The Problem Of Proselytising

There is currently a furore in my country about what instruction – if any – a religious institution should provide to school children in government schools.

When I was in primary school, we used to have what was called “Scripture classes”. We got to find out who the Catholic kids were because they all left for their own lesson elsewhere, plus some years one or two went to the library instead (took me years to figure out why). The rest of us got to hear from someone other than our normal teacher for an hour or so. And it was decidedly Christian in nature.

I’m still a little vague as to quite what Scripture classes were for. I already went to Sunday School and church, and I was an avid reader, so I knew all of the normal bible stories and a lot of less well-known ones, too. And my favourite Scripture classes were of the less well-known stories. I know there were classmates who did not go to church. But I was too young to figure out that Scripture classes was the only place they could hear the Gospel.

This type of instruction is usually called “special religious instruction”. In the part of Australia where I live, it tends to be provided by volunteers from local churches and is part of an arrangement created more than a century ago between the government and the churches. Originally, in the new colony of New South Wales, schooling of children was provided by the churches. Over time, the government took over that job and churches retained access to do their own teaching.

The specific history isn’t important. But what is important is that the religious makeup of this country has changed. A century ago the vast majority of people identified as “Christian” and most probably went to church, too. This is no longer the case and hasn’t been for some decades.

In fact, I’ve changed, too.

I was listening to Background Briefing this morning. This is an investigative journalism radio program that has opened up controversial topics, highlighted problematic behaviors, got wrong-doers in trouble when the authorities could not, and even won awards. But today’s topic was about SRI in government schools in Victoria, specifically the SRI provided by a group called Access Ministries.

Access Ministries was originally created as a centralised group for co-ordinating SRI. This is a good thing. It creates a coherent curriculum across all schools and helps keep a lid on individual scripture teachers who might want to go a bit further than they’re allowed to. After all, one of the big rules is that SRI is not intended for proselytising.

However, in a bit of a “who guards the guards” moment, Access Ministry’s constituent churches has changed recently in favour of more Pentecostal denominations. And this means more fundamentalism. So SRI has become a place for pushing the rules about proselytising.

Once upon a time I would’ve agreed with them. Not now. I can’t imagine the furore if a Muslim organistion insisted on providing Islamic SRI in government schools. I can’t imagine a Pagan organisation even attempting the same.

And yet they almost should try.

None would, of course. Muslims look after their own religious teaching. If they want it in school, they open their own schools. Pagans don’t proselytise at all – and in fact almost always take a “wait until I’m asked” approach. 

But Christians are more evangelical. They’re commanded to. And unfortunately that means that a noticeable number of them will take most any opportunity to try to gain converts. Even special religious instruction in government schools.

Perhaps it’s time for SRI to be abandoned. Comparative morality can (and has been) done with qualified instructors. Comparative religion can be done with qualified instructors. Religous evangelism… leave it outside the government schools.

 

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I am not a deceitful person

But apparently, I seem to be learning how to be one.

The problem is that I am not a member or regular attendee of an church anymore. I was raised going to church. With few exceptions, this is what you do on a Sunday morning and/or evening. And for a lot of my life, I did indeed attend both services.

It does take rather a large chunk out of the weekend, though. When I started attending a Pagan full-moon circle (which is Friday evenings) I soon realized that for the purposes of being spiritually social, I had to treat that like I treated going to a church service. That helped me take my Sunday back for me.

There’s a side-effect of attending church less, though: people eventually notice. For people I’ve been going to church with for years, I am – or was – a fixture. There week-in, week-out. Now I’m not. And most of those, including my parents, assume that if I’m going there less, I’m going to another church instead. The concept of doing just the first is a bit counter-evangelistic.

I’ve not said to many people that I’m going to a pagan full-moon circle. To a few people (most notably my mother) I’ve referred to it as a “church” without giving enough specifics. I’m basically being deceitful. And that’s hard, because I’m not good at it. I am not naturally the sort of person who will do that.

But I have to in this instance because I have to protect myself and to some small extent them, too. My spiritual journey has gone off into some weird directions as far as they would consider, and I already know that if they aren’t on the same journey then they’re not going to understand it. Or worse: they’ll mis-hear it.

 

 

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The problem of Sin

In a church service the other night, since I can’t feel like I can sing along (partly because I didn’t know most of them), I thought about the songwords instead. The focus on what we were without Christ is relentless. It is undeniable that the Christian Church makes a lot about humans being sinful beings. Sinful beings need a saviour and that’s what Jesus died on the cross for. That’s the doctrine in a sentence. It permeates most teaching, it is in most of the songs sung, it is in front of mind of those evangelising.

Unfortunately, when you’re trying to reach the unconverted, you usually first have to explain to them what ‘sin’ is. Then you can offer the ‘solution’. I have a couple of friends who have not been raised in the church and I know they would puzzle at this idea of ‘sin’. The doctor who has prescribed what is ‘wrong’ also has the exactly right medicine. I’ve mentioned this before.

The constant re-reference of sin is annoying, but the language is also imprecise. Is the sin done away with once and for all? After all, Jesus’ sacrifice happened at a single point in time. It’s not like he does this on a weekly basis. Yet the unwashed come to the church “in a sinful state”, thousands of years after this sacrifice. And converts are taught they must “stay vigilant” against sin, as though it can taint you once again. That introduces us to the idea of being continuously saved. Again and again and again.

Please note I am not trying to tease out exact meanings. That’s not my point. I’ve been through various iterations of “being saved” over the years and of being exhorted to do my best to stay sin-free. For a religion that says it focuses on faith over works, this is, well, an awful lot of work.

One of the things I walked away from over a year ago was the idea of the Christian Guilt. That’s where every good Christian is guilt-tripping every other Christian about constantly renewing their saved status for sins newly committed. Whilst it is a conscious act, I doubt it’s truly deliberate. It is the result of the doctrine the church has settled into over hundreds of years.

But I am not part of that game. Listening and reading the songwords the other night showed me something new. I left my Christian “sin” behind when I walked away from the Christian Guilt. It was done once. It is not something to do every day. That was left behind in the fenced compound the church maintains – and I’m outside of that, finding Yahweh in new and interesting ways.

 

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A Red Pill moment.

I gave someone a Red Pill moment tonight. This is the point in a conversation after they’ve asked a serious question and I have to ask in return “how much do you really want to know?” Because it is a point of no return.

The term “red pill moment” comes from the movie The Matrix. Or rather, it refers to an iconic scene. At one point, the protagonist is offered a choice. He can take a red pill and learn what the matrix is, or he can take a blue pill and remain in ignorance. The kick is that this is the only way he can learn this – and there is no going back.

My acquaintance was someone I sat next to at church tonight. It is a church I visit sometimes because that’s where my sister goes. I’ve met him before. And after the service we started talking about things spiritual. I described some of my journey and some of the other spiritual explorations I’ve been on. It was a Red Pill experience.

I think I made him uncomfortable. I didn’t tell him everything – partly because a lot of it wasn’t really mine to share. Certainly not in an Anglican church!

But my journey has been into mystical elements, some Christian, some Pagan. It includes beliefs and practices that the mainstream evangelical churches disdain and are even outright hostile towards. I’m okay with that. And I’m sure that Yahweh is, too. He’s the one who told me it was okay to go looking, after all.

 

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I have a tree to find

Going out to meet a god or goddess in whichever Pagan pantheon you subscribe to can be an interesting experience. I’ve done it several times now with the guided meditation of my full moon circle. Usually our guide will have a specific god or two for us to meet, although participants have reported another barging in. The one I did only a few hours ago was different: the guide set the scene and let whichever one wanted to talk to us appear.

The one that came to me did not want me to share who he was. This is kind of a shame, because I’m excited by what other things he said, but at the same time I kind of understand why not. However, he is someone I’ve come to know better in the last few years. And he assured me that I am doing the right thing: he loves me very much and wants the best for me. In time he will introduce me to other pagan gods and goddesses, but for now he is mine.

And he wants me to find a tree.

Not a specific tree, but an essence of a tree. This may have something to do with the fact that tonight’s rituals had a big nod to Yule, which in the southern hemisphere is eight days away. Yule is one of those really important days in the Pagan/Wiccan calendar. It is the point of the year in Celtic traditions when the Holly King fights the Oak King and loses. In other words, it is the turning point away from Winter and towards Summer. They do a similar battle and exchange of rôles six months away at Litha. With the actual Yule being not yet, I have a week and a day to do something special and Yule-ish for my altar. And week and a day is a nice Wiccan-type time period.

My god didn’t say I would find what he set for me within that time. But that’s okay. I am on a spiritual journey that I will be on for quite some time to come. It has taken me down some paths I never thought it would have. It has challenged some beliefs and practices about myself. It has opened my eyes to ways of seeing the world that in a peculiar way both make more sense and also don’t really have to. One of those is being aware of the phases of the moon, something I have strangely known for years I have wanted to do and yet only recently have I discovered why.

And another is that I have to find a tree.

 

 

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Holy vs Sacred

This coming Friday is not only the 13th of the month, but it also co-incides with a full moon. And my pagan circle does full moon circles on the nearest Friday. That makes this Friday more than a little bit special. So special, in fact, that I considered asking permission to leave work early on Friday on the grounds that it was a holy day. Except I didn’t really want to use that phrase. However I could call it sacred.

But is there a difference? That got me thinking.

Wikipedia says they are the same. Well, actually one redirects to the other with no mention of the difference. In the Evangelical Christian churches, the word “holy” is fairly widespread. It appears in songs, it appears in creeds and prayers. It appears in scripture and pastors even talk about it from time to time.

But the word “sacred” is rather rarer, in my experience.

I’ve understand that more Catholic and more Orthodox Christianity have a better idea of what “sacred” means. Unlike evangelical churches, they tend to have items that they do call “sacred”. These are items used in particular rituals and only those rituals. There are probably special rituals for making the sacred to begin with: this is a practice called consecration.  This is a lot more like how Pagan practices work, so far as I understand it. I’ve commented before how this is all largely missing from Evangelical churches.

I can’t call just anything “holy”. This is a term I can’t easily imagine as anything other than a pre-existing condition. Like Yahweh is holy. But “sacred” is different: this feels like the result of a process. You make things sacred – and then they are set apart for special purposes, often ritualistic purpose. They can lose their sacredness, too. Then they have to be consecrated again. I made the objects on my alter sacred. Or at least, sacred to me. They are only for the alter. Most items have been purpose sourced, but one was not. I re-purposed a kitchen knife as my athame. It is not a kitchen knife anymore and were I to use it so, I would want to re-consecrate it.

But that’s objects. Items. Tools, if you will. Days are quite different.

To many Christians, Sunday is a holy day. The activities the religion of Christianity expects and has created for that day define the holiness. Paganism and Wicca also have times in the calendar that the religion defines as holy or sacred. For the large part this is the full moon (and to a lesser extent the new or dark moon) as well as the eight sabbats throughout the year. These are really no less holy or sacred than Christianity’s Sunday.

And that’s where I get tangled with terminology again. Has the church made their Sunday sacred? Or has it been given to them as holy? Does it even matter? If I stick with that distinction between holy and sacred, then I can only regard the full moon evenings (when we do the circles) as sacred because it is meaning that has been added. I’ve added this. For me.

It also leaves the term “holy” behind with Christianity. Meanwhile, I can use “sacred” simply because my church so rarely did.

They can have their “holy”. I prefer “sacred” anyway. It means I (or someone else) has actively done something to consecrate it. We tend to value things more that we’ve worked over, after all.

 

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One step further

I have lost track of when I last went to the church I used to call “home”. I think it has been two or three months. It doesn’t help I have had no working car for much of that time as it is not convenient to public transport (though where I live is). That is one reason I was trying out a few other churches that are. One is in walking distance; another is two train stations away.

But it is the full moon circle I last went to ten days ago that I cadged a ride for. And it is the full moon circle that I feel I am amongst spiritual friends.

Last weekend I was tempted to figure out a way to get to church. The one within walking distance because I’d kind of promised someone (or maybe myself) that I’d visit again “some day”. My sister’s church for much the same reason, plus I want to see her. My old church because there are people I miss. And it could be an enjoyable walk on a Sunday morning.

None of these happened.

Saturday night turned into dinner in an Indian takeaway in the near-by beach-side suburb and star-gazing on the beach. Sunday morning included a walk to large hardware store some potting mix, then a trip to the local major shopping centre for lunch and grocery shopping. I also picked up a newly released movie on DVD. That evening I treated myself to that movie.

There was no guilt about not attending church. It was one step further away from a fenced-in religion that no longer works for me.

 

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