Of Appropriation and Pagan Christs

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law

There is something a little disingenuous about the negative comments circulating the web in the wake of Sam Webster’s statement that “you can’t worship Jesus Christ and still be Pagan.” Beneath the accusations of “fundamentalism” and religious bigotry, I get the sense that the main objection is to the notion that there are limits to what a person can do spiritually once they’ve decided on a particular Path. Let us spin it in the other direction for a moment: is it really respectful to appropriate for oneself a Deity which is part of a religion whose adherents would likely object to one becoming a member if one continued to worship other Deities?

In other contexts, this sort of thing is called “cultural appropriation.” For example, from the ages of eleven to twenty two, I lived on the Diné Reservation in Arizona. Some would say that I have enough connection to the culture, by virtue of having lived in such close proximity to it for so long, to incorporate some “Native American” elements in my personal practice. Certainly, numerous white people have done so with far less exposure. I disagree with this attitude. While I think Diné culture has many wonderful aspects, I don’t see myself as entitled to simply take parts of it and graft it into my own Work. If I were to say “well, you see Coyote however you want, I’m going to treat him as a manifestation of Mercury and call him with the Divine Names attributed to the Sphere of Hod in the Qabala,” I’d probably be seen as a bit of a moron, and a rude one at that.

It is fair to question how much this analogy pertains to the current discussion. Christ as a figure is part of Western culture, and Coyote is not, at least not to the same degree. But it still seems difficult to see how He could be part of a Pagan’s practice unless one takes the view that the perspective of the religion He comes from is somehow unimportant. Because, whatever a small minority (or incredibly silent majority) of liberal Christians might say, the fact remains that in the Christian Tradition, Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Light.” It’s Him or Hell. That’s not just fundamentalism. A given denomination might not phrase it quite so bluntly, but all of the major sects see salvation as coming exclusively through Christ. (And no, you don’t get to point out the Catholic statement that “Many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside [the Catholic Church's] visible confines” as a counter. What that means is that not all other religions are totally detrimental, and might help you come around to being Catholic one day.)

In Christianity, Christ came to lift the burden of Adam’s sin from humanity. This is the reason he was worshipped for almost two thousand years. To gain redemption from the results of something the devotee had nothing to do with. Even seeing this as a metaphor is still taking a very negative view of humanity, in direct opposition to the espoused beliefs of most Pagans.

What is important here isn’t whether or not these beliefs are “right” or “wrong.” While generalizing is always dangerous, I feel confident in saying that Christ as the sole World Redeemer is the view held by the majority of Christians. I don’t think they’d be happy with some hippy taking their God and treating Him as an equal partner with whatever other Deities the individual works with. Such a practice strips Christ of the meaning He has for most of his followers.

The incorporation of Christ into a non-Christian framework then comes down to one or two possible approaches:

Either

  • Asserting that the beliefs of the followers of Christ are of no consequence to Pagans who might choose to worship Him on their own terms. Which may be functionally the case, but demonstrates what I would consider a very disrespectful attitude, one in apparent contradiction to the “let’s be loving and kind to people of all faiths” platitudes currently circulating. Unless “loving and kind” means “being super sweet to others to their face then not giving a shit what they might think about the most important thing in their lives.” The word for this is “hypocrisy.”

Or

  • Taking the view that Christ is a central figure in Western Culture, and as such transcends what various sects might think of Him. This shares many of the problems as the first option. It resembles white anthropologists coming into an indigenous culture and telling them their figures of devotion are “just archetypes.” This may be the case, but it’s one thing to hold that view, and another thing to “go native” with the notion that one is “doing it the right way.”

One could raise the objection that the phrase “cultural appropriation” doesn’t apply to this situation as it would in the case of a white person adopting indigenous practices. After all, Jesus is part of “our culture,” that is, the culture of Modern Western society.

And here we come to the sticking point. Do Pagans see themselves as creating a culture in opposition and as an alternative to Western Modernity? This was certainly the case for quite a significant period in Paganism’s history. (I’m dating the beginning of Paganism in its contemporary form to the middle of the 20th Century, with the creation of Wicca by Gerald Gardner.) The movement experienced a major part of its development alongside the counterculture of the 1960s. In the 70s and through most of the 80s, it became heavily politicized, with the growth of radical feminism, women’s spirituality, and other movements. In the 90s, the mainstream became more aware of Paganism, and I think this is when the countercultural elements began to get downplayed. It would seem that, after twenty years of being “out”, Pagans have come to see themselves as less in opposition to the established culture. To once again generalize, Paganism appears to have become less a counterculture in positive opposition to the mainstream, and more of a subculture. Some elements of the prior critique remain, but the overall trend is toward promoting Paganism’s place as a distinct spiritual expression within the established social, political, and economic environment, rather than as a revolutionary movement.

Either way, the inclusion of Christ is problematic. If the goal is to supplant the dominant culture, engaging with its principal icon in the spirit of somehow “taking the flag back” can hardly be considered the result of a charitable view of Christianity. If the goal is to be a distinct voice within the larger culture, then we are back to the simple issue of drawing boundaries. And, in that case, Pagans who worship Christ will have to reckon with at least nine major denominations of Christianity and several hundred minor ones that are more not less dogmatic.  Given the paucity of theological expertise within the Pagan community, and the habit of giving non-responses like “your mileage may vary” to substantive objections, I doubt there is anyone within it properly equipped to delve into the very deep and complex waters of Christology.

There are other, less burdened expressions for love and compassion that Pagans can attach to. And while all of them come from other cultures (because Modern Paganism is less than a century old and no one seems interested in creating new Deities) most of them don’t derive from religions that expressly forbid the worship of other Gods. One can relate to Them on Their own terms without pissing Them off by running off to play with someone else.

I recognize that there is an emotional level to this. That, to those Pagans who have had an experience of Christ, it must sound like I’m devaluing that and attempting to impose a rule governing their spiritual life. Apart from the fact that I’m not in any position to do so, this kind of reactive thinking serves no one. If an individual can work out some understanding with the being they’re relating to as Jesus that doesn’t involve accepting Him as their Lord and Savior, I have no way of judging the veracity of such a relationship, nor do I regard it as my business to try. But I do think it is important to enter into a relationship with a Deity mindfully, and part of being mindful is considering the Deity’s background. Not only for ones own wellbeing, but out of consideration and respect, I think this ought to include some reflection on how the devotees of that God would react to what you are doing. To do otherwise does not seem “open minded” to me. It seems like flagrant disrespect and selfishness.

Love is the law, love under will

 

 

3 comments

  1. I think one of the main problems I have here, and also to an extent with Sam’s argument is that it doesn’t address the fact that there has been a number of very long-standing esoteric approaches to Christianity and the figure of Jesus that differ very sharply from how conventional Christianity through the Catholic and Orthodox churches and later various protestant denominations viewed him. These radically different approaches have as long of a history as conventional Christianity although they have historically been viewed as heretical and have been subjected to at least the same level of persecution as paganism was. These esoteric strands have been part of the Western Mystery Tradition for a long time and have been practiced by a large number of people in direct contradiction of the exoteric Christian prohibition against magick etc. These practitioners seem to have entered into the relationship with YHVH or Jesus mindfully and it seems to have worked just fine for them.

    1. I think people are tangling up a lot of tangential ideas in their response to the main question. It’s really an issue of what makes sense as a part of Pagan practice. For me, that’s it: does it make sense to include Jesus Christ as a part of Pagan worship? Were the initial post mine, I would not have framed it in terms of “giving aid and comfort to an enemy” but rather “shoehorning a Deity into a context that doesn’t fit its nature.” The problem with referencing Christian Esotericism as a way this could possibly work is that many Heresies were actually less not more in sympathy with the values most Modern Pagans espouse. Manicheanism and most Gnostic sects had incredibly negative things to say about the material world, for instance. Modern Christian Esotericism is somewhat softer, but it’s still Christian. It’s part of a defined tradition with its own inner dialogue.

      My point in this post was that Paganism is separate from that dialogue. It’s an entirely different religion. The problem with Pagans is that they don’t seem to want to commit to creating a distinct Path. They want a free for all where all that matters is that it “works for them.” The problem there being that there is no tradition of evaluation for what constitutes “working.” Is it just that it “feels right?” That could mean any number of things, from “it really does work” to “it elevates my brain chemistry in a way that I enjoy” to “it justifies my psychotic delusions.”

      Christian Esotericism is fine for Christians. When Paganism develops a meaningful esoteric strain of its own, there may even be a place for Christ in it. Right now, it still doesn’t have its exoteric shit together, and overall there is a very poor understanding of the esoteric strains that gave birth to it.

  2. In my own experience (the only experience from which I can speak), I spent 40 years in the Christian church, as teacher and theologian for more than 20 of those 40 years. But when all the things I knew came together and ramped me into a higher state of personal spiritual development, Jesus simply disappeared overnight. I can’t explain it. I went to bed one night with Jesus as my friend and mentor and awoke the next morning to find him wholly irrelevant to my being. I have never regretted it nor looked back. I honestly expected to have some wistful longing for him somewhere along the line, but I never did.

    As a practicing Druid and Thelemite, I have developed my own practice, but within one culture. Yet, could it be said that mine, too, is simply cultural appropriation? I’m of European stock, but a mutt: Irish/English/German/Swede, and yet what pantheon interests me more than any other? The Gauls, pre-Roman Gauls. Do I “need” to appropriate a pantheon? Probably not, but for some reason it works for me magickally and psychologically. I’ve tried to interest myself in the Irish Celts or Asatru, simply because both of those have a bit to do with my heritage, but they just don’t interest me.

    I realize this is not wholly relevant to your argument here, but it is an interesting side question. Of course I laud Crowley for creating a non-pantheon pantheon to use religiously and magickally, and perhaps that’s what I’ve done for myself. But Jesus? After 40 years of deep familiarity, he’s nowhere on the horizon.

    As another side note, I’ve spent several hours looking at Pagan blogs this morning. Yours has more potential than any I’ve seen to date. It would be welcome to see you post more often. I’d love to see where you could go with your readership.

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