Paganism and Christianity

Paganism and Christianity December 21, 2011

Michael Bird at Euangelion wrote a triumphal and rather manichean piece about how Christmas should represent the triumph of Christianity over Paganism:

Christmas means that Jesus has defeated the powers, the pagan gods that military rulers used to bring their peoples into subjection, to oppress all dissent, and to bring misery upon the masses of men and women. Christmas means that the tyranny of paganism – its pantheon, politics, and power – have been broken by a Jewish man who died on a Roman cross.

So Star Foster writes a nice – and fairly polite – response. James McGrath – who has been called the “Lady Gaga” of biblioblogging and strangely thinks that a compliment – is gratified that the discussion is civil. In the comments, McGrath and Foster discuss the relationship between Paganism, Judiasm and Christianity. From McGrath:

Speaking from a liberal Christian perspective, there are plenty of places in which, if one wishes to see it, one can see much more openness to things that some Christians would call “pagan” right within the pages of the Bible. It is there in the belief of the author of Genesis that the Earth has creative power. It is there in the hinted reference to “Mother Earth” when Job says “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return there.” And it is there when Christians and Jews found the Stoic (i.e. pantheist) concept of the Logos was found well suited to their faith, and when Paul in Acts quotes poetic references to Zeus.

As it happens, 3quarksdaily recently awarded its top prize for Political and Social writing to Kenan Malik for his piece, Rethinking the Idea of “Christian Europe.” This was a piece from back in August reacting to the shootings by Anders Behring Breivik, following which many people on the right showed sympathy for Breivik’s idea that Christianity formed the cultural glue that held Europe together. Malik begins to deconstruct this idea by pointing out that Christianity was not novel:

Christianity may have forged a distinct ethical tradition, but its key ideas, like those of most religions, were borrowed from the cultures out of which it developed. Early Christianity was effectively a marriage of Athens and Jerusalem, a fusion of the Ancient Greek tradition and Judaism. Few of what are often thought of as uniquely Christian ideas are in fact so.

Take, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most influential of all Christian ethical discourses. The moral landscape that Jesus sketched out in the sermon was already familiar. The extensions of the Mosaic law upon which Jesus insisted were already part of the Jewish tradition. The Golden Rule – ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’ – has a long history, an idea hinted at in Babylonian and Egyptian religious codes, before fully flowering in Greek and Judaic writing (having independently already appeared in Confucianism too). The insistence on virtue as a good in itself, the resolve to turn the other cheek, the call to look inwards, the claim that correct belief is at least as important as virtuous action – all were important themes in the Greek Stoic tradition.

One of history’s great counters to the arrogance of triumphalism is the recognition of continuity. Christianity drew heavily from pagan ideas, and could arguably be seen as a continuation of certain pagan traditions rather than their replacement. Facing the fact that there is “nothing new under the sun,” a certain humility is called for.

From Eccleisastes, itself a Jewish work that may show an influence from greek Epicureanism:

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already,
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to happen
among those who come after.

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