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
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.