Far from being an oxymoron, Pagan evangelism is a helpful and necessary step in our growth and maturity as a religion.
I know, some of you are picking yourself up off the floor – or off the ceiling – after reading that. Hear me out and see if you don’t agree in part if not in whole… and if you don’t, the comments are open.
Let’s start by making one thing very clear: evangelism is NOT proselytization. Proselytization is the aggressive attempt to convert people to a new religion, frequently by the use of manipulative techniques: telling them they’ll burn in hell if they don’t convert, offering disaster victims relief supplies if they convert, recruiting young children who don’t have the maturity to accurately evaluate the choices they’re offered. Proselytization assumes my religion isn’t just right for me, it’s right for you and I’m doing you a big favor by pushing you to convert.
Proselytization is a feature of monotheism – does anyone proselytize besides Christians and Muslims? Polytheists understand that different people have different gods and different gods call different people. Just because Cernunnos called me doesn’t mean he’s going to call you. Maybe Lugh wants you, or Morrigan, or Odin, or Isis. Maybe you really should be a Buddhist or a Taoist or a Quaker.
Evangelism, on the other hand, is simply spreading the good news. Evangelism is talking about the beliefs and practices that are meaningful and sacred to you with no expectations of them being adopted by those who hear you. If spiritual growth is modeled by the agricultural cycle so prevalent in most modern Pagan religions, evangelism isn’t planting the seed – it’s preparing the ground to receive the seed.
I have loved Nature all my life. I grew up with the woods right outside my door – literally: go out the back door, down the steps, walk maybe twenty feet, climb over the low fence and I was in the woods. There was always something special, something magical, something sacred about being among the trees. If the wet-weather stream was running it was even better.
But I grew up in a very Christian environment. It wasn’t just that my parents took me to a Baptist church, but that everyone I knew was at least nominally Christian. “God” was Yahweh, the old man in the sky. I knew of Zeus and Hera and Apollo and the other gods of the Greeks and Romans, but to me they were characters in stories, no more real than Paul Bunyan or Huck Finn.
At the age of 31 I met a Wiccan for the first time. When he explained how he worshipped a Goddess as well as a God, how he saw that Goddess and God in Nature, and how magic was more than illusion or fantasy, something in me changed. All of a sudden I had a different context for my experiences in the woods. Not only could I see the forest, I could see the God of the Forest. Not the god who made the forest, as I was taught in Christianity, but the god who is the forest. That set me on the path that led to where I am now, a path that has brought me spiritual growth and fulfillment I could not find anywhere else.
None of that would be possible if someone hadn’t shared his good news with me. He didn’t try to convert me, he didn’t shove a book in my face and tell me to go read it, he didn’t promise me power and prosperity. He just told me who he was, what he believed and how he practiced his religion. He prepared the soil and the seeds began to sprout.
Any successful religion is successful because it fills a need, solves a problem, or answers a question that’s important to the people who follow it. In an era of climate change, oil spills and species loss, we need the message that Nature is sacred. In an era where patriarchy is desperately (and at times, violently) trying to reassert itself, we need to see that the Divine is female as well as male. In an era of religious and cultural tensions, we need the tolerance and acceptance that naturally flow from polytheism. In an era where people are in constant migration and have few roots, we need to learn to form connections to the land, to our ancestors, to our gods and goddesses and to each other.
The 21st century Western world needs what Paganism has to offer.
There are some Pagans who disagree. Some desperately want to be unique and some think what we believe and do is beyond the capabilities of most people. We don’t have time to indulge those who want to be different for the sake of being different. But for those who are legitimately worried about diluting Paganism, consider this: how many Buddhists are there? How many of them are Zen Masters? How many Jews are there? How many of them are rabbis, much less Kabalistic scholars? Not every Pagan has to be a high priestess or hedgewitch or archdruid.
We need to reach out to the growing number of people who are looking for what we offer, let them know we’re here, and make room for them to be involved to the extent they’re interested and capable.
We need Pagan evangelism.
What can we do? We can publicize our events. We can participate in interfaith activities. We can do charitable and community service work. The biggest and simplest thing we can do is to be “out” – at least to the degree we’re safe. There is no substitute for letting people know that Pagans aren’t some strange “other” – we’re their family, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow members of the wider community.
Evangelism isn’t defensive. It’s not about responding to slander and misinformation. As they say in politics, if you’re explaining you’re losing – and you’re never going to convince fundamentalists that what we’re doing is a good thing. Evangelism is about telling and showing people who we are, what we believe, what we do, and what kind of a world we’re trying to create.
Should we use a different term? Is “evangelism” so loaded with Christianity we need something fresh? Maybe, but what? “Advertising” is tainted with corporatism and consumerism. “Publicity” ignores the person to person contact that was so important for me and for others. “Outreach” is horribly bland, and it hasn’t worked for the ever-shrinking mainline Protestants. I’m open to suggestions, but for now, “evangelism” it is.
Few of us were born Pagan – most of us converted from another religion. We were only able to do so because someone plowed the ground and let us know there was another alternative. That alternative fit us better than anything we’d found so far and it’s become a source of wisdom and inspiration, of strength and comfort. We who have benefitted from the Pagan evangelism of others have an obligation to spread the good news to all who will hear it.