Re-Paganizing the West?

Peter Leithart, a professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College, the pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho and a regular contributor to my favorite journal First Things makes on that publication’s blog an interesting argument: For Christianity to again succeed in the West, we must help the culture rediscover its deep pagan roots.

He begins his essay by wondering if Christianity’s very success hasn’t been in a certain sense its own undoing. After all, he wonders, how can we hope to say anything of value about the sacrifice of Christ and our freedom of from the Law to contemporary men and women in Europe and North America “who have never worried about ritual contagion or the danger of contracting impurity from table companions? Does the Letter to the Hebrews resonate with people who have never seen a sacrifice, much less performed one? Can the New Testament speak to people who have lost all sympathy for primal religion?”

Looking further afield, he points out that in Africa, Christianity is growing fastest where the “primal religions” of Africa are most firmly rooted:

It’s a truism among African theologians that the Church has grown most rapidly where traditional African religions are strongest. According to Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako, this is no accident but highlights the “special relationship” that African “primal religions” have with Christianity. Like primal African religion, Christianity displays a strong sense of human finitude and sin, believes in a spiritual world that interacts with the human world, teaches the reality of life after death, and cultivates the sacramental sense that physical objects are carriers of spiritual power. Christianity catches on there because it gives names to the realities they already know and experience.

There is much Leihart says that we can learn from the experience of our brothers and sisters in the Southern Hemisphere. “If Christianity is most successful among traditional religions,” he wonders along, “perhaps the Church has to reinvent primal religion before the West can be restored to Christ.”

This reinventing of primal religion in the West doesn’t mean that the Church should foster paganism. “Re-paganizing the West” he argues “means working out the implications of the French sociologist Bruno Latour’s assertion: We have never been modern.”

To understand this, Christians must first cultivate “a healthy skepticism toward secularization theories.” As part of this skepticism, we must be willing to shaping our pastoral action according to “the premise that, for all our pretense of sophistication, the West has never entirely escaped the impulses and habits of primitive culture,” and in our culture’s departure from the Gospel, we are increasingly “reverting” to our pagan past.

Following Latour’s lead, Leithart articulates the ways in which, for our all our technical gains (and indeed, in many cases precisely because of them), the world remains as “enchanted” or as I prefer to think of it, as “gods-drenched” as it ever was. Reconceptualizing contemporary Western culture requires from us that we recognize, and name “the continuities between pagan and modern habits and learning to call them by their traditional names.” How do we do this? Well, for example, “If a rock concert looks, smells, and sounds like a bacchanal, why not call it that, with all the religious overtones that go with the name? If the rock star elicits frenzy, why not call him a shaman?”

As if the continued presence of the bacchanalia were not sufficiently dark, the darker, and bloodier, aspects of our pagan past are also with us:

The work of René Girard provides a model. He demonstrates how Stalinist show trials, the Dreyfus affair, and the Shoah, the Armenian holocaust, the Gulag, and the Terror, all exhibit scapegoat mechanisms reminiscent of Oedipus Rex and the Scandinavian myth of Baldr. Because of the impact of Christianity, moderns can never quite put their hearts into scapegoating the way ancients did, but the vestiges of the ancient system show through. Girard has helped to move the concerns of Leviticus and the Letter to the Hebrews back to the center of theological and cultural discussion, and in so doing has unmasked the underlying primitivism of modernity.

Beyond my intellectual interest, Leithart’s argument resonants deeply with not only my pastoral experience in ever so post-modern northern California and the Pacific Northwest, but also in Orthodox parishes and with students on college campuses in western Pennsylvania.

In all of these environments, for all there real and substantive differences, I encountered a solid core of paganism. Not only is scapegoating practiced (especially among those Orthodox Christians who strongly identified with Greek and Russian cultures and work to enforce it through shame-based social discourse), but promiscuity, self-mutilation and drunkenness and drug use are also all common. And overlaying all of this is a sense of despair and resignation (people will often say to me: “What is, is”) that comes with a world view that is (paradoxically) both chaotic and static, without boundaries and socially stratified.

The alternative to being a Christian is not simply being “spiritual” or even a “good person,” but a pagan in the full bodied sense of the word. A world without Christ, is devoid of God, but we would do well to remember that such a world is not devoid of gods. And these gods are angry and vengeful.

Reflecting on Leihart’s essay and my own experience, I begin to realize how badly the Church has misunderstood her pastoral situation here in the West. Our’s is a culture that has been slowly slipping back into paganism., into the worship of the angry, vengeful elder gods not onf modern fiction, but our pre-Christian past.

Yes, as Leihart points out, we are “surrounded by the spiritual lethargy that accompanies a surfeit of wealth and aimless ease.” And yes, the Church is faced with “a general accedia” that has infected not only our secular neighbors who adhere to “a sometimes jaded, sometimes gleeful, post-Christianity” but also an increasing numbers of nominal Christian. Yes, there is hope, “The Church has triumphed over paganism before. But never before has she confronted a sophisticated civilization haunted by Christ.”

Our conversations–and I mean here specifically Orthodox Christians, though I think the observation is probably applicable more broadly–about Church history, liturgy, sacraments, morality, have their place to be sure. But the real pastoral challenge is anthropological. We have forgotten how to be human in a Christian way. Our Christian understanding of how to be human has been infected by the same nominalism that we criticize in our Roman Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters.

If I am right, and I invite your comments, we have forgotten how to be human Christianly. In place of a Christian humanism and anthropology, we have the bits and pieces of the Great Tradition divorced from any organic attachment to each other. The holism, the catholicity, of Christian anthropology is for many at best fading memory. For the vast majority of Christians, including our pastoral leaders, it is simply unknown.

In its place, there is the divisive, differential anthropology of empirical science as popularized by psychologist and sociologists (I’ll address this tomorrow).

It isn’t so much that we have lost our way as it is that we have lost ourselves–or maybe, we have lost the knack of using the Great Christian Tradition as the means of coming to know ourselves. As a stop gap, we appeal to empirical science, but slowly (at least for now) we are slipping into paganism. In time, that slide will become a headlong rush (even as it has become already for some). Recapturing the anthropological vision of the Christian tradition, and placing it at the service of self-knowledge and humanity’s growth in Christ, is central to revitalizing the evangelical and pastoral life of the Church of Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


4 Responses to “Re-Paganizing the West?”

  1. Scott Walker Says:

    This was a thought-provoking post. I recall the story of the zealous new convert who asked Fr. Seraphim Rose for reading suggestions. Fr. Seraphim startled him by urging him to read Dickens. “Why Dickens?” the zealous one asked. “You have to learn to be human, first,” replied Fr. Seraphim. The Brave New World is profoundly anti-human and (mostly) unknowingly pagan, and perhaps our pre-evangelization should help the thralls of Mammon to recover their humanity before we can meaningfully present the Gospel. In that task “The Lord Of The Rings” or the tales of Harry Potter, Boy Wizard may be as needful for the soul (which is still there, Mammon to the contrary) as are food and water for the body (which Mammon celebrates, after his own dark fashion). There is something Deeply Magical about Story. I think Story has much to do with recovering the catholic mind. Why, I wonder, do many Chrstians seem to fear and despise Story? Could it be that we, too, need to learn to be human first?

  2. Clement Says:

    If there’s anything useful about my past as a neopagan, occultist, and magician, it was that my experiences there (which I admit were detrimental to the soul in many ways, some quite profound) made the acceptance of the mystical and sacramental realities of our faith much easier. In fact, they didn’t seem “weird” at all, as a more scientifically minded modern person might see them. Yet we should be aware that making this connection could be seen as a bad thing: it can open us to criticism against the liturgical, sacramental, and spiritual life of the Church by Christians who don’t quite recognize the truth of these things — those who see them as the paganizing of Christianity.

    My wife and I were remarking the other day that so much of our music anymore is focused on stimulating and exciting emotions of sex, rage, and violence. If these are the shamans of the modern era, then they’re evoking some pretty terrible demons. As our OCF discussed last night (Fr. David is doing a great job, by the way), we have to be certain that our experience of God, especially in prayer, is not rooted in emotions. Reading this, it occurred to me that in seeking a particular emotional state, we are becoming shamans seeking to evoke an ecstatic state: even if that state is one of contrition. Even if contrition or humility is occurring, if it’s occuring through the manipulation of our psychospiritual being, then it’s not really the grace of the Spirit, now is it? I was probably in a similarly bad place listening to goa trance as I was listening to death metal: the state of peace I felt in trance wasn’t necessarily growth in the image and likeness of God as much as it was a pacifier to deaden the void and the pain.

    Scott makes a good point about the need to become human first. How can we help people understand that Christ is the beauty of true humanity when the very term “humanity” means nothing to them? How can God and the Kingdom of Heaven be something desirable to such a person? Unfortunately, it’s oftentimes undesirable to me!

  3. Chrys Says:

    I like the translation of modern behavior into classically understood (pagan) ritual. The motivation and implementation are fundamentally the same. If it walks like a duck . . .
    The challenge of learning to be human first however is, IMO, completely backwards. It is precisely because of sin – of being cut off from the integrating Ground of our Being (if you prefer) – that we are not fully human but exist on a sub-human plane. Let us first recognize that there has been only one fully human Person, Christ. (Have we forgotten that this is the other half of truth expressed by the Creed?) This means, then, that the Saints are those who have begun to inhabit their true humanity – who have become Christ-like.
    It is inevitable that we fail to grasp what this means or how it looks. This is the far country that those of us living in some degree of sin are in fact seeking. In our ignorance – from our poor vantage point – we develop distortions and caricatures of what it means to be human and, thus, what it means to be a saint.
    We are like children who imagine what it must be like to be an adult – a conception that bore little resemblance to reality. (Frankly, it is even beyond the young adult, who stands on its threshold. Just ask anyone going through mid-life crisis: adulthood was not what they expected and what they made of it has left them bereft of the Life for which they longed.) While the parent may see the reasons and the value of the process, it is intrinsically beyond the grasp of the child. (This is why obedience is critical.)
    This, to me, is the real power of and reason for Faith. It calls us to a life that, in St. Paul’s words, we can not comprehend or imagine. There is no “short-cut” or secret method. Whether Twelve Step program or Ascetical discipline, the path lies always through the absolute darkness of the cross.

  4. Fr. Gregory Jensen Says:


    G.K. Chesterton has a short essay (the title escapes me) in which he praise fairy tales precisely because we need to first understand the world is magical, before we can understand it is sacramental. While in CA, I got to know a number of Fr Seraphim’s spiritual children and godchildren. I was always taken by his notion of using classical literature, and also movies and music, to “humanize” people. In effect, he say these as part of the “pre-evangelism” stage of bring someone to Christ.

    Clement,your point about the tendency to be manipulated by experience is a good one. It is the same point I intend to make a conference next month–we cannot confuse our psychological experience (whether affective or intellectual)of God with God. You’re right that magic/sacramental connection needs to be done with prudence–not everyone is necessarily going to be open to such an approach. And again you’re right, such an approach is likely to drive some people further away. W/this second group, I often explain the sacraments as the prophetic acts of the Church and the priest as the office of prophet w/in the Church. After all, what is “Go your sins are forgive” but a prophetic word uttered by one who God has set aside to make such utterances?

    Chrys,your caution about teaching people to be human has a great deal of merit (I suspect that you would have been in the group that Clement alludes to). While we cannot say that only Christ was a fully human person (He wasn’t in fact a *human* person, but a divine Person Who took on our human nature),it *is* true that it is only in Christ that we come to understand what it means to be human in full. But, but, but, your final point is the one that is most germane: However we explain the process, we only come to be fully human, and thus fully ourselves, by way of the Cross–both the Cross of Christ as well as our own personal cross (part of which is my own culpability for the death of Christ, but is for another day).

    Thank you one and all for your comments. They are all most insightful.

    If I may ask a favor, please let others know about my blog and encourage them to subscribe–there are things getting ready to happen (I don’t know what or when, but significant and soon–the former in God’s eyes, the later in man’s) and in addition to you all, I value the participation and observations of the people you trust.

    In Christ,


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