Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue
Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega, Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, ed. John W. Morehead. Oxford: Lion; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008. 208 pp. Paperback £8.99. ISBN 978-0-7459-5272-7
Numerous volumes have appeared in recent years co-authored by writers from very different religious perspectives, interacting with each other. Most common have been intra-Christian dialogues, but Jewish and Christian writers have frequently conversed as well, and participation by representatives of other world religions also occurs from time to time. But I am unaware of any previous book-length work in which an Evangelical Christian (Australian Johnson) and a self-identified Pagan (in the technical sense of the term; in this case, a Gardnerian Wiccan priest-American diZerega) have dialogued, much less done so with the clear courtesy and respect represented here. The editor is thus to be greatly applauded for bringing these writers together and for seeing the project through to its completed form.
Framed by introductory and concluding chapters, the body of the book divides into six main chapters, discussing the topics of "the nature of spirituality," "the divine," "nature," "humans and the divine," "Jesus and spiritual authority," and "Paganism, Christianity and the culture wars." Following this last chapter, a Wiccan convert to Christianity (Lannie Petersen) and a Christian convert to Wicca (Don Frew) also weigh in with brief reactions to the debate. Readers of the work thus come away with a remarkably balanced, wide-ranging and representative set of insights into both religions and worldviews.
A key difference between Pagan spirituality and the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is that the latter are text-centered while the former is experience-centered. As a corollary, Pagans stress practice over belief and have no texts they believe reflect the inerrant words of God or the gods. Key to their spirituality is living in harmony with the rest of humanity, the biosphere, and the material world more generally. Evangelical Christians have unfortunately often lost sight of those portions of Scripture and church history that stress the importance of personal experience of God, putting his words into practice, and being good stewards of the rest of creation, so Johnson stresses that these themes belong to historic orthodoxy, too.
In discussing divinity, diZerega determines that panentheism is the best way to label Pagan beliefs-that is, that God or the Sacred is in everything and is part of everything. DiZerega finds particular fault with the Abrahamic religions' typical emphasis on the masculine and the patriarchal, at the expense of the feminine, and on their conception of God as a person. He believes that "any personality is unavoidably partial" (p. 42); only the impersonal can truly be Ultimate. Gods and goddesses function for the pagan not unlike angels and, occasionally, demons do in the historic Western religions, and mediate mystical experiences of the divine to humans, but the Ultimate, the Highest, the Source of All, the animating spirit of the universe is better thought of not as one or more centers of personal consciousness. Johnson replies that the eternally Trinitarian nature of God offsets these criticisms. Persons do need others with whom they interact, but the Triune God displays these three persons even before creation. Johnson's egalitarianism allows him to agree with many of diZerega's criticisms of church history while insisting that Christianity has not always been and certainly today need not be patriarchal. He counters by pointing out that the Pagan emphasis on the divine feminine overreacts in the opposite direction and divinizes that which itself is only partial-one of the two complementary genders of humanity. He also stresses that God is not gendered at all, even if it is difficult in most languages to speak of him as a person without using gendered language. God is immanent, as in panentheism, but he is also transcendent; an overemphasis on either attribute distorts biblical truth.
In the chapter on nature, diZerega outlines the annual cycle of public and private festivals that Wiccans celebrate and their origins in the four seasons of each year. He believes that all of creature as a kind of "sentience," a belief confirmed for him by a variety of mystical experiences he has had. Death represents passage to another stage of life, about which we don't know a lot, other than it can be a pleasant one for people of all religions or worldviews who find peace and meaning and approach the Divine through them. Johnson, on the other hand, stresses the difference between God and his creation, between humanity and the rest of the creation, even while acknowledging our need to care for the earth, the nature of human sin, and the need for deliverance from it in order to have a positive afterlife experience.
These themes are unpacked further in the chapter on the human and the divine. Here we get a more detailed glimpse into diZerega's personal spiritual experiences-encountering "the Goddess" who first revealed perfect love to him and then, lest he become proud of his elite experience, explained that "All beings are always worthy of my love" (p. 99). This, he recounts, helped him get over a prejudice against Christianity (among the other religions of the world) due to painful experiences he had had with Fundamentalism as a youth. Johnson agrees that love is central to Christianity as well, but points out the need to test the spirits, since not all mystical experiences, including those that may initially appear good and loving, necessarily turn out as such or necessarily reflect what is from God rather than Satan. He highlights the problem with asserting that all religions can help people in their journeys toward the Ultimate, since each contradicts other ones at various points. Moreover, most major religions require wholehearted allegiance to their systems in ways that should prevent people from merely choosing the non-contradictory bits of various religions and mixing them together.
Under "Jesus and spiritual authority," both authors agree that sacred narratives must include logos, ethos, and pathos, while lamenting that Christianity has often overemphasized logos and acknowledging that Paganism has often underemphasized it. Both recognize that following Jesus is not necessarily identical with adopting all of the beliefs and practices of any given institutionalized church and note the perennial popularity of Jesus even among many who never join a church or call themselves Christian. But Johnson presses home the point that if you are going to admire Jesus and claim to follow him even in some limited fashion, you again encounter his demands that embrace all of life and claim an exclusivity over against other "ways," however appropriately nuanced those differences may need to be articulated.
In their final chapter, our authors lament the ways in which what today are called culture wars have afflicted Christian-Pagan relations over the centuries. Of course, the zenith of Christian atrocities occurred in the eras in which witches (and many wrongly accused of witchcraft) were burned at the stake (hence, the book's title, Beyond the Burning Times). But even today, "Christian" rhetoric can turn quite repugnant, especially when it is combined with ignorance or, worse, willful misrepresentation. Johnson gently replies by pointing to Pagan sources that have "returned the favor" in their writing about Christians.
No one can fairly accuse this book of perpetuating these culture wars. Both writers are remarkably kind and calm in their discussion of each other's views. Some readers will no doubt wish that Johnson had in fact been a bit more forthright or pointed in his rebuttal of some of diZerega's points, even while remaining considerate and accurate in his writing. But for a pioneering venture of this kind, fraught with the potential for so much misunderstanding, erring on the side of too much civility should scarcely be seen as a weakness!
As a surfer of the web and its many religious and philosophical blogsites, I can attest that there remains far too much rhetoric by Evangelicals and their critics that is simply downright nasty, badly misinformed or both. The medium I suppose encourages that, since there are few mechanisms for adequate accountability for people who consistently display these traits. This alone remains a key reason why truth seekers must continue to read peer-reviewed books as the main basis of their information and reflection on important issues that face us as humans. The internet can supplement but it dare not provide the foundation for our beliefs. I strongly recommend this book and urge anyone interested either in understanding historic Christianity or Paganism better or in viewing an exemplary model of what Richard Mouw has called "convicted civility" in action to read this book. And if there are any readers of this review who have neither of those interests, one might reasonably inquire as to why they do not!
Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament