Making Light: Interfaith is Not a Dirty Word

“Do what you wanna
Do what you will
Just don’t mess up
Your neighbor’s thrill”
–Frank Zappa

Once again, we’re having some excellent conversation about the way we relate to people of the Abrahamic faiths, as well as about the place of those who have elements of Abrahamic ritual or belief among the diversity of Pagan faiths. Jason Mankey had some excellent points in response to Sam Webster’s post, and I’d like to riff off of some of what Jason says. (Jason, I must admit I only skimmed the article. It’s hard to juggle a fussy infant and read about interfaith relations. But the bits I caught were really good! Also, I’m a little slow in the response. See above re: infant. I’m usually typing with one hand while Miss Sunshine sleeps/nurses/fusses in the other. That’s just how we roll at Chez Sunweaver.)

There are two separate issues here, and I believe they have the same root. The first issue is our relationship with the monotheists. Turns out, I am friends with the folks at the local mosque and consider the imam a friendly colleague of mine. Doing interfaith work has been some of the most important work I’ve done as a priestess, and I like to think that I’ve made a difference in my local community. A few years ago, I co-founded an interfaith group with other women of various faiths, cleverly named Women of Faith. One of our main purposes is to show others that people of different faith backgrounds can work together toward positive change.

We can’t do that if we put our energy toward criticizing the theology or practices of our fellows. Frankly, most people who have a religious practice sound a little nuts if they speak honestly about their belief, and all faith traditions have inconsistencies and bits they should probably be ashamed of. I worship the gods of Olympos. The history of others who have done so is not exactly squeaky-clean. I choose to own that and move on. Just because the ancient Greeks murdered and persecuted others who didn’t worship the Theoi doesn’t mean that this behavior has to color my practice. I can be better than that, and most Christians, Muslims, and Jews are likewise better than their histories. I count all of these faith groups among my friends and relations and so far, we prefer getting together for snacks over busting up each other’s places of worship.

The other issue is the worship of the Abrahamic god and that Jesus feller among our own kind. To put it succinctly, I don’t have a problem with it. I’m a polytheist, and it’s just as easy to also believe in their god as it is to believe in all the Theoi or all the Norse gods or whatever. It’s no skin off my nose if my friends Maryam or Shepherd (both very fine Pagan people) want to acknowledge the son of that god in some way. My religion has lots of children of lots of gods. Herakles, Perseus, Jesus… whatevs. In the vernacular of my people: It don’t make me no never mind. It’s not my thing, but there’s no reason for me to consider it any different than any other religious path.

The root of this problem seems to be that first generation Pagans were hurt somehow by the churches they once attended and that this hurt, coupled with an attachment to being right, caused disdain for anything associated with the monotheist paths. That gets passed down, and we end up with groups of Pagans that have a superiority complex about their religion. I don’t need to be right about religion. Being right is less important to me than, say, collecting food for the food bank with my Muslim friends at Ramadan or gathering school supplies for needy children with my Christian friends or having a meal with my Pagan friends. And I can’t be arsed to go to the trouble of criticizing someone else’s religion when I’m still working on the lifelong task of understanding my own. It’s too much work.

Anyway, my husband was Catholic at one time and now considers himself vaguely theistic. Every day is an interfaith event for me, so in the interest of marital bliss, we each do what it is that flips our spiritual switch, and we raise our children to follow the path that speaks to them and to not be jerks to other people who have different concepts of the divine. Midwinter family gatherings would otherwise be impossible. Our combined families are whatchacall “diverse.” I may speak more on that later.

As a side note, it’s near Theogamia, so (also in the interest of marital bliss), I’d like to wish Zeus and Hera a happy 2788th anniversary.


Making Light is an occasional column by Hellenic polytheist Sunweaver. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

About Sunweaver

In addition to her personal and group practice as a priestess of Apollo, Sunweaver works as interfaith clergy with a diversity of religious groups in the Middle Tennessee area. She is a founding member of the Rutherford County Women of Faith and has worked with the area interfaith center, Wisdom House, to help bring positive awareness to the non-Abrahamic religions. She is a mother of two, a fiber arts enthusiast, and a holds a Master's degree in biology.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    The root of this problem seems to be that first generation Pagans were hurt somehow by the churches they once attended and that this hurt, coupled with an attachment to being right, caused disdain for anything associated with the monotheist paths. That gets passed down, and we end up with groups of Pagans that have a superiority complex about their religion.
    The root of this problem is that Pagans of every generation (though it’s decreasing now, thank the Gods) have been vilified, sent to jail indefinitely due to their beliefs, mocked and ridiculed by those of the Christian faith. 
    We don’t resent their religion, or their God. We resent their insistence on Primacy and vilification of all that doesn’t fit within their paradigm. We have a superiority complex because one of the fundamental principles that every Pagan can ascribe to is the freedom to worship Whomever one wishes to. Sad to say, but to those who cling desperately to the dueling powers of the Christian paradigm to explain everything in their universe, we are superior.   Too many have been and continue to be systematically targeted and hurt for us to simply brush it aside and say, “It’s in the past, let’s move on.” I’m not asking all Christians to own the problems of their brothers and sisters, but I demand they not stop me from calling out the fear-mongerers and hate-weavers for what they are.
    All that aside, it sounds like you’ve met and are working with some wonderful people who are more enlightened, and I’m glad for you, truly.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    I completely agree. The level of anti-Christian bigotry in the pagan community is really distressing. If we want our beliefs to be respected, we have to extend the same respect to others. It really is that simple. 

  • http://twitter.com/vogelbeere + Yvonne Aburrow

    Thanks so much for saying this. Other liberal faiths (whether monotheist or not) are our allies and we should reach out to them in solidarity. 

    Other less liberal faiths will not be persuaded to play nice if we slag them off all the time (two wrongs don’t make a right).

  • JasonMankey

    It’s probably nice to be friends with the local Imam, but I doubt that the majority of us are in similar situations.  I just don’t think someone is a part of my faith community unless I know them personally.  I will say that it’s awesome that you have such a diverse circle of friends. 

    I think it’s too easy to just say “First Generation Pagans” were hurt by Christians, I think Modern Pagans of every generation have been hurt by Christians.  That doesn’t mean we (you and I) have personally experienced it, but I bet we each know someone who has.  I think where many make the mistake is when they tar and feather the entire Christian Community due to the acts of some.  

    • Sunweaver

       Oh, I have definitely experienced some of this poor behavior myself and I worry about my daughters, too. I think the hurt is more pronounced in the first generation Pagans because, in many cases, this is what prompted the conversion. This is not to say and I did not intend to imply, that other generations didn’t experience hostility from “Christians.”

      Anyhow, if others would like to make friends with the other clergy in their community, there is a very simple way to do it. Go to their events. Invite them to yours. Talk. Share food. Easy-peasy. There’s no reason you or anyone else can’t try.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1197543165 Eric Devries

    I was mad when I left Mormonism, spiritually blank and really mad. I got over being mad, ultimately when I discovered syncretism I invited Christ and the Saints back into my life. It does seem to me that anti-Christian bigotry is a major problem within our communities. You need to tolerate our faiths while we revile yours doesn’t work for me. You aren’t Pagan unless you…. doesn’t work for me. It is shocking for many us who fled dogma and bigotry and plain old ugliness in our old faiths to find that Paganism was not a safe haven but instead was loaded with more of the same. I don’t build my beliefs in opposition to other peoples beliefs.

    • http://paganlayman.wordpress.com/ Soliwo

      Tolerance, as understood since the Enlightenment, is exactly tolerating things that you may find really comprehensive, wrong, or abject. Tolerance is the most important in exactly those situations. It is no challenge to tolerate that to which one is indifferent. I do not build my religion in opposition to Christianity either, but your definition of tolerance seems to be a little off to me. Tolerance does not require approval or even respect. Now, if you mean to say that we should not disapprove of Christianity that is an entirely different matter.

      Toleration means that we don’t vandalise Christian churches, call them names, all of that. Tolerance is not about thinking their religion is quite nice and valuable. I am not saying that that is a bad thing, just that isn’t required in order to be called tolerant. Yes you can even be a bigot, and yet be tolerant.

  • http://paganlayman.wordpress.com/ Soliwo

    “We can’t do that if we put our energy toward criticizing the theology or practices of our fellows.” Sure we can. I did not agree with Sam Webster. I do not think it is the task of pagans to criticise Christian theology. But I do not think it is an impossibility to do interfaith work and to write theological works, defending polytheism and opposing monotheism.

    I agree with Jason, Pagans do not simply criticise Christianity because of their bad experiences.  Almost every time someone leaves the Roman Catholic Church in my country, it is assumed the cause is either due to the church’s politics or some bad experience.  No, I also really oppose their theology. I know many wonderful Christians and I love my sister-in-law who is Christian. However, thinks it dangerous to call on the angels and thinks it is really stupid that some non-Christians would not join in Christians services. Even if she would never pray in a Mosque as the God of Islam is different from  hers, though the Jewish god is quite the same guy. I can work with her fine, yet I can also argue theology with her. No problem! Though I do try to limit it to maintain relaxed relations.

    It is my experience, that many Christians would never ‘compromise’ their religion, through for example praying together with Muslims, Pagans or Hindoes, but are strangely surprised if we have objections of our own. I know of many Pagans who have been sourly disappointed in their interfaith work.

    Finally, I am somewhat wondering what you understand interfaith work to be. If I would be collecting food for the food bank with Muslim friends, I would not really consider this interfaith work. I would see it as doing charity with friends who happen to be Muslim. There is no need to even discus religion (though that could be interesting).

    • Sunweaver

       I’ll speak more on the interfaith work we do in a separate post, but I will say that it’s more than just charitable works.
      Anyhow, it’s just too much work to criticize or oppose monotheism. Their theologies are interesting and it’s good to know the basics, but I’m too busy to bother with them too much. I am not the boss of other people’s religions and I’m not going to waste my time nit-picking them. I don’t care.
      What I do care about is upholding religious freedom for all people and cultivating understanding. Those things make the world safer for Pagans. An adversarial tack does not. Open hands can grab more nachos than closed fists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chkraemer13 Christine Hoff Kraemer

    I think there is definitely room in interfaith work for real dialogue that acknowledges our disagreements, and for thought-out, reasoned responses to particular speakers and writers. There isn’t room for setting up other religions as straw men to be caricatured and shot down. Worthwhile conversations require relationship!

    Sunweaver, thanks for doing the important work of forming interfaith relationships in your community. I think it’s really important.

    • Sunweaver

       I consider this to be some of the most important work I do as a priestess. If I can show one person that we’re just folks, I’ll have done my job. That person can then pass that idea along to others and understanding can grow from there.

      …also I am addicted to baklava. When you make friends with Muslim ladies, they feed you. True facts.

  • Kenneth

    Very few of the problems I have with Christians and other monotheists are tied to my pagan identity. Most of the problems that arise are rooted in various forms of Dominionism and theocratic imperatives, and as a strong believer in separation of church and state, I oppose these things as an American, not just a pagan. 

    Apart from that considerable problem, I have no interest in criticizing their theology because I am not invested in it in any way. I don’t care whether the RCC ordains women priests anymore than I care about the disputes over the identification of reincarnated lamas in Tibet. I have no skin in either game. The superiority complex and claims of exclusive truths are problems that are, largely, unique to monotheisms.

     That’s not to say pagan cultures never killed or fought over religion, but none had worldwide enforcement of orthodox belief as a defining characteristic in the way that Christianity and Islam do. It is a core feature of their software, not a bug. Realistically, we’re simply not going to “build bridges” with Christianity or Islam in the aggregate, or at the macro level of upper-echelon leadership. It is naive in the extreme to think that any pope or orthodox rabbi or mainline conservative imam of any standing is ever going to give us a “seat at the table” as spiritual equals.  In that light, interfaith work is absurd.

     It is not absurd if we look at interfaith work as bridge-building between individual believers and not faiths.  We can’t deal with Rome, but most Catholics don’t take their marching orders on all matters from Rome. Likewise plenty of Muslims don’t hew to the sort of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia or rural Pakistan.  Interfaith can work only because a majority of people, even in the most stringent orthodoxies, are heterodox in their day to day life. That’s especially true in this country. They’re heterodox in that they are not defined solely or even primarily by their religion’s doctrine. 

     Interfaith work, when it works, is probably better defined as “trans-faith work.” It works in spite of religion as much as because of religion. It works by uniting the reasonable people of various religions around causes that are universal to people of all religions or none at all.  It will not build bridges between faith. It can, however, empower the reasonable people of each religion to define relations among local communities rather than letting the loons dictate the terms of those relations based upon their own self-serving agendas of hate and fear.

      I think we can strive toward a healthy balance as pagans vis-a-vis Christianity. We can and should demand respect.  We should not have to ignore or submerge the legitimate grievances we have with individual Christians or with the historical patterns of disrespect inflicted upon us.  We should learn to draw distinctions and take our allies wherever we find them. We should do this, not out of some sense of turn-the-other cheek Christian obligation, but out of pure strategic reasons. Fight your real enemies, not everyone who looks something like your enemies.  We can more than hold our own against the Catholic exorcists who defame us and the gang of evangelicals who want to convert our kids on public time at school.  We can’t realistically fight or disengage from all Christians. 

  • Sunweaver

    Since most people are more interested in the interfaith work I’m doing than my Theogamia cake recipe (this year was homemade chocolate with homemade cream cheese icing), I may just do a post on what it is that Women of Faith does. I only kind of touched on it here. We actually do a lot more than just charitable works, though that is a part of what we do.

    In any case, I do understand that many have been hurt by “Christians” and other monotheists. Really, I do. I have myself been subject to some of the poor behavior of “Christians.” Sometimes, it’s been downright hostile. I’ve also experienced kindness, compassion, friendship, and love from Christians, Muslims, & Jews.

    Their religions are not the problem. The problem is that some people are just jerks and use their religion to justify their poor behavior. There are Pagans who are jerks, too, and Pagans are just as prone to use their religion to vilify others as are Christians.

    I’m just really trying to do my part to not be a jerk and hopefully to cultivate some understanding in my local community.

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