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Redeeming Paganism in Christianity

Posted on: December 22, 2019

Category: Theology

Redeeming Paganism in Christianity

Quest Thoughts: Redeeming Paganism in Christianity
When Christianity rose as a Roman imperial religion, pagan began to take on the derogatory meaning of individuals who were backward, ignorant, and immoral. Paganism is related to the French word “payee,” which means country. The originating Latin word, pagus, was a marker used to set boundaries. Pagan is behind the English word peasant.

The tone of “immoral” in the word paganism no doubt has something to do with how Paul and other biblical writers interpreted the people of the nations (the Gentiles) as shameless idolaters. The whole history of Christianity as a colonial power setting out to convert the world to Christ is wrapped up in the ancient Christian view of idolatry among the nations and the pejorative sense that the word pagan acquired when Christianity became a political force in the West.

Paganism per se is not really a word to describe religious practices. Only after the Renaissance and in the early modern period does paganism become a collective reference to all forms of nature-centred religion. Paganism starts to hold integrity as a synonym for indigenous religious practices. Interestingly, it is worth pointing out that the word “Christianity,” too, was never a collective term for all forms of Christ-following until later in the fifth and sixth centuries.

It is impossible to state generalities about paganism because every form of indigenous religion is quite unique, but there are practices that seem universal. These practices consist of rituals related to the seasons, to acts of forgiveness and reconciliation, to the relationship with nature (like agricultural gods and creation stories), and, as with Romans and Greeks, forms of auguring the future.

Christianity inherited from Paul a different reading of paganism because Paul knew the “gods” of his time in the context of Roman imperial religion. For Paul, “paganism,” a word he did not use, was about Roman gods violently colonizing the Jews and the Greeks. Rome displayed its imperial gods as conquerors of the nations. To Paul, with some justification, the display of gods as imperial powers was irreligious. The crucified god, the god who suffered imperial violence, was the true god for Paul. We must conclude that Paul did not really talk about paganism when he talked about idolatry, but Christianity subsequently interpreted paganism generally in this way.

Outside the context of ancient Rome, paganism, in a collective sense, is about the human relationship to and with nature. Paganism gives the forces of nature divine identity. As the earth moves through its seasonal transformations, names like (in Greek mythology) Horae, the goddess of seasons, and Persephone, the goddess who returns spring, mark the cycles of life. Creating relationships with the natural world and finding ways to talk about the fate of being human are two distinct and interesting ways indigenous religions develop. No one has to take the indigenous gods literally—just like no one has to take the Christian god literally—to see how these traditions can create in our psyches respect for the environment and for one another.

Does Christianity need to re-capture forms of “pagan” identity? Can Christianity today benefit from seeing “paganism” as a companion to its gospel? Insofar as the Christian tradition has integrated, in its history, indigenous traditions with its own story, then the answer is yes. Christmas is already pagan in the sense that it is about a festival of lights marking the lengthening of days. Easter is already pagan in the sense that it is about the return of the creative, new life of spring. Autumn in Christianity is already pagan in the sense that it is about honouring the memory of the past.

What happens in the Christian tradition, I think because of its monotheism and because of its historic interpretation of paganism as idolatry, is that Christianity often forgets its own pagan origins. Christianity tends to objectify paganism, ridiculing its spirituality as an illusion of people lost in some way. Objectification depersonalizes people and nature, turning others into “them” and “they” in place of seeing the spiritual integrity of the natural world and sharing compassion with all forms of life. Christianity could indeed benefit from returning to its understanding the sense of spirituality found in paganism.

What is difficult for Christianity is that it does not easily have a language to honour nature; its monotheistic beliefs honour a transcendental, all-powerful, and distant deity whose only relationship to the earth is through sacrificial violence. The Christian deity often has very little to do with natural life, with the integrity of plants and animals, with the earth as “Gaia” (a living, organic, and inter-related ecosystem), and with decolonized respect for other peoples and religions. Christianity could indeed learn from and change through contact with its pagan heritage and in relationship with contemporary indigenous traditions. It could learn that the confession of Christ is not a confession of belief. It is rather a commitment to see on our shared planet and in our diverse cultures the Christ nature, that is, the integrity of objects now converted to subjects, of enemies now converted to brothers and sisters, and of the earth now converted to the living and sustaining body we all need to deeply love.

To everyone who receives Quest blogs and who sometimes agrees and sometimes disagrees with me, thank you for your support, and I hope all of us can experience a Christmas that does not forget that the celebration is about the beauty of nature and the divinity of all people.

©By David Galston

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