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Peter on When Words Fail Us

I have been really struggling with how to respond to the controversy that keeps rearing its head (most recently at Quaker Quaker) about Liberal Quakers’ supposed “hostility towards Christianity.” I’ve been disappointed in and saddened by some of the Quaker bloggers whom I have respected as intelligent and thoughtful Friends with integrity but who are just NOT LISTENING to anyone who might, for instance, be hurt by the Pope’s encyclical against the Neopagans.

I was ruminating on various ways to respond—angry tirades, insightful analyses, heartfelt pleas for understanding and tolerance…none of which would have amounted to more than spitting into the wind—when I came across a quote from Wendell Berry’s essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation.” He said it all much better than I ever could. And Cat, in her comments over at Quaker Quaker, has been doing a good job of making the point that not all non-Christians are wounded refugees from Christianity; some of us just happened to grow up elsewhere. So I’ve stayed out of the discussion on QQ, and having stepped back a little—closed my eyes and counted to ten, as it were—I can see that it’s not my job to fix this problem.

And having seen that, I can move on to the real question, which is: If I listen to the Light, to the Spirit of Peace, and to my own Patron Deities, how would they have me respond?

What is God’s answer to all this controversy about God?

Words fail here, because it’s so easy—so obvious—for so many people to answer immediately, Jihad against the infidels! Crusade against the heathen!

Words fail…so what stands in their place? The Divine steps in, and, whoo boy, the second you say it the words betray you again. God acts in this world. Like, all that happens is God’s will, from the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (to glorify My Name) to the holocaust (insert lame rationalization here) to September 11th (to restore America’s pride and military resolve). It’s enough to turn anyone into an atheist, clinging to cynical rationalism as the one stable island in a raging sea of delusion and horror.

But God does step in. The overwhelming majority of the world’s religious people seem to deny it, fear it, run from the room covering their ears and shouting La-la-la-la-la! I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting! I’m not listening! Amen!

But God does step in. Look at the history of Wicca. The Neopagan movement has matured—not just grown explosively, but matured—over the past half century. Each generation has become more grounded, more spiritual, more in touch with the Divine and more aware of their place in the web of life and in the human community. And the clearest explanation for that is that the Gods have acted within the corporate body of Paganism much the same way they’ve touched my own individual life, and Cat’s and my life together. That which is divine in the Old Gods of the Craft calls to our highest inner nature—deep calling unto deep—and we have grown. Too many self-identified Christians simply can’t or won’t see it. But they don’t need to see it for it to still be true, and perhaps I don’t need them to see it before I can have meaningful and productive spiritual dialogue with them. Perhaps not…but that’s not the important question. The important question is, what does the Divine within my Gods—within the Light—what does that Divine Reality lead me towards in my own spiritual life?

I say What is God’s will for me? and I hear crazy street preachers spit the words of St. Paul at me as if they were curses (and in their mouths, the words of salvation are curses) and now it’s me that has to cover my ears and go La-la-la-la-la I’m not listening. I have to constantly tune out the batshit crazy Christians in order to be able to hear—not God—but words about God that sound anything like their lurid threats of apocalypse and Hellfire.

Where do we turn when words fail us? I’ll close with two quotes from people who’ve tried to answer that. And I’m going to try to remember to take my own advice.

James Nayler:

Thou asks further whether the name of Christ may be known to all the world by the Light within them, without Scripture or tradition? I say, yea, and by nothing else without it, for the name of Christ consists not of letters and syllables, but in righteousness, mercy and judgment, &c., which name none can know but by the Light of the World, though many of you read your Bibles who are the greatest enemies to his name, such is your knowledge as appears by your practice.

Wendell Berry:

Though the air is full of singing
my head is loud
with the labor of words.

Though the season is rich
with fruit, my tongue
hungers for the sweet of speech.

Though the beech is golden
I cannot stand beside it
mute, but must say

“It is golden,” while the leaves
stir and fall with a sound
that is not a name.

It is in the silence
that my hope is, and my aim.
A song whose lines

I cannot make or sing
sounds men’s silence
like a root. Let me say

and not mourn: the world
lives in the death of speech
and sings there.


Susanne Iles said…
An open-hearted, eyes open post..thank you so much for writing it.
Pitch313 said…

a.) "All non-Christians are wounded refugees from Christianty..."--That's just nonsense!

I am, by fortune, a life-long Nep-Pagan. Just never a Christian, even in this oh so "Christian" country.

b.) Neo-Paganism is not such and old movement. Much, most, of it has taken place during my own lifetime. The sinking of roots deeper and growing of richly branched leaves higher in not simply for generations. It occurs in the lives of individual practitioners as they and the Deities and Guardians dance together over the years...
Hystery said…
I've felt raw and numb in turns about this conversation over at Quaker Quaker...I've blogged about it and that made me feel a bit better I guess. I feel a bit like a cuffed puppy and that has made me feel stupid. "Look how much I love you! Look how much I love you!" (THWACK!) Ah well. It has given me some good research ideas. So that's good.
Magaly Guerrero said…
I still can’t understand how people fail to see that if we take the time to look deeper into religion as a whole—into the hearts and words of truly spiritual people—we’ll just find a loving soul, not very different from our own, if we are God or gods loving beings.

Today I received an email that started with “BEFORE YOU PAGANS TRY TO READ THE ***ING BIBLE…” you can imagine the rest. His email was in reply to my article in the Witches’ Voice, Jesus Would Do Outreach (

I wish to say that the email didn’t bother me, but what kind of spiritual being would I be if it didn’t? The email is from someone who calls himself a Roman Catholic and I am Eclectic Pagan through and through, but I felt outraged on behalf of my father, mother and the rest of my family and friends who are loving followers of this belief system.

I wasn’t going to reply to his email, but after reading your post I decided to reply with one of the titles of my favorite songs from Ricardo Arjona, which I seem to be using a lot lately. I simply replied: “Jesus Is Verb, Not Noun.”

Thanks for sharing your insight.
Nate said…
I find myself apologizing, not for Christianity, but for a mindset that has been in place for nearly 2,000 years, or developed fairly early in the history of the movement. I noted part of that in the conversation mentioned when I said that Christianity has a 2,000 year history of turning faith in Christ into a religion about Jesus. The second part has to do with Christianity as a "State religion," something that should never have happened, but it did. The point there is that almost universally the religion of an ethnic group or political entity was tied up with the nature of the political group. Departure from the religion was seen as betrayal of the political group. For that reason (and simply because there are people who seem to have to control others) a "watchdog attitude" seems to have developed and a perception of competition. To share good news about a liberating faith is one thing, to seem to need to "win souls" in some cosmic match is quite another, and especially if that competition entails denigrating other faiths. I think the kindest answer is subtly stated by Margaly, a sort of "it's not about competition, it's about sharing God's love."
Thanks for a (continually) needed reminder.
Peter Bishop said…
Thank you all for your comments. It seems my post has been reaching exactly the people I'd hoped it would reach, and I hope I've offered more balm than agitation.

Hystery, your description of the cuffed puppy was particularly evocative, and I think what we as Pagans need to do in dialogue with Christians is show our feelings of hurt but without lashing back. Well done.

Magaly, I popped over to TWV and read your "Jesus Would Do Outreach" article. It is hard to imagine that a Christian would find anything to object to in work that is so clearly in keeping with the ministry of Jesus. Go figure.

Nate, I agree completely about the "state religion" thing. I've often thought that the conversion of Emperor Constantine marked the death of Christianity.

Be faithful to Spirit as Spirit speaks to you.

anj said…
Peter- Batshit crazy christians. Those who live deep in the untruth of psychological magical thinking. How do I find myself drawn deeper into my own faith journey closer to Jesus thru your words? But I do. God does step in.Thanks for helping me to remember that.

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