Ammerdown Centre, Somerset - February 1st 2014 - Morning, Day Two
Woke up at around 5.15am after little more than two hours sleep. Ah well, fresh filter coffee would be available from about 8am and I could fill in the interim listening to music on headphones and pootling on my little netbook.
The morning's first session began with our moderator, Denise Cush, introducing its subject, 'Addressing Our Respective Fears and Prejudices.'
Steve Hollinghurst of the Church Army's Research Centre in Sheffield spoke first. As mentioned at the end of my previous post, he admitted to being embarrassed by the 'Army' bit as an unfortunate hangover from the days of Empire. He got the day off to a fine start by showing us the Monty Python sketch in which Cardinal Biggles and Cardinal Fang endeavour to 'torture' a confession of heresy out of an old lady by prodding her with soft cushions and making her sit in “the comfy chair.” Because, of course, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
He then spoke of an accusation first levelled against Christians, and then by them against others, that they sacrificed babies born as a result of wild sex orgies known as Lucerna Extincta ('Lights Out'). This led on to a consideration of the 'mythic history' that often divides Pagans and Christians, the latter accusing Pagans of human sacrifice and portraying themselves as a religion of love, light and freedom whilst advising each other to have nothing to do with Pagans because they're all Satanists.
Meanwhile, modern Pagans have developed their own myths of ancient pagans all being lovely, peaceful, matriarchal ecologists whose idyllic existence was only ruined by those nasty Christians, only it wasn't because paganism just went underground, only to re-emerge fully formed in the 20th century to bring everyone back to the peaceful era of the Great Mother.
Exploring the relationships between modern Pagans and Christians, Steve put up a screen image of a modern ceremony that took place in Greece, devoted to the ancient Greek father of the gods, Zeus. Steve then admitted to a personal belief that Christianity went wrong when it hooked up with the Roman state and its military machine. He went on to cite one of the most recent examples of the imposition of Christianity on a Pagan state in Europe, this occurring in Estonia in the 13th century. Here, a state church run entirely by non-Estonians was imposed on the nation from outside, a situation that continued until the mid-1980s and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Following this, there has been a big revival of paganism in Estonia.
Steve then addressed the Biblical creation myth that has given us the notion of mankind being somehow separate from and better than the rest of creation, leading to a skewed relationship with the natural world.
Steve then said, quite rightly, that both Christianity and Paganism are very diverse, homes to a huge variety of both beliefs and practices. Nevertheless, there is a persistent sense of Christianity as exclusivist, maintaining that everyone else is wrong and that only Jesus can save them from their erroneous ways. He added that some more extreme Christians promote the idea that since God is going to destroy the world anyway as part of His Almighty Plan, therefore environmentalism is obviously a Satanic plot! Good grief...
Another angle taken by some Christians is that the church is all-embracing because everyoneis a Christian really, it's just that some of us haven't realised it yet. This is the inclusivist argument, one that Steve admitted is deeply patronising. Then there's the more agreeable pluralist argument, which maintains that Christianity is just one of many paths, all of which are valid. Then there's what he characterised as 'transformist' Christianity, maintaining that Christianity acts as “good yeast in each culture” where it exists, whilst creating colourful cross-overs with native religions, producing, for example, images of Christ as black, female or Pagan. Then there are what he called Christo-Pagans who, he said, had been accused of 'dumbing down' the differences between the two.
Steve maintained that, despite impressions held to the contrary, Christianity does change with the times, albeit often slowly and against internal opposition.
He then addressed the topic of Evangelism, deriving from words meaning 'good news,' which he characterised as an attempt to create the kind of world Evangelists would like to see by a process of divine intervention. He said there is no Pagan theology of salvation driving them out after converts, but that Pagans are very good evangelists precisely, in his opinion, because we are not out on a recruiting drive but are simply and clearly putting forward a vision of a way of being in the world.
In keeping with the season, he ended by referring to Brighid as a fine example of Interfaith interaction that could be taken either as cultural theft by Christians of Pagan culture, or as a successful blending of the two.
Our second speaker was another old friend, Graham Harvey, Reader in Religious Studies at the Open University and author of a number of books on Paganism and Animism. Graham introduced himself by saying that his favourite amongst the various titles he's obtained over the years is that bestowed on him by the late Archdruid, Tim Sebastion, of “Conscience of the Secular Order of Druids.” This meant that Graham was often the one trying to get the Archdruid out of the pub so as not to be too embarrassingly late for the start of the ceremony he was about to conduct.
Graham voiced his concern that interfaith dialogues often seemed to him to end up consisting of “people talking past each other.” He took as his primary text a line from William Blake which says that “opposition is true friendship.” He spoke of the prevalence of annoying clichés, admitting that there are both Christians who are more like ancient pagans than many modern Pagans are, as well as modern Pagans who are essentially Protestants.
Graham suggested that Jesus throwing the money-lenders out of the temple in Jerusalem represented an attack on Judaism and was one of the foundation myths of anti-Semitism, evidence perhaps that Jesus was not quite a paragon misrepresented by later Christians.
He queried the widespread notion that Paganism is not a religion of revelation, suggesting that many Pagans experience revelations of many kinds and from many sources, whilst Christianity is by no means solely a religion of revelation, but also of family, community, etc. He also questioned the widely-held assumption that all Christians are monotheists while all Pagans are polytheists, pointing out that there are monotheistic Pagans and that Christianity can easily be seen as polytheistic through its reverence of a multitude of saints in much the same way that pagans revere a similar multitude of gods. He said that many Pagans were happy to accept Jesus as one god among many because that's how polytheism is.
He characterised Paganism as “an experiment to rediscover Nature,” adding the observation that “there is more diversity of life in this carpet than there is in a Monsanto-sprayed field.” This he set against the impression of Christianity as a religion primarily focused on the idea of salvation. However, he added that not all Pagans were 'about' Nature, but that many held Paganism to be a process of enchantment or re-enchantment, or “a different way from modernity (rather than Christianity) of defining our position in the world of human and non-human beings.” The notion of relating to non-human beings on an equal, or at least more equal, footing is one of increasing interest and concern in modern Paganism and one in which Graham himself is deeply involved. He went on to refer to a tension that exists within Paganism between what he characterised as an internal spiritual quest and the desire to relate animistically with the world.
Finally, Graham suggested that both paths might come together in agreeing that our traditions will benefit from greater engagement with the world, an engagement that could also be of great benefit to the planet. He shared with us a beautiful photograph and his personal experience of attending the annual Midwinter gathering of the Bear Tribe at the Ancient Technology Centre in Dorset. The aim of the event is to celebrate and honour all the plants and animals that attendees have eaten during the year. At last year's event, the clouds parted at the end of the ceremony, revealing an incredible view of the Milky Way arching over the lodge in which the ceremony was held, as captured in Graham's photograph. Incidentally, this link to the Bear Tribe's website includes Graham's 'Animist Manifesto,' which is well worth checking out.
Graham ended with a quote from Ronald Grimes, “Performance is currency in the deep world's gift economy.” Make of that what you will!
After coffee, there was a continuation of the debate round table style, only without the table. Much of this focused on evangelism, which many admitted to finding condescending, patronising, or simply annoying, and not just among the Pagans! As always in these events, there is never enough time to fully, or even partly, explore more than a fraction of the potential topics raised by the speakers, and this was a case in point. Graham did make the very telling observation that when we talk about building bridges, those bridges can often have to stretch across yawning gulfs or chasms and that perhaps it would be wise not to forget that simply because we were currently standing on a bridge.
Many of the discussions that took place over dinner and in the bar picked up various themes and dug further into them. I only wish I had thought to pack a recorder or taken notes during at least some of these informal exchanges. I got the impression that they did at least as much to lessen misunderstandings as the official sessions, and probably more to forge or re-forge friendships.
And so to lunch, with, of course, a choice of vegetarian or carnivore.
After lunch, I was surprised to find that we had nearly three hours until the afternoon session with Philip Carr-Gomm (Druid) and Simon Howell (Christian). In the spare hours I ran through the songs I intended to play in the evening concert to see how well I could remember the words, but more of that and of Philip and Simon's talks on the next blog.
Incidentally, much humour stemmed from the fact that there were three heads of Druid groups present, all called Philip, the third being Phil Ryder of the Druid Network, attending with his partner, Lynda, who expressed her delight at being “in the presence of so much Pagan royalty.” This confused some of the Christian delegates who had, of course, never heard of us!
OK, thank you for bearing with me, and see you next time...