I admit to being a quintessential pessimist. When I hear about something like “Pagan/Christian Dialogue” I experience a certain… lack of enthusiasm or hope that this will benefit Pagans in the long run. The basic reason for this boils down to “in the end they think they’re the Only Way.” That is, Christianity entails an implicit assumption that all other religions are by definition in error. Until Christians are willing, as a majority, to abandon this single article of faith, any “dialogue” will look, to my jaundiced eyes, like a prelude to an attempt at conversion.
This “issue” was brought to the front of my mind (I don’t really worry that much about other people’s beliefs on a daily basis) by a post on Wild Hunt. This post contained links to two reviews by Gerald McDermott and William Stewart of a book called “Beyond the Burning Times.” This book was written by Philip Johnson, an Evangelical Christian, and Gus diZerega, a Gardnarian Elder. I haven’t had a chance to read the book itself yet (see a future post) but my comments are more concerned with the reviews and the underlying assumptions they, in my opinion, express.
The tone is, in both, fairly straightforward and academic. Both praise the book for being a genuine dialogue, rather than a simple attempt on the part of Johnson to convert diZerega and by proxy the Neo-Pagan readers one of the reviewers suggests are the intended audience. So, they actually talk, and show some respect for each other’s beliefs.
That’s fine. It’s better than “you are all damned to hell because you don’t pray to our God.” Even “agreeing to disagree” is an improvement, but one reviewer, Bill Stewart, seems to think this is not the real point. I’m referring specifically to the statement that “dialogue must not be a substitute for mission,” but that missional Christians need to engage in it “in order to gain a hearing.”
To my ears, this is similar to the scene in the new “Get Smart” movie, where Max tells a bored assembly of agents that “until we realize our enemies are human, we cannot defeat them.” It seems Stewart is friendly to the idea of dialogue with other religions so that missional Christians can more effectively argue against Pagans.
It boils down to the question of what “religious pluralism” really means. From where I sit, it should mean that we acknowledge that many systems of belief are valid. Not that they “contain truth” as Mr. McDermott says. That is a dodge. It sounds something like “well, they’re heathen, but they have some good points. True pluralism means that each system is valid on its own terms.
This is something that Pagans can accord Evangelicals that Evangelicals cannot accord Pagans. It is almost a tautology to say that the only way to gain the soteriological benefit of Christianity is through Christ. A Pagan simply does not wish to gain this benefit. She has no reason to object to others doing so. It’s simply not her Path.
An Evangelical cannot, by the very nature of their beliefs, have such an attitude toward Pagans. To do so would redefine what it means to “witness” so drastically that it would not be accepted among most adherents.
Hence my pessimism. While part of me is hopeful when I see at least a few Evangelical Christians recognizing that Pagans are humans and not either devil worshippers or morons, I find the prospect that much will come of this fairly slim. The “softer” approach appears too elitist to appeal to most mainstream Evangelical Conservatives. Too “liberal.” Especially in America, where Dominionist eliminationism gets most of the airtime.
Though I look forward to reading the book and being proved too cynical, the attitudes implicit in the reviews do not ameliorate my misgivings. In my opinion, more liberal Evangelicals have a lot of work to do within their own community before they start trying to reach out to others. Right now, it still sounds like an attempt at domination.