I recently ran across an article by a Pagan leader named Sam Webster called, "Why You Can't Worship Jesus Christ and Be Pagan." (Yes, it's from 2013. I've never been one who's on the cutting edge of anything, so... whatever. I just go with things as they come to me.) The ideas in this article fascinated me, and I want to try my hand at unpacking them. (Webster expounded on his article in an interview, on this podcast: http://disinfo.com/2014/06/datc-044-cant-worship-jesus-christ-pagan-sam-webster/)
As a disclosure, I'm not Pagan, nor do I any longer feel safe identifying as a Christian, so my opinions are going to be more philosophical than personal. I'm interested in exploring these concepts, not prescribing boundaries.
The essence of the article is that because Christianity has consistently sought to exterminate Paganism throughout history, either by conversion or by execution, the spirit of Christianity is incompatible with Paganism. Many good points are made, and I can totally see where he's coming from. What I'm interested in, though, are the cracks and crevices in his arguments; the nuances on the edges of his monolithic declarations (which, to be honest, came across as thumpy in places).
First, let's just acknowledge that Webster presents a very narrow view of Church history and severely oversimplifies its complicated relationship with political power. Let's also acknowledge that he ignores the HUGE subject of how religious syncretism has affected Christianity, in both directions, in and out. For having seminary and history degrees, he really should know this stuff; that he ignored these things is baffling.
The main thing I want to focus on, though, is the ramifications for his arguments of his obvious conception of gods and goddesses as literal entities. (As opposed, perhaps, to a kind of Jungian psychological approach, where deities are really archetypes — elements of the human psyche, endogenous creatures that take life in our collective imaginations.) That there are literal, exogenous spirits who can imbue physical bodies (besides being a fun and/or scary thing to turn over in my mind) is really what makes this article challenging to unpack. I don't know where I stand on that issue. Are there actually intelligent spiritual entities, separate from ourselves, whom humans label as god/desses, or are these actually psychological projections, or is it some mix of the two, or is it something else altogether? I do not know.
But let's assume there are literal spirits, in order to address this article. Because we need to know the nature of these spirits he believes in. Are spirits (or, more specifically, is the spirit of Jesus Christ) eternal? Because if so, that would mean that Jesus existed before the rise of Christianity. (Which makes you wonder where Webster believes Jesus was before that, and what he was doing.) Can the fundamental nature of spirits change over time? So could, say, Venus, one day decide she's bored with being seductive, and instead focus more on, oh, traveling or something? Or is Venus immutably seductive, because goddesses/gods don't change? Likewise, if Jesus is a god whose nature is to eradicate culture and destroy dissenters (as Webster claims), was Jesus always this way? Will he always be this way? Or was he maybe more peaceful at one time (say, during the time when Christians were being persecuted by, ahem, people who worshiped multiple deities), and later evolved to be more wrathful? Unpacking the theology of what Webster means when he talks about the spirit of Jesus really affects the validity of his arguments.
If I had to, today, decide how I wanted to understand what goddess/god spirits are, I would probably choose a conception similar to Plato's Forms. Spirits are concepts, often universal concepts such as harmony, division, communication, and so on, that imbue the physical world. So anything beautiful is, at least partially, imbued with the goddess Venus. Anything angry or warlike is calling on Mars. And so on. Thus, spirits cannot change, because they are concepts. You can't change the concept of "roundness" or "green," even if you find different words for it or different nuances of it.
And it's important to recognize that the names for these concepts DO change. Not only due to different languages, and linguistic shifts over time, but also, more subtly, due to the co-opting by various cultural elements of certain concepts.
For example, let's take the concept of the struggle for economic freedom for all of humanity. A worthy goal. This concept or spirit (as I'm currently deciding to conceive of the word "spirit") clothes itself in different forms throughout time and place depending on the context. The spirit of universal economic freedom (for the sake of expediency, let's call this spirit Santa Claus, OK?) uses whatever tools it can find to accomplish its goals. In one context, the most expedient tool Santa Claus can use is capitalism, while in another context, communism serves the job much better. It's a crude example, but you can hopefully see my point, that the spirit behind very, very different movements can still be the same.
The Santa Claus impulse, to provide economically for all of humanity, drives very different people and marches under very different, sometimes even opposing, banners at times, based on the culture that surrounds it. Now, let's say Santa Claus merged with Capitalism for awhile, because Capitalism was able to provide a lot of wealth for a wide range of people, and that made Santa Claus happy. But over time Capitalism became corrupted by greedy people who refused to heed to the problems that were developing in the system, and instead collected more and more of the wealth for themselves. Is Capitalism still imbued with Santa Claus? I would say no. At some point Santa Claus had to depart from the banner of Capitalism and find a different vehicle to accomplish his goals, most likely even fighting against the very thing he once indwelled.
So where I'm going with this, is back to the question of Jesus Christ. If there is a spirit of Jesus Christ, is he, as Webster claims, a malefic spirit at heart, who deceives people with promises of peace and light, while actually only wanting to assimilate them, or destroy them if they refuse to be assimilated? Or is it possible that Jesus is actually something else, and another spirit has co-opted the banner of Christianity, essentially driving the spirit of Jesus away from the very thing he once indwelled?
The latter is actually an argument that some Christians make, from a surprising diversity of viewpoints. On one side, you have far right fundamentalists (the kind who merge their faith with their American nationalism,) such as Chuck Missler, who say that when Christianity merged with the Roman Empire, it ceased being Christ-like, and drove "the true church" underground. The Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity are actually just the Satanic Roman Empire continuing in slightly different forms, who will eventually usher in the antichrist and the end of the age. From another angle, you have liberal Christian theologians such as Rob Bell and Don Golden stating that the spirit of Christ is incompatible with any form of colonization or empire-building. Despite what some Christians do in his name, Jesus is always about providing life, joy, and freedom to people, whether these people acknowledge him or not, whether they believe certain doctrines or not.
So which is it? Will the real Jesus please stand up? Is Jesus a colonizer or a liberator? Yes, a large segment of today's Christianity, and a large segment of the historical church, takes a very authoritarian, colonizing approach. But maybe the real spirit of Jesus has left the building, so to speak. Maybe Satan or someone else (whoever the hell has been in charge of raising the various world empires throughout history, all of whom have colonized and destroyed the cultures of others, it's not just Christianity that has done that) has taken control. Or maybe it really has been Jesus all along. So... will invoking Jesus invite a self-erasure? Or will you find that invoking Jesus does the opposite? How can you know? And if Jesus is a deceptive deity, will you even be able to know before it's too late and he has assimilated you? (Hypothetically speaking, here. I don't personally invoke gods.)
There are so many directions I can go with this, but this post is long enough. From the little I know of Paganism, most of them are strongly anti-authoritarian and won't let some guy tell them whom they can and can't worship, based on his own opinions of what that god is. Based on the comments on the article and the podcast, it looks like a good chunk of the Pagan community has decided they have the right to define Jesus for themselves, and to reject or accept their personal ideas of who Jesus is, as they see fit. So who knows how influential this article actually was. At least it gave me some food for thought, for which I'm grateful.
Anyway, I close my ramblings with a song I wrote several years ago, which seems apt for this topic.