STEPHEN D’EVELYN: WODEN, CHRISTMAS and DISABILITY THEOLOGY

 

The most recent ‘Sunday’ programme on BBC Radio Four featured an interview with the priest of England’s first temple to Woden in the last thousand years or so.

One of his points gave me particular pause: many of the customs of gift-giving, Yule-tide celebration etc., are actually pagan in origin. The implication was of course that people were not really celebrating Christmas. I had heard this arguemtn before, from both advocates of neo-pagan groups and customs and from conservative evangelical Christians. So in a sense it was nothing new.
But thinking it over I have come to wonder quite how tight the logic was. The priest was implying, I think, that people are not really celebrating Christmas and that what they value is really pagan. But liking to party, buy and give gifts, and sing when the days are at their shortest does not to me seem quite the same thing as really honouring ‘pagan’ gods.

In a way, I think this priest was doing Woden a disservice. Surely someone keen to attract people to the worship of Woden would do more than suggest that all you have to do is enjoy mulled wine to point them really to pagan deities at work in the world.
It seems to me this interview is symptomatic of ‘god-talk’ across the spectrum. People are unwilling or unable really to make cogent, persuasive arguments with really intellectual staying power when they talk about God, gods, or spirituality. I think perspectives of disability may offer answers.

One reason people are unable or unwilling to give vivid accounts of God is that they are habituated to univocal thinking: this is (only) that. Disability habituates us to polyvocal life, to the daily experience of society as at once enabling and disabling, the body as source of pain and medium of delight. Not the univocal consciousness of science but the equivocal tensions in experience in the midst of the real world.

And the newst developments in disability theory – pushing the social model of disability which understands society and not physical or medical conditions as disabling and in need of adjustment to include recongition of the real pain and positive experience flowing through our bodies–is forging new ways of thinking from this middle. So as we enjoy some more mulled wine and minced pies maybe we will catch sight of something of the mystery of Christmas, God come to be one of us when there was no room for him.

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