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  Reappraising Paganism

Reappraising Paganism

Hot Blood for Our Religious Impulses

Getty/Czgur

“For many centuries paganism has been treated in the West as a pariah.”

I keep waiting for the spirit of ecumenism to expand beyond tolerance to a deep appreciation of other religious traditions, and not only an appreciation but also a genuine reliance on unfamiliar ways for spiritual insight. I also keep waiting for ecumenism to expand beyond the world's major religions to include the minor ones as well and finally to cross a real threshold by rediscovering the validity and value of paganism.

For many centuries paganism has been treated in the West as a pariah. The devil himself is often depicted with the cloven hooves, horns, and small hairy body of the great pagan god Pan. It isn't easy for me to understand the vitriolic, hate-filled comments of Christian writers, early and current, on pagan religion, but I think it could be important to pinpoint the nature of the conflict.

When we suppress paganism, we may also inadvertently suppress many values inherent in our own tradition, values that could breathe new life into our religious practice: the spirituality inherent in nature, the sacralization of every facet of life, a helpful complexification of moral sensibilities, and a concrete, effective approach to ritual.

The word "pagan" comes from the Latin paganus, one who lived in a small village. We might translate this as "hick," someone from the boondocks. Part of the problem many of us have with paganism might be our feeling of superiority over those people who live in the country and believe in fairies, spirits, and ghosts. But those same people are dose to nature and benefit from its spirituality. Not only their lives, but also their beliefs are relatively free of the dry rationalism that keeps our religion a largely mental affair. Paganism is the hot blood in the religious impulse.

Western theologians have complained about pagan stories of philandering deities, but such an objection can come only from a grossly literalistic reading of mythology. The love of Mars and Venus, for instance, as many Renaissance writers pointed out, portrays the odd coupling in all of life of beauty and power, or sex and aggression. I find the pagan stories at least as profound and moral as any Christian or Jewish tale, and they fill in many gaps in theological reflection on daily experience. Paganism saw spirituality everywhere, while the monotheistic religions tend to emphasize a spirituality of belief and morality.

Paganism also honored nature as revealing divinity rather than being at odds with it. To us a weekend camping trip is a secular vacation, but to a pagan a hike into the woods is a spiritual, religious activity, an entering into the precinct of divinities every bit as alive and present as our own. In paganism, everything has its presiding deity. Maybe the deeper problem we have with paganism lies in our own understanding of religion. We have yet to discover what the great Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer found in a Nazi prison: the God beyond our definitions and conceptualizations of God. If our idea of the divine were truly profound, and not limited by our prized mental categories and political agendas, then we might understand that the gods and goddesses of pagan polytheism are images of ineffable divinity as much as the Christian Gospel is an incomplete picture of the infinitely divine. If and when we reappraise paganism, we may find a pure theology for ourselves that would quicken everyday life and be profoundly ecumenical.

My own life and work have been profoundly influenced by the Renaissance scholar Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), who was both priest and magus, physician and astrologer. I was astonished the first time I walked into the cathedral in Florence, Italy, when I looked up and saw on the wall above me the bust of Ficino with his title: Father of Platonic Theology. Here was a devout Christian priest whose theology embraced both Christianity and paganism, and I have yet to find a theologian more sensitive, enchanting, and life-affirming.

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