Now I know why I've never been to Dublin for New Year's Eve. Though I have walked the streets of Liverpool on a Saturday night, which is to take your life into your hands.


'The gods of empire have had their time. Capitalism may have been born of the monotheist god, but in the common Christian’s perception of him as a manly father-king located somewhere in the heavens, we see he’s mostly a less-rapey (excluding poor Mary, of course) copy of Jupiter-Zeus. Empire has won, humans everywhere divided by class and its modern variants. The abundance of the earth during its Golden Age is more than a distant memory, and now the land dies beneath us in our constant laboring.'

This is the bit where I nudge you again to look past modern variants of Christianity to the ancient version, the apostolic tradition and that of the Desert Fathers and early martyrs, which can still be found in the Orthodox Church. When you talk about Christianity in this way you're actually talking about a version of the faith which has also been bent out of shape by empire and modernity.

(Not that those are the same thing. I would love to agree that 'the gods of empire have had their time' but my take is that if you invite those 'old gods' back in you're just going to get very much nastier empires. I give you, as an example, the Aztec god Tlalac, who required the sacrifice of 'children who had recently been made to weep.' Or, come to that, many of the Roman Gods displaced by the Christians, who justified those freeborn Roman men raping their slaves for pleasure - all in a day's work for Rome until St Paul arrived.)

Anyway, my wider point is that Christmas - which was indeed deliberately designed to supplant Sol Invictus - is itself the revolution. You want a God against Empire? I give you the incarnation of the Creator himself - none of yer minor Chthonic deities - who comes to Earth as an artisan at the back end of a great empire, preaches and works miracles in villages, small towns, deserts and lake shores, dines with outcasts and sinners, and, when he finally goes to the city, the heart of Empire, he overturns the tables of the temple proto-capitalists and is executed by the authorities, both religious and secular, for the threat he poses.

(Spoiler alert: He gets the last laugh.)

I always liked song of his mother Mary, on hearing that she has been chosen as the vessel of this miracle:

'... For the Mighty One has done great things for me.

Holy is His name.

His mercy extends to those who fear Him,

from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with His arm;

He has scattered those who are proud

in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones,

but has exalted the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

but has sent the rich away empty ...'

Happy Chthonic Christmas!

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I like Sophie Strand's point that Christ is literally a god of inversion; he is a god of earth/underworld/resurrection in opposition to the "sky god". E.g., the "faith like a mustard seed" image - the mustard seed would be an invasive and undesirable plant; today's parallel would be a forest of knotweed or kudzu, cracking foundations and covering fields.

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When discussing ideological formations like what I call Woke Ideology, there's often something we run into where someone will say something along the lines of "that's not how it was meant" or "that's only a contortion of the true theories." When I point out that there are activists who say, "all cis white men should be shot" or "lesbians who won't have sex with transwomen are fascists," the counter is typically that such people are not "true" activists.

The same thing could apply also to Marxism or anarchism in general. Who is truer to the spirit of Marx: Mao and Stalin or the people running soup kitchens and building community gardens after natural disasters?

As you know, almost every branch of Christianity makes some claim to be a true continuation of the initial spirit of the gospels. The only exception to this rule is probably the milquetoast liberal denominations in the US who are quite proud of their adaptations of the gospel to modern conditions, but even still they see what they are doing as more "true" and continuous than what other sects are doing.

I'd argue that the very idea of "true" continuations is part of the problem, since it assumes there can only be one pure doctrine.

So if it seems like I gently evade responding to claims that the Orthodox Church represents the pure while all the rest are tainted or less pure, it's not because I'm unaware of these claims, but because other Christian frameworks make the same claim. Also, I don't think there is such a thing as a "pure" or unadulterated religion or ideology. That's not a bad thing: purity isn't a trait in nature, either, and I think the "Machine" has inculcated into us the idea that all the messyness of life can be stripped from humans (through technology and isolation) so we can be reduced to consumer-producer identities.

All that being said, I absolutely encourage you to explore your faith in that particular framework deeply. There's a phrase I first encountered in a religious text that says, "you must embrace fully, and then let go lightly." Watching many friends and people I admire work their way through new beliefs--as well as having experienced this myself many times--has taught me that the deep totalizing certainty and passion that comes at the beginning of belief is a natural and important part of the work of the soul. And like all passions and certainties, the transformation from certainty and initial passion into passion untethered from certainty is a powerful and beautiful experience.

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Yes, I mostly agree with this, Rhyd, but I don't think it's a response to what I wrote. Perhaps my fault.

I'm not arguing about who is the 'true' Christian, and I didn't use the word 'pure', which is not a notion I like. I've nowhere suggested that the Orthodox are 'pure' while other Christianities are 'tainted.' My point is simply that modern Western Christianity is quite different, in theology and in practice, from the original Church, which is best preserved in the east. Actually, one of the differences, I think is that Orthodoxy is cored around an acceptance of mystery, uncertainty and the apophatic nature of the divine, in a way that many protestant traditions, especially, are not. The West is in all ways far more rational in its approach. For this reason, to talk about modern Western notions of Christianity as if they represented the whole is going to be misleading.

What I found in my shift from paganism (if it was that) to Orthodoxy was a shift in quality and not just in status, if that makes sense. The Christian world feels different - and by that I mean the pre-modern Christian world, which I think is as different from the modern version as the old paganism were from neo-paganism. That's not about purity or being holier-than-thou. It is about re-disovering a very ancient form of something which modernity has offered us in a different shape. The Christian God is not just a less-rapey Zeus. It's an entirely different order of being. I didn't used to understand that, but experiencing it has changed my understanding of what this thing is.

Having said all that, of course I do think that truth is more likely to be found in some places than others - we all do. It's just that, as you say, that truth is never fully comprehensible to the human mind, which is why we have to try not to pretend we know it all. Or even a part of it.

Have a splendid Christmas.

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From my perspective Orthodoxy while certainly earlier and closer in time to what is presented in the New Testament than other Christianities is still a later developed complexity coming out of the original impetus that to me feels different from is recorded in the New Testament while there is certainly a quite substantial overlap and agreement. The “original” experience of Christianity is beyond recovery rooted as it is in a particular time, place, and culture, but Jesus himself is “the same, yesterday, and forever” as are the Father and the Holy Spirit and the same triune God is knowable as He was then.

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Yes, I agree that the original Christianity can't be reproduced, but I also think that the Orthodox east - and the Coptic and Syriac churches - have demontrably the most unbroken lineages and teachings. For me though, the main draw has been the mystical approach, especially hesychasm, and the emphasis on the experience of God, rather than simply either faith or reason. That is something that has not really been in evidence in the West since the early centuries - though it was evident here then, I think, in the early saints of, for example, Britain and Ireland.

All of this is why it is difficult to understand claims about the Christian understanding of 'God' being comparable to that of, say, a Roman understanding of Zeus. I think it's the word 'God' that misleads, when applied to both. It's the difference between creator and crated, but even those are inadequate terms. Hard to put into words. And I am using too many words!

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Dec 26, 2022·edited Dec 26, 2022

I think of my own protestant grandmothers, my mother and so many friends and acquaintances who have deep experience of God present to their souls so I hardly think Orthodoxy has a corner on that market. Ordinary good people daily knowing the living God through Jesus. I don’t think that experience is limited to a properly trained Hesychastic elite or that Hesychasm is the high octane version of spirituality.

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I do very much think that hesychasm is a high octane version of spirituality. I also think that Christianity without a monastic tradition goes astray. At the same time, I also agree with you entirely about ordinary people and their relationship with Christ in all traditions, which none of us can judge. The people I have known who seem the most 'holy' (whole) have been simple people (in the best sense of the word) whose hearts are clearly full of love for God and for their neighbours. I can only look on in awe.

Certainly being Orthodox doesn't necessarily make you a good Christian, and I am the evidence ;-)

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Dec 23, 2022·edited Dec 23, 2022

Historic paganism around the world was not the sanitized, pacific versions of today, but often had horrors intrinsic to it, the horrors were not aberrations contradicting its true teachings. You are a well read perceptive person and must be aware of this. It would be interesting to hear how you have grappled with this fact. In a way modern paganism is a “reformation” of the past variety.

And to keep this fair I confess there are “horrors” in the Bible and classic Christian theologies. A human sacrifice performed by God in the death of Jesus, an omnipotent God of love observing the frequent horrors of life and seemingly not doing what is within his power to stop the horrors, promising either forgiveness through the blood of Christ for a horror or dealing with the unrepentant at a final judgment, the horror of hell and the terror of the end times. There are more, but enough horror for now.

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I never knew a lot of this history. Thank you!

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Dec 23, 2022Liked by Rhyd Wildermuth

Very interesting, I enjoyed this.

I'm interested in the similarities between the Saturnalia traditions and the Irish traditions of Samhain (Hallowe'en), where people dress in masks and get up to mischeif. A time you can give your boss a kick in the arse and they can't say anything about it - they may not even know who you are. I was told of a similar tradition in Peru when I visited there years ago.

And all of them remind me of Charles Eisenstein's essay, the Death of the Festival. He has a theory on the importance of these traditions and how they are dying out.

Saturn in Vedic astrology (Jyotish) is also seen as a tough and necessary taskmaster, and all about learning. Saturn is not to be dreaded, as it is perhaps in Western astrology, but rather to be respected as a tough teacher, as someone who helps us to align to our true purpose.

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Dec 24, 2022Liked by Rhyd Wildermuth

In any religion, spirituality that we can encounter there are difficult hard to swallow bits if you take an honest look. The usual response is to take a buffet approach, take what you like, ignore the rest or place it on a bed of Procrustes and stretch or nip and tuck as needed. I see it done with Jesus, remaking him into a shaman, buddhist or hindu, a social justice warrior, or a mere persecuted teacher of truth as needed to make him comfortable.

This is also an unconscious response, as we unconsciously emphasize and apply aspects that resonate with us. Anyway here are the scriptures that help me face and accept the "dark" side of God or gods if you prefer. Scriptures are slightly paganized.

I kill and I make alive; I wound , and I heal, neither is there any that can deliver out of my (our) hand(s)   Deuteronomy 32:39

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (gods) Hebrews 10:31

Our God (gods) is, are a consuming fire   Hebrews 12:29

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways saith the LORD (Yahweh in the Hebrew), replace Yahweh with the name of the god of your choice, Isaiah 55:8

How unsearchable are His (his or her) judgments, and His (his or her) paths past finding out, Romans 11:33

Just a monotheist playing at henotheism!

Merry Christmas!

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Your two comments point to a core part of ancient polytheistic framework that modernity has a lot of trouble with. The way I usually put it is this:

"There are gods who do not care how this ends, only that it does."

There are very brutal gods, very feral ones, and very violent ones. It's best they're not invoked as the head of civilizations and societies (as Paul's example of the Aztecs) in his comments. As John Michael Greer puts it in his book, neither Dionysus nor Kali are exactly the best choices to guide human behavior.

Fortunately, there are plenty that are better guides, and even the most brutal ones have something important to teach.

Within monotheism, the struggle is to make the "vengeful" and "brutal" parts of a singular god fit in with his "omnibenovelence." Modern liberal christians often just ignore those "darker" parts, but that's more a function of their liberalism. Others try to integrate it by changing the meaning of omnibenovelence so that being all good means violently punishing sinners or enemies (the extreme Christian nationalists in the US come to this conclusion, for example).

There's another solution, of course: maybe it's not always been the same god. That's generally my suspicion, anyway.

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Dec 25, 2022·edited Dec 25, 2022

My solution is leave the judgment destructive stuff to God as being above my pay grade and status and wisdom, like my dad when I was a child was the one who handled the guns, killing animals as needed and appropriate in my rural farm upbringing. As it says “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone, do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” Romans 12:18-19. Though I admit there is dark stuff going on that does not fit in well with Yahweh’s loving omnipotence. But that’s a mystery I just live with as I “go out in joy” and are “led forth in peace” and aim to do good to others.

As in everyday life I am not to do vigilante justice leaving that to the authorities to do in a hopefully wise and orderly fashion.

I am glad Christians and Christian churches are being returned to the status they had under Rome, a peculiar people away from the levers of power, after all the purpose of praying in 1 Timothy for “kings and all those in authority” was so that believers would be left alone to “live peaceful and quiet lives” not get to run society.

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Thanks for writing this. You've connected and put into words many of my own similar thoughts and musings. One correction though: "Advent extends over many days, and ends on 6 January, the day of Epiphany (thus the '12 days of Christmas' most Americans have heard sung about, despite not knowing why there are 12)." No, Advent ends on Christmas Eve, followed by Christmas. It is the penitential preparatory season prior to the 12 days of Christmas, just as Lent prepares the way for Easter. Having grown up Protestant, however, I was certainly one of those who didn't understand what the "12 Days of Christmas" referred to growing up. I'm not sure if my parents even did.

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