On Having an Interfaith Relationship

For a religion as small and new as ours, and with as many people forging their own paths, it is inevitable that many of us will find ourselves involved in interfaith relationships. This is something I’ve briefly touched upon before, but I felt like going into a bit more detail.

As my regular readers will know, Gent and I have been in an interfaith relationship for the entire four years I’ve been a pagan (and a few years before that, too). It actually kind of cracks me up because our initial attraction to each other was due to our shared Christianity and commitment to abstinence before marriage. Hah! Clearly that worked out for us!

Anyway, when I first thought about converting to paganism, it was really hard on Davin. He was worried about the whole human/animal sacrifice thing that Christians are taught is the fact of the matter with paganism. I explained to him that that wasn’t the case at all, gave him some tidbits about what it’s all about, and told him that, in fact, pagans have The Rede, “Harm None” and all that. (Clearly, I hadn’t done all my reading yet). The following day, he came back with an argument that I couldn’t convert if I really believed that because my looking into paganism was harming him, so if I really didn’t want to harm him, I would stop reading about it. So I told him I would, but still found myself interested, so I kept reading and the next time I said something about it (which was probably the next day), he laughed and said he knew I wasn’t going to stop.

It’s been a long road to acceptance from there, requiring hard work on both our parts. There was one particularly hard day one summer when I got heat stroke sitting outside explaining to Davin that I no longer accept Jesus and my personal savior and helping him to deal with his own beliefs about heaven not leaving a place for me.

There was a long time when I was still bitter about Christianity, and particularly the evangelical Christianity in which I was raised, during which I would often say things like “Christians just make me so mad!” and he would get his feelings hurt, and I had to learn to speak more specifically about who was upsetting me.

The were the arguments about how he thought I was silly for actually believing in all these gods, which were put to a stop on our fifth anniversary, when each and every one of them left us a tangible and undeniable gift of good will. After reading this essay, and after I went to his Church for Christmas and had a similar epiphany, we both realized that we live in a world full of gods, and that we have chosen or have been chosen by different ones. Davin is a follower of Jesus, and I am a follower of Freyja and Friends.

That helped a lot. And we do well with having an interfaith relationship because we respect each other’s beliefs. Once I came to the conclusion that I am just not one of Jesus’ chosen people, I stopped feeling so much frustration at Christianity. It sure has it’s loons, but what religion doesn’t?

Gent and I have really thoughtful religious discussions. His faith deepens mine, and we can point out logical inconsistencies and confusion at each other because we have different basic premises. I could point out to him that it doesn’t make sense to me that he sees so much divine in nature, but worships a god who doesn’t seem to respect that, which has led him on a new path of inquiry. He was able to point out when my relationship with Odin was veering in an unhealthy direction because he wasn’t of the belief that we should do whatever pagan gods tell us to do. And I really appreciate that.

Gent once even said that he believes that I was meant to be his girlfriend so that I could teach him true open-mindedness instead of just believing other religions were okay over there for those other people.

When I was in high school, one of the main theses of my world history class was that “When two different cultures meet and interact, both are changed.” And that’s what has happened in my household. Gent’s Christianity has met my Paganism, and together we have found the beauty in each, combined them, and come out with something different and better. We ask each other the hard questions that lead to a deeper spirituality.

Sometimes I think it would be nice if Gent converted to paganism, but in many ways, I think it would be the death of our relationship. Now that I have years of paganism under my belt, I would turn into the teacher and he the student. There would be new power play in our relationship that wouldn’t be good for either of us. And then I would wonder if we were both following the paths we wanted, or if we were making concessions to match each other. The way it is, our faiths complement and build each other, but the two are ultimately separate.

Still, we work together because we’ve put four years of effort into learning to respect one another’s choices. It’s been hard. But we’ve made breakthrough after breakthrough, and now there is happiness and peace. We have the same values, but different modes of dealing with it. We truly respect each other’s choices and neither of us believe the other one is wrong. This is how we make it work.

Gent has been going to church a lot more lately, now that he has found one close to our new home that he likes. And at first, it was difficult for me, and I worried that, if I were ever to meet them, that my paganism would leave him outcast. But this new church is welcoming of my existence, which is the only kind of church Gent could enjoy going to now. He doesn’t enjoy most church’s sermons that focus on Jesus being the only truth. He knows that there is not an only truth and wants a church that just rejoices in Jesus without arguing about his literal existence. He came home upset just before Christmas because his pastor kept repeating that Jesus is the reason for the season, when Gent knew that the birth of the new year’s sun was the real reason. And I have never felt more loved and appreciated.

On Religion and Choice

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Gent said in his comment on my last post. He asked whether I think people choose their religions or if religions choose people, and then mused a bit about “true” beliefs–those things which lie under all of the religious trappings that morph throughout our lifetimes.

And to specifically answer his question: I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. I don’t think religions choose people or people choose religions, but rather something more like a person’s experiences as a whole interact with that person and their beliefs to try to find cohesion.

Take, for example, Gent. I happen to know that he was raised by a Christian mother and a father interested in various Eastern spiritual systems. Without going into too much detail about him, he “inherited” a respect for God from his mother and a respect for nature and a certain open-mindedness from his father. When he and I started dating, I was still a Christian, though a questioning and somewhat heretical one. And once he got past all the trappings about my paganism, we found that our “true beliefs” are really quite clearly in line with one another, even though he is a Christian and I am a pagan.

I suppose I can further dilute that: these “true beliefs” he’s discussing transcend religious boundaries. And I’m not saying this in the way a lot of people say things in this category. I am not saying that all religions are ultimately the same. I am not saying that the true beliefs are necessarily even similar from one religion to another. What I am saying is that these true beliefs are not necessarily tied to one religion or another.

For an example: there is a place for mysticism in every religion, and if, at your core, your true beliefs lead you to mysticism, there is a place for that no matter what religious trappings you overlay on them. If you tend toward fundamentalism or booky learning, there is a place for that in every religion as well. If, like Gent and I, you are a nature lover with a strong aesthetic sense and receive great joy from physicality, there is a place for that in whatever religion you choose. In some religions, these sorts of factions are easier or harder to find. I left Christianity largely because its trappings made my search for aesthetics, my love of the body, and my passion for nature feel incorrect given my tendency toward mysticism, given that Christian mysticism tends toward seeking a transcendence from the body rather than a radical alignment with the body. However, Davin tends more toward the airy intellectualisms, thinking more in abstracts than in concrete examples, and so he is able to justify his belief in Jesus and alignment with Christianity with his own “true beliefs.”

In my last post I was sharing the way that my “true beliefs” carried over from my Christian days to my pagan days. And there are more than my aesthetic sense featuring nature. I’m sure I’ve even shared some other ones here before–that I used to believe that going to heaven had more to do with gratitude and finding ways to be happy than with avoiding sin, that I used to hide in a cupboard and believe I would come out transformed like a butterfly, that I have always known I have psychic tendencies. Things like that. The outer trappings of my faith has remained the same, but the sum total of my experiences has found cohesion with this pseudo-eclectic worship of Freyja, Holda, Sif, the vast beauty of the cosmos, the woman praying in the Eagle Nebula, the unfolding rolling of time into newness. Gent found cohesion with his Christianity that believes that God doesn’t actually want every human ever to be his follower.

In some senses, this is a strangely modern question. Of course this question can only be asked in a society predicated on individualism wherein religious conversions are common enough. In most places and times on earth, your religion chooses you because it is a fact of your birth. I spent years trying to reconcile Christianity with my true beliefs because I was born to Christian parents. Davin is able to be open-minded about largely because his father wasn’t a Christian. But it is only in the modern day, when information is ripe for the picking and children are taught to be themselves that a culture of converts is even possible. The last time most people’s families converted was when Christianity or Islam came rushing into their territory, demanding that people convert or die. These days those lines are so much more fluid, and we have religious freedom to believe what we want.

And so in a sense, the fact that conversion are even possible is one of this society’s most deeply held “true beliefs.” Underneath all of the conversation about who is what religion and why and for how long is an assumption that religious freedom gives us an individual choice, usually with the implication that there is some wrong or right choice. Whether that implication comes about because people believe they have the only true way, as is common among the Religions of the Book, or because people believe they have their true way and so should everyone else, as is common among pagans.

Pagans love to talk about how there can’t really be a definition of us because they are all either too vague or too specific. And yes, that’s true. Any attempt to define paganism will probably leave out or offend someone. But I am going to offer mine: Modern pagans are people who believe most fervently in an individual’s religious freedoms. Modern pagans believe that the choice to follow your own heart’s or mind’s or soul’s connections with the greater spiritual words is best made while listening inward and doing what feels or seems right.

Let me share some examples and counter-examples. The easiest one would be the eclectics among us, who choose deities and myths and concepts and techniques that work for them, regardless (or regarding and nevertheless finding cohesion) of where and when these ideas come from. Eclectics choose their religious trappings the most casually of any group. I do not mean casually as careless, mind you. It is simply much easier to change your mind about interacting with the deities and spirits ad concepts of a particular culture if you already have ties to others. And they choose these trappings because their true beliefs are that religion is about individuality, about listening to the self and finding inner truth.

It’s a bit harder to say that other groups, like reconstructionists, can be defined by their core belief that religion is a personal choice. Reconstructionists talk a lot about following tradition and ancestors and what’s correct and what’s incorrect. But even so, they have chosen to look past at least a thousand years of ancestry and choose that specific ancestry. They have overlooked their Christian ancestors and their Christian ancestors’ traditions in favor of one much further back because those traditions ring more truly to them. Instead of choosing specifics from here and there, they take on an entire package that seems truer to them, that encompasses ideals they wish society had, and ultimately, that choice is their own.

Modern pagans hearken back with their modern beliefs about individuality and choose religious trappings from bygone eras in which religion was much less about choice and more about familial and spatial bonds. But we do it because we are looking for the deeper truths of our inner natures.

Many pagans, like me, feel that they “came home” when they found paganism, or say that they didn’t convert. But this is something Christians also say. That coming home feeling is not because paganism is necessarily inherently more natural (though I do believe that polytheism is more like the actual human psyche), but because it is the place where a specific person finds the place where their entire life experiences, and their selves find cohesion.

And so, no, I do not think we choose our religions or that our religions choose us. Our journeys into our selves and into the distant past are journeys in search of wholeness, a place where the outer trappings of our religion are just the right size for us to nestle our true beliefs into.

On Poetry and Past

The full moon shines down on us
as I teach you to recline on the water.
I make sure your mouth
never falls below the surface
where the leaves
drown in the moon.

“If you kiss the moon,
it will always be there,”
floating upon the water
where we lay,
hoping never to fall into the moon
but holding on to it
with our mouths.

Hello all! Things have been going so well in our little household, and it’s all been quite the whirlwind. Just before yule, and all in one week, my sister got a pretty big raise, I was hired by a new dance company that I’m bursting with excitement about, and Gent, after six months of unemployment since graduating, was hired by an architecture firm, and today is his first day as an architect. I’m really proud of my little family.

Just after that, we went back home to Alabama, which was a week chock full of nostalgia and family. My Dad had spent the last year cleaning out the upstairs where my sister and I used to live, and had made a pile of things for us to go through to decide what should be kept and what shouldn’t. I found a pile of my old journals, including a journal of poetry I had thought I had lost (including all of the poems included in this post) when my last computer died. But I was ecstatic to find I had handwritten them all. And as I read through them, I was shocked once again to find how I have been a pagan under the surface all my life. I wrote that poem just over a year before I converted. There were others there with a pretty distinct pagan sensibility to them that I just hadn’t ever noticed before. Of course I’m a pagan and always have been–my art has always reflected it.

In fact, the first dance piece I ever made was about the rain. I had noticed that all of my poetry was about the rain, and I had one of my first meaningful interactions with nature while standing in the rain one summer while I was lonely. I watched the raindrops falling on the road, and it was as if the pattern of splashes was coming down in its own language to tell me I wasn’t alone, and to wash away my tears with the tears of the sky.

The rain pulls my tears
down
to the black road,
pools in puddles,
write words of
enduring loneliness
with swift,
white splashes.

The rain dries my tears.

After I made my rain dance piece, it was only a month or so before my conversion.

Our visit continued on, and I got along with my mother better than ever, it being the year anniversary of my outing myself as a pagan. She made a few snide remarks, but otherwise things went pretty smoothly. It was strange to be back around my family and Davin’s for the first time since we’ve been living together full time. It was strange to have him sleep in my bedroom back home all night without a single comment from anyone about how we shouldn’t do that. It was strange to go back to my bedroom with its purple walls covered in paintings of fairies and a wall collage of photographs from high school, to see the pictures of Davin and I in our first inklings of love, to see old friends I no longer keep up with, to see all the things that used to matter to me to which I can no longer relate, like my obsession with ballet and my preference for leotards and pointe shoes, and to see little things left behind, little foreshadows of my future as a pagan dancer: the candles, the flowers, the fairies, the books about nature. And, of course, the book of handwritten poetry.

If only…

These sheets formed the ceiling
of an ocean, protecting our eye-contact
within these endless waters,
and the morning sun shined through ice sheets
instead of window glass and woven cotton,
while still joining your eyes inside mine,

then

your tentacles could hold me to your mouth
until all of the ice on earth melted and
only
the sun left my eyes.

And then it was time to drive home, but Holda had taken control of the Northeast, so we were forced to stay an extra day in Alabama, watching the first white Christmas they’ve had in decades while our own home in Philadelphia was left covered in a foot of snow. Usually when it snows in Philadelphia it rains in Alabama. And so we left our parents at home in the South with the rain and the at-best-once-a-year snow flurries and came home to our second winter in Philadelphia, hoping that this winter will be less snowy than the last, but unlike rainy Alabama winters.

Moving Out

For my father

One winter morning
I watched my father make breakfast
as I told him my dream
of the snow that covered the rainfall, stopped it.
He hugged me when I finished,
and the rain
began to make stripes on the window.
Snowfalls make spots–
not here, only farther,
where dreams become real to me.

Now, the rain is a dream,
only falling where my father and mother
can’t fall in the snow.

When I dream of snow,
make me rain, father.