Manasseh, pagans and digidisciples (@chirpybirdy007)

sunrise by @chirpybirdy007

sunrise by @chirpybirdy007

We’ve been reading about Manasseh the King of Judah. For most of his reign he was not a faithful servant of the Lord. Among his many misdeeds, he erected altars to the Baals (local nature and fertility gods), made Asherahs (mother goddesses), used fortune telling, omens and sorcery, dealt with mediums and necromancers, and sacrificed his sons as an offering.

The Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention. So the Lord sent the commanders of the army of the King of Assyria. Manasseh was captured and very distressed about it. He called out to the Lord for help. The Lord took pity on him and sent him back to Jerusalem, where he behaved himself thereafter.

We use Old Testament stories like this to learn about God. Manasseh’s tale shows us that God does not turn his back on those who have forgotten him, and that he forgives those who call to him. Our God is a loving God.

We can study the rest of this story in two ways. We can look for the historical facts of Manasseh’s reign and find out whether he really killed his sons. (I wondered whether this was an exaggeration put into the story to show how unGodly he was.) We can also examine this story in the light of our own time, and ask if it helps us to understand what is “evil in the sight of the Lord.”

This story is written to encourage people to follow God and to turn their backs on the human tendency towards the deification of nature. In this story nature worship is sinister and even causes Manasseh to betray his own children. Yet he must have been a deeply well intentioned man as he was active in promoting his faith.

As digidisciples on the Internet we are highly unlikely to meet people who worship nature in exactly the same way that Manasseh did in the days before his repentance. But we are very likely to make friends with people who believe in various forms of pagan pantheism, shamanism and animism. Belief in the divinity within nature is widespread and found in both ancient religions and modern styles of spirituality.

We need to seriously think about how Bible stories affect our interactions with nature worshippers. A glib reading of many of the stories encourages us to believe that anything in that particular religious area must be evil and possibly demonic. We forget that the purpose of these stories is to turn people towards God’s love, not to build a religion based on the rejection of other religions. Followers of the God of Abraham build their faith on Him. They do not build it on the fact that they don’t follow other deities.

The attitude that nature worship is automatically demonic is not helpful for loving interfaith friendships between Christians and Pagans. It may also prevent us from understanding how humanity’s innate spirituality, innate affection for nature plus widespread concern for the environment, and alienation from industrial life, can combine to create very natural human expressions of faith that plug into the physical world of God’s Creation. Transcendent appreciation of Creation probably was the earliest form of human spirituality. It may always be a part of humanity’s spiritual spectrum.

We Christians need to look at the bewildering variety of new pagan and alternative spiritualities. We need to know what is unhealthy – for example some alternative spiritualities can encourage obsessive superstition and paranoia about things that have been misunderstood in the Abrahamic faiths. And we need to know what is simply human beings connecting with God’s Creation in a very happy and wholesome way. We mustn’t lump all paganism into the same category.

When Pope Gregory the Great sent St Augustine to the British Isles he told him it was okay to absorb useful bits of local paganism into Christian practice. And we ourselves follow a style of Christianity that is still a little pagan in its attachment to light in Winter and rebirth in Spring. The connectness between the seasons of nature and the telling of Jesus’s story feels right in our hearts. So we can argue then, that certain things in paganism could still potentially have something useful to give the Church.

In the UK pagan style books are often socially acceptable in a way that Christian writings often are not. We need to think about what part of the human heart these books are speaking to. Simply dismissing them as consumerist spirituality, as some Christians are prone to do, is not good enough.

About RectorChick

A parish priest in the Hedgerow Church of England.