Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What We Know & How We Know It - Part III

Texts, Truths and Traditions:
A Study in Three Parts

In a recent post, blogger Robin Artisson, proposed this intriguing question:

"What if the entire New Testament was a construct, a forgery, a fake? What if Jesus never existed, and was instead a composite figure cobbled together from the myths of many other Gods that long pre-existed Christianity?"

The Part that Passion Plays

I've had some trouble with the transition into this third and final part of the "Texts, Truths and Traditions" series for a few reasons. First of all, as I mentioned in an earlier comment, these posts were originally written in direct response to Robin's opinions as he expressed them on his blog. His post, "Why a Return to Indo-European Polytheism is Needed," was itself rather disjointed--the first half addressed the possible forgery of Biblical texts and the questionable historicity of the person of Jesus, but the second half was largely dedicated to his own passionate views of "Truth" as reflected in an "Old Religion" centered on polytheism and the various deities of ancient Indo-European pantheons. Now, I find myself somewhat stalled, for in attempting to address this latter aspect of Robin's post, I find myself too quickly abandoning an honest discussion of the role history and literalism play in Biblical interpretation.

With that in mind, I think the best course would be to first take a look back at some of the ideas I've discussed so far and to put them into a broader context, focusing on the question, "What role do sacred texts play in a spiritual tradition?"

So, where have we come? In Part I of this series, we took a look at the relevancy of the historic figure of Jesus within the Christian tradition. I put forward the possibility that it is the idea of Jesus Christ, and not the literal, historical fact of his existence, which functions most prominently within Christianity and its varied and sprawling system(s) of belief. The idea of Jesus may include a faith in his historical presence in a particular time and place--in fact, it may be central to the theology of the Divine-manifest-in-man from a Christian perspective--but this is still a matter of faith, not of fact. The relationship that a Christian develops with Jesus as deity does not grow primarily out of archeological or historical research, but out of an engagement with Biblical texts and a personal participation in activities such as prayer and communion, which are understood for the most part to be interactions with God.

In Part II, we explored how the Biblical texts, as one of the source springs of Christianity, can be viewed historically as texts written by human beings that evolved in focus and interpretation over time to address the changing needs of various communities. Historical research continues to give insight into and evidence for various theological interpretations, but the theologies themselves continue to function in the realm of faith for the individual Christian. For instance, in her book Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, Sandra M. Schneiders looks at the historical and literary evidence to suggest that the Gospel of "John" was, in fact, written by a woman; however, a feminist theology of inclusion and respect does not hinge on this historical possibility, and if the authorship of the gospel were to be confirmed, it would likely have little effect on those who already adhere strictly to an anti-feminist belief system. Schneiders does not take on this possibility in order to convert all Christians to a pro-feminist interpretation, but to consider what new ideas, associations and possible interpretations grow out of such an interpretive perspective, as a way of both challenging and expanding upon the potentials for Christian tradition to support the need of a modern community concerned with gender-equality. Given this strange relationship between "sacred texts" and their historical context, it becomes increasingly important to look at how sacred texts in general function within religious or spiritual systems.

This is, perhaps, too large a subject to cover at the moment, especially if I intend to move on to address Robin's comments more directly. For now, I think it is important simply to recognize that texts can function in many different ways, and that the relationship between text and reader (not to mention writer, text and reader) is complex and multifaceted. Because the Neopagan community has, in general, so few texts that are considered "sacred" or "inspired" in the traditionally religious sense, it is easy to view all texts as functioning in a single and uniform manner, and thus to see any one aspect of that functioning as undermining all others. If a particular text fails to uphold itself on the level of historical accuracy, it can be easily abandoned for the latest book on the topic, which is sure to include all of the latest research. Starhawk's The Spiral Dance, a ground-breaking work and considered required reading twenty years ago, has been largely replaced in the Wicca 101 market by books which use similar poetic and psychological techniques, without resorting to unfounded beliefs in an historical matriarchal "Old Religion." Reading The Spiral Dance, while still sometimes considered essential reading for those interested in Wicca, is now less a spiritual task than a kind of historical work, looking back at the roots of Wicca and its subsequent development as a modern American religion.

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of texts which hold spiritual value and are understood as "inspired," for the very reason that they do not claim to be historical. A good many Pagans seem greatly inspired by various science fiction and fantasy writers, whose works are free to delve into complex spiritual matters for the very reason that they do not talk about historical events of our own world that could be proved or disproved (my personal favorites are Tolkien, Le Guin and Pratchet). Likewise, many Pagans write and read a great deal of poetry, incorporating it directly into personal ritual or approaching creative writing as a magical act. The "sacred texts" of Neopaganism are, in some ways, as ahistorical as the spiritual beliefs that they address and express. While on one level this provides a cushion against the harsh materialist-literalist approach of historical and scientific "fact," I sometimes wonder if it also limits such sacred texts and their possible functions, pushing them outside the realm of real history and real time, so that they become just another kind of indulgent navel-gazing. Of course, Neopaganism as a self-identifying spiritual community is still so young, it may just be that we do not yet have the perspective to know which texts might come to play the role of both "inspired" and historical works...

In any case, Robin's final remarks in his original post provide an excellent example of the kind of passion that can grow within a person regardless of textual support. Indeed, some of the best know traits of Christian fundamentalists and creationists--their insistence on taking Biblical texts literally and on proving these texts to be "factually" true with often baseless speculations that make rather haphazard use of select bits of modern science and scholarship; their passion for the exclusive Truth of their own view and the uselessness of "foreign," "unnatural" or qualifying perspectives; their reliance on personal feelings of comfort, inspiration and fulfillment to justify their evangelism to others--are all echoed (if reversed) as Robin's critique of Christianity continues.

The heart of Robin's critique of (and disgust with) Christianity is not based on alternative authentic texts, scholarship or "factual" history at all; it stems, instead, from his passionate commitment to his own spiritual tradition. In trying to justify this passion in universal terms (rather than acknowledging it as personal, though still wholly authentic and fruitful), he resorts to some of the same techniques he has just finished criticizing. While Christians should abandon their beliefs because they are not based on "facts," he insists, "it is possible to believe and worship as our Ancestors did- modern Pagan religious reconstructions, from Germanic to Celtic, Greek, Roman, and Slavic, have been given much attention, carefully reconstructed in the spirit of the original faiths"--in short, the reconstruction of these faiths are, he claims, very close to being "factual" and therefore they can be trusted. (Of course, the Christian faith does not need to be "reconstructed" at all, since it is still a contemporary, living tradition, while the deities of reconstructed Indo-European faiths are even more obscure and difficult to study than the figure of Jesus--but this slips by unmentioned.)

Repeated exhortations to the "sanity" and "Truth" of the "Old Religion" of "Old Europe" (despite the widely-held view among many scholars and Neopagans alike that there was no unified Old Religion, per se) sound remarkably like Christian fundamentalists' claims that Christianity is the "original" and "True" religion of the human race (citing Genesis for support, of course), while the personal "comfort" Robin refers to repeatedly begins to sound eerily like the born-agains' stories of new-found security and certainty once they "found Jesus" and "accepted Him into their hearts." Even his story of ancient injustices and persecutions echo the Judeo-Christian mythologies of the struggling, repressed communities of believers that eventually gave rise to the traditions of martyrdom and sacrifice within Christianity. (And there is historical truth, if not exclusive Truth, to both of these identity-defining martyrdom mythologies.)

Like the Christians of fundamentalist and evangelical traditions, Robin's passion for polytheistic, Indo-European reconstructionist spirituality is not really based on what he can prove, but on what he feels passionately that he knows from personal experience and direct participation in the Divine. It is as moving as it is, at times, almost frightening. The same careful historical and sociological studies that have jeopardized the literal interpretation of sacred texts and forced modern Christians to confront the possibility that personal truth and "objective" truth may not be the same thing, have given rise equally to increased tolerance and open-minded personal faith, and to increased hysterical, xenophobic tirades against "insane" or "sick" alternative spiritual traditions. Modern Pagans are just as susceptible to this dual response to the intrusion of "facts" into the religious world as modern Christians are. It is a unique, but ubiquitous, aspect of a modern, globally-connected and culturally diverse world.

What We Know & How We Know It
Texts, Truths and Traditions:
A Study in Three Parts

Part I: Introduction & The Historical Person of Jesus
Part II: The Historical Nature of Biblical Texts
Part III: The Part that Passion Plays


  1. What kind of a world is it where 'blogger' is an acceptable (admirable?!) occupation?

  2. I think it's less an occupation, and more something to keep you occupied. :-p Anyway, how's life, buddy? What's keeping you occupied these days?

  3. Hi, Ali,
    I'm not sure how far I would endorse some of your summations of Robin's original points, simply because his was a long and complicated piece, and I will need to carefully reread it to judge if you're characterizing his logic properly. (Certainly, that's not quite how I would have described his original posting, though that may be mainly a function of what parts of his essay stood out for me or didn't.)

    I guess I'm writing to suggest that, if you have the opportunity, you might add some more direct quotes of Robin's original post to support your descriptions of his argument. Of course, there's always a danger of a kind of antagonistic nit-picking approach to the words of others we disagree with--but I'm pretty sure you wouldn't fall into that trap.

    I know it would be pretty time consuming to do what I'm suggesting. However, though I'll certainly re-read his original words carefully now, I'm not sure how many readers of this blog will.

  4. Cat, I appreciate your request, and while I did try to quote or reference a few of Robin's statements, I didn't want to overburden the post, or increase its already disjointed nature by hopping back and forth between blockquotes. I included the link at the beginning of each of this series' parts with the hope that readers will read his post for themselves.

    While I probably won't ever go back and insert more citations into this original post, I will include a few quotes that struck me as particularly intolerant of Christianity and the possibility that it, too, is a fruitful spiritual tradition (which, to me, echoes the Christian fundamentalist intolerance of other religions, rejecting them as incapable of providing fruitful spiritual experiences outside the realm of the Christian tradition).

    Among the things Robin wrote:

    "There is no sanity without returning to the old Polytheistic ways of our ancestors. The Gods are real, [...] They never left us; what came among us was a pernicious ignorance and falsehood which tainted our people, forcing us into the shadow world that we now live in." (Here, he equates Christianity with an evil and insane "falsehood," even though not all Pagans even agree about polytheism, pantheism, panentheism and monotheism.)

    "There is the comfort of Truth to be found in realizing that our deaths lead us to exist as spiritual beings in the Underworld, or perhaps in another of the many worlds, and that "physical resurrection" is a nonsensical idea." (Here, he states certain beliefs as "facts" without anything but his own passionate experiences as support, while ignoring that plenty of Pagans, too, believe in physical reincarnation in this world.)

    "There is a [...] right way to live that doesn't include the ridiculous alien moral codes that are found in the so-called "scriptures" which were lies the first day they were written. [...] we do not need Middle-Eastern and Oriental religious beliefs, which are spiritual invaders to our old homelands, and which do not speak to our spirits truly." (Here, he shows a certain xenophobic reaction towards the cross-culture exchange of spiritual traditions, another common trait of Christian fundamentalists who are against globalization except when it serves to spread their own religion.)

    Later, in a response to a comment about a logical break-down in his argument, Robin responds:

    "Many modern Pagans are addicted to being as "liberal" and "politically correct" as possible in their thinking and talking, to avoid "falling into the same traps" as the evil monotheists- such as your statement that I am using "either/or" thinking. But some things in life are that clear cut [...] I know the Gods are real, and I know that Jesus is a nonsensical story. To have to say, on top of your own knowledge of the Gods "But the Gods might not be real" is PC. It is bowing to the skeptical nonsense that informs most of the people in our culture [...]"

    This reply (with the exception of yet another reference to "evil monotheists") could just as easily have been the reply of a Christian fundamentalist to a moderate Christian arguing for religious tolerance. Accusations of being "wishy-washy" and trying too hard to be P.C. are very often leveled by one Christian against another; it's a kind of merry-go-round internal conflict that says, "Well, since you agree with me, you're not 'one of them'; but since you don't think everyone has to agree with me, you're still misguided and weak in your 'faith'."

    In response to your own question, "Are Christian atrocities to be weighted more heavily than Pagan ones?" Robin replies, "Yes, they are. Christians don't accept the truth of the Gods; their violence is based on lies, on emptiness. That makes their atrocities TEN times worse, at least." Here again, we have declarations of Truth as a determining factor (I suppose this means a murder in the name of Jesus, is ten times worse than a murder committed in the name of Tiwaz).

    The point of my analysis of Robin's post is to point out the striking similarities between his claims that he knows the Truth and thus is allowed to indulge in certain behaviors or beliefs that might otherwise seem intolerant or violent, and the claims of Christians who insist that their Truth allows them to do the exact same thing. An insistence on the integrity of a tradition is quite distinct from a claim to "knowing" the "Truth." In short, what I'm pointing out is that it is possible to be a Pagan conservative or a Pagan fundamentalist. And that both Christian fundamentalism and Pagan fundamentalism are reactions to the same processes within modernity that create a tension between passionately held personal truths, and the fact that others hold equally passionately to personal truths in direct conflict with one's own.

  5. Plus, I don't like my own attitudes of love and tolerance of others to be referred to as "pernicious." Since I'm both a Christian and a liberal, Robin must really think I'm going to the-Indo-European-Polytheistic-Underworld-version of Hell. ;) Or maybe in that case, two wrongs can make a right, and I'm just one of those weak-willed "good people" who is too lazy or frightened to discover his Truth?

  6. Hey, Ali,
    You wrote, "Since I'm both a Christian and a liberal, Robin must really think I'm going to the-Indo-European-Polytheistic-Underworld-version of Hell. ;) Or maybe in that case, two wrongs can make a right, and I'm just one of those weak-willed "good people" who is too lazy or frightened to discover his Truth?"

    I don't think Robin's actual opinions are nearly as extreme as this most recent post would tend to show. I think he's guilty of rhetorical overkill, and that, when we called him on that, he backed himself into a corner, verbally, rather than back down. Truly, I have not known his posts overall to reflect intolerance, but rather a very sensitive and nuanced relationship to the Old Gods. I'm thinking, good blogger having a very bad day--though I may be wrong, of course.

    The vehemence of his post, and of many other Pagans' words on the subject of Christianity, reminds me of a theme that's been running through the Quaker blogosphere, recently, on the transition from "spiritual refugee" to "citizen" of a spiritual community. There seem to be a lot of wounded ex-Christians in both the Pagan and Quaker communities, and it's interesting how the observations from the Quaker world seem to relate to the Pagan world, too.

    If you're interested, some good posts on that thread would include Peterson Toscano's Among Friends In N.C., and the always-wonderful Liz Opp's From Spiritual Refugee to Spiritual Citizen.

    I think it is interesting that traffic at my own site peaked when Peter and I were engaging in dialog with the decidedly Christian Quaker Marshall Massey. That exchange was really the first significant spike in comments from Pagans. Why is it, I wonder, that Christianity elicits such strong reactions from non-Christians? I can't help but suspect that, for some, at least, it's their status as former Christians.

  7. Cat, I haven't been a reader of Robin's for very long, so I definitely can't say whether or not that one post reflects his more general opinions. Incidentally, I plan to continue reading his posts, since the few I have read previous to this one were interesting and seemed to be well-researched. On the other hand, I think there is still a possibility that a person can have a "nuanced and sensitive" relationship to their own faith, and still be intolerant of the spiritual traditions of others. I think my overall point remains, that no one is immune--not Christians, and not even Pagans--to a kind of defensive intolerance. There is nothing about Neopaganism that is inherently more tolerant or accepting than the monotheistic traditions. Even if Robin were only having a bad day and allowed himself to be backed into a corner, still... Allowing oneself to get wrapped up defending increasingly strange claims for the sake of supporting the universal appeal of a personal passion is exactly the kind of thing that anyone, of any faith or tradition or spiritual community, can find themselves doing.

    I'm not sure why the Christian-versus-Pagan debate is such a hot topic these days, though there are plenty of people on either side. I always seem to find myself trying to find the middle ground because, for me, Christianity never failed as a spiritual path, only as a socio-political institution caught up in its own dogma. The metaphors and myths of Christ continue to be intriguing. For instance, walking to the bank today, I was listening to Pain of Salvation's song, "Spitfall," which is about the cult of celebrity being built up out of "broken childhoods, broken homes" and the "records of restriction orders, outspoken borderline disorders," and all the forms of self-destruction that celebrities make such a fuss about trying to overcome. (Need I even breathe the name, Paris Hilton? Geezus am I sick of that!) As I listened to the song, it suddenly occurred to me that there was a parallel here with the Christian notion of "grace," and about the mistaken efforts to "build a ladder to heaven" or accumulate wisdom or relationship with Spirit as if it were a commodity that could be earned. This is an idea that, for me, is very much tied to Christian theology. Sometimes I think that Neopaganism is so young that, while it can be complex on a personal level, it is not very complicated on a broad scale. In fact... I'll stop writing here, because I think I'll probably just post a whole new entry about this idea of "grace" and if it has a place in Neopaganism. Hmm...

    Sorry, long long tangent. ;) Anyway, what I mean is, Christianity continues to provide fruitful "ways in" to relationship with the Divine for me, and so I've never had the urge to denounce it or reject it or feel rejected by it. Sadly, other Pagans haven't been so lucky, and the negative emotional associations may very well linger. My best friend grew up going to Catholic school and, as a result, hated Catholicism--it was only after four or five years of constant discussion and sometimes angry arguments that he began to see that I could be both a "mystic" and a Christian. (Though if you ask him, he takes credit for me "abandoning" the Church. Still doesn't want to recognize the distinction between leaving a given organized religion, and rejecting the notion of organized religion completely. ;)

  8. Hi Ali

    I am glad that you have drawn attention to the intolerant strand in contemporary Paganism.

    In fact, from a psychological perspective, it's typical in-group versus out-group behaviour. In order to feel in with the in-group, you have to disparage the out-group as much as possible. (Think of football fans.) I had thought I was seeing less of it, but maybe that's because I mostly go to Interfaith events instead of Pagan moots ;)

    I'm getting a bit fed up with fundamentalist polytheists, to be honest. Unless you believe that every deity is a discrete entity, you just don't cut the mustard, in some people's eyes.

    It sounds as if (and I haven't read the original post) Robin has mistaken the fundamentalists for the whole of Christianity. Sadly they are a highly vociferous group, possibly even a majority, but there are plenty of thinking and genuinely spiritual Christians out there, who are prepared to dialogue.

    I think there are some genuinely helpful spiritual concepts and rituals in Christianity (the idea of grace, the Tenebrae service, the divine made manifest in the person of Christ, the idea of a god who suffers with humanity, for example). There are also some deeply toxic ideas (original sin, homophobia, misogyny, and the idea that Christianity is the only truth, for example). The same could be said for Paganism (human sacrifice, for example). In any complex tradition, there will be good things and bad things.

    I also think your critique of Paganism is right on the money - we need a deeper theology, in my opinion.

    If people from different spiritual traditions can look at each other's traditions and critique them in a constructive way, without getting all defensive, I think this can be really helpful.

  9. PS - who cares whether Jesus was a real historical personage? He's a very powerful god, who appears in vision to lots of people, including Pagans. I have no idea whether Odin was a real historical personage, but he is a real god, and that's what counts. It sounds as if Robin is getting far too hung up on facts, and not exploring the mythic resonance of deities.