My Response to Sam Webster (part the first)

Perhaps the most divisive paper of this year’s conference (to the expressed relief of several of the presenters) was Sam Webster’s “The Relationship between Christians and Pagans.” Sam reiterated a position he’s shared a couple of times on his Patheos blog, that Christianity and Paganism are inherently at odds, and one cannot claim to be one while practicing the other. I have a response to him, but it’s long so it’s going to come in parts.

Sam’s original posts, the second of which he handed out in hard copy (and which I’ll be responding to the most), can be found here and here.

First, his definition of “Pagan” (a subject much discussed and not at all settled during the conference): “the term ‘Pagan’ applies to that complex of religions that develop starting with the Renaissance and eventually call themselves Pagan.” The wording of this is crucial, I think, particularly the last part. In the study of religion, and I believe (and would hope) in anthropology, self-definition is crucial. If someone doesn’t call themselves Pagan, and that title is culturally and socially available to them, and they have had the opportunity to use it, you have to make a very good case if you want to assign it to them. On the other hand, if someone says explicitly that they are Pagan, in order to disagree with them, to “un-name” them, as it were, you’d better have a pretty solid definition of Pagan.

That’s a problem, of course. Paganisms are so varied that one person’s definition (someone at the conference suggested “polytheistic religions”) is almost certainly going to exclude someone else (someone vocally objected to being called a polytheist). Amy Hale pointed out some of the problems with “nature religion,” and I would add to her discussion the fact that not all Pagan practices are very closely connected with nature in the way that moniker suggests. In the first above link, Sam himself says he ascribes to “big tent” Paganism, the acceptance of and working toward diversity in our community. The definition that I quoted doesn’t quite sum up what Sam has said about defining Paganism, and some of the things he’s said are a little contradictory, but at this point that’s the nature of the beast. What’s important here is that for Sam, whatever Paganism is, it is that thing counter to Christianity. There’s no possibility of reconciliation.

In large part he places this on the shoulders of Christianity. “While technically a Pagan is not forbidden to worship Jesus Christ…, Christians are condemned to eternal punishment if they worship anyone other than the persons of the Trinity.” Here we actually see some theo-centrism operational in Sam’s thinking. It’s often stated that atheism is a possibility within many strains of Paganism. If there can be an atheist Druid (which I’m assured there can), who reveres nature for its own sake or for his or her own feeling of connectedness with the world, is it much of a stretch to say there can be a Christian Druid who reveres nature as an expression of God or Christ? I can tell you that the Christians I grew up around wouldn’t accept that reasoning for a second and would declare that person damned, but since I’m not a Christian, I just don’t have a horse in that theological race. Who am I to judge another person’s theology? Many of the technical details of mine were inspired by Terry Pratchett.

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