We Really Are Different

an essay by Gini, a psychologist, who requests feedback and comments.

    Because of the cultural environment we are in, nearly all of us must interact with Christian friends and family members, and our understandable tendency is to want to clear up the obvious misunderstandings and stereotypes based on ignorance (We don’t worship the devil, hold ritual orgies, etc.) and then to focus on what unites us, not what divides us, from the Christians in our lives.

    This is our mind-set — in our eyes all spiritual paths are equally valid to those who sincerely believe them and so we simply don’t see why differences in choice of path should be a big deal. It’s live and let live, right? Unfortunately, even when dealing with mainstream, non-fundamentalist, “nice” Christians who sincerely do believe in freedom of religion and separation of church and state as political principles, it doesn’t necessarily work that way.

    We pagan folk of whatever variety really are different from Christians in our world view in at least four important ways and pretending that these differences aren’t there and don’t matter can lead to difficult or at least awkward situations, and unrealistic expectations of tolerance and acceptance.

    The first I’ve already mentioned. Most Christians, even those who consider themselves tolerant and open-minded and who don’t try overtly to convert us, regard Christianity as the (and usually the *only*) true religion. In their eyes we are misguided; we are ill informed; we don’t understand Christianity or else we’d embrace it; we are (if young) going through a rebellious stage; we’re over-reacting to a nasty experience with a so-called Christian, etc. Particularly when it comes to family members, they are only too happy to make excuses for us and wait, with more or less patience, until we “come around” as they are sure we will.

    They honestly don’t see how patronizing this attitude is, how horribly irritating this behavior, which we perceive as arrogance, can be. So our interactions become awkward — our Christian friends and family members are genuinely puzzled and eventually frustrated by us, and we in turn grow increasingly irritated by them. When we’re together, its like rubbing two pieces of sandpaper together, so in time we come to avoid it and drift apart.

    But its all so simple to us — a matter of live and let live and recognition of the validity of the other’s path for them, and wishing joy and spiritual growth to others regardless of the path they choose. Simple to us. Unfortunately, for mutual understanding and respect, only a small minority of Christians can take that view. Even when they make a concerted effort not to interfere with us, from their perspective, our souls are at peril, and not doing something about that sets up a conflict between their behavior and their belief system. So, they bite their tongue and remain silent and uncomfortable, or they speak up and overt conflict results.

    Even when we seem to have found a common language, something we agree on, sometimes we haven’t, not really, and that’s a second fundamental difference. Talk about “taking responsibility” is rampant these days among both Christians and pagans. But, once we agree that it’s a good thing to do, we find we mean very different things by it.

    When we talk about “taking responsibility” we mean accepting the fact that everything we do has consequences and that what we do is our decision to make — we are free to act. As the poet put it, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” In other words, “taking responsibility” means taking charge of ourselves, accepting ourselves as free people with choices to make, and valuing our uniquely human autonomy. We are in charge of us, and accept that we are responsible for the consequences, good and bad, of exercising this freedom.

    But what many Christians mean by “taking responsibility” is following the rules set forth and established by others, even when nobody is watching, of taking ownership of these rules, monitoring their own behavior for adherence to them, and internalizing the rules. In this sense, “ taking responsibility” becomes not an acknowledgment and exercise of freedom but rather an acceptance of voluntary constraints. In that sense, “taking responsibility” involves a surrender and subordination of the self, presumably for the greater good.

    One way of viewing this very profound difference is the distinction made by Joseph Campbell between being subjects of a society and being citizens of it. “Subject” implies a degree of subordinating oneself to a larger society. Citizenship involves taking an active role in molding and shaping the social structure. As anybody who has tried to organize a pagan gathering or function knows, we are really lousy at being followers; we are cats who just don’t herd.

    “Taking responsibility” and the different meanings most of us and most Christians place on it leads to another slippery term, “Self-control”. In this case too, we agree that it’s a good idea. But we differ even more radically in what we mean by it.

    To us, “self-control” means having and maintaining control over ourselves and not surrendering it to another or to a larger force except voluntarily, briefly, and under very special circumstances, (such as when we join energies with others in ritual and let somebody else direct the Work, or when two people merge themselves in the act of love). Self-control means being in charge, in command of one’s self, of doing as we will so long as it harms none. It means exerting control, and positively and intentionally directing our will in order to achieve desired goals. Underlying this view of self-control is the assumption that we as human beings are creatures of intrinsic worth, who have the capacity to achieve good, to achieve beneficial ends through the use of our own will.

    The prevailing (but not only) Christian view could scarcely be more different — self-control involves overcoming one’s “baser” impulses and not doing that which is natural, but rather doing that which social order and Deity seem to require. In short, self-control in this sense means subordinating one’s natural will, rather than harnessing it. Behind this concept is the notion of original sin — that humans are inherently evil — or at least the idea that people are basically amoral and uncivilized.

    In short, to many Christians, “self-control” means subordinating one’s self and to most pagans, it means asserting one’s self. The same term, used with meanings nearly 180 degrees different.

    This difference in viewpoint concerning the intrinsic worth of the self leads to a vast difference in the way we view our relationship with Deity — the fourth and probably the largest, major disparity in world view between ourselves and our Christian friends and family members.

    Most Christians view their relationship with Deity as one where the person is in the role of supplicant who petitions Deity, through prayer and other rituals. How effective prayers will be is dependent on Deity. The human is in a dependent and very much subordinate position in this interaction.

    Deity is to be not just deferred to, but often actually feared, and is viewed as being both above and outside the self. This separation between self and Deity is what the Christian seeks above all to overcome. Those Christians who do not believe in literal hell and brimstone (which is probably most of them) do believe that hell is an afterlife when one is permanently separated from Deity, while heaven is an eternity spent in the company of Deity. In this view, a major goal of this life is to live in such a way that one achieves mystic unity with Deity in the afterlife.

    To most of us, the idea of “fearing” Deity is very hard to comprehend. Deity is viewed as being all around us, and within us, and to fear Deity would be to fear ourselves. Consequently, we seek to work with Deity to achieve our purposes, not to supplicate, beg, bargain, and plea, and the extent to which we succeed depends on us.

    Achieving a oneness with Deity isn’t something that has to wait for an afterlife — it is something that just is, because there is naturally within us all that which is divine, and we have the capacity to get in touch with that part of what is in us. There is no distinct line, in our view, between the “natural” and “supernatural”, between us and the more-than-us.

    To the extent that Christians understand this mind-set of ours, it is, to most of them blasphemy, hubris, and incredible arrogance. It seems to them that we are setting ourselves up as veritable God/desses and surely we will be damned for it. It strikes at the very core of their belief system. They can no more accept our ideas about relationship to Deity than we can accept their claims of being the only true religion. And the result is the same — interactions become uncomfortable and we drift apart.

    Here in Maine, there has been much recent emphasis on reaching out and building bridges, on overcoming misunderstandings and focusing on what unites us, rather than what divides us from the Christians who make up the majority of the society in which we live. Yes, we should do this — educate, gently overcome disinformation, seek to make common cause, join in ritual and celebration. If we are to gain mainstream understanding, it is both necessary and desirable to do these things.

    BUT — when all is said and done, we are different, and these differences go to the core of what and who we are. We cannot make these differences go away or pretend they don’t matter. They are very real and they do matter. We should not go out of our way to magnify them (they are big enough already) but neither should we try to sweep them under the rug. We are who we are, and while we can and should seek greater understanding, we must realize that understanding may not lead to acceptance.


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Essay Copyright © 1999 Gini

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