Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “Christianity and paganism”

The Times – Military believe judge was ‘bewitched’

The case of a military judge who has claimed that she was bewitched has really set the cat among the pigeons.

The Times – Military believe judge was ‘bewitched’:

A Senior military judge has escaped prosecution for attempting suicide because some of the SA National Defence Force’s top brass allegedly believed her claim that she had been bewitched.

The defence force’s first black female judge, Colonel Phildah Nomoyi, 41, doused herself with petrol and set herself alight in her garage in June.

Now Thaba Tshwane — the military complex in Pretoria that is home to thousands of personnel from privates to generals — is buzzing with gossip about how Nomoyi escaped being booted from the force.

Not only is the unfortunate judge in danger of being sacked for “shooting herself in the foot” (as the saying goes), but the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) have said they will lodge a formal complaint with the Minister of Defence, SANDF Legal services, SANDF Chief and the Defence Secretariat, against “the spurious religious prejudice and defamation demonstrated against Witchcraft by Colonel Phildah Nomoyi” and (according to reports) “supported by the SANDF in their refusal to remove Nomoyi from her Judicial position or charge her with conduct unbecoming.”

Which quite frankly seems utterly ridiculous. Or do SAPRA have evidence that Philidah Nomoyi has accused them, or any of their members, of bewitching her?

I believe that, however the case turns out, the SA Pagan Rights Alliance owe Colonel Phildah Nomoyi an apology for accusing her of “spurious religious prejudice”, unless they have evidence to show that she specifically accused them, or any of their members, of bewitching her.

It appears that they are confusing two very different things — the modern religion of pagan witchcraft, and premodern African witchcraft beliefs. As the historian Ronald Hutton has pointed out in his book The pagan religions of the ancient British IOsles,

By assuming that witchcraft and paganism were formerly the same phenomenon, they (Wiccans) are mixing two utterly different archaic concepts and placing themselves in a certain amount of difficulty. The advantage of the label ‘witch’ is that it has all the exciting connotations of a figure who flouts the conventions of normal society and is possessed of powers unavailable to it, at once feared and persecuted. It is a marvellous rallying-point for a counter-culture, and also one of the few images of independent female power in early modern European civilization. The disadvantage is that by identifying themselves with a very old stereotype of menace,
derived from the pre-Christian world itself, modern pagans have drawn upon themselves a great deal of unnecessary suspicion, vituperation and victimization which they are perpetually struggling to assuage.

Now I am sympathetic towards neopagans who have been maligned in this way, and have suffered vi8ctimisation as a result. But it is disingenuous to claim that Colonel Phildah Nomoyi had the slightest intention of doing this. It is confusing two very different concepts, and has the effect of victimising Colonel Phildah Nomoyi in the same way that neopagans have themselves have been victimised. She clearly has problems, and deserves sympathy rather than persecution.

The paganism of Narnia

The post-Christian man of our day differs from pagans as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin, said C.S. Lewis. Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace for the link.

Comment: The paganism of Narnia:

‘When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Would that she were.’ For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads.

‘If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin.’

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.

Urban legend: government to replace Christian public holidays

Yesterday a friend sent me an e-mail petition against an alleged government plan to change Christian holidays in South Africa.

This is what it said:

ATTENTION ALL CHRISTIANS! It was announced in this mornings Beeld that Government wants to change all Christian holidays e.g. Christmas and Easter, as Christianity has too many public holidays and it is therefore discrimination against other religions.

They no longer want Christian names for these holidays. So if you are prepared to stand up for your faith, please sign the form to say that you are against this proposal.

We WILL stand up for our Lord!

As this had all the marks of an urban legend, I thought I’d check up a bit.

What actually happened was that Mathole Motshekga appealed to the Commission on Culture, Religion and Language to make some changes. He did this back in April, and it was reported in Beeld back then. It wasn’t in today’s Beeld, nor in the issue on the date of the forwarded e-mail message I received.

So the petition is based on a lie: it is not something that “the government” wants. It is something that Mathole Motshekga wants.

So who is Mathole Motshekga?

He is a lawyer and a politician.

He replaced Tokyo Sexwale as Premier of Gauteng, but didn’t last very long in that post, and his tenure was somewhat controversial. He is now director of the Kara Heritage Institute, which appears to promote a new religion of Dr Motshekga’s own devising, a rather eclectic religion based on a mixture of gnosticism and African traditional religion.

I heard him a few times on the morning talk show on SAFM radio, hosted by Xolani (or Cwelani, I’ve heard it pronounced both ways) Gwala giving his views on that subject and others.

To judge from what he said on the radio Dr Motshekga’s knowledge of history seemed to be even more wildly inaccurate than that of The de Vinci code. Xolani/Cwelani Gwala appeared to be a fan of his, and Dr Motshekga was on SAFM nearly every day, so that his religion was getting more exposure on the SABC than any other. Eventually I switched to Classic FM, and no longer listen to SAFM.

I have no objection to Dr Motshekga having his own religion, or even speaking about it on the radio. What annoyed me was the lies and distortions about other religions that he was propagating, and the fact that he seemed to be being given a monopoly to do it by the SABC.

But that is no excuse for some Christians to spread lies and distortions about Dr Motshekga’s views on public holidays, or to spread urban legends that have no foundation.

A good comment on this is Christian holidays and press responsibility by Amelia Mulder, in which she concludes that:

  1. people no longer pay attention when they are reading
  2. they believe what they want to believe
  3. especially when it has to do with the government’s conspiracy against Afrikaners
  4. the press exploits this shamelessly
  5. it makes a person wonder how much you can believe of what you read

Concerning the last couple of points there was another example recently in reports of the arrest of the editor of the Sunday Times, which several journalist bloggers anticipated by writing headlines that implied that the arrest had already taken place, and then later used the rather feeble excuse that it would have happened if they hadn’t said it had happened. So if you want to prevent something happening, say it has already happened, even when it has not — a rather swivel-eyed concept of responsible journalism and media freedom!

October Synchroblog – Christian responses to Halloween

The October Synchroblog is on Christian responses to Halloween. As usual, you will find a variety of views expressed by 24 bloggers from various places around the world. Here are links to the posts (revised 28 October, with links to actual posts):

Follow-ups and spin-offs

While not actually part of the October Synchroblogs, the following are posts that either linked to it, or followed up on the general theme. Notes and comments by Steve Hayes.

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).

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