Interfaith and an Evangelical Christian assessment of Pagan Druidry

Michael York


The Parliament of the World’s Religions (PWR) convened in Melbourne, Australia in 2009 augmenting a tradition that has stretched from Chicago, Cape Town and Barcelona since 1993. A misnomer in terms of parliamentary legislation, the PWR is the largest interfaith gathering in our times. Attendees are expected to take ideas they have learned through interfaith and global exchange back to their homelands. Dialogue between the Abrahamic, dharmic, secular and pagan religious traditions is the purpose of the PWR.

According to Herbert Schlossberg (Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and Its Confrontation with American Society (Thomas Nelson, 1983:275), “what is widely regarded as a struggle between the religious and the secular is really a struggle between religions.” If religion itself may be understood as the “shared positing of the identity of and relationship between humanity, the world and the supernatural in terms of meaning assignment, value allocation and validating enactment” (M. York, “A Report on the Citizen Ambassador Program's Religion and Philosophy Delegation to the People's Republic of China”, Journal of Contemporary Religion 10.2, 1995:197), then a complete religious dialogic roundtable includes in essence such orientations as Marxism, materialism and humanism. In other words, any conversation that concerns worldviews, regardless of the faith or non-faith positions of the participants involved, may be construed and understood as an interfaith exercise.

This paper proposes to outline briefly the distinctive identities and orientations of four ideal-types of religion and their potential for encouraging engagement within a conversational forum of the world’s religions. Michael T. Cooper’s Contemporary Druidry: A Historical and Ethnographic Study (Sacred Tribes Press, 2010) is a profoundly sensitive account of a pagan identity from an Evangelical Christian researcher and illustrates the possibility of exchange between even two diametrically different positions within the religious spectrum. The central question is how might informal but productive contact between different religious identities be based on the kind of insight the Cooper study allows? Where is the study of interfaith and interfaith potential within the sociology of religion?

* * * * *

Concerning her interfaith work, Circle Sanctuary head, Selena Fox, in her capacity as a pagan priestess, informed me on 14 March of this year that “Some of my positive encounters have come in working with evangelical Christian leaders and lay people on environmental preservation endeavors, racial equality, world peace, and other social justice work.  I have marched in demonstrations with evangelical Christians since the civil rights and peace movement days of the 1960s.

"Some of my negative encounters have involved fighting anti-Pagan discrimination .... Helms Amendment (1985) and Barr Wars (1999), job discrimination cases (Jamie Dodge vs. Salvation Army 1988, Jamyi Witch quest to keep her Wiccan prison chaplain job 2001).  I also took action in 1992 and got law enforcement officials, lawyers and courts involved in protecting our Samhain Festival of that year against the Witch hunting crusade of a fundamentalist televangelist."

Fox continues, “We had evangelical Christians supporting our quest to get the US Department of Veterans Affairs to add the pentacle to its list of emblems of belief.  While there were theo/thea logical differences, the ones that were part of the interfaith coalition that spoke out in behalf of Pagan rights did so because of a variety of reasons - support of the Constitution & the Bill of Rights, respect for the dead, respect for the military, respect for military families, etc.” As a pagan spokesperson, she concludes, “The evangelical Christian - Pagan relationship sphere is mixed ... collaboration, dialog, mutual respect, but there are still some who take the position that we need to be oppressed, suppressed, and in some cases eliminated.”

Another pagan leader, Rowan Fairgrove, told me on the same day, “Here in the Bay Area the URI [United Religions Initiative] Bridge CC (bridging between the URI and the Parliament [of the World’s religions]) did a series of pre-Parliament events before the Barcelona event.  We got into same religion groups and talked about our faith's relationship to the themes (ending religiously motivated violence, the plight of refugees, access to clean water and debt relief).  Clean water was a natural amongst the Pagans with our reverence for water and river Goddesses in most cultures.” In Fairgrove’s case, her encounter with other Christians was less with Evangelicals per se, but she highlights the kind of issues around which interfaith might occur.

Mark Townsend, author of The Path of the Blue Raven: From Religion to Re-enchantment (2009), described himself to me as follows: “I am not an evangelical myself, though I do come from that tradition. For the last [fifteen] or so years I've been pretty much a liberal / progressive Christian. And, more recently have started to think of myself as a Christian Panentheist or even a Christian with a Pagan Heart.” His book describes his own journey from Pentecostal / Evangelical Christianity into Druidry. In a recent article titled “A Christian Priest and the Earth Mother!”  for a Christian magazine, Townsend describes his own rite of passage undertaken in a Druid context. He then continues,

“Almost a decade earlier, while still working as a Priest of the Church of England, I underwent a magical and, at times, gruelling Vision Quest in the New Mexican Desert. It was a Male Rite of Passage, modelled on the tribal initiation rites of the world’s various native cultures. It was Catholic yet Native and, like my Druidic Initiation it, was also a ritual of death and re-birth. Lasting for five long days and forcing me to dig deep into the hidden resources of my own soul, this process challenged body, mind and spirit. Only recently have I begun to realise what it did for me – what both these strange rites have done for me.

“It may come as a surprise that I still see myself as a Christian. The Druids make no attempt to indoctrinate or convert newcomers to their philosophical way. Therefore I am allowed to remain a Christian (and a Priest) while being a member of OBOD (The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids). I see them – Christianity and Druidry – as two sides of the same coin, for each one compliments my own spiritual journey in a different way. Though neither of them requires their members to adopt a specific gender attachment to deity, Christianity largely uses male God imagery / language whereas Druidry more and more tends to use the notion of the divine feminine – the Goddes[s].” (personal communication 15 March 2011)

In Townsend’s case, although he is active in interfaith work, he is more illustrative of the possible blurring between the boundaries of different faith positions. He seems to have been captivated in particular by the pagan offering of the feminine as a part of godhead and a legitimate focus of worship. He says, “In a religion [i.e., Christianity] that has been dominated for centuries by belief in a Father God, who incarnates as a male Christ, who chooses 12 male apostles, and whose church is run by a male priesthood, the natural divine-feminine longing cannot be quenched forever. It was meeting Druids that finally brought my inner desire for a positive feminine divine expression some [fulfillment].”

On another front, Mike Stygal is the District Manager for the Pagan Federation London as well as the Inter Faith Network representative and a trustee of Camden Faith Communities Partnership. Married to an Evangelical Christian, Stygal has, since December 2003, run a message board whose purpose is to encourage constructive dialogue between Christians and Pagans.  He tells me (private communication, 15 March 2011) that “For some time I tried to develop positive relations with Christians on the BBC Christian message board. Unfortunately that platform is too open for ongoing positive dialogue, although I have entered into positive dialogue with Christians from the BBC forum away from that forum.” He continues:

“The BBC message board was my training ground for dealing with the most outrageous attacks of what I refer to as extreme fundamentalists (there is no problem with Christians holding to the fundamentals of their faith. It's when they choose a few lesser aspects of Christian scripture as their 'fundamental to die for'). I was accused of child abuse, animal sacrifice, human sacrifice, working for the downfall of Christianity, membership of the illuminati and of an organisation I believe was called the Great White Brotherhood..... I was informed that the devil supplied me with knowledge of scripture to trip good Christians up, I was told that my marriage to a Christian was an abomination (despite pointing out Corinthians 7 on marriage). The message suggesting I abused children was one I fought the BBC to have removed (it took two weeks) as I'm a teacher and felt it might be detrimental to my profession.” (16 March 2011)

Stygal’s own message board ( evolved from his experiences on Salem, MA-based Pastor Phil Wyman’s elist (Circle and Cross Talk). “One of the greatest things we seem able to do is to model ways of discussing our respective beliefs without offending each other and without taking offence. One of the biggest sections of the forum is a bible discussion section where one of our Christian members has been working through books from the bible, discussing his understanding of those sections and inviting thoughts from Pagans. Some of those discussions have gone very deeply into their topics.” Stygal has indeed had numerous negative experiences with Christian Evangelicals (e.g., with Justin Brierley on a Premier Christian Radio studio talk about Pagans and Hallowe’en, and with Steven Green at an inter faith seminar in a London university), but his overall conclusion is that “Successful dialogue between Pagans and Evangelical Christians occurs when both parties approach the dialogue in a way that avoids the brick walls, and when both parties choose to value the other as genuinely caring and valuable members of the human race. It works” (16 March 2011).

The boundary question between religious positions becomes vital in the very possibility of interfaith exchange. In this connection, I find the sociological construct known as the ‘ideal-type’ to be helpful in revealing the dynamics of this possibility. One of its most exemplary employments occurs with Bryan Wilson in his 1959 American Sociological Review article on “An analysis of sect development,” his “A typology of sects” chapter in Roland Robertson’s edited 1969 Sociology of Religion: Selected Readings, and his 1973 study of religious movement protest among tribal and third-world peoples, Magic and the Millennium. The sect types that Wilson delineates, however, are not intended to be classificatory but rather tools of measurement. In actuality, no sect or group conforms completely to its ideal formulation. Instead, the ‘ideal-type’ is employed for purposes of comparison and to determine to what degree a particular instance conforms to the ideal – allowing the sociologist subsequent research and analysis into the area of where the object of study diverges from the ideal formulation in an effort to understand and explain the divergence.

As controversial as I have found the ‘ideal-type’ to be, I am nevertheless proposing to use the device in application to the world’s religions themselves. Basically, what I comprehend is four broad types of religion: what we may designate as the Abrahamic, the dharmic, the secular and the pagan. Schematically, these may be presented as follows:






Or as:






In the first, the Abrahamic and pagan are understood to be opposites as are the dharmic and secular. In the second, the oppositions are shifted to Abrahamic-secular and dharmic-pagan polarities. The second schema could be understood as follows:


Otherworldly focus

This-worldly focus

Accepting of both material and supramaterial realities



Accepting of only material or supramaterial reality



Because, however, of the historical antipathy of the Abrahamic religions to paganism virtually ubiquitously, I prefer to work with the first schema where the Abrahamic-pagan positioning is clearly divergent. In this case, the outline may be explained as follows:


Otherworldly focus

This-worldly focus

Rejection of magic



Understanding of magic



Or another presentation of this last could be:


Otherworldly focus

This-worldly focus

One God/no God



All God/many gods




An understanding of the ‘ideal’ to which any religion aspires falls within the remit of theology. The positions I am suggesting as ‘ideal-types’ are determined in large measure by the varying understandings and conceptions of godhead. For instance, and especially from a pagan perspective, the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have focused – and focused exclusively – upon a god of division. Whether the supreme figure is known as Yahweh, Adonai, God or Allah, he is seen to be divisive on virtually all fronts. In the realm of the supernatural, for instance, this god claims a monopoly and that which is not ‘of God’ belongs to the devil from astrology, divination, sorcery and magic to any competing religion. The polarity of God and Satan, then, is one instance of the nature of the Abrahamic figure. A further illustration of the schismatic nature of Judeo-Christian godhead is that it is exclusively male – sundered in both historical association and terminological reflection from the female. But even from the world of physical nature, the God of Abraham is ganz andere ‘wholly other’ – distinct and irrevocably separate.

In contrast to the god of division is the plural god of paganism. Divinity for the pagan is something that precludes division into such fixed or dogmatic dichotomies as good and evil, male and female, positive and negative, matter and spirit, light and darkness. While it may include and/or generate a range of polarities, the nature of the plural god is to interconnect its pluralities harmoniously into a functioning and dynamic process. Strife and competition are not precluded but co-opted into cooperative viability. The pagan plural god is – or at least is reflected in – the manifestation and reality of nature.

To the two fundamentally distinct understandings of godhead: the divisive god and the plural god, we may add two further theological constructs, namely, the all-god of the pantheists and the no-god of the atheists. The secular position is to diminish and/or eliminate theological practice and reflection. It assumes either that there is no god or gods whatsoever or, agnostically, that knowledge of them is beyond human capacity and the remit of empirical investigation. Secularists, consequently, will deny that they represent a religion, but what they cannot deny is that theirs is a religious position. Admittedly, this begs the question of what then is a religion. My own answer to this is the understanding that accepts a religion as a shared positing of the identity of and relationship between the world, humanity and the preternatural in terms of value allocation, meaning assignment and validation enactment. None of these – empirical reality, mankind/womankind and the magical or supernatural – need be accepted as ontological realities, but a position qua position is nevertheless taken on them by default, and this position itself constitutes religion in the sense I am employing it.

Consequently, along with the divisive god, plural god and no god positions of religio-cultural orientation, there is also the ‘all is god’ understanding. This last is chiefly understood as a dharmic comprehension, but it may also be pagan. There are in fact two all-god understandings: the divine as transcendent and the divine as immanent and/or corporeal. The Hindu or Vedanta take is that phenomenal existence is simply an illusion (māyā) and that reality, the all god, is the transcendental ontology behind the illusion of material existence. However, that the Buddhist understanding – at least the Theravada – accepts the corporeal world of matter as real but of no value must remind us again that actual religious practices are to be differentiated from the ideal-type to which they may conform but with which they do not completely coincide. In fact, with the Theravadin perspective, we have strictly speaking the no god understanding of the secularists. Mahayana Buddhism is closer to the Hindu-Vedanta outlook that pictures a transcendental as the only bona fide reality.

Nevertheless, there is also a pantheistic position that accepts or even affirms tangibility as god or the body of god. This is again a pagan position. What really distinguishes pagan pantheism from secular pantheism is the consideration of enchantment by the former and its rejection by the latter. Once again, I would like to stress that I am speaking here about ‘ideal-types’, that is, ideals against which the actual manifestations ‘on the field’ are to be measured and understood. A purely materialistic pantheism is one that holds only the corporeal/tangibility to be real and the transcendental to be a fiction. A more comprehensive pagan pantheism accepts the whole gamut to be divine and real – the transcendent and immanent as well as the natural and preternatural.  But this pagan pantheistic understanding of the all as god is, in practical outcome, little different than the plural god position. The all of nature and other-nature is multiple and comprised in the multifaceted and pluriform course of nature and her on-going movement as well as intrinsic harmony between competing and divergent parts. From a pagan perspective, the all god and plural god are virtually one and the same.

Consequently, I wish to employ the designation of the ‘all god’ primarily as dharmic and a reference to a transcendental reality for which our phenomenal world of nature is merely a mask or foil. If you are still with me, these distinctions are important when we come to consider the raison d’être or purpose of life. Each position on the godhead, namely, the divisive god, the plural god, the all god and the no god, has different orientating consequences as far as the notion of advance and progress is concerned.  

While Judaism has a less clear concept of an afterlife, the Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam possess a more linear goal so that the purpose of life becomes the attainment of heaven or paradise. Despite differences concerning the soul between Shiites and Sunnis, one’s future is understood as determined by the moral quality of the individual’s life on earth. The idea of final judgment is held not only by the Abrahamic religions but also by Zoroastrianism. From this last, the three monotheistic faiths have in fact borrowed much. The notion of salvation, however, is particularly developed in Christianity. Nevertheless, the purpose of life becomes one of obedience to, and worship of, the Abrahamic god. Everything else and anything else become secondary.

By positing one and only one god, division follows automatically in that everything that is not god is other than god. In other words, such a transcendent male god renders whatever is other than itself – whether the feminine or nature or each and every competing deity - inferior or evil or both. The Abrahamic figure contrasts with the impersonal godhead of Hinduism. Here again we have a transcendent entity or non-entity that  ‘insists’ that phenomenal existence itself is an illusion. All may be god, but all that we know, see, feel, smell and taste does not exist or, at least as the Buddhists would have it, is valueless. Consequently, purpose, advance or progress from a dharmic viewpoint is meaningless. Within the wheel of dharma, there can be no bottom-line positive movement other than that of escaping phenomenal existence itself.

In contrast to the otherworldly preoccupations of Abrahamic and dharmic religions, the notion of progressive this-worldly movement is fundamentally secular or pagan. The chief difference between the two is that for the secularist there is no god, no creator, and the world or cosmos itself is ideally conceived of as a self-generating machine or mechanism; for the pagan, the world or nature is instead a self-generating organism – something alive and not simply inanimate and mechanical. By contrast, for the Abrahamic religions, nature is at best a work of art that has been created by a supreme craftsman – one who claims additionally a monopoly on the sacred. Nature is the other.  With the dharmic religions, nature is simply the illusory mask of the sacred. For the secularist, there is no sacred, but, for the pagan, there are many sacreds. Perhaps these basic and contrasting positions may be summed up as the duality of God and enchantment for the Abrahamic; no God but only enchantment (māyā) for the dharmacist; no God and no enchantment for the secularist; and God as enchantment for the pagan.

The Abrahamic and dharmic religions may be thought of collectively as gnostic with their affirmation of transcendental origins for the material world. Together, the secular and pagan are non-gnostic or ‘agnostic’ not because knowledge concerning the divine is considered to be necessarily impossible, but because wisdom is held to be an emergent rather than an a priori. There is no ‘ultimate goal’ for the ‘agnostic’ religions as there is with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Consequently, from an ideal or theological perspective, the four basic types of religion contrast markedly from one another and have different goals and aspirations. But do these differences then preclude the possibility of bona fide interfaith – especially when the human project is severely endangered by internal and belligerent division and the very ecological future of the host planet is increasingly under question?

I recognize that this is an extremely broad question and beyond the capacity of anyone – including the sociologist – to answer. I wish instead to focus on the interfaith efforts of pagans and, in particular, the dialogue between Christians and pagans. In part, pagan interaction and dialogue are undertaken as a means of both survival and the attempt to re-establish its spiritual orientation in a world from which it has been largely excluded. From the ‘detestable practices’ (Ezekiel 16) of the Old Testament, to the closing of temples and the extinguishing of Vesta’s sacred fire in Rome by Theodosius I in 391, to the closing of the pagan schools of philosophy by Justinian I in 529, to the destruction of the Kaaba idols by Muhammad in 630, pagan religions have been denied and eradicated to the point that paganism as a religious option no longer existed and at best has been considered to be little more than an obsolete source of primitivism, ridicule and nefarious activity. Contemporary pagan thought forms have arisen in the West chiefly through the medium of the Hermetic tradition: Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Golden Dawn magic and Thelema. The modern witchcraft revival that was fostered by Gerald B. Gardner, namely, Wicca, descends from Hermeticism but serves essentially as midwife to the contemporary pagan movement. This last, moving gradually away from Neo-platonic and theosophical theologies, is a conscious reaction to Judaeo-Christian hegemony, a search for pre-Christian practice and/or ethnic identity, and foremost of all a recognition of the environmental plight of planet Earth. Though characterised by a great range of explicit sectarian and implicit generic forms, the pagan renaissance comprises in general ‘nature-worship’, a this-worldly focus, corpo-spirituality, magic/enchantment, humanistic orientation, multiple and gender-differentiated understandings of godhead, and the affirmation of pleasure (York, 2003:65; 2010:78). Core to both its material understanding of spirituality and its veneration of nature is ecological concern and the restoration of the natural world as a – if not the – central value.

On the interfaith front, as we have seen with Selena Fox, Rowan Fairgrove, Mark Townsend and Mike Stygal, that pagans have been active through and beyond such organisations as the Pagan Federation in Britain and Circle Sanctuary in the United States. Among others, pagans participate in the United Religions Initiative, Diana Eck’s Pluralism Project, the Thailand-based Dhammakaya, the World Forum of Spiritual Culture, and the Parliament of the World’s Religions – this last being the venue with which I have had the most experience, having attended the Chicago event in 1993, Cape Town in 1999, Barcelona in 2004, and Melbourne in 2009. Each occasion has had different results with regard to interfaith dialogue. The Greek Orthodox delegation left the Chicago event because of the presence of pagans. The Cape Town venue was in my understanding a high point for pagans in outreach and conversations with others. Barcelona, by contrast, became mostly an occasion for intrafaith activity – as it seemed the case with most other faiths as well. Melbourne represents a return to the interfaith activity that was accomplished in Cape Town but with a strong balance of intrafaith activity as well.

A ‘tactic’ put forward by a pagan contingent at the Australian venue was to declare themselves ‘indigenous Europeans’. This had the effect of outraging many throughout the pagan community at large, but it also served to ‘break the ice’ between pagans and others at the conference venue who subsequently admitted that the ‘pagan’ label would have been an initial obstacle to them for conversation but were then glad for the insight they were then able to gain concerning ‘paganism’ as a religion – an insight they claimed they would not have otherwise learned had they thought that the dialogue was to be with ‘pagans’.

On a different front, I organized in Bath, England in 2004 a conference titled “Exploring Consciousness: With What Intent?” a three-day dialogue between academics, New Age figures, pagans, psychonauts and astrologers. The venue used for the occasion was The Forum, a former art deco cinema hall now run by and as an Evangelical Christian church. The administrative staff was at first most uneasy about the inclusion of astrology, but when I was able to make clear to them that the Bath Spa University College was in no way promoting astrology but instead studying it sociologically as to how people were influenced by and made decisions according to their belief in astrology, an approval was granted to use their premises. There were subsequently some difficult moments between the conference organizers and the ecclesiastical institution, but what surprised me by the conclusion of the event was the parallels that the church people made between themselves and what we were representing at the conference. The church staff member who was in charge of the lighting claimed to see similarities between the slides of Ayahuasca visions and the images of Revelations. Several became interested in a talk on ibogaine therapy because of the church’s own drug outreach programme. By the end, there was not a closed door but a dialogue and positive exchange.

A further instance of pagan-Evangelical Christian dialogue is to be gleaned through Michael Cooper’s study and publication of Contemporary Druidry: A Historical and Ethnographic Study. Cooper is an Evangelical Christian who at the start of his book states openly that “I … accepted [Christianity] as my personal religious identity, or path if you will” [Chapter 1: “Introducing Contemporary Druidry”]. Nevertheless, he is able to admit that “One of the perennial problems with translating a text such as the Greek New Testament is the measure of interpretation that finds its way into the final product.  This is undeniably the case with the word ‘pagan’ and, in the mind of Christians, it places contemporary pagans in a negative light” [ibid.] And surprisingly for an Evangelical, he understands that when “Christianity became the dominant belief system of Europe in the Middle Ages, it was not without having been profoundly influenced by its pagan antagonists” (Chapter 3: “Ancientization and the Revival of Druidry”). In the Christian concession to the ingrained pagan practices among the people, he argues that they had no recourse but to concede to the native religious celebrations by instilling or infusing them with a Christian veneer. But contrary to Robin Lane Fox, he feels that earlier Christianity and ancient traditional beliefs were more discontinuous than otherwise. All the same, he does recognize that there are three key areas in which pagan practices continued in the Church: the conversion of pagan feasts to Christian holidays, the conversion of pagan gods to Christian saints, and, finally, the conversion of pagan magic to Christian animism. In short, he concedes that there is “a remnant of paganism in Christianity” (ibid.)

Despite his own religious orientation, Cooper employs a sound methodological approach to his subject: an honest and rigorous participation observation, and elucidating critique from those he has studied. With regard to the former, he remains keenly aware that “Since Druidry is not my particular faith expression, my very presence in any ritual and my impressions of it would be skewed through my cultural and religious lens” (Chapter 4: “Researching Contemporary Druidry”). One of his informants mentioned in his blog about Cooper that “he is a person of great integrity and is interested in finding common ground, in deepening his own faith, and in learning in an open-hearted way about other approaches to the Divine” (ibid.) Referring to the effect of his research into Druidry as well as the “Druids’ disdain for organized religion and especially Christianity,” Cooper found that this

“... has profoundly affected the way in which I view my faith.  It was enlightening to hear what people thought about the Christian faith expression and made me ask the question of what Christianity did to cause such a response.” (Chapter 4: “Researching Contemporary Druidry”)

Cooper then injects a personal note that is particularly promising with regard to the potential for interfaith dialogue.

“I am often asked by Christians if I ever felt spiritually threatened while conducting this research.  It is a serious question that comes from a worldview where the demonic world is set against the Christian and is attempting to thwart anything connected to God.  While I readily acknowledge the spiritual realm I have found that my worldview has been challenged by my study of contemporary and ancient Druids.  Both Druids and Christians acknowledge the presence of malevolent beings who attempt to mislead people.  Druids attempt to placate them while Christians bind them in order to negate their influence.  From the Christian theological viewpoint, it is difficult to know whether such beings are angelic or demonic.  It is only by their actions can such a determination be made.  In fact, the very word demon (Gr. daimonion) has multiple understandings not all of which are negative.  For example, Luke used the classical Greek understanding of the word in Acts 17:18 to refer to Jesus.

“As an academic who is also a Christian I have tried to posture myself like two early Christians when confronted by a riotous group at Ephesus around 60 CE.  Not to assert that the Druids are a riotous group (although some might find such a moniker desirous), but the testimony about these early Christians is one that has been lost in contemporary Christianity.  After being taken prisoner by worshippers of Artemis, the Ephesian town clerk finally attempted to calm the crowd.  His statement about these Christians is extraordinary, “they are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess” (Acts 19:37).  While early Christians believed differently than the religious people they encountered, they did not speak pejoratively of those beliefs or of the various deities that were worshipped.” (Chapter 4: “Researching Contemporary Druidry”)

Coming from an Evangelical Christian, I find this assessment and understanding to be remarkable.

Certainly, to be motivated as an Evangelical to study Druid pagan religion is a relative rarity in itself, but Cooper’s encounter through academic research along with my own experience with the staff of The Forum church in Bath allows at least the possibility of exchange, dialogue and comprehension between two diametrically different corners of the world’s tapestry of religions. A more typical and hostile encounter between pagans and Christians was reported by Helen Berger in a December 1999 paper for the Columbia University seminar on ‘Content and Methods’  (“Trespassing Boundaries: Conflict and Synchrony Among Three Religions”) that included a presentation of the CUUPS and Unitarian Universalist clash with the local Highland Avenue Baptist Church in Beaumont, Texas in 1996. In this case, the Baptists accused the pagans of being “Devil worshippers.” Berger draws parallels between this incident and the Salem witch trials in 17th century Massachusetts and cites Wendy Griffin (2000:74) in connection with the role of religion in policing mental boundaries between different faiths and enforcing separate and opposing definitions.

Unlike Michael Cooper and his Evangelical Christianity, Beaumont’s Revd. Dennis Rozell represents a more Fundamentalist form of Protestant Christianity. The opposition here between alleged ‘Satanists’ and Rozell’s Occult Awareness group is not the same as the oppositional paradigm I delineated earlier in reference to ‘ideal-types’; it is instead a concrete instance of boundary construction between religious alternatives that has real institutional and social consequences. Berger (private communication, 21.3.11) also relates the disruption on the West Chester University campus of a Pagan Student Group by the Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC). Although this did not happen at West Chester, she relates that the CCC is known on other American campuses for coming “in large #s to Pagan students clubs [and having] voted themselves in as president etc and then [changing] the focus from Pagan study to the study of what is wrong with Paganism.”

Mark Townsend describes that initiatory ritual he attended as “a collision of opposites, a coming together of Christian and Druidic imagery, a meeting of male and female symbolism within a rich and meaningful rite of passage” (personal communication of 15 March 2011). Similarly, Mike Stygal (personal communication 16.3.11) related the following:

“My best early experiences were with my dear friend, Pastor Phil Wyman, who ran an online elist called Circle and Cross talk. He is a Pastor in Salem who is well respected by the Pagan community there. He and I would go on for days and days discussing aspects of Paganism and Christianity.... we have a very close friendship that has lasted over a decade and has seen both of us travelling across the Atlantic to stay with each other. Twice I have spoken at his church to help his congregation understand Pagan perspectives and ways to avoid getting into unnecessary conflict with their Pagan neighbours. His church [members] were very friendly and accommodating. We also have an abiding memory of the first time Phil came to stay with us. We invited quite a few Pagan friends around for a barbecue whilst he was staying. Our Pagan friends were all sitting downstairs wondering what this American Christian pastor would be like (with some nervousness) when he came down the stairs wearing his cowboy hat, strumming the guitar and singing the Ramones song 'I want to be sedated'. Needless to say, our Pagan friends relaxed from that moment on.”

Of course not all pagan-Evangelical relations are as positive as this, and Stygal has several of the more negative variety as well. Concerning the Brierley interview, he relates that “the main message I tried to get across was that successful dialogue between Christians and Pagans relied upon BOTH parties being prepared to listen with an open and respectful mind, remembering that the other held their beliefs for what felt like good reasons to them. Again, Steve [Hollinghurst (Church Army outreach to Paganism and the New Age for the Anglican church)] backed me up on that and between us we apparently got that message across (according to some Evangelical Christian colleagues of mine who were listening in).” Stygal admits that both pagans and Christians are guilty of maintaining barriers or what Berger would refer to as the construction of impenetrable and divisive boundaries. Stygal, however, maintains that it is possible for both pagans and Evangelical Christians to circumnavigate the brick wall boundaries that otherwise separate them.

As sociologists of religion, we seek to investigate the structures and dynamics of spiritual expression and how these interact with the wider community in which they are situated. In addition, the relations between differing religious orientations themselves in terms of both conflict and interfaith are also a part of sociological focus. When and if we find examples of harmony and understanding in cases where such is not to be expected or has not been manifest to a noteworthy degree previously, we have instances perhaps of new developments within our field of research and the possibility of changes or even openings in boundary construction and maintenance. We want to ask: why do they occur, are they sustainable and, especially, what do they portend in the changing interplay of religion vis-à-vis religion? Is there an innovative trend here that sociologists can observe and study?




Works Cited

Berger, Helen. “Trespassing Boundaries: Conflict and Synchrony Among Three Religions.” December 1999 paper for the Content and Methods Seminar at Columbia University, New York.

Cooper, Michael T. Contemporary Druidry: A Historical and Ethnographic Study. Salt Lake City: Sacred Tribes Press, 2010.

Fox, Robin Lane. Pagans and Christians: In the Mediterranean World from the second century AD to the conversion of Constantine. New York: Knopf, 1987

Griffin, Wendy. “Crafting the Boundaries: Goddess Narrative as Incantation” in Wendy Griffin (ed.) Daughters of the Goddess: Studies of Healing, Identity, and Empowerment. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press 2000.

Schlossberg, Herbert. Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and Its Confrontation with American Society. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983.

Townsend, Mark. The Path of the Blue Raven: From Religion to Re-enchantment. Winchester, UK / Washington, USA: O Books, 2009.

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