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.