Friday, July 20, 2012

The 'new paganism' that wasn't.

There is a Catholic theologian named Peter Kreeft that I used to appreciate and respect, when I was a Methodist 20 years ago. Recently, my Catholic friend -- the same one I mentioned here -- sent me a link to a column of Kreeft's purporting to critqiue "the new paganism."

It was .. amusing. And sad to see a thinker I once respected be so wrong. Below is the text of an e-mail I just sent in response:


OK, let's unpack this latest bit of piffle, shall we?

Paganism is simply the natural gravity of the human spirit, the line of least resistance, religion in its fallen state.

Paganism is actually the first and most pervasive religious idea of all human cultures. It's a religion based in the universal revelation of nature, not a claimed “special revelation” given to only a few. Kreeft's elitist position is common among those who think they are among those who understand the special revelation, but it is simple arrogance.

There were at least three elements in the old paganism that made it great. And all three are missing in the new paganism

I said this in my briefer response, but I'll reiterate it here: Kreeft has no idea of what modern paganism is. All through this piece he is actually talking about materialism, humanism and fuzzy New-Age spirituality. At no point does he even come close to talking about actual modern paganism.
I will point out specific examples as we go. 

The first is the sense of piety (pietas), the natural religious instinct to respect something greater than yourself, the humility that instinctively realizes man’s subordinate place in the great scheme of things. “Moderation” or “temperance” went along with this, especially in classical civilization. The motto “nothing too much” was inscribed over every temple to Apollo, along with “know thyself.”

This natural modesty and respect contrast sharply with the arrogant attitude of the new pagan in the modern West. Only Oriental societies still preserve a traditional reverence. The West does not understand this, and thinks it quaint at best and hypocritical at worst.

The new paganism is the virtual divinization of man, the religion of man as the new God. One of its popular slogans, repeated often by Christians, is “the infinite value of the human person.” Its aim is building a heaven on earth, a secular salvation. Another word for the new paganism is humanism, the religion that will not lift up its head to the heavens but stuffs the heavens into its head.

Kreeft is correct here that he is talking about humanism, but utterly wrong when he equates that to “the new paganism.”

Modern pagan religions are exemplified in Druidic organizations such as ar n'Draiocht Fein (of which we are members), various national and local heathen organizations such as The Troth, and many unaffiliated solitaries. While it is of course impossible to speak for everyone, I can say that the organizations at least put a great emphasis on piety. Honoring the deities, ancestors and spirits of the land is a core part of the praxis.

I have heard more discussion of and interest in personal piety through ADF than I ever did as a Christian.

So the gods and goddesses are “something greater than yourself.” Reverence for nature is another core aspect of modern paganism, which is also something greater than ourselves – the planet was here for billions of years before us and will be here for billions of years after we're gone – if that's not something bigger than ourselves, then I don't know what it is.

The real problem Kreeft has – or would have if he knew what he was talking about – is not that modern pagans lack piety, but that the object of the piety isn't Jesus. For him to criticize it on that score, coming from a Catholic perspective, would be a valid point of debate. But claiming that that element is absent just betrays his lack of concern for accuracy.

(It is also kind of rich for him to call paganism “arrogant” in the midst of this tirade.)

A second ingredient of the old paganism that’s missing in the new is an objective morality, what C.S. Lewis called “the Tao” in his prophetic little classic “The Abolition of Man.” To pre-modern man, pagan as well as Christian, moral rules were absolute: unyielding and unquestionable. They were also objective: discovered rather than created, given in the nature of things.

This has all changed. The new paganism is situational and pragmatic. It says we are the makers of moral values. It not only finds the moral law written in the human heart but also by the human heart. It acknowledges no divine revelation, thus no one’s values can be judged to be wrong.

The new paganism’s favorite Scripture is “judge not.” The only judgment is the judgment against judging. The only thing wrong is the idea that there is a real wrong.

The only thing to feel guilty about is feeling guilty. And, since man rather than God is the origin of values, don’t impose “your” values on me (another favorite line).

This is really polytheism — many gods, many goods, many moralities. No one believes in Zeus and Apollo and Neptune any more. (I wonder why: Has science really refuted them—or is it due to total conformity to fashion, supine submission to newspapers?) But moral relativism is the equivalent of the old polytheism. Each of us has become a god or goddess, a giver of law rather than receiver.

Again, he is here talking about humanism, not paganism. Modern pagans believe in objective morality as much as their forbears did (which may be a bit less than Kreeft claims.) Modern pagans believe in a number of moral principles quite firmly, although it is true that we tend less toward legalistic lists of forbidden behaviors than some Christians prefer.

But you will not find a serious pagan who does not embrace a set of moral values. We believe very strongly in the importance of acting with honor, courage, honesty, loyalty and integrity, and we believe, most of us, that one's choices affect one's future – the principle of wyrd, for example, is an ancient concept of the old saying that “choices make habits, habits make character.”

Again, Kreeft's real complaint is not that paganism lacks morality, just that it doesn't derive its moral code from the Bible and Church teachings.

Kreeft's final paragraph of the above quoted section deserves special attention. Here is is again:

This is really polytheism — many gods, many goods, many moralities.

Didn't he just get finished telling us how pagans are all the same and easily reduced to generalizations, as he has done for this entire column?

But moral relativism is the equivalent of the old polytheism. Each of us has become a god or goddess, a giver of law rather than receiver.

Didn't he open this section by saying that the old paganism – which IS “the old polytheism” – had this objective morality? And now he closes by saying the exact opposite? How does he get away with this lazy thinking?

No one believes in Zeus and Apollo and Neptune any more.

Well actually yes, many people do believe in Zeus, Apollo and Neptune. And Woden and Thunor, Arianhrod and The Morrigan, Jupiter and Mars. That is what the “new paganism” is, and this statement alone is enough to show that Kreeft has not got the slightest understanding of his topic.

A third ingredient of the old paganism but not of the new is awe at something transcendent, the sense of worship and mystery. What the old pagan worshiped differed widely — almost anything from Zeus to cows—but he worshiped something. In the modern world the very sense of worship is dying, even in our own liturgy, which sounds as if it were invented by a Committee for the Abolition of Poetry.

Our religious sense has dried up. Modern religion is de-mythologized, de-miraclized, de-divinized. God is not the Lord but the All, not transcendent but immanent, not super-natural but natural.

Pantheism is comfortable, and this is the modem summum bonum. The Force of “Star Wars” fame is a pantheistic God, and it is immensely popular, because it’s “like a book on the shelf,” as C.S. Lewis put it: available whenever you want it, but not bothersome when you don’t want it. How convenient to think we are bubbles in a divine froth rather than rebellious children of a righteous divine Father! 

Pantheism has no sense of sin, for sin means separation, and no one can ever be separated from the All. Thus the third feature, no transcendence, is connected with the second, no absolute morality.

The new paganism is a great triumph of wishful thinking. Without losing the thrill and patina of religion, the terror of religion is removed. The new paganism stoutly rejects “the fear of God.” Nearly all religious educators today, including many supposedly Catholic ones, are agreed that the thing the Bible calls “the beginning of wisdom” is instead the thing we must above all eradicate from the minds of the young with all the softly destructive power of the weapons of modern pop psychology — namely, the fear of the Lord.

And again … whatever he is criticizing here, it is not modern paganism. Modern paganism believes in gods and goddesses and another, spiritual, world – transcendence. While some modern pagans may count themselves pantheists, it's certainly not a universal position.

No sense of worship? “The new paganism” celebrates eight seasonal high days – specifically which ones, their names and their meanings (Lammas or Lughnasadh in August, for example) – vary from person to person, but their importance is consistent. Done well, they evoke exactly that sense of awe and mystery he doesn't think is there. In addition, most modern pagans maintain some kind of home shrine and hold their own individual observances regularly – some even daily.

I will admit that the “Committee for the Abolition of Poetry” is a good line, but this sounds like a Catholic problem to me. As I said above in the discussion of piety, I've been encouraged to put more thought into worship as a pagan, both in a group and alone, than I ever was as a Christian. Modern paganism, seriously practiced, demands study, thought and engagement, which means a lot of contemplation about the meaning of piety, the significance of worship. You can't just show up.

The new paganism is winning not by opposing but by infiltrating the Church.

Actually, the new paganism has no interest in “winning” or in the Church. Nobody is trying to steal your children's souls or infiltrate your pews.

The so-called “New Age Movement” combines all the features described under the title of the new paganism. It’s a loosely organized movement, basically a flowering of ’60s hippiedom, rather than a centralized agenda. But strategies are connected in three places. There may be no conspiracy on earth to unify the enemies of the Church, but the strategy of hell is more than the strategy of earth. Only one thing is more than the strategy of hell: the strategy of heaven.

And here we have it – he thinks paganism and “New Age” are the same, and that it's of the devil.

As Spidey would have put it in a bygone era: 'Nuff said.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Squib Who Thought He Was A Lighthouse

I'm continuing to work steadily on the dedicant documentation, a little at a time. In last few days I've written the last of my high day essays. Mental discipline continues to be a challenge, but I'm persevering.

I've been involved in a long-running debate with an old friend about the theories of a French intellectual named Rene Girard. Girard was originally a literary critic, but he's tried to apply his theories to religion, and has gained a small but devoted following as an idiosyncratic Christian apologist.

In his books, notably "Violence and the Sacred," he argues that the myths of pagan cultures reflect an unending cycle of violence reflected in the sacrifical practices of the people. Cultures, Girard believes, begin with a "founding murder" of a scapegoat. In the effort to cover up the murder, out of guilt, the victim becomes deified. Eventually the actual murder is forgotten, re-enacted unconsciously in rituals which have no power to permanently end the social tensions brought on by what Girard terms mimetic desire -- wanting based on seeing what others want.

Christianity, Girard argues, is different. The death of Jesus "reveals the innocence" of the scapegoat, rendering pagan religions inoperative (somehow.) In order to make this argument, Girard has to dismiss the traditional interpretation of the death of Jesus as a sacrifice to God the Father and instead argues for a "non-sacrificial reading" in which the crucifixion is really about demonstrating that the person murdered is in fact innocent. (This is why I described him as "idiosyncratic.")

I have ably, if I say so myself, argued against Girard, demonstrating that he doesn't understand the pagan view of sacrifice and doesn't really address actual myth -- his examples of myth largely come from Greek dramas by Sophocles and Euripides.

Girard doesn't seem to have a lot of critics -- instead, he's apparently admired within the small cult that's grown up around his work and ignored by almost everyone else. He does have at least one vocal critic, however, another French intellectual named Rene Pommier. In an essay titled "Rene Girard: The Squib Who Thought He Was A Lighthouse," Pommier deftly dismantles many of Girard's conceits. (A squib is "a small firework, consisting of a tube or ball filled with powder, that burns with a hissing noise terminated usually by a slight explosion," or "a firecracker broken in the middle so that it burns with a hissing noise but does not explode.")

One of the best passages (Google-translated from the French and cleaned up some by me):

But where Girard was probably at the farthest bounds of the presumption and arrogance, it was when he tried to explain to Christians that only he could shed light on the essence of their religion. If he was, in effect, converted late in life, he was soon to discover he was the first Christian to have really understood what constituted Christianity and the deeper meaning of the Gospels. "The Christians,” he says, “did not understand the true originality of the Gospels." To all those who have been taught that Christ sacrificed himself on the cross to redeem mankind from original sin, a sacrifice unceasingly renewed in the celebration of Mass, Rene Girard is not afraid to say that this is a huge mistake, the most phenomenal mistake of all time: "This sacrificial reading of the passion [...] must be criticized as the most paradoxical misunderstanding and the most colossal of all history, and at the same time the most revealing of the radical inability of humanity to understand its own violence, even when it is served in the most explicit fashion.”

But fortunately he hastens to reassure them, telling them that, thanks to his theories, the Christian revelation is now unambiguous, and that for the first time henceforth and forever, it became perfectly clear, complete and consistent: "They are,” he says, “all the great canonical dogmas, I am convinced that a non-sacrificial reading makes it intelligible by articulating a more coherent way than has been done so far. " And furthermore, "In light of this [non-sacrificial] reading, one can finally explain the idea that the Gospels are of their own historical action, the elements whose presence seems contrary to the evangelical spirit. Again, this is the results we're going to judge the reading that is beginning to sketch. By refusing the definition of sacrificial love we end up reading, the most direct, the simplest, clearest and the only really consistent, one that can integrate all the themes of the Gospel into a seamless whole.”

Girard was born on December 25. It can not be a coincidence. How can we not see a clear signal sent by divine providence, to make us understand that Girard was meant to complement and refine the message that She had, over two thousand years, its charge only son to bring to men? It should therefore seems to me that now all Christians should celebrate as eagerly, or with even greater ardor, the birth of Rene Girard along with that of Christ. Further that the Pope convoke as soon as possible a new ecumenical council, which could finally integrate into the Christian revelation the essential contribution of Girard's theories. And, instead of putting on the altar beside the Bible the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas as was done at the Council of Trent, the Church should, of course, put the complete works of René Girard . Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit would do well to suggest to Benedict XVI to make Girard a Doctor of the Church.

In all the exchange -- which appears to be winding down, though it could resume -- has changed no minds but has helped me sharpen my own arguments and deepen my knowledge.

(By the way, thanks to John Michael Greer, Christopher Plaisance and Alaric Albertsson for offering ideas along the way.)