Christ for the Pagans

September 14, 2007 | 9 comments

A First Things writer reckons that the West needs a pagan revival before it can have a Christian revival. In Africa and in the ancient world, the theory goes, Christianity flourished because the people were afraid of the capricious spiritual powers and principalities and were glad to find refuge in a God who could love and be loved; who would free them from demons; who did not demand sacrifice.

I don’t know if he’s right about the conditions in which Christianity flourishes. Rodney Stark argues that the average convert to early Christianity didn’t have theology on the mind. Instead, Christianity looked good because Christians didn’t practice infanticide, respected women, and took care of each other.

And while its true that African Christianity is very much about the power of Jesus Christ smashing the the felt presence of the devil
–one hymn goes

If Satan troubles us
Jesus Christ
You who are the lion of the grasslands
You whose claws are sharp
Will tear out his entrails
And leave them on the ground
For the flies to eat.

–the African converts are predominantly from the big new cities where people feel their old ethnic ties dissolving and want to be part of something permanent. This fits better with Franz Rosenzweig’s notion that paganism is the religion of a People and Christianity and its new, deathless, universal People replaces paganism when the old particular People is seen to be mortal.

But no matter what theory you pick to explain the rise of Christianity over paganism, its pretty unlikely that neo-paganism will bring back a demon-haunted world, frightened sacrifice and propitiation, or the grim tribe and polis of the old pagans.

Neo-paganism can still spread, though. That recent Wiccan lottery winner reminded me that I’ve seen it spread. In happened in boot camp.

Besides the training battalions, Fort Jackson had holding battalions where new recruits waited a few days until they could be assigned to a training battalion. There was also a holding battalion for recruits who have washed out of basic training, either due to injury or glaring physical, spiritual, or character deficits. New recruits who were considered too hapless to even be sent to training were also put in this battalion. They were supposed to work on their problems until they were well enough to go through basic traning. They were often there for weeks.

Because of scheduling problems, we were held over in our holding battalion for a week. We hated it. But conditions in the wash-out holding battalion were worse. The recruits were confined to their barracks and a smaller area outside and for the most part had nothing to do all day and weren’t allowed to do much anyway. They also had no self-respect. In those conditions a grass roots Wiccanism spread like a weed. It was something to do, a little exciting in a forbidden-fruits kind of way, and it made a lot of the recruits feel better about sex (this holding battalion was disproportionately female) because they could get “married” by jumping a straw or somesuch. The main tenet–”do as thou wilt, an thou harm none”–also helped them feel better about it. Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, can often help lift people like these but in the military the main function of Christianity seems to be overcoming racial, ethnic, and class antagonisms in forging a brotherhood. These recruits, largely failures and often female, were not interested in that brotherhood.

I don’t know if many of these people remained Wiccan in any sense. My own guess is that in the long term their variety of Wiccanism would be spiritually unsatisfying. Its too adaptable, too customized and customizable, to meet the real human need to find something outside oneself. But if they do remain Wiccans, I hope they start to take their main tenet as more than just an injunction to party. The hedonism of ‘Do as thou wilt’, if taken seriously, should lead to the moderation and restraint of the Epicures. “An thou harm none,” if taken seriously, should lead to begging Someone for guidance and for lifting the burden of guilt.

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9 Responses to Christ for the Pagans

  1. Dave on September 14, 2007 at 2:30 am

    I’m thinking you can talk to a lot of Wiccans before finding one that feels any burden of guilt. Or any need for guidance, apart from maybe driving directions to the next social gathering.

  2. Jonathan Green on September 14, 2007 at 3:11 am

    Interesting, Adam. I suspect the First Things article is mistaken, and that recreating an abstract, metaphorical paganism would only provide a space for an abstract, metaphorical Christianity, more or less like the current state of affairs that leaves the writer so dissatisfied. One difference between now and the initial spread of Christianity, of course, is that Islam offers much of the same kind of relief from the disadvantages of paganism.

    Your story of boot-camp Wicca is a nice illustration of the larger point, though, that religion serves particular and local human needs. The question becomes, what does Christianity have to do to meet the current needs of the people it hopes to reach? One thing I think Mormonism does well is offering 21st-century believers a religious identity that is both universal and rooted to a particular place (and particular places).

  3. Kyle R on September 14, 2007 at 3:20 am

    I see two possibilities in a situation where people turn to Christianity from paganism (or anything else).

    One is that Christianity replaces the paganism – more likely if “Christianity looked good because Christians didn’t practice infanticide, respected women, and took care of each other.”

    The other possibility is that Christianity simply overlays the prior belief system – which I think is more likely when the motive is fear of nasty forces, which Christianity accomodates in the form of Satan but doesn’t exactly banish. Indigenous demons have long continued their mischief within the official Christianity of parts of Africa and the Caribbean.

    Russia, for instance, was a latecomer to Christianity. Prior to that the native religion was an amalgam of things dominated by Shamanism. As Christianity slowly perolated through Russia over centuries from about 990 A.D., the peasants tended to use Christian language while continuing Shamanistic folk religion in practice. The local Shaman did his thing as a ‘fool for Christ’ but it was still shamanism.

    Come to think of it, there’s also the case of many Christians who become Buddhists, probably also hoping to “lift the burden of guilt”, but the resulting buddhism is a strange hybrid and the new converts apply a Christian kind of guilt to the failure to transcend the ego.

    Incidentally Adam, congratulations and best wishes on the new addition to your family.

  4. Bob on September 14, 2007 at 10:50 am

    “Its pretty unlikely that neo-paganism will bring back a demon-haunted world” Been to a movie lately?

  5. Adam Greenwood on September 14, 2007 at 11:10 am

    One thing I think Mormonism does well is offering 21st-century believers a religious identity that is both universal and rooted to a particular place (and particular places).

    I had a long talk with an LDS anthropologist friend yesterday over some of the troubles the Church is having on the Navajo reservation, partly because joining the Church or remaining active in it is seen as a path to assimilation. I think the Church can do more in this regard, but it can’t shed its universalist pretensions. At the same time, you are exactly right that the family-centeredness of the Church leaves a lot of room for keeping something local within that universality. My friend suggested that the real tragedy is that further assimilation of some kind is inevitable: the only choice is whether to assimilate to something positive like the Church or to the drink, drugs, and promiscuity of the underclass.

  6. Mi on September 14, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    In Japan, I frequently heard, “In Japan, you are born Budhist, marry Christian, and die Shinto.” It really had nothing to do with religiosity but rather ceremony. There is a larger truth in there that many religions don’t seem to grasp.

  7. lief on September 14, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    Japan (and perhaps China) seems to witness against the pagan revival theory, since no large-scale christian awakening has occurred in those countries even though Japanese religious traditions, such as shinto and their syncretized form of buddhism, rely heavily on the existence of capricious spiritual powers and principalities.

    It also seems unlikely that modern-day wiccans could come close to recreating the religious conditions in Europe prior to the spread of christianity. The notion that European-style paganism is a do-what-you-want religion belies the fact that historically, European pagans probably lived in close knit communities with fairly narrow worldviews – where doing whatever you want was not looked kindly upon. Also, pagan European tribes tended to get baptized en masse whenever the king or chief decided to go for it (probably to keep the community intact) – this doesn’t seem likely to happen in this fractionalized, modern world with such an emphasis on individual conversion.

  8. Sin on September 14, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    Maybe you should actually TALK to Wiccans/Pagans before publishing trash. Most of us WERE Christian and left in disgust for various reason. Very, very few go back and reconvert.

  9. Howard on September 14, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    I know some Pagans. Most of them were Christians as Sin mentioned.

    Positive people with high integrity…probably related to the Rule of Three – the belief that energy a person puts out, positive or negative, will be returned three times.


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