The summer solstice, the longest day in the northern hemisphere and in terms of light the turning point of summer, occurs on 21 June – a significant moment for almost any form of life on Earth, and therefore in any pagan calendar.
Chronologically Christianity is the ‘middle child’ of the family of three religions which descended from Abraham, sandwiched between the older Judaism and the younger Islam. That photograph of three monotheisms sitting on a park bench is indeed very useful in nurturing much needed respectful dialogue between the three of them. However it is at least as important in modern Britain to dust off a different photograph: the one which has paganism and Plato leaning their bicycles against the wall of a country pub, with the young upstart Christianity squeezing in at the side of the picture. Without a glimmer of understanding about that within us which can be called pagan, or that which out of respect and convenience is usually ascribed to Plato, we make it harder to understand what is Christian.
Paganism identifies religions which see divinity or spirituality in nature. This is a very ancient, possibly universal, religious understanding. Christians do well not to abuse it – if only not to abuse the parts of that understanding within ourselves. And it is not something long ago and far away.
During 1995, while assembling and publishing Britain’s 100 most popular poems, the BBC broadcast an anonymous poem. It had been found in an envelope left for his parents, to be opened in the event of his death, by a soldier killed in Northern Ireland. Its origin has not yet been traced, but the public response which it provoked was so strong that the BBC decided that the poem deserved listing ahead of the formal competition winner (Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’). The poem reads:
DO NOT STAND AT MY GRAVE AND WEEP
Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand and my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
This is a beautiful poem – a beautiful pagan poem. To state this is not to attack it, or to cut Christians off from it; it is to be honest about the springs of our spirituality in Britain near the start the twenty-first century. As Christians we can easily read the poem with love, seeing in our perspective the Creator God, the Risen Lord and the Holy Spirit shining through every line of it. The poem itself says something simpler and more accessible than this. But it is not something profoundly contradictory to Christianity, because Christianity asserts the preciousness of all creation, all being owing its existence to the one God, all waiting for life and meaning beyond the ‘now’.
In its effects on our spirituality, the thought of the Greek philosopher Plato (circa 428 – 348 BC) is also not something long ago and far away. He particularly expressed a division between the immortal soul and the mortal body, giving us a knife which we still use to cut our very beings into two today. You can watch the surgery taking place in front of your eyes, to the sound of soaring music, in this song by Mike Scott of the Waterboys (recorded in 1985 on their album ‘This is the Sea’):
Man gets tired
Spirit lives when man dies
The spirit lives
Man is tethered
Spirit is free
What spirit is man can be.
Powered by the music, these words create a picture of halls of meaning and eternity so much more important than our cramped, limited, mortal existences: places to which we can soar, and (we may feel) to which we are meant to soar. This also is not a Christian view of the world, although a Christian might feel that it does open up a view beyond snow, stars and grain which needs to be opened up.
In fact, although Christian thought and life down the centuries has borrowed both from pagans and Plato, with much more hostility expressed towards the former, the greater tension should be between Christianity and Platonism. Devaluing material existence relative to the ‘spiritual’ devalues what, in Christianity, God has made and has affirmed in its sacredness by entering through his own incarnation.
Returning to the photograph with the bicycles, Christians can be less inhibited (and more respectful) about celebrating with pagans the divine in the snow, the stars and the grain. We can, with Platonists, have our eyes opened to halls of meaning and eternity beyond these things - but we need to keep an eye on that knife. Recognising more precisely what their faith is, Christians can offer for celebration heaven and earth together, created and redeemed by the one eternal God. In every one of us and in his incarnation God reverses Mike Scott’s song: what man and woman is, spirit has dared to be.