I’m part of an interfaith marriage, and we attend a Christian church about once or twice a month – sometimes the Episcopalian church to which my wife and I belong, and sometimes to a non-denominational community church to which my mother-in-law belongs (she loves the company). I was raised as a Christian mystic and studied Christianity extensively, including considering the Episcopalian priesthood, before concluding I am too heretical to be considered a Christian. But my background in being deeply religious prior to being a Druid, and not having been traumatized in Christianity, has left me with much to contemplate over the years.
It’s been my observation that Paganisms in general sometimes suffer from an oppositionality borne out of being wounded by monotheism, both collectively in our ancestral past and in our current lives through churches who did not accept us in some way or another. It is difficult to reconcile with religions who believe that, on the basis of our non-belief, we are condemned to eternal torment. At the same time, I think we too frequently carry these wounds with us into our Paganism. They sometimes lead us to resist gods who would call us, to act in patronizing or condescending manners toward people of monotheist faiths (especially Christians), and to oppose any sense of structure or authority in our organizations (if we even organize at all!). I’m not saying that everyone who does these things was wounded or that there aren’t good reasons to do some of these things (though I’d argue that any time we are condescending toward people, it warrants some self-reflection). But I think there is a link. And as I wrote about regarding faith, I think that these wounds we carry with us sometimes limit productively exploring concepts and topics we would otherwise hold in common with religions we are resisting.
One of these is the concept of grace, linked to concepts such as forgiveness, sin, and repentance. We can avoid the words, I suppose, but as an English-first speaker, I feel like it is easier for me to tackle the associations I have with these words and then ask myself, as a polytheist and animist, if these associations are necessarily true or helpful and if I am limiting myself through avoiding certain concepts in my contemplative and discursive practice.
As we near Easter Sunday for Christians, the defining moment of the liturgical year for them, the sermon last Sunday turned toward grace. Among other things, the concept the pastor attempted to get across was the normative Christian understanding that grace is freely offered and cannot be earned. Furthermore, that grace is somehow necessary for reconciling us to God (in Christian terms). Standard Christian stuff.
The thing is, I believe grace is important, even essential. I just don’t believe in it the way that Christians do. This starts with the concept of sin. Even if we aren’t Christian and were never raised Christian, Christian concepts like sin pervade our culture in the United States. There are two ways this concept seeps in: the concept of individual sin, as in some kind of wrong that we do toward another or toward the Divine and secondly, the concept of collective sin, as in some inherent flaw of human nature. I’ve heard a lot of people attempt to gloss sins as mistakes, but this doesn’t feel accurate to me any more than the Christian concept of sin does. We can’t say we make mistakes when we actively choose something we know is not right. And humans do that. Yes, there are times that we might lash out in anger at someone because we’re hurting, and it is a mistake, and we apologize for it and make amends. But equally, there are times humans purposefully plan to harm someone. Or even more commonly, there’s a mistake we keep making even though we know better – but we’ve resisted getting the help we needed to stop that pattern in ourselves. That’s not a mistake, and we need to look at this problem in human nature (and sometimes ourselves) critically and honestly in order to address the wounds we carry and the wounds we cause.
Where does the grace come in?
Well, as a polytheist, I don’t believe in a savior deity who erases our wrong-doings. I also don’t believe in an all-powerful personal God who judges us and might condemn us to torment forever. I believe a middle-way: we create hell or heaven for ourselves in every moment, where ever our soul is. This process follows us through lifetimes. I believe the grace that is present is the Divine Mystery – what Druids often call Great Spirit – that is, the truth of interdependent cycles of creation and destruction, the web in which we have the power to harm or to heal. I believe the grace is in the ever-present presence of what we might call the Ground of All Being, the ineffable and awe-inspiring Oneness, to which we and every other existence, from a stone to a star, and from our own spirit to a god, belongs. It is always there for us (and in us), always present, always waiting to welcome us with its embrace. The thing is, we have to choose to open ourselves for that embrace. We have to offer our willingness in a reciprocal relationship in which we receive its offer of union. For me, this is true of every existence: all are part of the interdependent whole. All can become ill and lost, and then find their way back to healing again.
When we choose to forgive others, we do so from a space of this understanding of interdependence. We do so knowing that forgiveness heals ourselves through recognizing that the other who harmed us and we are part of one web of interanimation. To heal the other is to heal ourselves. This doesn’t mean forgetting. It doesn’t mean accepting or tolerating harm. But it means recognizing that the other may be wounded – and we can either affirm the woundedness or offer wholeness through our own intentions and actions. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Sometimes reconciliation is possible, and sometimes it is not. And for it to be truly a reconciliation and not a perpetuation of abuse, it requires the person who is harming another existence to repent.
Repentance is a word that is strongly associated with Christianity and, from what I’ve observed, these linked concepts (grace, forgiveness, and repentance) are often avoided in Paganisms. I find that unfortunate, because these concepts are (ideally) helpful for building community that offers pathways both to reconciliation and to accountability. Repentance is what happens when apology is demonstrated through behavior. Rather than “I’m sorry” as words that may be spoken over and over again for the same action, repentance shows “I’m sorry” through concerted actions to stop doing a harmful behavior. In it, there is the concept of reconciliation (restoration of the person to the fullness of community life and relationship) and also the concept of accountability (that words are insufficient to demonstrate change).
The grace is the interconnectedness between us all that allows for reconciliation and healing to happen. The Divine Mystery, the Great Spirit, is grace. It is the offering of All-That-Is to help us feel awe, love, connection, and strength. It is the offering of the universe, seen and unseen, that helps us feel wonder and desire understanding, wisdom, and to come more fully into our own potential. But it requires us to open to it. So long as we avert our gaze from the work and the joy that is this interdependence, we are unable to open ourselves to its embrace. Once we do, we feel acutely the pain of harming others, because we are aware of the interconnected whole of which we’re a part. This is painful, but it is the birth-pangs of our fuller potential. We repent and we forgive. We build wholeness rather than brokenness. We build connectedness rather than alienation. In so doing, we give birth in our own lives to the interanimated world of spirit in the interdependent world of form. We are held in grace, and we become an offering of grace.