Skip to comments.What is a Pagan?
Posted on 06/17/2009 4:14:46 PM PDT by NYer
Paganism is a term fraught with all sorts of connotations. It originally meant something like country dweller, rustic, or even hick. Thats because (contrary to popular myth) Christianity did not spread among the Hee Haw-watchers of antiquity, but among the city dwellers and urban folk. The very last people to receive the Faith were the rural folk who clung to the worship of the old gods and the customs of their ancestors long after Christianity had become thoroughly established in the cities. So the term originally referred only to country folk.
However, because the country folk were devoted to the various gods of the Gentiles, pagan came to mean something else: a worshipper of non-Christian deities. And as those deities receded into the past and became conflated with the demons of both revelation and of the medieval imagination, pagan came to take on a much darker significance. It became fraught with imagery of devils, horned gods, and all manner of wild witchery (which paganism was sometimes, in fact, fraught with). To call somebody a pagan in this sense was no longer to describe where they lived, but to say something desperately dark about their soul.
Finally, in these latter days, pagan has taken yet another turn and is now used in some circles as a compliment. Among a growing number of people, pagan now means post-Christian religionist who is attempting to rescue reverence for Nature from the hands of evil Judeo-Christian earth rapists. The notion behind this version of pagan is that there was once a magical far-off time when humans dwelt in harmony with Mother Earth, everybody was comfortable with their various Jungian archetypes, and all was well as we worshipped the gods and goddesses who both expressed the beauty of Nature and got us in touch with our inmost selves (and lots of libido to boot). Who needs all that stuff about sin, dying to self and the need for redemption? The great blunder of the human race was when the old gods were swept away by the evil Judeo-Christian God. We have to return to our natural state of innocence with the gods (and especially the goddesses) of Nature that reigned before God mucked everything up. Then we will find the happiness we are all seeking.
The first thing to note about paganism, is the last thing that I note: it is seeking something. Paganism is, according to G.K. Chesterton, a search. Chesterton had a very high regard for pre-Christian paganism. He famously said that paganism was the attempt to reach God through the imagination. He declared, Paganism was the largest thing in the world and Christianity was larger; and everything else has been comparatively small. The thing it is seeking is the thing we all seek: the thing St. Thomas says we cant not seekhappiness.
But that brings us to our second point, namely that paganism takes two basic forms: pre-Christian and post-Christian. Pre-Christian paganism was, says philosopher Peter Kreeft, a virgin. Post-Christian paganism is, he adds, a divorcee. And that matters enormously because there are two basic reasons people ask questions: to find something out and to keep from finding something out.
Pre-Christian paganism was (for the most part) an attempt to find God. It was (as we shall see in our next discussion) often alloyed with all sorts of error and hampered by original sin. But the fundamental goal was a search for God. As such, it was ordered toward reality, though much hampered in the pursuit by the effects of sin.
Post-Christian paganism is, first and foremost, a search for an escape from God. It is a hunt for the blessings of heaven without the trouble of submitting to heaven. As such, it is ordered toward unreality, though much hampered in the pursuit by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Now it should be noted here that merely living in the 21st Century does not automatically make you a post-Christian pagan. It is quite possible for pre-Christian pagans to exist in this day and age. I well remember a woman I worked with who was spurred by Joan Osbornes song One of Us to remark: Wouldnt that be a cool idea for a story?
What? I queried.
Well, suppose God became a human being. Wouldnt that be a great idea for a story?
I remarked, Yeah! You could call it The Greatest Story Ever Told or something.
She had no clue that this was what Christianity taught. It was, even at this date, news. And she was amazed.
But others are, in Chestertons phrase, weary of hearing what they have never yet heard. These divorcee post-Christians are looking, not for God, but for somethinganythingelse.
Understanding that is the essential first step. Next time, we will discuss the next step.
What a great idea!
You said The world is going back to Paganism. Oh bright Vision!
I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestias fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it. By the hearth the white-armd venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. Duly at the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemens children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home for the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears . . .
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop!
Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds, the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the last defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women will yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy-water in your veins and worship the event,
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).
---C. S. Lewis
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidonO swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
The Wasteland - T. S. Eliot
Shall I eat a peach?
He played shortstop for the SF Giants in the 60s.
I do not think that they will sing for me.
I don't know. Anglicans? Protestants in general?
They have none of the Pagan virtues. Which was C.S. Lewis's point, I think.
The Greco-Latin derived “pagan” has indeed acquired some of the connotations you state.
The Anglo-Saxon “heathen” has not, so far as I know.
But both mean “country-dweller,” “rustic,” or even “hick.”
Great article. Thanks.
What is a Pagan? - I always thought they were a biker gang...
I’ll have to print that out and read it to Bill. He’s learned to appreciate poetry, slightly, this year.