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Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

Christians increasingly live on a spiritual island; new and rival ways of life surround it in all directions and their tides come further up the beach every time. None of these new ways is yet so filthy or cruel as some Semitic Paganism. But many of them ignore all individual rights and are already cruel enough. Some give morality a wholly new meaning which we cannot accept, some deny its possibility. Perhaps we shall all learn, sharply enough, to value the clean air and ‘sweet reasonableness’ of the Christian ethics which in a more Christian age we might have taken for granted.

C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

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Fall of Adam

I’ve been thinking about original sin a lot over the past few years. Right now my beautiful and sexy wife and I are working through Credo House‘s Discipleship Program, and in Session 2: Mankind, Michael Patton and Tim Kimberley (going back to Augustine and Calvin, of course) break mankind’s sin problem down into three categories:

Particular Sin: This is the easiest one to buy into and, as a Mormon, it’s the only one I grew up believing in. Weirdly, for orthodox Protestants, it’s actually the least important. Our particular sins are the specific sins we commit during our lifetimes. No big stretch at all to imagine that God will hold us accountable for them; even Pelagius agrees. It seems fair.

Inherited Sin: By inherited sin I mean a sinful nature, and this is more than just being born into an environment where people sin and we learn by example (Pelagius again), but an inherent sinful nature that we are born with. Not just nurture, but actual nature: an inherent propensity to sin that we can’t overcome on our own. This I did not grow up believing in (as Mormons are pretty Pelagian), but I have grown convinced of it since coming back to Christianity. I even wrote what I consider to be one of my better blog posts about it back in 2012. I really hope that you will go back and read it, but to briefly summarize in case you don’t, I believe that the idea that we are subject to inherited sin is actually a far more just doctrine than the Mormon/Pelagian idea that we are guilty for our own sins only, because it acknowledges the reality that we really do lack the power to obey God’s law:

You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.

So far, so good. Original Sin: I’m on board. But then we get to the idea of imputed sin, and that’s a sticky wicket.

Imputed Sin: The doctrine of imputed sin holds that we are not only guilty of our own particular sins and guilty of having a broken and sinful nature, but that we are actually each individually and personally guilty of Adam’s sin. That absolutely flies in the face of our contemporary cultural ideas about individual responsibility, justice and fairness. Why should we be guilty for someone else’s particular sin? How is that fair? And I don’t know if I’m one hundred percent sold on it, but I am starting to lean towards it based on Romans 5 (and a drift towards believing in Biblical infallibility). The idea that one person can be held responsible for another person’s particular sin sounds ridiculous at first, but then, hang on, because it turns out that’s precisely how the Atonement works. If imputation of sin is not possible, then Jesus can’t die for our sins. And that sure sounds like what Paul is saying in Romans 5, if you read him carefullly and allow him to communicate to you with the precision that he intended (I think that Mormons are able to gloss over Paul by treating his wrigint in the sort of broad narrative sense that you can treat most of the rest of the Bible, but that doesn’t do Paul justice because unlike, say, the Evangelists, Paul was writing precisely and theologically, so we need to do our best to read him that way).

So I’m grappling with the doctrine of imputed sin, and I am coming around to the idea that it may in fact be a Biblically sound doctrine, even though it’s hard to swallow. The fact that it sticks in my craw a bit shouldn’t be a good reason to just discard it–if I do that then really I’m just giving authority to some other influence (my culture, my upbringing, popular culture, my political values) that I have less reason to trust than the Bible. And Jesus’s disciples were constantly telling him that his sayings were hard to accept–having to deal with “hard sayings” is a part of Christianity and means exercising faith when things might not make sense (and I think we need to avoid the kind of easy and arrogant read of Jesus that tames him to our modern cultural values and then assumes that the disciples just thought his sayings were hard because they were primitive and backward and didn’t want to forgive people or love one another like we are totally cool with doing).

So then that brings us to evolution.

I’m not really sure about how the Biblical account of creation and scientific models of the origin of life are reconciled. I don’t really think that my salvation depends on it one way or another, and I am comforted in openness by the fact that we know that some of the church fathers, including Ambrose of Milan and no less than Augustine, didn’t believe in a literal reading of Genesis. But if Paul actually described imputed sin in Romans 5, how does that work if there was no historical Adam?

I think that it’s a bigger issue than just creation vs. evolution, because if (1) there was no real Adam, (2) you can’t have imputed sin without a real Adam and (3) Paul preached imputed sin in Romans 5, then I think we have a problem. Because that means Paul preached something impossible in the middle of the logical argument of the book of the New Testament that constitutes pretty much the theological bedrock foundation of the Protestant Reformation. If Romans goes, a whole lot goes with it.

The issue is in my head right now because it has come up on Tim’s blog (in the comments to the post that I vote “Sounds Most Like A Death Metal Band”). I admit that I haven’t done all of my homework on what people are saying about a historical Adam in light of scientific theories of the origin of humanity and its theological ramifications, so I’m sort of asking the internet to fill me in. So, internet, tell me: can you have imputed sin and no historical Adam?

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If you, as a Mormon woman, want to be ordained to the priesthood, why don’t you leave the LDS Church and join the Reorganized LDS Church/Community of Christ, where they ordain women?

Partially as a response to the late Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley’s statement in an interview that there has been no “agitation” in the Church for women to be ordained to the priesthood, a number of Mormon women have begun to step up and publicly advocate for ordination. Groups have been formed like Ordain Women. Protests have been planned. Women have told their stories and explained why having the priesthood is important.

But it all seems entirely unnecessary to me. The Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) already ordains women. If you think women should be ordained, why not vote with your feet? I don’t think that there is a good, coherent reason to stay LDS, and I’ll tell you why I think that (and I invite you to tell me if and why you think I am wrong).

Normally, the biggest reason to stay Mormon despite any difficulty you have with the Church is that, at the end of the day, you believe that the Church is the sole holder of the priesthood keys necessary for saving ordinances. But it seems to me that if you believe that the nature of the priesthood is such that the Church is this far in error and can be corrected by “agitation,” you are effectively undermining the notion of exclusive priesthood authority anyway. The point of the priesthood in Mormonism is the authority to act in God’s name. It’s a principal-agent relationship with God. And it’s not just the authority to do saving ordinances, but also the authority to organize and preside over God’s church. But by rejecting the priesthood’s exercise of this authority (e.g., the policy of not ordaining women), you are rejecting the authority itself, aren’t you? If the priesthood held by the LDS Church is God’s exclusive authority, then when God’s agents act within the constraints of their calling, it is as if God has acted, isn’t it? That’s what authority is. If you don’t believe that, then you don’t really believe that the LDS Church’s priesthood is the exclusive authority to act in God’s name after all. And if that is the case, couldn’t you theoretically get the priesthood somewhere else? My understanding is that the Community of Christ will happily give it to you.

You might reply that, even though you may reject the Church’s claims to exclusive priesthood authority, your culture is Mormon and you identify as a Mormon and your Mormon heritage means everything to you and you do not feel like you should have to give it up to get equality. But you don’t! The Community of Christ is just as “Mormon” as the LDS Church is! It’s a close branch of the same family! Joining the Community of Christ is not a rejection of your Mormon identity at all. It’s just a different organization.

You could also say that unity is important, and you don’t believe that leaving the Church for the priesthood is the right decision, but as a Mormon–a member of a schismatic Restoration sect drawn out of schismatic Protestantism from schismatic Roman catholicism–you are hardly in a place to say that. If unity of faith is the most important thing, even to the extent that you are willing to stay in a patriarchal church and work for change that may never happen, the Eastern Orthodox church is happy to welcome you back with open arms. And their patriarchs have better hats.

I know that many Mormons who reject the Church’s truth claims choose to remain members of the Church for fear of family backlash, but I honestly suspect that you would not get nearly the same negative reaction to leaving for the Community of Christ. It’s still appreciably Mormon after all. I strongly suspect that your friends and family would not feel anywhere near the rejection that they would feel if you just became an atheist or an Evangelical. You would retain a cultural common ground without having to be a part of the Patriarchy. You might even get less flak for switching to the CoC than you would for staying LDS as a dissenter.

I’ve also heard the arguments about inequality anywhere hurting all of us, and whether or not I agree with that (it’s a zinger of a statement that can stand to have come unpacking and close examination done to it, but that is outside the scope of this post), I’m not sure it applies. There’s no guarantee that “agitating” inside the Church will change anything anyway, and voting with your feet will have an immediate individual and potentially powerfully aggregate impact (you make a statement, the patriarchal Church doesn’t get your tithing money anymore, membership in the patriarchal Church shrinks, etc.).

So why not convert to the Community of Christ?

(I want to be clear–this is an honest question and I’m interested in hearing the answers. I’m not a member of the Community of Christ, so I have no vested interest there; it just seems like it would be a better option.)

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I think that in the wider culture, we are getting to the point where identity sins (i.e., moral wrongs implicating an identity like race, sex, gender, religion, cultural background &c.) are considered the worst sins, and where social sins are considered more serious than individual sins. And I also think that liberal Christianity has more or less fully adopted this new moral paradigm.

As an orthodox Christian I am wary about this for a number of reasons.

While some people certainly look at this shift in morality and see it as praiseworthy social progress, I think that is uncritical and circular: we call it social progress when more people adopt the new social identity morality, because we have ourselves been socialized into the new social identity morality. We say it is ours because it is good, but we only call it good because it is ours. But coming into the Kingdom of God means becoming subject to God, acknowledging Jesus Christ as our king. And Jesus is the kind of king that reigns over us completely and thoroughly, which means that becoming subject to Jesus includes subjecting our habits, attitudes, ideas and even our cultural mores–like the augmented heinousness of identity sins–to his reign. When we become subjects of the Kingdom of Heaven, that allegiance trumps every other allegiance, including our invisible allegiances to culture and social identity.

Jesus didn’t say gender violence was worse than regular violence or that genocide was worse than mass murder (we only invented “genocide” as a concept relatively recently). He preached against all violence. He didn’t ask us to be particularly conscious of gender identity differences or people’s deeply-held religious sensibilities. He told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The difference is that under the new social identity morality, social identity has become a special case, subject to a kind of strict moral scrutiny. Jesus didn’t teach that. Jesus didn’t teach special cases (except maybe sins against children!). And because Jesus was the full and complete revelation of God, I must absolutely reject any reading of Jesus that grades him on a curve for his time and place. Although he lived and ministered in a particular context, he is at the same time the eternal Word. We don’t grow into a more complete or more mature morality than Jesus.

The new social identity morality is easy to preach and easy to believe. It’s not brave to stand on the pulpit and tell people to not be racist. Everyone already thinks that. And it doesn’t really convict us of our sinfulness regardless of how much hand-wringing we do about our deeply-embedded prejudices and sense of privilege, because we are still liars. We are still murderers. We are still adulterers. We still steal. We still have hearts full of lust and addictions to pornography. We are still cruel. We are still slaves to our appetites. The new social identity morality is an easy morality to preach and believe because it’s a social morality, not an individual morality, and preoccupation with social identity morality is a distraction from our own broken and sinful natures. The new social identity morality means that we are a broken society in need of social redemption, which is true, but it is only true because we are a society composed of fallen and sinful human beings.

The new social identity morality is not self-evident, and it does not necessarily follow from traditional morality. Like all so-called social progress, new social identity morality is untested. Human society and culture are impossibly complex, and it is impossible to anticipate the ramifications of new ideas and new cultural norms, especially when they are adopted rapidly. We are talking about the rapid dissemination of powerful new ideas into an imperceptibly complex system, and there is simply no way to anticipate what the results will be, much less have any kind of certainty that they will be good. And that’s without even bringing up the fact that as fallen creatures, our ideas are also fallen. It should not come as a surprise then that history is full of examples of utopian ideas that end in killing fields.

So the more I hear about social sins, identity sins, and social identity morality in a Christian context, or worse, when I hear social identity morality implictly or explicitly presented as the heart of the message of Jesus, the more I think that we are not talking about the real Jesus and the real Christianity at all. To the extent that we make our Christianity subject to our fallen cultural whims and notions, no matter how good we think they are and how deeply we hold them, then our Christianity is compromised. We have ceased being a part of the Kingdom of God and become, however unwittingly, part of a satanic fifth column attempting to subvert it.

I pray that when we acknowledge Jesus as our King that we subject ourselves to him fully and completely, that we allow ourselves to be fully transformed by his grace into new creations, washed clean by his blood and freed by his sacrifice from all of the chains of this world that bind us and that, truly and finally free, we may be glorified in Jesus for eternity.

(This post was written in response to a number of other posts–here and here in particular–discussing the Trayvon Martin case in a Christian context.)

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Roger E. Olson has written an interesting post compiling what he believes to be “Every Known Theistic Approach to Old Testament ‘Texts of Terror’“:

The phrase “texts of terror” usually refers to stories in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible that describe God as commanding his people to slaughter groups of men, women and children and “show them no mercy” (to quote on such command).

Here I will lay out all the theistic approaches to interpreting these texts I am aware of. Every “other” approach I know about seems to me to fall under one of these—as a version of it. You may be aware of others. Feel free to post them here.

As you can see, in my opinion, all have serious problems. This is almost certainly a question that will have to wait for answer until paradise or the eschaton.

(Go to his blog to see what the approaches are)

I can’t think of any other approaches than the ones he lists, and I think he does a good job of succintly summarizing the problems with each approach. For myself, I don’t know where I come down on the issue (maybe Olson’s “wait and see” approach is the best after all), but I do feel strongly that it is important to seriously grapple with the Bible’s difficult passages. Although I am not necessarily advocating for Biblical inerrantism, I think we fall into an immediate and serious error when we simply discard the passages that make us uncomfortable (whether they are these “texts of terror” or any other passage that conflicts with our modern cultural sensibilities). I think we are obligated to seriously grapple with every word of the Bible. Yes, it is difficult. But to do otherwise means subordinating the Bible, and ultimately God, to our modern cultural sensibilities. If we want to do that, nobody’s going to stop us, but we’ll be building a house on a sandy foundation, and in any case we shouldn’t keep kidding ourselves about being Christians.

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I posted a critical comment on Nick Rynerson’s post about the new and controversial Brad Paisley/LL Cool J song “Accidental Racist” on the Christ and Pop Culture blog at Patheos and it apparently got yanked for moderation. I’m not happy about that at all, so I’m re-posting it here, verbatim:

What a ridiculous hit piece. You should seriously be ashamed of yourself, not just as a Christian but as a decent person.

Yes, the song is clumsy. No, musically, it’s not the best song ever. But you know what? The sentiment comes from a genuine place. The intentions were good.

Consider Brad Paisley’s audience and ask yourself which is better, clumsy dialogue or no dialogue? Do you realize that by jumping on the bandwagon and blasting this song, you are contributing to an environment where racial dialogue is basically impossible? The reactions to this song across the internet send a clear message: “Talking about race is an impossible minefield. Don’t bother trying, because you’re going to do it wrong and people will turn on you like a pack of rabid dogs.” If you are going to mock, ridicule or castigate everyone who makes a good-faith attempt at talking about race because they don’t meet some ill-defined standard for cultural studies, you are essentially silencing the conversation. Is that really what you want?

And yes, we know you sneer at and look down on mainstream country. To be honest, I strongly suspect that’s what’s actually the big motivator for this blog post, as opposed to a real honest to God bone to pick about race in America.

Obviously the song is not perfect. Obviously even the sentiment has flaws: you don’t have to be cloistered in an Ivory Tower to realize race in America is more complicated than Paisley makes it out to be. Fine. The song is a first step and an honest one. How does responding to it with nastiness and sarcasm help things? How does jumping on the derision bandwagon correct the course? How does using sarcasm and scorn to chill good-faith efforts–even boneheaded ones–to talk about race improve race relations and foster real, productive dialogue?

And to Christians I ask, is Rynerson’s pieced a grace-filled respose? Is it filled with love? Rynerson thinks humility is a part of the solution? He’s sure not displaying any with this post.

I maintain that a significant part of the motivation–not just on Rynerson’s part, but all over the internet and news media–for the nastiness and scorn heaped on this song is really just nastiness and scorn for mainstream country. The level of vitriol would be nowhere this bad if Paisley were not a Nashville musician.

Edit to add: Thomas L. McDonald at God and the Machine, another Patheos blog but on the Catholic channel, says it all very well.

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Paganism is about honoring the fundamental aspects of authentic human experience. It’s about looking at the parts of existence that are terrifying and overwhelming and trying to figure out what they mean: things like birth, death, sex, war, love, art, and even the powerful, capricious, and unpredictable forces of the natural world. The gods give rise to these essential facets of human experience (and/or are themselves born from them), and to deny one or more of the gods because there is no place in your life or your worldview or your schema for the things they represent is to deny a fundamental part of who you are.

War is a part of being human. It may be ugly, brutal, and horrifying, but it is omnipresent. To be truly human is to know war. To reject Ares because you reject war is to reject a part of what it means to be you. And to reject Ares because you reject war means also rejecting warlike aspects of many of the other gods as well: Athena, Aphrodite, Zeus, Dionyus just off the top of my head.

Who would Ares be without war? A god of mental conflict? A god of physical exertion? We already have those gods. Ares is a god of a lot of things, and there are a lot of lenses through which to view Ares, but he is primarily a god of war. Trying to edit the war out of Ares is like trying to edit the sex out of Aphrodite. I don’t know what you’re left with, but it isn’t the real deal. That kind of selective approach to the gods is apparently pretty popular among neopagans, but I honestly don’t think it’s a road that is going to take you anywhere worth being.

Think about it: the soldier knows both war and peace, but the pacifist tries to know only peace. The pacifist is rejecting an entire part of human existence because it does not suit him or her. Whether that’s a thing worth doing, or a thing we should be doing, is not actually the issue. But I would maintain that trying to edit human existence to remove the bits we don’t like is just not what any kind of real paganism is about. Christianity does that, with its vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Not paganism.

I also don’t think, with regards to Ares, that it’s a question of whether violence is necessary or justified, but merely whether it is an essential facet of human existence. Violence IS. War IS. We can play at quasi-Christianity if we want and imagine a utopia where violence no longer exists, but even in Christianity that requires massive divine intervention. The overwhelming, unanimous weight of human history tells us in no uncertain terms and with no exceptions that war and violence are fundamentally a part of the human condition.

Whether or not this reality is morally acceptable is a question that is, in my opinion, not even on paganism’s radar. Violence is a part of human reality, and paganism is about how we honor and respond to human reality. The ethics of paganism ask not whether a violent society is morally acceptable, but instead ask “given that violence and war exist as a part of the human condition, how do you respond virtuously?”

Look to the epics, the philosophers, and the myths. Look to the maxims. Tell me what the answer is. The world is violent–we honor that when we honor Ares. The question is how you respond with virtue when presented with that violence, whether you’re a kid in the hall at school getting beaten up by bullies, a young man who just got his draft notice, or a parent whose family is threatened.

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As I mentioned earlier this year, I am officiating at my sister-in-law’s wedding. To this end, I have written a nice, broadly nonsectarian spiritual-but-not-religious ceremony (from which I will post excerpts probably after the wedding), and I have done a bit of work to look the part. I bought a black suit (I needed a new suit anyway, as I am in a suit-wearing career), and even a clergy shirt with a tab collar (from Mercy Robes–great people to deal with by the way).

I’m not going to lie; I look smashing in my clerical duds, but I used the phrase “look the part” intentionally above. In my black suit and clergy collar, I don’t feel like a cleric; I feel like I am wearing a cleric’s costume. And I don’t want to feel like that, because all silliness aside, I take this kind of thing seriously. I’m not going to be playing a priest on TV; I am a priest. I don’t need an organization to validate my faith or my earnestness in acting in the name of the gods, and even if I did, I’ve got that in the bag.

What’s missing from the equation is my faith. Now, the wedding is not about me, and to my knowledge, nobody at this wedding shares my spiritual leanings to even the remotest degree. But if I’m going to perform the ceremony, my authority comes from my gods, whether I name them by name or not.

So to tack a short ending on a long story, I talked my mother into making me a clerical stole to wear over my black suit, in plain white, with peacock feathers for Hera, the goddess of marriage. I will be in her service when I perform this wedding, and I want to show it. But subtly, and tastefully. Because it’s not my wedding, after all. But if anybody asks, I’ll not hesitate to tell them: peacock feathers are a symbol of Hera, the goddess of marriage. But it doesn’t need to go further than that. The gods are a part of all of our cultural heritage, whether we call ourselves pagans or not.

So here’s my stole. It was sweet of my mother to make it for me, and on insanely short notice. She is both talented and skilled. The picture quality s not fantastic, but I will post a picture of me all dressed up soon.

Thanks, Mom.

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Kate Douglas has written an article for the New Scientist on what the “ideal religion” would look like:

What form would the ideal religion take? Some might argue that instead of redesigning religion, we should get rid of it. But it is good for some things: religious people are happier and healthier, and religion offers community. Besides, secularism has passed its zenith, according to Jon Lanman, who studies atheism at the University of Oxford. In a globalised world, he says, migrations and economic instability breed fear, and when people’s values feel under threat, religion thrives.

Jacobs lists off four categories or basic functions of religion (sacred party, therapy, mystical quest, and school) and describes how most of the existing world religions do one of these very well and ignore or fail to excel at the others. Jacobs’s ideal religion would excel at all four:

While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.

Numerous festivals, holidays and rituals would keep followers hooked. “Rites of terror” such as body mutilation are out – although they bind people together very intensely, they are not usually compatible with world religions (New Scientist, 19 December 2009, p 62). Still, highly rousing, traumatic rituals might still feature as initiation ceremonies, because people tend to be more committed to a religion and tolerant of its failings after paying a high price for entry.

The everyday rituals will focus on rhythmic dancing and chanting to stimulate the release of endorphins, which Robin Dunbar, also at Oxford, says are key to social cohesion. To keep people coming back, he also prescribes “some myths that break the laws of physics, but not too much”, and no extreme mysticism, as it tends to lead to schisms.

With many gods and great tolerance of idiosyncratic local practices, the new religion will be highly adaptable to the needs of different congregations without losing its unifying identity. The religion will also emphasise worldly affairs – it would promote the use of contraceptives and small families and be big on environmental issues, philanthropy, pacifism and cooperation.

I’m not sure about downplaying the value of mysticism or the necessity of pacifism, but the interesting thing (as pointed out by Sannion over at the House of Vines) is that Jacobs has basically described ancient Greco-Roman pagan religion.

As Apuleius Platonicus pointed out, Jacobs’s description is lacking in a few other areas as well. Such an ideal religion ought to honor human sexuality and celebrate reason and learning.

But these are honestly quibbles that could be worked out in the long run, or better yet, there would just be room within this kind of big-tent religion for different viewpoints. Most importantly, however, as pointed out by paosirdjhutmosu is that this kind of article and this kind of thinking undermines the notion of religions progress that people like Rodney Stark sell so hard, and that so many people seem to accept as a given, the idea that the course of human religious history has somehow been a linear progression from a darker mirror to a clearer one, and that therefore modern religions are necessarily better than older ones. Like all notions of progress, this is an extremely suspect assumption, with very little to back it up other than plain-old-fashioned massive bias in favor of the current status quo. Now must be better because it’s now. That’s nonsense. Social and cultural change happen for a host of reasons, and there’s nothing in the process that makes sure that the end-product is more functional or healthier for human beings.

I don’t think articles like this are going to turn people towards the old gods in massive numbers or anything, but I like that we see this kind of thinking more and more.

I also definitely want to point out that while this “ideal religion” describes ancient Greco-Roman polytheism fairly well, it wound not specifically have to be Greco-Roman polytheism. I for one would gladly welcome an open, mystical, transcendental, green Christianity with room to give proper honor to saints, angels, ancestors and local kindred spirits of the earth.

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