(Note from Daven: This is not my own authorship, but it’s an excellent article about Christianity for those who have not encountered it before. It’s written to be tongue in cheek, meaning a joke, but it’s accurate enough that I include it here. I have the author’s permission to post it)
By Wood Avens
Most Pagans encounter Christians from time to time, but do not always know much about the religion of Christianity and what Christians are likely to believe. It is, of course, a very large subject, to which many months of study could be devoted. A brief overview of the main characteristics may, however, be helpful.
Christianity is based around the myth of the death and ‘resurrection’ (return to life) of the deity Jesus, who is also called by the title of ‘Christ’. It is not a monolithic religion: it is divided into countless groups, sects and cults. These are often called ‘denominations’ or ‘churches’: the term ‘church’ means both a grouping of Christians and a particular physical building. (This is similar to the two senses in which Pagans might use the terms ‘temple’ or ‘grove’). The main Christian groupings are the Roman Catholic church, the Orthodox churches (Russian and Greek), and the larger Protestant churches. In addition to these there are endless smaller groupings, most of which have at some point broken away from one of the larger churches, usually because they take a different approach to some aspect of Christian doctrine. The Protestant churches, including the Anglican (English) church, are continuations or offshoots of those which split away from the Catholic (meaning ‘universal’) church during the Reformation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries CE. (For Pagans interested in the points of doctrinal difference between the main churches, or in the history behind them, the website www.religioustolerance.org is a good place to start.)
Within such a wide range, it is hard to find even one topic on which all of these churches agree, and in conversation with any Christian a Pagan should avoid making assumptions about their personal beliefs. However, in broad terms there are a number of doctrines (teachings) and other features which are central to Christianity, even if different groups disagree about the detail of their interpretation. The list which follows is not in any order of priority or importance, as different groups emphasize different concepts. These include:
- The concept of ‘sin’
- The concept of ‘redemption’
- The necessity, and virtue, of ‘belief’
- Monotheism: a single male god – usually, however, in the form of a ‘Trinity’
- Male supremacy and hierarchy: women have an unequal and lesser role in most Christian churches
- Duality: everything is either good or evil
- Exclusivity: ‘Christianity is the only right and true religion, all others are wrong or evil’
- The Christian Bible as their ultimate authority
Sin is a particularly Christian term. It refers not only to those actions which a person knows or believes are ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, or ‘wicked’, but also to the inborn state of badness which many Christians believe is everyone’s natural condition. Although most branches of Christianity have clear rules setting out what they believe is ‘right’ and (especially) what is ‘wrong’ (thus reducing personal responsibility for individual actions), it is, nonetheless, not possible to avoid ‘sin’ by ‘being good’. The only way in which Christians can free themselves from ‘sin’ and its consequence, eternal punishment, is to ‘repent’ (regret, feel sorry) and to seek forgiveness from the Christian God, which is forthcoming provided they believe in, or have faith in, the doctrine of redemption.
Redemption is the term used for the doctrine that the death by crucifixion (a Roman form of execution) of Jesus served as a form of sacrifice or plea-bargain, such that the Christians’ God is prepared to accept Jesus’ death as a substitute for the punishment which, according to most Christian groups, must be expected by any sinful member of humanity: their God will let them off their punishment provided they ‘repent’ and ‘believe in’ (put faith in) Jesus. In some sects this is also called ‘salvation’ or ‘being saved’.
Belief, in the Christian context, is used in the very specialized meaning of ‘deliberate, willed faith’. This has two applications: first, the more difficult a doctrine is to believe, the more credit a Christian acquires by believing it. Second, the conviction that Jesus has ‘saved’ one from sin and from eternal damnation is called ‘believing in’ (and sometimes ‘believing on’) Jesus. ‘Evangelical’ Christians hold that they have a duty to try to ‘convert’ non-Christians by inducing in them an insight or revelation which impels them to believe.
Monotheism is a doctrine held by all Christians: they have a single male god, whom they usually call simply ‘God’ or ‘the Lord’. However, they also identify ‘three persons’ (‘the Trinity’) in this deity, usually ‘God the Father’, ‘God the Son’ (Jesus, also called ‘Lord’ or ‘the Savior’), and ‘God the Holy Spirit’ or ‘Holy Ghost’. Initially, branches of Christianity existed which believed only in one deity, and which regarded Jesus simply as an historical character (located in first-century Palestine) and not also as a deity equal with ‘God’: however, this doctrine was overthrown in the fourth century CE. (Today a similar view is held by Unitarians, but many other groups deny that Unitarians are Christians at all.) Christians worship (honor, adulate) and pray (seek help, make requests, or simply talk) to ‘God’ and to Jesus, though only rarely to the ‘Holy Spirit’. Some denominations also allow their followers to pray to saints (dead or mythical people who have been designated as particularly holy), notably to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Although the leaders of these denominations insist on a distinction between deity and sainthood, it is not always clear to their followers or discernable in practice. Most Christians do not invoke either deities or saints, although this is sometimes done by priests.
Male supremacy was built into the Christian church by at least the fourth century CE, although there is some evidence that the first Christians operated within a framework of equality, attracting many women away from the more patriarchal and misogynistic systems of Judaism and Roman paganism. The doctrine of male supremacy is based partly on the Biblical myth of ‘the fall’ in which Eve tempts Adam to eat a forbidden apple, from which some Christians conclude that women are intrinsically more ‘evil’ than men; partly on a passage from the Christian Bible to the effect that the head of a household must always be a man; and partly on the tradition that the ‘apostles’ of Jesus (his chosen group of close followers) were all men. From this it is argued that the offices of priest, bishop, etc can only be passed down from male to male (‘apostolic succession’), in what is also a strictly hierarchical system in which the majority of ordinary Christians, both female and male, are under the authority of a few male priests or ‘clergy’. The Roman Catholic church still holds strictly to this and has no female priests; others have to a greater or lesser extent relaxed this rule. A few of the more extreme groups have retained the idea of the ‘male head of the household’ and interpret it to mean that women should be subservient to men in all respects.
Duality divides the world into ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and some Christians believe in the prospect of a final confrontation between the forces of good (God) and evil (the Devil or Satan). The impulse or inclination to do ‘wrong’ is often attributed to being ‘tempted’ by Satan. The ‘problem of evil’ – how can an all-powerful, good God allow evil to exist? – is an ongoing theological puzzle which arises out of this concept of duality. There is not, however, always agreement as to what specific actions constitute ‘evil’: candidates have included anything from tattooing to the use of zip-fasteners.
Exclusivity, the idea that all other religions are false or evil, is found to a significant extent in all three of what are called the ‘JCI’ religions – Judaism and those deriving from it, Christianity and Islam. This is usually justified by quoting a line from the pre-Christian part of the Bible in which the Hebrew God tells his followers that they must ‘have no other God before me’. Many, though not all, Christians interpret this to mean not that they should avoid dividing their loyalties with additional gods, but that no other gods even exist, and therefore that the followers of other religions are deluded or wicked or both. There are, in reality, historical and political reasons why it was particularly expedient for the kings and other rulers, who used early Christianity to unite their followers, also to ensure that non-Christians were seen not just as different but as ‘evil’, with the corollary that attacking them (and taking their land) was praiseworthy and ‘good’. More recently, the belief that only Christianity is ‘true’ is behind the ‘evangelical’ and ‘missionary’ movements, which endeavor to convert non-Christians to Christianity.
The Bible: Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, is what is called a ‘religion of the book’, which means that the Christian Bible is regarded as a particularly sacred text, and by many Christians as their ultimate authority. Many believe it was written by or channeled directly from God, and ‘fundamentalist’ Christians believe its words are literally true, although there is disagreement about the meaning or interpretation of many passages. The Christian Bible consists of a number of separate books written over a period of several thousand years in different languages; the books deemed suitable for inclusion were selected from a larger number in the fourth century CE. Almost all Christians today read a version of the Bible translated into their own language.
These eight aspects together form a major part of the doctrine, beliefs and underlying attitudes of much of Christianity. However, anyone who attends a Christian ceremony or inspects a Christian church building will notice many elements which bear no relation to the actual beliefs and teachings of Christianity. Many of these are likely to be familiar to Pagans, and, unlike the doctrinal elements, may provide some points of possible contact and understanding. These include:
- A cycle of festivals similar to the Wheel of the Year
- The use of robes, incense, candles etc
- The orientation of many churches towards the east
- The symbols and images found in many churches
- Stories of magic and miracles
The Wheel of the Year: in particular, Pagans will recognize these festivals, which have been incorporated into the practice of many Christian denominations, although often under different names. These festivals and the teachings and beliefs of Christianity have, of course, no relevance to each other, the festivals coming directly from astronomical events, from (northern European) agricultural practice, and from Pagan tradition; but this is apparently unimportant, or at least unremarked-upon by Christians. Major festivals include Christmas, three days after the Winter Solstice, at which Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus; Easter, equivalent to Eostre, celebrating the death and return to life of Jesus; Harvest Festival, celebrated around the time of the Autumn Equinox; and All Souls and All Saints Days, at Samhain. Less important festivals are Candlemas, the Christian name for Imbolg; Lammas, the equivalent of Lughnasadh; and the feast of St John, three days after the Summer Solstice. Christians generally do not celebrate a specific equivalent of Beltane, perhaps because May Day is now commonly regarded as a secular and political festival as well as a Pagan one.
Robes are worn by priests in many but not all Christian churches. The effect of this is not, however, to facilitate a change in consciousness, but to emphasize the separation between the priest, who conducts the ‘service’, and the followers, who witness the priest’s actions but have only a marginal participatory role.
Incense is used by some Christian denominations and denounced by others; where it is used, the rationale ranges from the creation of a ‘sacred’ atmosphere to the symbolic representation of the rising of prayer to ‘heaven’, where their God is symbolically located.
Candles, in the denominations which use them, are generally placed on the altar (or equivalent: some denominations avoid this term) in the Pagan Goddess and God positions, although they are not given this significance by Christians. A candle is also used in the Easter ritual in some churches, and in a manner very reminiscent of Pagan practices it is dipped into the ‘font’, a basin holding holy water. (The font, in these churches, is chiefly used to ‘baptize’ children, initiating them into the sect by pouring water over their heads.)
Eastward church orientation: in many denominations, church buildings are designed so that the ‘congregation’ (the followers) face towards the east during a ceremony. It seems that this is because early Christian churches copied contemporary Roman Pagan temples, which faced towards the rising of the sun; Christian churches in the older denominations have continued this tradition.
Symbols and images include statues of the saint Mary with her child Jesus: these are common in Catholic churches and in wayside shrines in many European countries, where flowers and fruit are frequently left as offerings. Another image recognizable to many Pagans is the circle-cross, the astrological Earth symbol and symbol of Malkuth in the Qabala: this is often seen in church carvings, and is replicated in the ‘hot cross bun’ served in Christian households at Easter. Carvings of the foliate Green Man are also seen in old churches, though there is no agreement on its interpretation. Many churches have an altar; they also use a chalice, containing wine or a non-alcoholic substitute. These and other artifacts will be familiar to Pagans, although one of the principal Christian symbols, the crucifix (an unequal cross with an image of the tortured corpse of Jesus upon it), is likely to seem strange and even repellent to most Pagans.
Stories in which the central character, either Jesus, or a character from the pre-Christian Bible, or one of the saints, performs various acts of magic (‘miracles’) are commonly re-told to children, portrayed in paintings and sculpture, and form the subject of plays and works of music. Examples of these are the myths of Adam and Eve; Noah’s Ark; Jonah and the Whale; and the stories in which Jesus works healing magic, walks on water, or magically produces food for his followers. Church buildings may include depictions of these stories in the form of mosaics or stained glass windows. Curiously, however, most Christians appear to distrust or reject magic in their own lives.
Finally, from a Pagan perspective most Christians look, most of the time, like ordinary people. You may have Christians living next door to you. If you act towards them in a friendly and tolerant way, and avoid obvious areas of conflict, you may, if you are fortunate, find they are in practice friendly and tolerant in return. If not, remember that their unfriendliness or fear is not personal, and leave them alone to walk their chosen path, however strange it seems.