DECEMBER'S PARLIAMENT of the World's Religions in Cape Town brought together some 7,000 people representing over 100 religions. The main reason for the meeting was to find common grounds of action among the religions, such as keeping government focused on people and the environment. It also provided a forum for people of different backgrounds to talk to one other.
In the wake of this, Cape Town's Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane and South Africa's Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris voiced criticism that witches were present at the meeting.
Witch is a loaded word in the world of religion. In this case, the concern was understandable but likely misplaced.
It was no doubt naive of the American organizers not to consider the implications of witches in Africa. In that continent, the word can describe anyone from a person who attempts to heal people of illnesses (with varying degrees of success) to potentially dangerous spellbinders whose psychological hold over people can be fatal.
The witches seen at the parliament were none of these. In fact, the church could learn a great deal from observing the ones who were there.
These witches were adherents of Wicca, a modern religion that draws heavily on 19th and 20th century romantic reinventions of various pre-Christian religions, especially the Druids.
They cast no spells -- except on the unchurched who appear to find more meaning in neo-pagan religions like Wicca than in Christianity. The church should seriously wonder why this is.
Like many other popular belief systems today, from New Age to various aboriginal spiritualities, Wicca is essentially pantheistic: Wiccans believe God is in everything, from trees overhead to the carpet underneath, one of their speakers explained at a parliament seminar.
It's crude theology, but is this not a way of expressing that the whole world is holy?
Greek philosophers, pondering long before Christ how God is in the world, came to the conclusion that pantheism is an inadequate explanation. And, from a theological point of view, Christianity has a profound view to offer: all creation is good, made by a good God, and will be returned to God at the end of time without being annihilated.
Given the frequent criticism of Christianity, it's apparently a message the church has not communicated well for some time.
One reason neo-pagan, New Age and Native North American spiritual systems may be so popular is that people can relate to what they teach more easily than they can to Christianity, which often seems unduly complex and cluttered.
These non-Christian religions offer symbols and rites that are simple and accessible. …