Theological Fun With Pope Benedict

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 30, 2007 — 4 Comments

Pope Benedict XVI has released his newest encyclical on the theme of Christian hope. Entitled “Spe Salvi” (saved by hope), the work muses on Christian salvation, redemption, and the role of prayer in Christian life, but it wouldn’t be Benedict (the artist formerly known as Cardinal Ratzinger) without inflating the triumphal claims of Catholicism at the expense of polytheist forms of religion!

“Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were “without God” and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future … Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future… Myth had lost its credibility; the Roman State religion had become fossilized into simple ceremony which was scrupulously carried out, but by then it was merely “political religion”. Philosophical rationalism had confined the gods within the realm of unreality. The Divine was seen in various ways in cosmic forces, but a God to whom one could pray did not exist.”

There are quite a few problems with Benedict’s argument, a primary one is the confusion of mythological stories with the living and breathing religion being practiced at the time. The assumption that Roman polytheists had no hope for a pleasant afterlife, when in fact they had a systematic afterlife that included judgment, rewards, and punishments, and the characterization of Roman religious ritual as a clockwork obligation that had no belief or passion. The bugbear here for Benedict is the specter of “philosophical rationalism”, which along with relativism leads (in his view) to all manner of horrors, including the destruction of Christianity (and which, in his view, drained the life out of Roman polytheism).

Not that we should expect a fair hearing from the Pontiff, after all, this is the same Pope who claims that the Nazis were a “Neo-Pagan” invention, and not a product spawned from centuries of Christian antisemitism. Having said that, there were some other interesting things said in the Pope’s latest missive to the world, including some words on prayer that won’t make certain evangelical Christians very happy.

“He emphasized that prayer should not be isolating and should not focus on superficial objectives. Nor can people pray against others, he said. “To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness,” he said.”

It seems very likely that he is pointing his finger at prosperity gospel folks and certain stripes of “prayer warriors”, who “target” people of influence with prayer. It should be interesting if any reporters pick up on this jab at non-Catholic forms of Christianity. As for the Pope and Paganism, you would think that a man as learned as Benedict would hesitate to create religious straw-men to bat down. There are plenty of valid criticism of polytheistic systems, but portraying Roman polytheists as without hope and “lost” to nihilistic darkness is petty and untrue.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Copper Asetemhat Stewart

    Thanks much for this post and the stand it takes.I am willing to believe that for many individuals, birth religions can be alienating. Those Christians who voluntary chose to leave Paganism were obviously disaffected, and it’s easy to understand why women and slaves would embrace the early forms of the religion. There was indeed a moment for some classes in which Christianity had liberating potential. In general terms, however, it became the state and Roman Catholicism still preserves that strongly in the concept of the Magisterium and Vatican nationhood.So maybe Benedict and Paul agree exactly, but maybe Paul was also talking to an audience of individuals he had met or whose religious journey he had heard narrated.My experience of converting to Paganism (after a varied search) was one of finding a way to uncover, express and nurture the deep hope that was already buried within me. For me, Paganism sustains a hope that seems native to the human being. In the ancient world and today, (Like Hinduism, the Spirit Lodge, and Afro-Carribean religion) it offers alternative epistemologies and ways of subjectively knowing the afterlife. While this “knowledge” is subjective, it does seem that ancient testimonies about Eleusis demonstrate that beliving Pagans found many ways to be hopeful. Egyptian concepts of the afterlife are intensely hopeful, sensual, beautiful, joyful–and in the later period if not before, universally accessible.

  • Erik

    Well said, Copper! Of all the paths I’ve walked in my life, it’s the pagan ones that have given me the deepest understanding of myself and my relationship to the world/divine, and the greatest cause for hope and joy.

  • Anonymous

    ” the Roman State religion had become fossilized into simple ceremony which was scrupulously carried out, but by then it was merely “political religion”.”Change that to present tense Benedict. It IS fossilized and has become a political religion.

  • mrsriggins

    Thanks for posting! Copper, I couldn’t agree more. I was raised strictly Catholic but I always felt like a black sheep- feeling things that were defined as “evil” by my local priest. When I first told my family I was converting to Paganism they were horrified as if I had made a pact with the devil. This was until they saw how happy it made me. Being pagan has made me find love and peace within myself. I don’t ‘hate’ the church or anyone in it for their past doings to me. I encourage people to find their own faith- be it christian, pagan, buddhist, etc. As long as that religion leads you to be a better more peaceful and loving person than it is a good one. Pagans I have to say are the most accepting non-prejudiced group (as a whole) I have ever come across. So it saddens me that people would speak out against my chosen religion so. Christians picket pagan stores and gatherings- even books with pagan themes such as harry potter. It’s hurtful for a religion that has been told to love and not hate, to turn the other cheek. You won’t find a group of pagan picketing outside of Sunday mass or burning bibles (well maybe some have but none I know of.) I think they should all reflect on such thought before making such prejudiced comments. Especially people like the pope who have more sway with the general public.