is false…

‘Wizard’, unlike ‘witch’, really does derive from Middle English wis, ‘wise’. The word first appears about 1440, meaning a ‘wise man or woman’; in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it designated a high magician, and only after 1825 was it used as the equivalent of ‘witch’.

Anthropologists like Evans-Pritchard have made a distinction between witchcraft and sorcery, regarding the former as an innate capacity to cause harm, sometimes even unintentionally (as in the evil eye), while sorcery is the conscious and intentional use of spells or substances. I doubt that the distinction holds good in all societies, and some use the same word for both, In Zulu a witch is umthakathi and witchcraft ubuthakathi, and the same word applies to both witchcraft and sorcery in Evans-Pritchard’s sense.

As I note in my article, however, there is a modern religion called Wicca, which, though its name is derived from the old English word for “witch”, is really something different. Though Wicca is a religion, witchcraft is no more a religion than carpentry is. In Africa there are religious specialists who are concerned with witchcraft, but their concern is mainly with countering its harmful effects. Early English-speaking visitors to Africa who encountered these specialists in African society described them, quite accurately, as “witchdoctors” — that is, doctors whose job it was to heal those who had been harmed by witchcraft, and to counter the spells of witches.

“Witchdoctor” is a fairly broad term, and because of this anthropologists have tended not to like it. It is too imprecise, and fails to take into account differences in societies and cultures. Some detect witches, some detect and remove harmful substances, some provide protective medicine to counter harmful substances, and so it goes. Sometimes the job of witchdoctor is combined with that of a diviner (smelling out witches is, after all, a form of divining) but a diviner often has a much wider task. Not every misfortune or sickness is caused by witchcraft. It could be caused by an annoyed ancestor, for example. The diviner’s job is to determine the cause (which may be witchcraft or something else) and recommend appropriate countermeasures.

One problem that arises, therefore, is that Christians also confuse witchcraft and Wicca, and treat them as interchangeable things. One web site where this can be seen is A Christian response to Wicca. where Wicca is identified with witrchcraft without even an attempt at definition, and both together are subsumed under “the occult” which in turn is lumped together with “humanist” and “new age” beliefs, which include just about anything, so vague is the generalising.

The primary Christian response to witchcraft is that Christians don’t do such things. Killimg people is wrong, in the Christian understanding, whether you do it with knives, guns, napalm or spells. It is the intention, rather than the effectiveness of the weapon, that is the criterion.

Christian responses to Wicca are different. Wicca is a religion, and many Wiccans are ex-Christians. Where that is the case, they are apostates from Christianity, and therefore to be treated as heathens and publicans. But if we recognise this, we should study the gospels to see how Jesus treated heathens and publicans, and take note of his implicit and explicit criticism of those who treated them harshly.

These are some of the problems I see with trying to revise the Wikipedia article. Any comments or suggestions?

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