Idol Makers

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We Christians need to be on guard in our understanding of such movements as contemporary Paganism. We tend to lump all of modern Paganism into one general and distorted category. We often fail to account for the vast complexity within the movement and articulate Paganism accurately. For all our concern about pagan idolatry, we may be guilty at times of making their idols for them. We need to develop the practice of respect for understanding their practices, rituals, and beliefs.

The Apostle Paul was a very nuanced Christian thinker. He understood the world of ancient Paganism and respected the Romans and Greco-Roman culture enough to understand carefully what they practiced and believed. As Paganism lost ground in the ancient world with the rise of Christianity, a sophisticated understanding of pre-Christian or pagan religions also lost ground. Unlike many Christians throughout the ages, Paul understood that idols were not to be identified at every turn with pagan deities. In Acts 17:16-34, we see that he (like many ancient Pagans) understands that the statue to the unknown God is not a god, but that it represents or can represent God beyond the idol. The same goes for Paul’s reflection on idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10. The idols to which food was sacrificed were nothing, even though in his estimation, the idols were associated with demons (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). In other words, Paul was able to distinguish the material object from what he understood to be a demonic presence.

Just as Paul had a more complex understanding of Paganism’s practices and beliefs, including the worship of idols in his day, we need the same kind of complex awareness of Paganism and its understanding of the sacred in our day. It would be too simplistic to say that Pagans today worship nature. Contemporary Paganism doesn’t generally see a tree as a god, but as an extension of the divine pantheistically or panentheistically conceived (but pantheists and panentheists are not all Pagans). The natural world is sacred and an extension of the divine, but nature is not generally worshipped today as a divinity.

If one were to account for a theology of contemporary Paganism, one would have to place hard polytheism involving distinct deities on one end of the spectrum and a completely metaphorical account of divinity on the other end: here divinity would be viewed as a metaphor for nature or humanity or society (some Pagans view the gods atheistically as symbols without ontological reality). In between, there is a variety of understandings, including a combination of the two ends of the spectrum. Across the spectrum, nature plays a key role. The emphasis is not on right belief, even though beliefs do have a bearing on practice; for example, whatever beliefs one branch of Paganism entails involves a connection to nature and care for it. The emphasis on sacred regard for nature is widespread.

Gender is also key to Paganism. The divine can be seen with a female face and body. This is very different from most Christian understandings of God, though it connects contemporary Paganism with ancient forms of Paganism. There are female and male forms of deity, whether viewed literally or metaphorically. The divine can be female in origin. While many educated Christians do not gender God, still, Christianity has often had a very patriarchal view of God, even though Scripture uses feminine and motherly associations at times to speak of the Creator. For Paganism, the female gender is associated with birthing (not creating) and nurturing nature.

Contemporary Pagan religions are largely praxis-based faiths and spiritualities. Harmony with nature is a key value. The more we are out of harmony the worse it gets. Many Evangelicals care for the creation (creation care) since they believe that we should be good stewards of the earth until everything ends because God is its creator. In contrast, the underlying motivation in caring for the earth for Pagans is that the earth itself is sacred. For contemporary Pagans, the earth is not a creation given to us; so, we don’t have dominion over it since we are bound up with it. As the contemporary discussion on the environment developed, it shaped Paganism as a nature religion in a significant way. Honoring and having a significant regard for nature is key to Paganism in the contemporary context.

It is very difficult for modern Paganism with its praxis-oriented spirituality to take seriously Christianity’s worship of a Creator God, when many Christians jettison care for what we call creation. The loss of practical consideration of creation stewardship on the part of Christians has perhaps created a vacuum that has been filled by the sacralization of nature by Paganism today.

Why would many Christians have no regret at destroying an ancient forest by paving roads that will bear fleets of SUVs when we would never allow SUVs to pass through our sanctuaries and run over our communion tables? How can our churches with their symbols be viewed as sacred when they are built by human hands, and not the creation at large, when it is built by the hand of God?

While we Christians would not wish to divinize the creation, we should also guard against turning our own creations into idolatrous machines that wreak havoc on what God himself as made. When we do, we are guilty of worshiping our own creations rather than God. At least, Pagans old and new are charged with worshiping God’s creation (Romans 1:18-25), not our own.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • Annika Mongan

    Thank you, Paul. I am really grateful for thoughtful exploration and dialogue between paganism and Christianity. If I had known what I know now, I would have been a lot kinder to a lot of people in the past. I am hopeful that a new generation of Christians grows up with a keener understanding of the world we live in and greater kindness toward those of different faiths.

    • pmetzger

      Thank you very much, Annika. I share your hope, my Friend.

  • zendodeb

    First you say you need guard against lumping all modern pagans into a “general and distorted category,” and then you do exactly that. Amazing.

    I would love to believe that Christians are embracing “dialogue” with non-Christians, but history doesn’t give me much comfort. (Can you spell “Srebrenica?” Ever heard of “The Trail of Tears?”) But if you are going to dialogue with non-Christians, you should at least take your own advice, and not assume that all polytheistic faiths look like the descriptions in “Romans.” They don’t.

    Hindu, Asatru, Druid, are all different from Wicca. Faiths based on the Egyptian pantheon, the Roman, Greek, are all different. Some are nature-oriented as you imply. Others, not so much. First peoples in North America and around the world all have different views. Some radically different.

    But the initial reaction of a large number of Christians (dare I say the majority?) view all these people as devil-worshipers.

    • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

      I think there’s a difference between distorting through generalization and making enough generalizations so that you can write a 1000-word post that an audience unfamiliar with contemporary Paganism can relate to. Not all Pagan traditions are particularly nature-oriented, but from my twenty years as a participant in the movement and my ten as a scholar of Pagans studies, I can affirm that the *majority* of Pagans are. Those who do not view nature as sacred in some way are a minority, and most of that minority is fairly uncomfortable with the “Pagan” label to begin with — perpetually on the verge of abandoning it.

      That Dr. Metzger makes some attempts to describe the theological diversity of the movement here is a step in the right direction. If he had had to avoid making any generalizations about Pagans in order to list all of the dissident minority groups that may or may not still consider themselves Pagan a decade from now, he would have had to have written a book. (I did.)

      • pmetzger

        Thank you for your insightful reflection, Christine. Indeed, it is difficult to be exhaustive in a 1,000 word post. It goes to show that we must continue to dialogue and engage one another’s traditions in a spirit of charity in search of greater mutual understanding. Thank you for your charitable reading of the piece. I look forward to learning further from you, Jason Pitzl-Waters, Gus DiZerega, and Mike Stygal, among others in the Pagan tradition, in search of greater understanding. John Morehead and I value the opportunity to build bridges with you and others in the Pagan community in such open, collaborative spheres as the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and related venues.

      • John W. Morehead

        Thank you for your positive thoughts, Christine. I know when I was asked to write a summary of Paganism for a forthcoming Evangelical encyclopedia of religions that I had a difficult time doing it given the complexity and diversity within it, and the word limitations imposed upon me. I know from working with Paul that he makes every effort to fairly understand and represents Pagans and others. I appreciate that you recognized this and we are always open to correction where necessary.

      • VoiceOfReason71

        Agreed. It’s not like the author has a whole lot of room to write volumes about the nuances of every Pagan religion. Quite frankly, as a Pagan, I am happy that he’s taken the time to write a piece that isn’t attacking us, and which encourages the Christians to take responsibility for their actions, physically and spiritually.

  • John H Halstead

    Paul:

    As a Pagan myself, your post is a breath of fresh air. It is wonderful to see someone who can simultaneously be committed to their own truth-position while still being able to approach other positions honestly and fairly.

    Unlike zendodeb, I do not think you have lumped Pagans into a single category. In a relatively short space, you have done a good job of describing the diversity of contemporary Paganism. (Unfortunately, there are many Pagans who are upset by any attempt to make any kind of general statement about Paganism at all.)

    • pmetzger

      Hello John,

      I apologize for the delayed response. Thank you for your gracious and constructive comment about the article. Further to your reflection, it is very important that we work hard to understand one another’s communities while speaking from the standpoint of our own traditions. It is a huge challenge, though rewarding relationally and societally. I look forward to other opportunities to interact with you and your community.

  • rvs

    Christian separatist behavior proves so much easier than genuine dialogue with those who hold different beliefs.

    I’m suddenly reminded–too–of the Great Divorce, ch. 8 or 9, where we hear about those who are so interested in proving the existence of God that they’ve lost all ability to love God, and those who are so interested in collecting books that they have forgotten how to read them. –The subtlest of snares.

  • cerndeosil

    Thank you Paul. Your observations are well received by THIS Pagan, and I
    can say from past experience of dialogue with you, that those who have
    expressed doubt about how genuine you are in your endeavours to dialogue
    respectfullly with Pagans that they need not doubt.

    In much the
    same way as I have faced criticism from certain members of the Pagan
    community for entering into positive dialogue with Christian, it must be
    recognised that Christians who step away from the expected condemnation
    and judgementalism of Pagans and begin trying to move other Christians
    away from such negative behaviour will also face criticism from within
    their own faith community. It’s not a route for the faint of heart or
    for those who are seeking adulation of their faith peers. It is route of
    learning, ideally mutual learning about ‘the other’ and actually, about
    oneself too.

    I most certainly appreciate concerns and
    suspicions. I’ve encountered negative experiences in attempts to
    dialogue with some of the more extreme elements of the wider Christian
    community. I’m no stranger to having wild accusations hurled at me, some
    of them potentially damaging. But, as in my dialogue with Paul, I have
    also encountered genuine humanity and enquiry in many a dialogue. I have
    witnessed some of those extreme elements begin to alter their
    perceptions and to learn not to demonise Pagans too.

    Somewhere
    along the line, we need to take a risk if we are to see a decrease in
    the number of extreme encounters we face with those of other faiths.
    Paul is someone we can take that risk with.

    Mike Stygal

    President

    Pagan Federation England and Wales

    • pmetzger

      Thank you for your leadership and good will, Mike. Your charitable spirit, courage and thoughtfulness are examples to all of us. If our movements are to go forward toward greater mutual understanding and trust while still accounting for significant differences, it will require such sterling efforts from all of us, as modeled by you.


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