I tend to ignore Camp Catholic here at Patheos, and I daresay most of them are inclined to overlook that fact that this site is brimming with unapologetic capital-P, multiple-gods-worshiping, Pagans. Despite the fact that Catholics got most of their best bits from pre-Christian religion and culture, we tend to have a relationship that is less than cordial. In any case, I’m a live-and-let-live sort of guy, a peaceful polytheist content to serve my own community as best I can. However, every now and then someone waves a red flag in my general direction, yells “Toro,” and I feel the need to respond. I mean, how can you not when you see a headline like this…
Sadly, Marc “Bad Catholic” Barnes is not actually converting to one of the many permutations of modern Paganism. Instead he’s making a point about how anemic and wussy post-Christian secular culture is by praising the perceived he-man heroism of pre-Christian societies.
“The pagans, by which I refer to pre-Christian Western man, may have been unwilling to accept that strange doctrine of the Son of Man, but they willingly accepted that they were sons of men. They may not have known how to be Christian, but they knew how to be human. The post-Christian, having left Christ, is in the busy process of altogether leaving Man. With respect to those delivering our daily mail, one might say we are moving increasingly to the Age of the Post-Man.”
I would point out that Barnes’ view of pre-Christian cultures is not only Romantic, but reductive, a caricature of the complex lives ancient pagans lived (the ancient world had plenty of bureaucrats, poets, and pacifists), but I want to instead focus on another assertion he makes.
“The Pagan world awaited Christ as a virgin awaits her bridegroom. In her myth and legend she whispered of Christ. The post-Christian world leaves Christ as an adulteress. In her timidity and weariness she slanders His name. They are both without the fullness of Truth, but oh, how much happier the Pagans must have been.”
He, of course, quotes C.S. Lewis, because he’s the go-to guy who helped popularize the myth of religious evolution, but he’s far from the only one. J.R.R. Tolkein held this view, as did the artist John Singer Sargent, whose controversial “Triumph of Religion” mural series was inspired by the philosopher Ernest Renan. All believed that Christianity was a religious evolutionary endpoint. That more capital-T “Truth” and capital-L “Light” filtered into the history of religion until finally Jesus was born, the final Truth was revealed, and all other faiths would shrivel and die in the wake of that revelation, their theologies now obsolete in the face of the final sacrifice. This birthed the consistent idea that ancient pagans were silently longing for Christ, but just didn’t know him yet ( a sentiment repeated by Pope Benedict in 2007, when he intimated that indigenous populations were “longing” for the faith of the colonizers).
The problem with evolutionary religious theory is that it’s poetic nonsense, a selective reading of history and religion to suit a triumphalist idea. It came of an age where many people, still grappling with Darwin’s theory of evolution, started applying it to just about everything. This was not only wrong, but fed into the idea that Caucasian European Christians were the pinnacle of human achievement, a destructive idea that still will not die (ironically, the misapplication of evolutionary theory on folk songs and customs helped jump-start modern Paganism, but that’s another story). Without going too far into it, it’s easy to see how many horrors and “sins” of the modern world actually began with the idea that there was one true way, and that all other ways were not fit for survival, respect, or preservation.
The truth is that polytheism, and other non-monotheistic belief systems, never went anywhere. They have survived just fine to the present day, though often victims of brutal repression and discrimination (and then accused of being “primitive” despite weathering these storms). The myth of a Christian end-point used by countless apologists of colonizers hell-bent on eliminating non-Christian religions in the “New World,” Asia, and Africa (the indigenous religions of Europe thought long dead). These surviving non-Christian religions aren’t “evolving” into Christianity, and the dominant monotheisms are still exerting massive political and cultural power to wipe them out.
Finally, returning to the pernicious idea of he-man warrior-pagans who were awesome and nothing like the girly-men of secular culture, I’d point Mr. Barnes to David Brin’s epic take-down of Frank Miller’s hero-worship of the Spartans, pointing out that it was the citizen-soldiers of Athens who truly saved Western civilization.
“Expressed repeatedly – with the relentlessness of deliberate, moralizing indoctrination – “300” idolizes the same arrogant contempt for citizenship that eventually ruined classical Greece and Republican Rome, and that might bring the same fate to America.”
Yes, the ancient world had bad-asses living in it, warriors who performed amazing feats of bravery, but it was also full of humanitarians, early scientists and doctors, thinkers, and simple folk who only wanted to live the best life possible. Barnes’ mocks the “Americanized silliness that seems to be under the impression that Paganism largely comprised of the eating of the proper roots at the proper times and idolizing liberal politicians..” without realizing that Ancient Rome was full of “liberal” politicians who helped build things like democracy and representative government (not to mention the “social safety net”). For every romantic superhero like Mark Antony, there was a Cicero, working hard to make sure the early forms of our government worked. Those men were often killed to make way for tyranny, but they also made our modern world possible.
The ancient world is far more diverse, complex, strange, and wonderful than anyone can truly imagine, but it was still human in the same way we today are human. Despite the assertions of the “Bad Catholic,” we have not lost that humanity, nor are we so far from the minds who shaped the world we live in today.