Why Pagans Aren’t Really Pagan

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Pagan is one of those wonderful words. We Christians can use it when we mean people who have ceased to believe in monotheism but have started believing in lots of other stuff (forces, etc.). I thought a lot about this over the summer after seeing a group of druid-wannabe’s at Stonehenge. They were dressed for the part, except for the amount of polyester involved. We are in a season when people will begin to write silly things about the “pagan origins of Christmas” and attack Christmas Trees as pagan in origin. So these thoughts are for us all when the paganism seems to be coming from all directions.

One thing moderns who think of themselves as pagans have that ancient pagans never had: self-consciousness. Ancient pagans never thought of themselves as being “pagans.” They were Romans, or Britanni, or any number of folks, and they had a world-view which included a belief in various supernatural forces and the way one related to the earth, sky, the seasons, etc. But they had no self-consciousness as belonging to a religion.

Religious self-consciousness is the gift of Judeo-Christianity. Jews died for their faith the way a pagan would never have thought to. The Maccabees died because they would not do what any self-respecting pagan would have done with never so much as a by-your-leave. They would not betray the commandments of the God who made them a peculiar people.

It is perhaps even possible to say that until God revealed His righteousness and called someone to be His people, no religion (as we moderns think of them) existed. Christians inherited our self-consciousness from the Jews.

And the modern Pagans inherited their self-consciousness from the Christians and the Jews. Sorry about that, but if you think of yourself as a pagan, then your are thinking like a Christian or a Jew (or a Muslim for that matter). A pagan would not think like that.

It’s why silly charges that “Christmas trees are pagan” and the like just won’t stick. We probably stole them from some pagans. But they’ve been decidedly Baptized. They’re specific enough to upset the ACLU. That’s good enough for me. I would be concerned if they had lost their offense.

Neither did we borrow the date for Christmas from the pagans (that’s a 19th century German myth). The use of December 25th for Christmas predates the feast for Sol Invictus, instituted by Marcus Aurelius, by some decades. So it’s not about the winter soltice (sorry again, pagans).

Neither is the Virgin Mary a thinly disguised version of some pagan Mother Goddess. She’s nothing like her. And if the art forms of such mother goddesses influenced later iconography, well so be it. We stole their art forms. Again, sorry about that.

Christmas, with its trappings, is a Christian holiday. It has been commercialized by people who like to make money (they’re called merchants). Market places always thrived around Churches on feast days. Don’t begrudge them their money.

Beware instead the grinches that lurk everywhere looking for pagan practices, seeking to purify a holiday which puritan ancestors long ago sought to abolish. I plan to drink a toast, kiss anyone under the misletoe, and enjoy my gifts (I enjoy giving them even more – especially as I grow older and have almost everything I ever wanted).

I plan to enjoy giving money to ringing Santas and their Christmas buckets for the homeless shelters. I will miss the holiday when its gone and the sense of a common feast that binds many of us together.

But I will owe no real apology to the pagan, except for the fact that the rise of real religion in the Judeo-Christian context has probably ruined the “first naivete” of the true pagan. Today, there are mostly wannabes. And there might not be so many of them if their forefathers had not stripped Christianity of its fullness and substituted the aridity of puritanism (it still lingers). But I’ll pray their health and welcome them home if they discover the ancient fullness in Orthodoxy.

Several years ago, a beloved teenager who has since gone to rest, said to me, “The thing I like about Orthodoxy is that it is so pagan.” I knew what she meant and it was not a negative comment. It was a bittersweet comment. The bitter part was the fact that the richness of her Christian experience had been robbed so long ago by those who sought to “purify” the faith from pagan influence and her heart longed for something richer. The sweet part was that she loved the candles, the incense, the icons, and all the rest. She made a journey to God before she was able to be Chrismated, but I’m sure that heaven is no disappointment to her – that it’s not whitewashed and robbed of all texture. And I joyfully think of her and say, “Memory Eternal,” as I decorate my tree, drink my Christmas cheer and light candles everywhere I can.

Comments

  1. says

    The picture (I’ve used it before) is of my three daughters (yes, I also have a son). Two of them are now married to Orthodox priests. It’s a Christmas morning and full of joy. I might add that they were all friends of the girl whom I mentioned who has gone to rest in God. She was the same age as my oldest girl. We all loved her and think of her much at Christmas. I recall especially a Christmas carol that she sang with my two oldest girls. Again, may her memory be eternal!

  2. says

    Well put, Father. Yes, ‘pagan’ as a compliment in the sense that it seamlessly uses a lot of natural religion.

    What you wrote – religious self-consciousness is Judæo-Christian – echoes what Touchstone’s Mere Comments regular Stuart Koehl has said, that neo-pagans are really obviously apostate Christians keeping a lot of the same mindset and morals only shorn from their foundation in Christian theology.

    Favourite blogger Arturo Vasquez (the Sarabite) has said the same about modern Mexican-American political activists trying to be pagan, interpreting November shrines of the dead with a theology that would embarrass a 7-year-old or trying to go back to pre-Hispanic religion: