Cross and Pentacle: Two religions at the crossroads

I was a Jesus Freak, a passionate theologian, and a Southern Baptist minister. I worked hard to convert pagans. The pagans won.

Discovering magic as a witch with an intimate knowledge of western christianity I explore the juxtaposition of these two faiths. Christianity and paganism alike are undergoing dramatic changes with parallel trends, conflicting challenges, and a growing concern for interfaith dialogue.

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Sex and the Parliament of the World's Religions

More than a week later, my bags are unpacked (mostly), the laundry is done (almost), but my thoughts linger with the Parliament of World Religions. With religious observances starting at 7am (I will refrain from commenting on this choice of scheduling) and social activities continuing late into the night, experiences seemed to add up to weeks rather than days.

 

I had just returned from my trip to Germany when I went to the Parliament, so jet lag was working in my favor. Most mornings I woke up in the dark and walked to a nearby bike station just as the horizon was lighting up with the promise of sunrise. It was worth getting up early. As I look back, I treasure the memories of morning observances. I wish there had been even more religious observances to be visited throughout the day.

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_20151017_161640548.jpgI particularly loved starting my day with the blessing of the indigenous peoples and by making an offering at the sacred fire in front of the convention center. I heard it from other attendees again and again: the wisdom, beauty, and grace offered by the indigenous peoples was one of the highlights of this Parliament. I found their generous spirit so deeply humbling that it brought me to tears more than once. I took home the program “booklet” (encyclopedia seems more fitting) specifically to find recordings of the indigenous workshops, plenaries, panels, and to research further resources and connections.

 

I also had the privilege of observing a Zoroastrian prayer ceremony and learning more about their tradition, of praying with a couple of Muslim women, singing and worshiping with Sikhs, listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and finally participating in a ritual with Solar Cross Temple.

 

Somewhere in my stack of collected business cards and flyers is an invitation to the mosque here in Oakland and contact information for religious leaders from several traditions. I look forward to sorting through them, making contact, and continuing the process of learning from other religions. It feels like the Parliament was just the beginning of a journey, a scratching of many surfaces with infinite depths beneath.

 

The commonalities between so many different traditions from all over the world were amazing. I was surprised, for example, to find a strong emphasis on the rhythm of the sun at a Muslim morning prayer. And hearing panelists from different traditions agree on issues of social and environmental justice was heartwarming. Of course those who were attending the Parliament tended to be the most progressive and open adherents of their respective religions, but even knowing this, I expected there to be more tension and less agreement.

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_20151019_074905701.jpgThere were moments in which I forgot that I was surrounded by people of different religions, when it felt like I was at PantheaCon or another Pagan event. Those moments were precious. They reminded me of our shared humanity, how much we do share, how small our differences can be when we are facing something as big as the destruction of our planet. Maybe, just maybe, I found myself hoping, it is not too late for us and we really can come together and turn this ship around.

 

Outside of these moments, however, I also saw how much work still needs to be done. Crystal Blanton commented on the The Wild Hunt regarding Black Lives Mattering at the Parliament. Plenary sessions were a constant reminder of how our temporary community at the convention center was not representative of the state of the world. I often found it difficult to hold the tension between the strife, misogyny, racism, destruction, and violence we talked of and the antithetical experience we were creating amongst ourselves.

 

I had traveled to Salt Lake City by myself. I expected to meet up with some Pagan friends as well as meeting new ones, but I figured I’d be experiencing the programming by myself most of the time. I was completely wrong. At a Pagan dinner organized by Peter Dybing, I immediately felt welcome. The connections I made that night lasted throughout the Parliament and beyond. There was a strong sense that we were a tribe, that we belonged with one another, that we were a community. A big thank you, also, to the folks from Circle Sanctuary. I felt so at home with you that more than once I was mistaken for a Circle Sanctuary member.

 

In a place with so much diversity, the similarities between those of us under the Pagan umbrella really stood out. Heathens, Druids, Humanistic Pagans, Wiccans and Witches seemed to have much more in common than we normally give ourselves credit for. We may have many differences in our religious practices and beliefs, but overall we share a common culture.

 

One commonality that stood out to me was our relationship to sex. While there were other faiths that honor sexuality as sacred, nowhere was it as explicit as in the Pagan community. In fact, I was getting so used to seeing “lust” listed as a sin in various workshops and prayers, that I was taken aback at the overt sexual references in the Goddesses Alive! ritual. I left the ritual early, feeling overwhelmed by the ritual and, as I noticed once I stepped outside, by dehydration and lack of food.

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_20151015_0914231811.jpgI hadn’t been taking good care of my body, I realized, being so caught up in new ideas, prayers, songs, and different ways of thinking. As I sat outside, eating and drinking and soaking up sunshine, I reflected on the sexual references in the ritual. I’ve grown used to them in strictly Pagan settings, but I believe the interactions I had with religions that emphasize abstinence and “sexual purity” had triggered my former dualism of body versus spirituality. I grounded, I paid attention to the sensation of the sun and air, and re-embraced the embodiment of my religion.

 

I thought back to our Pagan-Evangelical Christian interfaith dinner and the moment the conversation shifted to sex. While we disagreed on many things, it wasn’t until we talked about sex that it seemed like we were speaking different languages. For the rest of the Parliament I thought about Paganism, the embodiment of religion, and how the Iron Pentacle, a tool we use in the Reclaiming tradition, begins and ends in sex.

 

And then I paid attention to the interactions between Pagans at the Parliament. I witnessed many hugs, shoulder rubs, and flirtations. New friends would sit close to each other, hold each other, rest a head on the shoulder of someone they had just met. Not everyone sought or welcomed physical contact, and most contact was not sexual in nature, but there was a general sense of openness, an understanding that our bodies, our sexuality, our physicality were sacred. I had known this intellectually, of course, I had witnessed it, experienced it within my own community and at Pagan events. But in the setting of the Parliament, in the company of some religious leaders and practitioners who value celibacy and asceticism, the embodied nature of the Pagan path became more unique and precious to me.

 

It made me fall in love with Paganism all over again. Just as I thought I was sobering up from my “newness” to this path, I felt like I was entering into a second honeymoon. A week later, the feeling has not diminished, it has grown. This Samhain marks the seventh anniversary of my suicide attempt, the fifth anniversary of finding my new home in the Bay Area, and the third anniversary of founding an intentional Pagan community. My love for the Pagan path and the Pagan community is deepening. In our fierce embrace of our bodies, our sex, our physical existence, we bring a unique joy and much needed perspective to the world around us.

 

As we make connections with the Dead this season, I become more aware of being alive in my body. Every breath and movement sings of my aliveness. Being in community with other Pagans at the Parliament has taught me to love my body more, to treasure its messages, its limitations and unique experiences, and to honor the sacredness of my sexuality. Blessed be our path, blessed be our lives, blessed be our bodies, blessed be our sex.

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Born and raised an evangelical Christian in Germany, I joined the Jesus Freak movement as a teenager and became a passionate evangelist and worship leader. No one was surprised when I went to the US at age 19 and came back a tattooed and pierced fundamentalist Christian, betrothed to a "Chrispie" (a Christian hippie, that is). I was a virgin the day we married. Five years later I graduated bible college with highest honors and post traumatic stress disorder. I deepened both my theology and trauma on the road by traveling the country in a big yellow school bus. For three years I lived as a nomad, playing music and leading bible studies, from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. I learned that Christianity in America encompasses a wide range of beliefs and practices, from Amish groups casting demons out of school busses to Roman Catholic priests breaking into government buildings. I saw Jesus in the oddest places. And then everything changed and I ended up a polyamorous Witch in a Pagan community in California.

Comments

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Thursday, 29 October 2015

    Interestingly, I got some grief about the script's inclusion of some (not a lot) overt sexual references -- "the kissing of the phallus," for instance, which is straight out of the ancient texts about Inanna -- ahead of time. The criticism was that this was an interfaith crowd and might offend some. I've been doing interfaith work for some years now. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard "well, we all worship the [male] one, don't we?" Well, no, we don't. I've experienced this nearly universal presumption of a one creator god for all these years. Sometimes it's done in a way that's downright offensive to me. I've asked my non-deist Buddhist friends how they take this constant reference and presumption, and they just seem to let it roll off their backs. I try, and usually I do okay, but sometimes it just gets to be too much. So with this rare opportunity to show a bit of who we are, I wanted all the more to present us as a full spectrum, as embodied beings who consider the pleasures of the senses to be sacred, be they sexual, gastronomic, visual, musical, whatever.

  • Annika Mongan
    Annika Mongan Thursday, 29 October 2015

    Thank you for sharing this, Macha. While it definitely surprised me, I'm glad that you included the references. It really did bring out our diversity and, as I wrote, had a positive influence on my experience at the Parliament.

  • Andrea Kendall
    Andrea Kendall Saturday, 31 October 2015

    The ritual rocked Macha.

    I also very much enjoyed getting up early and sitting by the sacred fire. I learned a lot from listening to my Indigenous brothers and sisters.

    I also agree that I found myself in some panels thinking, 'hmm they list Lust as a sin, as a Pagan I do not see it that way'. I have also found a lot of talk about 'we all worship the same thing'. Depending on the circumstances I try to gentle inform people that really not everyone does. Not everyone is a monist. I am, but I know other Pagans who are not.

    This has been one thing I have been slowly trying to bring into my own interfaith work. Expanding the understanding of the rich variety of faith and non-faith that is out there.

    By the way I bought several DVDs and CDs of Indigenous materials. I have not watched the DVDs so I have no idea if they are any good. But if you interested you can check out http://www.dannybeaton.ca/ and the very moving and sad documentary "The Doctrine of Discovery - Unmasking The Domination Code" at http://www.38plus2productions.com/

  • Annika Mongan
    Annika Mongan Thursday, 12 November 2015

    Thank you for the links, Andrea! Those are really great resources.

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