14 September 2012

Expectations II: On Not Being Christian

This is a cold war.
You better know what you’re fighting for.
This is a cold war.
Do you know what you’re fighting for?
– Janelle Monáe, “Cold War,” The ArchAndroid

Hellenism is not Christianity. We do not worship Jesus or accept his teachings.

Now, I mentioned in my post “Defining Hellenism” that some people may stand in disagreement with this statement. Strictly speaking, it’s one of the things that I tend to not put my foot down about in public. It hurts people’s feelings and makes me feel like an awkward hater.

What Makes Hellenism Not Monotheism?

By Marlieba [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons:
Plato and Aristotle, detail from School of Athens, fresco by Raphael
We will forget about polytheistic monism, pantheism, and other trends that have existed since at least the time of Socrates. These pagan forms that see unity in divinity fit within the philosophical spectrum of Hellenic beliefs. Rather, we disavow a connection with formalized monotheistic religions.

Popular forms of monotheism, such as Christianity and Islam, are very strict in their assertion that worshiping deities other than their One True God opens an individual up to evil. It is a sin that one must repent from.

In Islam, polytheism is called shirk and is considered worse than murder. Shirk means many different things: reverence for materialism, other deities, and not being abstract enough when thinking about God. More specifically, polytheism is Shirke-al-Akbar, or the greater form of shirk. There are also open and hidden forms of this. The idea of hidden shirk just reminds me of the subconscious cry that lands Mr. Parsons in reeducation in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The concept of shirk makes me highly skeptical about what polytheists and Muslims could achieve during interfaith discussions.

Created by the Donaldson Litho. Co., Newport, KY.
 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and
the Library of Congress
(Prints and Photographs Division, ID var.1592)
Christianity inherits the Commandment “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me,” but takes it beyond, “This is the one we worship, and you’re free to do what you want over there.” Rather, the Christian One True God has become the only extant god. All others are demonic deception or mental delusions. In the West, we are more familiar with this one. Christians have defined the conversations surrounding faith, worship, and divinity for much of the past ~1,700 years — not 2,000, as many people believe. It took several hundred years for the grassroots organization to grab enough power that it could beat and/or kill people who wouldn’t convert in the streets, entice emperors, and force philosophers to flee to the East.

On the other hand, modern monotheists can be a bit weird. They love our philosophy. That is how it survived: It speaks to people. Our gods have whispered through the centuries and monotheism has never managed to silence Socrates or Epictetus. This can be a common bonding point, especially if they have read A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy or another popular-level piece about incorporating philosophy into daily life. Which brings me to ...

Navigating a Christian-Friendly World

One of the awkward things about not being Christian in a culturally Christian country like the United States is the holidays. A lot of us celebrate secular Christmas either because family are Christian or because we just don’t have the willpower to say No. This definitely defines one of my “pluses” (pie-in-the-sky hopes): Don’t celebrate Christian holidays. Part of the problem right now is that Christians expect all non-Christians to do Christmas. If we don’t, we are practically abusing our children (if we have any) and are having No Fun. We’re also expected to have awe for people giving stuff up for Lent and to experience guilt if we don’t care.

There are plenty of secular holidays to observe with friends. If you want to have a fun party around the Winter Solstice, consider it either as a solstice thing or wait until New Year’s Eve/Day. (This is really easy for me this year, as I can’t use any of my paid time off until right after Christmas.) If you can’t and your family knows your religious beliefs, just make it perfectly clear that you’re only there to support their religious journey.

If you’re just into the Christian holiday for the parades, do it. What would you do in a foreign country (say, Japan) if they were having a religious festival parade? Most Westerners would watch, regardless of whether or not they practiced Buddhism or Shintō.

The other awkward thing is the assumption that we are Christian, especially if we look mainstream. Not being Christian makes one “Other.” This scares some people, especially if they keep asking and learn that you’re not Jewish, either. Most people have no frame of reference for polytheists outside of Wiccans who appear in the news, which is often for murder or sexual misconduct unless it’s Halloween or the person is a musician — if they connect “polytheism” to “pagan” at all. Most people lack basic religious literacy even when it comes to their own faith tradition.

I just generally leave it at Not Christian for this reason.

On Christians

Most of us agree that we don’t hate actual Christians. It just becomes difficult when one doesn’t believe that way because monotheism vs. polytheism as Abrahamic faiths define it is an either/or proposition.

Tolerance is an important aspect of any relationship with people who believe differently from you. It doesn’t mean that you agree with their position, but that you can agree to disagree and focus on things that you have in common. Most people have perfectly good luck with the first part, but fail to actually observe the second. Don’t talk about religious differences if you can’t do so maturely. Focus on other things, such as the amazingly addictive thing that comes into being when you dunk oven-leathered banana in almond butter.

And it’s not like they mean a lot of the privileged things they say or do, anyway. Most Christians don’t realize just how central incense-burning is to our faith, for example. Most non-polytheists I know associate it with people who want to cover up the smell of pot.

Remembering Julian

I have tremendous respect for Julian Augustus, so much so that I often have imaginary conversations with him in my head. Looking at how Julian and other late polytheists approached the physical violence, intolerance, and stupidity they were faced with on a daily basis can be grounding. Julian is also an interesting case study in being covert about your practice. Regardless of what your situation is, you must admit that it can’t be as bad as the one he grew up in.

So, in closing: Keep your head high, define some boundaries, and carry on.

“Ludovisi Throne,” Woman with a thymiaterion, or incense-burner,
Marie-Lan Nguyen (September 2009), via Wikimedia Commons


Apuleius Platonicus said...

Boundaries are important. Athens had walls for a reason. And Socrates always stayed within them. Except when he was getting his hoplite on.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Another great post.

I share my religious beliefs only with my closest friends...not family, whom I see infrequently.