"We're all interconnected": Pagan, Christian Clergy Urge Interfaith Understanding

The Rev. Ethan Stark of Heathens Against Hate, left, and the Rev. Andy Behrendt of Trinity Lutheran Church, Waupaca, Wisconsin, in a screenshot from the Trinity website.

(RNS) — A Pagan and a pastor walk into a church.

It's not the setup to a joke.

It's just another Thursday evening for the Rev. Ethan Stark of Heathens Against Hate and the Rev. Andy Behrendt of Trinity Lutheran Church.

The two clergymen — Stark, ordained by the international heathen organization The Troth, and Behrendt by the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — hosted "A Pagan and a Pastor: A Necessary Conversation " last month at Trinity in Waupaca, Wisconsin. The duo answered some frequently asked questions about their faiths and addressed misperceptions each tradition has about the other.

It's a conversation they are scheduled to repeat in October at the Parliament of the World's Religions, which will be held virtually for the first time since it initially convened at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

They hope such conversations will help encourage understanding and better relations between Christian and pagan faith traditions.

"The more we can learn about people of other faiths or even non-faith, the more we appreciate about our own tradition," Behrendt said at Thursday's event, which was streamed on Trinity's YouTube channel.

Behrendt's path to his Christian faith was pretty straightforward: His dad was a Lutheran pastor before him, he said. For him, the church was always a place of love and acceptance, though he noted that has not been everyone's experience.

Stark was raised conservative Jewish in Israel but said he realized as a teenager he felt more connected to the divine in nature than he did while reading from Scripture at his own bar mitzvah. That eventually led him to paganism and heathenry — neither of which, he explained, should be viewed as derogatory terms.

"We are pagan, we're proud as such, and it's only a pejorative depending on who uses the term," Stark said.

The two met about three years ago when Stark and his wife, who is a Christian, were planning an interfaith wedding and asked Behrendt to co-officiate.

The pastor was a little nervous to do it at first.

Behrendt said he didn't know much about paganism. He'd lumped "godless" pagans in with atheists, which he admitted is ironic: Some pagans — like heathens, who honor the gods from pre-Christian Norse and Germanic religions — worship many gods.

Stark said he has encountered fear from Christians before.

He also noted it cuts both ways. He's encountered "a lot of anti-Christian sentiment in paganism," he said.

Many people come to the pagan community from Christianity because they do not feel welcome there, according to Stark. That includes LGBTQ people and women who are barred from leadership in many conservative Christian traditions, he said. (The ELCA ordains both.)

Behrendt apologized, noting, "We have the part about needing a savior right because we definitely are flawed and we make a lot of mistakes. Jesus was so thoroughly, thoroughly about loving people, and if he did get frustrated with somebody, it was almost entirely because they were part of the religious establishment and because of their mistreatment of others."

For the pastor, it was wonderful getting to know somebody like Stark — who, it turned out, was not at all threatening — and to better understand his beliefs, Behrendt said. Some of those beliefs, like their concepts of divinity, are very different, he added. But they care deeply about a number of the same issues, too.

For the pagan, it comes back to an Icelandic saying: "All power to all relations."

"We're all interconnected. We're inseparable, whether we'd like to believe it or not, and that speaks both to humanity and to nature," Stark said.

That extends to people with differing beliefs, too, he said.

"It therefore is almost, like, incumbent upon us to approach others in a better understanding that regardless of a difference of one God or many gods, we are still — at least to us theists — children of the divine, be it a single parent or a divine family that kind of watches over you," Stark said.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

The U.S. Supreme Court justices heard arguments this week in a closely watched case that some predict could again change the course of abortion law.
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, joined in lighting the menorah. Emhoff is the first Jewish spouse of an American vice president.
Bhattar created an art piece to honor all those that choose to love themselves and work to collectively dismantle our culture of shame around HIV/AIDS, especially in higher education and religious/spiritual communities. 
The authors write that they learned many wonderful things growing up in Southern Evangelical churches, "such as centering Christ and serving others." But in conversations around sexuality and HIV/AIDS, "We were also taught things we now know are tremendously grounded in hate and fear."
As we open the application for the 2022 cohort of IFYC alumni Interfaith Innovation fellows, we speak with 2021 fellow Pritpal Kaur, the former Education Director at the Sikh Coalition and an advocate for increasing religious literacy in the classroom.
Greg McMichael, son Travis McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were all convicted Wednesday (Nov. 24) of murder after jurors deliberated for about 10 hours.
A new book, “Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas,” by Omar Mouallem, may meet the needs of a new generation of Muslims.
For Christians, Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas and beyond. The Rev. Thomas J. Reese writes that perhaps fasting during Advent can be the Christian response to the consumerism of the season.
Interfaith holiday events can be a great way to show respect for others and make everyone feel included. Need some tips? Our IFYC colleagues have you covered.
Studies show that American religious diversity will only continue to grow and that Thanksgiving dinners of the future will continue to reflect this “potluck nation.” We all bring something special to the table.
IFYC staff members share what they're listening to, watching and reading that inspires an attitude for gratitude this season.
How can you support Native Americans and understand important issues and terminology? This Baylor University sophomore is here to help.
Aided by an international team of artists, author Salma Hasan Ali turned her viral blog about Ramadan into a new handmade book.
A symposium hosted by the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago focused on the intersection of Indian boarding schools and theological education as well as efforts to uncover truth and bring healing.
This week's top 10 includes stories on faith and meatpacking in the Midwest, religion in the metaverse and an interfaith call for peace in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The two lawmakers appeared at "Race, Religion and the Assault on Voting Rights," the inaugural event at Georgetown University's Center on Faith and Justice.
Religion & Politics journal interviews the author of a new book on the impact of growing religious diversity in the American Midwest.
Five interfaith leaders share readings and resources that inspire them, give them hope and offer solace in turbulent times.
“There is a huge gap between the religiosity of clinicians and the religiosity of the clients,” mental health counselor Shivam Gosai says. “This gap has always been there. Mental health professionals are not always reflective of the people we are serving.”
Part of what I found so beautiful about our conversation is that we both agree that American pluralism is not simply a pragmatic solution to the challenge of a diverse democracy, it is also a kind of sacred trust that God intends us to steward.
The author, a Hindu and a Sikh, notes that faith plays a subtle yet powerful role in the show -- and creates space for more dialogue.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.