I met Christine through the Patheos Pagan portal – www.patheos.com/Paganwhere I’ve been a blogger for some time now. Christine is the author of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies which I had the pleasure of reviewing for The Druid Network. I managed to swap a few questions with her online, and am delighted to be able to share the results here…
Nimue: What prompted you to adopt the term ‘pagan theologian’ to describe what you do?
Christine: Well, for me it’s a straightforwardly descriptive term. My doctorate is in religious and theological studies, and I had classes in theology as part of that program. I know there are Pagans and other progressive religious people out there who have the mistaken impression that all theology is Christian, monotheistic, and rigidly dogmatic. That couldn’t be further from the case.
Etymologically, “theology” means “the study of deity” — and that’s a term from ancient Greek philosophy, by the way, not a Christian one. But functionally, what “theology” has meant since the middle of the twentieth century is something more like “the rational, systematic study of concepts behind religious belief and practice.” Twentieth century Western theology includes a whole range of radically different approaches to the question of deity, including some that look downright nontheistic (at least from a traditional Christian standpoint). I’m a big fan of process, feminist, and queer theologies myself — some of which are Christian, but others of which are emerging from non-Christian religious traditions or from an interfaith perspective. (Wikipedia has good introductions to all of those, for anyone who’s interested.)
In any case, if you’re joining ongoing interfaith conversations about the intellectual underpinnings for religious practice and belief, it makes sense to call what you’re doing “theology” — because that’s what everyone else is calling it. I’ve seen some arguments for calling Pagan theology “praxology” (the study of practice) instead, since Pagan traditions tend to be more focused on practice than on specific models of deity. That’s a term that might be useful inside Paganism, but when it comes to interacting with the rest of the world, refusing to use the accepted term is just another way to marginalize ourselves. There are plenty of opportunities to challenge other people’s assumptions about what “theology” means — but we won’t have those opportunities if we haven’t included ourselves in the conversation.
Nimue: You’ve been a driving presence at the Patheos Pagan channel for some time now. Can I ask what drew you to that space?
Christine: I think the strength of Patheos Pagan is that it exists in an inherently interfaith context. One of our writers, Julian Betkowski, recently commented on the dangers of accidentally creating “echo chambers” rather than functional religious communities — small cliques of people in which an agenda is enforced and genuine dialogue is discouraged. Hosting a community of Pagan writers in an interfaith environment helps combat that in a number of ways. It forces us to continually refine our own viewpoints in dialogue with each other *and* with people of other religions. Having regular contact with thoughtful non-Pagans keeps us in mind that despite Pagans’ differences, we still have a great deal more in common with each other than we do with the other major Western religions.
Being in regular contact with non-Pagan religious writers also keeps us involved in talking about issues of wider interest to our geographical communities and the world. Interacting with people of other faiths on social, political, or environmental issues keeps us from unhealthy spiritual navel-gazing. Patheos gives Pagans a voice in a religiously diverse environment, and that means we have an opportunity to speak to a wider audience about issues where Pagan traditions tend to have special insight — feminist and GLBT issues, ecology, or body- and sex-positivity, for instance.
The fact that we have a Pagan channel at Patheos, however, means that the Pagan voices aren’t just lost in the mix. Patheos is a large website, but in addition to the various interfaith pages on which Pagan materials appear, we also have a specific area of the site just for Pagan voices. That gives us a sense of group identity, and the writers are encouraged to get to know each other and respond to each other’s work. I find that balance between intrafaith interactions between Pagans and interfaith interactions with people of other religions to be incredibly valuable.
Nimue: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to explore interfaith work, or communities?
Christine: A lot depends on where the person lives. Many cities already have an active interfaith organization and a process for joining, either as an individual or as a group representing a single religious tradition. It’s often worth asking around one’s local Pagan community to see if anyone there is already involved in interfaith work — that will make you aware of existing resources and keep you from having to reinvent the wheel. Additionally, Unitarian Universalist and Unitarian churches are often welcoming to Pagans and provide an inherently interfaith setting. Any Pagan looking for a religiously mixed community that gathers around liberal religious principles should check out the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans website (http://www.cuups.org/).
Pagans who are isolated from other Pagans but are interested in interfaith work may have a harder row to hoe — because when they approach local interfaith groups, they may be the first Pagans ever to do so, and they may encounter fear and prejudice from those participating there. Cherry Hill Seminary (http://www.cherryhillseminary.org/) has some excellent online courses on interfaith at both a community and a Master’s level. I would definitely recommend them as preparation, especially in parts of the world that are religiously conservative. Additionally, Patheos hosts the Wild Garden blog (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wildgarden/), which focuses on grassroots interfaith work by Pagans, some of whom live in conservative parts of the United States. Wild Garden is a great place to read in-person accounts of Pagans representing their traditions to people of other religions, as well as to ask questions about how to get started in interfaith.
Nimue: You can find out more about Christine here – christinehoffkraemer.com and here cherryhillseminary.academia.edu/ChristineKraemer