“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” [Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi]
“Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders…” [Heb 12:1]
(Part of the Samhain Synchroblog “A Christian response to Halloween“.)
“Halloween”, hmm … that rings a bell or three:
dong: Isn’t it a commercial American kiddy candyfest?
Dong: Isn’t that when they show horror movies on TV?
DONG: Doesn’t it have its roots in satanism and witchcraft?
I am writing from Cape Town, South Africa. While relishing the opportunity to address questions once off limits, like the taboo of Halloween, it has to be said that I am in rather a quandary. I have been told by our local neopagans that we are actually celebrating Beltane (start of summer), not Samhain (end of summer, or Halloween), as the southern calendar is 6 months out of phase to the northern.
Anyway, I have already been wondering about calendars for the sacred and paganism in general so this is a continuation of the thoughts presented there. As the theme here is to do with a Christian response, I would like to create some mental space in which we can consider the question of a festival all but owned by Paganism.
I pointed out in the second post Julie Clawson’s useful framework for interfacing with other faiths – Reject, Redeem or Root. The first 2 are common Christian responses:
- Reject Halloween as pagan and therefore evil … simple, or in South African parlance, “finish and klaar”.
- Redeem Halloween (31 Oct), as we see in the adjacent traditional celebrations All Saints day (1 Nov) and All Souls Day (2 Nov). In this sense then “Hallow” means holy and “een”, the evening before. As to the question of which came first – the pagan or the christian, see Steve Hayes’ contribution.
But I’d like to consider the third way here – Rooting. Is it possible for a Christian to find a cultural rooting in what is seen as a pagan celebration? But to do so, we will need to take a step back and reconsider the role of nature in the christian tradition, and start to answer some of the questions raised by what is for many a real conceptual disjunct: can we serve and worship Christ via the tools and traditions of the “pagan”?
A big problem
By now most people in the west are aware that we have a very big problem, the size of Planet Earth, on our hands. Al Gore, president elect of Gaia, might be a chief proponent of political action on global warming, but the problem in my view goes deeper than this one specific issue.
For me, this is an issue of “righteousness”. To be righteous is not so much to do with being religious, pious or even sanctified. It is to do with right relationship. This includes relationship with our past, with one another, with our Maker, and with the Earth.
Now, the triune god Progress-Profit-Technology has blessed us with
- the illusion of being better evolved than ever before such that we are losing our sense of where we come from, with the tacit assumption that latest = greatest.
- an affluence which has removed us from the process of production, paying for the services required for survival and losing touch with the flow of life itself.
- an abstraction from each other and the world via technology – houses, cars, urbanisation, privatisation, celebrity, entertainment and the ubiquitous distractions of commodification.
We are in what I call an advanced state of “Artifice”. Our lives are artificial, abstract and anesthetized. We need to eat, but we pay someone else to harvest, kill or manufacture our food. Fewer and fewer people use their hands; those that do are often in production lines doing mind numbingly repetitive tasks.
Our feet are perpetually shod, out of contact with the good earth. Our imaginations no longer see constellations in the sky, we have lost the subtle meanings of the world and all that it contains. We have been made to fear that which is wild and untamed. And our theology merely reinforces this prejudice, fear and chauvinism.
The dual to the death
The Paved over Paradise of the Artifice not only weakens our survival skills dramatically, but weakens our spirits even more. The Incarnational G-d as demonstrated in Jesus has chosen that we know and serve Him via the creation, not despite it. Of course, being G-d means you can circumnavigate natural law in the miraculous, but it is very clear that he who is G-d formed himself into matter, placed himself amongst people in a specific time and place, and communed deeply with the natural world. This is (for me) the core message of Christ. To respond to anything from “Christian” point of view, needs to have this Incarnational G-d at its centre.
Neo-Platonic and Hellenistic thought was very present in the writings of many over the ages but it was Augustine, arguably the most influential post-Pauline theologian of the Church, who embedded its dualism into this inherited culture we know as Christendom.
When combined with the Enlightenment’s emphasis in the mind (individualism), its belief in a rationally defined framework for understanding the cosmos (scientism), and an attitude of conquest and dominion (colonialism and capitalism) we end up almost totally losing touch with and respect for the Earth and by strong implication, G-d.
There are but faint echoes of the sort of wisdom required for this righteousness in non-westernized cultures, but their voice has been so brutally and systematically marginalized, mostly in the name of Christendom and its “civilization”, (although not forgetting communism, and other destructive fundamentalisms as well), it is no wonder we cannot hear the wisdom of Australian Aboriginals, Kalahari Bushmen, North American Natives, European Pagans, or Shamanic voices from around the world.
To be fair, however, I don’t want to idealize these minorities, and nor do I want to exclude many other peoples whose respect for their/our world puts us westerners to utter shame.
But once we acknowledge this shame, we need to find a way of redeeming ourselves. This will involve questioning many if not most of our deep held cultural assumptions; it will involve hard work, pain and humbling. I for one think it is worth it. Wisdom University’s Paul Ray has presented a fascinating case for this type of integrated spirituality in his presentation “Creating a Wisdom Culture“.
Any spirituality that hopes to find a true and appreciable union with its creator needs to hold nature in high regard. Christendom has failed almost completely to do so. The church has too often sided with and bought into individualism, colonialism, capitalism and colluded with progress, profit and technology. The dualisms of Spirit-Matter and Secular-Sacred have rendered the mission of Christ to “Love the world” almost powerless.
If we are to serve G-d truly and fully, we need another way. One such way is hinted at via many of the teachings of the so-called pagans or neo-pagans. Note that in considering this, I am not suggesting taking on a philosophy wholesale or unquestioningly – I do not include the “ism”, only the “pagan”. The Wheel of the Year, based as it is on the seasons, makes a start at reconciling us with the world in which we live, with its seasons and its honoring of the importance of the Sun and Moon.
In the words of St. Francis of Assisi:
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made, And first my lord Brother Sun, Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him. How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness. All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars; In the heavens you have made them, bright And precious and fair. [The Canticle of Brother Sun]
And Teilhard de Chardin:
For me, my God, all joy and all achievement, the very purpose of my being and all my love of life, all depend on this one basic vision of the union between yourself and the universe … I have no desire, I have no ability, to proclaim anything except the innumerable prolongations of your incarnate Being in the world of matter; I can preach only the mystery of your flesh, you the Soul shining forth through all that surrounds us. [The mass on the world]
I imagine that some people will now be asking question such as these:
- Is this not “syncretism”, did Christ not say “I have chosen you out of the world”, are you not diluting the Faith, you heretic?
- Is it not pantheism, the worship of the earth, you idolater?
- Are you not walking directly into satan’s trap by flirting with witchcraft, you heathen, you wolf in sheep’s clothing?
- Shouldn’t you be celebrating Beltane not Samhain in the Southern Hemisphere, you poor confused downunder fool?
These are all good questions, and I am prepared to answer them. But for now, I have just wanted to lay a foundation, create a mental space, for approaching the issue of Samhain/Halloween.
Further to all this mental wrestling, I am involved with a small local group who will be exploring “Halloween – All Saints – All Souls” on Friday 2nd November.
Here, we will be exploring what is in common between Halloween, All Saints and All Souls. We will examine the Celtic idea of the “Thin place” where the world of the dead comes close to the world of the living, the litany of the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 11, and a few words on African Ancestral traditions from a Xhosa perspective.
I am asking participants to
- Remember a person who has influenced you. To re-member is to “gather” ones thoughts and memories. This person might be alive, but a dearly departed would more in keeping with the theme. They may be a family member, a writer, a spiritual mentor, a friend, an artist, or any iconic person whose life has passed into yours.
- How do you hope to be remembered? Here you can express both your actual achievements and your vision for you as-yet-unlived life.
So from me, and in the name of Jesus, Happy Samhain!
Other synchrobloggers are :