It’s happened to all of us. Someone offends you and you walk away in anger – after you get home you think of the perfect witty comeback. A friend is hurting and you feel useless – a week later you think of what you could have done to help. Sometimes we can’t think of what to do or say, while other times we don’t feel like we should do or say anything.
I found myself in that situation yesterday at the CMA Beltane festival. I attended a workshop led by Bryan Lankford titled “Counter Evangelism – Defending Yourself from the Army of God.” Bryan went through a number of laws from the Bible that everyone with the exception of Hassidic Jews ignore. His point was that most Christians don’t really “believe the Bible” (or even know it) – they just like to quote the parts that affirm what they already believe. The discussion was lively and continued after the workshop’s ending time. One young man made several comments in support of traditional and fundamentalist interpretations of scripture. I assumed he was a recent convert to Paganism who simply had a good knowledge of the Bible. But as the conversation continued, he made it clear he wasn’t Pagan and was very much an Evangelical Christian.
By then, people were coming in for the next workshop and we were in their way. I made a very brief version of my case against a literal interpretation of the Bible: evolution and cosmology prove Genesis can’t be literally true, therefore the most reasonable way to read Genesis and the rest of the Bible is as the story of one particular group of people trying to understand who they are and preserve their identity.
I wanted to continue the conversation, but we needed to clear the space for the next group. More importantly, I didn’t want to attack him, or to appear to attack him. He was our guest and I wanted to treat him respectfully. But as I was driving home last night, it occurred to me that I missed an opportunity for dialogue and an opportunity to influence how someone from a religion strongly opposed to Paganism will think of us and what he will tell his co-religionists about us.
And so once again I find myself wishing I had said things that occurred to me long after the opportunity had passed.
I wish I had thanked him for coming to a Pagan festival and expressed my admiration for his willingness to walk into unfamiliar territory. So many people fear what they don’t understand and make no attempt to learn the truth before criticizing it. How many people who rant about Islam have ever been inside a mosque? How many people who rant about Christian fundamentalists have ever been inside a Southern Baptist church? This young man was learning for himself – that’s an example we can all follow.
I wish I had made sure he understood that a Pagan camping festival is probably not the best place to find a rigorous intellectual explanation of modern Pagan thought… any more than a Sunday School picnic is a good place to find a clear exposition on the Five Points of Calvinism. There are people at either gathering who have that knowledge, but that’s not the purpose of a mostly-social event.I wish I had asked him if he noticed the people who walked naked through the festival had all the comfort of walking through a grocery store in jeans and a sweater. And not just “perfect” people – young and old, fat and thin, plain and pierced – all beautiful and confident in their own ways. I wish I had asked if he noticed the people who were clothed and those who weren’t interacted with each other pleasantly and respectfully. Personal differences didn’t affect how we treated each other or what we thought of each other.
I wish I had asked if he realized that the people who were wearing odd clothes or no clothes and dancing around a bonfire on the weekend would be going back to work on Monday as teachers and paramedics and engineers and soldiers and all other kinds of ordinary folks. I wish I had asked if he noticed all the families in the camp – not just the mothers and fathers and children, but also the families of choice with bonds as tight as any bond of blood.
I wish that when he said “God created the Universe – he can do anything he wants” I would have pointed out that the evidence for the miracles of his god is the same as the evidence for the magic of my gods and goddesses: the stories of men, thousands of years ago, who were writing for their own purposes. The act of a god can do the improbable, it can beat the longest odds, but it can’t do the impossible. There is still much we do not know, but the laws of Nature are what they are. Believing otherwise isn’t an act of faith, it’s willfully ignoring reality.
I wish I had asked him about his experience of Jesus… and then told him about my experience of Cernunnos, and Danu, and Morrigan, and all the other goddesses and gods who’ve spoken to me. I wish I had asked him if there was a time when the peace of God came over him, and then told him about my own mystical experiences. I don’t know if he would have accepted my experiences as equivalent or even similar to his, but I’d like for him to know that authentic religious experiences can be found in any religion.
I wish I had asked about his thoughts on the stewardship of God’s creation and explored the similarities (and the differences) with my belief that the Earth is sacred. I wonder if there might be some opportunities for us to work together for the common good.
Mainly, though, I wish I had had the time – or taken the time, or made the time – to sit with him and listen. I’d like to know what he believes and why. I’d like to know why he was there. I’d like to know how his experience matched his expectations. I’d like to know what he learned about Pagans and Paganism.
I wasn’t prepared to encounter an Evangelical Christian at a clothing-optional Pagan camping festival. I didn’t think fast enough and I missed an opportunity to make a connection with another person. I trust others succeeded where I did not.
And the next time I have an unexpected opportunity for interfaith dialogue, I will be better prepared.