Friday, December 19, 2008

Pagan-Christian Dialogue: Moving Beyond Our Skepticism

In a recent post I mentioned the new edition of Sacred Tribes Journal that is available. Its contents includes two reviews of Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega's Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2008), a volume I was privileged to edit. The reviews of the book have brought it to the attention of the Pagan community on the Internet once again on places like the Strange Onion Peelings and The Wildhunt blogs. The continued interest and positive reception of the book is good, but some of the discussion surrounding the issue of Pagan-Christian dialogue is more concerning.

On the Strange Onion Peeling, blogger James French expresses skepticism concerning differing views of religious pluralism between Pagans and Christians, and in the comments responding to this Chas Clifton writes:

"I tend to agree with the overall point of your post, which is why I avoid interfaith pow-wows. Those folks just don’t “get” polytheism, immanence, sacred sexuality, and other components of contemporary Pagan ways. They want to know just enough about us to convert us — or to find something about our ways to praise while ignoring the “icky” parts."

On The Wildhunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters is appreciative of the dialogue process, and the new voices in Christianity among "missional Christians" attempting to chart a new way forward between our communities. Even so, he understands why his fellow Pagans maintain a skeptical and perhaps pessimistic stance on the dialogue process.

After reading some of this commentary over the last couple of days I'd like to share my thoughts with Pagans and Christians interested in these issues

First, I want to express my thanks for those on both sides of this issue to those who are interested in Beyond the Burning Times, and who are reading through it for reviews for their religious communities. I think this is a significant volume that was put forward with the best of intentions and a lot of hard work for everyone involved.

Second, I acknowledge that Christians and Pagans do have different views over issues like religious pluralism, and it is precisely because we do have our differences that the dialogue process needs to continue. Should we continue to either ignore, stereotype or demonize each other merely because we disagree? More dialogue on such important issues informed by careful philosophical and thealogical/theological reflection will help us understand and clarify our perspectives, even if we don't persuade each other of the legitimacy of these perspectives.

Third, my hope is that projects like Beyond the Burning Times, and the handful of Christians developing a new way of understanding and engaging our Pagan friends will be accepted as a good faith effort that can build enough trust for our relationships and continued dialogues to move forward.

Fourth, I respectfully disagree with the sentiments expressed by Chas Clifton in his comments on Strange Onion Peeling. There are Christians who are making a good effort at understanding Paganism, including the aspects he specifically mentions. Therefore, we do "get it," even though we have a long way to go in our understanding. And we are not attempting to understand just enough of Paganism to combine it with a nicer approach in order to convert people. Yes, we feel an obligation to be obedient to Jesus' command to "make disciples," and in so doing share the pathway of Jesus when it is appropriate and desired, but we do not view people as mere objects for evangelism. There is a far broader agenda at work here. To assume otherwise perpetuates the stereotypes we desperately need to move beyond.

In light of the comments on this topic in the blogosphere over the last few days I have contacted a select group of my Christian academic colleagues with the suggestion that we try to arrange a public Pagan-Christian dialogue at an educational institution in the near future. This has been done successfully and helpfully in the evangelical-Mormon context, and it needs to be done in the Pagan-Christian context as well. Such an event would enable us to discuss important issues like religous pluralism, and would hopefully move us beyond the present moment of skepticism. I hope others will join me in maintaining a more positive spirit, and in putting a public dialogue forum together to build upon the book exchange.


Michael said...

Hmmm...very interesting. I guess my gut reaction is one of caution. I know that I am personally a people pleaser. I don't like it when people don't like me. I want people to have a good opinion of me, and can get my sense of identity too much from what other people think of me. Sometimes I can make concessions to people which I feel bad about later. I feel like I have compromised my integrity - not a good feeling. So I look at much Christian dialogue with people of other faiths -especially the ones which I feel are sort of indicative of the "spirit of the age", like neo-pagans and new agers, cautiously.

John W. said...

This is unlike other interfaith arguments because many neo-pagans and pagans used to consider themselves Christians, but they came out of Christian environments which were manipulative and intolerant.

Any Pagan/Christian dialog based on greater understanding is going to have to involve some reconciliation here, or at least a persuasive case that not all Christians are Dominionists. I am certain that such a case can be made because I know for a fact that this is true, but the case does have to be made.

John W. Morehead said...

John, thanks for your thoughts on this. The unique circumstances and difficult history and relationship between Christianity and Paganism/Pagans does need to be factored into the situation.

I agree that we need to include a focus on reconciliation. And I hope that some of the case has been made, and persuasively, that not all Christians are Dominationists, as demonstrated by Beyond the Burning Times, the existence of "missional Christians" such as myself, and my like-minded friends and colleagues.

John W. Morehead said...

Caution and skepticism are fine, Michael. There's probably enough of this on both sides of this issue. But my point is not to let our concerns, our confrontational past, or our continued stereotypes keep us from building on the new openness to dialogue keep us from building on what we've put together thus far.

You might also consider that the thinking found in Neo-Paganism and the New Spirituality ("New Age") or Western Esotericism dates back beyond the "spirit of the age" of late modernity (if that's your meaning).

Jarred said...

Having been the occasional "evangelistic project" of various Christians, I can relate to the concerns of some Pagans. I do think it is sad, however, that some are assuming that the only solution to the problem is to insist that Christians see Pagan paths as valid, however. It's been my experience that such a requirement is not only unnecessary, but that it can serve to inhibit dialogue in its own right. I'm also not convinced it's an entirely healthy position to hold for our own spirituality.

I'll also note that it might be helpful to discuss the concept of evangelism as part of interfaith dialogue. One thing that I have learned is that different people have very different understandings of what it involves and how its done, and this might have a bearing on misgivings about evangelism. For example, Steve Hayes's distinction between evangelism as telling others what you believe and proselytism as telling others what they should believe made huge difference in a similar conversation that took place amongst a handful of Christians and Pagans back at the beginning of October.

And in general, I think there just needs to be more open and honest discussions everyone as to all individual's motives for engaging in interfaith dialogue and the goals they might hope to accomplish as a result.

John W. Morehead said...

Jarred, thank you for your very helpful thoughts on this issue.

Erynn said...

Hello John,

Gus diZerega is an old friend of mine and one I respect deeply. While I do feel some skepticism regarding Christian-Pagan dialogue, I also know that some individuals on both sides of the divide do approach it honestly and respectfully without intent to convert the others they are engaging. I've always found interfaith dialogues fascinating, largely because I love trying to understand what makes other people -- and other religions -- tick.

I'd love to see our communities move beyond skepticism and conversion attempts. Being open, even if somewhat skeptical, is most likely going to have to be a first step from the Pagan side of the aisle. In my case, I know quite a number of Christians that I count as friends and whom I trust as individuals, but there is still a lot of room for skepticism about Christians as a general class. Given time, I think that we can have a genuine, more broadly based dialogue geared toward mutual understanding.

For many Pagans, even getting to the table at all in interfaith dialogue is a difficult proposition. We knock at the door but aren't even let in. There are "interfaith" groups who do not treat Pagans as legitimate members of a real religion. When I was acting as a part of the Multifaith Alliance of Reconciling Communities in Seattle, I was one of two Pagans with the organization (and its parent organization, MultifaithWorks). At first, the idea of having either of us sign a document on behalf of the Pagan community was considered a point that would open those organizations to disrespect and dismissal. Eventually we were regarded with slightly more respect and acceptance.

It's not going to be easy, this dialogue. But I do think it is worth pursuing.

Jamie Goodwin said...

And yet... the very first comment to this article implies that my own faith, as a "spirit of the age", is somehow less important or real than your own. Meaning what exactly? I take it to mean that Neopaganism is not a real religion but just reaction to our post-modern society. And while there may be some truth to that, most of us chose a pagan religion after a great deal of soul searching and exploration. We are not moody teenagers or a fed up populace. We are serious, pious people.

This is one of the reasons why Pagans distrust Christian motives in interfaith dialoge. In order to even set at table with Christian faiths we pagans must endure these kinds of comments and accusations. Most pagans, on the other hand, completely acknowledge that Christianity is a valid and meaningful religion.

It is not a level playing feild.

John W. Morehead said...

Erynn, thank you for your comments. We are "on the same page" on this issue.

Jarred, thank you for your follow up comments. I don't know what Michael meant by "spirit of the age" in regards to Paganism and New Age. That's why I tried to interpret them in the most postive way possible and to remind him that the ideas within them go far beyond our late modern period. I hope that Midchael did not meaning anything negative or demeaning in his remarks. I apologize for how you understood these remarks, but again, they are not indicative of all Christians, surely not those involved in the "new dialogue process," and they do not invalidate the need for such dialogue to continue.

In the interest of balance, I am sketpical that "most Pagans" believe Christianity to be a valid path. Both religious/spiritual communities have their "fundamentalists" who do not understand and relate well to others. If I try to move beyond the more aggressive and mean spirited Pagans as I pursue dialogue with your broader community, perhaps you can make the same effort with Christians. Sometimes you have to work through things particularly when the playing field is not level. Let's both take the high road.

Jamie Goodwin said...

One of the new popular pagan songs out there is by Telling the Bees, titled "Worship of Trees" and the chorus says:

"Church bells ring
I am so glad they do
But I can't join in"

How many Christian songs imply that there is vaildity in other faiths?

When I have encountered Pagan writers who speak negativly of Christianity they are almost always dismissed by the people who read them. And while I agree there are fundamentalists in all religions it is not the fundamentalists in the Pagan community who are the loudest voices. Can the same be said of the Christian community?

PS. I am Jamie not Jarred.

John W. Morehead said...

Jamie (not Jarred),

I'm not much on Christian music, but few mention other religions at all. It's the book's we write that most trouble me, and you're right they are largely negative in relation to other religions. But that doesn't mean there aren't Christians who are more positive in this regard, or Pagans who are negative in regards to Christianity. As to creating louder voices in the Christiantiy community, some of us are trying. That's something to build on, unless we'd rather throw up our hands in despair and just go back to the less than promising ways of the past. The point is, despite such problem elements in our religious communities we need to work together to build a better situation.

Alkhemia said...


I cannot pretend to know what is in your heart, Mr. Morehead. I can, however, read what you have written. After reading through your paper on apologetics and its clarion call for a "fresh apologetic agenda," I am now more than a bit skeptical. As a colleague in your field (i.e., Christianity and NT studies), I assume that "A Fresh Agenda for Apologetics in the 21st Century" was written for evangelicals and not for others in the "guild." The reliance upon scholarship from Trinity Evangelical and others in the evangelical "hit parade" mitigates any scholarly benefit for those outside of the apologetics and/or evangelical movement. In short, your paper is elucidating methods for evangelicals to better evangelize the "un-churched" in the so-called "Pagan west." I fail to see how this advances interfaith dialogue or respectful encounters with those who, like myself, know quite a bit about Christianity have have rejected it. To be sure, the perspectives of the emerging church movement are less alienating than traditional evangelicalism, but the focus upon apologetics troubles me. Being familiar with Biola, Master's College, etc., I am all too familiar with the tactics of those trained in Christian apologetics.

I'll be blunt; What concerns me is the possibility that you are engaging the pagan community in order to hone your apologetic methodology "in order to serve more effectively in communicating the gospel with cultural relevancy."

Prinny Miller

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

My one concern with interfaith dialog between Christians and Pagans is the main reservation I have with Gus and Philip Johnson's otherwise excellent book: it is too easy to imply two monolithic "sides" to the discussion.

In my experience, Pagans are more aware of and accepting of the diversity of views among our community than are Christians. Too many Christians see their own theological position, not just as normative, but as the only legitimate form of Christianity. It's a kind of imperialism within the Christian world that makes it easy for the most strident voices to be taken as representative--particularly among members of religious communities, like Paganism, that contain a fair number of spiritual refugees from a small-minded and arrogant brand of Christianity. (Lest my using that description offend, let me hasten to reassure readers that I definitely recognize the existence of small-minded and arrogant Pagans, who I find far more distressing, personally, than I do similar Christians. After all, I'm much more inclined to clean up my own backyard!)

Christianity is more diverse than Christians often choose to recognize. As Makarios remarked in a comment on the discussion on this subject at The Wild Hunt, 65% of American Christians believe salvation may be possible for at least some Christians--but that's not obvious to outsiders who may believe that the opinions of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church are broadly representative of Christianity, absurd as that may seem to most Christians who are trying to live out the loving messages they find in the Gospels.

Still, intolerance is there, and it is painful. Speaking as someone whose mere presence among Quakers has been used as an argument that Quakers are no longer Christians, and are in fact showing the horrible, terrifying, possibly Satanically inspired influence of the concept of the Inward Light, I'm a wee bit sensitive on that score myself. (Tracking the comments in response to the article "Are the Quakers Going Pagan?" will give a good sense of the kind of thing I'm talking about here.)

Acknowledging that there are many ways of being Christian among Christians, and perhaps even presenting some of that range of practice and belief, as a part of interfaith work with Pagans, might be a refreshing change. It is a bit tiresome, the seeming insistence not just on Christianity as the only valid path to Spirit, but on the individual speaker's personal brand of Christianity as the only valid form of Christianity.

I would so welcome recognition of diversity within the world of Christianity! (Not saying that Philip Johnson does nothing along those lines... just that I could wish he did more.)

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Oh, rats! I see that the comments on the article at Christianity Today have been taken down. They were the aspect of the article I meant to direct readers to--no point to the citation now.

My apologies!

John W. Morehead said...

Prinny (if I may), it's great to have a fellow AAR member here providing comments.

As I'm sure you know, writers write for differing audiences, and there is no reason why they must be in conflict. You are correct that my article on apologetics in a 21st century Western context was indeed written for evangelicals. Thus, it would have far less appeal for those outside of that context. So it would not appeal perhaps to those in mainstream Protestant (conservative or liberal), Catholic or Orthodx traditions. This piece, written for a very specific audience, does not mean that I cannot write or work on projects in different contexts that seek to benefit those differing audiences. This is the case with Beyond the Burning Times, a book I edited which was written to appeal to both Christian and Pagan audiences, and hopefully appreciated for its accuracy in representing these religions beyond their adherents, as well as for its fresh tone in manner of dialogue.

I maintain that it is perfectly permissible and possible for an evangelical Christian to maintain committments to both good scholarship and faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus. I think this has been demonstrated in a number of different areas, from Alister McGrath working in the sciences and theology, to my colleagues and I working in religious studies. Sacred Tribes Journal is a good example of the latter.

In addition, your suspicions that I am researching Paganism and engaging its adherents merely to hone my apologetic is a misrepresentation of my actions.

I stand by my good work in intercultural studies, interreligious dialogue, and contextualized apologetics as appropriately done and complimentary in differing contexts.

John W. Morehead said...

Cat, thanks to you too for your comments. Of course there is a diversity to Christianity just as surely as there is to Paganism. In my view both Gus and Philip did a good job in serving as representatives of these two religious traditions and providing an example for good dialogue between them. Of course, both authors know there are viewpoints within their own traditions beyond their own, and hopefully man of the book's readers will understand this as well.

Thanks for sharing your concern. It's something to be aware of, but if this is the worst criticism of the book then I think we've done a good job in putting something forward for the readers to consider.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

John--I'll agree with you regarding it being a good, solid book. I'm not finished reading it yet, but when I am, I expect to review it quite favorably.

No one book can say all that needs to be said on any single religion, let alone on how religious faiths come together. (And, for those who consider the Bible to be just such a book, I'll plead a technicality, that it was of course originally a collection of sacred texts. Making Christians as well as Pagans less a "people of the Book" than a "people of the library" as Carl McColman once wrote of Paganism.

There are of course important differences between Paganism and Christianity. But the ability to love and work, under the guidance of Spirit, toward peace, is not one of them. It's best to avoid demonizing one another or pretending that there are no differences. I think both this blog and the Beyond the Burning Times book succeed in that.

Erynn said...

Cat -- I absolutely agree that one issue in such dialogues is the possibility of presenting the viewpoints expressed as representative of the whole. This kind of this is particularly difficult for folks who are, for instance, reconstructionist type Pagans when the person in dialogue is (as Gus is) a traditionalist Wiccan. So much of what I do and believe bears little to no resemblance to Wicca, yet when people think Pagan they think of people like Gus.

It does add layers of extra work on everybody to sort through the various approaches, beliefs, and lifestyles of people who apply the umbrella term of Pagan to themselves. It's a broader umbrella than even Christianity; Pagans don't really even have one singular theological commonality to fall back on the way that Christians do in acknowledging that Christianity is based somehow on the teachings of Jesus. Pretty much any "definition" of Paganism can be refuted by referring to some Pagan group that doesn't fit that definition.

Makarios said...

A number of thoughts come to mind. In no particular order:

Regarding Beyond the Burning Times--I don't know how it was compiled, but, as I read it, I got the impression that Gus wrote a series of articles on a number of set topics, and that these were then passed to Philip, who had them in front of them while preparing his papers on the same topic. I take this from the fact that, in a number of cases, Philip responds to statements made by Gus. I may be wrong. But, if I am correct, then I respectfully suggest that this was not dialogue--it was intelligence-gathering.

Regarding dialogue--Roman Catholic scholar Paul Knitter has written extensively on this. In one of his books, he emphasizes the fact that genuine dialogue requires authentic listening. Authentic listening, he notes, is "not possible if one partner presumes that the others have only an 'incomplete' truth or that they can possess truth only insofar as it conforms with the norm of 'my truth.'"

He also states that Dialogue must be based on openness to the possibility of genuine change/conversion. . . . Dialogue is not possible if any partners enter it with the claim that they possess the final, definitive, irreformable truth. Claims of finality set up a roadblock to any real growth in experience and understanding."

There are, of course, other opinions about interfaith dialogue within the big tent of Christianity. I've set out Knitter's views simplly because I happen to concur with them. Submitted FWIW.

James Robert French said...

Okay, straight up: Is the goal, or hoped for outcome, to start with a person who is Pagan and eventually get them to become Christian? Or not. Many of the links here at least suggest that this is the goal. This I would consider "conversion," though I suspect you mean something different by the term.

John W. Morehead said...

James, thanks for the "straight up" query. I can't answer for other Christians, but my "goals" for dialogue with Pagans are multi-faceted. I seek understanding and at times clarification and correction on both of our parts. I seek self-correction to my views when necessary, and to build relationships. At times, when appropriate and there is an openness from my dialogue partner, there can be an invitation to the best of what their pathway offers. From the Christian perspective this is the gospel story of Jesus. If is up to my dialogue partners as to whether they want to hear this, and if they do, if they want to consider it. This does not mitigate against open and honest dialogue, any more than a Buddhist desiring that Christians consider the pathway of the Buddha in Buddhist-Christian dialogue mitigates against the validity of that dialogue process. I hope this helps.

John W. Morehead said...

James, a further thought raised by your query. A frequent concern I hear from Pagans (but not all in my discussions) is that if a Christian is committed to making disciples (conversion or evangelism) then this invalidates a genuine dialogue of two-way interaction. I disagree with this idea and believe that it is possible to be open to respectful dialogue while also maintaining a desire to see others embrace your pathway. This has been demonstrated in, for example, Buddhist-Christian dialogue where representatives of both groups are "missionary" in inature, albeit in different ways, but this is recognized at the outset yet dealt with in ways that does not inhibit good dialogue. See my further thoughts on this at Strange Onion Peelings in the post on "Iron Fist: The Follow Up." This is one of the areas our two religious communities need to continue to discuss.

Matt Stone said...

John, I wish you well in organizing a public dialogue. Some of us have been trying to organize some Pagan-Christian synchroblogging events to further mutual understanding online and I would invite others here to look and see for themselves whether we Pagans and Christians are being authentic or not.

Jarred said...

John, I think your skepticism over whether "most Pagans" consider Christianity a valid path (a term that I find disturbingly vague, by the way) is valid. To be honest, I find myself occasionally wondering why anyone would follow the form of Christianity that I was originally raised with. I personally just have too many issues with some of the theological underpinnings. And like (I dare say) most people, I tend to think people think like me, and am therefore mystified as to whey those same issues don't bother everyone else.

But this goes back to my earlier comment about how expecting others to see our own path as valid is unnecessary and possibly healthy. When I get wondering about these questions about the validity of the form of Christianity I grew up in, I remind myself that it's not my place to determine the validity of another person's path, anyway. I'm responsible for my own search for truth and understanding, not another's. My responsibility for a fellow spiritual seeker is simply to treat him with kindess, dignity, and respect when our paths cross. This may mean sharing our stories with each other while we break bread. It may mean sharing insights and even offering advice -- which may be accepted or refused graciously. But at the end of the time, when it takes time to part ways and continue walking, we are each responsible for the path we take and where it leads us.

I suppose that's why I'm not as concerned as some other Pagans when it comes to whether Christians see Paganism as a valid path. To me, the validity of one's path is not something that can be determined by someone else.

Steve Hayes said...

Not having read the book, perhaps I'm not qualified to comment, but it seems that the discussion about it has raised several issues that need to be clarified:

1. How do people see "religious pluralism"?

It seems that some regard it as important that there should be a common understanding of "religious pluralism" as a precondition for dialogue. I think that we need dialogue in order to clarify different understandings of "religious pluralism" and of its place in the scheme of things.

2. How do we see "interreligious dialogue"?

Is it an end, or a means to an end, or something else?

For myself, I don't see it as either a means or an end -- it's just something you choose to do or not do.

3. Christians don't "get" polytheism.

I'm not so sure about that. I think it's something we could talk about, if anyone is interested in doing so. I suspect that my take on it, as a Christian, is different from that of a lot of pagans and a lot of other Christians. What I find difficult to "get" is not polytheism, but monism.

Mad Fedor said...

Mr. Morehead, I'd be very grateful if you could offer a way to track your attempt at a public dialogue. I would attend it in person whether it was local to me or not, so advance notice would be important.

To the general premise of dialogue of any kind: it is my personal experience that agreement is not a requirement for understanding, but that the notion of (at the least) risk of agreement (i.e. conversion) is the primary obstacle here, whether the topic is attempts to understand or attempts at dialogue. Pagan-Christian interactions of any sort -- and I have rather more extensive exposure to them than most -- usually start out with agreement on one thing: mutual hostility. It grieves me from both sides of the divide. I know many Christians who share that grief.

I look forward to reading the book as soon as the paperback edition becomes available.

Franklin Evans
Delaware Valley Pagan Network

John W. Morehead said...

Mr. Evans, my personal efforts in Pagan-Christian dialogue take place primarily in my local area in Utah with an Asatru group in Ogden. In addition, I have relationships with a few Pagans on the Internet. In addition, I hope to arrange an ongoing series of dialogues between Pagan and Christian scholars in order to develop relationships and build trust in the coming year.

You are quite right that mutual hostility is usually the one thing that both sides agree and operate upon. I hope we can move beyond this.

Beyond the Burning Times is indeed available in paperback through Lion in the UK and in the U.S. so you shouldn't have a problem accessing it. I'd be happy to make a copy available for purchase as well. Thanks for your comments.

Mad Fedor said...

Mr. Morehead, please don't underestimate the potential interest a truly open, Pagan-Christian dialogue would have as a public event. I don't mean to impose my personal level of interest on it, being regretful of the distance involved, but if you ask around you might be surprised at the amount of assistance you could call upon for a formally organized event. It would be difficult for me to justify visiting for a purely local meeting -- assuming you made it open to the local public -- but I'd not hesitate to bear the travel and accommodation expenses for something intended to welcome attendees in general.

It is my hope that the general hostile reception Christians receive -- due in large part to the evangelism tenet -- can be mitigated or erased from the Pagan mindset. My small efforts towards that are local, and difficult to call successful. That is a strong motivation for me to at least observe firsthand the similar efforts of others.

Be well,

John W. Morehead said...

Franklin, please call me John.

I can't invite you to a public dialogue like this because they have not been set up yet. I am attempting to build on the Beyond the Burning Times book effort to see if we can put together ongoing dialogues in various venues. The recent controversy in the blogosphere on this lets me know that this needs to be done carefully. This is why a few Christian colleagues and I are attempting to set up private meetings that we hope can build trust and lead to the possibility of public dialogues in the future. I will keep you in mind for future public events for you to be part of.

I appreciate your interest in this. If you know of other endeavors in which I might be involved please keep me in mind.

Mad Fedor said...

I will keep you in mind for future public events for you to be part of.

Thank you, John. That is the extent of my hope. I just want to clarify: I don't have the academic credentials to be "a part of" such an event. I would be quite content to attend as a member of an audience.

Be well.