One of the things that I dislike the most about contemporary Paganism is that it often comes across as little more than a Protestant heresy. This is made apparent in a number of ways starting with the rather telling inability of Pagans, even after close to a century of the community’s existence, to come up with a coherent and widely accepted definition of their religion that does not directly reference Christianity. That many Pagans are profoundly uncomfortable even describing what they do as “religion” and instead prefer terms such as “spirituality” or “a way of life” or “having a relationship with one’s deities” is also a holdover of this Protestant mindset. (If I had a nickle for every sermon I sat through as a kid on the topic of Religion Will Send You To Hell; It’s Only Being Born Again Through The Blood Of the Lamb And Accepting Christ As Your Personal Savior That Gets You Into Heaven, why, I’d have a sock full of nickles I could swing at the Pagans who piss me off today.) Likewise most forms of contemporary Paganism reject institutional hierarchy and downplay the need for a priestly class or other intermediaries between the individual and the divine — just like Protestantism and unlike almost every polytheist culture over the course of history. Theologically many express themselves in quasi-monotheist terms and there is also a strong focus on ethics and progressive social action that was often quite lacking in antiquity.
The indebtedness of this type of Paganism to the reforms of Luther, Calvin & Co. is nowhere more apparent than when they are engaging in polemics about where to draw the boundaries within the community — something that our cultural ancestors were little concerned with. A boundary that most Pagans can agree on (ironically enough) is the one separating Christianity from Paganism. And like the good Protestants that they are the usual reason given for this is that it violates Christian doctrine and the teachings of the Bible to combine the two. Inevitably in such disputes chapter and verse are cited as if that should settle the matter once and for all.
Even leaving aside the fact that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures contradict themselves at every turn — and nowhere more plentifully than with regard to the natures of Yahweh and Jesus — Christianity has never limited itself just to what was said in the Bible, except among the most extreme literalist Protestant sects. In fact for the entirety of its history there have been many competing forms of Christianity, each with its own body of traditions and practices which inform its understanding of things. As far back as Saint Paul’s conflicts with the nascent church in Jerusalem (headed by members of Jesus’ own family and inner circle) we find the seeds of schism. Most of Paul’s epistles were actually written as correctives to communities that held views he passionately disagreed with, such as the Christians in Corinth who had no problem participating in Pagan ritual and feasting in the temples of their neighbors or those in Galatia who worshiped Jesus alongside a host of gods, angels, daimones and other supernatural beings. Likewise even among Jesus’ disciples there was profound disagreement concerning the exact nature of his being, what he had preached and who that message was intended to reach. These disagreements solidified with time and distance until the various camps had almost nothing in common. Hundreds of documents circulated in those early centuries, all of them claiming to represent the authentic form of Christianity in opposition to all of its competitors.
One must also keep in mind that literacy was the preserve of elites within antique society and Christianity has always drawn its largest following from among the lower classes. No doubt their conception of things was very different from that held by an Athanasius or Valentinus. For the most part we only get a glimpse of what these average Christians believed and did when they are being chastised and condemned by representatives of the powerful orthodoxy and they are far from an unbiased source.
And yet most Pagans today are willing to take them at their word that they and only they represent the true and proper Christian viewpoint — even though it is clear from their constant denunciations (from the Roman on up to the early modern period) of heretical belief, idolatry, magic, syncretism and outright backsliding into Paganism, that other forms of Christianity existed alongside their own.
Not only does one often find common and at times quite fruitful ground between Paganism and these “alternative” Christianities but I think that we have an ideological obligation to reject the exclusive truth claims of the dominant, orthodox church. When we support the assertions of men like Apa Shenoute, Savonarola or Fred Phelps that they are the real Christians, even if it is so that we can condemn and oppose them, we are lending our tacit support to the oppressor. The same aggression that led them to wipe out the indigenous polytheist traditions of the various European populations as well as those in Africa, Asia, the Americas and anywhere else they infected with missionaries — was also turned against their fellow Christians. To say that this aggression is somehow inherent to Christianity is to argue that they were justified in taking this course of action and besmirches the character and memory of all those men and women who held a faith in Christ that did not require them to war against all else that is sacred. And despite what many on both the Christian and Pagan side would have you believe, this faith was quite common. This material is abundantly available in histories and sourcebooks dealing with late antiquity and the middle ages, as well as online at sites like Tertullian.org, Early Christian Writings, the Internet Sacred Text Archive, Internet History Sourcebooks Project or my own no longer updated Eklogai Project.
So there’s no reason to be this woefully ignorant — unless, that is, one agrees with the Protestants that truth may only be found in the Bible. (And even those texts show quite a few Christians of a polytheist persuasion!) Therefore if you want to keep Christopagans out of the community — but have no problem letting in Jedis, Discordians, Pastafarians, Dianics and atheists — try actually coming up with some solid arguments for a change instead of just parroting what a handful of Bible verses say.