A Pagan Finds Religion

A Pagan Finds Religion September 17, 2012

One of my dear colleagues in the Patheos universe is Star Foster, the managing editor of the Pagan Channel.  I first met Star, who lives in Georgia, when we were flying out to Denver for meetings at Patheos headquarters.  I later discovered that the other Patheos folks were waiting with bated breath to hear how it would go.  How would an evangelical and a Pagan, who have never met before, do on a hours-long trip to Denver by air and by rental car?  Actually, we got along perfectly well.  Star is lovely, I’m not half as offensive in person as I am on my blog.

Modern Paganism, for those who don’t know, is not so much a single religious tradition as it is a family of traditions.  Whether they bear much resemblance to the ancient traditions they claim to inherit is an open question, but the varieties of modern Paganism range from those who honor the Norse gods to the Egyptian gods to the Greek/Roman gods, to the Roma and the Druids and Wiccans, and many more besides.


On the plane with Star beside me, I had to ask her a question: When you honor Hephaistos, do you believe that Hephaistos (and the whole pantheon, for that matter) truly exists or do you honor Hephaistos as a symbol for important truths and values?  I believe Hephaistos truly exists, she said, just as you believe in your God.

I asked: “Do you experience Hephaistos?  Would you say, to borrow language from the evangelical world, that you have a personal relationship with Hephaistos?”

Star, who was raised in a conservative evangelical environment, fully understood the language and said that she experiences Hephaistos personally and devotionally when she prays to him and strives to lead the kind of life that would honor him.  And many of the authors at Patheos’ Pagan Channel, some in more sophisticated ways than others, will say the same thing and will explore that experience theologically.

As a Christian, of course, I grieve the growth of modern Neo-Paganism.  I know that my Pagan friends would not appreciate this characterization (since they would not want Paganism perceived as merely a negative rejection of Christianity instead of a positive affirmation of something discovered and true and valuable), but the growth of Paganism in the modern west, especially in America, speaks volumes about the failures and the excesses of the Christian church — and especially of Christian fundamentalist communities, from whose ranks many Pagans defect.  Personally, I agree with virtually none of it.  I find the historical scholarship of the Pagan communities sorely wanting, and the philosophy and theology behind it all is not yet mature.  Although it’s always harder to hear an outsider say it, I think most thoughtful pagans agree (and many say openly) that there is, quite naturally, a lot of growing left to do.  This particular revival of pagan religions and mystery cults is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it bears the marks of newness, as many of its new adherents try to figure out what it really means, for example, to honor Baba Yaga or Isis, or to honor (as many Pagans do) a whole potpourri of deities from many traditions.

Speaking as a scholar of religion, however, I find it utterly fascinating.  It’s like watching new religions take shape right in front of you, and observing the processes that transform ideas into teachings, teachings into communities, and communities into institutions and traditions.  Sects are becoming religions.

But there’s that toxic word — religions.  And here’s where something that Star wrote recently can teach us about the “spiritual but not religious” movement.  She describes how, as a devotee of Hephaistos, she was asked to edit an anthology of devotional writings for Hephaistos.  In the end, she could not do it — and the reason was because she found that her own personal experience of Hephaistos had very little in common with the personal experiences of others.  She says:

I came to realize I have no communal framework in which to speak of him. Not only did I not know what to do with these lovely offerings, I didn’t know what to say in return.

That is a big damn problem. My faith has become so small and personal that I don’t even know how to begin to communicate with other devotees. I have no larger framework to place my faith in. It is not that my faith is wrong, but that it is stunted and anti-social. It has no manners, no chit-chat, no experience of reaching for common ground.

I know the answer is to find community.  To stretch my religious muscles. To find a common Hephaistos and a common religion…I am not the only one.  Paganism is full to the brim with solitaries, each with their own deep personal religion, their own mythos. Do you ever find your faith is so small, customized and unique that even among Pagans of like mind you feel completely alone?

Personally, of course, I don’t want Pagans to find religion, because I want pagans to recognize that the great God above all gods become incarnate and communicated his love and reconciliation to the world through Jesus Christ, the God-man.  But Star and her friends are perfectly right to want religion — and here in the most unexpected of places we find an illustration of an important and enduring truth.

Spirituality (“deep personal religion”) as it matures, grows into public “religion,” into community and doctrine and institution.  Otherwise, it cannot cohere, cannot solidify, cannot survive.

This will sound harsh, but those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” are outing themselves as immature in their beliefs and passions.  Star is not immature.  She yearns for the “larger framework” and the “common ground.”  She yearns, within Paganism, to be spiritual and religious.

As Kierkegaard would say, without interiority, faith is a fraud.  One must be “spiritual”; in evangelical terms, one must have a personal relationship, an enduring inter-personal encounter with God in Christ.  But the exterior too is positively necessary, not only in public deeds but in the public mechanisms that define and guide a religious tradition and pass it down the stream of generations.  That is, one must also be “religious,” a part of the Body, guided by the wisdom of the tradition, which cannot survive without institutions.

The next time you hear someone say they’re “spiritual but not religious,” remember Star, who has recognized that being religious is nothing to be ashamed of.

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  • Kudos on mentioning Baba Yaga instead of going with someone more popular like Aphrodite or Juno. I’m finding very little I disagree with in this post (except for our obvious religious differences) which may mean the end times are upon us. 🙂

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Heh, thanks Star! Time to batten down the hatches, I guess.

  • Bill Wheaton

    Wow, respectful dialog between Christians and Pagans. I love it.
    I would say, that Star is not alone in your description of her, whether she agrees with your assessment or not. I think what you have written about being spiritual and religious is spot on. And I think, that the number of Pagans that are coming to this same realization is growing. While we may never coelesce, it is hard to predict how that will play out. Christianity, of course, had the same thing happen with the early church. I see our Pagan religion(s) as being in that very same phase. I would hope that we learn, earlier on, what to avoid by studying the actions of the early christian church leaders in forming our religion. “Jeruselem in 4 BC had no mass communication”, but we in this century do, and it is fast, and so I think it won’t be much longer before it gels for us.

    Thanks for the fair article.

  • Nicole Youngman

    Hmm. Interesting post, and thanks for the effort at respectful dialog. But you know, my primary wish when it comes to Christians engaging with those of us who practice minority religions is for you to come to the realization that it is just not a big deal that our beliefs are different than yours. I wish that you’d all be willing to take your place in the family of the world’s religions and quit trying to convert everyone else–there simply is no “must” here. We could get all sorts of good things accomplished together if members of minority religions didn’t have to keep having this conversation over and over again with you.

    You mentioned being a scholar–are you familiar with the sociology text _Gods in the Global Village_ by Lester R. Kurtz? He does a wonderful job of tackling the issue of how we can develop a common worldwide ethos despite our theological and cultural differences–you might find it interesting.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I hear you, Nicole, but believing what I believe, there really is an obligation out of love to share what one believes. Certainly not to forcibly convert. And it doesn’t harm *me* that your beliefs are different from mine. But I earnestly believe that a person’s eternal destiny is shaped by one’s relationship with God, so helping people make an informed decision about their relationship with God is important to me. I know many people won’t believe this, but It really does not come out of a sense of superiority so much as it comes out of a genuine sense of responsibility to do what is best for others.

  • Connor Purkett

    This article is incredibly offensive to Pagans. From the opinions expressed here, that you think Pagans research is lacking and that the philosophy is immature, I draw that you have never met a Heathen or a Reconstructionist pagan. Perhaps you should have before deciding you know the absolute truth about all Pagans. We do our research. Perhaps you should next time.

    • Tex Tradd

      I have to agree with Mr. Dalrymple here. The pagans I know seem to be engaged in a sort of bricolage. My sense is that the ancient pagans were generally believers in a robust tribal identity reinforced by a fecund sexuality, and would have found the low birthrates and lack of ethnic consciousness decadent and weird.

      I have found very few religious people from whatever tradition have really done their research on how their own traditions fit in with the broader historical stories, actually. To be fair to pagans, the ones I encounter have done quite a bit of reading in a variety of eclectic historical sources, which makes it highly enjoyable for us to compare notes and spend hour upon hour talking about the past. Pagan history is of great richness, and is all the more interesting for how little most people know about it.

      However, to simplify over a huge number of interactions I have had, I just don’t have the sense that the pagans of my acquaintance have a good grounding in history to put what they learn in better context. It is a little bit like talking to young indie-rockers with esoteric and intriguing record collections from multiple decades that only barely know how the underground bands they love were also deeply affected by the Stones and Dylan and Hendrix etc.

      Now, most Christians are no better at viewing Christianity from the secular lens of a deep and through history, and I am still very much on the learning curve myself. All I can say is, if I were pagan, I would be very eager to learn as much of the broad main-streams of history as a way to have a decent base knowledge of the ancient world. I feel like if I mention the pre-Socratics or Etruscan kings or Kenneth Clark’s famous idea that Western Civilization survived by the skin of it’s teeth via the Carolingian renaissance, my pagan friends, bookish types all, will usually not know what I mean. So then I pour another glass for us both, and at the end of the night the Christian and the pagan both go away knowing more.

  • How utterly bigoted and condescending.

    Perhaps if Pagans and Heathens weren’t trying to make up for a millennium of Christian oppression, suppression, legal sanction, and conscious and systematic destruction of our heritage, we might be able to live up to those standards of scholarship and maturity that you have set for us.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yes, perhaps you would!

  • Gavin Andrew

    It is always encouraging to see commentary about Paganism from the Christian side that doesn’t rely on old tropes about Pagans worshiping the Devil, or that what we do is entirely confected and has *no* roots in the past, or that Pagans lack a social conscience. For that much at the very least, thank you, Timothy.

    Personally I think the ‘spiritual but not religious’ tag reflects two things – first, the disenchantment of people with the less-pleasant aspects of churches and institutional power and dogma to which you rightly allude, and second, the atomization of society post-WW2 with the advent of generic suburban sprawls and television culture. In an era when the atomized individual is no longer grounded in local community, I think that both evangelical Christian and Pagan communities represent an important ‘push-back’ against a destructive trend.

    Another point, to which you also allude, is that contemporary Paganism can represent a negative rejection of what we see as the strict-parent figure of monotheism – but also a positive embrace of other ways in which humans can relate to Divinity. (Some of your readers may be unaware that very few Pagans have a problem with Jesus, his exemplar life or his teachings, though of course we don’t accept the Christian doctrine of his salvific role.)

    Also, a point regarding Pagan scholarship and claims that contemporary Paganism is inauthentic. Its is too-often forgotten that Protestant Christianity was founded in the notion that it was possible to go back to early Christian texts in order to reconstruct and purify what was seen as a corrupted faith, entirely skipping over several centuries of history and tradition. For Paganism now, as for Protestantism in the 16th century, the present appropriates and transplants aspects of the past in order to serve its needs.

    Last, the diversity of Pagan theologies (and thealogies) we see as a strength: we *can* have personal, spiritually vivifying relationships with our gods, and not get hung up on whether those gods exist in a literal sense, or are instead personifications of Nature. Or both. After all, one could say that the chief argument made in Scripture in condemning us is that we Pagans are – foolishly – worshiping things we can actually see and feel. 🙂

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Great points, Gavin. Many thanks. I find it entirely appropriate that contemporary Paganism should *not* be identical to ancient Paganism. After all, western religious traditions went through a long modernization process, and it would be foolish (I think) not to take into account the collective experience, not to mention increase in understanding in science and, for instance, human rights, of humankind in the interm between the ancient and the present.

  • renifulton

    Interesting blog and really very ecumenical in it’s feel to a certain degree…until of course we get to the real message:
    “Personally, of course, I don’t want Pagans to find religion, because I want pagans to recognize that the great God above all gods become incarnate and communicated his love and reconciliation to the world through Jesus Christ, the God-man. ”

    Doesn’t “religion” breed this mindless idolatry, especially of Jesus, that seems to be the hallmark of most evangelical, fundamental and charasmatic faiths?

    Pagan individuality may keep us from ever having a political “voice” which may in fact, if certain “mature” religions have their way, keep us from preventing another great “witch hunt” but I also believe that it keeps us honest with ourselves about what we choose to believe and how we choose to worship.

    I have been lucky enough to find “community” within a “mature” set of covenants, the Unitarian Universalist Church. This to me is a truly mature faith with Christian roots but which has flowered into a deeper understanding of the true nature of spirituality and welcomes all spiritual and religious viewpoints no matter what the stage of “religious” maturity encouraging everyone to blossom amid others who support and love them. We understand the phrase “I’m spiritual but not religious…” not as some silly idiom but as the words of the seeker who refuses to be bound to traditional religious beliefs continuing rather to seek and find that in which they can believe, in which they can have faith. It may be a god, something representing a god, nature, themselves, a philosophy, a way of living in the world that needs only conscience. I think we (pagans and UU’s) get it.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Well, having spent eight years in Cambridge at Harvard, UU is very familiar to me. Unitarian Universalism IS a religion, you know. It has a Church, it has clergy, it has doctrines and traditions and rituals. They are not the same set of doctrines and traditions and institutions that orthodox Christians claim, but they are doctrines and traditions and institutions nonetheless. I’ve just never found universalism’s claims regarding religion to hold up to scholarly inquiry, to be honest.

      If Jesus is not divine, then I am indeed an idolater. It is not “mindless,” however, at least not in my case, but something at which I arrived after several decades of studying these things. And believing that Jesus is the incarnate Second Person of the triune Creator God is not “the hallmark of most evangelical, fundamental and charasmatic faiths” (sic), but the hallmark of more or less all Christianity, the rare unitarian excepted.

      I don’t think you need to worry about any witch hunts, thankfully, whether or not you organize politically.

      The “spiritual but not religious” movement really expresses an inadequate understanding of what it means — long beautiful, how liberating, how deepening it can be — to be “religious.” I’m all for spirituality, but the notion that “religion” is necessarily restrictive and oppressive is simply false. Of course, when someone has a false impression, that’s not necessarily his or her fault. But I do believe it’s a false impression.

      • I don’t think you need to worry about any witch hunts, thankfully, whether or not you organize politically.

        Really? They have to worry about them in places like Ghana, Saudi Arabia, and even Great Britain.

        Your attempts to marginalize and de-legitimize modern day witchcraft and Paganism (through means you might not even be conscious of– the very title of your post implies that Star didn’t actually have a religion; she had to “find religion” thanks to your beneficent conversation with her) only fuel these sorts of horrors.

        I concur that religion is not in and of itself oppressive and restrictive. However, that is a far cry from your apparent position, that Pagan or Heathen religion is somehow not substantive and legitimate in and of itself; that it is merely a reaction to the failings of Christianity, and if only Christianity were improved, the need to practice a Pagan or Heathen religion would fall by the wayside.

        Many of the commenters here have lauded your ecumenical and respectful words, but I find nothing of the sort here. Your tone is gentle, but your basic premise, that Christianity is the One True Way and those of us who belong to Pagan or Heathen faiths are merely acting out against Christianity and practicing religions that have no real legitimacy, is most certainly not respectful to those faiths.

        • Timothy Dalrymple


          We were talking about America. But no, even in Great Britain, you do not have to fear witch hunts. Every now and then you might have a nutjob who brings some animistic beliefs with them from somewhere else, who does something unconscionable, but witch hunts as in something systematic (which was your clear implication) are not returning in the civilized world.

          I am not attempting to marginalize or delegitimate. In fact, I was trying to help my evangelical friends have a better understanding of Paganism. Bear in mind this was written for evangelicals. And clearly, Star “found religion” in the blog post I was describing, not in our conversation. In our conversation, she affirmed that she truly believes her gods exist. She didn’t learn anything from me. “Finding religion” in this sense is recognizing the importance of religious communities, traditions and institutions, and Star clearly recognized that long ago. But it was mostly a play on words, so take it easy.

          I wouldn’t quite say that Christianity is the one true way. I would say that Christ is the Way, and people who put their faith in God’s grace in Jesus Christ are reconciled to God. It should not be shocking that I believe this. I am clearly identifying myself as a Christian, and this is pretty standard Christian stuff.

          I never said that Paganism is “merely” a reaction to the failings of Christianity, so please stop putting words in my mouth. I could go on, and clarify that I did not say *this* and did not say *that*, but you seem determined to read me in a certain way, so I don’t see the point.

  • Mr. Dalrymple, before you get hit with a flurry of (unfair) attacks for fairly sensitively expressing your “grief” about the growth of Paganism from the perspective of a Christian — as a Pagan I want to congratulate you for a great post. You made several excellent points: “… the growth of Paganism in the modern west, especially in America, speaks volumes about the failures and the excesses of the Christian church …” TRUE. Many Pagans like to gloss over this, but the movement began largely a rejection of Christianity. However, as you were good to point out, Paganism is also a “positive affirmation of something discovered and true and valuable”. “… historical scholarship of the Pagan communities sorely wanting …” TRUE. Although we are working on that. Our best example is Ronald Hutton whose work I strongly recommend, and the work being done by many amateur Pagan scholars in pagan reconstructionism cannot be overlooked. “… the philosophy and theology behind it all is not yet mature …” TRUE. Although we are also working on that. There is great work being done in thealogy (by people like Carol Christ, Melissa Raphael, and Constance Wise), which many Pagans adopt, as well as more specifically Pagan theology by people like Michael York. But admittedly we are just getting started. (We are only 40+ years old — pretty young in comparison.) But mostly, I think you hit the nail on the head when you identified Paganism as a yearning for “religion” and a reaction against the “spiritual, but not religious” phenomenon. To be liberal *and* religious in today’s world is no easy task. You have identified an important common ground for Christians and Pagan and I hope we can develop that shared understanding.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Excellent comment, John. It’s been fascinating to learn more about Paganism, and I have to say that I’ve been very impressed by the sophistication that one finds from many of the writers at the Pagan Channel and elsewhere.

      While I need to be clear on what I believe and honest in expressing my opinions, I also need to be honest in informing evangelicals that, no, Paganism is not what they think it is. I suspect it will upset a lot of evangelical apple-carts to hear, for instance, that there is Pagan devotional literature, and that many Pagans can describe an experience of their deities that sounds an awful lot like the language of Christians experiencing the God of the Bible. As we all know, having an experience of something does not make it true, so this says little about who is right or wrong (for those who believe in right and wrong, as I do, on these matters), but it can be helpfully disorienting for Christians to really confront the religious experience of others.

      • Wow Tim! Seriously, I wish there were more people like you (in both communities).

      • MatthewS

        “it can be helpfully disorienting for Christians to really confront the religious experience of others.”

        Great line!

  • Nayajja

    One of Jesus’ great messages was “as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”
    “Spirituality,” as used by those who say “I am spiritual but not religious,” seems to me to be only inward-turned, as they reject the pains and joys of contributing to a community of other imperfect people trying to honor God in their lives.
    If we seek only for a personal relationship with diety–spirituality–we follow a selfish quest. Jesus warned against this: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”
    It is by love to others humans that we find God.

  • Ron

    Timothy, as a 40-plus year Unitarian Universalist, I have to question your assessment of Unitarian Universalism. Its core is more attitudinal than doctrinal. Its humanistic roots are both ancient and modern, and have shaped its Christianity as well as its Post-Christianity. Our concerns are not so much with what your personal and shared quest for ultimate truth and meaning may lead you to at any given moment, but the quality and integrity of the quest itself, the epistemology is important to us. Unitarian Universalism is (arguably) fed by three primary streams, Humanistic critical thinking and open, free questioning (which goes back thousands of years, and can be found in both Eastern and Western religion); from Judaism and Christianity tradition, especially the freedom narratives of the former and the emphasis on loving, respectful right-relations of the latter; and thirdly Transcendentalism, with its mystical focus on individual development within a larger context of oneness and interdependence (from this we also get our inclusiveness and pluralism). These three streams or tributaries flow into the larger river of a questioning (and science-friendly), ethical and broadly inclusive tradition in religion, both very old and very new. But, most of all, it’s not about belief, but methodology…about how best we can live together in both utmost personal freedom and an undeniable ultimate unity, in this faster-moving, ever-shrinking, deeply conflicted world.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      And I would assert, Ron, that there are dozens of beliefs implied in what you just wrote.

  • Sam Hamilton

    Thanks for this post. I’ve gotten in some internet discussions about “spiritual but not religious” Christians (not that they use the term Christian, that’s too religious…it’s usually “follower of Jesus” or something like that). When they actually get to describing what it is that they believe, it turns out what they are actually against it’s religion, but a specific church institution (usually the one in which they grew up in, in which they had a bad experience). When I try to explain that that is not the same thing as religion, they go on about how only immature Christians need a church congregation and that the enlightened people are those that have left the local church congregation to follow Jesus somewhere else without all the “constraints.” This post confirms my belief that, in the end, they’re going to want some sort of structure to their faith. That faith, without some sort of form or dogma, can’t survive for long.

  • I appreciate your attempt to express your beliefs while educating your community on some modern Paganism. I think these dialogs are important in all communities. It is an important task. As a writer for the Pagan portal, it is always nice to see those of other faiths in respectful dialog with Pagans, even if they disagree. I may not have agreed with all if your points but I did on some and, more importantly, I appreciated hearing about you and Star.

  • Forgive me if this is a little off topic. I’ve been trying to read Levinas for a while and I can’t help but wonder if ‘religious’ in your phrase “spiritual but not religious” isn’t actually prior to the ‘spiritual’. If so then to be spiritual but not religious is to have forgotten something or to have missed the meaning of being spiritual. It would be akin to concluding that the purpose of language is to talk to oneself.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Very interesting, Craig.

  • L.W. Dickel

    Why are you Jebus fundies so afraid of acknowledging that if your Jesus was a man, as your religion teaches, then he must have had the same bodily functions as any other man. So your Jesus trotted around the ancient Middle East belching, farting, defecating and having erections. And if Jesus had erections, you know what he did with them, right?


    Picture that the next time you’re in deep prayer with your savior!!!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Actually, Christian theologians from the beginning have acknowledged that Jesus had all the same bodily functions. What he did with them — i.e., his behavior — is where the dispute lies.

    • Selah

      hey l.w. , Picture this as you stand before Jesus and He says: ” and do not be afraid of those who can
      kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather be afraid of Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna ). Have a nice judgment day !!