Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How To Be a Good Pagan

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.

Paganism is essentially humanity left to its own devices, more or less. And what we all learn, fast or slow, is that humanity cannot be left to its own devices. We need a savior, as it turns out, and (fortunately!) we have been provided with one, and the Church is ready, always ready, to proclaim and present that Savior and the salvation he brings to all the neo-pagans, etc., of our day.


  1. The Jehovah Jews evolved from earlier belief systems. Was that Zoroastrianiam? After a while, Christianity, along with Islam, several hundred years later, emerged from Judaism and after a few hundred years more and a bid dose of Roman influence, became Catholicism. Catholicism has split several times. The Constantinople guys became several types of Eastern rites. Cyrile's guys stranded in Alexandria became several branches of Coptics. Europe grew a whole lot of protestant establishments.

    People adapt religion to what and where they need it to be. It's happening all the time. Everywhere. It's happening now.

    Do you really think that your shop is the only one where the authentic God is calling the shots and not Pastor Bubba and his wife Miss Velma?

    My house may be a Teepee. Your's a wickyup. Next block over Yurts or Soddies. If we're all warm and dry, it's good.

    Within a few miles of where I am there are an amazing variety of religious establishments, some have ancient roots and traditions. Some were made up yesterday. They all really like it here because a lot of them came from places where they got pushed around. Who's the pagan? Who's authentic? Who's to judge? I have no idea but I know it's not me.

    I try and be a good pagan in the eyes of others. I try and think the best of pagans in my eyes.

    Peace out.

    1. Peace to you, too, Moe. Well - I am a Catholic priest after all, and so not a relativist. So yes, I do believe the Catholic Church is the true Church and all that stuff. Is that really surprising?
      As to my views of all the rich panoply of religions that exist throughout the world, they are summarized by the Vatican II documents Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium, which recognize in every human striving for the true, the good, and the beautiful authentic signs of the Holy Spirit's ministry and the presence of God.
      But, yeah, I'm Catholic, and believe my religion to be True. Cuz that's just the way we roll.
      Peace out.

  2. Actually Father Denis, some of us do indeed read your blog and in rebuttal I feel compelled to point out that there is a tremendous amount of historical evidence detailing what we contemporary Pagans often refer to as the Burning Times, which the Vatican is in part directly responsible for. By designating the practice of witchcraft as Satanic in nature and therefore heretical to the beliefs of the Catholic Church, untold numbers of people were tortured and killed in the name of Christendom.

    I suggest you read 'Summis desiderantes affectibus', a papal bull written on the 5th of December 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII with the explicit intent to systematize the persecution of witches in Europe. This directive from the Vatican eventually led to the creation of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1486, one of the most heinous pieces of writing ever put to paper by mortal man. I realize that the church distanced itself from the text a few years later but the damage was done.

    Historical pagans did not 'run to the Church with enthusiasm' as you claim; the practice of self preservation stemming from abject fear cannot be positively defined as enthusiasm. While I do not blame you or any other modern Christian for the atrocities committed throughout the various inquisitions, I find your suggestion that the Burning Times did not occur to be one of the worst cases of ignorant denial I have seen in many years. In my opinion, this is equivalent to claiming that the Jewish Holocaust of WWII is nothing but a figment of the imagination. You should be ashamed of yourself Sir.

    Br. TW Knox, OSM
    Chancellor, Contemporary Pagan Alliance, USA

    1. Thanks for your comment.
      I would respond by saying that, while you certainly have looked at my post, I can't say for sure if you actually read it. Chesterton and I are not talking about the Middle Ages, but about the first millennium (or so) of Christianity, and in fact in particular the first few centuries, when the only people getting burned were, in fact, Christians at the hands of... well... pagans. So nothing you have written, even if it is absolutely true, is germane to the post I have written.
      Meanwhile, here is a good balanced account of the history of witch trials in late medieval, early modern Europe (I would point out that the time period is itself significant in terms of your claim that pagans were frightened into the Church):
      Sandra Miesel, the author, is a fine medieval historian who has written an exceedingly fair and balanced account of this tragic chapter in human history.
      It is not really a good idea to compare this phenomenon, tragic as it was, to the Holocaust, for reasons that will become clear upon reading Miesel's article. And I will leave it at that.
      Peace to you.

    2. Father Denis, as I am limited to 4000 characters or so in the comment field I had hoped a summary would be sufficient to make my point but I see you require additional clarification so I will endeavor to explain my reasoning in greater detail.

      I am certainly aware that you are, for the most part, referencing events which occurred during the earliest history of the Christian church. The points I outlined in my response are perfectly germane to the subject matter you discuss, despite the difference in historical periods. You yourself infer a direct connection between the mindset of the early Catholic Church and modern contemporary Paganism when you say the following:

      "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?"

      Further on, you claim there is no conflict between Christianity and Paganism using present tense terms while representing the Church's historical practice of assuming ancient Pagan traditions as its own in the best possible light when you say:

      "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."

      In fact, it was far easier for early church leaders to draw in and convert pagans when the sacred days and spiritual practices of the two disparate faiths were made increasingly similar. Once enough of those ancient pagans had joined the church and Christianity began to achieve its goal of social dominance politics became a major factor, beginning in the early 4th century with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the official deification of Christ. Those who disagreed with the council's decision to adopt the Trinitarian view, namely the followers of Arias, were subsequently deemed heretics and cast out. I will touch on this again in a moment.

    3. You claim that "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." This is quite simply not true Sir. If we go forward just one hundred years from the Council of Nicaea, the Christian church's influence on Roman politics became strong enough to bring about the adoption of the Codex Theodosianus. Under the new laws put in place with the Codex, the treatment of pagans became far less civilized. Property owned by pagans was confiscated for Christian use and the pagans themselves were forced to convert to Christianity under pain of torture and death. Even the followers of Arias, who actually described themselves as Christian, were condemned to death at this point, by imperial edict. I direct your attention to the following directive of the Roman Emperor

      "In addition, if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offence, he shall be submitted for capital punishment."

      I reiterate my statement from earlier this morning that I do not believe the modern Christian church is in any way responsible for these historical atrocities, nor for those committed later during the hysteria of the middle ages. I will say that I am disappointed you assume I compare the witch hunts of that era to the Jewish holocaust as I implied no such thing. I said quite clearly that denying the persecution of pagans by Christians is equivalent to denying the holocaust ever took place. You may not be aware of this but there are a number of anti-Semitic hate groups who vehemently deny the truth of the holocaust despite the historical evidence proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that it happened and in this instance, it is their stance to which I compare your position Sir.

    4. I would leave it there but as you chose to invoke Sandra Miesel's piece I will touch on that briefly. Ms. Miesel appears to have a deeply flawed understanding of what most contemporary Pagans actually believe. I can only assume that her writing is influenced to some degree by her own prejudice but that is pure speculation on my part.

      At this juncture I would point out that it is Ms. Miesel's assertion that we believe in a so called 'pagan holocaust'. These are her words, not mine Sir. Indeed, most contemporary Pagans do not believe this and I would ask you to please keep this fact in mind in future discussions to avoid characterizing our position incorrectly. We did in fact send a letter to Pope John Paul II and as it might be beneficial for you to read the exact wording of that letter I will happily reproduce it in a separate post, in its entirety.

      Lastly, and I can't stress this enough, most contemporary Pagans recognize that there is a marked difference between ancient pagan practices and what we practice today. As our letter to His Holiness indicates, contemporary paganism is inspired by pre-Christian indigenous traditions and we do not subscribe to the theory of an unbroken chain of worship stretching from secret ancient witch cults to today as Mr. Gardner implied all those years ago, most likely to lend a sense of academic legitimacy to his writing. While Wicca was historically founded by Mr. Gardner, there are many Wiccans today who do not follow his writings – in fact, most Wiccans I know have never actually read the man’s books and I have been a practicing Pagan for nearly forty years. I would add that while all Wiccans are indeed Pagan, a rather large percentage of contemporary Pagans are not actually Wiccan and this is a very important distinction to make. As individuals our beliefs and practices are often quite different for our religion does not have a set doctrine at its foundation.

      I hope this rather lengthy response has been informative and as I’m sure you disagree on one or more points please feel free to contact me directly via email to continue the discussion as I feel civil interfaith conversations such as this one are of incalculable value. I hope to hear from you Sir and I wish you many bright blessings.

      Br. William

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    6. Pagans in Action: Council for Truth
      1373 Dunbarton Road
      Montgomery, AL 36117

      Samhain (October 31), 1999

      His Holiness, Pope John Paul II
      Vatican City

      Your Holiness:

      The signatories to this letter have become aware that your advisors in the Vatican are working on a formal Apology to the Protestant Christians, Jews and Muslims for the persecution these groups suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church during the centuries of the Inquisition. It is our understanding that you will formally present this Apology at the opening of the Holy Year 2000 Grand Jubilee, following a penitential procession from the Basilica of Santa Sabina to Rome's Circus Maximus, where you will call for forgiveness for the historic failings of the Church. This is a brave and laudable effort, heralding the beginning of a great healing between the Catholic Church and the groups that have, historically, been persecuted in its name.

      We note however, that early news releases concerning this event have not indicated that those accused of being Witches, and those indigenous (i.e. "Pagan") peoples who were forcibly converted by the Church will be included in your apology. This letter is a formal request for that omission to be rectified. As leaders of the contemporary Pagan/Wiccan community, we sincerely hope that Your Holiness will lead the way to mutual respect for all religions and spiritual paths by including all those who suffered from the tragedy of the Inquisition.

      Modern Pagans, including many identified as Witches and Druids, comprise a global spiritual movement that draws its inspiration and traditions from indigenous pre-Christian religions. In the name of our spiritual ancestors who suffered persecution during the Inquisition, we respectfully request inclusion of Pagans and Witches in your Apology Address.

      Sincerely Yours,

      [1,639 Signatories]


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