Not too long ago I was in a conversation with a Christian co-worker about life challenges and struggles. She’s a very genuine person and often has well thought things to say about life from a Christian perspective. In this particular instance, she said something both interesting and disturbing. She suggested that God gives us challenges and struggles because if we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t need “Him.”
The idea stuck with me, not because I agree with it, but because I found the mindset disturbing. If we’d been talking about a relationship with another person – say a boyfriend, spouse, friend, or even a relative – the reaction would be “This person keeps you down so he can feel better about himself and to keep you hanging on and ‘needing’ him? You need to get away from that relationship or at the very least go through counseling together if the relationship is important.” Since this is God, the omnipotent ruler of the universe, of course this is different. It’s okay. I don’t actually buy that, but many Christians are willing to accept behaviors and conditions from their God that aren’t acceptable from people in their closest relationships, let alone from a mortal ruler. If someone ruled by keeping their people down, there’d certainly be a rebellion and in Christian mythology there supposedly was. If one is to accept Christian mythology as fact (as many Christians do), it makes one wonder about the other side’s version of things, since history is usually written by the victor and demonizes the opponent – in this case, literally. I’m not going to go down that line of reasoning, but I will leave it as food for thought.
Of course, being a co-dependent ruler who needs human worship and approval is not the only image of the Christian God. In fact, this idea of God is very medieval and feudal, coming from a time where feudal lords ruled, protected, and likely exploited the common people, and the people were happy to give up some freedom and perhaps even dignity because the system was still better than going it alone. Modern conceptions of God are more that of a loving parent, though often a strict disciplinarian. God wants what’s best for us, though we don’t always know what’s best for ourselves and we often have to accept His judgment. We are children, after all, or perhaps sheep. The loving shepherd is also a Christian God archetype. Still a parent who loves us, but keeps us down for his (or her) aggrandizement or to keep us needing them, doesn’t mesh with the concept of unconditional love, and again, I think we’d question that love if it was all about the other person and left us wanting.
For the Christians out there reading this, you’re welcome to justify your life challenges and struggles in a context that makes sense to you, and I know there are other ideas on this matter. As a Pagan and a polytheist, I feel free to pick and choose Gods, Goddesses, and even other spirits that resonate with me and with my conception of the world. I wouldn’t willingly choose a deity who kept me down, abused my trust, or exploited my struggles. For you monotheists out there, Christians and others, you only have one choice. You have to accept or to justify, your One deity’s actions and commands. If you don’t like it or it doesn’t mesh with your beliefs or your view of the world, you’re the one who has to adjust, adapt, and accept, or else risk going to Hell. I don’t believe in Hell. I actually believe in reincarnation. For me, struggles and challenges are part of a learning process. My struggles and challenges weren’t put there by “the devil” to trip me up nor were they put there by any god or goddess to keep me needy. If they were put in my path, it is so I can grow and so I can learn to fish for myself as the saying goes, rather than relying on handouts from the fisherman. Teach a man to fish… and all of that. In the grand scheme of things, struggles and challenges teach us and test us. I’m learning to be the best soul I can be, though it may take me several lifetimes to get there.
Last week I spent Thanksgiving weekend with a Christian relative and her husband. Both are very religious and have a weekly practice of turning off secular activities for a day and only watching religious programs on the television during that time. Lucky me! My family bonding time included a couple of hours of Christian programming. My relative knows I’m Pagan, though I think there’s a strong hope that somehow I’ll reconvert to the Christian roots of my childhood (especially if I watch these shows). Sorry, I’ve grown past that and I feel a better person for having done so. Even though I don’t believe the same things, I do try to respect their beliefs while visiting.
It’s been a while since I’ve sat down and watched any kind of Christian programming. Usually I just skip on by these programs. My own experiences with Christianity were very negative for me as a gay person growing up. It took me years to sort through all the negative things I’d been taught about homosexuality and sexuality in general. I’ve also seen all the harm done by those trying to enforce their versions of religion and morality. I even had a friend in college who committed suicide because he couldn’t reconcile his homosexuality with his fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
I’ve since embraced Paganism, because Paganism is generally very accepting of differences among people including different sexual orientations; because I find myself and my experience better reflected in the myriad of Pagan gods, goddesses, and other spirits; and because I respect the individualistic nature of Pagan belief over set dogma.
When I talk about Christian programming, I’m not just talking about television programs. Here are some other dictionary definitions of programming: “to cause to absorb or incorporate automatic responses, attitudes, or the like; condition” and “to set, regulate, or modify so as to produce a specific response or reaction.” To me, this conditioning of beliefs is one of the big problems with religion and dogma in general and why I prefer the individual pursuit of spirituality instead.
As I watched these programs, something became very obvious to me, especially when there were group conversations going on. Everyone nodded and said, “that’s right” or “Amen” at just the right times, even my relative at home watching the show. To me this parroting of words and beliefs looked exactly like the automatic responses and conditioning mentioned in the definitions of “programming” above. Somehow it also looked desperate in some way. It looked to me like they were trying to justify their beliefs to themselves and to others in a world where science and historical evidence has eroded many of the literal interpretations of their holy book, and where fundamentalist beliefs are becoming increasingly unpopular.
Surprisingly, there were some beliefs I found in common with the speakers. Some of these concepts included a belief in a higher power that helps folks out in times of need and a belief that there’s a higher purpose behind both the good and the bad things in our lives. Sometimes the bad things happen and we don’t know why, but we need to have faith that there’s a higher purpose involved. They also mentioned how sometimes the exact thing you need in life comes at exactly the moment you need it most. While they seem to think that this is confirmation that their god and their beliefs are the only true and valid beliefs, my own experiences show that people of all religions experience these moments of divine intervention. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in Jesus, Allah, Ganesha, Thor, Apollo, or a loving universe, there definitely appears to be some force at work behind the scenes that is both beneficent and at other times mysteriously unkind. It doesn’t seem to care what religion you are or what you believe. People of all religions seem to justify the bad times in their life with faith that their suffering somehow leads to a higher purpose beyond their understanding.
One thing that bothered me – and this came out in a couple of the shows that came on that night – was a focus on “righteousness.” The speakers repeatedly reinforced this concept. The dictionary defines “righteousness” as “characterized by uprightness or morality” and “acting in an upright, moral way; virtuous.” The impression I got was that the speakers were talking more about self-righteousness and again trying to justify their beliefs that they and other Christians are somehow better and more special than the godless crowds.
As a Pagan, I see everyone as having unique and different paths and I have no inherent need to set up one god, one system, or one virtue above any other. I have no reason to raise myself up or to put others down if they believe something different than me or if they practice differently – so long as they aren’t hurting other people through their beliefs or actions.
I also feel free to compare and even critique different religious and spiritual systems and come to my own conclusions without fear that I’ll incur the wrath of a jealous and vengeful god. Sure, there are many jealous and vengeful gods in Paganism. I just personally choose not to worship them or give them any power over me.
I prefer well-reasoned ethics over the negative associations of uncontested morals that go hand-in-hand with the concept of self-righteousness. I prefer to self-actualize, to seek out and test my knowledge of the physical and spiritual world, and to do my best to treat others fairly than I do about upholding someone else’s ideas of morality and righteousness. I also think there’s a difference between feeling righteous and moral and actually being righteous and moral.
I personally feel that the concept of righteousness leads to fanaticism and even extremism. At the extreme end of the spectrum you have religious people stepping on the rights of others, committing terrible acts, or even terrorism in the name of their god and because they feel they’re doing the righteous thing. To me that’s a much more dangerous thing to the fabric of society than homosexuality, adultery, people worshipping other gods, and so forth.
All this got me to thinking about what are the Pagan concepts of morality and how might they differ from Christian morality or the morality of mainstream culture. I’ll be exploring this deeper in my next post.