When Interfaith Gets Beautiful

Mike Bird wrote a post about the connection between Christmas, December 25th, and the “triumph of Christianity over paganism.” Many pagans were less than flattered or impressed.

Star Foster, who blogs about her pagan faith here at Patheos, responded with a post “When Interfaith Gets Ugly.”

What struck me most was that in her post it didn’t get ugly. And I saw in that something beautiful. A bright, shining example of the possibility of disagreeing strongly with someone and yet finding a way to do so in a manner that shows more respect than had been shown by the person to whom you are responding to, and so setting the course of the subsequent conversation on an upward trajectory rather than a downward spiral.

(I realize that I might be suspected of having been swayed by the fact that Star’s post described me as “always awesome.” And so let me remind you that Mike describes me as the “Lady Gaga” of biblioblogging – which is obviously a compliment).

I’m also glad that this incident has given me an excuse to mention the humorous depiction (found at Acts of the Apostasy) of Patheos as the Borg of religious blogging. When someone looks carefully at the posts by and interactions between the various viewpoints on Patheos blogs – pagan, conservative Christian, liberal Christian, atheist, and whatever else – we have been connected here at Patheos. We have not been assimilated. We continue to disagree and discuss, and hopefully to illustrate in our doing so how it is possible to be direct and even forceful while also being respectful. But even when we fall short of that standard, we are connected, and remain so, hopefully illustrating that even if our disagreements or rhetoric gets a bit heated, the appropriate response is not to isolate ourselves into separate cliques.

And so I hope that you’ll think of Patheos as the United Federation of Planets of religion blogging, rather than the Borg.

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  • Mike Bird

    James, Star “didn’t get ugly”? What the smurf? Mate, she just called the early church my “anarchic, martyr hungry ancestors” who were not really “victims”. That’s pretty fricking ugly in my reckoning. Up there with denying the Holocaust. Send your pagan friend a copy of Eusebius for me, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Pliny’s Letter to Trajan, and big bag of other martyrologies too. Not only does she not know jack smurf about the history of Christianity in ancient Rome, but I am left wondering what her attitude might be to the persecution of Christian minorities in Egypt, Iran, and North Korea? Are Christians in Iraq “martyr hungry” and get what they deserve? You dig my point?

    • Just Sayin’

      Why do you delete (non-profane) posts from your blog?  Scared of differing views? 

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  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Mike, I think it is illustrative of the sort of beautiful dialogue that we are capable of that you can disagree with me and yet say nothing stronger than “what the smurf?”  :-)  

    I don’t think that one can simply blame the persecution of Christians in Egypt of North Korea in our time on “pagans” unless one is using that term to mean “anyone who isn’t Christian” or even “anyone who isn’t a monotheist” or in some other imprecise sense.

    Although I am not confident that the account of Thecla baptizing herself in a pool of man-eating seals is historical, your broader historical point about martyrdom and persecution in the early church, and today, are important ones.

    So is the point that Christians and pagans have both down the centuries been persecutors and persecutees, noble and enlightened and rational at times, angry and ready to engage in mob violence at others.

    I absolutely do think it is important to get the history right – all of it, if possible. 

    But I also think it is important to ask where we want to go from here. I don’t think that any sort of history of interaction that we may have had determines what that has to be like. And I don’t think that anything that either you or Star has posted thus far means that you should stop trying to talk to one another about this. I still believe that something wonderful can emerge from this conversation, not because you will end up agreeing even on the history, but simply because you don’t give up on talking because of your disagreement, or even because of hurts inflicted, but realize that communication is all the more essential under such circumstances.

    I hope this works out just smurfy for all of us. 

    • Mike Bird

      James, I’m all for being for nice and smurfy. But this is smurfing me up:

      “There are contemporary accounts that state that Christians were so certain that the end is near they became disturbers of the peace in order to seek martyrdom. Death-by-centurion if you like. It was due to this, and their refusal to do their civic duty, that they met with hostility. Rome’s thriving Jewish population had no problem with performing their civic duty or living with their non-Jewish neighbors. The ancient world was a religiously tolerant place. Thousands of religions lived side-by-side for thousands of years without a religious war or a crusade or a jihad.”

      James, can you at least set this young lady straight about the history, she won’t believe me, but she’ll believe you! She seems unable to get into her pink little head the idea that Christians (and Jews) were victims of pagan authorities. 

      • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        Mike Bird, ancient people regularly fought and appealed to their gods for victory over others. Pagans certainly are not exempt from participation in such processes, nor are Christians. When Christians fought crusades in the Baltic region againdt pagans, when Christians outlawed paganism in the post-Constantinian era, should we regard those as equally expressions of things inherent in Christianity and paganism? Or should both be viewed as instances of the uses to which religions – all religions – are put when coupled with empire, or with contexts of colonization, or economic scarcity, or anything else that tends to bring out the worst in us?

        I don’t see either religious tradition as inherently inclined towards or incapable of being associated with actions that most third parties looking on would find regrettable, as those connected with these traditions themselves would in most cases, given the benefit of hindsight.

        We all emphasize the peaceful nature of our traditions, when we have the good fortune to be in a context that allows us to do so. Have you not heard Christians say that Christianity is an inherently peaceful tradition, and all the atrocities are perversions and hijackings of our faith? Would it not be a suitable application of the Golden Rule to give paganism equal freedom to claim that persecutions were unfortunate misguided acts that had more to do with politics, economics, and social concerns than religion? At least as much leeway to claim that as we think Christians should have when making similar claims?

        I don’t see that the pinkness of anyone’s head has any relevance to this. Perhaps you could clarify how that relates to the matter at hand?

      • Just Sayin’

        Why do you delete (non-profane) posts from your blog? Scared of differing views?

  • Anonymous

    you misused “smurphy” in your last sentence :-)

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      You misspelled “smurfy” in yours. :-)

  • Anonymous

    And so I hope that you’ll think of Patheos as the United Federation of Planets of religion blogging, rather than the Borg.

    Kind of painful for us, since Freethought Blogs has clearly turned into the Borg of atheist blogging.  Patheos is the Federation, but in our quadrant the Borg are winning.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I was going to make a Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country reference in response to your comment, but am afraid that would take the conversation from the realm of geeky metaphors through the neutral zone into the realm of metaphors that only Star Trek fans can understand.

      But then again, if you are a fan then you’ll probably be able to tell where I was going with this anyway. :-)

  • Anonymous

    ha :-)

  • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

    We Trekkies have to stick together!

    We don’t tend to put martyrs on a pedestal, but a maybe a post devoted to Pagan martyrs might be a good lead in to Imbolc.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I’d say Imbolc would be a good occasion for a post on the topic “Think Christianity conquered paganism? Think again!” I suspect that most of what is associated with St. Brigid’s Day in Celtic tradition was around well before anyone in Ireland was thinking in terms of “saints.” There are other places where one can see the same thing – Romania has some interesting customs around Christmas time. And in Latvia, there is a vibrant culture of choral singing that doesn’t seem to worry all that much about whether the lyrics are Christian or pagan, assuming one can tell the difference clearly.

      It would be interesting to have an inter-blog conversation about religious identity and boundary formation. The roots of the notion of “chosen people of the one God” vs. “pagans” are in Biblical literature, but precisely at points at which the archaeological record and other evidence fails to corroborate it. It was an attempt to overthrow the Israelites’ own traditions by characterizing them as foreign influences. It seems to have worked quite effectively, but with a cost.

      Speaking from a liberal Christian perspective, there are plenty of places in which, if one wishes to see it, one can see much more openness to things that some Christians would call “pagan” right within the pages of the Bible. It is there in the belief of the author of Genesis that the Earth has creative power. It is there in the hinted reference to “Mother Earth” when Job says “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return there.” And it is there when Christians and Jews found the Stoic (i.e. pantheist) concept of the Logos was found well suited to their faith, and when Paul in Acts quotes poetic references to Zeus.

      If and when we get past the debates about who had ideas first and who persecuted whom more historically, we actually have a lot of interesting things that we can talk about across our various traditions! :-)

      • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

        It’s true. There’s been a lot of crossover over the centuries, and it’s still going on today. I know Pagans who’ve created their own “rosary” and in some ways the emergent/organic/home church movement seems to be imitating Pagan organizational models of the last century.

        • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I think there are a great many people for whom eclecticism is the norm, and the idea that someone would argue over who first came up with a metaphor or a practice and accept or reject it on that basis seems ludicrous. 

          Then again, I know someone who once described themselves as “Episcopagan” and I’m honestly not sure how typical my circle of friends is…  :-)

          • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

            Yup, there are Episcopagans, Quagans and a good number of UU folks identify as Pagan.

            The problem we face with eclecticism is is when something traditional gets distorted out of it’s original meaning. Wicca bears the brunt of that in Paganism, but I could imagine Martin Luther having an apoplectic fit after visiting a modern Protestant church.

            It’s difficult to balance tradition and innovation, and to judge whether a tradition is evolving in a good way or losing it’s meaning entirely.

            • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              Am I the only one who thinks that “From Quagans to Qui-Gon” would be a great title for a blog post on contemporary religious eclecticism?

              I think it can be frustrating, but also liberating, to know that however conservative you try to be, you will be less traditional and closer to the spirit of the age than you care to admit, and no matter how innovative you try to be, you will inevitably be more traditional and shaped by your heritage than you care to admit.

      • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

        It’s true. There’s been a lot of crossover over the centuries, and it’s still going on today. I know Pagans who’ve created their own “rosary” and in some ways the emergent/organic/home church movement seems to be imitating Pagan organizational models of the last century.

      • http://www.facebook.com/dashifen David Dashifen Kees

        Are you saying we shouldn’t bicker and argue over who killed who?  Whoops … sorry I got some Python mixed in wish an otherwise Trekkie post.

        • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

          You never expect the Spanish Inquisition! Their main weapon is surprise and fear. Two! Their two main weapons are surprise and fear and a ruthless efficiency! Three!

        • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I can tell you’re new to this blog by the fact that you felt the need to apologize for introducing Monty Python into a discussion. :-)

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  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Very enjoyable, Dr. McGrath!  Thank you for writing this (and your “War on Solstice” post from last year)!  While I have not read much of your blog thus far, I must agree with Star’s assessment from what I have seen so far, which has been “always awesome”!  ;)

    As you said in your comment below, in response to Mike, I do think the issue of “Where do we go from here?” is really important, and it was something I tried to touch on in my recent Patheos.com article on “The Christian Persecution Complex.”  Unfortunately, that was mostly lost in the discussion, I think; when I did try to raise it with one of the commenters, she pretty much suggested that my own efforts in this regard will be poorly met by Christians (and likely also Muslims and Jews) because it would take place in a “pagan” context, which would be too scary for them.  I don’t know…If you have a moment, I’d certainly be interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Sorry for taking so long to reply. Hope your new year is off to a great start!  I thought for sure that I had written something about Christians in North America as a majority with a minority persecution complex at some point, but have not been able to track it down.  Thanks for writing and sharing your own article on this topic!

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Thanks very much for “getting there” in the end!  The secular new year is busier than I had expected, but then again, the entirety of the year for the last two years has been the same, so par for the course, really…!?!

        I’d be interested in reading your own thoughts on this matter, so if you do write on it in the future, if you’d drop me a line, I’d love to see it!  (I don’t always have as much time to read all the blogs I’d like these days, hence doing the “lazywebs” thing of saying “Well, let me know,” etc.)

        I wish some of the discussions on these various threads over the past few weeks had been less heated and at crossed purposes, but I’m highly encouraged by a great many people’s work I’m seeing, including yours.  So, again, thank you for doing it!  :)

  • Gary

    “and a good number of UU folks identify as Pagan”….I’ve been to a number of UU meetings, and I must say that it is an interesting experience. It is almost like, “we need to have a religious experience on Sunday, but we’re not sure what we are meeting for, other than the cookies and punch after the meeting. No boundary conditions, whatever you want to celebrate, come and celebrate. I liked most of the people, but as far as doctrine goes, it’s a little like grabing a wet noodle. Nothing to grab hold of, except the concept of meeting, with no particular purpose other than to meet. And they have plenty of meetings during the week, but again, mostly social, and food seems to be the centerpiece. I wonder if there are any UU’s that could explain what exactly they believe in.  During Christmas, they had candle lighting ceremonies, but it could have just as well been celebrating “nature”, than any God. Maybe I answered my own question. Most of the UU’s do indeed seem to be into “nature”, with a dose of Wican, instead of anything approaching standard “God” beliefs. If I showed up to a UU meeting, and said I worship Smurfs, no one would blink. Seems like it is a grab-bag of everyone that does not fit into a traditional religious environment….not that there is anything wrong with that :-)
    I wonder what a person with a theological degree in UU would study?

  • Mike Bird

    James, I’d be happy for Star to say that the persecution that happened under paganism were “unfortunate misguided acts” if only that is what she claimed. She’s saying instead: Christians deserved it and paganism is peaceful, she regrets nothing. Now you’re a historian, I just want someone to put up their hand and say, yes, that crap happened!

    James: Did Jews and Christians suffer violence at the hands of pagan authorities driven, in part, by their pagan religion? We both know the answer, but are you willing to say it?

    • Geoff Hudson

      Did Jews suffer violence at the hands of Jews?  Prophets at the hands of priests? And did Nero come to the rescue of the prophets, instead of going on holiday to Greece?  I question the received history. 

      • Geoff Hudson

        For example Martin Goodman writes about Nero in Rome and Jerusalem. He says regarding celebrations at the Olympic games, on p.140: 

        “a surviving inscription of a Greek text of the speech he delivered … attests: ‘Other leaders have liberated cities, only Nero a province.’ ”  

        According to Goodman, the speech was delivered on 28 November 67 CE at the commencement of the games in Greece.  

        Nero had left Rome bound for Judea in 66 with a massive army. He had returned from Judea to Greece in 67.  In Judea he had fought and defeated the priests, leaving a garrison in Jerusalem.  The original war was over, done and dusted by 66/67.  This began four years of peace when the so-called coins of the revolt were issued.  That peace was shattered by the theft from the temple of its artifacts and gold and its destruction under Vespasian.      

    • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

      Mike, I said that Christians weren’t sitting there meekly minding their own business. They were actively seeking persecution and martyrdom. You are trying to spin this into something it is not and are obviously ignorant of your own history.

      If you think Eusebius is a reliable resource, then you haven’t done your homework: http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/eusebius/eusebius_the_liar.htm

      Apparently instead of engaging in dialogue and debating the facts, you’re far more interested in twisting my words and commenting on my hair. I have better things to do.

      • Mike Bird

        Star,
        My problem is that Christians were not by and large seeking martyrdom. You keep saying it, but it is not true. I challenge you to prove this from the sources. And the question of Eusebius and history is complex and cannot be settled with an off hand reference to some third rate website run by a guy nobody has heard of.  Eusebius is still a source for Christian history, albeit one that (just like all historians) must be digested critically. But, you’ll have to do a similar demolition job on Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, and twenty other historians in order to prove your thesis. BTW, I actually like your hair!

        • Geoff Hudson

          Although not a professional, Roger Pearse is certainly not third rate, which is what seems to be implied. He is well known via the internet.  

        • Just Sayin’

          Mike Bird: Why do you delete (non-profane) posts from your blog and block posters who have differing views? A bit of old-fashioned fundie authoritarianism coming out perhaps?
          Come on, admit it, you have no interest in genuine dialogue.

    • Just Sayin’

      Mike Bird: Why do you delete (non-profane) posts from your blog and block posters who have differing views? A bit of old-fashioned fundie authoritarianism coming out perhaps?

  • Mike Bird

    James,
    Why don’t you offer a mediating word of reconciliation. I’ve said all I have to say!

    • Just Sayin’

      Mike Bird: Why wont you say why you delete (non-profane) posts from your blog and block posters who have differing views? Don’t you have any interest in dialogue?  Seems not . . .

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    OK, I like both of your hair!

    On the desire for martyrdom in ancient sources, see e.g. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans, 4, and the account of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/perpetua.html

    I think that it would be very interesting to have you both read and talk about that famous martyrdom tale (skip the visions added at the beginning and get to what is supposedly Perpetua’s own account). It would be a bit like having a modern Jew and Christians read an account of the persecution of Jews in Medieval Europe. And I think it might help both sides understand The historical baggage we bring to interactions of this sort.

    Let me add that I am not assuming that the martyrdom is historically accurate in all its details. But it is definitely, on the one hand, part of the evidence that there was persecution on the one hand, and evidence that Christians told and retold with relish accounts of martyrs giving their lives.

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  • Just Sayin’

    Rather hypocritical of Mike Bird to come here and post freely when he denies that privilege to dissenting voices on his own blog.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Just Sayin’, why are you spamming my blog because you are upset with Mike Bird? Are you hoping to provoke me to have to delete some comments, too? :-)


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