One of the most significant developments in the Western world today is the growth of neo-paganism. The manifestations of this are everywhere—in the arts, in the churches, and within intellectual and social life. Daily its influence grows.
What is it? In a sense it’s a new renaissance, a going back to pre-Christian sources. Just as in the 14th century, after more than 1,000 years of Christianity, many European artists and intellectuals reached back in time to draw inspiration from poets, artists, mythologists and philosophers who lived before the time of Christ, so too today. More and more intellectuals, artists, and even theologians are turning to pre-Christian and non-Christian sources for inspiration, energy and direction.
In the men’s movement, in feminism, in New Age religions, and in activity around Stonehenge, Celtic mythology and North American native religions, as well as in Jungian circles and in graduate schools in anthropology, one sees the attempt to draw energy, inspiration, morality and principles for contact with the divine and with each other from, among other things, pre-Christian myths, fairy tales, Celtic mythology and tribal religion.
Bookstores abound with a new literature on the sacredness of nature, the cycles of the animal body, the moon, the goddess, the eagle, body heat, ritual initiation and ritual scarring, tribal religion, and the wisdom hidden in fairy tales.
A generation ago, books on these topics would have been outrightly suspect or at least banished to the realms of the esoteric. Today they are becoming mainstream and the ideas they contain are becoming ever more influential.
What’s to be said about this neo-paganism? Some people think that it is devil-inspired, antiChristian and highly dangerous. Others see it as the source for an insight and an energy that Christianity has for too long neglected. Who’s right?
The answer, to my mind, lies somewhere between the extremes. Just as nearly 600 years ago the Renaissance was a mixed blessing for Christianity, so too this neo-paganism. It must be approached judiciously. To embrace it uncritically or to reject it out of hand as antiChristian are both dangerously naive.
There is much that is good in it. Talk about wisdom contained in mythology, goddess energy, Celtic myths, the moon, tribal religion, sacred birds, body heat and hairy erotic monsters hidden within the human psyche can be pretty scary, but, of themselves, there is nothing within these that necessarily goes against what is Christian.
In a culture and a church which draws energy too one-sidedly from the rational, which is almost completely deaf to ritual and mysticism, and which has, for the last some centuries, too much ignored, broken, and denigrated its relationship to nature and to the body, such talk will surely help bring about a better balance. It will also, as is already evident, be the source of a rich stream of energy and insight.
Conversely, though, there are many dangers in this new (old) thought. Its tenets and the energy it creates must be examined critically by Christians. God does speak through what’s best in mythology, tribal religion and the archetypal configurations of energy within the animal body; but that wisdom is, in the end, dwarfed (though never ruled out) by what is spoken through positive revelation (Hebrews 1:1).
As well, too often the proponents of this new paganism, in the first fervor of rich discovery, degenerate into a brand of fundamentalism that none but the most narrow of Christian fundamentalists ever approximate.
Thus, for example, the Christian fundamentalist contends that AIDS is God’s punishment upon a sexually promiscuous world whereas the neopagan fundamentalist (for example, Tom Robbins) contends that AIDS is caused not by sexual licence, “but by fear of sexual license, by the conservative DNA’s inability to adjust to hedonism… and… by guilt over the suppression of the Great Mother and the denial of the sensuality that so frequently underscored her coexistence with the void.”
Neo-paganism also contains within it a number of inherent propensities that perennially spark a set of temptations which must be sharply monitored, namely, temptations to forget that this life is not the only life, to parade sex as soteriology, and try to redress centuries of stress on rationality, order, patriarchy and pedagogy by denying entirely any goodness or value to these at all.
Neo-paganism is a rich, though mixed, blessing. It should be received by a spirit that is both very open and very critical.