Tag Archives: christianity

What you do for the least among you

I went to a Church of England primary school many years ago. There were a lot of assemblies about Christian values and how we should help others. Child-me used to wonder how you could tell whether you were the person who should be doing the helping, or the person who should be helped. Weirdly, no one really got into that. The reality is that proportionally, poor people give a higher percentage of what they have to helping others and supporting charities.

All too often, it’s the poor, the sick and the needy rallying round to help the poor, the sick and the needy. It’s the depressed comforting the depressed, and the survivors looking after each other. It’s the disadvantaged having to speak up to get into the room, not being offered a place at the table. All the while those who have most, do least.

As a child who already knew they were not a Christian, I found the message of care persuasive. I could see why we might have an obligation to care for those worse off than ourselves. It’s a good message, regardless of who or what you believe in. And yet, we have so many people who pay lip service to Christianity who seem to have missed this fundamental message. People for whom poverty equates to sin and wealth to merit in the eyes of God. People who missed the bit about Jesus hanging out with the poor and the prostitutes.

I have huge respect for the Christians who express their faith by volunteering at food banks, getting out on the streets as night pastors, and all other such moves towards doing the needful things.

I think we need to talk more about who needs helping, and how, and why. Otherwise, that ‘help the needy’ can turn into ‘help the deserving poor’ which turns into ‘these poor people brought it upon themselves and don’t deserve help.’ These lines of thought fail to make the connections between trauma and substance abuse, between lack of opportunities and criminality. If we don’t talk about who to help, we don’t talk about systematic poverty. The wealth of your parents remains the best indicator of your own wealth, or lack thereof, in life. The system is rigged.

In the UK, Christianity still dominates our culture and values. If that was the Jesus-centric love thy neighbour sort of Christianity, we’d be fine, but it’s not. There’s a habit that certainly goes back to the Victorians of requiring the deserving poor to be meek and humble. You should be deeply grateful for whatever crumbs you get. You should be sexually abstinent, sober, clean. Your rags should have been carefully washed and mended. You should look properly poor and downtrodden, but not in a way that could cause offence to your ‘betters’. You should not be angry with your lot, or resentful, or speaking out, or rebellious. This whole line of logic is still with us – every time a refugee or a homeless person is criticised for having a mobile phone. Every time poverty is blamed on drinking and/or smoking. Every time we talk about young mothers getting themselves pregnant. Every time someone decides that a human being in crisis does not deserve to be helped.

I don’t particularly care what deities, if any, you believe in. But I do care about your values. I care about the deeply flawed culture we’ve inherited. We need to change our stories.

All Hallows Day

Halloween comes to us from the Christian calendar, and is an abbreviated name for All Hallows Eve. It also used to be called ‘all souls night’ while the all Hallows bit refers to November the first being All Saints Day. As a consequence it always amuses me to find misinformed, anxious Christians talking about the dangers of Halloween, that well known festival of all things evil and occult. Sorry folks, it was your festival all along. Yes, Samhain falls at the same time, but once you start poking the Catholic calendars of old, it’s pretty hard to find a date that isn’t potential cause for celebration. Every saint has their day and people can celebrate the day of the saint they were named after, if they are so inclined.

Once upon a time, the Christian church understood that death was a powerful force and that people need to set aside time and contemplate it, and make peace with it. The Mexican day of the dead festivities are a fine case in point. I don’t know if the rise of visible Paganism has gone alongside the Christian fear associated with this, their festival. The rise in commercial exploitation hasn’t helped.

For the fearful, it’s a slippery slope. You start by letting kids wear pointy hats and carve pumpkins and before you know it, they’ll be worshipping Satan and dabbling in dangerous occult practices. Satan, it is often forgotten, is a figure from Christian mythology. He may parallel certain goat footed Pagan Gods but that’s a whole other story.

When did the Church start trying to be so clean and safe? All Saints day, today, would have honoured the saints. The majority of people ‘blessed’ with the title got it by dying in strange, grotesque, horrible ways. The kind of deaths that modern torture porn films could really get their teeth into. Its odd, really, that this material has never been mined for entertainment. The mentality that would draw a big crowd to watch someone being hung, drawn and quartered is alive and well and sitting in a cinema near you, waiting for the strange catharsis of gore. Mediaeval Christianity was full of the dark and grotesque. Tombs depicting decomposing corpses, horrible faces in the church roof – all the material of fear and reality, right there. The depictions of Hell used to be pretty wild, too, all naked flesh and horrible torment. But again, we have the cinema for that, we don’t go to church expecting to see people having their breasts torn off.

Religions evolve. All Hallows Day has all but vanished, and Hallow ‘een as take over, and been kicked out of the Christian calendar to become a strange, secular rite involving costumes and chocolate. Next time someone tells you that Paganism is somehow invalidated by its youth, or by not being the same as ancient Paganism, hold this thought. The Christianity that decries Halloween today would not make the slightest sense to the people who celebrated as a Christian festival it not so many generations ago.

Christian ancestors, pagan perspective

The Bah and also humbug blog post caused a lot of good discussion over on facebook. The point was made – and I think Jayne said something similar here too, that we live in a non-pagan context and how we treat others at this socially important time of year, matters. As druids who honour ancestry, respecting those Christian forebears makes sense.

This is going to be a fairly personal post about my relationship with my ancestors. So, my parents are vaguely pagan, dabbled in wicca when I was a child and introduced me to the people who introduced me to The Pagan Federation when I was 18. I’ve got an uncle who is a Catholic priest, (and tolerant enough that he attended my mother’s handfasting, and enjoyed it!) My brother leans towards agnosticism but has spent a lot of time with the Quakers.

My maternal grandmother considered herself Christian. She thought of Jesus as offering a pattern for how we should all aspire to live. I think she was a pantheist alongside this, and did not normally go to church or do anything overtly religious. Her words about divinity in nature helped shaped my paganism when I was young. I don’t know much about my paternal grandparents. My impression is that they were the sort of people to turn up to church for major life events. I really don’t know, they didn’t talk about it much. Further back on their side, I don’t have any idea what anyone believed, but would bet that there were some eccentric dissenting types in the Forest of Dean. Odds are good at any rate.

Then there’s my great grandmother on the maternal side. Born around 1890 at a guess, she decided not to go to church. It made her claustrophobic. Instead, she went for a walk on a Sunday, it was her form of prayer, apparently. To the best of my knowledge, she got away with this for the rest of her life, which when you consider that she was living in a small, rural place, is surprising to say the least. I think her father was a proper Victorian type and a bit of a puritan, and if I remember rightly when he was away, his children let their hair down a bit and were a tad more wild than he would have approved of. Again, here endeth my detailed knowledge. I have names, dates, jobs for others going back, but not much sense of what they believed. Some of them no doubt celebrated Christmas.

I respect my ancestors. Knowing there were a lot of them, going right back to the primordial soup, I can’t hope to honour all of their beliefs. I don’t celebrate Easter at all if I can help it, it’s an easier one to dodge. I don’t do so many things that I know my more recent ancestors would have expected of me, given the chance to make demands. Non-conformist great granny had housework down to an arcane art form, by all accounts. She would find me sloppy, I have no doubt.

I feel I can honour my ancestors without sharing in all the things they did. I know I have blacksmithing ancestors, and hunting, poaching ancestors. There are engineers, soldiers, horse riders… there are so many things they did that I have no skill in whatsoever. But, like my great uncle, I play the violin, and like my Gran I can play the piano, and like my great grandmother I’m happier walking of a Sunday and have no desire to be stuck in a church.

I’d rather be honest with the people around me about who I am and how I feel. I’d rather not participate in any social norm just for the sake of making other people feel comfortable. If my heart isn’t in it, if I hate and resent what I’m doing, it would seem dishonourable to me to go along with it just because it’s expected. That’s not just a Christmas issue. There are all kinds of places where I don’t fit. And equally, if I thought someone was putting up with something they loathed just to humour me, I’d be distraught. Real relationships are based on honesty and good communication, and you can’t have respect if you don’t have enough accurate information to work with.

Each to their own, is very much my feeling. Space for those who genuinely feel moved to do what speaks to them. Space to acknowledge and respect that. Space not to participate if it leaves you cold.

Religion and spirituality

There’s an interesting difference between learning the practice of a religion, and being a spiritual person. It is entirely possible to learn all the rules, and uphold them, master all the ways of doing things, commit all the important bits of writing to memory, and go through life espousing them, without ever once feeling anything other than the satisfaction of having learned and done the prescribed things.

Spirituality is all about first hand experience, encountering the divine, feeling awe, being moved. It doesn’t inherently call for a religious structure to place it in, and it can be at odds with structure based religion, particularly once you throw authority in the mix. Such a lot of the history of Christianity seems to involve authority – to me at least. The authority of the Bible as literal truth has gradually been eroded by science. The authority of religious leaders is not what it was, but the Pope is still supposed to be infallible, bishops still sit in the House of Lords and priests still mediate between their flock and divinity.

Is it possible to be a spiritual person if your feeling, and individual responses have to be mediated by any kind of structure or any other person?

Is it possible to operate within a religion, respecting its rules and boundaries, whilst holding your own sense of integrity and having your own, unmediated spiritual experiences?

I see modern Druidry as an attempt to reconcile the structure of religion with the scope for personal spirituality. I also don’t think it’s unique to us – all pagan faiths are involved in this, and many branches of Christianity that I’ve encountered are moving away from authority towards personal spirituality. But it does create some interesting tensions, not least when it comes to authority. Who has the right to teach? Who has the right to reject someone else’s vision? Who makes the structures? How do we hold those structures in any meaningful way if we are all striving to be enlightened individuals in our own right and on our own terms?

I think the very nature of this makes it a continuous experiment. It’s not something any group will be able to resolve once and just get on with, it will call for continual negotiation between collective and individual ways of being religious, and it will always be easy to tip things too far one way or the other.

Then we can also ask, if this works for Druidry, what other aspects of our lives might be re-worked to better balance between individual needs and collective identity. That has the look of a worm-laden can to me.

Art, religion, druidry

Recently in Tewkesbury abbey I saw an exhibition by Christian artist and priest Iain McKillop. It was incredibly vivid, sensual, physical depictions of Jesus, focusing on his last days. As a consequence it was also heartrending and brutal in terms of subject matter. There were a lot of paintings – Gethsemane, last supper, cross bearing, depictions of crucifixion. There were also images inspired by religious crisis. It was incredible art work, and at the same time, almost unbearable to look at.

Coming to it as a non-Christian, as someone outside the story, I was simply shocked by the intensity of pain. The abbey contains plenty of older, more traditional art. Usually, the crucifixion is portrayed in a very clean, peaceful way. Beautiful colours, peaceful faces. Often Jesus looks like he’s taking a little nap, not dying by one of the most tortuous punishments ever devised. Those older paintings must have informed a lot of perceptions of what the death meant. Jesus dying is usually a gentle, soulful affair. To see it offered up, so bloody, extreme and agonised, is a bit of a shock.

As a druid, I’m very open to art, beauty and expressions of soul. I also seek to be aware of reality in all its complex shades, the pain as well as the pleasure. And still I am stumped by what I’ve seen. Trying to imagine the journey of the artist into creating this kind of work. What does it mean to live with such brutal images? To work on them, unrelentingly? And more importantly, what does the depicted pain and suffering mean?

I believe that everything has the scope to bring meaning and religious experience into our lives. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Pain is no exception. Except that kind of extremis makes it nigh on impossible to think. There comes a point when both physical and emotional pain start to blot you out, so that nothing seems real, nothing is truly experienced beyond it. Is that a religious experience?

It’s easy to turn away from that which horrifies. Especially in art. It’s easiest to close down senses, refuse to engage and go somewhere safer. I stood those paintings for as long as I could bear, and I’ve meditated on them since, and I know I do not understand. All I can offer here is a profound sense of confusion. What does it mean, to offer such suffering as spirituality? For me, pain has taken me away from my spiritual self, not deeper into it. In the aftermath of pain, I have learned compassion and tolerance, and no doubt other things too, but that requires a time after, a peace, a space to regroup and move on. There are things here I feel a need to understand, but I have no idea what to ask, or whom. (Suggestions most welcome).

Tewkesbury abbey also features modern stained glass windows by Thomas Denny. He has windows at Gloucester too. They are beautiful, vivid, detailed and use colour in the most amazing ways. The more you look, the more you see. Light coming through the glass fills the chapel with warmth and every shift of light affects the image. Standing in front of Denny’s work, I see an expression of pantheism, God shining through in all things. It’s not emotionally uncomplicated or free from shadows, but is rich, moving, challenging and inspiring all at once.

I stand before those windows and I see something that fills me with wonder and a sense of the numinous. Just encountering Denny’s art is a religious experience for me. It fills me, nourishes my soul and sends me out into the world wakeful and hopeful. My Druid self loves what he does, and the different sources of our inspiration don’t seem to matter at all. This kind of Christianity, I understand.