Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas!

It's that time of the year again; when paganism, christianity and consumerism collide. And just like a three-truck pile-up on a motorway, even those of us without a great identification with any of them find ourselves slowing down and taking in the spectacle.


To be honest, I don't really know what this word means. According to the charming dictionary people of Oxford, a pagan is synonymous with a heathen... which means simply "someone who isn't Christian, Jewish or Moslem". Obviously this isn't very satisfactory. I feel certain that whatever unites Buddhists, Hindus, African Animists, atheists and modern self-styled pagans is too ephemeral to be considered worthy of it's own word... let alone two of them.

Yet, being a friend of several self-proclaimed "pagans", there seems to be a great deal of disagreement amongst even them as to what the word means. The beliefs of one pagan don't often match the beliefs of another, and indeed often seem rather more fluid and ill-defined than the dogmatic / sacred-text religions against which the nice folks of Oxford would contrast them.

So would it be fair - therefore - to describe paganism simply as "spirituality without the dogma"? Religion without a book? Again though... it's hardly satisfactory... it still lumps Buddhists and Hindus and Animists and self-proclaimed Pagans together (only the strictest of atheists escape), and I don't feel there's enough to unite the beliefs of all those people beneath a single banner.

Perhaps we should merely extend Oxford's definition... pagans are those with a "spiritual belief system" who are outside the Big Five (Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism). After all, surely Animism can be considered a form of paganism? Can't it?

Well, no. It can't.

Modern paganism - thanks to the lack of ancient texts, the only paganism we can truly know anything about - is a very different beast to traditional animism, as still practiced in much of Africa, parts of America (north and south) and Asia. Modern paganism has no tradition and is instead a set of individual beliefs derived primarily from the speculation of 18th and 19th century English academics and poets, and informed by the modern environmental movement.

This is not meant to denigrate paganism in particular. A spiritual belief based upon the speculation of 18th century Romantic poets and current ecological theory is just as valid as a spiritual belief based upon the writings of 1st century or 6th century or pre-Common Era mystics.


On the surface, this appears to be an easier one to define and understand. But as the many disagreements with my flat-mate demonstrate; appearances can be deceiving. Having had a strict Christian upbringing (within the Roman Catholic tradition) it's my view that Christianity is found in books. A Christian is essentially a person who follows a set of rules and beliefs laid down in specific texts (and not merely "the bible" either; Catholicism - for instance - is a form of Christianity informed both by the bible, and the bible as interpreted by certain theologians... Saint Thomas Aquinas being the foremost of course).

My flat-mate (amongst others), however, would argue that Christianity can be better defined as the amalgamation of beliefs and behaviours of those who consider themselves christians. It isn't, therefore, what's found in the texts. Rather it's the visible manifestation of those texts.

Whilst studying theology, I always found the distinction between 'sacred-text' religions and other belief systems to be an essential one. Indeed it is the primary distinguishing feature of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Individual interpretation is irrelevant to these religions, which makes it possible for a christian to act in a non-christian manner. So long as a modern pagan doesn't openly admit to contravening their own belief-system, it is impossible to describe them as "unpagan"... for "pagan" is simply what they define it to be. A modern christian, however, who fails to "turn the other cheek" is clearly acting in an unchristian manner for example (cf. Dubya Bush, Tony Blair, et al).

There is a clear set of rules which must be followed in order to be acting in a christian manner. And failing to follow those rules ("forgive us those who trespass against us") means that one is betraying one's christianity. Just because Dubya Bush claims to be a Christian and claims to have God on his side, does not make cluster bombs "christian". Sacred text religions allow a person's actions to be judged against an ideal. That is what makes them what they are.


Now this one is uncontroversial. Let me restate that... the definition of this one is uncontroversial. Consumerism is a modern socio-cultural system derived from the economic system known as "capitalism". This is not to say that a form of consumerism couldn't have developed out of some other economic system. But historically we have what we have.

In essence, consumerism tells us that the consumption of products and services gained through economic exchange is a primary function of individual members of society. Indeed it goes further; it implies that such consumption is one of the primary purposes of individuals within society, and confers fulfillment to those individuals who engage in it.

The Collision

There's no question that a dedicated capitalist-consumerist cannot at the same time be a good christian. There's far too much decrying of material wealth and attachments within the sacred texts of christianity to allow a life dedicated to the consumption of economically-derived products and services to be considered anything other than unchristian.

Similarly, modern paganism - though undefinable - is clearly informed by modern environmentalism. And one cannot be a good capitalist-consumerist without doing unnecessary environmental damage.

And finally, it's clear that Christianity - whatever else it is - is a rejection of all forms of paganism. By locating itself within a dogmatic text (or texts) christianity refuses the individual's right to define their own spirituality. The only interpretations considered valid are those provided by a qualified or appointed member of the clergy. "Picking and choosing" those christian rules which best suit the individual is not the christian way.

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, however, this collision of three entirely incompatible belief systems is a culturally special time, even for those of us who fail to subscribe to any of them. It's a time of hope; a time when our common humanity - whatever our beliefs - should be celebrated; a time of peace and goodwill to all men and women.

So please dear reader... have a very Merry Christmas!


Anonymous Andy said...

Very interesting post, I'm glad you've been inspired to write again even, if it had to be by Christmas! :)

26/12/05 14:39  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent thoughtful post. So much better than the "I went to a party and ate many pieces of cake" blogs.
Interesting comments about christianity. Its clearly a "cafeteria" religion, meaning that its members claim to embrace the bible yet pick and choose the parts they embrace/reject. The bible says, for example, that women must not be allowed to teach, that a rebelous son should be stoned to death, and thats its ok to beat your slave to death as long as the slave doesnt die within 2 days of the beating.
Ok, enough picking on christianity for one post. Congrats on a cool blog.

28/12/05 05:21  
Blogger L said...

Happy New Year.... here's hoping that this year will be better than the last one...

3/1/06 01:55  
Blogger zoe said...

thanks for that jim - very nice reading. warmest warmest wishes to you x

anonymous - what sort of parties have cake? i must start going to some of those.

3/1/06 21:51  
Blogger Ryan said...

Welcome back!

I read something recently, maybe it was by milan kundera, which distinguished between judaism and christianity on the basis that Judiasm was about following rules, buy Christianity gave much more room for manouvre. "Love god and do what you will" someone said.

And of course Christianity is famous for the idea that you get forgiven for just about anything you've done and go to heaven if you are a good enough believer, and get cast into the fires of hell if you don't belive, even if you accidentally happened to live a very christian life. That's my educated interpretation ...

Anyway, I don't know if I am driving at any particular point. I bought my girlfriend 50 fruit trees and some mosquito nets for xmas, which will be distributed among some lucky poor folk, and she bought me a goat. I mainly did it to see the disgusted look on my dad's face when I told him.

5/1/06 17:31  
Blogger custom said...

Awesome post, I will be a daily visitor from now on!


13/3/11 04:39  

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