Christianity and the New Paganism

Stonehenge

Stonehenge

The most serious challenge for Christianity today isn’t one of the other great religions of the world, such as Islam or Buddhism.

Nor is it simple atheism, which has no depth, no mass appeal, no staying power. Rather, it’s a religion most of us think is dead. That religion is paganism—and it is very much alive.

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

The “old” paganism came from the country. Indeed, the very word “paganism” comes from the Latin pagani, “from the fields” or “country-dwellers.” Country people were the last to be converted to Christianity during the Roman Empire, the last to abandon their ancestral roots in pre-Christian belief. Today, country people are the last to abandon Christianity for the “new” paganism, which flourishes in the cities.

The old paganism was a far greater thing than the new. In fact, Chesterton brilliantly summarized the entire spiritual history of the world in this one sentence: “Paganism was the biggest thing in the world, and Christianity was bigger and everything since has been comparatively small.”

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

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.

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.

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.

“Perfect love casts out fear,” says St. John; but when God has become the Pillsbury Doughboy, there is no fear left to cast out. And when there is no fear to cast out, perfect love lacks its strong roots. It becomes instead mere compassion—something good but dull, or even weak: precisely the idea people have today of religion. The shock is gone. That the God of the Bible should love us is a thunderbolt; that the God of the new paganism should love us is a self-evident platitude.

The new paganism is winning not by opposing but by infiltrating the Church. It is cleverer than the old. It knows that any opposition from without, even by a vastly superior force, has never worked, for “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” When China welcomed Western missionaries, there were 2 million conversions in 60 years; when Mao and communism persecuted the Church, there were 20 million conversions in 20 years. The Church in East Germany is immensely stronger than the Church in West Germany for the same reason. The new paganism understands this, so it uses the soft, suggestive strategy of the serpent. It whispers, in the words of Scripture scholars, the very words of the serpent: “Has God really said…?” (Gen. 3:1).

The new paganism is a joining of forces by three of the enemies of theism: humanism, polytheism and pantheism. The only five possibilities for ultimate meaning and values are: atheism (no God); humanism (man as God); polytheism (many gods); pantheism (one immanent God); and theism (one transcendent God). The Battle of the Five Kings in the Valley of Armageddon might, in our era, be beginning. Predictions are always unwise, but the signs of the times, for some thoughtful observers, point to a fundamental turning point, the end of an age.

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 reflowering 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.

The gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church; in fact, God uses the devil to defeat the devil, just as He did on Calvary, when the forces of the Hebrew, Greek and Roman worlds united to crucify Christ, as symbolized by the three languages on the accusation sign over the cross.

The very triumph of the devil, the death of God, was the defeat of the devil, the redemption of mankind, “Good Friday” Because God, who spoke the first word, always gets the last word.


Excerpted with permission of the author from Dr. Kreeft’s, Fundamentals of the Faith Ignatius Press.

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About the Author

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and also at the King's College (Empire State Building), in New York City. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 55 books including: Back to Virtue; The God Who Loves You; Heaven, The Heart's Deepest Longing; Everything You wanted to Know About Heaven; Your Questions - God's Answers; How To Win The Culture War; The Journey; Before I Go - Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters; and Jesus Shock.

Dr. Kreeft is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He has received several honors for achievements in the field of philosophy, including the Woodrow Wilson Award, Yale-Sterling Fellowship, Newman Alumni Scholarship, Danforth Asian Religions Fellowship, and a Weathersfield Homeland Foundation Fellowship.

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14 Comments

  1. Excellent work! Thank you. It seems that neo-pagans have skipped the transcendental phase and jumped right into the decadence of the immanent phase, ca. the late Roman Empire.

    Postmodern nihilism is our number one cultural enemy these days.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

    1. This really isn’t Neo-Paganism at all, because it continues from the beginning.It would be a really long explanation that would require the readers knowledge of each individual area of the World and the timelines of their historical content with the archaeological proofs that fill in the missing facts that they are still in existence throughout. All of these paganistic religions went into hiding and many abandoned their ruins while still keeping a continuity. Also, some cults merely changed the names of their gods and empires and languages shifted in time.

  2. Finally, someone has written what I have been perceiving for a long time. I think Dr. Kreeft has “Hit the nail on the head!” He describes perfectly what you see at most catholic parishes at mass, homilies, or when you go out in public, or in discussions with family and friends. The young have taken up this paganism enthusiastically. It fits well with the epidemic drug problem, sexual promiscuity, weird dress, body piercings and tattoos, etc…I do not know how many times over the years I have told I should not be judgmental. It is the new greatest commandment of this age. It has replaced the command to love and has changed the true understanding of love. The question remains, what is best way to counter this? I think the antidote can only come from Heaven.

  3. When you see the abomination that causes desolation sitting in the judgment seat…Not the pig-god of Antiochus Epiphanies, but putting humans in the place of God. I could easily be wrong, not being any sort of scholar, but it feels right. Not the abolition of man, but the enthronement of Man.

  4. Brilliant article. As are most articles by Peter Kreeft.I’ve been reading his deep philosophical stuff for decades now. And this gem really nails the 20th and 21st century,as few articles have.I also sensed where Mr. Kreeft was going as I read it; obviously lucifer is behind many contemporary notions/ideas and has been especially since the beginning of the “new paganism.” Much more I could say but I’ll leave it at that. God Bless

  5. Kreeft’s statements resonate if describing New Agers, but don’t seem to fit modern pagans.
    The definition of a pagan as I know it is a polytheistic worshipper. Kreeft himself asserts they do not fit the 3 standards of paganism – respect of something greater than self, received natural morality, and polytheism.
    The new paganism described only worships self, hence do not judge me, as I am a god and can make my own rules of order, and if there is a God s/he would not judge me either. It may acknowledge pantheism (a force not a god).
    This is still an insightful article on new agers, and where they are amiss. The New Age spirit is the religion of the lazy. No need to go out of my way for salvation if I feel good about myself, and humanity will someday save humanity, even if we have to kill the weak, old and generally unwanted to do it.

  6. While I agree that we are seeing a re-emergence of paganism, I have to disagree with several of the ideas put forward here. I will mention a couple of them.

    Most strongly I have to disagree with the idea that pagans lack pietas. How can that be, Dr. Kreeft, when they worship Gaia?

    Consider that the policies of conservation, limiting global warming, and population control all have in common what amounts to at times a fanatical [as, for example, the Earth Liberation Front] devotion to preserving the earth, even if this means the death of individual human beings and even the end of the human race. The people who advocate these policies do so not just for so-called scientific reasons. They have a passion that exceeds all reason and which classifies and condemns dissent with more vehemence than the Church ever had in its pursuit of heretics. This passion is almost without doubt misdirected pietas. This particular manifestion of pietas is also clearly an anti-humanism in tension with the modernist humanism you rightly decry which deifies human decisions.

    As for the morals of ancient pagans, a perusal of ancient Greek plays and the works of Plato reveal a fundamental uncertainty about what constitutes objective morality; so I do not think your view of their relationship to objective morality is quite correct. New pagans are similarly confused, and many are not so wishy-washy as you say. They are looking, but not finding.

    Dr. Kreeft, you need to meet with and speak to these young pagans. You will be surprised to see that they are not so different from the old ones as you think. And I believe I should add that these new ones, like the old ones, can be converted to Christ. I have seen this myself. There may yet be among them a Saint Augustine waiting to be born again.

    There is a sentiment among some people of a more gloomy constitution these days which they believe to be wisdom. That sentiment is that we are doomed, doomed, doomed. I urge all to put aside such notions and instead get to the work of leavening we are called to, entrusting the results, and the future of mankind and civilization, to the Lord.

  7. Pagani means from a pagus which is a country district, agricola means from the fields or field dweller and referred generally to farmers.

  8. I am afraid you are wrong, Peter, the new paganism is not the most serious threat to Christianity today. Apparently, the greatest evil and threat is youth unemployment.

  9. Very well writen.

    But, there are some, and that goes to the sole core, the defenitions og God, I dont have A god, but mine is defined as the sole existence, and in this existence I am not alone.
    Whats the final initiater of our reality, we can disqus, in physics, they have runn into a wall, and is terrifyed by the implications of this wall, and definitions is flying everywhere, but the core is whats the initiater of whatever that ucres to make/create strain of events that leads to a creation of matter in such a way it grows, and in that growth, consciousness is rising, and the cellstructure emerges as Life.

    I have no problem with the notion of god, but the defentions in terms of our relations shipp and our perseptions, cuturally or otherwise, of god is not that large, its infact the same.

    I dont like -isms at all, and this Neo-paganism critics are also with in the realms of Myn critics as well, the greates danger with it, its the same as the Churches, is the deprivation of self responce.
    And in that is also the acting/living with others thure the use of self disiplin and consequencs of Not act acordingly.
    There is as an ex. the use of slangs, namecalings, marginalations, polarations of both race, sex and gender all over the line, 24/7, in all media.

    What I belive is the main problem is not religion per.se. its the fact that there is no role model to even point to, I want a church where if I truned on the News, and there is a hughe demonstration against the plunderings of the people, anywhere, with no expetions, actualy could see a Preist IN the Front line, what would the effect of that be, do you think.
    For me, it would be a strong signal, and actions tells more than words.
    And for now, the churches is drowning them selfs in a semtical race to the bowwom of the pitt, so to speek, or into a drak corner where nobody sees them.

    The church stil have their powers intact, its not the people that have lost their way, its the church that is lost. People havent changed that mutch, layout maybe, hardly, but like the New Ages, all talk, no practise, and without practising, no expriences, and if you really will test the powers of your own faith and teachings, BE there in the front line, if Jesus was alive, he would be there, as he was before, in the front line. I can ahure any preist, that in this moments of fear, when the force is right infront of you, your life will never be the same again.

    Then you will expirience The difference between Talking and Doing, between Beliving and Knowing.
    The gapp, is only closed with prectising.
    To turn the other ceek is not about been a covard, its about consequences of actions comitted, in the first event, to turn the ceek, is to say that to reveng this, is belowe your morale and consiousness.
    To alow one self to indulge in haterd and voilence, is the drakness we all encounter all our lifes, its the handleing of it, the eseem of the person, selfrespect and selfdisiplin, gained thur living acording to the teachings of Jesus.
    Like celibacy, its original intent, is to preserv life force, the very energy that greates new life in our body, to missuse it, is to missuse your energy, its like a pool, use it with causion, and it was never about NOT having sex. but to hump along as Duracell rabbits, will kill anything on this earth suner or later, hehe, its simply putt, to be consious about it, you drain our own life force by waisting it.
    Capice.

    peace

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