Leaps of faith

A casual mention by a Methodist friend of mine has led me to study the life and works of Cyril of Alexandria, a fifth-century C.E. theologian and scholar who was archbishop of Alexandria (a title he apparently inherited from his uncle Theophilus). One writer referred to Cyril as “an ill-tempered, quarrelsome, hasty and violent man.” He was fiercely anti-Pagan and seemingly anti-Christian, having encouraged the repression of the Novationists, whose beliefs seem remarkably similar to the approved orthodoxy of that age. He also quarreled with the great Hypatia, who soon thereafter was torn to pieces by an angry mob of his followers. Well, you can look all that up for yourself, if you’re interested; I found it rather telling.

But Christian theologians who are fiercely anti-Pagan are not just relics of the ancient world, as I learned from the Rev. Demetrios Iliou’s recent letter to Mountain Xpress (“Pagan Pride is Christian Paradox,” Oct. 5). And while a look at the First Amendment suggests that there’s room in America today for all kinds of celebrations and holy days, all manner of gods and demigods, all sorts of beliefs and practices, my own experience makes me wonder.

Take Asheville’s recent Pagan Pride Day celebration, which sparked the Rev. Iliou’s concern. Once a year, Pagans worldwide get together to celebrate the harvest (or the coming of spring, if one lives in the Southern Hemisphere). Vendors vend their wares, experts hold forth on whatever they are experts on, dances are danced, donations are accumulated. It’s fairly innocuous — just another blip in the shower of events in September. There’s a bureaucracy to whom each coordinator reports, the donations are distributed to the folks who need them, and the Pagan communities go back to doing whatever it is we do when not attempting to educate the dominant culture and lift them out of their benighted ignorance of matters Pagan.

No, we patiently reply for the umpteenth time, we don’t worship Satan. He’s one of yours, isn’t he? No, we don’t worship your gods. We have quite enough of our own, thanks very much. And anyone who refers to “godless Pagans” clearly doesn’t know too much about polytheism, so you may ignore their ranting on that particular topic.

For reasons that are simply mystifying to me (and I’m a witch, so mystery is my business), there are people in Asheville and the surrounding hamlets who seem to resent the fact that my community tries to do its bit for the less fortunate. Some folks complain that we don’t do enough; others charge that we have ulterior motives. No, we carefully explain, we don’t proselytize. We welcome seekers and try to give them information or training if that’s their desire, but we don’t actively seek converts.

You see, because we’re polytheists, we’re perfectly happy for you to believe in whatever deities you want. They may be your ancestral goddesses or even your Ancestors. You may leave tobacco or milk for the spirits of the land. You may go to church and offer flowers to the Blessed Virgin. We’re OK with all that, really we are. Live and let live, worship and let worship, that’s our motto.

It’s also a practical matter. If you’re a religion that has to pay for upkeep on buildings or sending people on mission trips to far-flung places or salaries for clergy, you probably need more new members to support your efforts. On the other hand, if you’re a religion that doesn’t pay its clergy and doesn’t require its members to tithe in order to support your programs — and if you believe that there are many paths to the sacred — then you don’t have much stake in racking up the maximum number of warm bodies.

And speaking as a member of said unpaid clergy, I can tell you what having more members means: more work. More rites of passage, more counseling. More sick folks to visit, more babies to welcome, more couples to handfast, more elders to bury. Teaching classes and writing rituals and penning the occasional guest commentary and, yes, even making a speech at Pagan Pride Day. We choose to do this work and live this rich Pagan life because it’s a calling — a phrase that must be familiar to members of any religion.

People choose to be Pagan (or Wiccan or Santeria or Earth-religionist) because they’re called to that path, because that’s where they feel the connection with Deity, the oneness of complete belonging in the Universe. They come to it through books or parental teaching or their own intuition. And though it’s not the only way one can feel that, it is a path that enables some spiritual seekers to experience themselves as earthly beings in a beautiful and interconnected world.

That brings us to this business of boiling frogs (which, judging by the Rev. Iliou’s letter, is a practice of some interest to the church fathers). And after you’ve asked the obvious question — Why would anyone want to boil a live frog? — you must realize that if you throw a frog into boiling water, it won’t hop out; it will die a horrible death. (Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, for pete’s sake; even a church father couldn’t keep a frog alive that was subjected to that. Poor frog.) But the church’s apparent remedy — heating the water slowly, so the frog is lulled into complacency — appears to have been disproved. An online search yielded the information that a number of scientific investigators have put this contention to the test and found that in gradually heated water, a frog will jump out once the temperature becomes uncomfortable.

I am not so naive, however, as to believe we’re really talking about frogs here. We’re talking about teaching misinformed humans to fear neighbors who practice a different brand of spirituality than the one recommended by the virulent St. Cyril. That this fear can sometimes turn to hatred was proved in Alexandria in Cyril’s day, when the vast storehouse of human (and, in this case, Pagan) knowledge in the library was burned to a crisp — paving the way for the Dark Ages. And it’s proved again and again every day throughout the world.

For some folks, the notion of loving one’s neighbor is apparently a real challenge, and the Golden Rule somehow doesn’t seem to apply when said neighbor is a Pagan or a Jew or an atheist. Perhaps people who rely on their holy books for guidance would benefit from spending a little more time reading what their Deity had to say about being a good neighbor. And maybe if they spent some time with my holy “book” — nature — they’d learn more about water and frogs. They might even learn more about themselves.

[Pagan advocate and writer H. Byron Ballard is a co-founder of the Coalition of Earth Religions for Education and Support, which sponsored Asheville’s Sept. 10 Pagan Pride Day celebration.]

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