So just what is Christo-Paganism and what makes it unique and different from mainstream Christianity and other spiritual paths? To begin with I will focus on some of the elements of Christo-Paganism as it has developed in Western Europe, as my experience of other forms of Christian syncretism is limited. Each individual element that combines to form European Christo-Paganism is not necessarily unique to this tradition alone. However, each one can be traced back to teachings that circulated widely the early Christian era. So here is a brief overview of some of the main principles of the Christo-Pagan tradition as I see it.
The Golden Rule
It would be fair to say that all Christo-Pagans subscribe to some form of what is known as the ‘Golden Rule’ that is to treat others as you wish to be treated, otherwise known as the ethic of reciprocity. This rule emerged from a period in history called the Axial age (800 BCE – 200BCE) and can be found in the writings from many major civilisations including Greek, Hebrew, Indian, and Chinese cultures. (1) Over two hundred years after the end of this age Jesus said; ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets’ (2). He was not saying anything new even in the culture of his time. The Hebrew Rabbi Hillel had already made a similar declaration many years before: ‘That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah (law), and the rest is commentary, go and learn it’ (3). Pagan Wiccans also have a similar golden rule called the Wiccan Rede; ‘An it harm no one, do what thou wilt’.
When you begin to reflect more deeply on the golden rule, you discover that it is pretty much impossible to live up to. We intentionally and unintentionally harm others everyday and we can’t completely avoid it. The ancient Greeks had a word for our inability to live up to this maxim that was adopted by the early Christian communities, they called it ‘harmarto’, missing the target, a word used in the game of archery and which was translated into English as the now loaded word ‘Sin’. St. Paul said, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (4). What he was getting at was that we all fail to live by the golden rule, but as we start to become more enlightened we can begin to move towards living closer to that ideal, and as we do we become closer to our true nature which is unconditional love. This process is traditionally called Kenosis or self-emptying that in turn leads to genuine Ekstasis or self-transcendence.
Kenosis is a Greek term that means emptying the self or Ego. Followers of all spiritual traditions speak of this experience in a variety of ways yet words cannot adequately express what happens in this process. Jesus said that it was like being born again, and that we must become ego-less, similar to the way babies experience existence, before we can experience the fullness of being.
Ego is a Latin word meaning ‘I myself’. In Freudian and other branches of psychology Ego has a specific technical meaning but in spiritual circles the word has come to mean ‘the person we think we are’, which is partly constructed by social conditioning and also by our own thoughts and feelings. What genuine spiritual paths teach us is that the self we think we are is a fiction, an illusion, and a veil that must be seen through before we can discover the reality beyond. The experience is often said to be a state beyond thought which is why it is so hard to describe in words.
Some say Kenosis can only come about through what the early Christians called ‘charis’ or divine grace that just happens regardless of what you do to try and make it happen. Or maybe the truth lies somewhere beyond the dichotomy of effort and grace and yet involves them both.
Ekstasis is another interesting Greek term from which we derive our word ecstasy and literally means to step outside of oneself. Human beings have devised many ingenious ways to simulate this, for example, through mind-altering herbs and drugs, dancing and various forms of bodywork, sex, overeating, fasting, consumerism, gambling, the application of pain, worship, meditation, and ascetic practices of various kinds. The experience of kenosis can also produce feelings of ecstasy but it is also far more than just a feeling, it is a state of literally stepping out of oneself, a freedom from duality, the division between ‘I’ and ‘myself’ that is sometimes described as enlightenment. Anyone who has experienced this state will tell you that the feelings produced during genuine ekstasis is of a much higher quality than the feelings produced by human ingenuity, a bit like the difference between floating in outer space and flying on a budget airline. Self-transcendence is a state of grace, as Jesus said, the wind blows where it chooses and might just appear for no apparent reason at all just that it’s your time. (5)
Heaven is within - the realm of the Spirit
Jesus taught that heaven was not somewhere above the clouds he said that the kingdom of heaven is within (or among) you. (6) The concept of God being a like a king, or a king being like a god is one that is uncomfortable for most of us in the present era, but it is clear from the overall message of Jesus that the kingdom of Heaven was not meant to be a hierarchical system, as he teaches in other places that we are all sons and daughters of God, all equal, and therefore in a sense ‘Royal’ people.(7) The term ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in the original Greek is: Basileia ton ouranon. The term ‘basileia’ does not mean a place, like a kingdom, but rather a realm of royal influence and power, and Jesus talks of the power of the Holy Spirit and its influence upon us. A better translation might be ‘The realm of the Spirit’. The word basileia is also thought to have come from the Greek word for a base or foundation. The foundation of our spirituality is in the deepest part of our being where we find our connection with the Universe. Forget about any Idea of God being some distant deity out there somewhere. Jesus himself was called Emmanuel, ‘God with us’, however it’s not so much that God is within us but that we are in God, this concept is sometimes called panentheism.
There are various ‘theisms’ in religious studies. A theist is someone who believes in God, an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God. pantheism is the belief that nature is synonymous with God, and panentheism is the belief that God is within everything, or rather that everything is in God, literally ‘all in God’. It is the theological position where God is seen as imminent in the world but still transcendent. Most Christo-Pagans would probably find this theological position closest to their own, but they would also emphasise that the divine is a syzygy, with both male and female attributes.
Syzygy – God and Goddess
Most natural phenomena have a male and female aspect and so if we are made in the image of God as it states in Genesis then it makes sense that the divine also has both male and female qualities. (8). Many Pagans believe in individual Gods and Goddesses, who often personify natural objects like trees, the sun and moon, lightening, and other natural phenomena. On the other hand literalist Christians tend to view God as a single, male like deity like that perceived in the Jewish God YHWH, also known as Yahweh, or Jehovah. They claim that there is no other god but this god, but then go on to present a rather complex doctrine that this one god is actually comprised of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christo-Pagans hold that God is ‘Ineffable’ and indescribable and by reading between the lines in the Bible and alternative Christian texts we can discover that many early Christians actually pictured God as having both male and female characteristics, though they often differed in their descriptions. Interesting and informative it might be to speculate about who or what God is or isn’t, it is important to have a blind notion of the ultimate mystery of the nature of the divine. God is often pictured as the divine darkness, within the clouds of unknowing and any way that we imagine God is idolatry, even the way I am describing God now. This is the real meaning behind the Islamic and also Christian Protestant iconoclasm that involves the destruction beautiful and priceless statues and images of God. What the mystics are really telling us is not to destroy all religious artwork, which was often designed to help non-literate people begin on the spiritual path, but to deconstruct our internal images so that we can experience the true reality of the divine beyond all conceptions.
In common with mainstream Christianity the Christo-Pagan tradition contains many Gnostic elements. Gnosis is another Greek word from which the English word knowledge is derived. Gnosis however, in mystical terms is more like an experiential knowledge that is beyond the knowledge of words. In the ancient world there was no such religion as Gnosticism, this is a modern term that covers a vast body of pagan beliefs and practices many of which are of great importance to the Christo-Pagan tradition. Many leading early Christians can be described as being ‘Gnostic’ and many Gnostic ideas eventually found their way into orthodox Christian dogma. (9) Christo-Paganism has been influenced a great deal by Gnostic ideas but it differs in some very important respects, for example the cosmologies of Gnosticism are viewed by many as being unnecessary and over complex and can encourage a devaluing of the human body, Sexuality, and the physical world in general. Christo-Pagans are critical of the way we see the world egoistically but do not devalue creation itself for which we encourage profound wonder and respect.
Ecology and respect for the Earth
In common with many other ancient spiritual paths Christo-Paganism emphasises that creation is good in itself and we must acknowledge and accept totally our physical nature. We do not believe in original sin but in original blessing (10). Creation and our original nature is not the real problem but we do acknowledge that myths like ‘the fall’ speak about our inner condition and how our windows of perception have become clouded in some mysterious way. One early Christian teacher, St. Augustine, taught a literal understanding of the myth of the fall and promoted the idea of original sin; that is that all people are originally born evil. When this idea is coupled with the still more diabolical doctrine that we are somehow meant to have dominion over all the creatures of the earth (11) and also have the freedom and free will to exploit them has lead to the justification of all manner of evil in history that continues in our time. (12)
The ancient Greek aphorism, ‘Know yourself’ (gnothi seauton) has been originally attributed to many philosophers including Pythagoras and Socrates but may in fact have originated in ancient Egypt. It can be thought of as the second ‘golden rule’, the implication being that if you know yourself, that is, your original nature, you have discovered the key to begin to unlock the mysteries of life. As we progress on the spiritual path we begin to realise that we are essentially spiritual beings, a fact that most people don’t find out until they die. Countless people have reported experiences similar to enlightenment after having what are known as ‘near death experiences’ where they become their true spiritual self after leaving their body. At death we may move on to other spiritual realms to continue our evolution or return again to this world to learn what we need to know before we can progress to the next level of being. This second process is known as re-incarnation a doctrine that was widely believed in the early church and traces of this doctrine can even be found in the canonical gospels. (13) Christians also believe in a similar sounding concept known as the resurrection, the idea that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to many.
Anastasis - the resurrection
One of the central doctrines of the Christian church is that of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and one of the ancient tests of whether or not someone is a true Christian is that they confess that Jesus was literally raised from the dead and appeared again in a physical form. In the Pagan mystery religions there were many myths of a similar dying and resurrecting God-man figure and many characteristics of these myths appear in the Christian stories of Jesus. The English word ‘resurrection is translated from the Greek word ‘anastasis’ which also means ‘awakening’ that is, awakening to the spiritual realm. What is clear even from the canonical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection is that his resurrected body was a supernatural body of a completely different nature to a normal body and some early Christians even believed that Christ always had a supernatural body while here on earth. What is more important to Christo-Pagans than all the speculation concerning the resurrection is for us to enter with Christ into our own spiritual death and resurrection and yet again we drawn back again to the core teaching of the death of the ego and the birth of our spiritual self.
Heaven (and Hell) on Earth
Christo-Pagans have a deep awareness of the cruelty and profound injustices that exist among humans and how that injustice impinges on the rest of creation. For many people life on Earth is a living hell and suffering begets suffering and the situation often appears hopeless both for those who are suffering and for those trying to help. There is something diabolical in the heart of humankind that can be roused to perform such acts of cruelty as torture, genocide, terrorism, and war on our fellow beings. This diabolical part of our nature is an unconscious spiritual process that feeds on our fears and insecurities and only a counteracting spiritual energy, the power of unconditional love, can provide a genuine solution. When we contemplate deeply on the gospel stories of the passion of Christ we are lead to the revelation that by ‘fighting fire with fire’, apparent for example in phrases such as ‘the war on terrorism’, only adds to the problem and feeds the flames of diabolical fear and insecurity in the world. Only by discovering and nurturing our spiritually resurrected and eternally free nature can we gain the courage and wisdom to stand up to the madness of the hell that we live in and create alternative oases that can serve to quench the flames of fear that are the real root of our suffering. Some Christo-Pagans believe in a concept known as realised eschatology; that is that Heaven and Hell are not places that we go when we die but are always present in our hearts and in the world right now. As we begin to grow spiritually our lives and the people around us are transformed not through coercion and force but through a natural process that encourages egalitarian thinking that promotes the seeds of change that can develop into the production of a kind of heaven here on Earth. The potentiality for this has always been present and has been visualised by all the great mystics down the ages. Examples of egalitarian communities exist and have always existed that provide blueprints for us to follow and what we know of some of the earliest Christian communities also provides us with similar communal blueprints to emulate.
Magic and Miracles
The stories of miracles in the Bible are one of the common stumbling blocks to faith for readers so much so that many Christians attempt to explain them away and deny that they ever happened. However people embarking on a spiritual journey often discover that as they open up to the possibility of miracles and magic, magical things begin to happen in their lives. Early Christians often depicted Jesus as a Hierophant, a Pagan priest whose role was to reveal the holy and interpret the mysteries and he was often pictured using a magic wand to perform miracles (14). The Gospels and other early Christian texts are filled with miracles and magical events and if you were able to extract them all you would be left with an exceedingly dull read indeed. Science and rationalism have for the last few centuries lead us to believe that the universe is a solid mechanism that cannot be influenced by the mind and the miraculous but Christo-Pagans see the universe as a great miracle and just being part of it is the most amazing miracle of all. Science itself has more recently become less rigid in its outlook and Quantum physics reveals a universe that is fluid and mysterious that can be influenced by our presence and our emotions. Christo-Pagans practice a wide range of magical activities in their every day lives including prayer, meditation, and the use of various forms of complementary healing systems and spiritual tools to enhance their lives and the lives of others. As their practice develops they commonly experience a phenomenon known as synchronicity where coincidental events are felt to have a profound spiritual meaning. They also tend to entrain with the natural world by honouring the Pagan wheel of the year, often performing magical ceremonies to honour the cycles of the sun and Moon as well as Christian festivals many of which overlap and entwine with one another.
The Journey of the Watercourse
Aqua is the ancient Latin word for water, a symbol of the Spirit and also the experience of rebirth and renewal. Water was frequently employed as a ceremonial device in early Christianity, and both Christians and Pagans used baptism in water as a rite of passage.
The Christo-Pagan tradition is above all a journey into an existential knowledge of oneself and the universe in all its dimensions. That journey is eternal and the water cycle of the natural world is a potent metaphor for that process for as we feel we have reached the sea, we are taken once again up into the air to fall yet again upon the earth; all the time the earth is growing and developing like our eternal Self is being nourished by the living water of the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus said to the woman at the well: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ (15).
The above is an adapted excerpt from a book i'm writing at the present time. If any of this makes sense to you, or if you agree or disagree with some or all of what i've written please react!
1) The term ‘Axial Age’ was coined by The German philosopher Karl Jaspers who saw it as a pivotal time in the development of the spiritual consciousness of humanity.
2) Matthew 7:12
3) Babylonian Talmud – Shabbat 31a
4) Romans 3:23.
5) John 3:8
6) Luke 17:21
7) Matt 1:23.
8) Genesis 1:26. ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’.
9) See: Pagels, E (1979) The Gnostic Gospels: Penguin. London for a comprehensive discussion on Gnosticism in the early Christian era.
10) A term first coined by Matthew Fox
11) Gen 1-26
12) Gen 28-3
13) For example in John 9:1-2 it says; As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ The man could only have sinned in a previous life. See also John 1:19 and Mark 8:27
14) In the Roman catacombs there are several portraits of Jesus using a hierophants wand to perform miracles.
15) John 4: 13-14