There are religions out there that we have called pagan, heathen, or even gentile. The term “pagan” originally connoted a country-dweller, perhaps someone a little rough around the edges, or in just one way or another different than you. It wasn’t until the 3rd or 4th century after Christ that so-called Christians adopted the slang, which had primarily been used by Roman soldiers to demean civilians, and began to use it in a religious sense against anyone who believed differently than they did.
The history of “heathen” and “gentile” are similar. We’ve used the words as othering agents, as a way to demarcate the depravity we perceive around us. And we labelled their gods, the gods whose worship must have created such depravity, by the same labels. In Book of Mormon speak, we call them Lamanites.
They worship gods that demand to be appeased or they will curse and destroy. They refuse to be satiated by anything less than exactly what they want. They are petty and immature, seeking gratification for themselves and their lusts. And the religions that place these gods at their helm tend to live in fear, both of these gods and of each other. They create rites and rituals to prove to their gods that there is no reason to reign death and horror upon the world today.
These “pagan” gods, whether worshiped one at a time or in cacophony, are reflections of our unrefined inner demons. They are the best that the minds who believe in them can imagine and conjure. Their world was often seen as uncertain and cruel, therefore the creator of such a world must be uncertain and cruel. Once ruled by fear and confusion, those minds have the most difficult time seeing any other way. It becomes damnation. Hell. Upon themselves and all who they associate with.
But there is something so satisfying about having a god you can control. A god that can be appealed to for revenge upon your enemies. A god who can be bought off so the crops grow well. A god that is always on your side as long as you do something for them. It’s predictable, and useful. And it’s much easier to think of becoming like that god someday. There’s not nearly as much self-work to do when the god we worship looks very similar to us. We seem to be okay with an exacting god as long as it means we can also be exacting.
Recognizing that the term “pagan” has been unfairly assigned in many cases, and that it might mean something different today in terms of religions of the world, I want you to know that if you practice a religion that you’ve called pagan, I may or may not be talking about what you’re experiencing in your practice. “Pagan”, “heathen”, and “gentile” are unhelpful slurs, so I’m going to use a different term from here on out: “Transactional”. I’ve used this word in other articles, and it’s not a religious term of my own coining, so you may already have a sense of what it means, even though my spell-checker is thoroughly confused.
A transactional relationship is one of contract and control. I give you something in return for something else and we both get to experience control and authority. A transactional god demands payment for sins, rites and rituals to conjure blessings, and is unpredictable but also bound by rules through which we, or the universe, can control him. A transactional religion is built to help bring a worshiper into a relationship with this god where they can have the greatest amount of blessing and the least amount of cursing. All programs, practices, and policies are to aide in lifting the worshiper into a position where they can most fully utilize their transactional relationship with their transactional god. In historical religion, we see this in the practice of human sacrifice, the program of religious militarism in the conquest of land, and the policy of requiring monetary tribute in exchange for access to religious blessings.
It was when I started rereading the Old Testament that I realized that the god of the Bible is largely a transactional god. You don’t have to get very far into it before you start recognizing what I described above. The god that curses Adam and Eve for being disobedient, the god that demands animal sacrifice, the god that violently destroys almost everyone with a flood because of their violence, the god that demands child sacrifice just to test someone, the god that only gives temporal protection to the ones who obey him, the god that curses one people to bless another, the god that kills people because he is jealous, the god that tells his people to murder men, women, and children so he can give his people the land he wants to give them, and the god who tells a leader of his people to kill someone in order to get back into his good favor. The god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a fickle, petty, transactional god.
I just couldn’t worship that god. I nearly lost my faith in the existence of a god at all. I felt like my entire core had been shaken. I laid on my floor and cried until there were no more tears. I wrote about this experience in a previous article, Starting From Scratch:
The darkness felt scary and lonely. I knew nothing. No parts of my testimony seemed to be intact. Rationally I could say that I didn’t need to reject everything, but it was slipping away nonetheless. Elder Holland once spoke on doubts,
“In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited.”
I was trying to find some ground, any ground, and this time I couldn’t seem to find any. There had to be a single belief that I thought I could stand on, but nothing was there.
So, alone in my crisis, I went back to the very beginning. If I have nothing, then let’s start over and create something new. What do I want? Do I want there to be a God who loves me? Do I want there to be a Christ who walks with me so I can grow and learn without anxiety and depression? Do I want there to be a Spirit who can help guide me day by day? I do have a future life to live, so do I want to live with these things or without them?
Honestly, my initial answers to these questions were, “I don’t know”. But “I don’t know” wasn’t going to be good enough. I was still unhappy trying to live with “I don’t know what I want”. Another question presented itself. Do I want to be happy? This one I knew the answer to. Yes! I knew I wanted to be happy. Perhaps I’ve finally found a little ground to stand on.
I went back to the questions about God… If I say no, will I be happy? If I say yes, will I be happy? I discovered that wanting there to be a God who loves me, a Savior who sustains me, and a Spirit that guides me made me happy. Just wanting those things sat a little better than sitting with the idea of not wanting them. I felt a little relief.
I decided to go back to the beginning of the Old Testament and look for a god who loves. If I could imagine a god who only loves, and through that love draws all of us to him, inspires all of us to repent so we will be like him, and gives light to all of the dark corners until only good fruit grows in all of god’s holy garden, then it must be possible for that god to exist. Perhaps I’d just been worshiping the wrong god. After all, one of the most consistent messages throughout the Old Testament is a pleading with us to stop going after foreign gods and hear the god who spoke us into existence with his love and declared us good. These foreign gods can be carved idols or the vain imaginations of our own minds, but the god who gave us Jesus is not a transactional god.
I now have a great deal of compassion and understanding for the characters of the Old Testament. I kinda have to. I mean, I lived 35 years of my own life in this transactional god paradigm. It wasn’t my fault. My culture, religion, and nation all contributed to the ways of thinking I labored with for those many years. In a lot of ways it was useful to me, as it both kept me thinking about God and set me up with opportunities to see God’s love. We’re all just doing the best we can with what we have. Even our prophets must seek for God’s face hidden under years of culture, religion, and nationalism, and I’m grateful for their inexhaustible tenacity in that cause. Truth does not need to blame untruth.
Eventually, when the moment was right, God revealed to me enough of his love and grace to change my heart forever. For me, that moment was a manifestation of so many years of tender mercies all coming together in one moment to declare once and for all that God has never, never, never, never not loved me, and I have done nothing to earn that love. God is love. Amazing grace. And I had been transformed.
A transformational relationship is one in which both parties are edified by the interaction. Neither is required to give up anything, yet both fully give of themselves. A transformational god demands nothing and remains eternally open to us as we grow. He is constant and true. I use “he” because we do not have words for the ineffable quality of god which encompasses all genders, whether we imagine God to be One, Two, Three, Both, Many, Council, or Councillor. He, She, They. Our language fails us, yet our hearts somehow know what our minds cannot. He is at once all things and one singular thing, love. He is the light so big and bright that it does not need to destroy the darkness as an enemy. He has no need for jealousy, anger, deceit, or wrath. A transformational god cannot be controlled and would never need to be.
A transformational religion includes rites, rituals, and ordinances which embody the experience of transformation itself. It teaches progression, growth, and seeking the face of the transformational god we can only know through the inexplicable experience of transformation itself. It teaches repentance as turning, mourning as alchemy, atonement as sustenance, covenant as constancy, sacrifice as surrender, obedience as trust, and power as expressed godliness. It has no checklist of observances, only opportunities for practice. It demands no penance, and requires no payment or proof. It releases the worshiper into the sea of God’s love trusting in his almighty power and goodness. It will only ever declare the beauty of God’s grace to the sinner, and let God himself draw them into his dwelling place.
I believe in a benevolent universe. I believe in a God of love, whose power is his ability to love infinitely, and that our benevolent universe will eternally honor the authority of that power. I believe the purpose of our creation is to awaken to our own divinity and live into our own expression of infinite love. “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world” (John 18:37). And I believe all things work together for our good. I really, really, believe this. This god is my God.