Howard Thurman wrote, "Community cannot feed for long on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them — unknown and undiscovered brothers."
This quote by Thurman is helpful in my own reflection of the work I do as a chaplain. In the two years that I have worked as a chaplain I have provided care to a diverse group of people. First as a hospital chaplain in West Virginia and then as a hospice chaplain in Ohio. In these two years I have had the opportunity to provide care to two people who identity as Pagan. In both cases it was family of the patient; although in one case the patient was Pagan but unresponsive.
What is my point? I have provided care to hundreds of patients and their families. Most of the people I provided care for were not Pagan or even close, yet I provided quality (at least I believe I did) pastoral care to the individuals and their families in my care. Most of the patients I see are elderly and on hospice care. They are typically some form of Christian, or loosely associated with Christian culture (i.e., Christmas and Easter are holidays they celebrate even if organized religion is unimportant).
It is a naive assumption to think that the only people who I will minister to will be "like me." Most of the people with whom I serve are very different spiritually from where I am, but I'm still able to provide care to them. I am able to find points of commonality.
Again, what is my point? I believe Pagans and those within 'minority faiths' have the ability to be excellent chaplains. It would be fabulous if more Pagans would embrace chaplaincy as a profession; however, it requires the ability to minister to a diverse group of people in diverse ways.
I have a feeling that the environment and professional atmosphere of pastoral care and chaplaincy is going to be very different in the not too distant future. With the rise of the "spiritual but not religious" and as Pagans start getting older Pagan chaplains will be able to "minister to their own," and I believe we can make an impact. By thinking broadly and embracing theological diversity Pagan chaplains will be able to serve humanity and not simply the Pagan community.
I have had magical moments with patients of faiths very different from my own. Being open to these experiences will allow the magic to happen. The ultimate purpose of this post is that I would like to see more professional chaplains who are Pagan, who are committed to working with all people who need care and who are willing to serve not only their community but humanity. Hospitals, hospice companies, prisons, et al., need us.
In issue #28 of Witches and Pagans magazine columnist John Michael Greer wrote an article titled, “A Bad Case of Methodist Envy: Copying Christian models of clergy is a Pagan dead end.” In this essay Greer recommends against Pagan clergy and specifically full time compensated clergy. I would like to note that I have admired many of Greer’s books especially Inside a Magical Lodge, A World Full of Gods, and Druidry Handbook; however, I can simultaneously admire his work and disagree with some of his thoughts.
In this essay I will be looking at several of the points Greer makes in his essay and will attempt to explore these claims and offer another perspective. Initially in his essay Greer explains his title by providing the link to United Methodism,
“…there’s a definite tendency in the Pagan scene to assume that the way mainstream American Christian churches do certain things is the only right way to do those things. I’ve come to call this attitude “Methodist envy”… “It’s surprisingly pervasive among Pagans, and often appears in the form of claims that if Paganism (or some specific Pagan group) wants to be a real religion, it has to copy the habits of the big mainstream Christian denominations.”
There are “certain” things that are done by mainstream American Christian churches that I believe are beneficial for Pagans to emulate. It is beneficial to have at least some within the ranks of Pagan clergy who are academically trained and able to stand side by side “Methodist” clergy and the clergy within other “mainstream American Christian churches” with the same educational and training standards; however, like United Methodism I think it is perfectly feasible and recommended to have different classifications of clergy. In addition to licensed local pastors and elders in full connection there are also deacons within United Methodism who serve in specialized ministerial roles (e.g., chaplaincy, seminary administration, et al) and this seems like a reasonable model in which to structure a Tradition’s clerical endeavors. This is not unique to United Methodism since most (if not all) of the mainstream American Christian churches (as well as the various branches of Judaism) also follow a similar model.
Furthermore, within United Methodism, for example, there are “part-time local pastors” and there are also elders in “full-connection.” The difference between the two is that licensed local pastors are not required to get as much education as elders whereas elders in full connection are seminary trained and follow Greer’s somewhat sarcastic model of priesthood which is the basis for his “Methodist envy model,” to which Greer writes,
“A priest or priestess – a clergyperson of any kind – is someone who gets paid to conduct regularly scheduled services for a congregation and to perform weddings and other rites of passage. They also provide moral and spiritual counseling to parishioners, with maybe a bit of genteel political activism thrown in on the side; got a liberal arts education, has a master’s degree in divinity, is part of a national tax-exempt church organization, and carries out his or her professional activities in a building set aside for the purpose, all funded by the dutiful donations of worshippers.”
Taking the sarcasm out of this model he seems to imply a model of priesthood that includes:
Greer goes on to claim, “A fair number of Pagans apparently believe that all Pagan clergy ought to adopt the same role. I believe there are at least two fundamental problems with this model.” I agree with Greer that this is not the only model for Pagan clergy; however, it seems that Greer is not simply arguing for multiple models of Pagan clergy but arguing against the above model, claiming it is exclusively Christian, and this is where I disagree with him.
A thorough knowledge of United Methodist polity would inform John Michael Greer that their system for clergy is not without merit because they have multiple ways of utilizing clergy that is not limited to just full-time paid clergy. At one point Greer advocates for multiple views and at other times he seems to be emphatically opposed to full-time paid clergy. Is he opposed to clergy being full-time? Or is he opposed to clergy being paid? Or is he opposed to full-time AND paid? I am assuming he is opposed to full-time paid Pagan clergy and will be operating under this presumption.
I believe there is plenty of room for multiple models of priesthood and clergy (Pagan or otherwise); however, I feel compelled to respond further to Greer’s claims because he seems to find unacceptable the notion of “paid Pagan clergy” as if that model is somehow incompatible with other models of clergy. Having a vision of full-time paid Pagan clergy is not incompatible with simultaneously thinking that part-time volunteer clergy is also an acceptable vision for performing the work of clergy. Not all venues can support full-time paid Pagan clergy.
In his argument against “paid Pagan clergy” Greer writes,
“The first issue is that the only people that I’ve ever heard insisting that there ought to be paid full-time Pagan clergy are the people who want to become full-time Pagan clergy.”
In this argument Greer is confusing correlation and causation. It is akin to saying something like more men practice Druidry than women, therefore, men make better druids than women. If this is his first “fundamental problem” with full-time paid Pagan clergy then I hope his second argument is better than the first; however, we will see that it is not.
Greer goes on to write,
“People don’t join Paganism in hope of getting the same kind of religious experience they could find over at the local Methodist church. People become part of the Pagan community because they want something they can’t already get in a Methodist church, or any other corner of the religious mainstream.”
This argument of Greer does not support his argument against full-time paid Pagan clergy it simply claims the motivation for people in becoming Pagan. What he seems to be claiming is that since most Pagans have left “mainstream American Christian churches” that the Pagan community shouldn’t emulate “mainstream American Christian churches” by having full time paid Pagan clergy – as if the presence of full-time paid Pagan clergy would somehow invalidate the religious experience of Pagan traditions. Isn’t that the same as saying something like: Pagan groups have (traditionally had) unpaid part-time clergy; therefore, groups with unpaid part-time clergy are better at being Pagan and you could infer from this that Pagans who have attended Pagan groups with part-time unpaid clergy have had uniquely Pagan religious experiences; therefore, groups with unpaid part-time clergy are better at providing unique Pagan religious experiences. This is simply not true and an unfounded claim.
I can walk into a United Methodist congregation and experience their form of worship and then sojourn over to a Russian Orthodox Church and have a totally different religious experience yet both clerics operate under a similar model (i.e., paid professional clergy). Likewise, I could walk into a Baptist Church with a part-time local pastor (who is often unpaid) and get a very different experience than I received at either the United Methodist or Russian Orthodox congregations; therefore, it is not the existence of full-time paid clergy that dictate the religious experience rather it is the nature of one’s theology which materializes physically through ritual and rites of passage and should inform one’s pastoral/spiritual care.
Regarding religious experience and why people have navigated away from “mainstream American Christian churches” I would like to illustrate a point made by Linda Mercadante in her book on the ‘spiritual but not religious’ titled, “Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.” Mercadante writes,“Many SBNRs I met often complained that the spiritual groups they tried did not facilitate, live out, or convey what interviewees thought of as true spiritual experience. Many said this about Christianity.” However, this quest for religious experience was not limited to people migrating away from Christianity. Mercadante writes, “This lack of spiritual experience was not restricted to stories about the Christian church, however. Amit Singh from the Silent Generation had grown up in a family that maintained a Hindu temple.” In her book she presents qualitative data on people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” and why they have navigated out of more traditional avenues of spirituality (i.e., “mainstream American Christian churches”). Her research is applicable to why people seek out Pagan spiritual experience instead of continuing to do so within “mainstream American Christian churches.”
I mention the research conducted by Mercadante because she spends a lot of time exploring the spiritual but not religious demographic and I believe this “classification” of people applies to many who identify as Pagan who, I believe, could easily agree with the identifier of “spiritual but not religious.” Greer is correct that people leave mainstream American Christian churches often because they are seekers of “true religious experience.” However, they are not leaving these “mainstream American Christian churches” because these churches have full-time paid professional clergy. Again, this is an issue of correlation and causation and is the logical fallacy that Greer has turned into his “gold standard.”
John Michael Greer mentions the migration of people out of Christian churches and into various Pagan traditions in his book, "A World Full of Gods," when he writes, “…a substantial number of people from wholly orthodox Christian and Jewish backgrounds have broken decisively with the god of classical monotheism and embraced the complex, poorly defined, but vigorous collection of new religious movements that calls itself Paganism.” The work of Mercadante presents why someone would leave a Christian or Jewish community, that provides a plethora of services, to join a new religious movement that is poorly defined (and often overflowing with witch wars and conflicts) because the seeker is looking for true religious experience. And this quest for religious experience has absolutely nothing to do with whether the cleric leading the ritual is “full-time” and paid or “part-time” and a volunteer.
John Michael Greer continues his essay by claiming,
“Exactly what is desired from Pagan practice differs from one person to another, and that individualism feeds the raw diversity of the faiths we call Pagan. Expecting so diverse and factious a community to conform to any one concept of priesthood and priestesshood is a waste of time, and if the concept you have in mind comes straight out of the religious mainstream that so many of today’s Pagans left behind – well, let’s just say your chances aren’t good, and leave it at that.”
I agree with Greer that there are multiple ways of looking at the concept of priesthood; in this he and I are in agreement; however, he is opposed to adopting concepts “…if the concept you have in mind comes straight out of the religious mainstream…” As I mentioned previously Greer seems to be arguing for multiple ways of looking at priesthood while condemning the idea of full-time paid Pagan clergy as somehow incompatible with Pagan practice. He is saying it is acceptable to have many views of Pagan priesthood, just not “that one,” with “that one” being what he calls the “Methodist envy” model.
Greer then introduces his reader to Friedrich Nietzsche and summarizes Nietzsche’s idea from “Twilight of the Idols” with,
“Still, the point deserves to be generalized: every religion is a system; every part of any such system gets its meaning and purpose from the whole, and trying to apply definitions from one faith to another without taking into account the difference between the systems is a little like trying to put a truck tire on a tricycle.”
I am not exactly sure what Greer is advocating here because he seems to have embraced syncretism, or the blending and co-opting of practices from one “system” with another.” In another essay of his titled, “The God from the Bread Basket” included in the book “Jesus through Pagan Eyes” by Mark Townsend, Greer writes about the syncretism of Dion Fortune and T. S. Eliot with, “To Fortune, and in a different sense to Eliot as well, Christianity and Paganism were simply different ways of talking about spiritual realities and relationships that could not be reduced to a single symbolic formula.” In this same essay he does indicate, “Those times are unhappily long past.” Happily those times don’t necessarily seem long past because Greer is participating in syncretism of his own and the AODA and Gnostic Celtic Church seems indicative of this phenomenon. As a spiritual syncretist myself I subscribe to the sentiment echoed by Dion Fortune and T.S. Eliot.
Greer seems opposed to Christian models of clergy and yet the Gnostic Celtic Church is organized with deacons, priests, and bishops and has adopted a “quasi-monastic” system. While monasticism isn’t exclusively Christian the model of “quasi-monastic” deacons, priests, and bishops seems to mirror a Christian model albeit a different one from the “Methodist envy” model illustrated above. I presume that since it is different from the “Methodist envy” model it is somehow acceptable whereas the notion of full-time paid Pagan clergy is problematic. I suspect there is something else behind Greer’s opposition to full-time paid Pagan clergy. Something that he chooses not to share with his reader, or may be consciously unaware; however, that is something he will have to ascertain for himself since what we have is what he wrote.
I am concerned with John Michael Greer’s ecclesiology. Ecclesiology being the theological study of “how a church/religious organization sees itself.” In his essay he seems to be arguing for a model of priesthood/priestly functioning that is nothing like the Christian model when he writes, “The modern American Christian concept of the clergy is unique to the Christian (and mostly English-speaking) nations of the world.” He identifies this concept as the “pastor-as-shepherd” model. He seems to be implying that the “pastor-as-shepherd” model is identical with the “Methodist envy” model and therefore incompatible with Pagan models for clergy. My response to this is that the model of American Christian clergy is not as unique as Greer might suggest and while Christian theology uses priest/minister as shepherd symbolism it is thus because of a parable from the New Testament rather than the image of a parish priest scooting parishioners along a hillside like a shepherd tending a mindless flock of sheep. It is the use of metaphor to indicate that each person within the community is important and comes from the Parable of the Lost Sheep in the Gospel of Luke. A Christian cleric responsible for a congregation should be a well-differentiated leader capable of leading his/her congregation in our post-modern world and I hold it to be true that a Pagan cleric that holds a position of leadership within a congregation (e.g., grove, coven, et al) should also be a self-differentiated leader who is capable of leading. This concept transcends religious lines and includes Christian, Pagan, Jewish, and any and all sorts of religious leaders.
Greer then turns his reader’s attention to the classical world by showing examples from antiquity that seems to show that full-time paid clergy are not historically accurate. He writes, “Priesthood and priestesshood in the Greek world was usually a part-time activity, not a career, and the holder of the office often changed yearly or every few years, depending on local custom.” What came to mind when I read this was a passage from “An Introduction to Roman Religion” by John Scheid where Scheid wrote, “The most important public priests of Rome held their position for life and benefited from immunity to public charges and taxes. They also enjoyed the privilege of banqueting at the expense of the people and could occupy places of honour at the Games.” The Romans were not identical to the Greeks in how they viewed their priests, and I suspect Greer is aware of this concern. It is not that practices varied among ancient people it is that they had different cultures that seems to be Greer’s point. In his essay Greer seems to be arguing for cultural purity using examples from Hellenic culture and then Egyptian culture. What was true of Greek culture was not true of Egyptian culture and you cannot apply a set of ideals from one and apply them to another – this is what Greer seems to be stating.
In his use of examples from antiquity he advocates for cultural purity when he writes, “Egyptian concepts of priesthood and priestesshood thus make sense in the context of ancient Egyptian religion; Greek concepts in that of ancient Greek religion; and Methodist concepts in that of modern Methodism.” In modern day United States we live in an “American concept,” and as such even a modern Hellenic Pagan will have commonalities with someone practicing Egyptian Paganism. Likewise, in our “American concept,” we will have things in common with United Methodists simply because we share a common culture. You will find Pagans of all types fellowshipping together at festivals, at meet and greets, and at other social and spiritual events. As diverse groups of Pagans interact they will “cross-pollinate” with one another and share ideas of “what works” and “what does not work” and the community will continue to grow and mature. We have diversity within Paganism but we also have a common culture in which we can find a sense of unity. What is at issue is not culture but instead it is context.
It is nice to point out issues from antiquity and it is good to be aware of cutting edge scholarship on the life and circumstances of ancient people; however, we live in a post-modern age and therefore find ourselves living in a different paradigm than what was lived in antiquity. One cannot simply look to a dusty academic book about the ancient world and reconstruct a religious tradition – there is more to it than that. Antiquity can inspire and inform but it is important to recognize that the paradigm of today is categorically different from the ancient world and this cultural difference needs to inform how we do “ministry,” it needs to flow into our ecclesiology and our ecclesiology needs to flow into our practice.
John Michael Greer presents full-time paid Pagan clergy as a model he calls “Methodist envy.” He seems to insinuate that the compensation received by the Pagan cleric is somehow obtained through exploitation of the community in which they serve. Greer is only seeing a small piece of a much larger scene. A small ten-member coven really cannot support a full-time paid Pagan cleric, but neither can a small United Methodist church. What Greer failed to mention in his essay is that those Methodist elders serving churches full-time as paid clergy are serving churches that can support a full-time paid pastor. Small country churches, even within United Methodism, often have volunteer pastors or part-time local pastors (non-ordained and less educated). If, for example, a Senior/Chief Druid served a grove with one hundred families and that Senior/Chief Druid worked full-time sustaining and supporting this community then it would be exploitative if he or she were not compensated. Therefore, the “problem” is not about culture it is about context.
Full-time Paid Pagan clergy do not necessarily have to be supported by their “flocks.” There are other means in which Pagan clergy can be employed full-time as clergy while not necessarily serving in a leadership role of a grove, coven, or otherwise. It is time for Pagans to step up and assume leadership roles as full time professionals in health care, corrections, and the military as chaplains. As full time paid professional clergy. In order for Pagans to have military or prison chaplains we need to stop shouting “persecution” and relishing in our “otherness” and focus our efforts on finishing a college education, enrolling in seminary/graduate theological education, and then navigate through the tough waters of clinical pastoral education. This is not an easy task. In fact, it is extremely challenging but it is worth the effort and we CAN do this as a community. We can stand side-by-side clerics of every religious tradition as equals because we ARE equals.
In any discussion of clergy and ordination it is appropriate to look at two important philosophical and theological implications of the priesthood, which I will call the “ontological question,” what IS a priest? Different traditions will answer this question differently but if ontology is the philosophical study of “being” then it becomes important to delve into the nature of the priesthood. In those initiatory traditions that ordain through initiation or some other transformative experience then the priest is such because of a transforming experience; whereas, in some traditions the ritual leader is simply the most competent person filling a role and “functioning” as the cleric and being in that role is not an ontological function but rather a practical function.
I believe that we (as humans) can promote ontological change through initiations and rites of passage thereby transforming initiates from “something” to “something else” through the initiatory experience. I also believe that the Gods (Divinity Itself) can also promote an ontological change within a person that the Christian world refers to as “a call to ministry.” If the Gods call a person to the priesthood to serve at both the altar of said Gods and also the altar of service to humanity then it seems reasonable that the Gods will bless this individual and assist in fostering this call. John Michael Greer calls the model of full-time paid Pagan clergy “Methodist envy” and cautions his readers with “copying Christian models of clergy is a Pagan dead end.” It is not a dead end for Pagans. Compensation for clergy is not exclusively a Christian phenomenon, as I presented above in my example from Roman antiquity; however, I was recently reading about the priesthood within Hinduism and similar discussions seem to be occurring within Hinduism as Rajan Zed said, “…priests performed an important role in Hindu society and should be compensated accordingly.” I believe that Pagan clergy, competent Pagan clergy, provide an important role in our community and should also be compensated.
I would like to now draw your attention to an important point made by Friedrich Nietzsche. Not from Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols” but from “On The Genealogy of Morals.” In this text Nietzsche discusses the difference between “slave morality” and “noble morality.” In his explanation of slave morality Nietzsche writes, “…in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all – its action is fundamentally reaction.” Nietzsche then describes nobility with, “The reverse is the case with the noble mode of valuation: it acts and grows spontaneously, it seeks its opposite only so as to affirm itself more gratefully and triumphantly – its negative concept “low,” “common,” “bad” is only a subsequently-invented pale, contrasting image in relation to its positive basic concept – filled with life and passion through and through – “we noble ones, we good, beautiful, happy ones!”
John Michael Greer falls into the trap of slave morality in his reaction against Christianity; although, he simultaneously also seems to argue against this line of thinking. Towards the end of his essay Greer adds, “In the context of modern Paganism, much of our problems stem from a bad case of Methodist envy.” Our problem is not “a bad case of Methodist envy.” The problem within our community is much more systemic than whether or not to have full-time paid Pagan clergy. The real problem is holding onto the slave morality that has permeated our Pagan culture - the constant resentment and reaction towards anything Christian. What I have observed is a need for some Pagans to feed off of the sense of “otherness,” along with the need to always “be different,” to always be “alternative.” The ultimate concern of the Pagan community should not be the fostering of otherness; rather, it should be devotion to the Gods, our Ancestors, and the Earth and in that process we become, ontologically, a noble people… stronger than before.
I recently heard about the death of Morning Glory Zell, a beloved member of the Pagan community. My first thought on reading about her death was sadness. So many elders within our community are leaving this world. I never knew Morning Glory but I had heard about her and I have read about her life and contribution to the Pagan community and always held her in admiration. Since her death I’ve read many endearing posts on various blogs about her life and work and I’m not going to attempt to mirror those endearing posts; however, upon reading about her death it evoked within myself several emotional reactions that I wish to share with you today.
Working as a hospice chaplain I experience death and the prospect of death on a daily basis. Before I started working as a hospice chaplain I was a chaplain resident learning the finer nuances of chaplaincy and before that I worked as a consulting minister at a Unitarian Universalist congregation. This reflection starts when I was working as a consulting minister. There was a member of that congregation who was suffering from multiple myeloma a type of blood cancer. Her diagnosis and battle with cancer was all pervasive for her and her husband. When I read that Morning Glory died of multiple myeloma I thought about this woman. What really comes to mind is my own inadequacy in trying to help her process the grief associated with her illness and the ineffectiveness of my attempts to minister to her and her husband. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to bring comfort and I certainly didn’t know what to say or learned the value of silence.
I left serving that congregation shortly after I graduated from seminary and moved to another state to start a chaplain residency program. As is typical when a minister leaves a congregation I distanced myself from the congregation to give them time to get used to being without my presence and seeking their own way (since I left they have hired a new consulting minister). This distancing still haunts me today.
While serving as a Chaplain Resident at a Catholic hospital in West Virginia I worked primarily on an oncology unit and therefore I had a lot of exposure to patients struggling with cancer – including multiple myeloma. I was being trained in the finer points of chaplaincy and I was ministering to people with cancer. A couple of months after I started the residency, at about the time I was starting to “get it” as a chaplain, I received an e-mail indicating that the woman from the congregation I had served had died and she had been dead over a month. Once I found out I immediately called her husband to see how he was doing to which he said to me over the phone, “Oh, now you’re calling me.”
When I was serving that congregation I didn’t know how to effectively minister to the dying. I did the best I could but I always felt it wasn’t enough. I didn’t know what to say. What to do, or how to comfort them. I was a bundle of anxiety because I was unaware of just how to provide comfort to the dying. By the time I made that condolence call I knew how to effectively minister to the dying and I found myself much less anxious around death and dying, but it was too late for me to be a source of comfort to him and certainly it was too late for me to comfort her. My opportunity had come and gone. I felt horrible for days after that phone call. I feel like I had failed him while I served that congregation and I felt even worse that he thought I didn’t care and that was why I hadn’t called. I’ve acknowledged these feelings and use them to empower the work I do now since I finished the chaplain residency and now work as a hospice chaplain.
As a society we’re not prepared to deal with death and dying. It’s easy to post “hugs” on Facebook but it’s rough being in the room with someone who has terminal cancer. I learned to be comfortable with silence. To feel okay with not saying anything and to live in that uncomfortable place that the living find themselves in when confronted with the dying. To be able to point out the obvious, “This is a horrifying experience and you’re scared,” with genuine compassion while refraining from saying, “Oh, it’s going to be okay. I’ll light a candle for you.”
I remember an incident when I was a chaplain resident. I had visited with Tom (I will call him Tom, not his real name), a cancer patient, several times and he would often be depressed because his home was over an hour away and his wife had to work and wasn’t able to be with him very often. I had probably visited with him on at least three occasions over the months I was there at the hospital. On one occasion, the last time I saw him, I got a call from the unit’s nurse asking I pay him a visit. I walked into his room and his wife was there. He seemed pleased she was with him; however, she said to me, “The doctor was just in and he said Tom has two weeks to live.” We started talking and I listened to what they had to say about the final prognosis of his cancer. Finally, I said to them, “You have two weeks left. What are you going to do with those two weeks?” She looked straight at me and said, “We’re going to pray for a miracle. We can fight this.”
I looked at Tom. He was stoic. He had been battling cancer for ten years. The miracle was that he had ten years of life after his initial diagnosis. At this point their pastor walked in and I shook his hand and we exchanged pleasantries. I didn’t want to “step on his toes” so I said my goodbyes and passed the proverbial chaplain’s torch to their pastor. As I was washing my hands I heard Tom’s wife say, “Pastor Steve, the doctor was in and said Tom has two weeks to live.” To which Pastor Steve said, “What’s the Lord have to say about that?”
I walked out of the room feeling sad. I knew that Tom was conflicted and wanted to just spend quality time with his wife before he died and didn’t want to focus all of his efforts in prayer for a cure when he knew that wasn’t going to happen. But his wife’s anxiety was too much to accept and there was nothing they could do and that the fight was over.
About an hour after I left their room I got a call from the nurse to visit with them again, they requested my presence. I went back to the room and Pastor Steve was still there and Tom’s wife said, “The doctor was in again and suggested Tom go onto hospice care.” At that moment there was some silence with all eyes looking at me to which I said, “Two weeks. Make that time count, how are you going to spend that two weeks?” Pastor Steve jumped in and said, “We’re going to pray for a miracle. The Lord answers prayers so we’re going to pray.”
I felt powerless in this situation and I felt sad. I felt sad for Tom. He wanted to just spend quality time with his family. He was tired and didn’t want to fight the inevitable. But he was surrounded by highly anxious people who didn’t want to accept his death was coming soon. At this point in my interaction with Tom his pastor turned to me and started making small talk. He was uncomfortable with Tom’s condition that he didn’t want to enter into it with him so he made small talk with me. Eventually, I realized there wasn’t much more I could do so I said my goodbye and that was the last time I saw Tom.
In my work as a hospice chaplain I’ve said many final goodbyes. Each patient and their family are unique and it is a blessing to be able to minister to people at the end of their lives. Recently, our community has had a lot of deaths. Death is a natural transition and yet it has given me an opportunity to reflect upon life in general and my own life in particular. From what I have read on-line it appears that Morning Glory Zell had a “good death,” surrounded by people who loved her and at peace with her illness. I hope this is true because this is my hope for the patients in my care, that I can help them have a “good death” and to be at peace.
Several years ago I was facilitating a spiritual discussion group at the Yellow Springs Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. I was serving that congregation as their religious education director and one of the duties I took upon myself was leading this discussion group before we gathered for the weekly service. There was a wonderful gentleman named Chuck who would often attend our discussions and sometimes attend the main service depending on the topic. One Sunday morning after about a half hour of group discussion Chuck spoke up and addressed the small group of about eight or so at the spiritual discussion group with, “You folks talk about being opened minded and affirming of others yet in the course of this discussion you’ve insulted me several times. I’m a Christian. I’m a Fundamentalist. I teach at a Baptist university, and I regularly attend a Baptist Church. And I’m a Republican. Some of you have used these terms like they’re swear words.” After he spoke his mind there was a lot of back peddling. Chuck attended these discussion groups because he valued the discussions and he attended the main service when he was able because he valued some of the topics presented. On those occasions when I was able to preach at the fellowship he would often attend to hear me speak. He was and is a good man. He wasn’t the “enemy,” but he was someone who sought to understand others and dialogue for mutual understanding and respect.
But Chuck presented an important dilemma for Unitarian Universalism and also a dilemma that is pertinent to the Pagan community. How can we advocate tolerance, acceptance and understanding while simultaneously causing alienation and marginalization?
Back in 2010 I attended a conference at Sojourners headquarters in Washington, DC. Sojourners is an Evangelical Christian organization devoted primarily to social justice causes. The conference I attended was focused on promoting education for collaborative faith based social justice programs and encouraged people to travel back to their local communities and organize faith based social justice programs. The point of the training was to get conservative and liberal faith communities to talk to one another and focus on the social justice issues they can agree upon and work together to promote positive change. When I returned to the Columbus, Ohio area I helped with some Immigration Reform events that were truly interfaith endeavors. It was Immigration Reform that was a topic that could unite several very diverse faith groups together for common action. It would have done no one any good to point fingers and shout, “Other.” But together our small voices became a much louder voice. I like to think we did some good by working together. That training at Sojourners was a good opportunity for me and I value that experience.
I have engaged in several discussions over the years on Pagan e-mail lists, at various festivals, at meet and greets, and at other venues where Pagans have gathered. Often these discussions have devolved into discussions where different groups of Pagans were labeled as “other,” and criticized for not being “Pagan enough.” Not being worthy of the label. I’ve grown tired of hearing about how someone is a “fluffy bunny,” or how someone isn’t Pagan enough because they don’t subscribe to the scholarship of some in-vogue academic or “big name Pagan.” Is the relegation of another, or another group, necessary? Or does it do more harm to the community?
I don’t want to give the wrong impression that I think it is never permissible to be critical. I think you can be critical and offer reflective criticism; however, it is the spirit in which that criticism is offered that makes a difference.
The dilemma of, “How can we advocate tolerance, acceptance and understanding while simultaneously causing alienation and marginalization,” is a dilemma seen internally between Pagans but is also reflected outward. When I was in seminary, a United Methodist seminary in the Midwest, I often noticed Facebook threads by my Pagan friends about how Christianity hated homosexuality and their criticism of Christianity turned into outright hatred. This was frustrating for me because I had several friends in seminary who were gay and open about their sexual orientation. Additionally, several conversations centered around, “Christians hate us because they believe we’re going to hell.” The truth is that these statements against Christians are generalizations. Not all Christians are opposed to homosexuality and there are many gay ministers serving churches – sure this is a divisive element in some denominations but being hateful towards Christianity does nothing to support those gay clergy who are trying to make a difference. Likewise, not all Christian denominations are opposed to Pagan and Earth Centered forms of spirituality. When I was working on my chaplain residency program (clinical pastoral education) I found support from my supervisor, a Reformed Church minister, and my peers, two Episcopal priests. I was even asked to present a didactic (seminar) on Paganism for the other chaplain residents. This was at a Roman Catholic hospital. It is an absolute fact that some Christian denominations oppose Paganism and believe that Pagans are condemned to hell and that homosexuality is sinful; however, this fact is not a universal because there is a growing majority of denominations who are much more tolerate and accepting of others. Generalizations can be damaging.
I mention this dilemma because of the often-critical treatment that Christopagans experience within the community. When I started blogging about Christopaganism on my blog I had a few people contact me privately about their “secret” interest in Christopaganism but they kept their thoughts private out of fear that they wouldn’t be considered Pagan enough. I find this fear tragic in a community that values tolerance, acceptance and understanding. It is a dilemma and one that I think is important we become mindful.
Recently, I found myself feeling like I was running through a gauntlet within a local Facebook group by a few members of the group who had a serious problem with Christopaganism. Their problem was centered on their understanding of, “the Bible says this…” What transpired was a litany of Bible passages they felt that condemned Paganism. I responded that I didn’t feel it necessary to “proof text” with them and volley back with other Bible passages. I responded that I didn’t feel the Bible was “inerrant” and that I believed it was written by people struggling to make meaning out of their world. I mentioned that what was important was the hermeneutic one used to interpret the entire text and not taking various texts out of context to use as a “theological weapon” against another.
What does it mean for Pagans if we become what we say we are not? One does not need to embrace Christopaganism to dialogue about it for understanding. What does it say if we become the type of community that expects tolerance from others without practicing tolerance? This is the heart of the dilemma I presented. This same treatment I’m advocating towards Christopaganism should be offered towards other forms of Paganism different from one’s own. As a community, Paganism is starting to mature. We’re starting to “come of age,” and with that comes responsibility. In life it is often common to give youth or adolescence a “pass” from time to time with the explanation of, “Well they’re young…” As a community we’re reaching a point where we can no longer be given a pass. We need to practice the tolerance that we covet for ourselves and when we fall short of this, and we will, we need to acknowledge our shortcomings and keep trying.
“Often, to be free means the ability to deal with the realities of one’s own situation so as not to be overcome by them.” -- Howard Thurman
My personal faith journey has been colorful and has included many joyful and sorrowful memories. At one time in my life, in the early 1990s I was System Operator, or SysOp, for a computer BBS (Bulletin Board System) called Theosis. The BBS was sponsored by the Romanian Byzantine Catholic Eparchy nestled in cozy Canton, Ohio, an I had the sublime honor of maintaining and administering the BBS – albeit for only a short time. The story of my brief sojourn into BBS management seems a fitting story to tell for the first entry of this Blog that holds the same name. You must be reading this blog entry and asking yourself, “What does Byzantine Catholicism have to do with ‘Pagan Studies,’ and why call a blog Theosis?” Both of these are very good questions and worthy of an answer.
In Byzantine Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian theology the concept of Theosis is very important. Theosis is both a process and an end result of spiritual practice. Another term for Theosis is deification or attaining the “likeness of God.” Within Orthodox Christianity the idea of Theosis is the answer to the question, “What’s the purpose of existence?” But concept didn’t take root in the Western half of the Catholic Church or within Protestantism in part because of the influence of “Scholasticism,” or the emphasis on education and learning; however, the mysticism of the Eastern world relied heavily upon the theological concept of Theosis. The idea of becoming in a sense “God.”
It has been a long time since I was SysOp for Theosis BBS. Since that time in my life I have lived in several places both in and out of Ohio. Life is often very strange. Fate has brought me back to Canton, Ohio but no longer as a Romanian Byzantine Rite Catholic. That world seems both very foreign yet oddly familiar. Being back in this city does evoke memories of the past and with those memories comes a significant degree of reflection.
As I reflect on Theosis I contrast that with my own spiritual journey and the experiences that have shaped me. The modernist within me likes and adores labels and comfortable boxes, yet my postmodern side wants to reject the labels and turn those comfortable boxes into miniature prisons that I need to escape. In the end I’m a spiritual person who has had a myriad of religious experiences that informs who I am and makes me a whole person. But our society and its many subcultures, love to force us to pick teams and cheer for those teams. Once when I was in school training in chaplaincy I was asked by my supervisor at the hospital, “How are you going to integrate your views on Christianity with your Pagan spiritual practices?” That was a good question, and a work in progress.
To call oneself “Pagan” is often a recipe for marginalization and misunderstanding; although, the climate today is much easier to navigate through than it was years ago it can still be a marginalizing “label” to wear. Being a Christopagan brings with it many challenges both outside and within the Pagan community. Over the years I’ve endured some interesting comments from my fellow Pagans such as,
“Why would you want to worship a zombie god?”
“The world would be such a better place without Christians, even nature loving Christians.”
“I don’t mean to be rude but there is no such thing as “Christo-Paganism!”
“Christianity has done so much harm to people, don’t be surprised when people judge you for those crimes.”
This list goes on and on and I mention it to illustrate that sometimes judgment is normative instead of interest and longing for dialogue and understanding.
But what does this have to do with Theosis?
As someone who fits into the “Christopaganism” box I have thought about Theosis and think it’s a great theological concept that fits perfectly within Christopaganism. As a “Christo” Pagan I’m not fixated on the crucifixion myth, nor do I subscribe to such ideas as “original sin” and I definitely don’t play lip service (or any sort of service) to Ransom Theory Atonement! But, the idea of Theosis has merit and when I juxtapose this theological concept with the greeting, Thou Art God and Thou Art Goddess, the idea of Theosis has a new meaning for me. When I contemplate on the meaning packed within the greeting Namaste I find new meaning within Theosis. It then becomes a common theological term, with the right hermeneutic of course, that fosters the syncretizing of Christianity with Paganism and Paganism with Christianity. Christo being before Paganism simply because I think “Christopaganism” sounds better than “Pagochristianity.”
That question that was proposed to me, “How are you going to integrate your views on Christianity with your Pagan spiritual practices?” has forced me to acknowledge and struggle with my own religious experiences. As a person with spiritual convictions how do I reconcile having had strong spiritual experiences within Paganism? Experiences within ritual and liturgy when I served as High Priest of a Wiccan Coven? As Senior Druid and then Chief Druid of various Druid Groves? In my involvement with Roman Reconstructionism? How could I reconcile these religious experiences with the religious experiences I have had while a Christian? When I was a Benedictine novice monk? When I was Romanian Catholic? When I got involved with Gnosticism and Esoteric Christianity? How was I, or rather, how am I going to reconcile these seemingly conflicting religious experiences?
An African American Baptist minister by the name of Howard Thurman helped me to better understand religious experience when he said,
“Religious experience is dynamic, fluid, effervescent, yeasty. But the mind can’t handle these, as it has to imprison religious experience in some way, get it bottled up. Then, when the experience of religious power which goes on experiencing quiets down, the mind draws a head on it and extracts concepts, notions, dogmas, so that religious experience can make sense to the mind.”
Aha! Christopaganism is my effort to take my religious experience and “make sense to my mind.” To transcend any comfortable theological/religious box society wants to place me within and say, “I have faith only in that which I have experienced and I have experienced a lot.” I would much rather make the effort to make sense out of my religious experience rather than do violence to who I am and to the heart of who I am as a person. My heart just feels and it experiences the Divine in many forms and through various rites. And my “salvation” resides in Theosis, the process of becoming like the Divine through orthopraxy or right action – not through orthodoxy or right belief. I strive to become what I was born to become and that is God or at least like God. To stoke the flickering flame of divinity within me to become the roaring inferno I was meant to manifest. That “original potential” that rests within each of us.