Our Pagan Future — Or Not
Two interesting comments on recent threads. First:
An election of an African Pope will just highlight that Christianity is becoming a non-Western religion. It will also accelerate the rate at which Westerners / white people disassociate with and leave Christianity. It will be seen as alien.
At my college conservative club a couple conservatives have already left Christianity for Asatru (http://www.runestone.org). I expect this trend to continue.
But a Brazilian reader who practices a pagan religion sees a decline in the practice of his own faith:
As I said in other topics, christianity in America and Europe is not the only faith that is hemorraging people: as follower of the so called ‘african paganism’ (macumba), here in Brazil, it’s baffling to see the temples devoid of young people: of the dozens of young man and woman I know only three (including me) are active. In my mother’s generation, almost everyone in Brazil was macumbeiro (follower of the macumba), today temples are closing, the priests are spiritually weak, and one rarely see the offerings to the spirits in the crossroads, beaches and graveyards.
In my understanding, the only reason Islam is not bleeding is because they are medieval barbarians with rockets and AK47. They are cut off the world’s intelectual and scientific current. And either they will join it in the future and their faith will be corroded by the same acids that corroded the other faiths or eventually someone (Israel? Russia? India?) will carpet bomb them with nukes when they become too annoying.
And Off-Topic – how can I worship a thunder god, like, say, Thor when I can create my own lightning with a voltage multiplier or ultracapacitors? If science corrodes christianity, it corrodes the old paganisms even more. Science is the new Goddess of our age, and she is winning the cosmic battle, hands down.
Which is it? Can it be both? I think it can. I don’t think science is corroding Christianity as much as wealth and comfort is diminishing the natural spiritual instinct within people, and — more importantly — in the secular age (in Charles Taylor’s sense), people don’t experience religion as telling a story about the way reality is, but as a choice people make for therapeutic reasons.
Personally, I find paganism far more attractive than atheism, because pagans, however mistaken their understanding (from a Christian point of view) nevertheless share with Christians a recognition that there is Something There beyond ourselves, and the material world. I can have (have had) a fruitful, engaging discussion with my friend and commenter Franklin Evans, a pagan, in a way that I just can’t with friends who have no spiritual or religious beliefs, or a sense of the numinous.
My guess, and it’s only that, is that some pagans will fall away from the practice of their faith for the same reason many Christians are: because it doesn’t make sense in our scientistic, materialistic, consumerist world. At the same time, I think that paganism stands to gain overall from the unchristening of the West. If you look at the Asatru site, this neopagan religion speaks to longings that are deep within all of us, and cannot be suppressed forever. From the site:
Asatru is an expression of the native, pre-Christian spirituality of Europe. More specifically, it is the Way by which the Germanic peoples have traditionally related to the Divine and to the world around them.
From Iceland to Russia, from the frozen north of Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, the Germanic peoples wandered and settled over a span of thousands of years. Today, their descendants are spread around the world. We may refer to ourselves as Americans or English, Germans or Canadians, but behind these labels lurks an older, more essential identity. Our forefathers were Angles and Saxons, Lombards and Heruli, Goths and Vikings – and, as sons and daughters of these peoples, we are united by ties of blood and culture undimmed by the centuries.
Asatru is our native Way. Just as there is Native American religion and native African religion, so there is native European religion. Asatru is one of its expressions. It gave our ancestors comfort in millennia past, and it can give us strength and inspiration today.
Asatru promotes itself as about “connections,” and “coming home.” I can see why it would appeal to conservatives, especially, I have to concede, crunchy conservatives. Intending no disrespect to them, I cannot be enthusiastic about the return of Germanic paganism, given what happened the last time there was mass enthusiasm for völkisch Nordic religion. Nevertheless, Asatru speaks to something real inside of people, to genuine longings. Modernity, which entails the rise of science as an epistemology and mode of belief, counters and suppresses the religious instinct, but that won’t go on forever. Most people cannot live without a sense of transcendence and hope. If Christianity has been defeated in their minds, and no longer seems like a possibility, they will fill that God-shaped hole in their souls with something. T. S. Eliot, in his The Idea Of A Christian Society (1939), said that the West was actually in need of repaganizing as a precursor to being rechristianized — and this, I think, is precisely why I have more in common with neopagans than with atheists, or nominal Christians:
The struggle to recover the sense of relation to nature and to God, the recognition that even the most primitive feelings should be part of our heritage, seems to me to be the explanation and justification of the life of D. H. Lawrence, and the excuse for his aberrations. But we need not only to learn how to look at the world with the eyes of a Mexican Indian — and I hardly think that Lawrence succeeded — and we certainly cannot afford to stop there. We need to know how to see the world as the Christian Fathers saw it; and the purpose of reascending to origins is that we should be able to return, with greater spiritual knowledge, to our own situation. We need to recover the sense of religious fear, so that it may be overcome by religious hope.
It’s worth taking a look at Philip Yancey’s essay on the relevance of Eliot’s insights, and the problems that he could not overcome. Though he could not come up with a satisfactory prescription to the problems he diagnosed, Eliot was onto something when he said, in the same book:
So long…as we consider finance, industry, trade, agriculture merely as competing interests to be reconciled from time to time as best they may, so long as we consider “education” as a good in itself of which everyone has a right to the utmost, without any ideal of the good life for society or for the individual, we shall move from one uneasy compromise to another. To the quick and simple organization of society for ends which, being only material and worldly, must be as ephemeral as worldly success, there is only one alternative. As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality. The term “democracy,” as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike––it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.
Eliot was writing in the age of Hitler and Stalin — avatars, to him, of political pseudoreligions — but don’t miss his more basic point: that people have to have Something, and you cannot fight Something with Nothing.
What do you think? Please, be as critical as you like of paganism or Christianity, but be respectful of each other.