I had an opportunity to discuss the concept of 'original sin' with a woman who used to be a Christian, but is now an atheist. Her understanding of the doctrine is essentially that the world is evil, there is nothing good in it, especially in humanity. We are totally evil, with no redeeming features whatsoever. (Helen, if you are reading this and I mis-characterized your characterization, feel free to correct me...) This was one of the things she criticized about Christianity, its focus on evil; pointing out the problems in the world, and ignoring the beauty...
I responded that my understanding of Jesus' spirituality was quite contrary to this bleak view of the universe, and that I was compelled by my spirituality to see the world in terms of it's inherent beauty, power, and goodness. The ensuing dialogue rumbled about in my brain, sparking along the dusty synapses, and shining light into the remote regions of my intellect...
The next morning I was deeply engaged in a wonderfully insightful film with my three year old daughter. I was suddenly struck by the relationship Cinderella had with the creatures living in and around her home. She sang with the birds, cared for the mice, chided the cat, loving them and evoking love in them in return.
The rusty four-cylinder engine between my ears turned over once or twice again...
Pagans (loosely defined) see gods behind everything. There is a god in the elm and the maple, a god in the water and in the sky; the salmon and the osprey are manifestations of divine spirits; the moon and the stars are filled with spiritual significance and power. We can interact with these powers, calling them forth, making demands upon them and submitting to their demands; calling upon them for aid, and looking to them for guidance. The universe is alive with divinity, beauty and potency spring forth from every rock and flower; mysterious energy is present in all things.
One of the first major intellectual challenges the disciples of Jesus faced in the early centuries of Christian thought was brought upon the spiritual community by a group who came to be called the "gnostics." They espoused a fundamentally Greek view of the Universe. A dualism between matter and energy, between the physical world and the spiritual world, was the backdrop for their understanding of Jesus. They believed matter and everything associated with it to be inherently evil. Jesus was not a man at all, but pure spirit, sent to rescue us from a material world of pure evil. They at times encouraged highly ascetic practices, giving up sex completely, eating sparse and restricted diets, avoiding pleasure.
This stands in stark contrast with the Universe of the ancient Jewish scriptures...
In the beginning God creates a world of dirt and plant, water and fish, birds, flowers, stars, clouds, and all manner of things; His spirit/breath is present within this Creation. God creates Adam and Eve, breathing His spirit into them, they bear His image and are responsible for the world arround them. Adam is in intimate relationship with the plants and animals, He 'names' them, and rules over them as a king over subjects. He is duty-bound to protect them and provide for their care; and they honor Him as the reflection of the Creator. The world is alive with divinity, beauty and potency spring forth from every rock and flower; mysterious energy is present in all things. God pronounces this caucophany of material and spiritual union, 'very good!'
...and so, when the first Christians were faced with the gnostic framework for seeing the Universe, given the spiritual and intellectual heritage they had as followers of a Jewish prophet-king, they naturally rejected such a view. Jesus came to affirm and bring 'life to the full,' not to reject it.
The simple reality is that the western world (and western Christians within it) have unreflectively embraced the gnostic paradigm. We have not rejected an intimate Creator outright, but we have embraced a cruel mechanistic world, and so (unintentionally) God has no place in our conceptual framework. We have become deists...
Afraid of the messy comedy, raw sensuality, and blatant hedonism of the natural world, we have slayed it with our dissecting scalpels, our microscopes and telescopes. We have tamed the gods of the trees and the rocks. We have killed the sea god, 'analyzed' and 'studied' the heavens, and demystified the animals. The beasts and trees, the rocks and skies, still sing, but we have lost the ability to hear the melodious voices. The Spirit of God still 'hovers over the waters,' the Breath of God still whispers throughout the earth, but our cold eyes are closed the very medium of His goodness...
...and yet, if we are approached by the God who invented garlic and cumin, roses and peaches, nebulae and waterfalls, children and laughter, alcohol and orgasms, rhythym and melody; then perhaps He can awake in us the sense of divine play, the capacity for joy and energy required to hear the voices of the trees again.
...and so we should not be surprised at the growing interest in pagan ideas (neopaganism, wicca, etc.) in fact, we should not even be that alarmed. Christians worship the Lord of Life, to any and all who seek to find true power and beauty, they are pursuing Jesus, the giver of new wines and new eyes, the waker of the dead, the party-goer, the True Vine, and the Spring of Living Water. The call to follow Jesus is the call to awaken our hearts to the haunting melodies, the inventive harmonies, and the heart-pounding rhythyms to be found in life; embracing wonder and awe at the awakening of the trees, the glorious skies and the monsters of the deep floor of the sea; embracing the joy and pleasure to be had simply by breathing in and out, exploring the wonderous diversity that humanity and its home has to offer.
What a terrible horror that ever did occur (were it even in but one mind, although it has unfortunately been in many) that Christianity became confused with asceticism, that the warm embrace of a loving Creator became the dark chastisement of a vengeful and distant Progenitor. How could we ever think that God doesn't enjoy that which He has made, and that we are invited to enter into His joy...
"A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of 'Space': at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now - now that the very name 'Space' seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it 'dead'; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of words, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes - and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers has been wiser when they named it simply the heavens - the heavens which declared the glory - the
'happy climes that ly
Where day never shuts his eye
Up in the broad fields of the sky.'
He quoted Milton's words to himself lovingly, at this time and often."
Out of the Silent Planet