Monday, January 15, 2007

Answering a Friendly Challenge: What Do I Have in Common with a Neo-Pagan?

Several weeks ago Lonnie, from the NatureSpirit group posted a comment on my blog, offering a "friendly challenge." Here is the last paragraph of that post:

Okay... so we disagree. That's not exactly unexpected. Where do we go from here? Or do we simply abandon dialogue altogether? You've suggested some books, and I might have some suggested books as well, that I'd wish you to read. Knowing how busy I suspect both of us are, I sincerely doubt we have the time to get through each other’s reading lists. I did however go back and reread the Bible verses that you referenced (and I concede that the "rocky ground" metaphor might possibly apply, since I was but a youth when exposed to Christianity). So... instead I offer a friendly challenge. I would ask that you write an entire blog entry about only the points we seem to agree upon. I will then do the same (although I don't currently have a blog, I can make one, or find an appropriate community forum). If this is successful, then maybe we can take things a step further. I have little power over our group (being non-hierarchical and all) but I am willing to take this dialogue further if that's of interest to you. If not, then I wish you well.
Respectfully,Lonnie

Lonnie, I do appreciate and respect the tone in which you have entered this dialogue. I also very much appreciate the fact that you were willing to read the Biblical texts I suggested to you for interpreting your previous spiritual experiences.

So, the challenge is for me to post "the points we seem to agree upon."

From a worldview perspective, I think it will be hard to find things we agree upon. I am a conservative, evangelical Christian who believes in the full authority (inerrancy) of Scripture. You are a self-described Neo-pagan. We do not agree on epistemology (how do we know what is true), theology (who God is), anthropology (who man is), Christology (who Christ is), soteriology (salvation), or ethics (what is just, right, and good).

I would sum up our agreement, however, in this: We both believe that no one should force another person to engage in a religious practice or belief against his or her conscience. I would not, for example, attempt to make you a "Christian" at the point of a sword and hope that you would not attempt to make me a neo-pagan by the same means.

Now, I do believe there is much that we have in common (though perhaps we would not agree about this). Here are the things I believe we have in common:

1. We are both human beings made in the image of God and, therefore, have a God-given dignity and value, merely by virtue of our humanity (see Genesis 1:27).

2. We are both sinners. As Paul put it: "All sin and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). We have sinned against a holy and righteous God. We inherited our sin nature from our first parents, Adam and Eve. We are sinners from the moment of conception, even before we commit actual transgressions (see Genesis 3; Psalm 51;3; Psalms 58:3). "We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners."

3. Sin has badly tarnished or wounded the image of God in us. On the spiritual level our ability to seek God has been deeply damaged to the point that aside from the grace of God we will not seek the God of the Bible. As Paul put it: "There is none righteous, no, not one. There is none who understands. There is none who seeks after God" (Romans 3:11-12). This is not to say that men are irreligious. We love to create gods and religions that meet our needs. When the Apostle Paul went into ancient Athens, he told the inhabitants, "I perceive that in all things you are very religious" (Acts 17:22). Paul even noted that the Athenians had an idol to "the unknown God," and then declared, "the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you" (v. 23).

4. Despite the impact of sin, all human beings are still capable of doing some good things and some things that are pleasing to God. Christians call this "common grace."

5. No matter how "good" we are in this life, we will both receive the just wrath of God for our sin for all eternity, until and unless, God, by his sovereign grace, saves us and brings us to believe in Jesus alone: "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him" (John 3:36).

Lonnie, please understand that Christians do not feel that we are superior spiritually or ethically to other people (including people who are neo-pagan). Faith in Christ, rightly understood, should fill one with awe and humility at the grace of God.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. First Paul describes all those who will not be able to enter into the kingdom of God because of their sin in vv. 9-10:

9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites,
10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.

He then adds this final note to the Christians at Corinth in v. 11:

And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.

Christians know we deserve God’s wrath as much as anyone else. We are not inherently more spiritual than other men, or more kind, or more good. Any good we do we must attribute to God’s grace and given Him glory for all things.
This is my response to your challenge. Sorry it took so long to post. I hope you will find time to reply.

JTR

3 comments:

Lonnie said...

Thanks Jeff,

I'd assumed that you were not going to take me up on that. I accept that you honored the word, if perhaps not completely the spirit of my challenge. I'm also pleased that you are willing to communicate in way that is civil and polite even though we often disagree.

As you mention, we do not agree on matter of theology per se, but I would agree that "no one should force another person to engage in a religious practice or belief against his or her conscience." I'd also suggest that we probably have more in common than you might realize, especially on ethics (although we'd probably disagree on the origin of ethics). For example:

* I agree that affordable housing is an issue that people of faith need to address in Charlottesville. You are correct that it would be hard for anyone to be grounded in their faith, and that the housing issue can render citizens "rootless".

* I suspect that we agree on our responsibility to look to the needs of the poor. Our group on several occasions has raised money and food for the needy in Charlottesville. In fact, at our own celebration of Yule this year, we raised money for Heiffer International (and yes, we know it is a Christian organization).

* I suspect we also agree on the importance of family and our responsibility for our children, even if our ideas about what the ideal family look like may differ. For example, many in our community do not own televisions because they value the additional family time. You may be surprised to learn that some of us choose to home school because of a feeling that the current educational system is becoming inadequate.

* Along with that "family values" thing, I value that sanctity of marriage. I regard sex as a sacred union and something which should be treated with reverence and respect. Fidelity and keeping ones promises to the one you love are very important.


* As many Baptists originally believed (and I've not been able to determine your position on this yet), we believe the congregation has the primary responsibility to interpret the word of god for themselves, even above the denomination.

* I think music is an important part of worship. Singing is a huge part of what we do in our services. (Once again, I've no idea of your actual opinion but I'd suspect that you'd agree). I actually really like "Silent Night" and some other standards. I often listen to bluegrass gospel, and feel there's some good stuff in there.

* We agree on our shared humanity. I do bleed when cut (and yes, the same color...) ;-)

* I agree that Jesus said many great words of wisdom, and that Christians have made many great contributions to society.

* We honor the importance of our elders, and feel it is important to look to the needs of our aging population.

* I've been baptized, and I have family who are still Baptist.

* I believe we should be good stewards of creation (You implied that you also believed this, although you did add a qualifier).

* My wife is a Christian (She worked in Bretheren Volunteer Service in Croatia and Northern Ireland).

* I believe in the institution of democracy, and the importance of human rights.

* I believe it is wrong to steal, cheat, or lie. (Of course that last one can be tough - especially when a friend asks me how I like the Broccoli casserole…)

* I would also suggest that we do agree somewhat on the fallibility of mankind, and most definitely where it is applied to myself. I wouldn't choose to use the terminology of "Sin" and "Salvation", but I would agree that humans are not perfect. It is our preferred solution to that issue that we differ upon. That said, in our community we often use the terminology "surrender to mystery", which for us means to put something in God's hands. I suspect there is commonality in there somewhere, even if the concept of god may be diffferent.

* I'm part of a community of peace, which actively seeks to embody that through our actions.

* Lastly, we seem to agree that faith is important, even if our view of faith is very different.
Okay, now I've had to make some assumptions here and there to get to some of those conclusions, so I apologize if I'm mistaken on any of those. You see we've spent so long talking about all the points we differ on, that I've had to guess somewhat on the points where we probably agree. If we could only be as familiar with our similarities as we are with our differences, we may discover that the differences are not as large as they appear. We may even discover that our respective communities have some common interests.

As promised, I will work on getting a blog up and running and will copy this conversation there as well. I'd enjoy seeing your follow up to this, including confirmation if we do indeed agree on some of these issues. I wonder if we can establish a foundation for genuine dialogue, then perhaps there could be a service project in accordance with some of our common values we could undertake together? Keep in mind, that may require not just building trust with me, but with my entire community. That said, I think it is possible, if you decide it'd be worthwhile.

Pastor Jeff said...

Lonnie,

Thanks for your reply, but I fear we do not have as much in common as you think.

My faith in Jesus is not primarily about doing good deeds, living a good life, or even having a good family (as laudable as all those things are). It is about knowing Jesus on the same terms he himself dictated, as “the way, the truth, and the life,” knowing that no man comes to God the Father except through Jesus (see John 14:6).

I think we also have a basic divide in what we accept as our authority. For example, you said we have a common ground on family “even if our ideas about what the ideal family look like may differ.” The issue really is not your ideas or my ideas about a family, but what the Bible says about the ideal family. The Bible, for example, sees the institution of marriage (one man and one woman in a one-flesh commitment for a lifetime) as the foundation for family. All alternatives to this are false. God designed this not to limit us but to bless us. We ignore his design to our peril.

Worship and spiritual activity is also meaningless apart from the revelation of truth in Scripture. Just because I get together with some people and sing “Silent Night” does not mean I am worshipping. The physical act of baptism is likewise meaningless unless the person being baptized is doing so because he has come to confess Jesus as Lord. In Acts 8:37 when an Ethiopian man wants to be baptized, Philip says, “If you believe with your heart, you may.” And the man answers, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

You note that you also believe it is wrong to lie, cheat, and steal. My question would be, Why? Is it because of reason, experience, tradition? I can say I think it is wrong to do those things because the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) say it is wrong. What is more, the Ten Commandments begin by saying that I am to have no other gods before the one true God of the Bible. If I do not bow to that command first, the others are meaningless.

Lonnie, you have talked of your “community.” How many people exactly are in your community and what binds them together? I can tell you that we have 151 members in our church body at Jefferson Park. All those members confess Jesus as Lord (God). We share a common confession of faith and affirm a common church membership covenant. We meet each Sunday morning and evening to worship. When one member suffers, we suffer; when one rejoices, we rejoice. We watch over each other in brotherly affection, and take care of each other when weak and sick. Our common bond is Christ; our common authority is the Bible.

I want to tell you that you are welcomed to come anytime to our public meetings (Sunday mornings at 10:45 am and evenings at 6:00 pm). We also have Bible Study each Wednesday evening at 6:00 pm, which usually includes vigorous discussion and interaction around God’s Word. We also have a men’s Bible Study that meets each Thursday morning from 6:30-7:30 am (at present reading and studying together the book of Romans). You do not have to be a professed Christian to attend our public meetings. In fact, we are very glad to have respectful people who are curious or seekers to observe the church at worship, study, and prayer. Many of those who do this often come to know and believe in Christ.

I would also be more than happy to meet with you individually or speak to your group on what Christians believe or what the Bible teaches about Jesus. I do not think I could do a “service project” with you, however. To be honest, as a Christian I am not really interested so much in generic “service projects” but in ministry (as Paul puts it in Galatians 6:10: “doing good to all men and especially to those who are of the household of faith”). Our church is involved in a massive amount of ministry each week. This includes a food closet, after school tutoring in the Southwood Mobile Home Park, Deaf ministry, a preschool, etc. Of course, our key “service” ministry is just our gathering to worship and praise Jesus as God. To be true partners in this kind of ministry we must share a common confession. And, at this point, you and I do not share this common confession.

I am thankful for the dialogue and I have been praying for you.

JTR

Lonnie said...

Jeff,

You may actually be surprised how many are in my community... Of course, I've got two communities. I've got the local UU Church, which I'm a member of, and I've got the entire local pagan community, which is far bigger than just NatureSpirit - I estimate about 600-800 at this point based on some of our records (mailing lists, community-wide events, etc.) It's hard to say for sure though, since many don't choose to worship regularly as part of a group. Of course, you are absolutely right that what really matters in a community is how we take care of one another. That's why we have a pagan chaplin at the hospital, and a growing support network for members in need. Of course, we also have the UU church and a system of support there as well. I've personally fielded many late night calls from members in need, and continually hope we can improve in this area. You may be pleased to know though that I've referenced churches like yours as an example of how we should take care of each other. In fact, I'll probably forward part of your message to our group, as an example of some points I've made in the past about new programs we should initiate.

As to my marriage, I think your missed something in there somewhere... Last time I checked, I am indeed a man, and my wife is indeed a woman. As far as I know, there is only one of each of us, and we are faithful to each other. If you reject the validity of my family just because I'm not Christian (and even though my wife is), then I feel you've lost any kind of credibility in terms of arguing as an advocate of "family values".

You see, when I vote on an issue, I'm not concerned why all the other folks are voting. All I care about, is why I'm voting. At the same time, why would I ever want to alienate people who are on my side of an issue? There are indeed social issues upon which we agree, but you'd reject my offer of help or support merely because I'm not Christian? If a pagan wanted to help you hand out food to the poor, would you actually turn them away?

Do you know what one of my late night phone calls was once? I got a call from a woman who's daughter had been asking her about Christianity, so she decided to find a Christian Church to take her to in Charlottesville. She was told in several churches that she and her daughter were not welcome as long as she was still a practicing pagan. If there are sore feelings in our community about Christians, then situations like this are why. I'm sincerely glad to know that your church would not turn them away. If that is the only thing we have accomplished by this dialogue then I'll count it as a success.

Finally, you ask what it is that binds the Pagan community together? It is our faith of course! Wherever we are, we see and feel the beauty of gods creation surrounding us. Perhaps William Wordsworth said it best:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune,
It moves us not.-- Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Thanks for your prayers, you shall be in mine as well.

Blessed be,

Lonnie