On the same day the Patheos editors put my post Are We Bringing Sin Into Paganism? on the front page, they also featured a post titled The Re-Paganing of America and God’s Eternal Word. I clicked on the link, getting ready to compose an angry Pagan response to Christian paranoia and triumphalism.
To my surprise, though, the “Re-Paganing” post wasn’t on the Evangelical channel or the Catholic channel, but on the Progressive Christian channel – folks who are often our allies in secular matters, even if we don’t see eye to eye when it comes to religion. And despite its rather problematic title, I found myself in general agreement with its theme: that Christians would do better recognizing the good in the world rather than trying to gain converts through threats of eternal damnation.
Yet despite its tolerant tone and encouraging message, I must challenge its foundational assumption. Here’s a quote:
in the Graeco-Roman world it was clear that a great deal of what was good, relevant, and essential to the ordering of human society (and Christian communities!) came from pagan philosophers, political scientists, and rulers.
So how, those early Christian theologians were forced to ask, could good things come from polytheistic and theoretically sin-soaked society? How could it be that such insightful philosophy and productive political order derived from persons and societies sunk in the degradation of idolatry and cut off from the knowledge of God by sin?
To answer this question, Progressive Christian blogger Robert Hunt refers to 2nd century CE philosopher Justin Martyr, a Roman Palestinian who tried his hand at various forms of philosophy before converting to Christianity, moving to Rome, and getting himself beheaded for refusing to sacrifice to the Gods of Rome – according to the Christian accounts, anyway. Justin argued “that God is continually present in human society and individual hearts.” That assumption “allows him to claim as Christian all insights into the truth advanced in human society before the time of Jesus.”
To quote a more recent Christian philosopher, “how convenient.” It couldn’t be that the wisdom of ancient pagan philosophers came from their own Gods and their own traditions. No, they had to be secretly inspired by the Christian God.
If you do much reading from the Druid Revival, you come across this concept over and over again. The Druids of the 18th, 19th, and even the early 20th centuries were Christians living in a thoroughly Christian environment. For example, David James, an Anglican clergyman and member of the Ancient Order of Druids, wrote an 1836 essay titled “The Religion of Noah Preserved in Britain under the Name of Druidism” wherein he claimed the Druids were the descendants of Japheth, one of the sons of Noah, who James assumed moved west after the great flood receded.
How many times do we see someone from another culture or subculture do something good and then we attempt to claim them as one of our own? Acknowledging their work is a good thing, but when we attempt to claim it as ours we de-value their culture, their heritage, and their ancestors – and in doing so, we devalue the very people who came from that lineage. We imply that whatever good they did came through their association with us.
How much better is it to recognize that good things, good works, and good ideas come from many sources? This is what our eyes and ears show us, and this is what our intuition confirms – no one religion has a monopoly on truth and goodness (nor, for that matter, on abuse and evil).
The wisdom of Socrates and Plato came out of the religion of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and Athena. So did the wisdom of the Pythagoreans, who Justin Martyr rejected because learning their prerequisites was too much work. The wisdom of the Druids came out of the religion of the Dagda, Lugh, and the Morrigan – we think. There’s a lot more about the ancient Druids that we don’t know than we do know. But it is historically certain their teachings had nothing to do with the God of Peter and Paul.
When Robert Hunt writes of “Re-Paganing” America, he misuses “Pagan” to mean “non-Christian.” It’s clear he does so without malice, though I would hope anyone writing for the largest multifaith website in the world would know the difference. His post was written for his fellow Christians – I hope they read it and take its primary message to heart.
But I’m a Pagan, who worships the Gods of ancestors who never heard of Christianity or the Christian God. My religion comes from the strength of Cernunnos, the nurturing of Danu, the sovereignty of the Morrigan, the persistence of Lugh, the magic of Isis, the justice of Osiris, and many more.
I do not proselytize – as a polytheist, I recognize that different Gods call different people to worship Them in different ways. But I want everyone to know what Justin Martyr wouldn’t see and what the Revival Druids couldn’t see: there is wisdom and goodness in many religious traditions.
And so I’m proudly Re-Paganing the world.