How Little We Know, How Much We Miss

I’m entering into 2010 reflecting on the limits of knowledge and the challenges facing anyone interested in interreligious dialogue or interfaith spirituality. If we are not humbled by how little we know, we are in trouble.

Ali of Meadowsweet & Myrrh, in her latest contribution to a conversation we’ve been having about the movie Avatar and the representation of pagan, indigenous and/or pantheistic spirituality in that movie, has this perceptive insight:

I am all for interfaith dialogue and the fruitful integration and living-together of different traditions. But before we begin our blending, I think it is utterly important that we strive to understand what those differences actually are, and accept no pale caricatures in their place. Otherwise, what we are doing is not integrating, but imposing. While a rose is a rose is a rose, to look at another spiritual tradition through rose-colored glasses, paint a rose-colored picture and then try to pass it off as the real thing is just not something I willing to settle for.

I agree with her. She said this in the context of challenging my assertion that Avatar was “a Neopagan’s dream,” which she contests by pointing out problems with the movie’s depiction of Pandoran spirituality. Hey, as dense and post-pagan as I am, even I had figured out that Eywa was essentially a monotheistic fictionalization of a “pagan goddess,” and I suppose my chief error was not giving that misgiving any airtime in my review.

Why did I not bother to point out the flaws in the movie’s “paganism” that even I picked up on? I think the answer is simple: because, as a Christian, it really wasn’t my problem. But in saying that, I’m pointing to how much I embody the problem Ali addresses in the above quote. Even as secularized as America has become, Christians here still enjoy privilege as participants in the culture’s dominant religious worldview. Contemporary America is post-Christian, not “post-pagan” or “post-pantheist.” In other words, the kinds of unspoken assumptions that shape religious thinking among many or perhaps most Americans, even those who never darken the door of a church except for weddings and funerals, is steeped in Christian ways of thinking, Christianity’s cluster of values, and — most germane of all to my current line of thinking — Christian blind spots. Last year at the Emerging Church Conference in Albuquerque, Brian McLaren spoke on “what we focus on determines what we miss.” He was speaking specifically about the ways in which Christians themselves have failed to see the full picture of Jesus as depicted in the New Testament. Ay yi yi. If Christians have difficulty truly knowing our own God, how are we ever going to be able to truly understand the logic, the values, the consciousness, the hopes and fears of other faiths, other wisdom traditions, other cultures?

It’s humbling to acknowledge that I will always see Buddhism through American Christian eyes; I will always see Islam through American Christian eyes; and even Paganism (neo- or otherwise), I’ll always see through American Christian eyes. Neopagan Druids reflect on how the first generation of Druid revivalists (from the 18th century in places like London and Wales) were so steeped in monotheistic beliefs and Christian values that their “Druidism” was little more than a costume ball. I wonder if Pagans 250 years from now will look at the Neopagan movement of the late 20th century and pass a similar judgment? I would suspect that this is likely. Meanwhile, Christians who recognize that the message of Jesus is all about radical love and the transformation of consciousness just shake our collective heads when we look at all the ways in which Christianity has been tainted by imperialist ways of thinking — I don’t know about you, but when I look at the medieval church I see more “vestigial Roman Empire” than “beloved community.” And if Christians themselves can’t even get Jesus’ message straight, no wonder our critics and detractors have such a distorted image of who we are.

This line of thinking, hopefully, leads us back to humility, the crown of virtues. Recognizing how little we know and how much we miss is not meant to be an exercise in self-flagellation. Rather, it is an opportunity: an opportunity to listen more and speak less, to engage in real, open-ended dialogue rather than just talking to one another as a way to score points or to get “our” message across. Related to humility, of course, is that key virtue for both Celtic Pagans and Benedictine Christians: hospitality. In our humility, we have the space to be welcoming and open to those whose ways are not like our own. It is only in this place of hospitality and welcoming that a true encounter may occur. The project as Ali describes it — that interfaith dialogue includes an honest assessment of our real differences and distinctions — can be painful, particularly when we bump into the ways we criticize or dismiss one another. Learning to listen, without getting defensive, without attacking in response, is truly an exercise in compassion, self-discipline, and open-hearted vulnerability. And yet this is the only sure path to authentic understanding.

Since Christianity currently holds the place of privilege and cultural influence, at least in my neck of the woods, I think it is incumbent upon Christians to lead the way in this epistemological humility. Pagans, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and members of other “minority” religions are probably much more aware of our own blind spots than we are. Learning to listen to our critics with grace and humility does not mean we have to abandon our fidelity to Christ or our deepest and highest values. But it does mean that we have to swallow a bit of our pride (and the last time I checked, pride was on the naughty list, so this is a good thing).

One final thought, in response to Ali: reading her keen and perceptive writing makes me just a wee bit wistful for the door I closed when I abandoned Neopaganism for Catholicism. Make no mistake: I’m happy with the choice I made, and I see lots of exciting work ahead for me (including in the area of interreligious dialogue). But I realize now that the work I did as a Pagan is already dated, and will simply become more dated as time passes. I wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism in 2001, so it’s already almost a decade old — and it stands on the shoulders of books from the 1970s, like The Spiral Dance or Drawing Down the Moon, meaning that it is, in effect, last generation’s Paganism. The other day in Borders I saw a copy of Drawing Down the Moon on the sale table, for $3.99. Hmmm. It’s old news. I’ve always thought that, even as a Christian, I could maintain a relationship with Neopaganism as a dialogue partner. But it looks like if that’s what I want, then I have my work cut out for me.

Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
Interfaith Dialogue, Interspirituality, and Holy Daring
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Five Approaches to InterSpirituality
  • jodiq

    Thanks Carl, very good post…I concur with you on most things. I see the interreligious movement as helpful–understanding is always good and if it helps promote peace, justice and connectedness among people, then it carries merit.
    How to refrain from using one’s own worldview to see another is no small trick–requires a ton of effort and time…I wonder if that time and effort would be better spent seeking God…then, maybe, Jesus would grant us His view on other religions…
    Horizontally, most religions promote the same values (justice, humility, compassion, etc). Vertically, the god(s) we worship/seek are radically different…the One/one(s) we connect with in prayer/contemplation are not the same.

  • Carl McColman

    “Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on God’s saving justice, and all these other things will be given you as well. ” Matthew 6:33, NJB. I don’t think this is an either/or proposition. If we move to a foreign land, it is only by the grace of God that we can form friendships and overcome culture shock — and yet, God is not going to do the hard work of learning a new language for us. Letting God lead the dance does not absolve us of the responsibility of moving our own two feet. So I think we have to both seek mercy and grace and justice, and do the hard work of getting to know our “neighbors” whom we are called to love as ourselves.

    As for acknowledging that different traditions really do worship different gods — indeed. That’s part of the pain. And that’s why I don’t subscribe to the kind of nice liberal “we can all hold hands and sing kum ba yah and just pretend our differences don’t exist” type of blended spirituality. Learning to live together is not the same thing as surrendering to a spirit of compromise that ultimately satisfies no one. But that goes the other way as well: our efforts to preserve the integrity of our own faith should never become an excuse for shutting down dialogue.

  • noel

    yes carl i see what you mean. i am just back from a 4 day zen retreat or sesshin which means to touch the spirit.
    i go to these retreats and it definately helps my christian progress but not my catholic .
    i am not sure if it is somehow confusing me or am i born for this.
    my aim is to lead others to be a lightt.
    i know i cannot be a light just like on knowledge but rather it is something i am called to do.
    it is only the spiritual
    please let me have your comments
    i wish to totally immerse myself
    i am more eckhart and john of the cross than any of the zen masters but also i see no conflict
    i am at present confused because the calling that summons me is very interior and leaves me lacking in the social mores needed even to relate to family etc

  • Carl McColman

    Not sure what comments to make, Noel, except that I hear you and I suspect our inner tensions and dynamics are similar. Keep breathing, and keep walking one step at a time. That’s all I know to do.

  • noel

    thanks carl.
    you have taught me much by your brevity
    god bless you , i feel the holy spirit fleshing out your words

  • Gary Snead

    The on-going dialogue is exciting. We can’t easily comment on what we each miss, but we can point out what we each see. The two things my family and I took with us from Pandora, neither of which have been brought up in Ali or Carl’s blogs and comment threads. The first is the intense visceral reaction to the new 3D cinematography. I was riveted to my seat and it took about 10 minutes for me to relax and work out the built-up lactic acid at the end of the credits (I am 52 and out of shape,too). The culmination of ingenuity and focused purpose is a new immersive 3D experience that can allow our imagination to attend to the story, the characters, and not be consumed with turning the 2D film into 3D in our heads. The second is the greeting “I see you.” This was the first post my 24 y/o son put on his Facebook status after seeing the movie. I think Ali and Carl in their respectful commentaries embody the given meaning of this statement, seeing beyond the phenomenological reality, seeing with one’s heart, mind, soul and strength, seeing and accepting and ready to listen to another fully, their heart, mind, soul and strength. I know I need to work on this type of seeing, and it is the best way we can each be about doing what Carl’s talking about today.

  • elizabeth

    another voice in the conversation you might find interesting:

  • sznjn

    I just saw Avatar last night. I feel that the movie is a parable for our time. Yes, it is neopagan, but at a deeper level it refects the type of stewardship to which Adam and Eve were called, and the type to which we are called as Christians today. I was touched on a visceral level and I sat and cried through the credits as I thought of how we have as a people mistreated God’s earth. I shudder to think what will happen if we as God’s people do not listen to Him and change our ways… is not this the way He speaks to us through neopaganism?

  • Laura

    I know I am commenting a little late on this party, but I had been mulling over these posts for the last few days.

    I saw Avatar and loved it. Many of my friends have loved it as well – friends of all different religious traditions. Each group has said seperately that the movie really touched their own personal religious values – the pagans said it was a very pagan movie, the buddhists said it was a very buddhist movie, the contemplative christians said it was very contemplative-christian.

    Ultimately, I think it a move about what it means to be human and be connected. Clearly we are all dying for that connection between both other people and the world around us. But I don’t think that our dialogue will go anywhere unless each group of people stops trying to own the message.