Disclosure… I was raised in the Christian tradition. I left the Christian faith twenty years ago.
Christians, at times, refer to themselves indirectly as a flock of sheep. Even when they speak of a time when the lion and lamb lie down together, the lion is thought of as non-Christian and it is the sheep that is most closely identified with. Sheep need a shepherd, otherwise they will be lost.
Pagans do not need shepherds. Pagans are not a flock. Pagans do not identify with sheep and are not seeking a god to save them. A common saying among pagans is ‘the gods help those who help themselves’.
There is a tendency in the the Christian tradition to trust in the Lord, that “the Lord works in mysterious ways”, to have faith and to put your life in the hands of God. If some difficulty befalls one, and if prayer is unable to provide a solution, then one is to trust that there is a deeper, hidden reason for why a prayer went unanswered. There is a perpetual sense that ‘everything happens for a reason’. While this is helpful in alleviating stress during a crisis, I would posit that this is dangerous thinking. To say ‘everything happens for a reason’ implies that *everything*, good or bad, large or small, occurs for a reason that can, and is most likely to be hidden from any form of scrutiny. This further implies that that if one cannot find any rhyme or reason for an event’s occurence then one is to ‘have faith’ and ‘trust in the Lord’ and to listen to someone who is privy to the whims of such a hidden, mysterious, and unknowable deity. In this relationship there is no real incentive to develop, grow, or rise save only in one’s level of submission to, again, the unknowable, mysterious, workings of this hidden deity. A question that was posed in one radio show was how can good people get cancer. The same mentality is found when the likes of Pat Robertson says that the destruction caused along the gulf coast by a hurricane is a reflection of ‘God’s will’ and judgement against the sinful lives of people living there. As incredulous as it sounds there are people who seriously propose that HIV is punishment for a sinful lifestyle.
This is dangerous to a high degree. Not only does it actually lessen the need for critical thinking in one’s ethical behavior (as long as you do what you are told by your religious leaders you are okay because they are told what is right/wrong by the mysterious, hidden, fickle, god) but it also perpetuates, in an odd way, the notion that if one lives a good life and follows the rules (an ambigous, malleable concept) then one will not be smited by the judgment of this deity. Most people believe themselves to be above average, to be good people, and deserving of good things (self-serving bias). However, when something does befall this individual, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, personal illness, and more, it is then taken with a deep emotional feeling of trauma and thoughts of ‘what did I do to deserve this?’ The only consolation that the religous leaders can give to their ‘flock’ is to keep faith (don’t question), follow the rules, and trust that everything happens for a reason and that either the person was punished for some wickedness or the person is being tested in their piety by this hidden deity. Either way, the correct behavior is ONLY to be submissive to the dictates of the shepherd… to be a sheep.
An amusing and ironic point is that I’ve heard some Christians scoff at Islam because it translates into ‘submission to Allah’s will’. The word ‘submission’ is one that does not fall kindly on a typical American’s ears and yet the very nature of the Christian religion is of submission as it is commonly preached by evangelicals when they say that the ONLY way to Heaven is by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord (submission). Without this, they pontificate, there is NO salvation and only damnation. I find it absurd that a loving god would condemn a soul for eternity to a place like Hell, NOT for crimes and evil acts, but ONLY for whether or not someone SUBMITS. Ask the next evangelical you meet if a good person, who has not accepted Jesus, can enter into Heaven, and if a wicked, evil, descpicable murderer who accepts Jesus just prior to death can enter Heaven. No to the first, yes to the second. Again, this isn’t so much about ethics as it is about submission (power and control). To such a system I object wholly.
Many evangelical Christians are quick to bemoan any encroachment on their practice, whether real or imagined, but are quick to look the other way or outright oppress non-evangelicals. Whether it is banning non Christian texts (which is the driving force behind many Southern politicians pushing for private school vouchers so that the private schools can teach the absurd and flawed ‘scientific creationism’, which is not scientific in the least, or the equally absurd ‘intelligent design’, while at the same time banning the teaching of biological evolution), or the creation of laws banning Sharia Law (while conveniently forgetting to ban Christian Dominionism which is expressley about imposing Christian doctrine on government), or banning the civil right of marriage to gays, while marriage is NOT purely a Christian idea in the slightest, on some farcical claim to religous values and tradition (and if anyone wants to support gay marriage they are said to be oppressing Christian religous freedom, a truly odd and perplexing statement). Nobody obtains the attentions and energetic efforts of Christians more so than people who have not or will not submit and join the flock. If Christians put as much energy into practicing kindness, feeding the hungry, helping the poor (generally showing kindness and mercy as Jesus taught) as they do in trying to convert or suppress non-Christians the world would be a different place. As Gandhi said; “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
These problematic mindsets are found among some pagans as well. The reason in the U.S. is that many of us have been born and indoctrinated into the predominant Christian belief system. It is a difficult one to fully exorcise from one’s cognitive and emotional thinking patterns. Among some pagans (and others) there is a misunderstood concept of karma, which isn’t the traditional sense of karma at all but really the above ‘everything happens for a reason’ Christian mindset given a new name. Same belief, new name. Some pagans have merely changed one hidden, mysterious, faith-based system of submission for another name. It is like an alcoholic that changes alcohol, nothing has changed.
Yet a truer part of the pagan community is not one of submission and helplessness but of resiliency and self masterty and anyone who is a part of the pagan community long enough is likely to eventually come into these different ways of thinking. In the pagan community there is, like Christians and others, an expressed value of personal responsibility. But whereas the personal responsibility of the Christian ultimately breaks down into their nature of submission, the pagan mindset is different.
I’ll illustrate an example. It was not uncommon for Christians and Muslims to have battles with the inherent belief that side that had the ‘true’ god on their side would win. Needless to say, both sides won and lost at different times, the inconsistency of which did nothing to deter the beliefs of those involved (see above regarding ‘testing faith’). In contrast, the pagan Romans (prior to the fall of the empire and the grab of power by the Catholics) would seek out their priestly class of war to determine of their cause for war was just or not. If deemed so then the Roman army would fight their battle. If, however, they lost the battle, it was not assumed that the gods were not on their side (the gods did not take sides), but instead it was an indicator that the other army was better, or larger, or more tactically proficient and the Roman army would go back to the drawing board to determine where they went wrong and where they can improve.
Within the pagan traditions there is a truer sense of the heroic, which is lacking in Christian traditions. To be heroic is to fully realize the virtues of a community, usually involving courage and feats. Various gods are not entities to pray (beg) for miracles and to submit to. Instead they are examples of virtues and vices, models and warnings of human behavior. If a pagan hero achieves greatness it is because of their virtue. Again, Christians do not have this notion. One might be thinking now of the example of David who slew Goliath. However it wasn’t the virtue or heroism of David that allowed for him to win the day, it is his submission to Jehovah who guided the rock. In the end the only real virtue is submission. This is the same thing as expressed in the Islamic notion of ‘Insha’Allah’. That there is such warring and fighting among Christians, Jews, and Muslims is astonishing considering the great similarities in attitudes, beliefs, postures, and the like.
There is a notion in the Nordic tradition of the ‘wyrd’ which is an odd thing for someone to initially get their head wrapped around. It is both destiny and free will and this throws people for a loop but it illustrates the pagan perspective of a deep interconnectedness of all things that expands far into the past, into the future, and among all one’s relations. A proper pagan perspective is one of always evaluating what the best relationship to one’s situation is. How does one behave in society? Should we clearcut the forest next to our village? How much fishing ought we endure? And so on. If we over do something in our environment and suddenly find ourselves lacking food or shelter, it isn’t because a god is unhappy with us, it is because we did not take into account all our relations in the immense and complex web of all things. And if one finds oneself in a situation where a dragon is to be slain, a task is done, obstacles overcome, it is an opportunity to express the virtue within, to try and achieve virtue, which is best understood in pagan terms as not something a person has (a character trait) but something that one does and is wholly dependant on the exercise of free will and wise consideration. The existence of virtue, then, is not dependant on the end results but upon the action or the attempt. It isn’t whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Though people like to exclaim Lombardi “winning is everything”, they miss the point of virtue from a pagan perspective completely.