Terra Fide

As an ex-neopagan who now works in a Catholic bookstore, I have an interesting perspective on things. Yesterday, a woman called the store because she wanted to order some of the monastery-blended incense we sell. As we spoke, she made this comment: “I’m so glad to have found you. So much of the incense that you see for sale these days comes from Pagans and Wiccans.” She emphasized her contempt when she said “Pagans” and “Wiccans,” almost as if she were speaking of something unutterably evil. I made no direct response to her, but tried to steer the conversation back to her order, but she apparently needed to confide in me. “So I really appreciate you guys. I’m so terrified of bringing something with the wrong energy into my home.”

Terrified — that was her exact word. This time, I was so nonplussed that I couldn’t have made any kind of helpful response to her even if I had wanted to.

Since it is my job to be her customer service assistant and not her spiritual director, it’s not really my place to respond to such a spiritually loaded comment anyways — either positively or negatively. It certainly would not have been very helpful (to her or to my store) if I said something like, “Oh, Wicca’s not that bad. Look at me, I wrote several books on the subject!” Obviously, it would be a violation of my conscience to agree with her or to in any way suggest to her that I supported her fear and terror. While I have my own criticisms of Wicca and Neopaganism, I hardly think it’s anything to be scared of. Only ego-bound Wiccans and equally ego-involved Christian fundamentalists have any stake in the idea that Wiccan “energy” is a force of power, whether in a good or bad way. In retrospect I might have said something to her like, “I don’t think you need to be afraid of Wicca;” but my silence was probably just as effective a response.

Why are Christians afraid of Wicca? The only reason I can come up with is that they have been scared by unscrupulous Christian fundamentalists who preach a xenophobic theology as a way of asserting their own needs for power and domination. In other words, Christians who are terrified of Wiccans have been victimized — not by Pagans, but by other Christians. This is a terrible problem, and Christians need to be prepared to speak out against fear-mongering in our midst.

Part of what is so ironic about this woman’s fear is that it sounded so uncharacteristic of Christian spirituality — at least, the Christian spirituality I have studied and attempted to practice over the years, a spirituality based on the idea that love casts out fear, and that nothing can separate us from Divine Love (I John 4:18; Romans 8:39). If we truly believe that Divine Love is inseparably present in our lives, and that this love triumphs over fear, then something like “negative energy” has no claim upon us whatsoever. If anything, the incense lady reminded me not of Christian spirituality, but of the kind of fear-based superstition that I found again and again in the Pagan community. I encountered so many superstitious Neopagans who were scared of the dark (afraid of negative energy, focused on “psychic self-defense,” continually using charms and talismans to protect themselves, and so forth) that I came to believe that Pagan theology (if there is such a thing) is inadequate as a tool for developing mature adult spiritual confidence. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that of all the Pagans I knew who really had it together spiritually, most if not all of them had either benefited from the wisdom of liberal Christian and Jewish theology, liberal theology (Quakerism, Unitarianism), Buddhism, or psychotherapy.

But I digress. The point of this post is that Pagans are not the only ones susceptible to irrational superstition. It just breaks my heart to think of the woman I spoke to yesterday who is terrified of something that, empirically speaking, is simply not going to hurt her. Even if she believes negative energy is going to hurt her and then something bad happens to her, it is her belief that tripped her up, not some sort of external “energy.” Her faith is defective, and again, I blame unscrupulous Christian fundamentalists for this. Living in fear is, well, no way to live. But the only way to get rid of the dark is to ignite the light. Ironically, when we do that, we learn that the dark wasn’t really so scary after all. This is why Christians who have really taken the gospel message of Divine Love to heart are simply not afraid of Buddhism or Wicca or humanism or whatever. They may have their criticisms of such non-Christian perspectives, but they don’t fear them.

I called this post “Terra fide” not only because I can never resist a good pun, but because I believe the only way to stop being fearful is to be faithful; Christians who are afraid of Paganism probably have a deficit of faith, not only in Divine Love, but in the good creation that emerged from such love. In other words, superstitious Christians have too little faith not only in God, but in nature/the earth/the land, and they might benefit from hanging out with St. Francis and the Celts and learning to be a bit more “earthy” in their faith. You know, when I look back to why I became a Pagan in the first place, a lot of it had to do with my own internal drive to have a more spiritual relationship with nature and the earth. Ironically, from the other side of that decision I’ve discovered that I have greater faith in nature now than I did when I was a Pagan. I don’t think that is necessarily Paganism’s fault, but it does highlight a fundamental mistake I made: I expected Paganism to take care of my spiritual needs, and it didn’t.

As a Pagan, instead of finding a spirituality that helped me place faith in the land, I found an Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass funhouse of psychic power-tripping among people who fought for status in the close-knit Pagan community (either at large, or within their own covens) by asserting their own relative superiority as magicians or elders or whatever. Well, power-tripping is the doorway to manipulation and fear, so no wonder that so many Pagans settle for a spirituality of superstition. Alas, Christianity has its own share of power politics and dominator heirarchies, so I suppose it’s no surprise that many Christians are just as fearful and superstitious as the Pagans whom they demonize. In writing this, I’m reminded of the Wiccan author Starhawk, who tried to deconstruct power in her book Truth or Dare by differentiating between “power over,” “power among,” and “power within.” The power I’m criticizing, of course, is power-over: the power of domination and control. Power-among is the healthy antidote: it is the power of community that is organized in an non-domination manner, whether it be consensus driven, accountable leadership, or whatever; power-within is, of course, the power of faith (which is related to hope and love, the love which casts out superstitious fear). Starhawk is hardly the only Wiccan who gets all this; during my tenure in the Pagan community I had the privilege of knowing several other Pagan leaders with a truly healthy understanding of power (Judy Harrow and Katherine Hinds are two “public” Pagans who leap to mind).

Mind you, I didn’t leave the Pagan community only because of its superstition (if I had, what a fool I’d be, given the prevalence of superstition I find among Christian fundamentalists). I left because I realized that I couldn’t count on any one faith community to “meet my needs” spiritually; I had to take responsibility for my own spiritual growth and actualization. Once I realized this, and recognized that the purpose of religion is not to “meet our spiritual needs” but to plug us into a community and a tradition that will call us to grow and to serve, then for me Paganism’s allure fell away and I realized that I’d rather be part of Christianity (warts and all) than Paganism (warts and all). When I first became a Pagan, I made the mistake of thinking it had fewer warts than Christianity. How quickly I learned otherwise. Now I’m back to being a Christian, and the warts of Christianity are continually in my face: the day before yesterday I read about how the Vatican is investigating an interfaith-friendly theologian named Peter Phan (yes, this is the inquisition at work); then yesterday I encounter the incense lady. From the top to the bottom, the church is filled with power-tripping and superstition. Just like Paganism — and just like every other faith out there.

Thanks to Christian mysticism, I struggle to live a faith based on love rather than fear (I say “struggle to” because some days I’m better at it than others). Thanks to some interesting Pagan thinkers (Dolores LaChappelle, David Abram, Jesse Wolf Hardin) as well as the splendor of the Celtic tradition (both Pagan and Christian), I struggle to live a faith that honors the body as well as the soul, the earth as well as heaven (I say “struggle to” because some days I’m better at it than others). As this post makes clear, my criticism of both Paganism and Christianity stems chiefly from the way in which both faiths not only tolerate but actively foster dominator power structures, and its corollary, fundamentalism and superstition among their relatively powerless adherents; and in doing so they subvert and undermine mysticism (which is nurtured by love, not fear).

What I’m left with is this question: how do I, as a student of mysticism, live out my spirituality in such a way that I can be of loving service to those who are trapped in the mire of superstition and fear — regardless of what religious label they wear? In other words, how can my contemplative practice support both myself and others in the emergent transition form “terrified” to “terra fide“?

Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://myspace.com/scott_ky Scott

    I’m also an ex-Pagan Christian and have seen some of the same kinds of things from both sides of the fence. Too many preachers are willing to spew whatever falsehoods they hear without bothering to check on its veracity. And too many Christians just accept whatever comes from the pulpit without question.

    Jesus commanded us to beware of false prophets (Mt. 7:15), but how are we gonna do that if we aren’t even willing to think for ourselves?

    Sometimes I’m just embarrassed to admit I’m a Christian….

  • http://discombobula.blogspot.com Sue

    Hey there Carl,

    Fascinating stuff. Thanks very much :)

  • Peggy

    In 1980 the fundamentalist pentecostal church group with which I was affiliated arranged to rent a non-denominational campsite for a few days after their regular camping clients had concluded for the season. My daughters 11 and 9 stayed with other girls in a cabin.
    Somehow word got around from some source that there there WITCHES in the area and they were planning a gathering one night (a new moon celebration?) and this just created an atmosphere of of terror to the point that my girls were ready to go home right now! And this despite the fact that my 11year old LOVED the “Dorrie the Little Witch” books. I read those stories to both girls. I repeatedly told that the girls that nothing bad was going to happen and they were just fine. Though I did let them bunk in my room with the baby brother for one night. I did not tell them that witches didn’t really exist or that it was all their or the adults around them exercising poor judgement. I wasn’t afraid of any alleged witchly activity because I was steeped in folklore and mythology and Andre Norton and JRR Tolkien and many other fantasy writers before I came into this particular Christian group. My own mother had been a Rosicrucian at one time and our neighbor used to go to meet with a coven every so often in another state. I had been in her home many times and there was nothing weird about it.
    Nothing happened with the supposed witch gathering that summer. However, the camp owners disinvited our church from future visits due to the upsetting LOUD music, shouting, and other bizare (to them) acitivities of our particular worship!
    My then pastor once commented that a certain woman he met “had the spirit of a witch” but he never elaborated on it. Maybe he didn’t like the Virgin of Guadalupe tapestry on her wall….

  • http://nemeton.blogspot.com Yvonne

    Interesting post, Carl. Personally I’m enjoying my new-found spiritual freedom – to look at all mystical encounters with the Divine, from whatever tradition – and see how they fit in with my particular perspective. I am also keen to do this in community with others, as I think the loving service aspect of encounter with the Divine – seeing “that of God in everyone” as the Quakers put it – is of paramount importance. I think my community is probably Unitarianism – I tried Orthodoxy, and found it a beautiful and rich tradition – but I just couldn’t say the Nicene Creed and really mean it. I also find the emphasis on celibacy and asceticism somewhat bewildering.

    I guess all religions have oppressive elements in them (and we should all take the beam out of our own eyes before we try to pick the mote out of others’ eyes) but all are potential paths to liberation.

    I personally have not seen the excessive superstition among Pagans that you mention (though I’ve come across some people like that) but I have seen a rejection of ideas perceived as “Christian” which leads to a skewing of Pagan spirituality; and I have seen people taking hedonism to excess and riding roughshod over the needs of others.

    Interesting that the loud Christian group got barred from that campsite – maybe the annoying late-night drummers are just the Pagan version of a problem that crops up in all faiths :)

  • http://mysticheart.wordpress.com/ Tracie Holladay

    I myself am a UU pagan who is considering joining the Episcopal Church formally (that is, being confirmed by the bishop) and I would say that the answer to the question you posed in your last paragraph would be:

    1: Forgive
    People are people. We’re all messed up and we all have our issues. We’re all broken, but all loved by God. The priest at the church I usually go to, Fr. Tom, has said that we come to church not because we’re so perfect, but because we are acknowledging that we are imperfect and need help. Fr. Dennis Maynard wrote in one of his books that the Church is like a hospital for sinners. So we have to remember this and forgive people for their idiosyncrasies and imperfections.

    2: Teach
    Know your faith tradition inside and out, and gently teach people another way. As St. Francis once said: Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.


  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Well said, Tracie. And I would add: forgiven and teach myself. For if other peoples’ fear is such a trigger to me, that can only be because it mirrors my own fear. The best way to encourage others to trust instead of fear is to become more of a person who trusts myself.