And that is the main difference between the neopagans and the pagans. The pagans are pre-Christian, men who, by force of imagination alone, attempt to plumb the depth of the mystery of the divine, and who, in addition to many vile and terrible practices and grotesque superstitions, from time to time also illume with striking clarity the sorrow of this world and the joyous and terrible weight of awe which reaches beyond the world.
You see, the neopagans are not pagans. Neopagans believe in the modern therapeutic view of the world, as if life’s problems are merely an illness which can be solved, perhaps with help from the divine nurses and physicians of the mystic Otherworld, by meditating or by dancing naked among the trees, either in this life or some hither cycle of reincarnation. This is a modern and optimistic view, and deeply shallow.
There are no Vestal Virgins among the neopagans, and I would delight in the irony of seeing neopagans indulging in ancestor worship, paying divine honors to their Christian great-grandfathers and mothers.
The pagans, in contrast, think life tragic, and they preach resignation to what cannot be solved. Those who are shocked that I and other Christians list Buddhists among the pagans underestimate the resignation and self-abnegation and Stoic despair that pervades the thinking of the Enlightened One. It is a profoundly pessimistic view.
Buddhism is not as pessimistic as materialism, however, which preaches that all human thought is matter in motion, which stops when the motion stops, and all human accomplishment ends in obliteration, and all worlds end in entropy. There is not even a re-absorption of an illusion of “self” back into the world-soul of Nirvana for the materialist. For at least the Buddha hoped for freedom from the illusion of self with the extinction of selfhood. The materialist preaches that the illusion that you exist and have free will and think cannot be broken, cannot end save in death, which is perfect extinction. Atheism is subpagan, and even subneopagan.
Christianity is outrageously pessimistic about this world and this life, and outrageously optimistic about the next. Christians do not believe heaven on earth is possible, and that attempts to create it lead to hell on earth; but we believe in heaven in heaven is possible for those who are saved from hell in hell.
The main metaphysical difference between pagans and neopagans is that neopagans — at least the ones of my personal acquaintance, and I do not know if they are typical — think they get to choose their gods.
They think — at least if I understand them, which perhaps I do not — that the act of worship activates and awakens and shapes the god or his manifestations. The divine energy is like a river, and whatever pantheon you select is like the vessels of different shapes which the sacred fluid of divinity fills, so that the god will come in the shape you select.
For the modern witch, the only truth is that there is no truth, merely narratives, including a pagan narrative that you have selected for yourself on aesthetic or therapeutic grounds. You believe in Isis on Friday and Odin on Wednesday and Cernunnos the Horned Man on Monday because you want to and it helps you. And on the Sabbath you believe in a combination of Theosophy and Taoism and Tantric magic.
This view implies a metaphysical theory, and, as is typical and unique to modernity, this theory places the will of the observer as the paramount determiner of the nature of reality: you make your own life and you make your own reality. Why not make your own gods?
The belief that nothing exists except for the willpower of man to make what he wishes of the chaos of the cosmos is nihilism, the absence of belief in ultimate reality. I do not mean the word as an insult; I am using it in a technical sense, for no other word will do. It is the defining belief of postmodern and ultra-relativistic thought.
The neopagans are post-Christians who are attempting to baptize their postmodern and metaphysically nihilist world view in the sacred images and names of the Old Gods so as to leave them with the indulgent and avuncular gods who are more like Santa Claus than Odin, and goddesses who, unlike Vesta, never insist upon virginity.
The neopagans believe in “live and let live” not because any real pagans ever believed that, but because Christendom, believing in the unique worth of the individual and the voluntary nature of obedience to God, believe in a private conscience beyond the reach of secular power, and made that belief popular.
And now the the neopagans, raised in a large Christian society with Christian philosophical assumptions in their intellectual background, want the tasty pudding of the Christendom without eating the meat of the Church’s strictly rational theology, the potatoes of her spiritual discipline of its contemplative life, and the vegetables of its strict morality.
Neopaganism is Christianity without the starch. It is lax Christianity for a relaxed generation.
They sit at the shining feast table of the Christian intellectual universe, and, ravenous with spiritual starvation, dare not eat the substance, lest their eyes be opened, and so they feast on scented shadows, echoes, and dim reflections.
The dude can write. No wonder I’m a member of the Wright/Shea Mutual Admiration Society.
Fun in the comboxes too.