Conversations with the Hell Man

Jun 23, 2006
At school we had a fantastic Hell Man. He was as good as they get, as far as I'm concerned -- a clean-cut, conservative-looking, articulate guy who sat on the junction of academic and residential sides of a small, liberal school with a giant sign that said "The Wages of Sin is Death." You couldn't miss him. You wouldn't want to, either -- he knew his stuff, and he believed in it, but he was also a good debater and generally a pretty decent guy.

His methods leave something to be desired, of course; I had to defend him to my Intro Religious Studies class once, most of whom had never spoken to him, because they'd all judged him on the basis of his sign. It's a damn offensive sign, I'll give you that. And it represents some damn offensive beliefs. But it did what he wanted it to, which was to attract enough easily-offended people to keep him entertained and enough amateur theologians and philosophers to make the argument interesting.

I had a couple of really good conversations with our Hell Man in four years, and listened in on a couple more. I remember distinctly standing outside my dorm on a late spring day, my urgent need to get inside and dump my bags and let my brain turn off for a couple of hours halted by his presence. I told him I was an eclectic Pagan, and he told me that a religion that just lets you do whatever you want all the time isn't a religion at all. That was the fundamental end of that argument, though we went back and forth for probably an hour more, because I just didn't know what to say to that.

When he said that to me, I got very defensive. After all, with a sign like his, I was pretty sure I knew what he meant. The concept of sin is very basic to Christianity, and that's one of the reasons I gave up on it -- so many things Christianity labels as sinful I see as good times, at least in moderation. I don't think the point of having a religion is to tell you what not to do, and I think the best thing about the pluralistic society we live in today is the ability to shop around for a religion that meets your needs -- in other words, if you want your religion to tell you what not to do, you're welcome to take that path, but it doesn't need to be mandatory.

After thinking about it a little while, though, I came to the conclusion that he's absolutely right. A religion should include a system of morality, and that shouldn't be simply "do whatever you want." Even the Wiccan Rede adds "An it harm none" to the beginning of that statement, and while that doesn't exactly make for a comprehensive moral code, it's a long shot from "anything you want." The difference, I think, is in how the Hell Man and I think of what religion should tell you what to do and what not to do. Christianity, especially the Christianity of the sorts of people who sit on street corners to argue with people, has a fairly substantial list of things that you shouldn't do which is based mostly on their inclusion in that list. There are things you shouldn't do even if you yourself can think of no better reason not to do them than "my religion says I can't."

I feel like my moral system is much more personal and deeply ingrained than that, and nothing about Paganism tells me I shouldn't do things except things I already know I shouldn't do. I should respect others and all other living things, because the Divine is everywhere. I should support my community and my faith, because we are stronger together than we are apart. I should care for the environment, because it is part of the universal Mother that gives us all life. And that's a far cry from doing whatever I want. I fail to live up to it quite a bit, but just because I can't always meet my own goals doesn't mean I don't have them.

I only have one real regret about that conversation -- that it took me so long to see his point, and that I still don't believe I could have made that argument to his face. It grates for me to agree with a conservative Christian, as I'm sure it does for other Pagans, but I don't really think I should feel that way. Common ground is important if we're ever to stop hating each other, and even if conservative Christians are unlikely to stop hating Pagans we shouldn't hate them. This is why I read blogs like Real Live Preacher and Slacktivist and Hugo Schwyzer, which all post from a politically liberal but a Christian viewpoint -- because they give me the opportunity to try to understand and overcome the almost instinctual objections I hold to some of their views. But I also read them because thoughtful, religious people all have a connection and a similarity, no matter what their religion, and these blogs both got me through some spiritually empty semesters at school and inspired me to start my own. Multifaith dialogue is almost impossible here in Middle America, but blogs are a wonderful stepping-stone.


Sojourner said...

I think you just touched on one of my reasons for not considering myself Pagan, even though I have an (obvious) interest. I, too, have come to the conclusion that a religion should not be based on letting you do whatever you want to do at the time. Morality is a prominant issue within religion. I have trouble with understanding why some people (by no means, most or all) use the idea of doing what they want as their reason for considering themselves Pagan.

Also, a religion shouldn't be based around the idea that you can "mix and match." It bugs me that people think that they can add whatever aspect of one religion's set of beliefs to another at the drop of a hat; Instead, I think it important to know why you chose to incorporate an new idea into your religious worldview and why it is relevant to what you believe.

Regarding the person you learned this lesson from, it always seems to be the least likely person that will change your thinking on a issue such as this. :)

Jenavira said...

I know what you mean -- the problem with being in such an unstructured religion, especially one like Paganism where very few people are going to tell you you're doing it wrong, is that it takes a lot of integrity and determination to make it real and not just a convenient excuse for things. Like I said in my post, I don't always do a good job of it, which is one of the reasons I'm considering trying to find a coven once I move. External support for morality is one of the reasons organized religion exists, but obviously that system isn't perfect either.

I am grateful to the Hell Man (a term I use with great affection, I assure you) for the things I learned from him -- maybe one of these days I'll run into him again and be able to thank him properly. :)

soleclaw said...

I recently had a conversation discussing the discourse or lack of between the different religions of the world. The person I talked to was a Baptist and we disagreed on almost everything we discussed but were able to see one another's points without wanting to hurt each other.

I posed the question: "What if you meet someone who believes their god is the ultimate god just like you think yours is?" His response: "You mean, that their god is just as powerful as mine? That's when we get war."

And couldn't it also be where we derive our peace? Because this person and I basically did just that. We agreed to leave the other alone, yet still learn as much as we could from the conversation.

Have you ever read anything by Ann Lamott? She's a very liberal Republican and Christian and has very interesting things to say on faith and politics in general. She has a book called "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith and Politics" or something similar to that. Just google Ann Lamott and Plan B. ;)

Jenavira said...

soleclaw -

Sounds like you had the same kind of experience I had. :) I'm sometimes amazed at how easy it is to talk to people you disagree with so completely; so often people make it sound like it's impossible to talk to someone with totally different beliefs, but I've generally found that's not true.

Thanks for the book recommendation, too! I'll be sure to check that out.