February 15, 2006

Modern Myths about Christianity, Pt. 1

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

My study in witchcraft has finally reached a point where I am passing beyond Wicca 101 books and exploring some very interesting, insightful readings on the nature of sacred magic and the spirituality of witchcraft. I had hoped that these books would be informed and thoughtful enough to avoid, if not correct, some of the more common myths about Christianity's flaws. (My hope was twofold: (a) that such writers had reached a point where their own spiritual path needed no crutch of anti-Christian sentiment to support its legitimacy; and (b) that in their advanced studies and open dialogue along their own path, which often encourages research into other religions, they would have discovered many of their perceptions about Christianity to be wrong.) Unfortunately, though these books share a great deal that has value and depth, they often still perpetuate certain false notions of the Christian faith. This can be very discouraging for the advancing Christian witch, who may start to sense that the "many paths up the mountain" metaphor used by so many pagans, as well as mystics of all times and cultures, still has no room for the Path of Christ. In order to put to rest some of my own grated nerves over the matter, and hopefully help some others--Pagans and Christians alike--who may be wondering, I'm starting a new series (a two- or three-parter, possibly more, we shall see) about some of the most common myths I encounter, why they are not accurate perceptions of Christianity, and what might be the real heart of the problem.

This first part will address two very common myths about Christianity.
  • Myth # 1: Something Borrowed. Christianity "borrowed" or stole a great deal from the pagan culture it was attempting to replace, and to this day most things of value or benefit within the faith are not Christian, but pagan in nature.

  • Myth # 2: Something Blue. The most tragic aspect of Christianity is that it teaches that God is unreachable and unknowable, wholly absent from the world and from humankind, which is isolated by its sinful nature.

  • Something Borrowed.
    Christianity "borrowed" or stole a great deal from the pagan culture it was attempting to replace, and to this day most things of value or benefit within the faith are not Christian, but pagan in nature.

    This first myth is the least theological in nature and so, while in some ways it is the hardest to dispute, it is also the least important. The truth is, there do exist many similarities between Christianity (especially Catholicism, and especially the form of Catholicism found in developing and underdeveloped countries) and many of the practices of modern Pagans (or Neopagans). It is also true that, historically, as the Christian community expanded, seeking to embrace not only the Jewish people but also Gentiles and those of other cultures, the growing Church did adapt some indigenous practices and customs in order to ease the transition (or what many Neopagans would describe as the "hostile takeover"). From a sociological view, this is all perfectly natural, and not only is it expected of a growing religion such as the Christian Church of the time, but it is occurring even now within the Neopagan community itself, as they adapt ceremonies from 19th and 20th century Christian occult groups, meditation techniques from Buddhism and Hinduism, shamanistic practices from African and Native American spiritualities, Qabalistic mystical systems from Judaism... the list could go on. To object to these types of blendings and adaptations would be to subscribe to the myth that religions are static, unchanging systems of belief that are revealed all at once and adhered to in exactly the same manner by all members of that community. This is sociologically speaking, simply not true.

    So, if we can accept that this aspect of Christianity is not necessarily illegitimate, then we must ask ourselves what is the heart of the problem? Why do so many people feel that the accusations of "borrowing" or "stealing" from other cultures makes such a strong case against Christianity? The answer has two parts. Firstly, it points to a theological precept of Christianity that differs from religions such as, say, Judaism or, supposedly, Wicca. While the latter two do not actively seek to convert others, Christians are charged by their faith to "spread the Word" and share Christ with others. Suddenly, the similarities and borrowings of the Christian religion take on a sinister shade--they are no longer simply the result of the natural evolution and spread of a religion, but an intentional plot to usurp and replace all other forms of spirituality. While some of this may be close to the truth, especially about the Catholic Church during certain periods in its history, we need to remember that, as an evolving social institution and cultural community, modern Christianity should not be held continually guilty for its past flaws, especially if individual Christians are attempting to or have overcome them. As soon as we allow for the possibility for positive growth and change, the sinister history of the Church ceases to be a huge stumbling block for modern believers (though they, too, must hold a realistic view and acknowledge that the history of Christianity is not all hearts and flowers).

    The second issue at the heart of "borrowed" practices is the insecurity felt by many neophyte Neopagans who feel the need to justify their split from Christianity. By claiming that all things of value in Christianity are really just adaptations from pagan religions, they can abandon Christianity as unnecessary while retaining those things which benefitted them. And perhaps Christianity is unnecessary for them. This is perfectly fine. The problem occurs when all insights and spiritual growth that Christians experience are attributed to pagan influences, effectively denying that Christianity is an integrated and legitimate path towards the Divine in itself. All Christian mystics and saints are dismissed (or turned into old pagan gods, even when evidence suggests such saints were indeed historical people and not merely "borrowed" myths). This ties into a number of theological issues that we will discuss later, for it suggests that there is no truth at the heart of the Christian faith. Such an accusation is as hard to justify as it is to disprove, and rests mainly on mutual bitterness.

    The fact is, if only to myself, I am living proof that Christianity has value. Through Christianity (and not through any pagan belief or practice) I learned the nature of the Divine as Love (i.e. the sacred interconnection of all life, a common Wiccan belief); I learned that God is both transcendent and immanent (though many pagans would have you believe Catholic dogma denies the latter, it does not); I learned the importance of works and grace (i.e. the necessity of working, using free will and intention, in harmony with the Divine, another Wiccan precept); I learned about the continuing spiral of a soul's evolution and the nature of sacrifice, death and rebirth.... All of these things I learned in an entirely Christian context, and all of these theological propositions are internally consistent within Christianity, needing no outside support by Pagan mythologies or practices. I have walked a good way up the mountain without ever leaving Christ, and I have reached many of the same conclusions that Wiccans, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus have reached. This is my evidence that Christianity has inherent value. Others need to explore their own journeys to discover what value Christianity may hold for them; but they should not deny that, regardless of their own feelings, Christianity as a system of belief has the potential to produce spiritual fruits for others.

    Something Blue.
    The most tragic aspect of Christianity is that it teaches that God is unreachable and unknowable, wholly absent from the world and from humankind, which is isolated by its sinful nature.

    Having dealt with the above sociological/historical concern, we turn to what Pagans often claim are Christianity's theological flaws. We will look more closely at the concept of sin later, but for now, I want to address one of the most common objections to Christian doctrine: the absence of God from the world. Indeed, viewing the Divine as immanent within nature and humanity and/or as manifest in them is often claimed to be an invention or new discovery by Wicca and Neopaganism itself (see both Sylvan's The Circle Within and Curott's Witch Crafting for examples of such claims).

    This statement could not be further from the truth. Wicca did not "invent" the concept of immanence (at best, it rediscovered it through Eastern religions and recovered it from its lessening emphasis within Western Protestant, particularly Fundamentalist, Christianity). Furthermore, the official doctrine of the Church states specifically that the Divine is both revealed in nature and present within us. So clear are these statements of the Christian faith, that I do not even need to argue the fact, but merely cite the statements themselves.

    First, we begin with the question of whether nature manifests God, turning to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the doctrinal response: "Ever since the creation of the world [God's] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. The world, and man, attest that they contain within themselves neither their first principle nor their final end, but rather that they participate in Being itself, which alone is without origin or end." [CCC 32, 34] Here, we see clearly stated that neither nature nor human beings exist as isolated, self-contained beings, but that they "participate in Being;" that is, they participate in the Divine Presence as it creates and sustains the very existence of the world itself.

    More specifically, we wonder about the nature of the Divine Presence within human beings, and find the Biblical statements: "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:20-21) and "Know you not that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? Glorify and bear God in your body." (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:20) The latter, that "the kingdom of God is within you" is often attributed to the gnostic gospels as an example of a belief rejected by official Church doctrine (usually suggesting that the Church suppresses a belief in the immanence of God because such a belief would threaten their earthly authority). Yet there it is, the same statement in canonical scripture, a statement often cited, along with 1 Corinthians, to explore ideas of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit and its relationship to human beings.

    So, it should be obvious that Christianity is not necessarily world-denying and does not automatically reject the notion of Divine immanence, as many Neopagans claim. If there are such blatant statements to the contrary, however, why then is there such confusion about the issue, and why do many Christians themselves feel that their faith leaves them isolated and alienated from God?

    Part of this confusion is due to Christianity's focus not only on immanence, but also on transcendence. "[...] We must recall that 'between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude'; and that 'concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.'" [CCC 43] This is indicative of an on-going debate, not only within Christianity, but within and among all world religions and spiritual paths. The Ultimate Nature of the Divine is a Mystery which we cannot express with limited language and, because language is the foundation of reason and the structure of thought itself, we cannot ever "know" God the way we "know" other, limited things. It is in this sense that God is un-"knowable" and is no-thing (i.e. no-thing we have ever known or could know). On the other hand, the fact that the Mystery of the Divine is inexhaustible does not mean that it is unable to be experienced or entered into. Indeed, just after the above statement of belief, we read: "We really can name God, starting from the manifold perfections of his creatures, which are likenesses of the infinitely perfect God, even if our limited language cannot exhaust the mystery." [CCC 48] We might even mistake this statement for a Wiccan precept (if not for the masculine pronoun), and take it to mean that each creature in nature, human being, avatar or particular deity manifests only an aspect or facet of the Great Spirit or Source.

    So if the Christian notion of transcendence does not require a rejection of immanence, what fuels this misconception? Here we must be aware not only of the politics of history (such as we discussed in the first section of this post), but we must also understand the role politics and culture in our current time. The rejection of immanence is not so much a belief of Christianity, as it is a result of the marriage of Christian ethics with modern Western Capitalism. In a political and economic system fueled by dissatisfaction and desire, the notion of finding the Divine Sustainer within oneself becomes a threat. In order to keep people buying, they must be made constantly aware of their material lack and insecurity, as well as their emotional needs and vulnerabilities. Christianity itself can become handmaiden to this cultural trend by emphasizing the transcendent, unknowable nature of God and a notion of sin defined by failure and abandonment, undercutting any feeling of security or contentment to be found within the Divine Presence (either in the world or in ourselves). It even turns material success and emotional warm-fuzziness, rather than spiritual growth itself, into the primary evidence of God's blessings. Neopaganism and Wicca will eventually fall prey to this same or a similar market-driven flaw if the basis of these feelings of alienation and isolation are not appropriately addressed. Luckily, many Pagans are self-aware and are exploring the roots of such disconnection; however, we must remember and respect that there are also modern Christians who, in a purely Christian context, are doing the same and are succeeding as well.

    In Part Two, we will look at the misconception of the meanings of "faith" and "sin" in Christianity. In Part Three, we will explore the idea of "salvation" and the nature and role of Christ as "the Way, the Truth and the Light." There may be additions to this continuing series, if I find other issues I want to address.

    Modern Myths about Christianity Series


    At 15.2.06, Blogger Mankind said...

    What form of Christianity have you studied and what unfinformed sould have you studied under. I have no idea where you were going with your first "myth" but the second is so far off base I don't know where to begin. God is not unreachable. Strike one. God is not unknowable. Strike two. God is not wholy absent from the world or humankind. Strike three. You're outta here.
    I'll keep this very simple. God is reachable through prayer and Bible study. The Bible study also leads us into knowing God. We learn what God wants from us, how He wants us to live, who He wants us to be, what job He has for us, the love He has for us. Which brings me to the third point, to feel that God is absent only implies that God is absent in your heart. To just sit and proclaim your are a Christian would imply the presence of God. God, in my humble opnion as a Christian, is not this pie in the sky being. He's in your heart, in your mind, in your soul. He's in every decision you make and every emotion you have.

    At 15.2.06, Blogger Ali said...

    Instead or replying directly to this comment, I'll just give you time to reread this post more carefully. I am saying that these claims about Christianity are myths, that they are not true (just as you say they aren't). Please be more careful and thoughtful in your reading next time. But thank you for your response.

    At 17.2.06, Blogger Mary E said...

    another well-thought out argument, Ali- you must have been trained in the Socratic method! I agree, I was always aware that God is both immanent and transcendant, especially in the historical teaching of the Catholic Church and to some extent the more traditional of the portestant churches (Episcopal, Anglican). My view of the "borrowed" religion is that all religions contain the spark of the Divine in whatever way they best understand it, and that they all developed theologies that were similar to the catholic church. When the church came in, it found no offense to "faith and morals"and allowed those elements to remain and indeed flourish.
    Mary E


    Post a Comment

    << Home