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What Is a Christian?

I've been contacted this week by a reporter on religion, who wants to talk about my Quaker Paganism. I feel clear about going ahead and speaking to this man--I'm not going to represent "all Friends everywhere", and I'm certainly not going to represent all Pagans. In fact, I may not be representing anyone at all, including myself; I can't be sure that, after the most recent exchange of emails, this fellow will still think me worth an interview. Turns out that the original spark for the article may have been a mis-impression that I consider myself both Christian and Pagan. And, though I know and respect a number of Christian Pagans, or Christian-leaning Pagans, I'm not one of them.

Unless, of course, I am. Can we define our terms, please? (Warning: Christ-centered language and vocabulary follows.)

Brent Bill--a Christian Quaker if ever there was one--wrote about the experience of worship in his book, Holy Silence:
...worries about work waiting for me at the office, and the flood of minutiae that swamps my mind when outside noise stops slowly vanished--dropping into a well of holy silence. I let myself be guided into the deep waters of the soul.

That is when it happened. The only thing I can compare it to is the Catholic belief that in the "celebration of Mass...Christ is really present through Holy Communion to the assembly gathered in His name." It is the same way with silence for Quakers... ...That October day, on the side of the Green Mountains, Jesus was good to His word that, "where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." In the silence, where outer and inner noise ceased, we became what Quakers call a gathered meeting--gathered together and with Jesus. We sensed Him in the electrified air. I felt charged with an awareness of the miraculous--the marrow of my bones hummed in holy recognition of the One who had stood at the dawn of creation and called the world into being. And it did not just happen to me.

...As if something had been lit deep inside and now shone from their faces, we saw "grace and truth" reflected in the people around us.

Now, unlike Brent Bill, I have things I can compare this experience to other than the celebration of the Mass. I can compare it, for instance, to direct encounters in Pagan worship with the Goddess.

Also unlike Brent Bill, I am not inclined to search for Biblical names and stories for language in which to cloathe my experiences.

But I know the experience of which he speaks here. Can I prove it, to a Friend inclined to disqualify me from Quaker life because the story of the historical Jesus does not "speak to my condition"? No, I cannot, any more than I can prove to an atheist that there is anything more to religious experience than self-delusion. But I don't think that's an interesting problem on which to dwell. These words do "speak to my condition"--and, in Quaker worship, I have found the most consistent and deeply moving and transformative spiritual experiences of my life.

Thus far, no direct encounter with the Light of Quaker worship, or with the gods of Paganism, has implied any contradiction in my Pagan thealogy and my Quaker practice. This seems entirely reasonable to me--the Light was around a long time before they invented paper, on which to record Bible stories... or language, in which to discuss spiritual experiences... or humans, to have our own peculiar variety of them. The universe is old, baby; old and mysterious and full of Light and passion, and I see the Light and the passion as One thing, and all our gods and all our stories and all our words as only echoes of it.

Some of the echoes are more useful than others. Christianity, at least as Friends understand it, clearly is useful.

I know this because Christ-centered friends manage not only to encounter the Light on a regular basis, but to become transformed by It and filled with It and to go out into the world and let their lives speak.

As do some Pagans (and members of many other religions, I am sure, though I'm not speaking of that now). And more will, over time, if Pagans can develop some of the kinds of spiritually grounding practices Friends have found over the last three centuries.

But I'm not a Pagan or a Quaker because their stories hold truths that are useful in general.

I'm a Pagan because, when I stand before an oak tree with leaves gone russet, or when I glimpse the stag when the deer are in rut, my belly grows tight with the joy and lust of the earth. And I have looked into my beloved's eyes, and seen a god looking out again, and smelled him on my skin.

I'm a Quaker because, when I center down into the silence, a Light comes and bears me away in a flood tide of joy and certainty that I can just tell runs inside the cell of the smallest animal, and fuels the fire in the most distant star.

Is that Light "Jesus"? Seems like a small name to me. I can't see it, guys. Not disputing that some of you can, and do. And that many of you find yourselves better able to follow that Light when that's the name you use. OK. Good-oh...

I love that Light. I rejoice in it. I am trying to listen to it, to be faithful to it, and perhaps to grow into it.

Is that Christian?

Truth to tell, I don't want it to be. Christians have so much to apologize for. Hey, Pagans have more than our share of embarrassing nitwits, to be sure--but none of them are running for president. None of them are close to the kind of political power it takes to mess things up on a national or even global scale. Which is kind of a relief. Honestly, I don't know how you Christians who own that name can stand the humiliation of what is done by so many who share that label. And I'm not saying that as a put-down. Rather, when I think of those who are honestly trying to live up to the messages of peace and love I hear in my Friends' meeting (if not in my Bible, when I pick it up and read it) I'm a bit awed that you're willing to accept the name. Simply calling yourself a Christian, in a world where that word has become so useful to the self-righteous and the hateful, takes a lot of integrity--it is a small way of taking up the cross, I guess, for a Peggy Senger Parsons, or a Marshall Massey, to refuse to concede the name to folks who use it to champion bigotry and hate.

All the same, I don't want to take that name for my own. Yeah, I do think that you can be both Pagan and Christian--from a polytheistic Pagan perspective, there's no difficulty at all in adding one more to the pantheon. I know plenty of Christians disagree with that, but, well... not a Christian, so, see, not really a worry on this end.

But a lot of Pagans disagree, too. Even my Quaker Paganism is "welding a little too close to the gas tank", as my friend Gwyneth once said of something a little too explosive to deliberately embrace. And part of my love of Paganism is its rootedness--the bonds of community. Oh, my friends would still love me, and I'd still be tied to the communities of love and trust we've created together--just as we embrace the atheist or non-Pagan parents, children, and spouses we've accumulated over the decades. But it would feel very sad--a co-optation, for me to step out of our Sacred Circle. So for that reason alone, I would wish never to be called to do so.

I have a Quaker friend who believes that Friends need to begin to incorporate elements of Paganism into our practice--because mere "stewardship" is not immediate enough or strong enough to express the passionate love for the planet he believes we must have, if we are to avoid our own extinction, among other evils. Well. He'd say it better--it's his ministry, not mine. But there is something in the Pagan message that, at least for some of us, is as needful as the scriptural messages more traditional Friends embrace.

That's not really what drives me to write these words, today, though. No--I think it's because, unlike most Americans, whether Quaker or Pagan, I have never been Christian. What that means, I think those who have been lifelong Jews or atheists could explain: I have never been what my culture deems "acceptable" spiritually. My culture has been at war with my deepest spiritual yearnings for my entire life. And the tension is terrible--and not voluntary. I never chose to be non-Christian. And, though I have chosen to follow my Pagan leadings, the leadings always came first. It would have been an act of violence for me to disregard them.

Among Friends--among liberal Friends--I have the first faint glimmerings of what it might be like not to be living in a state of spiritual siege. What it might be like to be fine, part of not only a community, but my culture, without severing myself from half of who I am. And it grieves me when I hear, as I do, of Quakers in liberal meetings who are afraid to voice their Christianity, for fear of the same kind of cultural rejection I know so well.

I would have us all speak the words the Light gives us, and, as in the Woolman story, "listen where the words come from"; I would have us set aside what we cannot yet hear, but to do so gently and tenderly, knowing that we are none of us ready to hear all the truth at once... but as we live up to the Light we are shown, more will be given us.

I would have the war be over. I would take your hand, friend, whether you are Quaker or Pagan or something else entirely, and sit with you in the Light, and listen lovingly to you and with you.

I would have peace.


Anonymous said…
Hi Cat,
I continue to marvel at your honesty and integrity - "both and" instead of "either/or."

What if humans needed both Earth and Light to be spiritually complete.

Language gets lost here, but trees draw sustenance from the Earth, Water and Air and use Fire in their very cells. But they also need Light for energy.

And perhaps the Earth and the Light needs sentient beings to be fulfilled too? Life sheltered by leaf and bark and limb and root.

peace and health,
Unknown said…

Thank you for your post; I've been wrestling with similar questions lately, after the comments you left in my blog.

The answer I received was that I had been asking the wrong question all along. The question isn't "What is a Christian" (or Quaker, or Muslim, or whatever), but "How is a Christian?"

What matters are not our notions, as George Fox might have said, but what we do.
Anonymous said…
Ah, Friend speaks my mind. Many thanks.
Anonymous said…
I am not a Christian but I believe in Jesus and resurrection, which is what I was told growing up Episcopalian made someone a Christian. How many Quakers call themselves Christians and believe in the resurrection? See, I bet if you asked them that you'd still get a lot of diverse answers. No one I know who considers themselves Christian Quakers are ever talking about the resurrection.

I also have heard a lot of people talk about Quaker Christianity as going "through" Jesus. But I think that might be a uniquely Quaker translation. I talked to a Catholic nun and she said she didn't think of herself as going through Jesus because Jesus was the son, God the father, and then there was the Holy Spirit.

I find that anyone who wants to nitpick is really just wasting time. To me, Light = The Universe. And to Christians, Jesus = God. So if you put them all together, The Light=Universe=God=Jesus. If people want to say that God is not the Universe, or that the Universe is not God... then I don't know, because the Universe is the most vast concept I can think of, and God can't be smaller than that.
Anonymous said…
Good morning Cat,

As has happened before, your sharing of the Quaker-Pagan tension of your journey has again cast light on my path too.

Like you I'm not Christian; I'm a Quaker-Gnostic. No, I haven't yet worshipped with any of them (Gnostics that is) -- I'm in central FL and they're scarce in these parts -- but the Gnostic (or as I now prefer, the *apocryphal*) Christian scriptures, theology and philosophy have in my understanding provided a desperately needed yin to a Christianity that has been lopsidedly "yangy" since the time of Constantine, and if and when I do visit an appropriately congenial ecclesiastical Gnostic community it's my intention to receive baptism there as an external token of an already-existing way of seeing. This for my part would not affect my Friends affiliation in any way (unless they decide to kick me out. :o) But then, another member of my Meeting does Golden Dawn ritual magick and he's out about *that*. One could argue he & I are the "outliers"…)

As I see it, on paper at least I should have it easier integrating the two aspects of my practice time than you & Peter, because to my way of thinking unprogrammed Quakerism *is* Gnostic at its core, and was from the get-go, in that it's all about an experiential *knowing* of the Divine aspect that humans are capable of experiencing, as opposed to "believing" in it, absent experience, as in mainstream Christianity, and allowing this knowledge, this "inner Teacher" to illumine and guide our lives. (Also my limited reading of Barclay to date suggests to me his theology is mostly Pauline, as opposed to Augustinian, and a number of writers and theologians in the last two centuries consider Paul a Gnostic, and the apparently anti-Gnostic verses in his letters to be later forgeries. Paul of course never met the living Jesus; he speaks exclusively of the resurrected Christ.)

In the words of logion 3 of the Gospel of Thomas, "(T)he King(/Queen)dom is inside you, and it is outside you." Giving full weight both to the outer *and* the inner aspects of our practice is to my mind what Quakerism is all about.

Blessed Be,

Francis (sirfr AT earthlink DOT net)
An inspiring post Cat- many thanks!
Terri in Joburg
cubbie said…
i'm agreeing with you here and all these comments, too...

right now, my working definition for christianity is from a book i'm reading, and i can't quote it verbatim, so i'm going to try and put it in my own words and make it my own, but it's someone who finds god through the life and words of jesus christ. and i think i like that definition right now, and could use it for myself if i think of jesus as a model rather than a divine being himself... though then i could also be a kimyadawsonian and a ____-ian of all the other people who are such amazing role models. and there is where it falls short as a definition... and so i'm still figure it out.
Because this comment was anonymous, and worded in an inflammatory manner, I have chosen to post it within the context of a comment of my own.

I'm doing this because I feel that the points the commenter raises are fair points, worth consideration--but also to encourage both my anonymous poster and other readers to remember that this forum is moderated. I will not post answers to this comment--whether positive or negative--that don't remain courteous and soft-spoken. That might not be a fair characterization of this comment... but, as I said, I think the ideas are worthy of reflection. So long as we listen to one another and speak to one another in tenderness, dialog across differences can be a wonderful thing. (See the example I blogged about in Wagin Peace in All Things for what I mean.)

My anonymous commenter wrote:
Christians have a lot to answer for huh ? So before what would you call the tribal people who'd sacrifice others to the Gods or to nature to make the crops abundant ?"Pagans" that's what I'd call them. Because nothing is written down you can babble on about any old nonsense but you can't reject Christ and be a Quaker. How about you meet with your fellow believers and leave Meeting Houses alone ?
My thanks to everyone who has commented here. I'm not sure why it is I seem to find myself drawn to the margins of so many things--in this case, the boundaries between a Pagan world and a (historically, at least) Christian one. Maybe it's the Wiccan training in the power of liminal states and liminal zones... I don't know. I do know that I'm grateful for those who have responded, publicly or via email, to this post.

One reason I posted the somewhat heated comment by the second anonymous poster on this thread is that he/she seems to have taken something I said in my post very personally: the idea that "Christians have a lot to answer for." (My exact words might be taken as even stronger than the paraphrase: "Christians have so much to apologize for.")

I was not clear in my post, and I know that because I've heard from a friend privately, in an email, that he shared Anonymous's impression that I myself believed Christians needed to apologize for the history of the church. So let me clear that up: I don't think that at all. I think that all the finger-pointing we do over the ancient past, in particular, is silly: accusing Christians today of complicity in the Burning Times or the Inquisition, for instance, is just an exercise in self-righteousness. Conversely, accusing modern Pagans of excesses in line with those Caesar accused the ancient Celts of is also silly and empty.

When it comes to modern day excesses though I will maintain that modern Pagans are doing less damage in the world, collectively, than modern Christians are. As I said, we have no viable presidential candidates--the lack of collective political power is still protecting us from our out-of-control fringe folks. That's not a virtue of the Pagan movement's, though. I'm not arguing that Pagans, in a majority, would not be capable of coming up with our own special ways of betraying the spiritual core of our wisdom, just as Christians sometimes do.

And I'm not actually saying that modern day Christians who walk the walk need to apologize for the actions of those who just use the brand name. I am saying that moving past a natural embarrassment at the actions of some professed Christians is probably challenging for some of the "real" ones out there. It's a burden I'm so far, happy not to be called to shoulder myself.

Finally, contrary to Anonymous's assertions, there's a lot of Quaker tradition that is indeed written down. I admit, I find Barclay's Apology, the 17th Century classic, slow going. But I'm open to learning more about traditional Quakers, and in fact, I'm actively working to do so. This essay is one of a series of posts in which I try to reflect seriously on whether or not one can, in fact, "reject Christ and be a Quaker." (Though I think it would be fairer to say "have no relationship with the historical Jesus and be a Quaker.")

Without a doubt, Friends I deeply respect tell me I am in error in thinking that I can consider myself a Friend. And also, without a doubt, the Friends at my own monthly meeting thus far, not only are not asking me to "leave our meeting house alone," but have been clear in recognizing me as a member of our meeting. To the extent that the practices and discernment of liberal Friends are a marker of who is a Quaker, I am a Quaker.

And while the extent to which the practices and discernment of liberal Friends can be described as faithful to the defining insights of the Religious Society of Friends can be--and is--subject to debate, that debate is a little different subject than the one I'm looking at here.
Anonymous said…
Cat, thanks as always for sharing so honestly. It has become my intention to also be more honest, not just in my spiritual practices but just in everyday life. Seems like a no-brainer, huh? Yet it's amazing how easily we can slip into subtle dishonesties. Thanks for the encouraging post.
Anonymous said…

This is a beautiful summing up of things:

"Thus far, no direct encounter with the Light of Quaker worship, or with the gods of Paganism, has implied any contradiction in my Pagan thealogy and my Quaker practice. This seems entirely reasonable to me--the Light was around a long time before they invented paper, on which to record Bible stories... or language, in which to discuss spiritual experiences... or humans, to have our own peculiar variety of them. The universe is old, baby; old and mysterious and full of Light and passion, and I see the Light and the passion as One thing, and all our gods and all our stories and all our words as only echoes of it."

What's more, when your write...

"I have never been what my culture deems 'acceptable' spiritually. My culture has been at war with my deepest spiritual yearnings for my entire life."

...that resonates for me, too, even though I was born and raised a Christian.

At one level, this is because, as a gay man, I am an exile in my own country—to use the metaphor of John Fortunato's 1982 book, Embracing the exile: healing journeys of gay Christians.

When I came out in 1973, I realized that I had to make a choice between striving to meet the expectations of "acceptable" Christianity, on the one hand, or embracing and living what Mother-Father God created me to be, on the other.

If one hears YHWH say "Forget the safety of cultural and religious orthodoxy and live with me," and if one accepts that daunting challenge, fear, awe and joy become ongoing vibrations in one's life.

It's difficult ever after to really explain to anyone else what it is that one trusts in so implicitly...or why.

I can say that, for me, what is intimately trustworthy I began to learn in childhood from a Jesus who is far more real than any of the "Christianities" seem able to express. The faith and practice to which I aspire is not the religion about Jesus, but the religion of Jesus.

That does not mean I need any one else to follow Jesus or be "a Christian." It does mean I seek for and affirm in the faith and practice of others that same integrity and compassion, that same fear, awe and joy, which Jesus leads me to know.

Thank you, as always, for stirring my thoughts and my faith.

Bless├Ęd Be,
Kay said…
Since it seems that blogger won't inform you that I've done so via trackbacks (I use wordpress), I thought you might like to know that I just quoted a couple of paragraphs from this post on my blog.

I really enjoy your writing Cat and your journey (as Quaker and pagan) has touched me deeply.

Yewtree said…
Even though I have recently had a rapprochement with Christianity, I ultimately couldn't call myself a Christian because of all the bigots who walk under that particular flag - even though I respect the many liberals who are trying to reclaim it. Also I filled in the Belief-O-Matic questionnaire and it told me I was still 100% Pagan (and 86% UU)... and to not be part of the Pagan sangha felt like a betrayal of my deities, my deepest self, and my friends. I also couldn't accept the exclusivism of Christianity (the scandal of particularity).

As to whether you can be a Quaker and a Pagan... well you can be a Quaker Universalist, a Quaker non-theist, a Zen Quaker, and several other combinations. My favourite Unitarian hymn-writer, John Andrew Storey (a universalist), became a Quaker in later life. And a dear Quaker friend describes herself as a follower of Jesus but not a Christian. Also, what about Quakers going in the opposite direction to you (starting as a Friend but embracing Pagan ideas)?

One occasionally hears Unitarians claiming that Pagans can't be Unitarian, but a flourishing Earth Spirit Network (and CUUPS on you side of the pond) seems to put the lie to that - as well as the fact that Iolo Morgannwg, co-founder of 18th c druidry, was a Unitarian.

To my mind, the concept of Christ and the man Jesus are two very different things, and it's possible to honour Jesus and his teachings (his actual teachings, not subsequent interpretations) without buying into the Christian hyperbole. The Sufis and the Hindus have some very illuminating ideas about him (Deepak Chopra has just written a book, and there's also the 1818 classic by Raja Rammohun Roy, "The Precepts of Jesus").
Anonymous said…
A Christian is someone who accepts Jesus as his King and Saviour.
Sterghe said…
Thank you, thank you, thank you for an absolutely beautiful bit of writing. Your blog made my morning, and will stay with me for quite a while.

--a Quaker Pagan in Pennsylvania, who's currently seeking to understand her deepening, truly nourishing friendship with a devout fundamentalist Christian
Oz the Blogger said…

Challenged with a "why do you call yourself a Christian... and not just a Quaker" question I googled around seeking others answers to similar questions and found myself here, on your blod. I ended up quoting a bit of your post.

Well written and heart felt.

Thank you- it helped me today.

Your beauty comes through your words effortlessly and I will spend the rest of the day holding you in Light and gratitude

Ian Annon said…
Hey, Cool blog, just wandering about, and arrived here. I have come across many people who are both "Christian" and "Pagan" over the last few years, and I find it so sad..... that you have to put up with the grief and rudeness that some, either one or the other, throw at you. Not all Pagans are so narrow-minded, and not all Christians are so Narrow-minded.

If the Light leads and the Faith grows, how can it be wrong, just because some others, (regardless of Faith)do not believe has you do.

You may not think yourself a teacher, but others have learned from your words, and found comfort.

May your God/s Bless you and Guide you.


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