No Other Gods: Three Questions That Can Help You Sift Pagan Chaff from Christian Grain

The Vision of the Cross - Circle of Raphael. (1520-24)

The Vision of the Cross – Circle of Raphael. (1520-24)

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem
“From shadows and images into truth”1 Various translations are possible, since imagines can be translated: ideas, appearances, phantasms, likenesses, simulacra, symbols, etc. For Newman, the darkness from which he had emerged could be described, in large part, as theological liberalism, but the phrase can likewise apply to paganism.
Blessed John Henry Newman’s memorial epitaph

Although many years ago now, I recall the young, eyebrow-pierced woman who told me, with no hint of embarrassment or regret, “I used to be Catholic, but now I’m pagan.” She did not say that she struggled with faith in Jesus, nor did she express anger toward the Church. For her, Christianity was simply irrelevant. Transcendental meditation, healing crystals, tarot cards and yoga had displaced the scriptures, liturgy, sacraments, and sacramentals of the New Covenant.

Pagans typically do not describe themselves as such. Usually they call themselves Druids, Thelemites, Odinists, Wiccans, Witches, or what have you, knowing that these terms denote variants of what is broadly called “paganism.” A pagan is one who worships the gods and goddesses of nature, rather than the transcendent God of the Bible.2 It is a matter of controversy whether the three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — confess different Gods or, rather, confess the same God while understanding and worshiping Him differently. It would be bad enough had the word “pagan” simply become as anodyne as, say, “left-handed,” but worse, it has become an honorific. Modern paganism is identified with spiritual perceptiveness, inner strength, freedom from narrow theology, and ecological sensitivity.

I was sorry to hear of the woman’s apostasy (if indeed she ever knew the basic tenets of Catholicism), but I wonder whether, under the right circumstances, she might actually be more receptive to a fresh hearing of the gospel than the convinced or — more often, perhaps — complacently ignorant secularist who brushes off all questions of the divine, the supernatural, or the religious. C.S. Lewis, not long before his death in 1963, wrote:

Christians and pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.… A post-Christian man is not a pagan; you may well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the pagan past.3 C.S. Lewis, They Asked for a Paper (1962), chap. 1, quoted in A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C.S. Lewis, ed. Clyde S. Kilby (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1980), p. 224. More recently, an Orthodox writer drew the distinction between the classical pagan and the postmodern unbeliever as follows: “There is a qualitative difference between the savage energy of the pagan heart and the paralytic morbidity of the post-Christian. Each comprises in itself a kind of nihilism, but the former is frequently unconscious of this, moved as it is by the vitality of natural appetites, dreads, and elations that can carry it from the world of the gods into the Kingdom of God; the latter is not only conscious of its nihilism, but proud of it, and easily converts private despair into general resignation, incuriosity, sterility — both animal and spiritual — and the pitiable charade of a kind of wry, disabused urbanity.” David B. Hart, “A Most Partial Historian,” First Things 138 (December 2003) 34-41, at 40.

Informing this observation is the patristic notion of a preparatio evangelii, the belief that pre-Christian religion was designed to prepare the way for the gospel. For the Church Fathers, a pagan is essentially a pre-Christian and thus “eminently convertible to Christianity”4 Lewis, “Is Theism Important? A Reply,” The Socratic Digest 5 (1952) 48-51, quoted in A Mind Awake, p. 246. — certainly more easily convertible than those whose minds are tightly closed to transcendence. That is because Christianity gives names to realities that pagans already know and experience: a longing for the infinite, the callous human willfulness that violates the natural order, a spiritual world that interacts with the human world, death as the gateway to liberation, and the sacramental imagination that views physical objects as potential carriers of spiritual power.

Lewis’ modern-day disciple, the philosopher Peter Kreeft (Boston College),5 On Lewis’ relevance for us late moderns, see Peter Kreeft, C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994). collectively refers to the ancient pagan religions as Old Paganism, which in some ways differs from New Paganism, that potpourri of beliefs and practices also known as New Age.6 Peter Kreeft, “Comparative Religions: Christianity and the New Paganism,” chap. in Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 102-106. Whereas Old Paganism asserted supreme powers and worshiped almost anything from Zeus to stars to snakes, New Paganism is ultimately in service of the self.7 From the New Age bestseller of Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations With God: An Uncommon Dialogue, Book 1 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995): “Passion is God wanting to say ‘hi.’… You need no outside authority to give you direction, no higher source to supply you with answers.… If you look to see what you feel about it, the answers will be obvious to you, and you will act accordingly.” The distinction is controversial among modern pagans, but a fair number of scholars view it as a useful means of distinguishing the forms of paganism practiced today and those of centuries past.8 See Michael F. Strmiska (ed.), Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives [Google eBook] (ABC-CLIO, 2005), pp. 9-10. The contributors to this book, some of whom are self-described pagans, provide a comprehensive treatment of the revivals of pre-Christian religion now taking place in continental Europe, the British Isles, and North America. In any event, pagan revivals are filling the spiritual void in post-Christian societies.9 According to the American Religious Identity Survey (ARIS) conducted by sociologists at the City University of New York in 2001, an estimated 307,000 Americans identified their religion as “Wicca, Pagan, or Druid.” A similar survey carried out in 1990 did not even mention these categories, which indicates how rapidly modern paganism, in its different forms, grew in just a decade. See Adherents.com; unfortunately, more recent figures are not given. The late Father Richard John Neuhaus observed that while only a tiny percentage of Americans identify their religion as New Age, millions of books on New Age spirituality are sold each year. Who, then, is buying them? People “who are very sure that they are Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, or Presbyterian but are also ‘into alternative spiritualities.’ ” Neuhaus quipped: “For most of them, the real alternative spirituality would be orthodox Christianity.”10 Richard John Neuhaus, “The Public Square,” First Things 116 (October 2001) 93.

How this came about is a topic for another day. Let me just suggest that it might have something to do with the secularization of the mainline Protestant churches and the banalization of Catholic worship. (Give us bread, not stones!) Christian spirituality, if it is to be authentic, must be grounded in the great tradition of Christian orthodoxy that has at its core the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early Church embodied in the historic creeds. It is inseparable from dogma. “By this you know the Spirit of God,” says Saint John the Evangelist: “Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God” (1 Jn 4:2-3).

II

No Catholic who values the “pearl of great price” (Mt 13:46) can afford to be ignorant of three great questions that particularly distinguish the Catholic Church from any other form of religion, whether pagan or revealed. These are: Who is Jesus Christ? How do human beings relate to God? And what is the ultimate fulfillment of human yearnings? Let us look at each of these questions in turn to see how the Catholic answer differs from that of New Age and its variations.11 I am relying principally on information provided by three easily available critiques of New Age from a Catholic perspective: Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life, published by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 12/20 August 2003 [special insert]); Mitch Pacwa, S.J., Catholics and the New Age (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1992); and Johnnette S. Benkovic, The New Age Counterfeit (Clearwater, FL: Living His Life Abundantly, 1993).

Who is Jesus Christ? For the New Ager, “the Christ” is a divine principle that Jesus embodied — but not only Jesus. The historical Jesus was but one manifestation of the divine Wisdom, one avatar or revelation of God among other “Christs” (Krishna, Lao-tsu, the Buddha, et al). He attained awareness of His divinity or “Christ consciousness” through transcendental meditation, yoga, and holistic health practices. All people are capable of attaining the same spiritual heights that Jesus did: the reuniting of human consciousness with the divine consciousness, which brings awareness of one’s higher, divine Self.

Obviously this is far from the Church’s faith, which professes that there is one God uniquely revealed to Israel and in Jesus Christ, the one Mediator of salvation for all people at all times (see 1 Tim 2:5). The Word perceived only vaguely and only partially outside of the Christian sphere is the divine Logos (Word) that “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). There was never a time when the Word/Son did not exist. The Father constantly, eternally begets the Son in the Holy Spirit, and the Son simultaneously loves the Father in the same Spirit by which He Himself is begotten. From the moment of the Incarnation, God (the Son) has a human nature as well as divine. Because Jesus’s human nature, or manhood, is inseparable from His divine nature, or Godhead, He could no more “earn” His divinity than you and I could earn our humanity. Jesus is the totality of Christ, for “in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” (Col 2:9)

We turn now to the question of communion with God. New Agers speak of the divine spark within each person. This sounds a bit like the divine image in which every human being is created (see Gen 1:26-27). It is what allows the Creator to be made manifest in art, in music, in philosophy, and what renders us capable of co-creation in the procreation of ever-new humanity. But there is a key difference between the divine spark as understood by modern pagans and the divine image that dwells within us. New Age religion is fundamentally pantheistic: God is the world — all things — and the world is God. The cult of self-worship is the logical unfolding of pantheism. Since all things has no consciousness of its own, God can experience itself as God only through parts of itself that do have consciousness, such as you and me. But all things is all there is, so there is really only one thing. Therefore we drop the distinction between the All and its parts: we are not just parts of God, we are God. And since there is only one of us, God is Me.

Biblical religion, on the other hand, maintains the distinction between Creator and creature, even if God’s grace really unites them. Wondrously made though we are (Ps 139:14), God we are not. Yet we cannot just leave it at that. Salvation, in the Christian understanding, means more than being forgiven and making it to heaven. Salvation is nothing less than being “divinized” in Christ by the gift of the Holy Spirit (see Gal 3:14). Through God’s adoption of us by grace (see Rom 8:14-16), which occurs at Baptism (see Jn 3:5; Acts 2:38; Tit 3:5-7), we are made indeed “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), sharers in the infinite splendor of God’s life, here and now, though we forever remain personally distinct from God. No need, then, to shy away from the idea of soaring to the heights of divinity, so long as we remember that divinization is the work of God’s Spirit, not ours.

Finally, the question of man’s final happiness. Many New Agers espouse the Hindu belief that persons survive death through reincarnation, but eventually lose their individuality. One is born over and over again while working off karma or bad experiences. At the end of this process, the soul blends into Nirvana, the blissful realm of the immortal, like a drop of water returning to the ocean. Others, more simply, view death as deliverance of the spiritual soul from the prison of the material body. Your true self is already immortal: you have only to realize it through philosophical self-scrutiny or yogic self-mastery. In any event, it is self-salvation through the dissolution of personality.

As alien as this account of the human life is to Christians (and Jews), it contains seeds of the truth fully revealed in Christ. To begin with, every human action has an effect on the soul for good or for ill. Each time we consciously accept, or else reject, the attractions and repulsions that sway us, we build up our moral personality—or, as the New Ager might say, we work on our karma. And because our moral personality is not only a matter of bodily habits but also of affections and habits of the soul, it will continue to exist after death in whatever state it was at the last moment of earthly life. In a very real sense, then, judgment goes on during this life and need not be repeated, but only manifested, after death. God’s judgment on us is simply a bringing to light of our moral personality, of what we have made of ourselves for eternity.

Another kernel of truth is the recognition that there can be no union with the divine without self-renunciation. For the New Ager, this consists in divesting the “unreal” personal self in order to unite with the impersonal Oneness, the divine universal Spirit. For the Christian, it means death to sin and life in conformity to God’s will (see Eph 4:22-24). This is the work of a lifetime, enabled and sustained by God’s grace. Those who die in the state of grace, but did not in this life achieve spiritual perfection, must undergo that process of maturation and growth toward full transformation in Christ, which the Catholic knows as “Purgatory.” Residual sin and its effects have no place in a Heaven of perfect love and communion with the Trinity (see Rev 21:27).

A final related observation: The Christian hope of immortality does not allow for reincarnation. “It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Heb 9:27) The human body is not a husk for the spiritual self, but an integral part of a body-soul unity. Salvation involves the whole person, not just the soul. On the Last Day, at the general judgment of mankind, the dead will rise, body and soul, to “a new heaven and a new earth.” (Rev 21:1) In our own resurrection, Christ will “change our lowly body to be like His glorious body.” (Phil 3:21) Bodily resurrection is an integral part of the renewal of all things that will take place when Christ returns in glory.

III

The union of humanity and divinity, the possibilities of mystical experience, the spiritual significance of nature — these and other New Age “discoveries” have always had their place in the theology and practice of the Church, where they have been refined in the light of Revelation and integrated into the fullness of truth. Our task is to show the pagans of whatever stripe in our society (and in our churches) that their deepest yearnings and intuitions are fulfilled by the special revelation of God in the gospel of Christ. In becoming man, God made the link between matter and spirit that most of us, even the atheists among us, feel to be the truth about ourselves: our spirit — the divine spark within our bosom — strives toward what is eternal and noble and good, but often finds itself mired in what is dehumanizing, paltry, and destructive of self and others. But the Word became flesh to restore and perfect His image in us by redeeming us from the powers of sin, death, and the demonic forces at work in history. And so the Christian walks by faith in hope, relying on the cosmic triumph of the love revealed in Christ.

Talking to that self-described pagan woman, and anxious about the Church’s waning influence on the life and values of our society, I found myself trying to imagine what the world would be like if the living God, the transcendent Source and End of all that is, had not broken into history. The gods are even more wicked, voracious, and capricious than their devotees. Human sacrifice defines the advanced civilizations; should the stream of human blood flowing in rivers and atop pyramids ever run dry, the sun might not rise the next morning. At every turn, the pixies, wood nymphs, and demons demand to be appeased. Compassion, humility, and willingness to forgive are not virtues, but weaknesses. Unknown is the inherent dignity and freedom of human beings created in the divine image; unvoiced is the precept to love one’s neighbors, never mind one’s enemies.

Perhaps, at some point in time, something like an Enlightenment would give birth to the natural sciences, demystifying the heavens and the earth, and banishing pagan ignorance (if not cruelties). “Perhaps,” I say, because the question has been raised whether modern science would have arisen at all were it not for the Christian confidence in an intelligible universe capable of investigation by minds created in the image of the Creator.12 See Stanley L. Jaki, The Savior of Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2000). Jaki, a Benedictine physicist and priest (1924–2009), examines failed attempts at a sustained science on the part of the ancient cultures of Greece, China, India, and the early Muslim empire. He argues that Christian monotheism alone provided a solid metaphysical foundation for scientific endeavor in the West.

It might be interesting to imagine what life would be like had the light of the Word not radiated into the wide world, but remained a flicker. But it is also helpful, because it brings home the consequence of discarding God foretold by the Second Vatican Council: “Without the Creator the creature would disappear.”13 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (1965), no. 36.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Various translations are possible, since imagines can be translated: ideas, appearances, phantasms, likenesses, simulacra, symbols, etc. For Newman, the darkness from which he had emerged could be described, in large part, as theological liberalism, but the phrase can likewise apply to paganism.
2. It is a matter of controversy whether the three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — confess different Gods or, rather, confess the same God while understanding and worshiping Him differently.
3. C.S. Lewis, They Asked for a Paper (1962), chap. 1, quoted in A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C.S. Lewis, ed. Clyde S. Kilby (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1980), p. 224. More recently, an Orthodox writer drew the distinction between the classical pagan and the postmodern unbeliever as follows: “There is a qualitative difference between the savage energy of the pagan heart and the paralytic morbidity of the post-Christian. Each comprises in itself a kind of nihilism, but the former is frequently unconscious of this, moved as it is by the vitality of natural appetites, dreads, and elations that can carry it from the world of the gods into the Kingdom of God; the latter is not only conscious of its nihilism, but proud of it, and easily converts private despair into general resignation, incuriosity, sterility — both animal and spiritual — and the pitiable charade of a kind of wry, disabused urbanity.” David B. Hart, “A Most Partial Historian,” First Things 138 (December 2003) 34-41, at 40.
4. Lewis, “Is Theism Important? A Reply,” The Socratic Digest 5 (1952) 48-51, quoted in A Mind Awake, p. 246.
5. On Lewis’ relevance for us late moderns, see Peter Kreeft, C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994).
6. Peter Kreeft, “Comparative Religions: Christianity and the New Paganism,” chap. in Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 102-106.
7. From the New Age bestseller of Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations With God: An Uncommon Dialogue, Book 1 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995): “Passion is God wanting to say ‘hi.’… You need no outside authority to give you direction, no higher source to supply you with answers.… If you look to see what you feel about it, the answers will be obvious to you, and you will act accordingly.”
8. See Michael F. Strmiska (ed.), Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives [Google eBook] (ABC-CLIO, 2005), pp. 9-10. The contributors to this book, some of whom are self-described pagans, provide a comprehensive treatment of the revivals of pre-Christian religion now taking place in continental Europe, the British Isles, and North America.
9. According to the American Religious Identity Survey (ARIS) conducted by sociologists at the City University of New York in 2001, an estimated 307,000 Americans identified their religion as “Wicca, Pagan, or Druid.” A similar survey carried out in 1990 did not even mention these categories, which indicates how rapidly modern paganism, in its different forms, grew in just a decade. See Adherents.com; unfortunately, more recent figures are not given.
10. Richard John Neuhaus, “The Public Square,” First Things 116 (October 2001) 93.
11. I am relying principally on information provided by three easily available critiques of New Age from a Catholic perspective: Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life, published by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 12/20 August 2003 [special insert]); Mitch Pacwa, S.J., Catholics and the New Age (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1992); and Johnnette S. Benkovic, The New Age Counterfeit (Clearwater, FL: Living His Life Abundantly, 1993).
12. See Stanley L. Jaki, The Savior of Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2000). Jaki, a Benedictine physicist and priest (1924–2009), examines failed attempts at a sustained science on the part of the ancient cultures of Greece, China, India, and the early Muslim empire. He argues that Christian monotheism alone provided a solid metaphysical foundation for scientific endeavor in the West.
13. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (1965), no. 36.