Sunday, April 01, 2007

Pagan Crete

"A post-Christian man is not a pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce," wrote C.S. Lewis. "The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the pagan past," which is perhaps why some neo-pagan efforts have, at times, a Renaissance-fair vibe of geeky inauthenticity.

"Feel Her power in holy mountains, sense Her mysteries in the darkness of caves, pour out libations of milk and honey on Minoan altars" are among the many promises on offer for Crete goddess tours, which are by no means the only efforts to resuscitate paganism from aged stones of Greece.

The desire is, one must at least admit, understandable.

The Christian affirmation of God as Father puts God at considerable distance from the world rather than immanence to it, just as a father's role in birth is less proximate than a mother's. Such is, to the dismay of many, an essential part of God's revelation; so unless God-talk is all personal or social projection, it cannot be revised. But, one might object, isn't it more interesting to think of God as Mother, or as "world-soul," and hence to seek his/her/its presence in the myriad "sacred spaces" of the world, from Machu Picchu to Crete's Mount Ida? Isn't the pagan immanence of sacred trees and our own personal godhood much more exciting the the transcendence of the Judeo-Christian God who has chosen to name himself, certainly not male, but unavoidably as a transcendent, all powerful Father?

On my first afternoon in Crete, I looked at the sunset over those revered mountains, and wondered if as a Christian I was perchance wrong. A brief sadness came over me as I considered the enchantment of the pagan alternative. But then, either by serendipity or coincidence, I realized that the very place I was having such questions, from which I was enjoying the sunset, was one of the main bastions of the old Venetian walls, this one called the "Bastion of the Holy Spirit." Christianity, the bastion's name led me to recall, not only transmits the revelation of God as Father, beyond all human understanding or approach; but also confesses God the Holy Spirit, immanent in creation, hovering over the waters, immanent in us, either to convict of sin or indwell with reassuring presence and charismatic gift.

Music difficult for the neo-pagan to face is that their ideologies were not as much murdered as they died a natural death. Paganism, one could argue, lost its grip on the popular imagination of the Roman world because in the light of the truth of Christianity, the old deities couldn't measure up. Perhaps this is why neo-pagan attacks on Christianity devolve into "burning times" rhetoric rather than serious contestation of ideas. Christians could of course do the same, pointing to the uncountable Christ-followers murdered by pagans in the first three centuries of the church, but it is a strategy to which we need not resort. Rather than a victimology standoff, Christians can point to their own teachings to condemn regrettable witch burnings, and then get onto actual engagement. We might begin with the unjustly vilified Augustine (Confessions Book 10 chapter 6 for example), vilified perhaps because his ideas are ones neo-pagans cannot afford to squarely face.

One needs the transcendence of God to keep from the puzzling implications of pagan origin myths, which over five millenia haven't been able to much improve upon the sexing and slicing of Enuma Elish. One needs the incarnation to redeem the wrong, but not entirely wrong anthropomorphic theology of the Greek pantheon. And one needs the Spirit to redeem the genuine insight of divine immanence in paganism, the Spirit being closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Such ideas are compelling not because the Trinity is a more ingenious God-construct than paganism, such ideas are compelling because they are true. A democratic society must permit neo-paganism, but it also permits healthy competition, and to the extent that Christians discover their own tradition, neo-paganism won't be able to keep up. "The times of ignorance God overlooked," Paul said to the pagans of his day, but the times of ignorance are over, and rather than a robust reinvention, neo-paganism is a watered down version of the real thing.

As was recently said of John Travolta's acting career, paganism has so enjoyed making a comeback that it seems bent on soon needing to do so again.