There is one broad fact about the relations of Christianity and Paganism which is so simple that many will smile at it, but which is so important that all moderns forget it. The primary fact about Christianity and Paganism is that one came after the other.
Mr. Lowes Dickinson speaks of them as if they were parallel ideals—even speaks as if Paganism were the newer of the two, and the more fitted for a new age. He suggests that the Pagan idea will be the ultimate good of man; but if that is so, we must at least ask with more curiosity than he allows for, why it was that man actually found his ultimate good on earth under the stars, and threw it away again…
There is only one thing in the modern world that has been face to face with Paganism… and that is Christianity. That fact is really the weak point in the whole of that hedonistic neo-Paganism of which I have spoken. All that genuinely remains of the ancient hymns or the ancient dances of Europe, all that has honestly come to us from the festivals of Phoebus or Pan, is to be found in the festivals of the Christian Church.
If anyone really wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries, he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas.
Everything else in the modern world is of Christian origin, even everything that seems most anti-Christian. The French Revolution is of Christian origin. The anarchists are of Christian origin. Physical science is of Christian origin. The attack on Christianity is of Christian origin. There is one thing and one thing only, in existence at the present day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin, and that is Christianity.
GK Chesterton, Heretics
Reflection – GKC goes on here (at some length, as is his wont, although I guess I’m in no position to criticize), to delineate many of the true distinctions of Paganism and Christianity, and the very real virtues and strengths of the first. He counters however with the unique virtues of Christianity, which he names as charity (“a reverent agnosticism towards the complexity of the soul”), chivalry (the love of the weak because they are weak), and humility (knowing oneself as weak, and in that knowledge becoming boundlessly strong).
Ultimately he credits Paganism with being a wholly reasonable and common sense approach to life, but “we cannot go back to an ideal of reason and sanity. For mankind has discovered that reason does not lead to sanity.”
While the romance of Paganism has somewhat worn off, and certainly never took off the way Dickinson et al. thought it might, it is still around. Neo-paganism exists. It is worth asking Chesterton’s question: why, if Paganism was all that great, did the pagans all become Christians?
We cannot answer that they were forced to by a dominant Church. The dominant Church, the Church that had power to force its will on the general population, factually did not show up until the second millennium of Christianity. We’re talking here about events that happened in the first five to six hundred years of Christianity, when the Church was a rag tag group scattered across the Roman empire, one ancient upstart cult among a hundred. Constantine did not impose Christianity on his subjects; he merely ended the persecution of the Church. And part of his ending the persecution of the Church was because by that point a rather large percentage of his subjects had become members of it, in an era when it exerted no political power whatsoever.
Now why would that be, if Paganism was such a perfect religion, so suited to the needs of the human person? OK, so Paganism may not be your bag, anyhow (somehow, I don’t think too many Wiccans are reading this blog…). But there can be a sense in modernity that we just need to get back to some kind of natural state of man—the sort of Rousseauian ‘noble savage’ idea. If only we can ‘get ourselves back to the garden’ by way of Woodstock.
This is a kind of nostalgia for something that is older and earlier than Christianity, some state of innocence that was fundamentally marred by the incursion of religion and especially the Christian religion with its rules and dogmas. This is certainly one current among many that floats around today.
GKC is well to point out that, in fact, we did all that, we plumbed the depths of human life, human rationality, human enjoyment of the world—Paganism at its heights and depths really was a marvelous thing that left few stones unturned in the human reality. And… then they all became Christians.
And Christianity has no great quarrel with Paganism factually. There is no, absolutely no, record of any great ‘persecution’ of Pagans by Christians—such was unnecessary as they all ran into the Church with enthusiasm, seemingly, over a period of a few centuries. And the Church was happy to receive all the good things of Paganism, the philosophy and the music and dance, the mad merriment and the sober reflection, and make it its own.