has been going on between me and a British friend who I met after he came to America to marry his fiancée and work at one of our local library branches. He identifies himself as Pagan, and so we have been discussing various aspects of our differing religious and spiritual practices. Some of the topics that have recently come up have inspired me to take them up in a blog post. For that, I am most thankful to him and his always intellectually deep and thought-provoking emails!
I have always been fascinated by the mix of pagan and Christian traditions that shaped the culture of the west and how various practices carried over during periods of conversion. For example, the multi-faceted deities made an easy transition when the concept of The Holy Trinity was introduced. The emphasis on strange conception made the Incarnation of Christ seem applicable. The importance of the goddess as “Great Queen” made the Virgin Mary fit naturally into their sphere.
Beyond that, there were elements of pre-Christian traditions that lent the Christian faith new freshness and vitality. The Celts inculcated their form of Christianity with a special for awe for the One God as Nature’s Creator and the timelessness of communion with the Divine. Their prayers and practices lend an appealing spiritual awareness that respects mystery yet a realization that God is everywhere. His spirit can be made manifest both through the silence of contemplation and the interaction between “soul-friends.” Another major source of compatibility between Paganism and Christianity was a sturdy belief in the everlasting nature of the soul.
My friend and I were speaking about the afterlife and the difference between Christian and Pagan belief on the subject. As he informed me, Pagan interpretation is pretty loose, but Celtic mythology often refers to it as something of a higher plain of earth, not entirely different but not entirely the same. Also, there is sometimes a correlating belief that, after a time, souls would get to return to earth in another form. This is obviously in contrast with Heaven as described by traditional Christianity, but some people feel that the concept of living in eternal bliss, with nothing to strive after, would be terribly boring.
I can understand this theory on the surface, but I think it is very bound up in human nature as we now know it. In this world we live in, we honestly don’t know what true contentment is. We can experience happiness and pleasure, certainly, but we are indeed always striving after something and never completely put at rest. We cannot even imagine what that sort of state would be like. We all too often have a greeting card concept of paradise, with fluffy white clouds and laundry-detergent scented angels playing tin foil harps. Even imagining all our current earthly desires fulfilled would not give us the right picture. We are still land-locked.
I usually make it a point not to try to picture Heaven, since I know it will be all wrong. I believe it is intrinsically impossible for me to get the proper picture while I am here on earth, just it would be impossible for me to understand Three Persons in One God. Even the mystics who experienced glimpses of Heaven said that if they had seen the whole thing it would have killed them. It is not our world.
What I do believe is that the world beyond will be a place outside of time that is realer than real. It is that “thing” we are always searching after; it is the ultimate “thing” that puts our hearts to rest. Once they are at rest, we will be truly contended. Do you we know what heavenly movements are like? Do we understand the dimensions as they apply to our senses? No, and we never will in life. It is the secret of the dead. What we do know that is that will love, fully now, without restraint, and purged from all that has been bad within us. This would not make us less ourselves, but more ourselves, and we would only realize that when we are, indeed, perfect.
Some might think perfection is not a thing to be strived after, but for Christians is certainly is. We will not achieve it in this life, but that should not keep us from striving. And after all, this life is not the end of the story. The Catholic concept of Purgatory is deeply embedded in this necessity for purification before reaching Heaven. In essence, the ultimate striving is for perfection, and the ultimate perfection is God, and God reigns supreme in His Kingdom.
Another topic my friend and I spoke about the concept of The Passion and Redemption as seen by Christians. To some, the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God creating human beings with free will and then having His Son (part of Himself) die to redeem sounds rather incongruent with logic. Why would He would He go through all that if He knew what was going to happen beforehand? Why would he make human beings with the proclivity for sin just so he could deprive them any happiness in the afterlife?
Trying to understand an all-knowing God is a futile venture to begin with, so it does sort of defy logic. But then, if God is Love, He really had no choice but to give us Free Will, or otherwise it would have like creating robots He could manipulate. And in the end, our human nature gives us just as much of a proclivity to do the right thing as it does to do the wrong thing. Furthermore, according to Christian doctrine, we were first endowed with Sanctifying Grace, making it possible for us to be perfect. It was only after The First Fall that we tumbled downhill. We sort of “broke through the barrier”, and there was no turning back. We gave the Evil One a claim on us.
Why did Christ have to die to break this claim? It’s not a clear-cut thing, but the simplest thing to say is that only death can conquer death. God had to die, as one of us, to reclaim and redeem us. The curtain in the Temple separating God and Man had to be split. One legend speculates that God’s foreknowledge of these events is what made Lucifer become Satan. The Great Angel of Light, learning that God had foreseen the rebellion of man and was willing to die to redeem, was so disgusted he rebelled against God and later helped lure man into sin, setting into motion the events that had been foreseen.
Lastly, there is the issue of Hell. Really, if one believes in a place of perfect joy, it is not hard to believe that there is a total opposite, a place of perfect misery. Like the Law of Newton, it has something to do with every force having an equal force loosed against it. It is horrible to think about, but for me, it’s not hard to believe in. As an optimist, I find it easy to see the good in other people and the good in the world. I see it all as reflecting the goodness of God, and the future goodness of Heaven. But on the flip side, my sensitivity makes me feel the evils of people and the world keenly. I can see the presence of the demons and imagine their lair of darkness, what C.S. Lewis described as a place where they most heinous crimes can be committed with a quiet voice and manicured fingernails.
There is, of course, the age-old question: Why would a loving God send anyone to such horror, even if they were a horrible person? Like all the best sort of questions, it cannot be snappily answered. But we can hearken back to the devil’s rebellion and our own free will. We cannot serve two masters. We must be One with God or One with Satan. In the end, we will abide with one or the other, forever. It is our choice.