Tuesday, 18 March 2008


Recently, Mark Shea has tackled the subject of Paganism in a three-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3), and has managed to raise the ire of a number of folk who apply that label to themselves. Shea's approach to Paganism is informed by that of G.K.Chesterton, particularly as presented in The Everlasting Man, a book which i was lucky enough to be given last Christmas. In this view, Paganism is not something to be scorned in and of itself, for it is an attempt to apprehend the divine, and is the expression of man's natural capacity for religion. The way Chesterton explains it, Christianity is the logical end-point of Paganism; it shares with the mythologies the expression of religious truths through story, but unlike the mythologies it also unequivocably states that the story is true, really real, and that the God of these stories has come among us as a man, and is still among us to this day.

This way of looking at Paganism seemed to me very positive, affirming that it is an attempt to attain truth. Where Shea seems to have struck a nerve with the online Pagans is the way in which he characterises post-Christian paganism, calling it a 'divorcee' (as opposed to the 'virgin' of pre-christian paganism). Basically, Mark claims that post-Christian paganism, rather than being a search for truth, is a reaction to christianity and an attempt to flee from God.

I came across a post on the Wildhunt blog which responded to Mark's writing about post-Christian pagans by characterising it as part of a continuing Catholic anti-pagan pile-on, motivated by contempt. As evidence, they quote this paragraph from Mark:

"Finally, in these latter days, 'pagan' has taken yet another turn and is now used in some circles as a compliment. Among a growing number of people, 'pagan' now means 'post-Christian religionist who is attempting to rescue reverence for Nature from the hands of evil Judeo-Christian earth rapists.' The notion behind this version of 'pagan' is that there was once a magical far-off time when humans dwelt in harmony with Mother Earth, everybody was comfortable with their various Jungian archetypes, and all was well as we worshiped the 'gods' and 'goddesses' who both expressed the beauty of Nature and got us in touch with our inmost selves (and lots of libido, to boot). Who needs all that stuff about sin, dying to self and the need for redemption? The great blunder of the human race was when the old gods were swept away by the evil Judeo-Christian God."

The thing is, this does indeed characature the Wildhunt's approach to Christianity, so it is hard to see what they have to complain about. Look, for instance, at their post regarding the Brisbane priest who has been baptising with an invalid formula. In this matter, it is obvious that these Pagans are well-intentioned in thinking the baptismal formula should be able to take a gender-neutral form. What they don't seem to take into account is that Catholics actually believe in God, and that He has made a revelation about himself. We cannot just make it up as we go along, because that would be saying that it is all man made and the Gospels are not true. Of course, with Paganism, you can do that sort of thing, cos most Pagans are happy with the idea that Zeus or Apollo or Dionysus are as much products of the imagination as they are aspects of reality.

What has been even more interesting than Mark's original Paganism pieces have been the engagement with Pagans that have resulted. There was a little back and forth with a Pagan who took issue with some of his points. The discussion continued here, here and here, and there is little point in me re-hashing Mark's discussions. The best point, though, was made by one of Mark's commenters, Fuinseoig, who made the following contribution:

Dear Whoever-You-Are

Yes, you are playing dress-up. Because no matter what costume you may wear, nor what rituals you may practice, they are reconstructions.

Whether you venerate the Dagda, Odin, Osiris or Jupiter Optimus Maximus, you are not following an organic, developing, living tradition that has survived down through the centuries and has been handed down as a genuine cultural survival. You are following a reconstructed, best-guess-by-archaeolgists, here's what the papyrus scraps are deciphered to say, X wrote his seminal work on this back in the 1930s, Y spearheaded the revival in 1970 and today Z has reformulated it for the 21st Century estimation.

Now, if you wanted to be a Buddhist (of whatever tradition) or a Hindu, or an Animist, then maybe I'd listen. Because those are living religions that have lasted and have a verifiable history.

But the Gardiner/Mead/Whomever mishmash that passes for modern Wicca and Pagandom and Heathenry - no, sorry. My ancestors left all that behind 1,500 years ago and I'm not inclined to go back.

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