A great review by James Nichol of a wonderful book I was delighted to contribute to – Celebrating Planet Earth, a Pagan/Christian Conversation: First Steps in Interfaith Dialogue.
A Timely Exploration
Highly recommended. This book, edited by Denise Cush, comes out of a weekend ‘conversation’ held at the Ammerdown Centre near Radstock, Somerset, England, from 31 January-2 February 2014. Originally devised as a Druid/Christian event, it was widened to include other Pagans and was intended to generate “dialogue, reconciliation and renewal”. The hope was that the participants could explore their prejudices and preconceptions, learn more about each other, and find common ground in ‘Celebrating Planet Earth’, as the event was called. The book’s contributors were all involved in the conversation.
The book is aimed at Pagans and Christians interested in making connections; academics and undergraduate students in Study of Religions taking courses on inter-faith dialogue, Paganism and Christianity; and anyone with an interest in inter-faith activities. Some of the contributors are academics in the field, but as well as academic input, there is a practical emphasis on personal spirituality and ritual practice.
I’m part of the core audience. Whereas I experience the spiritual path as ultimately beyond names and forms, I stand in the world as a Pagan Druid. I had a Christian upbringing and in recent years I have learned from the Buddhist tradition, as well as Christian-based movements such as Sophian Gnosticism and the Ceile De. All of these have supported me in my own practice and in my personal concern with developing a stronger contemplative current within Druidry. So I’m at ease with what Philip Carr-Gomm calls “fusion paths” in his chapter in this book.
From where I stand the ‘Celebrating Planet Earth’ more than meets its aims. It’s a feast. I felt that each contributor had thoroughly earned their place in it. It is divided into three parts, before moving on to editor’s reflections and conclusions. I want to say something about one chapter that spoke to me particularly strongly from each of the parts, as the best way in a short space of honouring the collection as a whole.
The first part is about ‘Addressing Our Fears and Prejudices’ and for this I pick out Graham Harvey’s chapter, ‘Fears and prejudices: a Pagan view’. For me, he has a very helpful analysis of what the task is and how to accomplish it. He makes it clear that “not everyone thinks alike” or should be expected to and that diversity has room for healthy opposition – properly handled, this can be a real gift. He makes the subtle point that the negotiation of difference is not just about fear and prejudice. It is also about avoiding the presupposition that “others are like us but not quite … that other people mean what we would mean when we say or do things”. Hence we need a refined quality of listening to avoid “talking past each other”. On the question of fear and prejudice specifically, he suggests that the two things to remember are that we should indeed “resist and challenge the small visions and petty fantasies that are imposed on others” and that “when we talk about what people do, rather than what systems are alleged to do, we will keep diversity in clear view”. He usefully writes down polarised lists of what ‘Christians’ and ‘Pagans’ are contrastingly stereotyped as standing for – and invites us to make a reality check on the items in the list. It’s a very useful way of opening the reader up to the actual experiences of individuals and groups in later chapters.
The second part is about ‘Possibilities for Co-operation’ and for this I pick out Tess Ward’s chapter, ‘Better together: transformation through encounter’. Early in her life as an ordained priest, Tess Ward went into her own version of Dante’s ‘dark wood’, a wilderness in which she needed to die to one life so as to be born into another. She lost her existing theological frameworks and says of that time: “in that wilderness, what sustained me was not theology, but poetry, silence and nature”. Without leaving her Church, she found pointers in Buddhist ideas (Anthony Gormley, Pema Chodron), Earth paths and feminist spirituality. She quotes Carol Christ as saying: “awakening suggests that the self needs to notice what is already there … the ability to know is within the self, once the sleeping draft is refused … for women, awakening is not so much a giving up as a gaining … a grounding of selfhood … rather than a surrender of self”. She also quotes Kenneth White’s poem ‘Labrador’ – “I was loathe to name it too soon – simply content to use my senses – feeling my way – step by step – into the new reality”. As, renewed, she moves back into the world and her role, she knows that interventions in the world only have value when they come from personal experience. She shares with Matthew Fox the view that the result of such a crisis is not to abandon one’s own tradition “but to demand more of it”. She now leads celebrations of the Celtic Wheel of the Year as an affirmation of her transmutation of faith within a Christian framework. Partly this is an enhanced appreciation of being grounded in the natural world and its cycles. Partly it is an appreciation of the place that resources outside her traditional faith have had in deepening her journey.
The third part is about ‘The role of ritual practice, myth, music and for poetry in each tradition and in inter-faith encounter’. For this I pick out Alison Eve-Cudby’s chapter: ‘Woven together: can Christians and Pagans engage in shared ritual?’ The author has a leading role in the Ancient Arden Forest Church in a burgeoning movement of Forest Churches. She describes this movement as “a small and growing number of Christians responding to the Call of the Earth”. Ancient Arden has an emphasis on ritual and her formal answer to the question she poses is a carefully contextualised ‘yes’. She says: “if we take earth celebration, care and connection as our basis for doing ritual together, to contribute towards re-enchanting the land in this time of ecological crisis then I think that shared ritual is possible”. She offers a fresh and energised discussion of ritual and its purpose. She describes ritual as an embodied event, and a process of framing in which dramaturgy, rather than theology, is the organising principle. Whereas logocentric approaches assume that the symbolic system expressed in ritual must be coherent, performance as an unfolding event lays out symbols in a way that reveals their inconsistencies and contradictions. The work therefore involves negotiating and holding these within the ritual container. We fashion rituals that enable liveable, regenerated worlds. Ritual is a transformative process, “the pattern of actions is designed to synchronise the awareness of the different participants – human, non-human and other than human”.
The book’s conclusions suggest that meeting itself was of great benefit, and make it clear that the people involved want to continue their work in some way (topic based subgroups are mentioned). I would simply add that this book is a gift to us all, and that I am grateful for it.
Celebrating Planet Earth can be purchased from Amazon.