Guest Post: Michael York responds to Peter Kreeft

Guest Post: Michael York responds to Peter Kreeft September 13, 2011
Micheal York is a Pagan theologian, retired professor of Cultural Astronomy & Astrology at Bath Spa University, currently teaches at Cherry Hill Seminary, and author of Pagan Theology.

Peter Kreeft is a Christian apologist, professor of philosophy at Boston College and King’s College, and author of Christianity for Modern Pagans.


Near the beginning of the article on “The New Paganism,”[1] we hear that “Paganism is simply the natural gravity of the human spirit, the line of least resistance, religion in its fallen state.” Dr. Peter Kreeft, operating from a pre-Copernician or Ptolemaic perspective, can only understand the force of gravity as the pull of the earth and the consequent ‘fall’ that becomes possible – rather than comprehending gravity as the attraction matter has to matter. The vertical metaphor is continued in his consideration of pagan religion as representing “religion in its fallen state” – missing completely that paganism is the root of all religion; its very start.

It soon becomes obvious that Kreeft is not speaking about contemporary Western paganism (CWP), nor generic paganism or bona fide and established pagan religions (e.g., Shinto, Candomblé, Confucianism, classical Chinese folk religion, Amerindian spirituality, etc.) but what at first appears simply to be contemporary Western materialism/consumerism. However, by the end of his article, he gives us more concrete terminology when he says, “The new paganism is a joining of forces by three of the enemies of theism: humanism, polytheism and pantheism. The only five possibilities for ultimate meaning and values are: atheism (no God); humanism (man as God); polytheism (many gods); pantheism (one immanent God); and theism (one transcendent God).” While Adler does not include humanism, she does mention animism along with pantheism and polytheism as chief pagan characteristics.[2]

Kreeft betrays the essential dichotomizing bi-polarity of the theistic construct when he posits humanism, polytheism and pantheism as “the enemies of theism.” In other words, the supposed “one God” is dependent on the very existence of the Devil as that which the theistic entity opposes. In Kreeft’s case, however, the argument is confusing not only through his lack of punctuation but also his standard Christian theological and non-philosophical explanation that tells us that “[the] very triumph of the devil, the death of God, was the defeat of the devil, the redemption of mankind, ‘Good Friday’ Because God, who spoke the first word, always gets the last word.” Using an ancient pagan metaphor, he has it that the death of ‘God’ is merely a prefiguring of divine rebirth. But unlike the pagan understanding of birth-death-rebirth as the cyclical rhythm of nature, Christianity breaks the circle to transform it into a linear narrative of history. Wanting to have their cake and eat it too, the only way that Christians can maintain their belief in the power of Satan and hence the power of their ‘God’ is to transform a cyclical cosmology into a final historical triumph. For Kreeft, ‘God’ supposedly has the first word and therefore the last. The Gnostics, however, maintained that the Creator only thought he had the first word; he only believed he was creating. For the non-gnostic pagan, by contrast, there is no omega point and, thus, no ‘last word’.

We are informed that the “old” paganism came from the country. Indeed, there is little, from a contrasting theological perspective let alone an academic one, that Kreeft appears to have correctly in this article. He may at least be right about country people being the last to abandon Christianity. After all, the American Midwest appears to be the breeding ground for a similar kind of conservative resistance to change, namely, the Tea Party, that supports the unenlightened non-cosmopolitan inability to see beyond the limits of an enclosed box. But Kreeft is wrong about ‘paganism’ coming from Latin pagani and has fallen for an old erroneous trope. ‘Pagan’ derives from the pagus which was originally something akin to a city ward. A paganus was simply a ‘person of the place’ – one who preserved local traditions. In the broader sense, the paganus was a ‘civilian’ in contrast perhaps to the ‘country-dweller’ or ‘country-bumpkin’ and certainly in contrast to the Christian as a ‘soldier of Christ’. The rural domains as the areas in which people still worshiped the old gods once Christianity came to dominate the cities is an idea that developed subsequently in time. It has an historical legitimacy but is not the origin of the term ‘pagan’.[3]

It is difficult to reply to Kreeft’s article ‘academically’. When he cites Chesterton as support for his position, namely, how he “brilliantly summarized the entire spiritual history of the world in this one sentence: ‘Paganism was the biggest thing in the world, and Christianity was bigger and everything since has been comparatively small’,” what we end up with academically speaking is a pure statement of faith.

Kreeft holds that all three commendable elements of original paganism (“the old paganism”) are absent in “the new paganism”: pietas, morality and transcendent awe. By piety, Kreeft means “the natural religious instinct to respect something greater than yourself, the humility that instinctively realizes man’s subordinate place in the great scheme of things.” Here it becomes clear that Kreeft is not referring to CWP but rather to the pervasive moral decline of the West. By contrast, contemporary pagans – both Western and indigenous – certainly consider nature as “something greater than [the personal self].”

“The new paganism is the virtual divinization of man, the religion of man as the new God.” And now we have it. For Kreeft, the ‘new paganism’ is not nature worship but ‘humanism’. Whilst a humanistic theme does indeed run through much of CWP, it is not one wedded to “secular salvation” but rather to the restoration of human dignity in conjunction with the restoration of the natural equilibrium of our host planet. According to Grayling, in the modern sense of the term, humanism “is the view that … your ethical system … derives from your best understanding of human nature and the human condition in the real world.”[4] At best, what Kreeft denounces as “the virtual divinization of man” is a current effort to restore humanity’s intrinsic standing as one of the gods. The Tower of Babel biblical narrative represents an Abrahamic attempt to divorce humanity once and for all from godhead. Yes, it is true that the pagan aims to build a heaven on earth – one that the jealous and anti-human Old Testament entity seeks to undermine. Kreeft follows that transcendental wish that wants its ‘God’ and heaven wholly other and ‘up there’ rather than as the here-and-now of life. He cannot understand that the contemporary Western pagan does indeed lift up her head to the dazzling and awesome beauty of the heavens but without belittling the magnificence of earth and the human project that works with the earth rather than against her and in seeking domination over her.

A second missing ingredient in Kreeft’s ‘new paganism’ is “objective morality.” He calls this moral relativism a form of polytheism – one in which each of us becomes a god/goddess who gives the law rather than receives it. In other words, we are allegedly the makers of moral values. But again, Kreeft has it wrong and is not talking about CWP where there are real morals (justice, balance, freedom, honesty, sensitivity, generosity, understanding and the like) to which even ‘God’ – at least a ‘good God’ – must conform. This last has always been a theistic bind, namely, if ethics are independent and not ‘created’ by ‘God’, then ‘God’ is not omnipotent and the creator of all. The ethical for the pagan exists separately from ‘God’; morals are not his creations any more than they are the individual’s. They are the virtues which it is proper to pursue – whether as god or human. The atomized self over which Kreeft complains is ultimately the same over which the pagan complains. What is right is not solely determined by the individual but by what emerges as the collective self of humanity. Our collectivity may emerge from nature but as always connected to and remaining grounded in the natural. As Dawkins expresses it, “Fortunately, … morals do not have to be absolute.”[5]

Thirdly, what old paganism reputedly had but the new does not is “awe at something transcendent, the sense of worship and mystery.” Kreeft refers to this as pantheism in which ‘God’ is understood as immanent and natural. For some contemporary pagans, this may be true. For others, especially the panentheists among us, ‘God’ is both immanent and transcendent. But for many, the godhead is both natural and co-natural – whether this last is conceived as supernatural, preternatural, metaphorical, imaginal or numinous. If “Modern religion is de-mythologized, de-miraclized [sic.], de-divinized,” as Kreeft contends, it is perhaps only a transitional stage before a re-enchanted worldview reenters the picture and ends the loss of the miraculous that followed with the ascent of Christianity over paganism, Protestantism over Catholicism, and secularism over religion in general. The great sociologist Max Weber bemoaned the loss of enchantment that came with the increasing bureaucratization of modern life and its consequent diminishment of the human spirit.

For Kreeft, there is no sin with pantheism because there is no separation. And the modern form of pantheism, he contends, seeks to eliminate fear (e.g., “fear of the Lord”) and replace it with compassion. But if there is anything that is central to CWP as distinct to Kreeft’s ‘new paganism’, it is the cultivation of awe – a mingling of the feelings of terror, reverence and wonder. When “God has become the Pillsbury Doughboy,” rather than the mysterium tremendum, we do not have paganism per se but what Kreeft finally comes to identify as the “so-called ‘New Age Movement’.” He may be correct in asserting that it “combines all the features described under the title of the new paganism. It’s a loosely organized movement, basically a reflowering of ’60s hippiedom, rather than a centralized agenda.”

What Kreeft is really describing as the religious sentiment of our times is what Heelas designated as ‘self religion’.[6] In this connection, Dawkins tells us that what survives through natural selection is selfish: “The units that survive in the world will be the ones that succeeded in surviving at the expense of their rivals at their own level in the hierarchy. That, precisely, is what selfish means in this context.”[7] But New Age, regardless to whatever degree it may be considered a further denomination or subtype of paganism, is only one offspring of the counterculture of the 1960s. CWP is the other.  Inasmuch as it might be considered “a great triumph of wishful thinking,” this stems in part from paganism’s non-dharmic exaltation of the will and desire. The positive unfolding of the cosmos, its perpetual evolution, becomes something to celebrate rather than escape, and what is celebrated is the interconnection and potential harmony of the parts that make up the whole. If, as Kreeft maintains, “the signs of the times, for some thoughtful observers, point to a fundamental turning point, the end of an age,” the age that may be ending could be that of Abrahamic sentiment for a more pragmatic, yes, and grounded paganism that is founded on both human and natural values.

[1] 19 July 2011 – Posted on July 21, 2011 by Catholicism Pure & Simple. Kreeft is professor of philosophy at Boston College and King’s College (Empire State Building(, New York.

[2] Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986:25).

[3] See Pierre Chuvin, A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, tr. B.A. Archer (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1990:8ff).

[4] Anthony C. Grayling, Against All Gods (London: Oberon Books, 2007:33).

[5] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Transworld/Black Swan, 2007:265).

[6] Paul Heelas, The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

[7] Dawkins, loc. cit. p. 246.

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