Over at Patheos.com, Teo Bishop asks some pretty deep questions on how and why Pagans convert. These are my answers.
But what does it mean for a Christian to convert to Paganism?
It is a total paradigm shift, and a shift in thinking. It is a shift in how you relate to the world around you, yourself, your family, Ancestors, the spirit world, and the Gods. A Christian converting to Paganism is, in the Christian view, deliberately discarding salvation and is embracing Satan. Conversion is a revolutionary act, one that redefines everything you are about. For those who believe in a religion, it informs everything, from your morals to your sex life. Converting from a world-denying religion into a world-affirming religion is a huge shift, especially one that is as sex-positive, body-positive, and nature oriented as many Pagan paths tends to be.
For the person, converting to Paganism can change your entire outlook on life, where you are going, and what you should do. Rather than working for the salvation of ‘the life to come’, Paganism as I have found it roots you in the here-and-now in addition to the future. Sure, where you’re going is important, but everyday action, right action especially, is prized. Converting to Paganism means dropping a lot of the privileges that come with being Christian. It is intentionally stepping into a religion maligned by the world’s largest religions, and staying there. It is intentionally adopting what you once would have thought were heretical, or Satan-inspired, worshipping Gods you were told were agents of evil. It is intentionally dropping any pretense of justification for the continued rape of the Earth, destruction of wild places, destruction of indigenous peoples, and suppression of religious, racial, and ethnic minorities. It is discarding accumulated baggage, especially the feeling of superiority, that Christianity can give you.
While I feel you need to drop a good deal to convert as a Pagan, Paganism is also affirming of a lot of things. It affirms your body, your planet, the Universe Itself, is holy. It affirms that you need feel no guilt for sexual orientation, gender, politics, or who or what you are in and of yourself. It affirms that you are part of a cycle, a web, an interdependent ecosystem that is physical, mental, and spiritual. It affirms that you have a place in this world, indeed, that everyone does. It affirms that there is more to life than living for salvation. It affirms that each of us has inborn power that we can put to use if we have a mind, the training, and the Will to do so. It affirms that where each of us has a place in the cycle, the web, the ecosystem, all Beings are active agents of change each and every day, for good or ill, within it.
When the Gods called me, I was thinking about entering into the seminary to become a Catholic priest or deacon. When I answered the Gods, I put those things aside and followed Them, and They led me to my priesthood. It took a lot of learning to trust that I was hearing Them. It took dedicated work to make sure I was hearing Them, and even sometimes I still get it wrong. It meant learning that repentance is action to fix things, and/or do the best I can with a situation in which I screw up, wrong someone, do wrong to myself, or do wrong to the spirits and/or Gods. It meant learning that my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits can come to me at any point in time, whereas I tended to find YHVH in His House, our local Catholic Church. It also meant learning that a good chunk of the information on my Gods is either handed down from Christian-recorded books, or is written in poem form, and that I would have to form my own understanding of the Gods.
No one could just give me my Gods in a book, or in a religious ceremony once a week anymore. The Book was replaced with Experience. Do I distrust lore? No distrust per se, but I understand that it, like the Bible, Torah, Qu’uran, etc. is neither perfect nor does it encompass everything about my Gods. It meant I had to form my own understanding about the spirits I work with, my Ancestors, and my Gods. It meant that I had to develop my own testament to Them. To do this, I had to develop my own understanding of Them. No one could give that to me.
How does a Christian become a Pagan, and how do Pagans help Christian converts through that process?
I think each person comes to the Gods in their own fashion. In sharing my story with other Pagans, though, it seems there are some currents of commonality that run through Pagan conversions.
- Hearing the call from a God/dess.
- Dissatisfaction with the former faith, either due to theology or practice.
- Needing to find a faith that is more in line with our own understanding of Divinity.
- An experience of the Divine shows that there is more than one God/dess, whether it is a walk out in nature or a personal revelation in prayer.
- Studying a Pagan subject from an early age, and throughout one’s life eventually coming to worshipping the Gods we once studied.
These aren’t all-encompassing, but all of these were part of my conversion experience, and I find I share most or all of these with other Pagan converts that I’ve talked with.
Pagan can help Christian converts by being welcoming and being hospitable. New converts are often going through challenges to their old status quo, often a lot of them at a time, and by being nurturing to this development, fellow Pagans can make this transition easier. Pagans can help new converts by providing them with access to good books, academic and Pagan, and provide personal accounts of their Gods. Transition rituals, such as dedication rites, to mark the new Pagan’s path can be very helpful in providing a solid base, both for their conversion, and their place in the Pagan community. Support, more than anything, is what I feel Pagans can offer new converts. Whether through exploring their religion, exploring magic, or exploring relationships with people now that they are a Pagan, they’ll need that support.
I found something that helped me go through the transition was by actually saying goodbye to YHVH, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and respectfully thanking them for my time with Them. By transitioning in this way, I didn’t have frayed feelings with my former God, nor did I feel open hostility to Him. YHVH, Jesus or the Holy Spirit, for Their part, never called me evil and never denied me my new path. I still occasionally talk with Them and Their angels, especially since I live in a Catholic home.
If the Gods and Goddesses are real and present in the world, where do we turn to hear their voices? Do they speak, as does the God of the Christians? If so, are we listening?
They can speak to us as the God of the Christians does, but They have so many different ways to contact us, to call to us. We don’t need to turn, I think, so much as we need to tone down the internal chatter and listen. The Gods are, potentially, everywhere. We can find Them in our sacred statuary or a forest, the lands of our Ancestors and walking alongside us. We can find Them in the powerlines and computer grids, the tilled earth and a good harvest. Our Gods, as I see Them, are imminent and transcendent. They aren’t at our beck and call, but They exist alongside us. Whether They choose to talk to us or not is up to Them; it is up to us to listen. I think listening, though, is limiting. Hear for your Gods, yes, but also look for Them, feel for Them, smell for Them, taste for Them, experience Them. They can show us Their ways in the flight of birds or a symbol. They can help us to hear Them when our minds are quiet or most chaotic, or when music thrums all around us. They can give us Their taste through brews and food, and bring us to ecstasy through their sacred medicines. They can share with us Their scent through the burning incense or the bonfire’s smoke. They can share Their touch through Their priests, statues, and Their own Touch Itself. They can give us the experiences to know when They are near, when to be loud, when to be silent. They can come to us through our pen or keyboard, through a song, a feeling; They can show Themselves in others, and They can make Themselves known in ways that I will never be able to write or speak of.
I recommend we make spaces where we can hear the Gods clearer, whether this is making a daily walk in a park, a regular meeting with fellow Pagans to do rituals, worship, and share experiences. Just a time dedicated to worship and communion every day can be ways we can better listen for our Gods. I also recommend we give ourselves places to worship in our homes, setting up altars to our Gods and Ancestors. This practice alone has been very helpful in my path. It is a constant visual reminder that my Gods and Ancestors are with me when I wake up and go to sleep. It reminds me that at any point I can kneel or sit in worship and communion with Them. It is one of my goals in life to make a public Pagan Temple where anyone can come and hear Their Gods, conduct Their rites, and worship the Gods. By having more spaces to do this we give ourselves more opportunities to listen to the Gods. By giving ourselves more opportunity to listen to the Gods, we may well hear Them more.