Saturday, October 17, 2009

Christianity and the New Paganism

After recently hearing a bishop of Christ's one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church declare himself a Universalist and deny the efficacy of sacraments, the reality of Christ's miraculous feeding of the 5,000, and the substitutionary, sacrificial character of Christ's death on the cross, I'm finding Roman Catholic philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft's perspective on the "new paganism" in our culture a bit more persuasive. Here are excerpts from Kreeft's essay entitled "Comparing Christianity and the New Paganism."



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. ...

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. ...

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. ...

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).

11 comments:

jmoss said...

Music to a dogmatic's ears. Thanks for the introduction to Kreeft.

Bryan Owen said...

This essay and many others are also available in Kreeft's book Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics.

Mark McGuire said...

Bryan, nearly three years ago my congregation, along with three other congregations, participated in a church growth program conducted by Tom Bandy of Easum-Bandy and Associates. One of the shocking statements to come out of that presentation was Tom's comment to us that the fastest growing "religion" in North America was paganism. I find that a large number of me sermons deal with hubris, narcissism and the relativism that naturally oozes from those flaws. Plenty of work yet to do for all of us.

Joe Rawls said...

I sometimes find Kreeft a bit shrill, but here he's right on target. The new Dan Brown novel The Lost Symbol has as one of its subtexts the notion that people can become gods by following the right esoteric philosophy, so this idea is pretty widespread in the general culture.

BillyD said...

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

Hmmm. This guy obviously doesn't know how to do a google search properly. ;-)

Bryan Owen said...

Touché, BillyD!

Steve Hayes said...

It sounds as though Kreeft is about 80 years out of date. That understanding of paganism may have been new in the 19th century, but was becoming outdated by the middle of the 20th century, and one of the last good books on apologetics to deal with it was The good pagan's failure by Rosalind Murray (see Notes from underground: Pagans and Neopagans).

In our day the kind of new paganism the believes in Zeus and other ancient deities is very much alive.

Perpetua said...

Hi Bryan+,
Great post.
I am left wondering why you didn't you give us the name of the bishop in your first paragraph. Are you protecting him/her from public scrutiny? Would your position or future be jeopardized by revealing to whom you refer?

Bryan Owen said...

Steve, I'm no expert on all things "pagan," and I wouldn't be surprised if folks out there are willing to believe in pretty much anything imaginable. Kreeft takes pains in the rest of his essay to compare the old paganism to the new paganism. He may or may not be right in all respects. But as a general observation about cultural trends, I think he's on to something with this business about a "new paganism," even if he's wrong about belief in ancient deities. Perhaps it should be called something else?

Perpetua, I've already named the bishop in question in the previous posting, and for that reason (as well as out of respect for his office as bishop) I did not name him again because I did not want to make it appear that I am railing against him personally. I am not. And as I've mentioned in that previous posting, I'll say again: he's a good and decent man. It's the theology expressed that I'm targeting. And that "brand" of theology has much wider currency than the views of any individual person in the Church.

As to jeopardizing my current position or future prospects - probably not so much to worry about currently, but who knows with regard to the future? Truth is that unless one buys into this kind of theological program without question, there will be opportunities that one must turn down for the sake of conscience. Or it might be that the door gets shut once others discover that "you're not one of us." As conservatives have known for a very long time, there is a price to pay for adhering to the faith of the Church and for refusing to violate one's conscience. I could be wrong (I hope I'm wrong!), but my guess is that many who find themselves in the "diverse center" are going to start learning a few things about that as well.

Christopher said...

I have to say that this seems overdrawn and over-reactive in all sorts of ways.

One, it points all of the fingers outward. Many folks I know who are pagan became so because of a failure on the part of Christianity to articulate a theology that cared for all of God's creatures and the earth and an understanding of authority that was limited and dispersed rather than despotic. The fact that so many Christians have a "use it up" mentality with regard to other creatures and the earth demonstrates we have a less than full appreciation for the Incarnation. In many ways, it could be said that many Christians have rejected the awe of God, that is, the fear of the Lord which is so much more than terror. You don't get people to awe and reverence God by beating them over the head with a Bible or demanding unquestioning submission to Christian authorities.

Two, narcissism isn't just a pagan problem. Christianity has it's share, as the sex-abuse scandals and high-up coverups reveal (and these have affected every major Christian tradition), so let's be a bit more humble about our problems and pointing fingers. If we were humble and given to living the Good News, I think we might be able to engage folks who have opted for something else.

Three, the understanding of paganism here is a strawman given the complexity of paganisms out there. I don't recognize the pagans I know in this strawman.

Bryan Owen said...

Christopher, while I agree with almost everything you're saying, I think your comments miss the deeper point: that the stuff Kreeft describes isn't "out there," it's "in here," inside the Church itself. I certainly got an earful of it recently from one of our bishops. And I hear it surfacing all the time among other Episcopalians.