A Pagan Looks at Easter

I wrote this for my old blog last year and it’s in the Patheos archives, but given all the uproar about Pagans and Jesus last week, and given that this is Holy Week in Christianity, it seemed appropriate to dust it off and post it again.

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We live in a time and place where Christianity is deeply embedded in our culture. Even if we are happily committed to Paganism and to the old gods and goddesses – and I am – at some point we have to stop ignoring the religious elephant in the room and figure out what we believe about Jesus. Not whether we accept the religious propositions of orthodox Christianity (we don’t, or we wouldn’t be Pagans), but who and what Jesus is and what Easter means from a Pagan perspective.

Was Jesus a historical person? Almost certainly. There are those who claim he was completely fabricated, but while the accounts of his life were not written soon enough after his death to be an accurate preservation of his words, they were close enough to his life to make it highly probable there was a Jewish prophet and teacher called Jesus.

Is Jesus God? That’s the wrong question to ask a polytheist. Instead ask “is Jesus a god?” And that answer is an unqualified “yes.” Even if Jesus wasn’t born a god he has certainly been deified by two thousand years of worship, praise and prayers.

What about his miracles? I practice magic – I’m not about to dismiss miracles out of hand. If the past hundred years or so has taught us anything, it’s that much of what was miraculous for one generation becomes understandable for the next generation and ordinary for the third. Still, my experience with magic is that while it can do the improbable, it cannot do the impossible. More importantly, the stories of Jesus’ miracles are like any myths: their value is not in their historical accuracy but in the the meaning and inspiration they communicate.

What did Jesus teach? We don’t know for sure, despite what the biblical inerrantists would have you believe. But the value of any teaching isn’t dependent on who said it, it’s dependent on whether or not it’s meaningful and helpful. “Love your god and love your neighbors” is a good idea no matter who said it. Taking care of the sick and the poor is a good idea no matter who said it. The Prodigal Son is a helpful story no matter who told it. You could do far worse than to live your life according to the teachings of Jesus as presented in the gospels, even if you can’t be sure what Jesus actually said.

Did Jesus rise from the dead? Of course he did… and so has every other person who ever lived. I believe – based on a combination of tradition, evidence, and intuition – that after death we spend a time of rest in an Otherworld (“heaven” if you prefer) before being reborn to continue our Great Work of learning and growth. But that’s another blog post for another time.

Did Jesus bodily rise from his tomb after three days? I find that highly, highly unlikely. Remember what I said about magic earlier – it does the improbable, not the impossible.

Will Jesus come again? I expect to come again to this world and I expect you will too. But although the idea may be borrowed from Eastern religions, it seems reasonable to assume that Jesus has moved beyond rebirth. That may be one good definition of a deity – someone who has finished his or her work in this world and is no longer reborn as a human.

The whole idea of a “second coming” and a “rapture” is a decidedly unhelpful doctrine.

Should we worship Jesus? I prefer the traditional Unitarian Christian view that it is better to follow Jesus than to worship him. Still, two billion Christians aren’t categorically wrong, and there can be value in worshipping Jesus as a god and honoring him as a teacher. But let’s draw a sharp, bright line between worshipping Jesus as one god among many and accepting the exclusivist doctrines and theologies about Jesus made up by men long after he was gone from this world.

So what can we take from the Easter story? It is not a story of sacrifice. Sacrifice is an acknowledgement of the reality and necessity of hard truths (another topic that deserves a post of its own). Jesus’ death wasn’t a sacrifice – it was a brutal state-sanctioned murder. Jesus didn’t die for your sins or for anyone else’s sins – the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is a relic of a hierarchical, barbaric worldview that persists in our time in honor killings. Nor is Easter a triumph of life over death. Death is not the enemy – it’s a part of life. Birth is the gateway from the Otherworld into this world and death is the gateway from this world back into the Otherworld.

The message of Easter is that death is not the end and that the grave is merely a waystation on the route to the next world. That’s a message worth affirming in any religious tradition.

So, having said all these good things about Jesus and about Easter, am I moving back toward Christianity? No.

I discovered at an early age I could not be an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian like those at the church where I grew up. As a young adult I tried to be a liberal Christian but found it unfulfilling – it didn’t make a difference in my life. But when I found Paganism something clicked – the idea of the Divine as female as well as male, the beliefs and practices of my ancient ancestors and the calls of Nature and the gods and goddesses of Nature were stronger than any call I ever felt in any church.

It was not easy to walk away from Christianity. The ties of the religion of my childhood were strong: a few from positive experiences and many more from deep fear. But it became very apparent I could do a lot more good as an enthusiastic Pagan than as a reluctant Christian. If I was to live my life with integrity how could I do otherwise?

This is who I am. This is what I’m called to be: a Pagan and a Druid who practices in a Unitarian Universalist setting.

I have practiced as a Pagan and a Druid long enough and deeply enough and I have had enough experiences of the old gods and goddesses that what I once believed in my head is now engrained in my heart. Now I can separate Jesus from the institutions that claim his name but all too frequently ignore his message. Now I can separate the man – and the god – from the ideas about him that have no basis in reality or in my experience of the Divine.

Now I can simply say “Happy Easter.”

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Carmen Buford-Paige

    I would be interested in learning more about Paganism. I am a UU Naturalist, and the music director for our Fellowship in Durham, NH. I’m also a Black-American great-grandmother and retired academician. I have only known one Pagan, and am interested about your spiritual beliefs.

  • Nessie Henderson

    I attended UU while in high school and studied paganism during my youth. I did marry a Christian and have left off any activity in paganism and named myself agnostic. I still have a deep connection to mystical philosophy, and keep finding myself reopening my old box of practical magic bits that I can’t seem to part with over these last ten years. I have thought it would be “easier” to take the mainstream approach and accept Christianity, but I just can not wrap my intellect around the deification of Jesus. Nor do I want to believe in dogma. I do not know what I believe at this moment, but that which is hidden within me still wants to be a witch.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      If the magic is calling you, I encourage you to answer. Start by going outside and looking up.


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