“Can you be a Christian and Pagan?” In the last year I have seen this question pop up in conversation, online, and within other blogs. In my last post I addressed part of the back and forth these groups have had about holidays and traditions. This is another one of those questions that the response is a resounding. “Kind of .. sorta” .
I first want to address that this is from an Orthodox perspective, so some of what I am about to walk through may not apply so much to other traditions, partly because they just don’t have a few contours both theologically and liturgically that Orthodoxy happens to enjoy.
This question needs some clarity. What do you mean by pagan? I suspect that many that are asking this question mean different things. In modern use Pagan can refer to several new religious movements. Few full Indo-European pre-Christian traditions survived to the present and thus the majority of pagan movements are recreations, restorations, or 19th and 20th century creative mixes of various movements. This word is also often used to denote “non-Christian” as well as indigenous religions.
The second use of this term is a more generalized bent to earth based practices or cultural practices that may have links to pre-Christian communities or considered ‘non-Christian’. This is more of a focus on the practices that some of the pagan and non-Christian religions share, such as ritual, home ritual, the wheel of the year, and a more direct and relational nature to the divine. Here it is important to note that many of these practices or practices akin to them are rejected in some Christian groups and accepted in others, like the Eastern Orthodox Church. Much of the information we have about so called pagan cultures either come to us via Christen scribes or clergy writings, or even canon law (often trying to get Christians to stop doing them or amending them) or we see them in the practices of Christians themselves who still had cultural practices that descended from previous pre-Christian societies. It should be noted that we have a lot of things we do culturally, often unofficially that fit the definition of pagan that are accepted by many Christians as ‘normal’ . Many have to do with ‘luck’ and the ‘baptizing’ or ‘Christianization’ of American national holidays.
As Christianity spread in specific times and places that already had customs and beliefs. These were by definition pre-Christian. Those persons did not just jettison their entire culture at once. Christian theology and ideas were communicated via the forms and customs (or adaptation thereof) these persons already had at hand. Those that did not conform with Christianity’s main theological tradition either was ‘baptized’ into practice, shifted, was done culturally and not ‘officially’ , or fell out of use. Christian theology formed in relation to these customs and beliefs and in every new area it spread. This ability was part of why it spread so far. So there a lot of pre-Christian practices built into Eastern Orthodoxy.
So, practically what might one mean when they say they are Christian and pagan? We can break that down into a few conception’s. One would be a sort of dual faith or syncretism. This would include something like praying to both Jesus and Thor or seeing them as expressions so the same idea or deity. Maybe also practicing a magic (or magik) tradition as well. This would be to try and practice both religions completely together. This would not really work. Paganism (esp neo-paganism) and Christianity as full religions can’t really co-exist in one faith as Christianity is pretty clear on not having other Gods. The New Testament also gives us the ideas that many practices were given up by those who converted, on that Acts 8: 9-13 and Acts 19 comes to mind. Neo- Pagan groups likewise would see monotheism, and many Christians notions as incompatible. It has ot be noted, however that the existence of pre-Christian and ‘pagan’ ideas and practices in Christian communities for such a broad swath of history attests to compatibility, influence, and cultural and religious trade.
The second is to see Christian themes in these religions, or practices, and incorporate them back into a faith. This would be so see Christian themes or Christ like figures in these religions and incorporate those ideas or expression back into ones faith and practice. Parts of this is doable, has been done (Even Paul uses Roman religious language to express Christian faith), and sort of encouraged. Seeing truth where it presents itself is great. Things like yoga and meditation have been shown to be helpful and when separated in some ways from their religious and cultural origins good practices. Is what you doing pointed to health and wellness and also based in good sense and science? Is what you are doing asking you to deny some core part of your Christianity? Is a personification of an idea or a deity? It has to be noted that even here, one of the other will be primary; either you are seeing Christ in another religions and traditions or you are seeing that religion in Christianity. You will always end up serving one master. Putting Christianity and another religion together will warp one or both and what will be left will likely be problematic. Reading/understanding/appreciating other regions positively and even learning from them as a Christian is not being a pagan. This is to be a Christian and see expressions of Truth (Christ) in other religious expressions. This really isn’t ‘both’, its a ‘sorta’.
Finally, related to the last, there would be the option of not focusing the deities but having more earth based, holistic, practices, or ritual. Orthodoxy is pre-modern and in many ways shares contours with pre-Christian religion. As stated before it was in that context Christianity grew and developed, many of the records we have of ‘pagan’ and vernacular religion comes to us already in use by Christians. Again, seeing truth where it presents itself is great. Marking Yule or midsummer is not a clash with Christianity per se. Many of the books we have about premodern and medieval ‘pagan’ practices focus on what Christians were doing unofficially and some time officially.
The second question I would want to ask is why would a Christian be drawn to a pagan religion or practice? From what I have seen it boils down to a couple theological points and ritual. Many Christian denominations have a church calendar that is basically Christmas and Easter. Other American holidays have been taken in like Valentines day, Thanksgiving and in some cases the 4th of July. That is a fairly flat ‘liturgical year’. Paganism offers something like the wheel of the year with a minimum of 8 holidays based on the lunar and solar cycles. (which is a sort of conglomerate of many pre-Christian calendars) . This imbibes the entire year with ritual. Add to this ritual one can do themselves and paganism can seem far richer than the Christianity one grew up celebrating.
I understand this impulse toward richer and more connected ritual and holiday traditions and it was one of the things that drew me from Protestant churches to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In the Orthodox Church there is already a rich calendar and not surprisingly many of these feasts share themes and timing with the wheel of the year. I have already mentioned Yule and Christmas as well as Lughnasadh and the Dormition in earlier posts. A lot of Eastern Orthodoxy has developed in similar regions as the Proto-Indo-European religions and so there are bound to be similarities.
Families often have traditions and rituals that are woven into their family life, sometimes for generations. When coming to Christianity some will try or be tempted to ‘purge’ anything that isn’t neatly in that new found ‘faith’. Well meaning but ultimately misinformed or mistaken clergy are often a part of this process. ‘Pagan’ is often a term that gets used to disparage familial and cultural practices that are often important to respect. This sort of ‘purge; often reflects a young faith and is a simplistic and naively neat way to avoid the more ascetic and spiritually important tasks of engagement with ones family, self, and culture.
I have also talked to people wanting to find something that has a more positive view of humanity that doesn’t have all the fire and brimstone, and that is more inclusive and self reflective. Mostly I have seen people looking for something they can actively participate in ritually (with there whole being) and that has a trajectory toward healing. Again these are understandable and many pagan practices have some of these contours. Not to sound like such a cheerleader (but I was one) these are all things Orthodox Christianity has already. Most Orthodox Christens have a prayer corner (or home shrine) a prayer rule (home ritual), burn incense, bless their homes and objects, remember their dead ritually, and ancestors, and have prayer that is to God as well as saints (to intercede for us).
It is also important to note that Orthodox Christianity (and more progressive Catholics) have a theology not based on a metaphor of the law office which often says ‘your bad and need to be punished’ but the hospital which admits ‘you have been hurt and need healing’. The Orthodox Church also doesn’t have the theological concept of original sin, thus no one is born ‘bad’ or guilty’. The Orthodox Church has a conception called ancestral sin. The idea you were born into a world with issues and sin and because you are part of this world, down to your atoms, its going to affect you. Christ comes to reunite us with the divine and facilitate that healing and becoming like Christ, or theosis. A part of this is that Orthodoxy is ‘maximalist’ and includes the whole person.
So what about adding some ‘pagan’ stuff? First, I think the term ‘Pagan” is over used for many of the practices, traditions, and cultural observances we follow. Is it ok to celebrate the Church year but also mark the winter and summer solstice or participate in family or cultural customs? That doesn’t seem an issue as those are patterns God has given us. We celebrate and ritually process many things that are not ‘officially’ in the church. The question is what is the basis, is it our life in Christ or are we looking for other gods?
As an addendum this article is good on the historic practices of folk-magical practitioners who were Christians . Witchcraft, Catholicism, and Dual-Faith