A PAGAN EASTER

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Social media is the ultimate place for clashing opinions. This past weekend I saw a battle on Facebook over a post about the pagan roots of Easter. The post pointed out that Easter coincides with pagan fertility celebrations and that symbols like eggs and rabbits are closer to these fertility roots more than Jesus’ resurrection. This upset a Christian Facebooker and back-and-forth comments ensued. This negativity does not belong in any celebration, be it Christian or Pagan. This should be an opportunity for making connections and learning about the history of one’s respective religion.

The pagan roots of Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter is a fact. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. However, this fact is often used by instigators in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of Christian holidays. That somehow the pagan roots would make Christian holidays less worth celebrating; and further make the Christian religion less worth practicing. This must be effective to some degree considering the fiery reactions of Christians. Somehow they are threatened by the idea of pagan roots. This is foolish on both the parts of the instigators and the defensive Christians. The pagan roots of Christian holidays illustrate the depth, history, and complexity of Christianity; not its illegitimacy and should not be used as such. If Christians understood and embraced this, they would learn more about their religion and remove power from instigators.

One need not look far for pagan elements in Christianity. The four elements found in contemporary Pagan and animistic traditions around the world (earth, air, water and fire) took center stage at the Easter Vigil I attended at an Episcopal church. The holy paschal fire, prayers inviting the Holy Spirit to stir in the air amongst us, holy water for the renewal of baptismal vows, and the evergreen branch used to sprinkle the congregation. These elements are highly visible in many organized and organic faith traditions. But, in Christianity they gain new significance and meaning. The pagan roots are not lost, but holidays and symbols come to stand on their own. Making them fully legitimate in a purely Christian light.

 

Note: Here ‘pagan’ is used when discussing ancient, pre-Christian, and indigenous traditions. ‘Pagan’ is used when discussing contemporary or Neo-Pagan traditions.

EMPTY PEWS: THE ROLE OF CHOICE & ABILITY

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Twice this past Sunday I was confronted with the question, “Why don’t people go to church?” It wasn’t always this way. What has changed? These questions have endless answers from academia, religious leaders and the curious public. This myriad of answers paints a complex picture that reflects the nature of religion in secular society. But the two answers I heard on Sunday were simple and practical. The answers I heard focus on the role of choice and ability in declining levels of religious involvement.

The first answer pointed to the many, acceptable and perhaps favorable, alternatives to church offered by society today. Instead of going to church, one is free to sleep in, go out for breakfast, or partake in many secular activities. In decades past, time was preserved for church, for the Sabbath day. Now it is prime time for children to have sports practice and for community groups to meet. Moreover, it seems more activities claim to fill the same needs that religion once filled. People willingly sub out church for other activities… like shopping. This answer points to choice as a major player in empty pews. No doubt it is a contender. But if the choices were weighted equally in society and in the minds of people, I think churches would be fuller.

The second answer was time. In decades past, it was far more common for women to stay home rather than hold a job outside the home. As it was their ‘job’ to run the household, cook, clean and do the shopping; the majority of this could be completed during the week. Similarly, with women available Monday through Friday it was more feasible to get themselves and their children involved in secular activities during the work week. The situation was not ideal for women, but it certainly was for church attendance. With more time during the week for chores and recreation, families managed to observe the Sabbath. But today with the growing necessity for dual income households, most of the housework, shopping and recreation are crammed into the weekends, making it logistically more difficult to get to church. This is a question of ability. Women’s mass involvement in the workforce and the coinciding fall in church attendance is often attributed to ‘decaying family values’. But as described here, I maintain that it is the logistics of time and scheduling that is a major player in waning church attendance.

While these two answers, choice and ability, are only components of the explanation on falling church attendance (others may include ideology shifts, globalization, changing priorities), I think they make up a large portion of the reason for most people. If it is the goal of religious organizations to see attendance go up, then I believe it is spearheading these issues that will have the biggest impact. That being said, they are perhaps the most difficult factors to deal with as they are implicit and largely societal factors. However, when church becomes as good of an option as the other choices available, people will make time to go. Secular activities will get subbed out for religious ones. If this is widespread enough, perhaps society will start to carve out more time for religious involvement and the time factor will start to sort itself out.

RELIGION & POLITICS: ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

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Through my writings, I’ve expounded on the complex relationship between religion and society. The basis for this relationship in America is the heavily toted principle, ‘freedom of religion’, which is often conflated with freedom from religion. I feel this conflation gives secularism its strong foothold in American society. I’ve explored how this separation is created and maintained through both direct and implicit implementation of secularism; and commented on how rigid this separation can be. However, I feel we are currently witnessing one of the greatest exceptions to American secularism: election season.

I’m always amazed at how visible religion becomes leading up to a major election. Some politicians utilize religion in their campaigns, as a way to illustrate sound morals and relate to voters. If a candidate does not make religion part of their campaign, the media or voters will inevitably ask the question. It is clear that a candidate’s religious or spiritual views weigh heavily in voters’ minds. For a brief period, religion has its place on the public stage, at least as much as it relates to the race. Election season sheds new light on the level of importance placed on religion in America. Day to day, religion may not be a pivotal topic in the public eye, but when determining a highly ranking leader, it is at the center of conversation.

It seems this election is concerned with making sure all candidates are strongly rooted in faith, and how that faith will be reflected in policy. When Obama was campaigning, the main concern was whether or not he was secretly a Muslim. This illustrates that, for many, faith is desirable in politicians, there is a ‘correct’ faith in the eyes of many voters. We see how the ‘freedom of religion’ has allowed a great variety of faith traditions to take toot in American. However, we also get a glimpse of attempts to selectively apply this principle to ‘acceptable’ and ‘similar’ traditions in order to stifle others. This perpetuates the generalized, normative, whitewashed notion of what an American should be like. The same way ‘freedom of religion’ can be used in different, even opposing ways, America is very much a secular society with some strong exceptions that could suggest otherwise.

 

(Perhaps I will explore these exceptions in the future. Feel free to comment with noteworthy exceptions to America’s secularism. Your suggestion may turn into a future article!)

WORLD SABBATH

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I attended the World Sabbath at Fort Street Presbyterian Church in Detroit with high hopes and it delivered. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The music and dancing enlivened my spirit, and the prayers offered in song and in so many different languages lifted me up. It was also an opportunity to hear about interfaith efforts, which was both encouraging and sobering with how much work is yet to be done.

It was a great event and I look forward to next year, but there were some things of concern that stood out to me. One was the number of people in attendance. This is one of Michigan’s premier interfaith events, taking place in a wonderfully diverse area. While there was well over 100 people there, many were participants, parents of participants, faith leaders, organizers and volunteers. There did not seem to be many people like us, interested ‘lay people’, invested in the value of interfaith efforts. I don’t feel the organizers are to blame for this. It seems only a small community recognizes the desperate need for understanding and respect, and value of diversity among faiths. This consciousness has yet to reach society at large with respect to religion.

The other thing that stood out to me was that the event seemed to take on the tone of a performance rather than worship. At times applause seemed inappropriate. The prayers made me want to reflect and bask in the afterglow of serenity, but applause interrupted and took away from that sacred feeling. To me this illustrates a lingering discomfort worshiping in others’ faith traditions. Here the various faith groups put on a sort of show and tell. There is nothing wrong with this, but there could be so much more. In the right context, the music, dance and prayer at the World Sabbath, could have profound effects providing a shared, sacred experience. I hope that next year those that gather are plenty, and that they take advantage of the opportunity to experience the worship offerings rather than simply observe them.

FAITH & CONTROL

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“The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is control.”

– Richard Rohr

 

This quote got me thinking about keeping faith in a secular society. On one hand you have religion, centered around a belief system. On the other hand, you have secular institutions like the economy and government centered around objective and commonly held truths. This realm of society values logic, reason and efficiency; which are very different processes than faith.

Faith, as this quote utilizes the word, is trusting the divine (order or being) with issues or concerns rather than taking them on alone. Instead of worrying, working to control everything and trying to resolve everything; you give it to God with faith that everything will work out as it should. It may not be what you wanted, it may not be what you envisioned, but it will be alright.

This is easier said than done when the norm is locking in a plan to reach a goal. It is hard to ‘let go and let God’ when society tries to sell you a guaranteed 10-step guide to success. That being said, I think the challenge of faith is half the point. Challenge is an opportunity for growth, making way for a deeper faith. Working to keep faith in a secular society opens new doors for one’s faith due to the inevitable challenges.

The yin and yang, the faith and control, bring a kind of balance to the lives of those living in the Western, secular world. Their juxtaposition in secular society allows a greater appreciation of both elements. I may even assert, that in this case, secularism is beneficial to people of faith. This applies to those dedicated to a personal or uncategorized spirituality, as well as members of organized religion. For neither spirituality or religion can exist without faith in something bigger than oneself. A secular atmosphere provides unique opportunities for the faithful, no matter the terrain of the path they follow.