I am not here to throw your maypoles on the bonfire, your vanities are a different story
Is there a serious religious debate on the dissident right? Not from what I can see in 2022. Online, there is a perennial discussion about “Paganism versus Christianity” which usually takes place in more nationalist circles and sometimes overflows to the spaces I inhabit. Of course, I use the word “discussion” loosely because nothing ever gets discussed. Instead the conversation circles in a rhetorical cul-de-sac where the two sides meme and flex at each other and nothing meaningful is clearly communicated.
In my opinion, the problem is that the dialectic is never allowed to progress. Pagan right-wingers offer a perennial set of criticisms (complaints really) against Christianity which when answered capsize the conversation into an emotional food-fight. Then, once cooler heads prevail and decide the conflict is “divisive”, all points are memory-holed until the conversation re-emerges 6 months later with depressing redundancy. Everyone says the same things again. Nothing is learned.
Quite frankly, I have always assumed this “memoryless” quality is an indication that pagans are more interested in trolling Christians than starting conversations about theology. But recently, after hearing some ruminations from a friend on Telegram, I am tempted to take up the criticisms in a serious way.
Despite what many people think of me (a Christian), I don’t want to treat other religious groups as enemies if they would otherwise be friends. But I am not particularly fond of standing silent when sacred principles are mocked in service of a meme war that never goes anywhere. But are there people out there that need to hear the Christian response to the typical pagan criticisms? Perhaps. And by putting these responses down in writing, some progress might be made.
Here, I can paraphrase each of the most common pagan complaints followed by how I would address them in turn. Really, I don’t imagine my answers will deviate too much from the answers you would hear from most Christians. But by reading this letter perhaps pagans (and onlookers) might appear less shocked the next time they hear these same responses? At least might we take a step forward and begin at this point in the conversation the next time?
It’s a long shot, but here it goes.
Core Criticism One: Modern Christianity is responsible for leftism and the continuing destruction of the Europe. To halt the decline we need to abandon Christianity and return to the religion of our indigenous forefathers!
This is the strongest criticism of the lot. It is strong because it starts with an obvious truth. One that I am fond of propounding myself: progressivism is a Christian heresy.
Progressive leftism was created from excesses in late Protestant Christianity. It uses misinterpretations of Christian moral principles to spread its ideas. And you can’t tell the story of the leftism without starting with Christianity. As I much as I dislike the situation, it is absolutely true.
So it’s simple! Leftism is degenerate. Leftism came from Christianity. Therefore Christianity is bad! Case closed!
I guess if you don’t like the idea of control groups in experiments and think the world can neatly be divided into “perfect” things and “bad” things then this case would be air-tight. However, the argument doesn’t hold up when we take a step back and think about things analytically.
For example, take heart-attacks or airplane engine failures. Sure enough most cardiac arrests originate in the heart tissue. Most airplane crashes start with engine malfunction. So, might we conclude that heart extraction is a rational preventative measure for heart disease? Or that disabling jet engines is a prudent approach to prevent airplane crashes? Technically true, but also really stupid.
For adults who understand that all objects are prone to failure, the fact that one thing fails is not sufficient to demonstrate that that thing is “bad” or even “not essential”. We need to ask follow-up questions.
What is the context of how the thing failed? Is it better or worse than the alternatives? Did the failure come during a time when it was being used properly or improperly? Did the failure depend on outside circumstances?
I suppose if the thing in question (here Christianity) was brand new and corresponded immediately with the failure of a previously working system then you would have a intuitive case for its defectiveness. But when the thing in question has a long historical record with many other possible comparisons? We can do better.
In short, for this criticism to have real teeth, the story of Europe would have to be one of dynamic peoples living out their true potential under pagan beliefs then being brought low by the establishment of Christendom for almost two millennium. Does this sound like the story of Europe? Upon any cursory view of historical events this sounds ridiculous.
Now, I know that many leftists academics do make such a broad case against Christianity, but they accomplish this rhetorical trick by super-imposing an inverted moral standard on the original question. Sure, if we assume civilizations’ development is bad because it hurts the environment, if we assume all constraints on sexual freedom are “human rights violations”, then I suppose we can make Christianity look like a black mark on the history of the Europe. But how do these arguments hold water for people who ostensibly profess “right-wing” values?
Really, if we agree that civilization is good, nihilistic individualism is bad, demographic vitality (birth-rate) is a leading indicator for societal health, and that anti-nomianism (“leftism”) is a source for degeneration, then the question of Christianity’s utility becomes a simpler.
Having defined what we want explicitly, we can put aside the moral questions and approach the issue as a technical problem, like an engineer.
For instance, were we to examine the history of Christianity like it was a machine component introduced to a larger mechanical system (Europe), what would its track record look like across the life of its implementation? On a broad view it would look something like this:
- Period 1 (400 a.d.- 900 a.d.): The component (Christianity) is introduced into the system (Europe) at a point of precipitous collapse with rapidly declining birth rates and technological regression. Although the system collapses, areas that have implemented the component are able to recreate some semblance of order and push back against foreign invasions.
- Period 2 (900 a.d. - 1200 a.d.): Broad use of the component is established. The technological decline is halted, partially reversed. Demographic decline is transformed into a demographic explosion. Cities are reborn. Libraries and places of learning are partially reestablished. Trade and international communication is restored. Biggest problem of the period remains foreign invasions, largely from tribes which have NOT implemented the component.
- Period 3 (1200 a.d. -1700 a.d.): Complete implementation of component system-wide. Demographic explosion continues and is complemented by an unprecedented growth in art, engineering, and technology never before seen. System exceeds the effectiveness of its rivals by leaps and bounds. Biggest problem of period are the introduction of foreign diseases (The Black Death) and a very large conflict between users concerning details of how the component is managed (30-years war).
- Period 4 (1700 a.d. - 1920 a.d.): Complete implementation of the component continues. Technological and cultural expansion moves to dizzying heights never before seen on the planet. However, anomalous uses of the component emerge which causes the component to be slowly phased out among the ruling classes. Largest problem of the era is a massive system-wide conflict between ruling classes (who no longer use the component) for reasons totally exogenous to the component’s use (World War I).
- Period 5 (1920 a.d. - 2020 a.d.): Component use falls sharply. Anomalies which appeared in the previous period grow and take over the system. Demographic decline re-emerges. Cultural and societal decline is observable to an obvious degree (leftism). Technological and material decline seems imminent by the end of the period. Biggest problem is the persistent decline in the collective health and well-being of the population, largely correlated with decline of component usage.
Here we should note that, in the last period, comparisons can be made between the component (Christianity) and its alternatives (paganism and atheism) which have emerged during its decline. Is the corruption (leftism) more present in Christianity than in its prospective replacements? Have the alternatives done a good job at holding back the decline? Or have they just added fuel to the fire? Again the answer seems obvious. Perhaps atheism and paganism look different in Norway than they do in Northern California, but I would say, across most statistical metrics, the answer does not come out in paganism’s favor
So once more, taking a step back, looking at this history as objectively as one can, there is really no case to be made for Christianity being a stifling corruption hoisted upon European culture. Rather we see clearly a story of a strong religion, which saved Europe once, slowly becoming weak and degraded due to misuse. It is a tragic story. It is a story as old as time. But I don’t think that it is an honest indictment of my religion. And I would think the same even if I didn’t believe Christianity was true.
Core Pagan Criticism Two: Christianity seeks to enslave European man with the shackles of the past! Christianity binds man to the will of long dead prophets and a dead God! Paganism is the true path towards realizing that every individual is a Nietzschean uber-man. We need paganism to recognize the brave radical gods which live within all of us!
Core Criticism Three: Christianity is a radically revolutionary religion! It proclaims that the past is evil! It spreads radical individualism. Paganism is the path back towards true traditionalism and collectivism. We need paganism to constrain the anti-traditional will of the individual which Christianity set free!
I am answering the next two objections in tandem because I am tired of pretending like I don’t hear them in tandem. The criticisms, when paired in close proximity, are obviously contradictory. Each one bemoaning the polar opposite issue such that both objections could never be satisfied by a single world-view.
I know that paganism sees itself as the solution to Christianities excesses. But can it get its story straight? Is paganism the true voice of traditionalism and the path of respect for our ancestors? Or is it the true Nietzschean creed of the superman, the solution to “the death of the God” and the path of the individualist Faustian man through the twilight of idols?
It certainly can’t be both at the same time.
And I know that I should be charitable with contradictory criticisms. Different complaints come from different parties. The problem is that, more often than not, these criticisms DON’T come from different parties. They are found in the same traditions, and in the mouths of the same intellectuals. I have even seen both of these criticisms come up in the same conversation; each tried in turn as required by rhetorical circumstance.
Maybe this is my own personal bias, but I am always suspicious of entities who speak with many voices. Might pagans be more aware of optics when approaching Christians bearing horn and hoof? Might one wonder what other adversary doesn’t care that his accusations contradict one another?
Still on an intellectual level, I should address each of these concerns separately.
First, on the Nietzschean individualism question, I suppose I am somewhat sympathetic, in theory. In the 19th century, when men like Nietzsche wrote, it was possible to imagine Christianity as humankind’s last tether, the constraint that stopped a post-Christian Faustian man from tearing into the cosmos like a bat out of hell.
Sitting in our very post-Christian 2022 however, things look different. In present year (when the most popular successor to Nietzsche is Michel Foucault) the new post-Christian man is not looking particularly brave, or particularly Faustian. This paired with a realistically lack-luster appraisal of the pre-Christian man, we now recognize a very different picture than the one which Nietzsche painted more than a century ago. Less a post-Christian “brave new world” than a post-Christian solipsistic dystopia. And in the rear-view mirror we can see is a Faustian Christian civilization of un-paralleled vitality book-ended by two non-Christian periods of indolence and failure. Not a good case for Christianity as the barrier to human vitality.
But as baffling as the individualist objection remains, the traditionalist case against Christianity takes things to a new level. Welcome to a perspective which indites Christianity as the prime villain against faith and tradition itself.
And here I thought Catholicism was the faith of my forefathers. How foolish. It turns out that Christianity was actually a giant middle finger shoved in the face of my grandmother and great-grandmother before her, the ultimate disrespect to our honored dead!
But, in all seriousness, what are the pagans getting at? Certainly no one with any understanding of history claims that Christianity is purely a force for anti-tradition, categorically speaking. So is there something, in particular, that pagans want to restore?
Yes, and if you ask most pagans this comes down to two words: “ancestor worship.”
But we have to be careful. There is a tradition within European civilization of “Hero Worship” that sounds linguistically similar to “ancestor worship”. But “Hero Worship” , in the conventional sense, is not actually literal worship. It is just the centering of certain brave individuals in public life and historical memory. Often when lay-people hear “ancestor worship”, they think that it must be an extension of the more familiar phenomenon commonly practiced in historic Christendom.
But if this is what the pagans mean, it’s hard to see how lack of “hero worship” is a serious detraction against Christian civilization. As many thinkers (from Carlyle to Spengler) have pointed out, the idolization of the heroic has been a hallmark of Christian (“Faustian”) civilization for its entire 2000 years of existence. This was a culture born from the pages of the hagiography. And, in many ways, this feature distinguishes Christian civilization from its contemporary rivals. So how does an absence of “hero worship” constitute a proper critique of Christianity?
Is the core of the complaint that we just aren’t doing the “hero worship” thing enough? The dial was at “10” and it takes a polytheistic world-view to bring the level up to its natural maximum at “11”?
That’s not my sense of the criticism. More often what pagans actually mean is not a euphemistic “hero worship” but a LITERAL deification of our ancestors as divinities. And here is where the problems really start to emerge.
Generally speaking, ancestor worship, true ancestor worship, is pretty sordid. For one, ancestor worship tends to constrain a society inside a particular mode that may not be suited for its ultimate good. It’s hard enough to step out of the shadow of heroic ancestors and decide that the community needs new ideas to survive. But how much harder is it when your ancestors are also your gods? This is not a task I would envy.
Furthermore, within a highly dynamic society, ancestor worship eventually becomes incoherent. Since the generations don’t speak with the same voice, or the same priorities, ancestor worship inevitably devolves into a cacophony of different perspectives each directed against the other. In any given moment, believers can construct their pantheon of genetic predecessors, less to constrain their capricious desires than to flatter their own egos. Such is the end of much modern neo-paganism which I have encountered. Its not a pretty sight.
But beyond the general issues with ancestor worship, there is a more pressing problem for ethnic Europeans, who might consider the deification of their dearly departed. It’s a question that pretty much asks itself.
“Who is it that we are actually worshiping?”
I have a good awareness of my own family tree going back to the mid-19th-century on both sides. And every single one of those ancestors (Christians all) would have been mortified to learn that their descendants had taken to worshiping them as gods. I really couldn’t imagine a crueler way to mock the dead than to use their honored memories to desecrate their cherished values. I would do a better job respecting them had I literally urinated on their tombstones.
But does the problem get any better when the issue of the ancestor worship is broadened to the level of ethnicity and then cast backwards across centuries? I don’t see how. There are many people in history, even among my own ethnic group, Germans, who might be worthy of euphemistic “hero-worship” but none would be good subjects for deification.
Just to view the issue as a process, I might list the great figures of German origin that I hold dearly. I could quickly draw up a list of around twenty names which would start, chronologically, sometime around the first Millennium A.D. (with the likes of Hildegard Von Bingen) then trail out towards the middle of the 20th century (with characters like Herman Hesse and Ernst Junger).
Are any of these characters ready to for godhood?
Our original problem reasserts itself. Every person on the list, every single one, would regard their deification either as a supreme sacrilege or a ludicrous absurdity owed to the degeneracy of their descendants. The only way we can reconcile this treatment is to intentionally misremember our ancestors; not commendable as a means to honoring their memory.
In order to locate German ancestors who might actually appreciate worship, I have to cast my gaze very far back, to old paganism. A historical period of which most people have only the most vague understanding. Who comes up on my pagan list of honored Germans? Aliaric or Arminius? Various other names with very little details beyond what I could find from Google. Of the bunch only Arminius was familiar to me before research, and then only because he was prominently featured in Third Reich propaganda that my father had to sit through as a child. And what do I actually know about Arminius’ spiritual life? I only know that he was really really good at killing Romans, or at least ambushing them.
By construction of our situation, this worship, when properly applied, falls only on the most murky areas of our genetic and cultural history. To everything else in our past that is more proximate, familial, and connected this “ancestor worship” offers nothing but a strange type of contemptuous subversion.
Here we notice a weird inversion of historical emphasis. Since worship is how pagans communicate respect, and more proximate ancestors are not fitting subjects for worship, the issue of historical empathy becomes an upside-down pyramid, telescoping out so that the further away a historical figure is in time the more worthy they are for respect. This, in my opinion, is not a fruitful approach to understanding history.
After all, experience has taught me to mistrust telescopic empathy when extended through space. Should I be any less suspicious when its extended through time?
If I find it impossible to believe that Mrs. Jellybys is deeply and genuinely empathetic about the plight of Africa when she shows nothing but contempt for the suffering at her doorstep, am I ready to believe that someone who is incapable of spiritual empathy with his grandmother now is experiencing a deep spiritual connection to a Scythian ancestor 3000 years ago?
The persistent issue with telescopic empathy is that it encourages our natural inclination to narcissism. The object of empathy is vague, sometimes a complete cipher. Under these conditions, the subject can project their own desires onto the object. The Africans who progressives want to save all share the progressive’s hyper-modern, LGBTQ-friendly, values. The ancestor who the modern pagan worships looks suspiciously like his Dungeons and Dragons character.
Not that I am not open minded. I would be satisfied if the Mrs. Jellyby’s philanthropy actually helped Africans, or if our pagan super-empathy for the ancient world had a reliable track record preserving authentic European folk culture. But this, I have found, is rarely the case.
Core Pagan Criticism 4: Christianity is the destroyer of European culture. They ravaged indigenous European civilization! Christians leveled pagan technological achievement! They consigned beauty of individual European cultures to a brutal sameness!
This one always catches me off guard. For a moment I feel like I am hearing a progressive speak. After all, it just wouldn’t be 2022 unless people were trying to use tenuous historical guilt-trips to emotionally blackmail me into accepting absurdities I would otherwise reject.
On the historical guilt front, I have heard pagans lay it on pretty thick. Lots of talk about dead pagan babies killed by bad Christian missionaries 1500 years ago. And it’s understandable, we all celebrate our honored dead. Certainly we Christians have our martyrs. But listing off grievances doesn’t really do it for me anymore. Maybe the libs have burnt-out my natural white guilt?
But is there something in this objection beyond an appeal to guilt? Isn’t cultural preservation important? Isn’t understanding our ancestors and folkways critical?
Certainly. And here we have come to a point of cultural sympathy. I consider myself a preservationist of European cultures, as do many Christians. If paganism seeks to preserve valuable elements of folk culture then this is certainly an admirable task.
And sure enough, good things were left behind when Europeans accepted the creed of Jesus of Nazareth. History is messy. Conversion is seldom seamless. Many a babe might be thrown out with the bathwater. But can pagans be a little more specific about their issue with Christianity on this point? What is it exactly that European culture lost in its conversion to Christianity that we cannot now restore? How is paganism necessary to accomplish this restoration? And what would a cultural restoration like this even look like?
The conversation tends to fall silent just at the point where it should begin. From what I have learned in my own discussions, it seems that most pagans simply want traditional European culture (as it existed under Christendom) with different elements emphasized. Perhaps with more maypoles, folk-dancing, and romanticism and less Cathedrals and religious art? But is this an actual restoration? After all, secular European folk-traditions still exist today, even after thousands of years of devout monotheism.
It’s no secret that pagans see themselves as the guardians of the European folkways. Some will argue that the only reason why pre-Christian traditions survived was due to secret pagans hiding in the ranks of medieval Christianity. Others will even go so far as far as to retroactively declare figures like Chaucer and Shakespeare as closeted pagan mystics. And many more believe that only reason secular European folk traditions have the prominence they do today is because of 20th century neo-paganism revivalism.
Really, this is a hard sell. The European folk revival of the early 20th century was a diverse intellectual movement, replete with Christians, atheists, and some pagans. But inside this cohort, it was the authors who stood closest to their Christian beliefs whose work still maintains its emotional ferocity in the present day. Here I am thinking of Sigrid Undset and JRR Tolkien among others, whose devotions to revivifying the culture of old Northern European was paired with a devout Christian religious practice.
Furthermore, I see scant historical evidence to demonstrate that the European folk-culture which comes to us organically though the ages has any real connection to pagan religious worship. Attempts to retroactively mark Shakespeare and Chaucer as polytheists are ridiculous and smack of progressive appeals to reclassify historical figures as “gay” based on an appeal to ignorance. The arguments rely on wresting quotes out of context, ignoring contrary evidence, and dismissing known historical circumstance. There is also no doubt in my mind, that if the likes of a Tolkien or Undset were similarly removed from us in time, these same people would be arguing that their works showed them to be indisputably pagan.
Alright, so given that folk culture is an indisputable element of European Christian culture, given that honoring and revivifying secular folk art is a perennial practice among Christians, what is the real substance of this objection? What are we even talking about? What are we trying to revive? And how is Christianity an obstacle in this task?
Believe it or not, I don't have a problem with European folk art, poetry, music, or dancing. Celtic music, old stories, and fiddling was pretty much my jam in college. And my later conversion to Christianity did not decrease my passion for traditional folkways (although it may have made me more aware of their LARPY elements).
If this is just a question of art and beauty, then there is no necessary conflict. Christians will not object to anything that is good unless they suspect it is being used as a cover for something sinister. And this is where our differences might begin. Because, while I am not here to throw your maypoles on the bonfire, your vanities are a different story.
My suspicion begins with patterns already alluded to. Within paganism there seems a tendency to prefer the remote, the distant, and the mysterious to the proximate, specific, and embodied. Vagueness is a feature and not a bug. But here mystery obscures the really important questions.
Now I understand. Obscurity is sexy. I appreciate this fact when it comes to art and performance. The unknown inspires awe. We revel in the notion that there is something just beyond human perception. And darkness will always be cool. However, while I might admire the aesthetic qualities of darkness, I take a different attitude when people ask me to kneel before it.
After all is it too much to ask our deities to walk in the light? Do the gods who shroud themselves in tree and stone now fear the sun? Are these gods even pliable to human faculties? And would they be ready to answer questions which any sincere pilgrim might put to a spirit claiming divine office?
In the silence of the gods perhaps their worshipers might answer my questions. As such, I might ask a pagan reader the following.
Where were your gods when the filament of the universe was formed? Did they witness the separation of light from darkness, order from chaos, good from evil? Do they recognize the distinction? If so, which side do they prefer?
Do your gods speak with one voice or with many? Do they quarrel among each other? Do they wage war for dominance? Or, do they recognize a Greater Good that rules over them?
Any if they indeed kneel before this Great Good, what is Its name? And why do your gods not bring It before human kind to venerate? Is this their jealously guarded secret?
And if these gods are servants of the Greater Good, do they command your obedience to It? Do your deities constrain your desire? Do they reflect a will that is not your own? Did they choose you, or did you choose them?
These questions are not my own. They are the ancient queries put to old paganism from Christian contemporaries many centuries ago. Are there better answers today?
I say this with no expectation as to how modern pagans might reply to these inquiries. All in all, any pagan could answer the questions the same way that I do. Indeed I have met pagans who see themselves as humble servants of the Greater Good seeking righteousness in a demon-haunted universe. In these cases, it is important to recognize that we share a certain spiritual camaraderie (though NOT a common identity).
However, even assuming this camaraderie, it’s hard to see what pagans bring to the table with regards to the task of preserving European culture as it has existed historically.
I dare say, for a person not unfamiliar North American neo-pagan traditions, this religious community tends to possess a very constrained imagination, and its followers employ a very limited poetic vocabulary when it comes to describing the human condition.
Certainly, pagans have their archetypes: the tragic hero fighting for a lost cause, the fair and pining maiden, and the magic of natural world. But is this all there is? Even if we restrict ourselves to the Western tradition, the pagan perspective barely covers half of it.
Literary examples are helpful. Looking across the range of my own favorites works, from The Odyssey, to Beowulf, to War and Peace, I see a Christian thread running through a majority, a pagan thread running through a minority. Yet as a Christian nothing feels alien. It is all part of a corpus.
This shouldn’t be surprising. The Christian intellectual tradition has spent the better part of a thousand years relearning the secrets of its pagan predecessors. As Christians we honor the memories of the old pagan ancestors. We pray for their souls. We bring their wisdom to the future generations. From Boethius, to Aquinas, to C.S. Lewis, this is not a new phenomenon.
I don’t need to wonder how the mytho-poetic warrior king fits into the Christian world. The authors of Beowulf and The Death of King Arthur have already given this to me. The crusader kings of old have made an example of it through their lives. Modern scholars like Tolkien have translated this narrative into a modern context. And through this tradition, Christ’s presence is felt deeply in the stories told before His incarnation. He is a note of wistfulness in the air of every raucous festival. He is a distant hope in the background of every great tragedy.
But with what difficulty can a pagan invert this operation? What is the pagan interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy?, of Goethe’s Faust?, of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? What does Thor have to say to the self-sacrificial love of Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities? What can Odin give to the guilt-ridden murderer from Crime and Punishment?
When I consider the neo-pagan world view, I am struck with a sense that it is the product of cultural subtraction, not addition. It seems like atheism in piecemeal. I have the same feeling when looking at people who elect to sex-reassignment surgery. Something real had been sacrificed but I am not sure what they have obtained.
I know that pagans find this last analogy insulting. This is just me being honest about my emotions. Please assist me if you think I am missing something. What, specifically, is paganism reviving in European culture which I cannot be embraced by Christians? The implication that Christianity is prohibiting something beautiful is ever-present among neo-pagans. The description of what that beautiful thing might be is rarely forthcoming.
Core Pagan Criticism 5: Christianity is mean! They are divisive! We want to look out for all European peoples but Christians just want to exclude pagans from moral consideration. Really Christians need to acknowledge that we are all equal. That even though we might worship different gods, we all are spiritually European and our beliefs have equal value. After all paganism and Christianity are probably just two sides of the same thing!
Ok, I am going to take this one calmly.
I understand that this is the pagan version of an olive branch. In reality, it reflects an utter misunderstanding of Christian thought and how Christians (at any time historically) can respond to sentiments such as this. Often, pagans who ask this are blind-sighted by the hostility they encounter from monotheists towards what they thought might be a point of conciliation. To be honest this question, posed as a potential “middle ground”, demonstrates a certain ignorance of history which is hard to explain. But maybe I need to walk through the reasoning behind the reaction more explicitly?
Before I start I should admit that this letter is probably less charitable than it should have been. Reading back my answers I see that they have a more caustic edge than usual. This is usually not the best approach towards inter-faith communication.
But honestly, I find the nature of this conversation infuriating. Everything seems shrouded in layers metaphor and euphemism, nothing is up front. There is the constant attempt to sneak large-scale theological propositions in through the back door with clever rhetorical appeals to emotion.
For context, I have just rehashed the most common online arguments brought to me by pagans, and to be honest, they seem in style suspiciously similar to progressive culture war tactics: the insinuation of guilt, the vague appeals to historical injustice, the abstract standards applied to events outside historical context or reasonable comparison, the telescopic do-goodery.
Missing is the plain theological directness which I appreciate in honest religious dialogue. I have had good conversations with non-Christians. Having a productive interfaith conversation is pretty simple actually, as long as you take a direct approach.
For example. If you want me to convert to your religion, start in the following pattern.:
- Convince me that you are a devout believer in your religion and that you practice your faith.
- Convince me that your deity is real, or a better interpretation of the Supreme Divinity than my own.
- Convince me that my own Deity is not real, or a worse interpretation of the Supreme Divinity than your own.
Pretty simply. But perhaps you aren’t interested in theology or conversation? Perhaps you are more interested in political alliance building?
If so, then the conversion should take the following pattern:
- Convince me that you are a devout believer in your own religion and that you practice your faith.
- Convince me that we have shared political goals towards which we can cooperate without sacrificing the Greater Good or our principles.
- Convince me that we can establish and respect certain boundaries so that each of our communities can persist living in accordance with our own moral restrictions.
Of course, I am obviously going to be more amenable to building alliances than apostatizing. But hey, I like to think I am pretty open-minded.
Still, whatever their ultimate objective, I find pagans rarely follow the direct approaches. Instead we get vague appeals to emotion and history designed to pressure people out of long-held traditions via the backdoor. After seeing how this worked in the new atheist movement, forgive me for not being enthusiastic for a repetition.
However for any pagans looking for positive suggestions on where to begin dialogue, please direct your attention to the common starting point of both conversations: the question of authentic belief. I yearn to hear more about your direct experiences and sincere devotion. Please, tell me what you actually believe. Better yet, show me.
In my own life this has been a good rule of thumb. Before I try to convince people to give up their own religions, I first try to convince them that I believe my own. Yet somehow, in my conversations with pagans, the issue of personal belief is always glossed over. Perhaps because it's boring?
Well, in some sense it might be. People would rather talk about politics than faith. In chaotic times people are interested in drawing lines and making coalitions. But all coalitions, if they are lasting, must be built on the basis of belief because only with belief can boundaries be respected. And if ANY pagan-Christian political alliance is to exist, boundaries will be central to that arrangement.
What specific boundaries might this entail? Many boundaries certainly, some absolute, other preferential. For example, I would prefer to not continuously hear the same “Black Legend”/New Atheist myths coming out of right field at the same I am batting them away from the left. But this is hardly non-negotiable. An example of an absolute boundary brings us once more to the original pagan complaint.
Commonly, online pagans request that we (Christians) show good will by mutually recognizing each others’ religions as equal, or that we make assertions that our gods (God) are reflections of the same thing, or sometimes, even, that we participate in each others' religious ceremonies as a token of respect. From Christians the answer is always an emphatic "No". Strangely enough the pagans making this request seem shocked.
Why are we Christians are so stingy with our respect for other peoples gods? Why do we balk at the politically salient compromise equal moral worth between religious practices and deities. And why do we absolutely refuse attempts to "exchange offerings" between the gods of the pagan pantheon and the God of the Christian church?
The answer is quite simple. Christians are forbidden from doing this. The proposition itself violates THE foundational precept of the Christian faith. And the request made is not a request for compromise but a request that Christianity should abolish itself.
Now I understand that pagans bring this suggestion forward in good faith. I understand that ancient paganism practiced syncretism as a form of political compromise. But Christians still must object.
In the contemporary world we are encouraged to view reality as mutable. We are encouraged to believe that distinct things are all reflections of the same core substance once a broad enough view is adopted. The universe is chaotic. Morality changes. Nothing is permanent. And maybe, in some ultimate sense, a concept is the same as its antithesis: “up” is the same thing as “down”, “light” is the same thing as “darkness”, “man” is the same thing “woman”, “good” is the same thing as “evil”. After all, nothing is absolute.
But older religions (real religions) take a different perspective. While some things are transient, others are eternal. There are bright lines to morality which cannot be crossed. And here, on the question of associating pagans gods with the Christian God, we encounter one such hard line. Let me explain how this works.
Abrahamic monotheists are absolutely prohibited from adopting world-views that associate or equivocate God with any of His pretender rivals. There can be no association, not in identity, not in moral worth, not even in a new age, wishy-washy, feel-good way where everything is the same as everything else.
Furthermore, Christians (in contrast to the other two monotheistic faiths) are prohibited from employing white lies, deception, and tactical misstatement to obscure their belief in this for political purposes. Full stop. No exceptions.
For pagans with a working understanding late antiquity, may I direct your attention to the first few centuries A.D.? Here, you may remember that it was this particular issue that created the conflict between paganism and Christian. It was this proposal, and its refusal that stacked the bodies of Christian martyrs by the thousands across three campaigns of persecution. Was that not enough to demonstrate the consistently of the Christian answer? In the words of Victor Laszlo, if pagans were refused this concession when they held the whip hand over the Christian, why do they think they are going to get a different answer now?
Do pagans think our God's commandments have changed? Or do they think that Christians have grown too weak and stupid to remember what we have promised?
And yet, I see frustration, sometimes anger, when pagans receive this answer. Here I speculate that, for some pagans, this contention is not a simple diplomatic proposition, but a core spiritual concession desired above all else. The neo-pagans want to be validated. To be told that their heresy is legitimate in the eyes of Christianity, an extension of the faith of their fathers.
Perhaps paganism is the truest form of the Christianity our ancestors lived and died to preserve? Maybe paganism itself is an evolution of the beliefs of those who went before us? Might it even be the case that worshiping these minor gods is the TRUE will of the Christian God?
This is what many pagans want to hear. But I cannot give them this assurance because it simply is not true. For those who call themselves pagans, please understand.
Your gods will never be the equal of God. They will never be acknowledged by Christians. And their adoption, in any form, will never be viewed as an extension, evolution, or continuation of the religion of your European forefathers for the last two millennium. Anytime you ask a Christian to assert otherwise the answer will be “No”.
I know this sounds aggressive. I don't care. The answer will not change
You can end our friendship. You can change your political affiliation. You can declare war on all of Christianity. You can declare war on all Christians. You might win. But that won't change the Truth.
You can conquer me. Kill me. Destroy my family and my society, that will not make your gods equal to that which greater than them. And even if you succeed at killing every Christian, the last to perish will tell you the same thing with her dying breathe.
So rage harder. Smash your civilization to dust. Tear your people to shreds. Rip your body to tatters until the last vestiges of the race are cleared away, until humanity perishes, and until time melts heaven and earth into oblivion.
And then, in whatever hereafter remains, with whatever permanence we have once existence passes, might the echo of this plea descend down to the roiling chaos or rise up to the celestial heights?
For again there will come the same answer.
Amen, I say to you NO. As it was in the beginning, it will be now and forever. Amen. I say to you, NO.