Sunday, March 25, 2018

The God from the House of Bread: A Bridge Between Christianity and Paganism

This year for Holy Week I share an insightful essay entitled "The God from the House of Bread" by Druid author and speaker John Michael Greer. This essay is Greer's contribution to the 2012 anthology, Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ (edited by Reverend Mark Townsend).

The "House of Bread" refers to Bethlehem, traditionally understood as the birthplace of Jesus. It's cited as evidence that Jesus may well have been understood as a fertility deity, and the original Christian faith a mystery religion which venerated the ever-returning life force in nature. Greer contends that Christianity was "the most successful of the Pagan mystery religions" before it was "reinterpreted in blindly literal terms."

"The God from the House of Bread," which I'll share in four parts, reflects my growing interest in the ChristoPagan spiritual path (previously explored at The Wild Reed here and here).


"I do not know much about gods," wrote T. S. Eliot in his poem "The Dry Savages," "but I think that the river is a strong brown god." He was a devout Anglican, but Eliot lived at a time when classical education and a self-confidence long-since vanished from today's Christianity still gave Christian thinkers and creative minds room to allow Pagan religious metaphors free play in their work.

The same ease that allowed him and his Christian contemporaries to move at will between Pagan and Christian religious visions was just as common in the nascent Pagan scene of the time. Eliot's contemporary Dion Fortune, whose writings played a central role in the birth of modern Pagan spirituality, also wrote a work of Christian devotional literature – Mystical Meditations on the Collects – without seeing, or being accused of, the least inconsistency. To Fortune, and in a different sense to Eliot as well, Christianity and Paganism were simply different ways of talking about spiritual realities and relationships that could not be reduced to a single symbolic formula.

Those times are unhappily long past. During the second half of the twentieth century, most Christian denominations in the Western world responded to the reemergence of Pagan religion by reviving centuries-old stereotypes of devil worship or, at best, restricting their efforts at interreligious dialogue to a narrow circle of "world religions" hedged in by definitions that exclude today's reborn Pagan faiths. Today it's almost impossible to imagine an Anglican poet anywhere this side of heresy wielding Pagan religious metaphors with Eliot's aplomb. The same narrowing of options can be found on the other side of the newly raised barrier, for that matter. Pagan writers nowadays are far more likely to pen extended diatribes about the misbehavior of Christian churches in the past than to explore, as Dion Fortune did, the interpenetration of Pagan and Christian religious experience.

It's anyone's guess when or whether this sorry state of affairs will end. Still, there are exceptions to the generalizations just made. Some Christians have made serious efforts to grasp the nature of Pagan religious consciousness, just as some Pagans have tried to understand Christianity as a valid religious expression that doesn't happen to be theirs. There are also those who feel called to a faith that blends Pagan and Christian traditions, and despite hostility such ventures too often receive, their number is growing. From such initiatives, with luck and the blessings of the gods, a wider context of mutual tolerance and acceptance may someday arise.

My own background places me in a complex relationship to this hope. I am Pagan even in the strictest Christian sense of the word; that is, I have not been baptized, nor have I ever belonged to a Christian church of any kind. I grew up in a comfortably secular milieu in one of the least religious parts of the United States; among the families on the block where I lived for much of my childhood, for example, only one went to church on Sundays.

When Christianity finally came to my attention, it was by way of the strident evangelical revival that swept over America in the late 1970s, and that movement's passion for dwelling on assorted motes in other people's eyes and ignoring the beams of intolerance, hypocrisy, and political opportunism in its own did not exactly encourage me to take Christianity seriously as a spiritual option. Instead, like much of my generation, I explored other paths – atheism, Asian religions, a handful of the new religious movements – before finding my spiritual home; in my case this was at the far end of the religious spectrum, in the branch of the alternative spiritual scene that embraces the name and draws on the inspiration of the ancient Druids.

The modern Druid movement has a complex and quirky history of its own, reaching back to the eighteenth century, when it evolved out of a collision between liberal Anglicanism, nature worship, and fragments of Celtic tradition. It inherits from its origins a distrust of dogmatism that has made it a haven for eccentrics and a nightmare for would-be systematizers. Even so simple a question as the number of deities Druids worship – one, two, many, none – finds nearly as many answers as there are Druids. At the core of most visions of the contemporary Druid way, though, lies a sense that living nature is the least murky expression of the divine accessible to human beings. We may not agree about much else, but the shorthand creed drafted by one Druid tradition wins almost universal assent: "nature is good."

This apparent platitude has depths that may not appear to a casual glance. It's not a statement of fact, since nature routinely violates most conventional human ideas of goodness. Rather, it's the first postulate in a system of values. By taking living nature as our basic measure of the good, the qualities expressed by nature – wholeness, flow, spontaneity, elegance, and the like – become core values that can be expressed in the life of each Druid. Equally, the central role of nature in Druid thought makes symbols and imagery derived from nature equally central in contemporary Druid myth, ritual, and practice.

This may appear worlds apart from Christianity in its modern forms. In the hands of an almost forgotten tradition of nineteenth-century Pagan thought, however, it forms an unexpected bridge crossing the chasm that now separates the religious visions of Paganism and Christianity.

– John Michael Greer
From "The God from the House of Bread"
in Jesus Through Pagan Eyes
(edited by Rev. Mark Townsend)
p. 151-153

NEXT: Part 2

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Advent: A "ChristoPagan" Perspective
Gabriel Fauré's "ChristoPagan" Requiem
A Day to Celebrate the Survival of the Old Ways
At Hallowtide, Pagan Thoughts on Restoring Our World and Our Souls
Celebrating the Coming of the Sun and the Son
The Pagan Roots of All Saints Day
Beltane: Celebrating the Sheer Exuberance of May
Beltane and the Reclaiming of Spirit
Beloved and Antlered
Integrating Cernunnos, "Archetype of Sensuality and the Instinctual World"
The Prayer Tree

For The Wild Reed's 2017 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from a 1999 interview with scholar and teacher Andrew Harvey, accompanied by images that depict Jesus as the embodiment of the Cosmic Christ), see:
Jesus Our Guide to Mystical Love (Part 1)
Jesus Our Guide to Mystical Love (Part 2)
Jesus Our Guide to Mystical Love (Part 3)

For The Wild Reed's 2016 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Richard Horsley's 1993 book Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, accompanied by images of Juan Pablo Di Pace as Jesus in the 2015 NBC mini-series A.D.: The Bible Continues), see:
Jesus and Social Revolution (Part 1)
Jesus and Social Revolution (Part 2)
Jesus and Social Revolution (Part 3)

For The Wild Reed's 2015 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Cletus Wessels' book Jesus in the New Universe Story), see:
The Two Entwined Events of the Easter Experience
Resurrection in an Emerging Universe
Resurrection: A New Depth of Consciousness

For The Wild Reed's 2014 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from John Neafsey's book A Sacred Voice is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience), see:
"To Die and So to Grow"
The Way of the Wounded Warrior
Suffering and Redemption
A God With Whom It is Possible to Connect
A Discerning Balance Between Holiness and Wholeness: A Hallmark of the Resurrected Life

For The Wild Reed's 2013 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Albert Nolan’s book Jesus Before Christianity, accompanied by images of Jesus that some might call "unconventional"), see:
Jesus: The Upside-down Messiah
Jesus: Mystic and Prophet
Jesus and the Art of Letting Go
Within the Mystery, a Strange and Empty State of Suspension
Jesus: The Revelation of Oneness

For The Wild Reed's 2012 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Cynthia Bourgeault's book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ and His Message), see:
The Passion: "A Sacred Path of Liberation"
Beyond Anger and Guilt
Judas and Peter
No Deeper Darkness
When Love Entered Hell
The Resurrected Jesus . . .

For The Wild Reed's 2011 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Albert Nolan’s book Jesus Before Christianity, accompanied by images of various cinematic depictions of Jesus), see:
"Who Is This Man?"
A Uniquely Liberated Man
An Expression of Human Solidarity
No Other Way
Two Betrayals
And What of Resurrection?
Jesus: The Breakthrough in the History of Humanity
To Believe in Jesus

For The Wild Reed’s 2010 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Andrew Harvey’s book Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ), see:
Jesus: Path-Blazer of Radical Transformation
The Essential Christ
One Symbolic Iconoclastic Act
One Overwhelming Fire of Love
The Most Dangerous Kind of Rebel
Resurrection: Beyond Words, Dogmas and All Possible Theological Formulations
The Cosmic Christ: Brother, Lover, Friend, Divine and Tender Guide

For The Wild Reed’s 2009 Holy Week series (featuring the artwork of Doug Blanchard and the writings of Marcus Borg, James and Evelyn Whitehead, John Dominic Crossan, Andrew Harvey, Francis Webb, Dianna Ortiz, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Paula Fredriksen), see:
The Passion of Christ (Part 1) – Jesus Enters the City
The Passion of Christ (Part 2) – Jesus Drives Out the Money Changers
The Passion of Christ (Part 3) – Last Supper
The Passion of Christ (Part 4) – Jesus Prays Alone
The Passion of Christ (Part 5) – Jesus Before the People
The Passion of Christ (Part 6) – Jesus Before the Soldiers
The Passion of Christ (Part 7) – Jesus Goes to His Execution
The Passion of Christ (Part 8) – Jesus is Nailed the Cross
The Passion of Christ (Part 9) – Jesus Dies
The Passion of Christ (Part 10) – Jesus Among the Dead
The Passion of Christ (Part 11) – Jesus Appears to Mary
The Passion of Christ (Part 12) – Jesus Appears to His Friends

Opening image:
Detail from Salvador Dalí's "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" (1955).

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