Embracing Our Pagan Heritage

Embracing Our Pagan Heritage February 20, 2016

(Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of London. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).
(Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of London. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).

Most of the time Catholics recoil when they’re called pagans. This line, popular among fundamentalist Protestants is, of course, offensive and wrong. At the same time, there is a certain sense in which I find it important to celebrate our “pagan” heritage. After all, lumping us in that camp puts us alongside Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and (why not) Odysseus.

Why think about this now? Earlier today I read a relatively reasonable defense of why Catholics aren’t Christians. I call it “reasonable,” not because it even approaches being correct, but because it manages to break its case down into coherent bullet points and maintain an air of respect. Of course, the charge of paganism came up: “Although we (that is, Protestants) would hold that God certainly saves Roman Catholics, they cannot remain one for long, as the Holy Spirit reveals to them His truth and they break free of doctrinal paganism and idolatry.”

Now, I’m a medievalist, and most texts I read are swimming with pagan myth, pagan science, and yes, even pagan philosophy (itself influencing theology). Boethius’ Lady Philosophy speaks of “my Plato.” Aquinas calls Aristotle “the Philosopher.” Belloc composes poems about wine reminiscent of Greek symposia. But pagan influence runs deeper. In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that Dionysius the Areopagite, from Acts, was Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a Neoplatonic, mystical theologian, who himself was the same person as Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris. So, to the medieval Christian, it made perfect sense that a pagan, Athenian judge would convert, move to France, and then write books about how no predicate could wholly appropriately be applied to God. These sorts of conflations were common; after all, whether East or West, the medieval empires saw themselves as carrying forward the Roman legacy: culturally, scientifically, and historically. What better way to do so than to conflate the pagan, the highly-pagan-influenced Christian, and the overtly Christian?

This desire is rooted both in the accomplishments of the pagan past and of the accomplishments many ancient Fathers achieved using pagan philosophical language. One need only look to the Neoplatonism of early Christian thinkers like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa to see why. In fact, Neoplatonism helped to provide adherents of the faith with a language to explain the Trinity, which, as you can imagine required difficult and careful explication.

References to Roman mythology continued to color even medieval science. Alain de Lille writes the following in his De planctu naturae:

However much all man’s good looks bow humbly down to woman’s beauty, being ever inferior to it in fair grace, however much beauty of countenance serves the daughter of Tyndareus, and comely Adonis and Narcissus are overcome and worship her, she is herself despised, though that fair face may carry the day and her godlike form maintain that she is a goddess for whose sake the thunderbolt would lie idle in Jupiter’s right hand, every string of Phoebus’ harp would grow slack and inactive, a freeman would become a slave and Hippolytus would sell his personal chastity to enjoy her love.

Here, this passage is translated in prose, but it’s actually verse, written in traditional elegiac meter, that is, in Latin (long the language of pagans) in a way long-favored by pagans. Alain, a monk and famous (to his contemporaries anyway) theologian, also has a sentence or two devoted to the less polite-to-discuss parts of the female form, in good, ancient, erotic fashion. In other words, he, despite being a priest, is more than willing to make use of his pagan heritage.

Even among only quasi-Romanized peoples, like the Britons, connection to this wondrous and erudite pagan past was desirable. For example, in his rather fanciful Historia Regnum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth has Britain settled by Brutus, a refugee from Troy:

At that time the name of the island was Albion, and of none was it inhabited save only of a few giants. Natheless the pleasant aspect of the land, with the abundance of fish in the rivers and deer in the choice forests thereof did fill Brute and his companions with no small desire that they should dwell therein. Wherefore, after exploring certain districts of the land, they drove the giants they found to take refuge in the caverns of the mountains, and divided the country among them by lot according as the Duke made grant thereof. They begin to till the fields, and to build them houses in such sort that after a brief space ye might have thought it had been inhabited from time immemorial. Then, at last, Brute calleth the island Britain, and his companions Britons, after his own name, for he was minded that his memory should be perpetuated in the derivation of the name. Whence afterward the country.

Forgive the weird, archaic translation. Anyway, I could go on and on.

We Catholics, from the earliest Fathers to contemporaries like Jean-Luc Marion, are proud of this heritage. And, while we are Christians and most certainly not pagans, I’m happy to have the tradition. Athens and Jerusalem have met, to mutual benefit, I might add.


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