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Volume 7, Issue 5: Disputatio

Gods and Goddesses

Douglas Jones and Diane Conn Darling

Ancient paganism and biblical faith have long stood in sharp contrast to each other. In recent decades, pagan motifs about femininity/masculinity have played an increasing role in Christian discussions about God, Scripture, and leadership. At the same time, Neopaganism -- a contemporary revitalization of paganism -- has enjoyed a resurgence throughout the country.

In the following discussion, the managing editor of Credenda/Agenda, Douglas Jones and Diane Conn Darling discuss the philosophical conflicts between Neopaganism and Christianity.
Diane Conn Darling is the editor of The Green Man, a magazine which explores paths for pagan men (Box 641, Point Arena, CA 95468). She has been active in the American Neopagan movement for over a decade as a writer, editor, ritualist, and lay priestess. She is also a Buddhist, a family practice nurse, and the mother of a grown son, Zachariah. She lives in rural, northern California in a multi-species household and practices simple living as a religious path.
DJ: Devotees of the goddess Gaiathose "true" pagans dedicated to reviving goddess consciousness as found in, among other traditions, Canaanitic Ashera worshipappear to speak at cross purposes. They regularly assume standards of truth and morality in rejecting the masculinity of the biblical worldview with all its "negativity" of transcendence, monotheism, commandments, etc . Yet they often simultaneously claim that no one knows truth and that all religious expressions are human products. Many embrace goddess worship because it satisfies their desires about life. But if truth is a human construct, then how can they so dogmatically reject Christianity? If truth is more than personal whim, then how can they so automatically trust their imaginations?
DCD: Neopagans hold the ideal of a return to balance to correct the dire environmental and societal problems which face all creatures of the Earth. To this end, we emphasize the feminine face of divinity, the Goddess, because She has been lost to us for so long. Perhaps in the early days we overreacted, to the point of ignoring or even disparaging the masculine face of divinity, the God. However, today we know that it is the love of the Lady and the Lord together that comprises the field of existence, literally and figuratively. Our critique of Christianity is based on its exclusion of the feminine principle, immanent deity, and intuitive ethics and wisdom.
DJ: That was helpful. You say "today we know" that the "Lady and the Lord" together comprise "the field of existence." Can we ask for reasons for such a belief? Why should someone be inclined to hold to the neopagan understanding of the immanent Lady and Lord? And perhaps relatedly, can you say a little more about what you mean by "intuitive ethics and wisdom." Does this intuitive ethic really allow for your opening, rather universal ethical judgment about environmental and societal imbalance? That judgment seems to assume some sort of absolute standard of balance.
DCD: The Neopagan model for divine Creation is based on biology and physics. To our pre-industrial ancestors the single most important event was the harvest. They observed that with animals, ourselves included, it takes a male and a female to create young, though this was long a mystery about plants, whose propagation was (correctly) viewed as miraculous until relatively recent times. Today physicists have demonstrated that it is the attraction of negative and positive polarities for each other that binds infinitely small particles or waves into three dimensional matter. This, and other manifestations, such as photosynthesis, we hold sacred as the immanent Love of the Lord and the Lady, and thus know Creation is holy.
DJ: But couldn't such evidence lead someone to nonpagan conclusions as well? Materialists would have no reason to infer anything beyond more matter from such evidence, and others could say that human reproduction suggests a transcendent Godafter all, a child is not identical to its parents. From another angle, the Christian Scriptures take the pagan divinization of creation as evidence of culpable denial and rebellionperhaps the prime example of those "who exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (Rom. 1:25). Since neopagan evidence is rather inconclusive, doesn't neopaganism need to ensure that it's not just another attempt at rebellion?
DCD: Certainly! We welcome such diversity of thought. But Neopagans long for a personal relationship and identity with deity, so we personify or otherwise invest the miracle of existence in forms we can love, visualize, pray to, give thanks to, and celebrate. Nested in the godforms and sacred stories of our ancestors we find wisdom and courage to carry on and hold hope for a green tomorrow. Paleopagan (extant and extinct polytheistic cultures undisrupted by monotheistic overlays) folk can hardly be accused of rebellion, considering they predate the monotheist invaders, Hebrew, Buddhist or Christian. And, yes, there's a touch of the rebel, the outlaw, the hidden ones, in today's Neopagans. You bet! We're good ones, too!
DJ: But my comments above didn't suggest simple diversity, they suggested that the reasons for embracing Neopaganism were very poor and inconclusive. Is it at all possible, from your perspective, that the Neopagan worldview is utterly false and immoral? Or is it just an imaginary human construction that people hold to whether or not it's true or false? Your judgments about existence, wisdom, courage, etc. all assume that Neopaganism is true. Even your claim that polytheists predated monotheists assumes that Hebrew-Christianity is false and Neopaganism is true. So what sort of evidence would Neopagans accept as revealing the falsity of their worldview?
DCD: The nature of your challenge illustrates a fundamental difference between Christian (and other scripture-based and/or revealed) theisms, and the more fluid outlook of today's Neopagans. You contend that if A is true, B must be falseutterly. My stance is if A is true for you, and B is true for me, ain't life grand! That polytheistic cultures predate the various monotheistic faiths doesn't make the newer religions false. Neopaganism is only about forty years old, but it would take a complete reversal of the laws of Nature and physics and a refutation of human history and of the evidence of several major branches of science to make this worldview false for Neopagans.
DJ : This response appears to confirm my opening point. You begin by claiming that truth is fluid and subjective and personal, but then you close with a defense of a very nonfluid and nonsubjective notion of truth which is at least open to refutation. Which is it? If every claim can be "true for you and true for me," then evidence and argument are out the window. In response to any counterargument, Neopagans could always say, "Well, it's true for me." Are you really willing to agree that Neopagan prescriptions about "dire environmental and societal problems" are just personal fancies? Was the morality of the "Burning Times" of the pagans just a matter of personal preference?
DCD: Religious truth is subjective and personal, in that every individual interprets the evidence of the senses, heart, and, in some religions, of scripture, to construct a model of the universe that works for that person. For Neopagans, this worldview is under constant revision as additional data become available on the nature of the three dimensional world, and as rituals and other practices give rise to insight and inspiration. We see no virtue in attempting to refute what your heart and scripture tell you, other than as friendly intellectual repartee. Our frames of reference overlap with the inner teachings of Jesus Christ and a few other historical persons. Beyond that, we are singing from different hymnals.
DJ: Here you've made a very bold declaration for truth being subjective, but you don't appear to be able to live with such a claim. From the beginning, you have also spoken as if truth were objective. You have appealed to laws of nature, the findings of science and history, and moral absolutes. If truth is subjective, then you can't legitimately appeal to any of those things. If truth is subjective, then you can't morally object to the burning of pagans, since such a condemnation would assume an objective moral standard. You yourself appealed to what "works for that person." If Neopagans can't live up to their professed subjectivism, then isn't their view most impractical?
DCD : I maintain that religious truth is a subjective amalgam of history, folk wisdom, contemporary facts, individual and collective fantasies (including political expedients), personal experiences and numinous events. The Inquisition/Burning Times is representative of moral disharmonies between Christians and Pagans which continue into the present. From our point of view, these centuries were characterized by brutal imperialism, as the Church, abetted by various States, attempted to consolidate to itself Europe's peoples, rich lands and cities, healing professions, and access to deity. In subsequent centuries this cultural genocide has been expanded to the New World and much of Asia and Africa. Religious conversion by fire and rifle qualifies as immoral in my book, whatever the scriptural rationale.
DJ : Doesn't your latest response just confirm my previous objection? You open by asserting that truth is subjective and relative and then immediately appeal to objective and absolute moral standards to condemn the Burning Times. If truth were really subjective, you should speak of "cultural genocide" in the way some might disagree over ice cream flavors"Some like genocide; others don't. It's all subjective; don't be so judgmental." That's what subjectivism looks like, but you don't appear to be able to live with your worldview. Aren't you arguing like a closet Christian, invoking absolute moral standards while rejecting their foundation? Neopagan subjectivism robs you of any universal moral standards to condemn genocide or anything.
DCD : Religious truth is a highly personal thing. That is why it is so exciting and inspiring to meet with people with whom we share aspects of our religious truth. For example, amongst Neopagan rainbow-like diversity of thought, the Wiccan Rede is subscribed to by a very great majority. The distillation of it is this: "An' it harm none, do as you will." This is an ideal standard of behavior in the light of which we consider our actions. It offers us perfect freedom to do our own will, as long as it is not harmful to others, ourselves, the Earth, nor any other sentient being. Though every action has consequences, the Rede keeps us compassionate. It is our moral gold standard.
DJ : Notice the pattern here. I opened by pointing out that Neopaganism is simultaneously devoted to truth as relative and nonrelative. You answered in a nonrelativistic manner by giving objective reasons for your worldview. When I challenged that, you turned to defend relativism. Now you are back to defending nonrelativism, specifically an "ideal standard of behavior." I think this standard fails to meet your own needs since it requires a person to be omniscientshort term compassion could turn into long term harm. But the bigger problem looming here is a Neopagan worldview which swings, pendulum fashion, from relativism to nonrelativism and back again. Why can't Neopaganism live up to its own claims?
DCD : You are correct in noting that Neopagans recognize more than one kind of personal religious truth. Increasing availability of sacred texts of the world's great religions, including Christian writings, has stimulated a great flowering of modern theological thought. Many Neopagans are well-read and fond of discourse. We know from our love of science how even "facts" change as human understanding increases. Our models for the divine Universe are responsive to the world around us, where our scripture is found. Our idea is a green and fully conscious Planet, harmless, free will activity, perfect love and trustare directions in which we diligently progress, remembering that to err is human, to forgive, divine.
DJ: Once again, if truth is subjective, then this list of objective valuesharmlessness, love, trustare empty fictions. If my worldview undermined itself in the way Neopaganism does, I would have to rethink my commitmentsespecially if I realized that Christianity explains that those who worship the creation instead of the Creator naturally fall into such basic worldview confusions (Romans 1:18-32). Neopaganism appears to be another fulfillment of the biblical depiction of rebellion against the one, true God. Shouldn't that give some pause to Neopagans? Our only hope out of such alienation is Christ, the victorious, sacrificial, God-Man who appeases the Father's just wrath and transforms us by the Holy Spirit. Why continue to rebel against the goodness of God with a self-defeating worldview?
Diane, thank you so much for your willingness to participate and your openness in discussing these issues. I know you take them seriously, as do I. I wish you the best.

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