Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tolerance has many faces

"You have to help me," my friend implored me, "I don't know what do to! My daughter - your god-daughter - doesn't want to join us in circle. She says she wants to go to... Sunday school!"
I considered briefly what was going on. The girl in question was raised by pagan parents in a pagan household. Mom is Wiccan, Dad follows his Native American heritage. The parents observe the Wiccan sabbats, heavily flavored with Native American spirituality.
Mom was adamant that her daughter's interest in Christianity was unacceptable, and that I should talk to the girl and open her eyes. She IS my god-daughter; not only did I accept responsibility for her spiritual guidance if needed, but I had been present, by invitation, in the delivery room when she came into the world.
According to Wikipedia, a godparent is defined thus: "Traditionally, godparents were informally responsible for ensuring the child's religious education was carried out, and for caring for the child should it be orphaned. Today, the word godparent might not have explicitly religious overtones. The modern view of a godparent tends to be an individual chosen by the parents to take an interest in the child's upbringing and personal development"
So as the girl's godfather, my role is to see that her religious education is provided for, and to take care of her should both parents be unable to do so. Well, I know what matters to me spiritually, but I also know that we are all individual people with thoughts and ideas of our own. So I asked her - the daughter - what she thought about it all.
"Well, I do listen to my parents views," she told me, "but I want to go my own path. Only because none of the things they teach me strikes me spirtitually. And I do let them teach me. I participate in what they do, but I don't believe it. I just don't think it makes sense. But the church I am currently going to is amazing. It's not Baptist so they don't yell that you are going to hell for every breathe you breathe wrong, or every time you trip (haha) But they only explain the values of what God did, how much He loves the world, and the things to do to respect Him. And see that makes sense to me, because you can relate a little." 
Mom's insistence that the girl's interest in Christianity is a bad thing, got me to thinking.
The girl is in her early teens. She grew up around pagans, raised by pagans, and the pagan household is all she's known. So she's being a little rebellious, and exploring other possibilities out there.

Many pagans I've met come from Christian households or childhoods, and turned away from the church at some point, after hitting a roadblock, finding unanswerable questions, or simply feeling that it didn't 'fit' them anymore. We all know people who have reached this same conclusion and left the church behind them, some peacefully, others not so much. (At some future point I'll write a blog about my own views on the matter, and why I am not Christian.)
For many pagans, the Christian church symbolizes overbearing, unyielding dogma, doctrine or philosophy; a demand for obedience we are unwilling or unable to provide; and (or perhaps or) a spiritual foundation that is in opposition to our core principles. The degree of disappointment, distate, loathing, rejection, or outright hatred that some pagans feel toward the Christian church is almost palpable aspect of their spiritual path. Not all, but some; others simply feel that they 'didn't belong there.' But a common objection I encounter regarding the church is that they don't have a right to preach to others, to 'shove it down our throats'. I must agree that aggressive, in-your-face fundamentalism ultimately helps nobody, not even - if they stop to think about it - the ones doing the preaching.  
And many pagans, in wanting to assert their independence from such hierarchy, will demand tolerance and acceptance of their pagan leanings. "There must be tolerance!" they cry, "You must be tolerant of my right to be pagan!"
"But," I humbly suggest, "are you being tolerant of their right to be Christian?"

So back to the mother and her daughter. Mom has her own ideas about paganism and religion, and wants what is - in her eyes - the best for her daughter. (And I've known her since she was in her teens, she was a rebellious youth herself.) I am her godfather, and I want what's best for her as well. And I did accept the responsibility of, if needed, seeing to her religious education. But is it my responsibility to force her to accept a religion that she finds unfulfilling? I'd be no better than the in-your-face preachers. She's just trying to branch out on her own, find her own path. Will she embrace the church she's going to? Is she merely enjoying the attention of her friends and peers in the Youth Groups offered by the church she is attending? Will she find, somewhere down the line, that it's not where she wants to be, and explore something else? Only the girl, herself, has the right to say.Our job, as her parents and godparents, is to help her grow into the person she wants to be, even if that's not the person we imagined when she was born. We just have to make sure she doesn't get hurt along the way. 

To her mother, and others who demand understanding of their belief and right to practice, I ask if the tolerance they request is reflected in the tolerance they afford others.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

An Open Relationship with God

"Do you believe in God?" someone asked me once. Actually I get asked that question rather frequently, living as I do in the deep south, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Well, Concord, but who's counting.
I gave the person a grin and said, "I love that question - because I have so many ways of looking at it."
""Huh?" he asked, confused. I wasn't playing the game right. By his question, "Do you believe in God?", he was challenging me to accept or deny Jesus Christ as my personal savior. I knew this was where we were going, but he'd asked me the question so it was time for my answer.
"Well by looking at the question from my perspective, there are so many variables to consider.
One: 'Do I believe in God?' means, "Do I accept the existence of divinity as a force present in our lives?" By that reckoning, Yes I do. I believe that gods do indeed exist.
Two: 'Do I believe in God?'means, "Do I accept the existence of - I'm sure this is where you were heading - Jehovah, Yahweh, Jesus Christ, etc. Yes I do. There are myriad pantheons of gods all across human culture, and I do believe they exist - and therefore I do believe the Christian pantheon exists as well.
Three: 'Do I believe in God?' - we're narrowing the field even more closely, but I think this is where you wanted me to go. 'Have I accepted Jesus Christ as my sole and absolute savior and divine force, to the existence of all others?' There, the answer would have to be No."
My friend wanted to give me the smug smile that I'd been trapped, but my previous answers still had him confused. So I offered him a consolation.
"Yes, Yahweh, Christ, all of that, are real gods. I have no problem with that. And as a pantheist Wiccan, I recognize their legitimacy in the grand scheme of things. But my personal devotion belongs to one God: Cernunnos, the forest lord revered by many modern Celtics."
He'd never heard of this 'Kernoo-something' fellow, so it was obviously something evil. 'Cos we all know, if it ain't Jesus, it's evil. Black or whte, no shades of grey.
"But," I went on, "I have an open relationship with God. While my devotion is to Cernunnos, I am allowed to see other Gods."
His head was visibly smoking by now, and his eyes were beginning to cross.
"Having an open relationship with God means that I can visit other gods, other pantheons - as long as they're cool with it - if the need arises. If a dear friend who follows an Egyptian pantheon wants help with her sick cat, Bast is the first one I turn to. If a Heathen friend is having trouble with fertility, Freyja is on speed dial. If a Christian friend wants help, then I look to Jesus for guidance in helping him. But at the end of the day, Cernunnos is where my heart is."
My friend was looking for a quick exit - his 'entrapment' question so hadn't worked.
"So do I believe in God? Emphatically yes! The trick is to understand the question. And, for me, to have an open relationship with God."