Pagan Virtue

We are products of our place of birth. One of the truly amazing things about human culture is how quickly it can evolve. As biologists have noted, populations separated by natural barriers such as mountains, big rivers, or oceans, tend to evolve in different directions. They adapt to their environment. So far the world-wide web hasn’t flattened our differences out completely with a cultural creole, and it may be best to celebrate it while we still can. In an article in The Atlantic, “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories,” by Colleen Gillard, answers her titular query with religion. The British, she suggests, are better attuned to their pagan past. In the United States children’s stories tend toward the moralistic, reflecting the Puritan values that some decry as absent from culture. British stories lean toward magic and earthiness in a way that American stories don’t.

Any generalization opens itself for criticism. (Including the generalization I’ve just made, I suppose.) Still, I think Gillard is onto something. Children are magical thinkers and have to be taught not to see what they think they see. We acculturate them into the dull, adult world of making money instead of magic. American kids get started on the entrepreneurial pathway with early moralizing about hard work and attaining goals—just glance at the titles mentioned in the article and see if you can disagree. Christianity arrived in Britain much, much earlier, of course. There it encountered a pagan sensibility that tempered its increasingly harsh edges. Puritanism took the remaining joy from the good news and made it into a very serious belief system, indeed, with eternal consequences that persistently threaten any enjoyment of life. You constantly have to examine and prove yourself. The British allowed their former earthiness to survive, as early epistles to Augustine (not of Hippo) demonstrate.

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The article ends by reflecting on recent American dystopian novels for young adults. These, Gillard suggests, reach toward fantasy in a way earlier efforts didn’t. I wonder if a bleak future is the natural consequence of founding a nation under the eye of an ever watchful, and vengeful, deity. Even a Trump may appear righteous with a Pence in his pocket. We’ve got to return to those old Puritan ways of subjecting women to men to make America great again. As this mass insanity continues to grow and infects the internet, dystopian futures appear to be strangely prescient. The C. S. Lewis of real life was not the grinning evangelical that modern-day candy Christians suppose. He knew a faun wasn’t what it seemed.

Pagan Religion

TriumphMoonFraming. Much of what we call “religion” has to do with framing. At one time it was standard practice to assume “pagan” was distasteful, if not downright evil. “Witch” was a pejorative term intended to humiliate and excoriate. Ronald Hutton is one of the few scholars who has taken the time to consider Wicca and related religions seriously. The Triumph of the Moon: a History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft has been on my reading list for quite some time. It is a big book, but this is a complex subject that can’t be dealt with briefly. Taking the time to get to know witches, with a historian’s patience, Hutton has given the world a valuable, balanced resource. Without prejudice, he traces how paganism, Wicca, and witchcraft are religions difficult to define or even categorize. There is little to frame them.

Rumor and hearsay make poor substitutes for understanding a religion. Most of what I grew up learning about witches was, in short, completely wrong. I wonder how much more pleasant the world might be if people assumed religions all to be similar in many ways. They are varied attempts to find ways of being moral in a world that gives little clear instruction on the matter. Witches and pagans are only evil in the uninformed opinions of more powerfully established religions. Religions of empire, whether real or only imagined. Those that had political backing and brute force to anathematize those who were different. Theirs is still a stigma that persists.

The Triumph of the Moon recounts the development, since the early part of the last century, of a somewhat organized experiment of religion as it grows organically. Without a leading figure or spokesperson, radically egalitarian, these groups, while sometimes in conflict, coalesce around the practice of finding something magical in the world. Theirs is an educated, literate world that does not judge other religions. It isn’t perfect, but then what religion is? The belief structure isn’t so different than many established religions except in the matter of degree. It is private and secretive in a way that we could only wish in many religions, if they could be counted on to behave themselves. I’m not likely to do a sky-clad spiral dance any time soon, but I would say that if we took religions at their word for being what they say they are, we might have a lot more resembling that of the noble pagan.

Sleepy Hallow

Sleepy_hollow_ver2Upon occasion I found movie clips to be of great help in explaining ideas in religion classes. A movie whose clips I used sparingly, due to concerns for squeamishness, was Sleepy Hollow (the Tim Burton movie, not the modern television series). Upon viewing it again recently, I was impressed by just how much religion is intertwined in the narrative. This is especially interesting since Washington Irving’s story does not contain much in the way of religious symbolism or motifs. From the beginning of the film, Rev. Steenwyck is one of the conspirators, making the church complicit in the attempt to subvert the van Garrett will. When Ichabod Crane arrives in Sleepy Hollow the cleric drops a Bible—a recurring motif in the movie—on the table beside him, telling Ichabod it is the only book he will need. Christianity and Paganism clash throughout the film as a number of the women are revealed to be witches, either “innocents” or practitioners of a darker kind of magic.

In flashbacks Ichabod Crane recalls his mother’s white magic that draws the ire of his ordained father. Indeed, Ichabod’s father is a stylized amalgamation of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism blended into one. His harsh white chapel houses an inquisitorial torture chamber in which he murders his wife. Seeing her pagan symbols in the fireplace ash, he too drops a heavy Bible to point out his wife’s sins. When he stalks off from his medieval chamber of horrors, the camera angle shows him to be headless—he is the true terror, rather than the Horseman who was raised by magic and appeased by the simple return of stolen property—his head. Even in the present Rev. Steenwyck is both an adulterer and a murderer. The melee in the church leaves the final three conspirators dead.

The white witches, however, are marked by their purity. Mother Crane is so light that she can float up into the air. Katrina van Tassel draws chalk icons to protect Ichabod, indeed, the whole town, from evil. While Ichabod refers to his father with the evocative phrase “Bible-black tyrant,” his mother was an innocent child of nature. In the film Ichabod moves from the rational view of life to one that allows for the supernatural, in the form of magic. True, the Horseman cannot cross onto the consecrated ground of the church (another Catholic concept mixed in with the Protestant milieu), but the faith that saves Ichabod’s life is the book of spells given to him by Katrina. Yes, the physical book stopped a material bullet, but it was faith the put the book in the pocket in the first place. All very appropriate to bring students’ minds to religion in the autumn of the year.

Rorschach Test

Rutgers University, College Avenue Campus. I recall coming out on a sweltering night once in a while during a summer term, only to find a street evangelist inveighing against undergraduate evils. He, and it was invariably a he, may have delved into the darker sins of graduate students, but I didn’t stay around to find out. Colleges attempt to educate while street preachers try to halt the process. Shall we go forward or retreat? I occasionally run into off-campus preachers on my university visits. I still look like a professor, I suppose, so I am treated to their version of salvation along with the people less than half my age, facing all the temptations of adulthood. The last evangelists I saw were handing out tracts about the evils of tattoos. I know tattoos are very popular, although I’ve personally never seen the draw. With one eye cast warily ahead, I think of what happens when that firm bit of skin starts to sag and the bold decoration begins to shrivel to make us look less like rebels and more like crepe paper left too long in the rain. Besides, I could never think of a picture that I’d want attached to me for the rest of my life. Too many changes come along, best leaving tattoos for those who appreciate a strong dose of irony.

Tattoo

Our evangelist friends, of course, object because tattoos are expressly forbidden in the Hebrew Bible. “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you. I am the Lord,” so the Lord declares in Leviticus 19. I resisted the urge to ask my ersatz savior if his clothing contained any blends of materials, forbidden earlier in the same chapter. Or if he trimmed the hair on the sides of his head. Or rotated his crops. The problem, according to the tract, is that tattooing was considered a heathen or pagan activity as Christianity spread to new lands. Presumably the very popular cross or crucifix tattoo design had not yet evolved. The tattoo is a tribal mark, indicating loyalty to a (presumably unChristian) group. My tract sets itself out on a history of tattooing, and suggests that it became popular as a form of entertainment, suggestively knocking on the door of that devil, idleness. They even cite Rick Warren as making church too entertaining. This isn’t supposed to be fun, people!

The real problem is that tattooing is getting society prepared to receive the mark of the beast. With echoes of Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth (now severely dated), the tract tells us that the mark is a tattoo and that among the most popular designs is the dragon. China, which venerates the dragon, is hostile to Christians—coincidence?! And, it should be noted, “Studies have shown that WOMEN who get DRAGON tattoos become more SELF CONFIDENT and ASSERTIVE” (emphasis in the original). And that, they want us to believe, is a bad thing. At least with Fundamentalists, agendas are rarely hidden. Too many assertive women and scheming foreigners are trying to lead us to the very tattoo parlor of the beast. Who knew that so much could be unpacked from half a verse in Leviticus? The name Levi, by the way, some suggest, comes from the same root as leviathan, the dragon.

Which Lethbridge Witch?

witcheslethbridge Thomas Charles Lethbridge was a twentieth-century explorer. I knew his name only from book covers, and since books published before the cynical 1980s have a feel of the parsimoniousness to them, I tend to be trusting. As a former academic, my choice of reading is, in an odd way, sequential. You see, academic research is often a matter of following leads, rather like Sherlock Holmes with his clues. One thing leads to another. I’ve been learning about paganism at work, and so when I noticed T. C. Lethbridge’s book, Witches: Investigating an Ancient Religion, I figured that I might learn something about belief in witches in the Middle Ages. The book was published by the Routledge Kegan Paul phase of my employer in 1962. I quickly learned that Lethbridge was far from conventional, even in the twenty-first century.

Lethbridge’s book on witches turned out to be a romp through mostly Celtic mythology, with a bit of Norse and ancient Near Eastern myth thrown in for good measure. It turns out that Lethbridge literally did believe in the power of magic and was no slouch when it came to dowsing. In the great Frazerian tradition, Lethbridge brings together some elements that are probably best left separate, but the result is undeniably interesting and entertaining. I’m not sure he would be considered a balanced source for research purposes today, yet his book does contain unexpected insights. But no witches. Witches, according to Lethbridge, were adherents of the old gods. Their worldview collapsed with geocentrism and there was little left for magic to do in an empirical world.

Lethbridge’s constellation has dimmed from the scholarly zodiac. In recent days he has found a new set of disciples, however, who see his work as profoundly prophetic, in a manner of speaking. Lethbridge was an occult investigator before such pursuits became big business. Among mainstream academics these ideas still fall into the category of bogus, naive, or superstitious, but that is beginning to change in some quarters. Lethbridge, as it quickly becomes apparent, reserved a kind of scorn for establishment academics. It is true that stepping out of line has its consequences even in the rarified halls of higher education, but the results of the research are often of high quality. Even witches can be studied with an academic eye. The difference seems to be that T. C. Lethbridge believed what the witches said. That makes him a real explorer.

Palming the Truth

For some today is Palm Sunday. For others it is not. And I’m not referring to those outside the Christian camp. For many Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lent is just beginning as others prepare to celebrate Easter. Such divisions in the priesthood of all believers. The message was brought home to me when a friend emailed me an article from Archon News headlined “For the first time since the Great Schism, Ecumenical Patriarch to attend Pope’s inaugural mass.” For those of you outside the thrill-a-millennium Catholic-Orthodox drama, it might help to know that about the middle of the eleventh century, Christianity experienced its first major schism. The issues were insignificant to all but those who had far too much time on their hands, but the list of grievances grew and festered for centuries until a clean-shaven Pope and heavily bearded Patriarch stopped inviting each other to one another’s parties. It seems that Pope Francis may be seeing the beginning of the end of that particular tiff.

Christianity is one of the most fragmented faiths in the world. Tens of thousands, yea, myriads of denominations exist. And if some of them got together and compared notes, I suspect they’d be shocked to learn that they are just the same as some of the others. Religious belief is deeply personal and highly individualistic. Belonging to a religious body is more a matter of commitment than it is a full agreement on every point—rather like a marriage, I suppose. The funny thing is people join religions that they like, suspecting that these copacetic beliefs will somehow save them from Hell. You can literally write your own ticket to Heaven, based on this system. No religion is right because all religions are right. And we wonder why people are eager to kill one another over matters of belief.

So, is it Palm Sunday or not? It depends entirely on your point of view. Roman Catholicism, followed by many Protestant groups, considers the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox to be Easter. Never mind that all this equinox stuff smacks of its Pagan forebears—even Easter is named after the Germanic goddess Ostara. I can’t pretend to know how various Orthodox groups calculate their Easter, but the fact is that both dates can’t be right. Unless, of course, one of them is really a celebration of Ostara. Or maybe both are. And if it comes to a matter of debate, it will mean the birth of even more denominations.

Ostara laughs to see such sport

Ostara laughs to see such sport

Religion and Its Discontents

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Travel broadens the mind. I’ve always felt that travel, for those who pay attention when they do it, is one of the best forms of education available. When I do campus visits for work, my time is spent talking to faculty, but on my walks between appointments I keep an eye out for my own education. This past week at the University of Texas in Austin, I couldn’t help but notice how much religion still plays into the lives of many people—even undergraduates. One of the first things I noticed as I approached campus was the sign outside a Methodist Church announcing a sermon series entitled “When Christians Disagree.” Anyone with experience within, let alone between, denominations knows that disagreement is endemic. It would be difficult to find a single point of Christian teaching that is universally held among Christians without at least one group of dissenters. In my own experience, disagreements run deeply within Christian denominations, and the hatred experienced is often more fierce than that between Christians and “heathens.”

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Well, maybe not between some Christians and Islam. So on a campus kiosk I found posters for a seminar entitled “Muhammad: Messenger of Peace.” In a largely Christian context, Muslim students have a difficult time with their religion being castigated in the media and in popular thought. Almost all religions are capable of violence (I was going to write “All religions” but I couldn’t think of any instances where Jains have incited violence), but most highly value and promote peace as the ideal. Few religions are actually founded on violence. I’ve heard many Christians make the claim that Islam is about conquest, pointing to the rapid expansion of Islam following the time of Muhammad. They often overlook the Crusades, one of the most violent Christian reactions to another religion in history. Is Christianity all about violence? Who is “the prince of peace” anyway?

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On a bulletin board I saw a notice for Asatru, the Pagan Student Alliance. If any religious group is misunderstood, surely it is Pagans. Christian missionaries liberally used “pagan” to denigrate the old religions they encountered throughout the world. Often attempts were made to eradicate such beliefs completely. With some success. Many forms of paganism today are revivals of the old religions, and a few are actual survivals. The Pagans I know are moral, peace-loving people as well. Claims of human sacrifice (often fabricated) aside, paganism was, and is, an attempt to make peace with the planet upon which we find ourselves. Peace, it seems, is a desideratum of many religions. If we studied college campuses, where such beliefs are encouraged to coexist, we might find a model that would work for people in the “real world.” And perhaps peace really would have a chance.

Invoking Imbolc

As the year continues her eternal circle, we find ourselves once again at Imbolc, the cross-quarter day between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Imbolc is an ancient fire festival, and given how chilly our apartment has been these last few weeks, I think I could be downright pagan about it. Dividing the year into eighths, the pre-Christian calendar emphasizes the seasonal aspect of nature. The festival was originally dedicated to the goddess Brighid who became, in her later years, St. Brighid. Naturally, when the Celtic lands were converted, Imbolc was supplanted, somewhat, by the following day—not yet Groundhog Day—Candlemas, or the feast of Mary of the Candles. Diametrically apposed to Samhain, or Halloween, Imbolc celebrates the rekindling of light in a dark time of year. Some have suggested that the festival has roots as early as the Neolithic Period.

One feature of the old religions that was lost with the more transcendent interests of monotheism is the dedication to the earth. Religion, in its earliest forms, grew out of a profound awareness of human connections to the planet that was their home. Without our planet we do not thrive. Even though we’ve learned to catapult ourselves into space, our bodies don’t work so efficiently in zero gravity. (Read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars for the gory details.) We evolved on and are part of the earth. Early peoples knew that instinctively. Their religion reflects that implicitly. Kindling a fire in winter is a small way of encouraging the light and warmth to return.

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Brighid, a goddess who represents the return to fertility with the earliest beginnings of spring, may also represent the earth. It will be at least another month or two before many of us will begin to see the hints of crocuses breaking through the wan grass, but Imbolc is all about turning that corner. The earth that seems to have forsaken us in the desolate winter is now about to welcome us back into the growing time. It is no wonder that, despite efforts of the missionaries, elements of the old religion remained. Whether with candles or bonfires, the pagan goddess Brighid, or the Christian Saint Brighid, ushers in February, our last full month of winter. And tomorrow, the groundhog will remind us once again that we are merely part of the earth.

Old-Tyme Religion

Run, two, three, jump, slap, run, two, three, jump. I can’t believe that I’m Molly dancing on a January afternoon with total strangers and it’s just over freezing out. And my big brother’s on the side watching me mess up every step. It must be wassail season again. In a festival that always reminds me of The Wicker Man (1973, please!), I visited the 16th annual wassailing of the trees at Terhune Orchards on Sunday. Molly dancers and Morris dancers, or Mummers, from Philadelphia help make this occasion festive. The ceremony of wassailing the trees clearly has deep pagan roots and is influenced in some respects by Christianity. We sing a wassailing hymn (one that many would recognize from Christmas time), say a wassailing prayer, make a loud noise to drive the demons from the trees, dunk bread into a pail of cider and hang it from the trees. Another festivity involves writing a wish on a slip of paper and burning it in the fire. My wish from last year came true—I can’t say what it is here—giving it a success rate better than some prayers.

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Watching this year’s wish rise up in the smoke, I have high hopes for the apples and dreams.

Christianity owes much to various pagan traditions. Often we don’t see it because Christianity (and many religions, actually) tends to absorb former beliefs and practices, “baptizing” them when it can’t expunge them. Pagan gods have often become saints, whether they want to or not. When the Christianity is peeled back there is a very human charm underneath. We worry whether the fruits will return, whether the days will get longer, or whether the cold will ever break. There are powers that exist outside our grasp, and call them Christ or call them spirits, we want them to be on our side.

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Throughout Europe and much of the rest of the Christianized world, the pagan traditions are called “the old religion.” Religions like to claim antiquity as part of authenticity. In fact, the earliest religions were surely shamanistic and very earth based. Revealed religions claimed to supplant much of what people did to ensure the continued regularity of nature. Even though we know the earth is spinning around the sun and that the tilt of its axis makes for seasonal change. I know that whether or not I dip bread into cider and jamb it onto the bare branches, even if I don’t shake the noisemakers to frighten the demons, the apples will grow. But we are all human too, and I’m only too happy to join the Molly dancers if only next summer the apples will come.

Chrismahanukwanzadan

Happy holidays from a pluralistic world! Whenever I see the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs that crop up this time of year, I think of the wonderful profusion of holidays that people from most faiths can share without being territorial about it. After all, the Pagans got there first—the Christian Christmas predates Jesus by centuries, it turns out. So when my daughter wished me a happy Chrismahanukwanzadan—from a mix of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan—I had to smile. Seems like some in the younger generation are really starting to get it. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but a holiday that celebrates people getting along is worth the effort. Being possessive of our holidays rings of hollow triumphalism—I feel happy because I have something that you don’t. Is this really the spirit of this secular season of giving wrapped in many confessional names? I’m sure shepherds and Magi didn’t exactly share a Weltanschuung.

Those who despair the lack of Christmas have not spent much time with history. As a cultural holiday the celebration of Christmas is younger than the United States, at least in this context. From the beginning Christmas was a pastiche of traditions from different religions celebrating aspects of Odin, Sol Invictus, Jesus, and Zarathustra, at the very least. Bringing these religious figures together into a season that represents the human need for light amid a dark and cold time of year, who would want to exclude others from their own holiday traditions? Having stood in the bleak fields of the Orkney Islands in a massive stone circle aligned to the winter solstice and constructed over a millennium before the birth of Christianity, I have to believe Christmas is one of the earliest expressions of human desire and certainly not limited to Christians.

What makes a holiday holy? Is it exclusive rights like those slapped on every movie you pop into the DVD player? The trademarking of an idea someone else thought of? Religions have a long history of forsaking the spirit of the law for the letter—its most familiar name is dogma. No matter who came up with the idea of doing what we can to bring a little light back into the dreary world around the time when night seems unending, it is a cause that any person of any religion, or none at all, can fully appreciate. Instead of marking territory, should not those who claim Christmas as their own be glad to share it with all? If the one who’s birth the church proclaims at this time of year in no way improves our outlook to others we might wonder if there should be cause to celebrate at all. My answer, such as it is, is Happy Chrismahanukwanzadan!

A holiday in anyone's book

A holiday in anyone’s book

The Power of Magic

Open-minded academics are somewhat hard to find much of the time. This stands to reason when jobs are already rare and having a reputation for thinking outside the box frequently equals thinking outside the academy. I am always pleased, therefore, to find unconventional works by credentialed authors. I just finished reading Sabina Magliocco”s Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Magliocco takes head on the dilemma that non-empirically verified experiences sometimes do happen. Of course, Paganism accepts that as a matter of course, and Magliocco notes that many Pagans hold advanced degrees in the sciences and some even have university posts. Experiences have a way of defying the rules. Most of us have had a bizarre coincidence or uncanny occurrence or two transpire in our lives. We are trained, via our scientific worldview, to shake our heads and try to dismiss it. Magliocco pauses to wonder if we’re perhaps being too hasty.

Sabina Magliocco is an anthropologist with a legitimate doctorate and a university post. Witching Culture is largely an analytical study of Paganism, but it also allows for the possibility that experiential knowledge might complement academic knowledge. This remains a debated issue among specialists: who can really know a phenomenon objectively? Many argue that empirical data reveal the truth of the matter, but truth remains a slippery concept. At the opposite debating table sit the smaller coterie that argue that you can’t study magic until you’ve experienced it firsthand. The debate does not divide along even lines and this is reflected in society at large. We accept the utility of science, but many still pray for divine intervention. Specialists in religion fear to take sides—after all, jobs are hard to find and increasingly harder to keep.

Fully aware that the modern Pagan movement is a revival movement following the hiatus of Christendom in Europe, Magliocco nevertheless admits to being a practitioner. Fascinating her readers with first-hand accounts of mystical experiences, she draws back to try to analyze what has just happened. And she tells us so. Years ago, as part of a seminary assignment, I attended an Al-Anon meeting as an observer. I am, however, the adult child of an alcoholic and when the circle came around to me I confessed to being both an observer and a person seeking healing. It was a difficult place to be, so I respect what Sabina Magliocco is offering us here. Anthropologists increasingly doubt the possibility of pure objectivity, and even physicist Werner Heisenberg realized that to observe is to be part of the experiment. And so are we all.

Symbolic Confusion

While on a drive through New England, we were discussing Islam with our daughter. Now I’m no expert on Islam, but I have covered it in a few classes. It has had a presence in America for a couple of centuries at least, probably first arriving with slaves from Africa. As we drove into Springfield, Massachusetts, I saw four slender towers rising into the sky off the highway and said, “Look, it’s a mosque,” supposing the towers to be minarets. When we drew closer, it was clear that these were really just the decorated finials of a quite secular bridge. Embarrassed at my mistake, my family was kind enough to console me with the suggestion that the four towers from that angle did look like the accoutrements of a mosque. (Earlier in the day I had seen my first Sikh temple in Connecticut, so the mistake might be at least slightly justified.) My wife mentioned how misidentified symbolism could be confusing. This spurred me to consider how symbolism frequently becomes a stand-in for reality.

I’ve been reading about witches lately. Like many legendary fears, witches can be interpreted in many ways. They have their origins in the belief that nature may be manipulated by will over a distance and had been feared for the effectiveness of their powerful spells. After the tragic witch-hunts of the Middle Ages ran their horrible course, witches came to be seen as the result of overactive imaginations and rampant superstition. The modern Pagan movement has revitalized the witch in a somewhat safer environment, and has applied various symbols to it. Thor’s hammer, the ankh, and the pentacle are considered the symbols of modern witches by various covens and practitioners. While passing by a department store on East 43rd Street, I noticed apparel decorated with pentacles—the symbolism adopted by some witches.

This reminded me of a fracas that erupted some years back when a fashion designer incorporated the ornate letters of the Arabic script into the design of a sleek dress that left less to the imagination than a traditional burka. The designer expressed surprise when Muslims objected to words from the Quran being used to decorate immodestly covered women’s bodies. In both these scenarios symbolism has demonstrated its power for being what philosophers call the Ding an sich, the thing itself. Symbols are often that way, bridging as they do the worlds of religious thought and secular existence. I wonder how much we as a society would gain from letting bridges be symbols that participate in the reality they represent.

Darkest Night

One of the more endearing of human weaknesses is our fear of the dark. For those who live north of the equator, we have just experienced our longest night. It is no coincidence that the religious holidays that occur in winter feature light. In our helplessness against the encroaching darkness, we light our Christmas trees and Hanukkah candles, adding just a bit more light to the world. Among the oldest of all holidays is the day that marks the birth of light’s resurrection. One need not be a pagan to appreciate the solstice and the inherent hope it bears for the return of the sun.

In this season we often see signs and hear laments about the absence of Christ from Christmas. Jesus was not born in winter, according to our best reckoning. One of the carols that drives me mad with distraction is “In the Bleak Midwinter” with its maudlin description of “snow on snow on snow”—clearly written by someone with limited experience of winters in Israel. Christmas falls near the solstice because people have from earliest memory recognized the sacredness of this season. When Jesus was born nobody knew he was to become so famous as to have one of the most popular Facebook pages ever, and so nobody thought to write it down. Even the Gospels the disciples never give a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” while on the dusty highway. What we’re celebrating is that night will not reign forever.

Having evolved to favor our eyesight, but lacking the standard mammalian nocturnal nature, we feel vulnerable in the dark. Even if Jesus hadn’t been born we’d be celebrating at this time of year. It might have been the re-living of the mythic Golden Age of humanity under Saturn that the Romans called Saturnalia, or it might have been the rejoicing over the resurrection of the beloved god Balder among the Norse. We might have had to wait until the days were noticeably longer to fete the goddess Brigid with the Celts at Imbolc, but we would have marked the occasion. Instead of cursing the pagan darkness, as the saying goes, we would light our feeble candles as a sign of hope. The reason for the season is the fact that the longest night is over and once more our days will slowly return light to our lives.

Here comes the sun

Cherry Pie

It is one of those days when it is too hot to move. The heat is the kind that gives you a headache, and the Internet beckons. Thus I came across Cherry Hill Seminary. Having been a seminary professor in a previous life, I’m always interested in the craft. This particular seminary, however, is unlike any other. Advertising itself as “the first and only graduate-level education for Pagan ministry in the world,” Cherry Hill offers pastoral education for those who identify themselves as Pagan. I find the concept fascinating. In an age where the standard offerings of the religious marketplace are experiencing their own kind of recession, the alternatives seem to be flourishing.

Just last night I was explaining to my class how the difference between the religious and the pagan is simply a matter of perspective. Used pejoratively “pagan” means any non-Christian, generally. “Infidels,” “heathens,” or “godless fill-in-the-blanks”—religions crave the handy moniker to make those who are different into “the other.” It is easier to detest a person with a label. Cherry Hill Seminary, however, offers a respectful view towards religious education. The school, which offers its program online, has the goal of educational accreditation. From some of the seminaries I’ve experienced, the bar should not be too high. My only concern is that the uniqueness of this program might fade into the background against some of the weirdness that ATS accredits among the mainstream schools.

Starting at least as early as the Bible, religions have looked upon each other as dogs straying into a bigger dog’s yard. Each one wishes to be the strongest one, the most respected and applauded. Why should paganism be excluded? Requiring a bachelor’s degree for admission, Cherry Hill offers courses in Text, Tradition & Interpretation; Nature, Deity & Inspiration; Pagan Pastoral Counseling; Public Ministry & Expression; and Pagan Advocacy & Leadership. Some of these offerings sound more informative than various seminary classes I suffered through. And on days when it’s hot like this, fantasies come easily. It is not too hard to imagine, especially based on my own experience, being treated more humanely by a pagan than by one who claims my own religious heritage.

When the cherry tree blossoms...