This past spring, an arsonist destroyed the Church’s meeting house. It is now a two-story skeleton of blackened bones, wrapped round with a single yellow caution strip, as if that were the only thing holding it up. Around it, the forest, lawn and garden are lush with summer growth.
Near the top of the hill stands the husk of a tree, struck by lightning. It was also smitten this spring. At the base of the tree, one of the Church’s members cut a crop-circle-like maze in the tall grass with a weed whacker, and placed a salvaged soot-covered statuette in its center. Before the Solstice ceremony, and late into the evening afterwards, the children played games in the maze, and chased lightning bugs.
The Nature Church has been purified by fire.
The Ancestors and We, the Children
The Nature Church has always been Pagan, but never particularly denominational. This day was no different. Three Pagan traditions were represented — Druids, Wiccans, and Goddess worshipers. Each tradition — whether thousands of years old, or just a few generations — brought its unique stamp to the ritual, creating a whole that merged seamlessly.
The ritual outline was as follows:
- Entering the Circle. One by one we entered the circle, smudged with sage and asperged with water as we crossed the threshold. This ritual cleansing is common to all three Pagan paths, as far as I know.
- Calling the Quarters. Here, the Wiccans and Goddess devotees invoked the elemental powers of the four directions, inviting them to enter the circle with us.
- Calling the Three Worlds. Ellen, my wife and I (the Druids) called to the Ancestors, the spirits of Nature, and the Gods, in turn, inviting them to join us. Ellen called out to the three Dead: the Dead whose bones have gone into the earth around us, the Dead who are our ancestors, and the Dead who have built our culture and society. My wife called the spirits of the animals, the spirits of the plants, and the other nature spirits — the faerie — surrounding us. I called to Brigid and Lugh, gods of fire who would be most exalted at Midsummer, and the other gods in the high airs.
- Offerings to Water, Trees, and Fire. Ellen, my wife and I then led the circle in giving offerings to these three elements, each symbolizing one of the Three Worlds, just as we do back in the Grove, while we all sang We are Children of the Earth.
- Then Penny, an eclectic Wiccan, invoked and thanked Lugh and Brigid. Interestingly, she was not aware until the very act of the ritual that Lugh and Brigid would be the same gods that we Druids would invoke!
- Then Bob, the Pastor of the Nature Church and Goddess devotee, movingly invoked the Earth Mother.
- My wife and I and the children then sang a song to please and praise the gods; and our eldest daughter played a tune on her flute that she had learned at school. The simple haunting tones of the pentatonic flute were perfect for the occasion. (How I love Waldorf education!)
- Ellen and my wife together then did a divination for the Church and those assembled, using the haruspicy cards as we did for the Equinox festival. (The haruspicy cards are a perfect mix of tradition and innovation: harispicy is an ancient divinatory practice of examining the liver of a sacrificed animal; the cards, a modern innovation, allow you to do this with, as Ellen said, “no muss, no fuss.”) You may recall that the last divination was not particularly favorable — the Sun in particular had not been ready to grant what we asked for. This time the results were different: not only was the reading favorable, but the primary element indicated was water.
- We then closed the ritual — first we Druids thanked the Three Worlds, then the others thanked the Quarters, and, as appears to be de rigeur in these affairs, we sang May the Circle be Open But Unbroken.
Afterwards we went to our feast, and held a silent auction to benefit the Church, as the sun set behind the hills and the children played in the grass.
There was a palpable sense of relief for all of us. The haruspicy indicated that the time of purification by fire was over — just as the sun was starting its long journey southward; and the future would bring a welcome watery respite.
Here you can see the most common and basic reason for religious innovation: contact with other religions. We performed a ritual that was not part of any one religious tradition, but despite that (or perhaps because of it!) the gods were pleased and the outlook is good for the Church. If we continue in this style, it will become the traditional style of the Nature Church; and who knows? If the Church takes off and opens branches all over the world, our ritual pattern may one day become entrenched tradition. You can check out Sojourner’s excellent article for some background on how innovation becomes tradition.
When you see someone getting good results with something different, it’s only natural to wonder if it might not work for you, as well. In the old times, before the revealed religions put such a high value on the sanctity of religious texts, it was a common practice for a religious seeker to appeal to just about every god and spirit they could think of — you never know who might be listening, and it couldn’t hurt to try as many deities as you could.
As contact increased between cultures in places like Europe, so much religion began to be shared that it almost made sense to do as the Romans did and “translate” all foreign gods into their own native gods’ names. Caesar, for example, repeatedly said that the Gauls worshiped Mercury as the highest god, but Mercury was a Roman god. Caesar’s readers understood that Caesar meant that the Gauls worshiped a deity similar to Mercury (probably Lugh). When the Romans conquered Gaul and other Celtic areas of Europe, the Celts began borrowing Roman gods in earnest, and mixing them into their own pantheons without a second thought.
When Christianity arrived, it was hard for many people to understand the idea that when you decided to believe in Jesus, you had to give up all your other gods. Very many simply added Christ in alongside everyone else on the altar. For hundreds of years in Scandinavia and the British Isles, it was common to see people wearing a simple pendant that could be switched between a Christian cross and the Mjolnir, the Hammer of Thor, simply by turning it upside down.
This process of change-via-contact is extremely similar to what happens when languages come into contact. As is frequently the case, it’s useful to think of religion as a language of Spirit: a communication system between the human and the divine. It doesn’t really change and adapt like science does — with waves of successive theories proceeding as experiments are performed and faculties change at major universities. Instead, it changes like language does — through contact with other religions, through internal forces of simplification and elaboration, and through the interaction of the communicators.
Children in the Church
Children are a source of “errors” when passing down religion from generation to generation, but only certain kinds of errors. Children tend to simplify in some ways, but they can also create complexity. Simplification occurs partly because adults simplify matters to teach them to children, and partly because young minds do better with simpler things. Also, children like rules. They like everything to be down in black and white. They prefer irregular forms to be regularized; and rituals need to make sense (either intellectually or emotionally). Obviously, children don’t always get what they want. But eventually they become adults, and if they didn’t like a particular ritual as children, and it does not speak strongly to them as an adult, they will tend to minimize or downplay it in their practice.
Complexity can be added by children when they ask embarrassing questions that need new answers. Also, less obviously, children like to explore and develop relationships in the religious typology. They will think about the relationship between Jesus and Santa Claus, for example. It’s not at all uncommon for an adult to tell a simple made-up story about one of these relationships — a story that the children adore, and ask to hear again and again — and in turn they tell it to their own children… Next thing you know, the preachers are referring to the story in their sermons, even though it’s nowhere in the sacred texts. The idea that the color pattern of a dogwood’s flower refers to Christ on the cross is an example of such a process.
Your Own Soul
If you are devout, and committed to working on yourself and your relationship to Spirit, then you are bound to experiment with your belief system. At the very least, you will tend to emphasize one or another aspect of the religious system you inherited. Some people resonate with the choir, others reach God by gardening or community service, others study the numerology of the Greek New Testament — all of these things are sanctioned by a single religion, but they’re very different ways of reaching Spirit. Sometimes, though, there’s something about your inherited religious system that fundamentally doesn’t fit with your character, and you have to search elsewhere. This is when you head up to the buffet table and see what else is laid out, as in Slade’s article. You’ll put together your own personal language of Spirit.
Listening to Spirit
It’s vital to remember that religion is a dialogue between human and Spirit, and Spirit frequently has something to say. Usually, Spirit will be accommodating and stay roughly within the boundaries of whatever tradition (or innovative potpourri) you’re using to contact it; but sometimes not. I know someone who was brought up in a very traditional Baptist family, but the Spirit moved her to speak in tongues, and she had to leave her parents’ church. Spirit, for whatever reason, had to use that medium to get its message to her. A more radical example is the gentleman known as Jesus Christ: his message from Spirit was a huge break from the traditions of his community, and caused a bit of controversy. If you are really listening with your heart open, then the religious system you follow will be a mixture of what works for you and what works for Spirit.
The Real Creationism
“Creationism” today is most commonly associated with the belief that the book of Genesis is a reliable, literal guide to the origin of the Earth and its life; it’s a stranglehold on a tradition as hidebound as a taxidermist’s shop. But this isn’t real Creationism.
When you create new religious practices, new systems of belief, new ways of seeing the world and the Spirit suffusing it, you are in a real sense creating a whole new reality. Everything around you changes; everything becomes new, transformed, reborn. It is a new Creation, and it is a holy act itself.
If Spirit is the Creator, then so are we Creators; if this Creation is the greatest and holiest work, then so are our Creations our greatest and holiest works as well. When you engage the Eternal in dialogue and together create a new language of Spirit, you are re-enacting the union of the Goddess and God — the mixture of the hot and cold airs of Muspelheim and Niflheim — in creating the world. This is the holiest act; this is the real Creationism.
Thanks to Erik of Executive Pagan for suggesting the topic of this post!