Pagans and Christians: Toward a Reconciliation of Opposites
by Christine Hoff Kraemer
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then . . . . I contradict myself;
I am large . . . . I contain multitudes.
This fragment of a poem by Walt Whitman has always spoken to me on a personal level. Wherever I find the tension of opposites, I can never choose a side, but instead want to participate in and identify with both. As a result, I am a mess of contradictions at least, on the surface. I worship the Goddess as an eclectic solitary, immersing myself in pagan community as much as I can, an end to which CMA has been a great gift. My primary religious home, however, is a small, extremely liberal Christian church in central Austin. But while I often feel that I may be the only Christian in CMA, I would not be the first in my church to use the phrase "Methodist witch." My church has enjoyed two Wiccan children's directors in the past five years, and Starhawk's prayers and liturgies appear regularly in our order of service. Like me, my church is a mess of contradictions, and is doing its best to contain the multitudes of different spiritual paths that its members wish to follow.
This idea and this reality of a meeting between like-minded pagans and Christians whose spirituality is liberal, celebratory, and life-affirming is my vision for the next century. Neopaganism is the fastest-growing religion in America right now; traditional Protestant denominations (with the exception of the far-right Southern Baptist church) are shrinking in terms of percentages of the population, if not in pure numbers. While Neopaganism is actively evolving and changing to satisfy the spiritual needs of the early twenty-first century, American Christianity for the most part has lagged behind, allowing its farthest-right members to alienate its moderates and liberals through strong-arm political tactics like the rise of the Christian Coalition. Too often, this religion of love and forgiveness has been used to discriminate, persecute, and judge. But I don't believe this is the way it has to be, that in order to find spiritual fulfillment Christians must reject the religion they were raised in to embrace the newly recreated Old Religion of the Goddess. I believe there is room for compromise and for enrichment and growth.
Unlike many neopagans, I have never been completely alienated or in conflict with the Christianity of my youth. But when I graduated from high school and left my home church, I began to realize that although I still felt a strong belief in a God(dess), I didn't believe in the exclusive claims that Christianity sometimes makes. I didn't believe that non-Christians were going to Hell; I didn't, in fact, believe in Hell. I was interested in Goddess worship, but also a little frightened of venturing so far from what I perceived was the mainstream, and so for a time my religious life floated along disconnected, without community.
On a whim, however, I attended a service at a small Methodist church with my fiancι's Unitarian Sunday School class. When I went up for communion, I came away shaking, a lump in my throat. The old symbols of love and sacrifice still had power over me much more power than I realized. But at the same time, there were new symbols that were making me shake and question, too. I had taken communion from the hands of the first obviously transgendered person I had ever met, and it was clear she was welcome there, in a way I'd never experienced before and have since experienced only among the Neopagan community. That Sunday was both the beginning of my reconciliation with Christianity and, in the context of my new church's open-mindedness, the first step on my path to Goddess spirituality. Confident that I would continue to be welcome in at least one Christian congregation no matter how far afield I ventured thealogically, I opened myself fully to Goddess spirituality for the first time. That fall found me at my first CMA Samhain, dancing jubilantly by the fire and celebrating my own physicality in a way I never thought I would. Since that time my relationship with the Great Mother has only deepened as I have begun to truly understand what it means to worship an immanent deity to see the divine in everything around me, in nature and in other human beings, and perhaps most importantly, in myself. Recognizing my personal connection to Her feminine power of life and death has made me feel like a woman for the first time.
My experience in my church makes me feel deeply saddened that elsewhere, Neopaganism and Christianity are represented as polar opposites, constantly at war. For many Neopagans, I think, their experiences with Christianity are open wounds, its beautiful symbols tainted by patriarchal and inflexible institutions as well as judgmental practitioners. On the opposite side, however, I think Christianity (as it is too often practiced) is a thorn in the side for many Christians, who have to repress their femininity, their physicality, and their sexuality in order to be accepted into their religious community. There is a great deal of pain on both sides. My vision, however, is that through greater contact between these two communities, there might be healing. In my church recently, a prominent Austin witch helped lead a service on environmentalism, an interfaith effort that included music and dance and greatly enriched the congregation's understanding of the Earth as Mother. Even as our guest ministered to us, however, I think my church also ministered to her. She took communion that day, and afterwards thanked our minister with tears in her eyes, saying that she had thought she would never take communion again. With a life-affirming liturgy and an environment of openness, the ritual of communion was restored for her as an act of love and community; with her presence, my church community had its eyes opened to other ways of knowing and experiencing the divine.
I can think of no better trend for the coming century than for Neopagans and liberal Christians to come together to enrich each other's spirituality, heal each other's wounds, and band together to further their shared political goals of tolerance, social justice, and religious freedom. As a Christian and a pagan, I would ask Christians to help Neopagans reclaim the word "witch," but I would also ask the Neopagan community to help liberal Christians liberate "Christian" from right-wing groups and restore its original meaning of "follower of Christ" a figure that we see as a messenger of love, peace, and egalitarianism, one who shocked his contemporaries by treating women as equal to men. I also feel deeply that Neopaganism has a great deal to offer traditional Christianity, especially in the way of balance. As a Christian, I was raised to value discipline, the intellect, and asceticism all things I still value, in their place. But Neopaganism has helped me develop my intuition and my spontaneity, and made me at home in my body for the first time. Through the Goddess I have become a more complete person, but without having to let go of the lessons of my first God. I see great potential for pagans to share their spirituality with Christians, to help them appreciate nature and their bodies, and to support their fumbling steps towards integrating feminist ideas into their religion (as some Protestant women already have by resurrecting the image of Sophia, feminine spirit of divine wisdom). In this vein I have great respect for Starhawk, who after having been in rebellion against her Jewish heritage for many years is now actively involved in a liberal synagogue, opening its eyes to the possibilities that feminist spirituality holds. Since many of us also come from Jewish and Christian backgrounds, I hope that our relationship with our heritage will not end with what is often a necessary rebellion, but continue on towards reconciliation, compromise, and growth.
Christine Hoff Kraemer is an aspiring graduate student and writer. She attends Trinity United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, a congregation that welcomes and affirms all people regardless of race, class, physical or mental ability, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
Copyright 2001 by Christine Hoff Kraemer