Thursday, January 5, 2012

From "Talking With The Spirits" - Dialogue, Disagreement and Proselytizing

It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period. … A man’s opinion on tram cars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters — except everything. Gilbert K. Chesterton
Many who have come to their new spiritual path from Christianity – and Neopaganism is by and large a religion of converts – have a great distaste for anything which smacks of proselytizing. To them, saying "I am right and you are wrong" is akin to proclaiming "If you don't repent you're going to burn in hell." Those who disagree with someone else's spiritual beliefs, or even ask too many uncomfortable questions, are scorned as intolerant "fundies." "Acceptance of opinions" and "tolerance of diversity" are all-important, even if couched in smug, condescending passive-aggression. Discussion is reduced to bland platitudes about how we are all special snowflakes and everything we say and believe should be cherished as valuable. Instead of honest and critical discussion we get pats on the head and gold stars for our effort.

Discussion involves an exchange of ideas and discourse about their ramifications. It may get intense, even heated at times, but this is fine so long as everyone remains respectful and the questions focus on ideas rather than individuals. Smiling, nodding and saying "everyone's truths are true for them and every belief is just as good as every other belief" is not interfaith discussion. Rather, it is a way of avoiding questions about the substance and foundation of your beliefs and about the level of your commitment. Instead of sparking conversation, it shuts it down or reduces it to polite superficialities.

Disagreement need not involve proselytizing. It may actually be a good way of establishing boundaries and setting forth the differences between your respective beliefs. No Orthodox rabbi will accept that G-d has a son or that the Q'uran is an improved version of the Torah. That doesn't mean that he cannot have cordial relations with local Christian or Muslim leaders, or that they cannot engage in honest and sincere dialogue about each other's beliefs. They might wish to understand each other so they could help defuse difficulties between their congregations. They might check in when they've heard some inflammatory "fact" on the Internet ("So could you explain 'jihad' for me, Iman? Then maybe I can shut this putz up once and for all.") Or they might just be curious: if you're spiritually inclined enough to become a professional clergyman, chances are you're interested in talking shop with others in the industry.

This kind of discourse has been going on between representatives of mainstream religious denominations for centuries. They are not afraid to ask each other tough questions, nor do they expect their colleagues to agree with them on every theological point. They are quite capable of engaging in dialogue without the specter of conversion raising its ugly head: they can find value in other religions without feeling the need to become adherents, and can recognize that value without denigrating their own faith. There are certainly groups within these faiths that are skeptical of and even openly hostile to ecumenical efforts. But as their communities and neighborhoods grow more diverse, they have become increasingly marginalized.

At a cursory glance Neo-paganism would appear considerably more tolerant than many of these traditions. Yet a look at the demographics of American Neo-paganism suggest we may have a long way to go. As a movement, American Neo-paganism remains overwhelmingly white, college-educated, middle-class and politically liberal. There is less political, economic and ethnic diversity at an average Pagan gathering than at a typical mosque. All too often "tolerance" has been extended only to people who do not challenge preconceptions, make waves in the community, or insist on "playing the race card" by pointing out uncomfortable facts. If we are going to engage with gnosis in our greater community, we will need to learn how to deal with theological differences. We are going to have to move beyond tolerance into inclusion. Instead of the bland sameness of a "melting pot" where all beliefs are boiled down into an inoffensive mush, we are going to have to recognize the value of diversity and difference. And if we are going to learn how to deal with the beliefs of others, we must first figure out for ourselves just what it is that we believe.