The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

The Pokey Finger of God header image 2

Authority, Faith, and Identity

March 29th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, culture, history

When I first started along the pagan path, ere so long ago, much of my motivation was a desire to move away from what I perceived to be the hypocrisy and false origins of Christianity. For some time — indeed, for many years — I prided myself in my paganism, especially in how it wasn’t Christianity. I would perform Wiccan ritual with one set of friends, and study medieval grimoires with another, all the time struggling to avoid contact with the dominant, mainstream religion.

After a few years of immersion in my new identity, I felt safe enough to reacquaint myself with Christianity — from the outside, this time. The perspective, itself, was illuminating. Many things that had been unquestioned in my youth suddenly became obviously peculiar in a way I probably wouldn’t have picked up on had I never had that particular rebellion experience. Touching on any aspect inevitably brought on a wave of double-vision by which I would see a thing both as a believer and as a “stage manager”.

I was somewhat disturbed when I realized how deeply embedded were so much of my early experiences in the Church. I began to deliberately question each assumption I found myself making, uncovering layers of suspect teachings and traditions in the process. I also had many questions that had built up from when I was a participant, and some of the resulting searches really took on lives of their own.

Along the path, I quite frequently encountered the notion that Christianity was, at its core, the Reader’s Digest Top Ten of Greco-Roman paganism. Early on, I embraced the notion, even presenting speeches describing the pagan elements of the modern faith. Yet, until I was able to trace the direct path by which Roman mystery faiths gradually led to the development of many Christianities that I seriously began integrating this fact into my personal religious practice. Until I pealed back the patina of tradition and apologetics to reveal the hidden, ancient gods within, I never felt that there was anything within Christianity particularly of value, or to value.

Although I never labored under the belief that my spiritual practices were in any way ‘ancient’, I also held just as firmly that they were not ‘unique’. I recognized that what I have been idiosyncratically pursuing as “paganism” is more of a post-modern (or post-Christian) reaction to neoclassical fantasy than anything remotely resembling ancient religious practice. Many people, including yours truly, persist in these beliefs and practices because they work. Folks just seem to be wired to respond in predictable ways to specific “religious” stimulae. The source is ultimately unimportant: it is the method of delivery that makes all the difference.

It was this very method of delivery that I primarily studied during my decade-long exploration in the modern, popular occultism. The great work afforded me the opportunity to view the technology of religion in contexts disassociated from traditional faith. Consequently, the ability to understand both the triggers and the psychological impact of these technologies, both as a participant and as an observer, has granted me a keen insight into the historic interplay between religion, culture, and authority.

One example: the Early Church(es) developed during a intellectually revolutionary and culturally remarkable period of history. Only in modern times has there been an intellectual environment similar to that present during the development of the Early Church: in which individual exploration was encouraged and individual preferences and perceptions were given weight. Always and in all other places, religious authority was placed upon cultural leaders.

Prior to the Hellenization of Asia, religion was an expression of cultural membership. Tribes and urban areas associated themselves with various deities who were the propitiated to fend off bad luck. The eldest members of each local community were accepted as local authorities in all questions of faith. The specific acts of worship differed, and names of deities deviated wildly, but at the same time, there was a remarkable sameness to a lot of it that the Greeks immediately noticed.

Ethnocentricity was a defining force for Greek culture, believing that their culture was superior to all others, and looking to their written mythologies as evidence of their storied presence. It had long been their practice to categorize the elements of the religious beliefs of others, as if all faiths were simply variations of their own. Encountering older and more complicated Persian cultures shattered Greek intellectual confidence, and launched six centuries of quest for the “perfect” Greek faith. By the time of Constantine this root had borne many great shoots.

After Alexander, many of the newly-Greek retained the idea of a “perfect” faith and along with it a sort of philosophical monotheism. This, combined with the relative ease of travel and burgeoning economies in the growing urban areas meant that many ideas about what exactly a “perfect” faith entailed were being passed around over a wide range. People gradually shifted their focus of authority from tribal leaders to urban leaders, and then to leaders of foreign cults, and later to respected, dead leaders of cults. At some point more than a few Greeks made the leap away from external sources of authority and began to seek that authority from within themselves.

Each group of people at different stages along this path were viewed as distinct entities presenting very specific views of truth. There was a Greek tradition that each person has the authority to accept or reject the teachings of their ‘school’, and to vote with their participation for the schools that touched them the most deeply. While this process sharpened and honed a series of faiths into the nascent Christianity, it was also the impetus for early writers to focus on the importance of maintaining their ideological hierarchy. It was this competition that led to the development of the New Testament.

Had Constantine come along 100 years later than he did, the state faith might have been a deeply ornate Manicheism, or a 100 years earlier, might have been a simpler Isis worship. The situation on the ground at the time of Constantine’s ascension simply dictated the results. Constantine viewed authority as his sole right, and saw hierarchy as a means by which to enforce that authority. After Constantine, Roman Catholicism would continue to reflect this new priority. And for a thousand years, people who dared to place authority of spiritual matters in their own hands found themselves in a bad position with the Church.

Only in the last century has the promise individual spiritual sovereignty been even remotely possible. My life has been an example of this fact. I’m confident that the kind of intellectual freedom I have is more complex and developed than that of the ancient Hellenes. It was this freedom of the ancient pagans that I had first associated as being part of paganism on the whole. Now it seems that this freedom was but a fleeting moment in the greater span of history, and not really characteristic of any other sort of early faith. Paganism is probably still the best word I can use to communicate to others the sort of practice I keep, but I think it may be time to focus on my own beliefs until I can come up with an appropriate identifier.