One of the earliest problems I had with the fundamentalist church where I grew up was their insistence that we should be “in the world but not of the world.” Like many parts of the low church Southern Protestantism of the times, that was as much culture as it was religion. That exact phrase is not in the Bible in any of the translations I searched. It’s a rearrangement and reinterpretation of the words of Jesus (as presented in the Gospel of John), and while it is a very reasonable interpretation it is not the only interpretation possible… particularly for those who read sacred texts with an eye toward mysticism.
In application, its meaning was quite clear: no drinking, no sex (except after marriage), no playing cards (even if you weren’t playing for money), no rock music, and no sleeping late on Sunday mornings. On the other hand, smoking and gluttony were considered personal choices.
As a kid who was a bit strange but not that strange, these prohibitions struck me as odd, anachronistic, and just plain no fun. It reminded me of the stories I heard of New England Puritans who fined people for celebrating Christmas and who outlawed bear-baiting not because it was cruel to bears but because people enjoyed watching it.
I never accepted this kind of thinking and I abandoned it long before I left Christianity. The world is a beautiful, magical place, and while the sensual pleasures always carry a risk of overindulgence, abstinence is neither necessary nor particularly helpful. I became a Pagan because of my connections to the Gods and to Nature, not because I was running away from a harsh moral code.
But this isn’t a post on how awful fundamentalist killjoys are. Take away the specifics and there’s something very valid in their insistence on rejecting the practices and values of the mainstream culture and living the way they thought their God wanted them to live. And as someone who didn’t share their values or care for their practices, I liked them trying to be “in the world but not of the world” a whole lot more than I liked them trying to be the “moral majority” and enshrine their morals into law.
How well has politicizing their Christianity worked for them? The divorce rate among Evangelical Christians is now higher than the national average. Marriage equality is now the law of the land and the so-called “religious freedom” bills being passed in many red states are an act of desperation that is bringing nationwide scorn and ridicule. And the music the preachers of my childhood ranted against is now played in “contemporary” services every Sunday. Oh, they’ve won a few battles here and there, and reproductive rights are in serious jeopardy. But beyond that, they’ve lost, in rather decisive fashion. (This is not to minimize the importance of reproductive rights – which, ironically, weren’t a major issue for the early fundamentalist political movement – but that’s one no-decision to contrast with many losses)
What can Pagans learn from this?
The mainstream culture is really, really strong. Take your eyes off the alternative culture you’re trying to build for just a moment and the mainstream starts pulling you back. Start worrying about what everybody else is doing and not only do you not change them, you start to become just like them.
We cannot abandon politics and the political process. An anonymous quote often attributed to Plato says “one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” But if we think we’re going to change the world through politics, well, just remember how unsuccessful fundamentalist Christians have been, and remember how large their numbers are compared to ours.
We can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves.
Let’s be aware of the mainstream culture. Monotheism still dominates our culture – be aware of the way it frames issues with the assumption that it’s true. Atheism is growing – remember that there’s more to life than what can be observed, measured, and calculated with a 99% confidence level. Consumerism runs rampant – remember that true satisfaction doesn’t come from things.
Be aware of the mainstream culture so you can spot its influence on your life. And if you think it doesn’t have any influence on your life, read the previous sentence again. And again.
Let’s keep our eyes on the Gods, ancestors, and spirits. Whatever your devotional practice, practice it regularly. Pray, meditate, make offerings. Read and study the lore of your ancestors. Listen. And then listen some more. Remember that they were here before you were born, and they’ll be here long after you’re gone. Remember that some day you will be an ancestor – live so as to be worthy of the honor of those who come after you.
Let’s keep our eyes on Nature. Go outside every day. Even in the Texas summers and even in the Minnesota winters. Follow the sun and the moon as they move along the horizon each day. Watch the squirrels, listen to the birds, hug a tree, dig in the dirt. Remember that they’re all your relatives. Remember that Nature is beautiful and terrible and you are a part of it all.
Let’s keep our eyes on magic. There’s the magic that happens when we run into something that just can’t be, and yet it is. There’s the magic that happens when a voice inside our heads (or perhaps, just behind our heads) whispers something we didn’t know and couldn’t know, but need to know. There’s the magic that happens when we perform the rituals and we see the results.
Magic teaches us that we control nothing, but we can influence everything.
So let’s be good Pagans and celebrate the world and all it’s pleasures. But let’s also pay attention to what’s going on around us and make sure we don’t get distracted from being who and what we’re called to be.
We can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves. And if enough of us change ourselves, then we will change the world.