Saturday, June 08, 2013

A Pagan Jesus?

As a Quaker Pagan, I'm often accused (and, yes, that really is the word for it) by other Pagans of being a closet Christian. 

Nope.  I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Jesus Club.  Though hanging out with Quakers has given me a deepened awareness of how much there can be of value in Christianity, and being Quaker myself has taught me how to approach Christian messages by "listening in tongues," I have yet to feel a call to Jesus. 

Given how hard it is for other Pagans to hear anything that is said after the word "Jesus," I'm grateful for that.  That bare word tends to drown out anything else that the person who speaks it might have to say, at least for some listeners.

Meanwhile, over at Bishop in the Grove, one of my all-time-favorite Pagan bloggers Teo Bishop has posted a deliberately provocative essay,  "Who's Going to Be My Pagan Jesus?"  He's pretty clearly not asking the question that many of his readers seem to have heard; he's explicit about not seeking a savior, but figures who would make it "easier for me, personally, to connect my actions to a system of values."

Unless I'm misreading him, what Teo is actually seeking is something very close to what I think I've found among Quakers, and desperately want to help nurture among Pagans: a range and host of models of how walking our spiritual walk can reshape a heart and a life.

Whether we're talking about Paganism or life among the Religious Society of Friends (Christian or not) seeing other human beings living fully realized, spiritually consistent lives helps us to do the same.

Our fanatical Western individualism makes us suspicious of all models.  We call them gurus, and then identify guru worship as pathological.  But the truth remains that it is simply easier to develop depth and virtue with a few human exemplars to study.  Elders, in a spiritual sense that goes beyond simply attainments in a degree structure, or even years lived on the planet.

In the years that my husband and I were coven leaders, we did our best to model what a Pagan life, rightly lived, would be. However, our own spiritual growth was hindered by the lack of strong models of Pagan elders around us. For while I know of many, many Pagans whose knowledge I admire, I know far fewer whose wisdom is seasoned enough to offer me guidance as I try to deepen my own. 

It can be frustrating--for those who hold out any hope that there might be more wisdom among us than is contained in our own individual hearts! 

It sounds good to say we don't need to look beyond ourselves for wisdom.  It sounds good (to many modern Quakers as well as Pagans) to talk about inner guides, or taking responsibility for our own growth.  And there definitely is growth that can come from being true to the inner voices that are available to everyone.  But too often, we listen only to inner voices, because we cynically refuse to believe that anyone out there has anything to teach us, or because we are willing to settle for being a big fish in a small pond... or because we don't have any local models of anything bigger or better to strive for than what we find within ourselves at first glance.  

Some of what is posing as spiritual independence is actually spiritual lethargy or complacency, in other words.  And it doesn't have to be that way.

It was a great relief, upon becoming a Quaker, to discover wise elders who were genuinely wiser than I was--and kinder, more daring, and more deeply loving. I realize that this may sound arrogant on the one hand (implying I'm so wise that few Pagans have anything left to teach me) and also sycophantic toward Quakers on the other (implying that Quakers are inherently wiser than Pagans.) I don't mean to be either: I do know wise Pagans and foolish Quakers, beyond a doubt.

But my life among Quakers has me surrounded by people who do extraordinary things on a daily basis, without self-promotion or self-importance. My Quaker community and my Pagan community are about the same size. But, while I know of a few examples of selflessness and powerful service among Pagans, I know of too many examples among my Quaker kin to even begin to inventory them. In my time among Friends (Quakers) I've shared my life with dozens of people who have made great sacrifices in order to relieve poverty, oppose war, train prisoners in conflict resolution, end carbon-fuel dependence... and so much more. I can point to some Pagans whose lives are similar. 

But, I wonder, who do our Thorn Coyles, Wren Walkers, and Patrick McCollums look to for inspiration? It is not enough to have some individuals whose lives are exemplary. We need a way of nurturing, recognizing, and encouraging the growth of similar gifts among us so that our exemplars can continue to grow and get encouragement from one another--rather than going it alone, or almost alone, in their communities.

With the help of Quaker models, I've become more peaceful, more generous, and happier. I've developed connections to specific communities in poverty, undertaken some major environmental witnesses, been inspired in my work with impoverished and behaviorally challenging teens, and my husband has led a group of students to study third-world health care through a trip to Kenya. Many of the things we've done would have seemed unusual to us, if we hadn't found models outside the Pagan community. Some of them, we might not have followed through on if we had not had models of how commonplace such actions can be among those with practice in their practice.

We didn't need Jesus. And I'm not at all trying to say being Quaker is the answer for everyone.

But 350 years of working together has given Quakers a head start on us. The Pagan community does not yet have an abundance of the sort of models that allow a contemplative to understand that, yes, what we're seeking to do is possible.

And that makes it harder. We are still growing the traditions and customs that will allow us to nurture, not just a few outstanding individuals, but a whole tradition of depth and compassion, which will allow our Pagan virtues to be seen--by ourselves, never mind others--as normative, and not actually exceptional at all.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I'm not interested in finding a Pagan Jesus.  But I would like us to grow a whole tribe of... call them Pagan saints.  Bodhisattvas, if that's a more comfortable word.  But whatever the word, I want more of them, I want more respect for them, more support for them, and more access to them.

Because only when we challenge ourselves as individuals to deepen our practice and our worship as much as we can will we be able to draw those depths into our communities as a whole. 
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