If I Weren’t a Christian, Perhaps I’d Be a Pagan

If I Weren’t a Christian, Perhaps I’d Be a Pagan November 16, 2015

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Max Weber wrote that the “progressive disenchantment of the world” marks modernity. This is indeed the case, even though some have sought to demonstrate a potent counter-trend in modernity to provide forms of re-enchantment compatible with secular reason.[1]

I discussed the theme of disenchantment and re-enchantment with a Pagan during a recent dinner event involving Pagans and Evangelicals. We were gathered together for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah. My Pagan friend drew my attention to the BBC documentary on Isaac Newton, who was a truly great modern, and also a magician of sorts, playing about with alchemy (See Isaac Newton: The Last Magician). We also spoke of Carl Sagan’s account of earth as a “Pale Blue Dot.” Sagan recounts the claim that “Astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.” It shows us how small we are and how fragile our world is; we must cherish it rather than destroy one another and earth with it. It is the only home we have ever known, and perhaps will ever know (See the following clip, “Pale Blue Dot.”).

Sagan himself speaks somewhat like a secular, scientific mystic at points. Richard Dawkins does as well. In Unweaving the Rainbow, he claims, “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”[2] And yet, Dawkins also makes a statement at the close of River Out of Eden that might appear to contradict the previous quotation,

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.[3]

In my estimation, a world of “pitiless indifference” is disenchanted. Why should we care for the world if there is no purpose? Does not nihilism or meaninglessness result?

Some of the Pagans with whom my Evangelical colleagues and I spoke that evening shared of the need to re-enchant the universe. Regardless of what they make of Dawkins’ view, they do not look at traditional Christianity as a partner in that endeavor. A common Pagan critique of Christianity is that the Christian tradition so emphasizes transcendence that it discounts immanence. If God is out there, and if eschatology pertains to the distant future, we all too easily discount the world that we inhabit. The ‘gods’ inhabit the world for Pagans.[4]

Some Christians I know share my conviction that we need to acknowledge the Pagan critique of Christianity. All too often, Christianity in the modern, American context has presented God in distant and futuristic terms. Perhaps in our attempt to engage modern atheism, we failed to provide a robust account of Trinitarian theism, as Michael Buckley, S.J., argued in his book, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), page 33. See my discussion of Buckley’s perspective in “Isaac Newton: Was He a Friend or Foe of Religion and Nature?” Or, as Jane Bennett argues: “The problem of meaninglessness arises only if ‘matter’ is conceived as inert, only as long as science deploys materialism whose physics is basically Newtonian.”[5] What will help us guard against impersonal, materialist philosophy that disenchants the world?

Scientifically, as Jane Bennett goes on to  stress, there is another way than conceiving of matter as inert.  As she puts it, matter can be viewed as “enchanted.” It is enchanted in that “matter has a liveliness, resilience, unpredictability, or recalcitrance that is itself a source of wonder for us.”[6]  Theologically,  Trinitarian theism emphasizes that God became incarnate as Jesus Christ. From an orthodox Christian perspective, the ultimate affirmation of the material universe is that God became matter. We worship him who became matter, though we do not worship matter, as John of Damascus argued. He reasons in his defense of icons,

I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God. How could God be born out of things which have no existence in themselves? God’s body is God because it is joined to His person by a union which shall never pass away. The divine nature remains the same; the flesh created in time is quickened by a reason endowed soul. Because of this I salute all remaining matter with reverence, because God has filled it with His grace and power. Through it my salvation has come to me. Was not the thrice-happy and thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter? What of the life bearing rock, the holy and life-giving tomb, the fountain of our resurrection, was it not matter? Is not the ink in the most holy Gospel-book matter? Is not the life-giving altar made of matter? From it we receive the bread of life! Are not gold and silver matter? From them we make crosses, patens, chalices! And over and above all these things, is not the Body and Blood of our Lord matter? Either do away with the honor and veneration these things deserve, or accept the tradition of the Church and the veneration of images…

Regardless of what one makes of icons, no Christian should discount the goodness of matter, especially in view of the God who became matter as Jesus Christ. The incarnation is the ultimate affirmation of creation’s goodness.

The material universe matters, including to members of the Evangelical “Multi-Faith Matters” team gathered in Salt Lake at the Parliament, and sponsored by a Louisville Institute grant initiative. As we conversed with our Pagan friends on this subject, we noted the need to speak of God’s transcendence and immanence. Moreover, it should be noted that biblically speaking, eschatology pertains not simply to the distant future, but also to the present. We must live in view of God’s future reign, bring the future into the present through our practices, even as the kingdom of God breaks into our world through Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

This point on eschatology is important to keep in mind, including its bearing on creation care. As we consider that we must give an account for how we have stewarded well our talents and lived responsibly before God, we must account for how we care for the world God has given us responsibility to tend. There is no room for “Why save it when you can pave it?” for those who claim to have been saved by God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ. After all, the great orthodox theologian Irenaeus of Lyons claimed, Jesus is the high priest of creation; so those who call him Lord must submit to his rule in the creation.

The preceding theological musings on immanence do not discount space for the creation, or the scientific exploration of the world apart from theological impositions. On an orthodox Christian reading, God remains distinct from the world, thereby permitting the integrity of the scientific exploration of the world, free of the compulsion to search for divine vestiges. And yet, while God is distinct, God is more present to the world than we are to ourselves given that God is beyond the limitations of space and time, while entering it through the person of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh.

I am grateful for my Pagan friends, with their sense of wonder and concern for the creation. If I weren’t an orthodox Christian, perhaps I’d be a Pagan. Their challenge to us Christians leads us hopefully to return to our orthodox Christian sources for our view of creation rather than fixate upon mechanistic, modernist readings of the natural order. Such mechanistic readings disenchant the universe and our place in it, leading quite possibly to meaningless and despair. We must contend against a utilitarian framework that allows us to abuse the world and others rather than care for it and our fellow humans. Only as we conceive the world as God’s masterpiece will we see it and our place within it as evidence of his care and glory.


[1]See Joshua Landy and Michael Saler, ed., The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (Stanford University Press, 2009).

[2]Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder (New York: Mariner Books, 1998), page x.

[3]Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995), page 155.

[4]What is meant here by the ‘gods’? There is a variety of views, as Paganism is a complex movement with a multitude of perspectives. As I wrote elsewhere on this subject, “If one were to account for a theology of contemporary Paganism, one would have to place hard polytheism involving distinct deities on one end of the spectrum and a completely metaphorical account of divinity on the other end: here divinity would be viewed as a metaphor for nature or humanity or society (some Pagans view the gods atheistically as symbols without ontological reality).” See my blog post titled “Idol Makers.”

[5] Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Pres, 2001), page 64.

[6] Benett, The Enchantment of Modern Life, page 64.

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