Friday, January 18, 2013

Ol’ Wassisname and Paganism

Bless their robotic little hearts, eblogger isn't letting me upload pics just now... Here's this anyway.

“You can’t worship Jesus Christ and be a Pagan.” So sayeth Sam Webster in his provocative new blog. Sam is proposing that we consciously take up the mission of restoring the worship of the many gods and spirits to the modern world. He feels, as do I, that a dose of polytheism, respect for the human spirit and celebration of embodied reverence would be good for the ol’ culture. He asserts that a part of that process will involve the growth and clarification of just what in the Three Worlds ‘Paganism’ actually is. That will involve making some yes-and-no choices, which will inevitably make some folks feel less identified with the results. (To me that is simply the eggs for the omelet.) It is in context of what Paganism is and is not that Sam made the above rather direct statement. 
Of course many folks objected to the assertion. Objectively, lots of pretty-obviously Pagan people occasionally worship Jesus. Jesus is a name to conjure by in various folk-magic, and some folks come out of a Christian upbringing with a fondness for the figure. The problem, of course, is the cultural and theological baggage that is part and parcel of the god Jesus.

I am skeptical that gods have a true nature separate from their cultural construction (humans either, really). I see no use in looking for a ‘historical’ Jesus separate from the figure in the Gospel tales – those tales are certainly the best source concerning his history. Gnosticism doesn’t appeal to me and my Pagan path has pretty much led me to discard the whole notion of ‘salvation’. At this point even ‘enlightenment’ seems like a spiritual option for certain sorts of specialists, not something that everyone needs. The world is a good enough place to just dwell in blessing for most folks.

Many people seem to think that there’s a huge difference between the ‘real’ Jesus and the figure worshipped by Christians. I disagree. I do reject the idea that jesus is a literary construct made in imitation of Pagan mystery cults. The evidence plainly indicates an existing historical figure. WE can agree, perhaps, that the gospel tales are mythologized, however let’s realize that the only materials we have to base a historical Jesus upon are the Gospels. The gnostic books show a slightly different figure, certainly a different set of doctrines, but they are universally admitted to be later and more derivative than the canonical books (Barring perhaps a couple of things, like Thomas and the unedifying Gospel of Peter). So if we are going to look at the historical Jesus we must look at the guy in the Bible. I think he looks like the sort of guy who would invent Christianity.
I’ve never been that impressed by the person Jesus seems to have been. First, let’s just discard the idea that he was a man with a special line to the divine. Of course in my polytheism there is no ‘God the Father’ in the biblical sense, and so no ‘son’ of that figure. I don’t really deal with the notion of prophets, instead preferring systems that teach each member how to have a line to the gods and spirits on our own.  So, I have nothing invested in the idea that Jesus had some special authority or voice. I must examine his words and works on their merit.
I agree with Morton Smith that Jesus was what has been called a ‘wonder-working rabbi’. Smith makes a good case for Jesus as a user of magical methods related to the PGM. The type wasn’t uncommon in the first-century century Roman world. A mage or mystic would arise, combining a body of doctrinal teaching with magical powers of healing and the mastery over demons. Those methods were among the most important healing modalities available in those days, and a new healer with successes would always draw a crowd. What seems clear, if the outline of the Gospel accounts is to be credited, is that Jesus was good at both the preaching and the healing. In any case the ability to do real healing remained central to the appeal of Christianity through the early centuries.
As a preacher the most common topic of Jesus’ discourse, by number of references, is to righteousness and punishment. More ‘verses’ of his words concern those topics than any other. To me it is plain that as a mystic Jesus expected the world of his day to end promptly, being rescued and remade by ‘God’ into the image of righteousness. I would guess that his preaching regularly contained admonitions to be prepared for end-times and judgment – to ‘get right with God’.
A great deal is made, sometimes, of Jesus ministry to the poor, and his willingness to ignore taboos and eat with the unclean. I’m sure the sense of righteous mission that would lead one to break taboos to spread one’s message is admirable, in a way. However I think it is clear that the reason Jesus went among the poor was to preach to them; again, not so different from his inheritors. He didn’t forgive sin without the admonition to ‘go and sin no more’. Jesus seems like the sort of guy who would do you a favor and then use your gratitude to tell you what to do.
He certainly was high-handed and insulting to those whose beliefs he disagreed with. He was a Pharisee of a sort, himself, doctrinally. However he plainly had issues with the temple priesthood, and was publically insulting to them. One suspects they were in turn unimpressed by the unregulated desert mystic.
On the good side, Jesus was a follower of the school of Rabbi HillelHillel, who died approx. 10bce, taught that compassion and reciprocity were more valuable than the letter of the Torah law, and encouraged the replacement of sacrifices with ritual prayers. Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness, the spirit of the law, and ‘agape’ love can all be found in Hillel before him. Jesus seems to have translated Hillel’s cautions about the spirit of the law into a disdain for the keepers of that law in his time, and combined it with a millennial (as we might say now) vision of the destruction and rectification of the world.
Now, what about the whole “Jesus-as-Tiferet” thingy? Many modern mystic freethinkers seem to find inspiration in the figure of Jesus as the ‘divine descended to mortality, then sacrificed for the sake of its own immortality’. When Christianity manages to focus on those mysteries I think it can approach the sublime. However there isn’t anything that unique or unusual in it. In many ways it simply reprises the core mystery of sacrifice and blessing that is the heart of Pagan ritual religion. We give, so that the spirits may give.
On a more history-of-Paganism level, I think that Hermetic Qabalah is of little value to modern Pagan theology. I know it is practically doctrinal in some sectors, but my own opinion is that GD Qabalah is a confusion of bad mythography, renaissance Neo-Platonism and Jungian reductionism. I am quite certain that it cannot assist in understanding and worshipping the gods and spirits of the Pagan Celts or Germans. I am almost as sure that it distorts and confuses understanding of Hellenic and Egyptian pantheons as well.
In the same way scholarship doesn’t take the Frazerian notion of the ‘Dead-and-Risen-Corn-King’ very seriously anymore. In general the scholarship upon which Crowley based his aeonic model has all been deflated and left behind with Margaret Murray. So there is really no more need in Paganism for the Salvific Son than there is for the Great Adversary. (That simplistic statement ignores all kinds of specific examples of gods who save this group or that from this enemy or that. Many gods are called ‘soter’ – savior – but I think you knew what I meant…) In any case the ‘center’ of most Euro-Pagan pantheons isn’t at all like the ideas contained in the HQ Tiferet.
For me it comes down to asking what point the Jesus-god would have in my pantheon? If I feel a need for unconditional love or compassion, I turn to the Mother of All, not to some prophet type. If I need magic power I appeal to the Lord of Wisdom; for healing to a healing god. Of course one can often get all those things from whichever of the gods and spirits one is in close relationship with.
I don’t usually feel a need for a ‘god of rescue’ – someone I can call upon if I’m in trouble. For immediate things that’s what my familiars are for, and I’ve asked various gods for various emergency aid over the years. I don’t have an eschatology in which I need the special favor of a particular god to get the best deal in the afterlife, so that doesn’t enter in. If I want an iniator and psychopomp, I know who to ask.
I know of some magicians who approach Jesus as a powerful ‘saint’ – an ancient spirit who will answer prayers and offerings with blessings. Certainly I might number him among the Wise Dead, in the way we Druids formulate such things. I’m far from certain he would enjoy sharing my Shrine with the Dead and the Goddesses. If he was a man of his time he seems to have been a righteous and observant Judean, within his understanding of the spirit of the law and his own authority. If we modern Pagans are to be careful to avoid putting the wrong two gods of the same pantheon together on a Shrine (Is it Oya and Yemaja?) it seems equally sensible to avoid placing deities from hostile systems together. Judaism was a system hostile to its neighbors’ polytheism (and actively proselytizing against it in the Roman empire) and Jesus was a player in that Judaism. So, as one of the Dead, he isn’t exactly a spiritual ancestor of mine.
Categorical statements of what Paganism is or is not are premature at this time. However, I see no use for Jesus in Paganism, and plenty of ways in which his presence makes no sense. I agree with Sam in the mission of creating institutional polytheism in modern society, and that will require some more concrete statements of identity. It’s fine with me to leave Jesus outside of them.


Alorer said...

*clap clap clap*

Excellent post. I agree almost wholeheartedly. Thanks for writing this. :)

GreenFlame said...

This is a great post, intellectually; too bad that it's simply not accurate for people who have had powerful experiences with SomeOne Out There who answers to the name "Jesus" when they call that Name. I have healer friends, neither Christian per se (they neither believe nor adhere to any Bible-based creed or doctrine) nor Pagan, who have a working relationship with Jesus, or again, SomeOne Out There who answers to that name -- and the Person who answers just doesn't resemble what you wrote. Matter of fact, I've called that Name myself in the context of doing healing work for some Christian clients, and Whoever answered was not consistent with this intellectual analysis.

I have not read Webster's post; I'll be interested to see if he's had personal experience with a Spirit who answers to the name "Jesus" and if that informed his opinions.

I asked "Jesus" one time about me worshiping other Deities. He was quite okay with it, although "He" also indicated that working with him was more productive if it was .... "monogamous" was the feel. Others' mileage has varied on that also, however.

We love our labels and we love our carefully-reasoned opinions, but spiritual experience trumps both.

Scott Martin said...

Basically what I came here to say, except that I don't have the personal relationship that you do.

Ian: if the Gods have no nature apart from their cultural construction, then I find it very difficult to understand how modern Paganism is having relationships with beings that appear to (a) exist and (b) be genuinely interested in our good, which contradict the two prevalent modern cultural conceptions of the Gods (I.e. as imaginative figments or as demons).

IanC said...

Scott - I didn't say that very well.I could have expanded to a paragraph about how I doubt the existence of 'transcendant' beings who are not manifested directly as the gods of cultures. That's one reason why I'm not a cabalist - I don't think the forces transcend the personal gods. Eh... that isn't very good either...

I have several models of how Pagans can be doing what we're doing, though I don't attach certainty to any of them. It never occurred to me to think of the Christo-secular pop culture as an influence on how the spirits appear to us... that culture is so far removed from my mental spaces these days.

GreenFlame: As to the existence of some non-Christian Jesus spirit, I find that entirely likely. I have certainly observed that some Pagans like to have a being named Jesus in their personal pantheon. Again, I didn't head for the metaphysics here, but we might discuss how often some spirit adopts a name and form that make a certain point to the mortal with whom it communicates. If the being has no relationship with traditional Christianity, isn't the fact that it is named 'Jesus' just a coincidence?

I've said several times that I see the current wave of Neopaganism as the compost from which modern polytheist religions can grow in the next couple of centuries. My own inclination is to control the content of that compost to exclude what I see as undesirable elements of abrahamic religion. However there's no predicting which of the spirits will make themselves important to us - our descendants may yet be worshipping some antlered Jesus on a flowering cross...

As you say, personal experience trumps doctrine. However one can't make a movement out of one's personal experiences. We will require intellectually-devised ideas and models, which will be frequently ignored in practice, as they are in every world religion.