Sometimes we need to take a step back from the things that we feel are the most important, to look at them from a distance and to see them within their greater context.
A friend of mine (a young seminary student whom I know from work) recently had a brief encounter with a gentleman who happened to be a Jehovah’s Witness. He posted briefly about this encounter on Facebook and after speaking very kindly of the fellow, he ended his status update with the words, “I hope and pray that he acknowledges the deity of Christ soon.”
I was struck by this. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as I know well enough the tenets of his chosen religion, and yet I still found myself dismayed by the meaning behind his words. I know this friend to be one of the kindest, funniest, most loving souls I have ever encountered. Some days I can almost allow myself to forget that good people with good hearts believe in a God that would damn a man to an eternity in Hell, for what is, to an outsider, truly a trivial difference in the particulars of their belief.
I have a few VERY Christian friends who post on Facebook and usually I leave their more religious posts alone. They are not talking to me, I reason, but rather to those who share their particular faith. However, on this occasion I could not help but comment. I pointed out to him that there was really very little difference separating him from this Jehovah’s Witness and that it was quite likely the gentleman in question had himself felt sympathy for my friend.
What I got back was a laundry list of their differences…,
“I can affirm the Athanasian Creed; he cannot. I can affirm the first four ecumenical councils; he cannot. In short, significant, meaningful differences exist between us.”
I knew these things already. I’ve studied the rise and evolution of Christianity and its various branches, in some detail. I also know that for centuries, people who insist that the Christian god exists as a Holy Trinity, have been killing, imprisoning or otherwise discriminating against folks who don’t agree with them. This despite the fact that nowhere in its first 39 books does the Bible state that the Hebrew god exists as a Trinity.
I’ve read the Gospels and Jesus never mentions a Trinity. You would think, if it was important enough to send people to Hell over (or to have them stoned to death by their fellows), that he might have mentioned it somewhere along the way. Maybe he could have tucked it between parables. “Oh, and by the way…,”.
So the majority of Christians believe, like my friend, that there is one God who exists as a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which are all equal and without beginning or end and unified into a single whole.
I have been told, on occasion, that I simply do not understand the concept of the Trinity, but in reality I am quite familiar with it. The Celtic pantheon includes numerous triplicate deities. It’s actually a fairly common motif in Pagan beliefs, both modern and ancient, but was never a feature in the worship of the Hebrew God until Christianity began to make its home in pagan Rome. I’ve occasionally wondered if the Trinity is not just one more thing the “church fathers” borrowed along the way.
So, what about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, what do they believe regarding the divinity of Christ?
In their view, the God Jehovah is the singular and eternal architect of the universe. He created Jesus (the first act of creation) and it was Jesus who then created everything else.
And that’s it. The fundamental difference between the two groups, when you scrape away all the Councils and Creeds (and those are really just there to explain away the inconsistencies among the various holy texts), it all comes down to the immortal question of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”.
These sorts of questions are not unique to Christianity.
Every so often the Pagan community blazes to life with debate over continued use of the word “Pagan.”
There are those who think the word is worthless because the meaning has been stretched to include almost anyone who is not a member of one of the big-three monotheist traditions. Admittedly, simply calling oneself a Pagan is much less descriptive of what you believe and more so of what you don’t.
Others argue that they do not want to be associated with some of the people who are “also” considered Pagan. Many Reconstructionists and Traditionalists are leery of outsiders conflating their beliefs with those of Eclectic Wiccans or even New Agers who may choose to call themselves (Neo-)Pagan. We are talking about a whole range of different and often conflicting beliefs including Humanism, Monism, Pantheism and Polytheism, all wedged together under a single umbrella term.
Which brings me to the question of what constitutes, “meaningful differences?”
From the perspective of my friend, I was attacking him by dismissing the very core of his belief (the divinity of Christ) as inconsequential. However, from the outside looking in, the differences between trinitarian and nontrinitarian doctrine seem painfully small. Both men claim to be Christians and while each feels that he has ample evidence to prove that the other is wrong, there is far more about them that is alike than there is that makes them different.
Perhaps they are each too close to the problem to see it clearly.
So then, from the outside looking in, what must the squabbling within the Pagan community look like? Is there any point to it – particularly when eternal damnation is NOT on the line?
Do any of us really believe that eschewing the word “Pagan” in favor of something else will still not get us lumped in with people we don’t necessarily agree with? And why should we be so bothered by the opinions of outsiders?
I know many people within the community who prefer to use the term “Polytheist”. To them, I offer this nugget from the same conversation with my seminarian friend…,
“Believing that all religions are equally valuable is basically a form of polytheism.”
It’s not at all true, but it proves my point, which is that we will never accomplish anything if we spend our energy debating what we should call ourselves. Choose any word you want and even our most well-meaning Christian friends will still find a way to lump us all together with the other sinners.
There are better things we could be doing with our time.
I’ve always believed that our ability to look past our particular differences was one of our great advantages over the People of the Book. So why should we strive so hard to emulate them by constantly bitching about who gets to be included under the “Pagan Umbrella?”
I use (and will continue to use) the word ‘Pagan’ to describe myself to those who ask.
If you need more detail than that, I am a Polytheist.
More still? I am a Celtic Reconstructionist.
If the conversation moves beyond that, we are talking about the very specifics of my belief, at which point labels become unimportant. Most people don’t make it that far, being more comfortable on the outside, looking in.