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.