Those who are not against us are with us

Sweet chestnut forest (source: Wikipedia)

Religions are like trees

I have always felt it would be better to define Paganism and Pagan traditions on their own terms. If we draw a contrast with some other tradition’s theology, we always reinforce a simplistic outsider’s view of that tradition.

For instance, if you always say “our tradition is polytheist, unlike Wicca which is duotheist”, then you are denying and erasing the existence of polytheist, animist, pantheist, and atheist Wiccans. You are also over-simplifying what it is that Wiccans actually practice and believe. Even Wiccan covens who honour a specific male and female pair tend to be polytheistic and to regard the pair or couple they are honouring as their patron deities, two special deities among many other deities.

Another example: if you are always contrasting Pagan ideas with a simplistic view of Christianity (such as that promoted by fundamentalists and evangelicals), you are erasing and denying a rich and varied tradition of mystics, heretics, and even alternative views expressed within mainstream Christianity. You are setting up those Christian views as a straw man to be knocked down. It’s an easy target, but it just makes you look a bit ill-informed about Christianity.

A certain (possibly mythical) itinerant rabbi during the Roman occupation of the Middle East is reported to have said, “Those who are not against us are with us”. (He is also reported as saying, “Those who are not with us are against us”, but that just goes to show that the text is unreliable, so you need to make up your own mind.) I like this saying – I would rather build bridges than dig defensive ditches. If we are going to build Pagan values into the wider society, the way to begin is to break down stereotypes and make alliance with other liberal faith traditions, not treat them with suspicion and derision.

Critiques of the bits of Christian theology that Pagans don’t like (penal substitution theology, hellfire and damnation, exclusivism and sectarianism, anti-LGBT rhetoric) are becoming louder and louder from within the Christian community. The people who are criticising those aspects of Christianity are our allies, not our enemies. Just because they wear the label Christian, does not make them automatically the enemy. I shouldn’t even need to be saying this.

Of course Christianity has been the dominant discourse for a long time, and we need to challenge the hegemony of ideas about belief being the primary source of belonging to a religion (which is in fact unique to Christianity), but actually occulture is gaining traction, according to Christopher Partridge in The re-enchantment of the West. Ideas such as reincarnation, karma, destiny, synchronicity, and so on are more widely understood and talked about than (for example) Christian notions of salvation.

Apart from getting other people’s theology wrong when we use it to define what Paganism is, I think it is not helpful to define a thing by what it isn’t. Instead we should define it by what it is. We can say that Paganism is life-affirming, world-affirming, sex-positive, non-hierarchical, and inclusive. We don’t need to say that other religions do not possess those qualities (whether or not it’s true) in order to make that point.

We can of course draw on helpful theological ideas from other traditions (whilst bearing in mind issues of cultural appropriation) such as process theology, apophatic theology, creation spirituality, Transcendentalism, Taoist ideas, and so on. We don’t exist in a theological and philosophical vacuum. Indeed, other traditions (including Judaism and Christianity) are drawing on Pagan ideas about the environment and the Goddess to fill the gaps in their discourse.

If we set up Paganism as the thesis, and something else as the antithesis, then we ignore the possibility of synthesis. We create a dualistic and divisive view of the world. In fact, things are not either/or, black and white, male and female – there is multiplicity and diversity. We do our traditions of polytheism, multiplicity and diversity a disservice if we reify and reinforce a dualistic and oppositional view of the world.

Religions are like trees. They grow in a specific context, with many roots and branches. They are pruned by humans, and  weathered by storms, and they are affected by other trees (other religions). You can’t look at a single branch of a tree and insist that it is the whole tree. Nor can you insist that the tree is only its trunk. All the many branches, and the roots, and the trunk, and the forest around it, are part of the tree.

About Yvonne Aburrow

Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. She has written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is the editor of the Theologies of Immanence wiki, a collaborative project for creating grass-roots Pagan theology.

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  • kenneth

    The mere fact that someone is a liberal Christian or reformation minded or a critic of Christianity’s most objectionable dogmas does not make the our ally. Our allies are those who support our freedoms in word and in deed. There are plenty of progressive Christians who don’t give a fig about us and see us only as potential converts. Believe it or not, there are also theologically conservative Evangelicals and Catholics who mock our religions and yet also stridently defend church-state separation and our right to civil equality. I don’t think we ought to draw steel on everyone simply because they are Christian, and we should look for real opportunities for good faith interfaith dialogue and initiate it when possible.

    At the same time, we ought not to be naive. There is a significant segment of missionary Christianity who use the language and posture of open dialogue as a conversion tactic. Nor do I think good faith dialogue requires us to refrain from criticizing those branches of Christianity which are not our allies, including all of the major denominations at the institutional level.

    I also don’t accept the idea that friends and allies must be considered “one of us” or that we need to define away our own identities or uniqueness. This touches on the area of cultural appropriation. I’m all about Christians who want to be friends and allies. I’m not so keen on people whose theology and practice is clearly monotheist Christian or Jewish or Islamic telling me that “I’m just as pagan as you, cause I’m open-minded and love nature.” That’s insulting to me, because it’s saying that my spiritual path means nothing more than a mode of fashion or an aesthetic. It also contributes nothing toward forging an alliance with me. We can be great friends and allies without pretending we are kin or twins.

    Now I know it’s a damn touchy thing to say who can identify as what. Anyone can self-identify any way they want, but each of us also can decide whether we buy it or not. Paganism is a very wide umbrella. It is not, in my estimation, infinite in scope. If you wouldn’t declare yourself a Jew or a Native American without really being those things, don’t do it us either.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/ Yvonne

      Oh, no, I don’t mean they are automatically our allies just by virtue of being against those things — I mean they are potential allies. Anybody who wants to convert me to their religion is automatically not an ally.

      People who don’t believe that Christianity is the only truth (exclusivism) don’t usually feel the need to make converts, though.

      You are also right that people don’t get to identify as Pagan (or even pagan) just because they are slightly pantheistic, or because they love Nature.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/ Yvonne

        Also a person who is an ally on one issue is not automatically an ally on every issue. That is the nature of alliances – they are strategic and partial. Saying someone is an ally is not the same as saying they are a member of our community. An ally is someone from a different community who stands with you. For example, I am not transgender, but I try to be an ally on transgender issues.


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