Tuesday, 26 November 2019

"Christocentric Paganism"

"The chorus of the heroes and the gods in order around Christ..."
Christ at the center of the Zodiac, Dekoulou monastery, Greece

The Columbian Catholic traditionalist Nicolás Gómez Dávila once said that "A Catholic thought does not rest until it puts the chorus of the heroes and the gods in order around Christ." He also described himself, not as a Christian, but as "a pagan who believes in Christ." Such statements might initially disturb Catholics and Christians who inhabit the white Northern Hemisphere, but it is necessary to pause and reflect on what such sentiments could possibly mean for a true Christian. 

Obviously, a Christian cannot accept the polytheism and pantheism of the pagan religions - there are no gods but the God of Moses, Jacob, and Abraham, who revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. And yet even in the Christian tradition there are subordinate beings who participate in divinity, surround the divine throne, and minister to the earth on God's behalf. These are the angels; and not only them, but the saints, those who are deified by grace. Even in a natural sense, divinity exists in creatures according various degrees of participation: man is made in the image and likeness of God. This is not polytheism, yet the metaphysics which traditional (Catholic) Christianity has adopted to account for this truth is in large part inherited, though necessarily corrected, from the polytheistic metaphysical systems of the pagans, such as the Neoplatonists. The world of Christianity was not any less filled up with the presence of supra-cosmic divinity than the world of paganism - indeed, arguably it was more so; dare we say "more pagan" than paganism itself! St. Thomas is not afraid to extend the name "God" to creatures by way of similitude: "Nevertheless this name "God" is communicable, not in its whole signification, but in some part of it by way of similitude; so that those are called gods who share in divinity by likeness, according to the text, 'I have said, You are gods' (Ps. 81:6)." (ST Ia, q.13, a.9)

St. Thomas' metaphysical angelology, which is a complex modification and combination of the metaphysics of Plato, Aristotle, and especially Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, is deeply realist in its attribution of angelic power to the motions of the physical cosmos. Without going into all of the details here, I wish to point out simply how intensely Christians are expected (or were expected) to believe in the "duality of worlds": the visible and the invisible worlds (which we profess in our creed); and how seriously they are expected to believe that the visible world is always impregnated with the signs of invisible beings, moved by the action of their power, and impressed with the likeness of their natures. St. Thomas, following Dionysius, following the pagans Proclus and Iamblichus, insists that the angelic natures - and ultimately the divine nature itself - are known through their imprint and causality in the visible world, and at the same unknown and inaccessible to us in themselves. They can only be known through a complex intermediating hierarchical apparatus, of which the world of our senses is but the lower limit. 

Not only in his angelology, but even in his natural theology, St. Thomas knew that the one God could only be known through his creatures, and that the risk of idolatry - the confusion of the creature and the Creator, the symbol and its referent - was simply an attendant risk upon the human intellect. Not that idolatry is excusable or in any way justified - on the contrary, precisely because God is able to known through his creatures, idolatry is all the more to be recognized as a fundamental error and a sin, as St. Paul emphasizes this in Romans 1:19-23. Yet the Christian philosophers, from Paul himself, through Clement of Alexandria, to Thomas Aquinas, were not afraid to draw from the wellsprings of pagan philosophy itself the seeds of the true religion. Clement of Alexandria, in the very effort of condemning the idolatry of the pagans, draws from pagan theology the seeds of truth concerning the God of the Christians. Likewise, Thomas drew from that of Aristotle and the Arabs, as well as from the Platonic tradition, in the very effort of defending the Christian faith against the pagans. 

From these figures we learn that even the errors of pagan idolatry were but the missteps of a true natural religion, which cannot know God but through the obscurity of created signs and symbols. False though that religion may be, which worships the creature rather than the Creator, nonetheless it turned to the creature in the first place only because it saw there the true imprint of the divine, a true revelation, a theophany. And the Church has always welcomed into her own practice the recognition of these theophanies, and the worship of the God revealed in them. 

Choirs of angels

. . .

Ever since the Protestant Reformation and the philosophical Enlightenment, progressing by various stages into the present day, the Christian religion has been under attack by ideologies which cannot tolerate a realist belief in the omnipresence of invisible beings in this physical world. Such belief is dismissed as primitive and pagan - as indeed it is, in some sense. The Catholic should not, in dismissing the obvious falsehoods of pagan religion, cast the baby out with the bathwater for fear of appearing like the pagans. On the contrary, he should reaffirm that which the Catholic religion, not only has in common with, but necessarily presupposes in the natural religious aptitude of mankind and the revelatory aptitude of the world: the principle of sacramentality, which is the belief that the world is divided into two realms, visible and invisible, and that of these two the latter intensely permeates the former with its presence and power, so that through the visible world the invisible world is revealed.

More essential to paganism than its errors and missteps, which were inevitable (though not  therefore blameless) without the guidance of supernatural revelation, was its rootedness in the natural religious proclivity of human nature. It is natural for man to perceive, however vaguely or indeterminately, the imprint of divine and angelic natures in the world. The metaphysical conclusions which he draws from the observation of this imprint are manifold, some more closely approaching the truth than others. Insofar as they do not approach the truth, they unfortunately fall into idolatry; yet more often than not, such error is rather mixed with truth than standing alone in isolation; and insofar as the metaphysics of the pagans approaches truth, so much does it represent true natural religion and natural theology. As such, it is the outcome of man's natural inclination towards the truth, and the revelation of the true God and his angels in the natural world. Such things ought not to be rejected simply because they were ever admixed with the errors of idolatry.

My contention is that these truths have indeed been rejected, in many stages since the Reformation and the Enlightenment, culminating in the liturgical reforms of the 20th century - the final phase of the "modernism" which St. Pius X partially identified in Pascendi Dominici Gregis, and a phase of the "de-hellenization" which Pope Benedict XVI identified in his famous Regensburg Address. Modernism as identified by Pius X was the heir of Kant, Hegel, and Feuerbach, in that it effectively negated the possibility of metaphysical knowledge of a God beyond phenomena. The divine was reduced to a psychological construct, an emergent projection of the human consciousness in its immanent self-transcendence. This was contrary to the entirety of the Christian and pagan traditions, which always presupposed the metaphysical reality of the God revealed by worldly phenomena. 

De-hellenization could probably be identified as an aspect in the development of modernism itself. Benedict XVI sums up the project of de-hellenization as one which attempts to purge Christianity of its connections to the world of Graeco-Roman antiquity. This takes place in three stages: the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the present day milieu of cultural pluralism. Benedict refers to one of the great representatives of de-hellenization, the liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack, describing his project thus: "Harnack's central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message." In other words, Harnack perceives the metaphysical apparatus of Christian theology as a corruption brought in from the alien culture of Greek-Rome - a non-scientific, irrational superstition leftover from primitive paganism. 

These two critiques of modernism and de-hellenization are brought together in St. John Henry Newman, in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, and in his essays on Milman. In the latter especially, he engages with the thought of Milman, who was a kind of precursor to de-hellenizers such as Harnack and Bultmann (of whom I will have more to say). Milman applies to scripture, and to the sayings of the Church fathers, a method of interpretation which could be described as naturalistic, insofar as it abhors the supernaturalist realism associated with pagan antiquity. Milman fears that the association of Christianity with paganism, in areas of ritual, doctrinal expression, theology, etc., is a threat to the very credibility of Christianity as a religion. The scriptural reports of miracles and visions, therefore, must be attributed to purely natural causes, in accordance with the scientific and rational wisdom of Enlightened modernity (in Milman's words, "the more subtle and fastidious intelligence of the present times"). Newman, on the other hand, refuses to entertain the notion that the historically pagan origin of any of the elements of Christianity should in any way be thought to undermine the truth and credibility of Christian religion. On the contrary, Newman is insistent that it is precisely the nature of Christianity to be Catholic, that is, universal, in its power of assimilating unto itself the truths revealed "at sundry times and in diverse manners," often indeed in the folds of heathenism. One of Newman's most eloquent and controversial passages is found here, in his response to Milman (which deserves to be read in full):
As regards then the settlement of Christian doctrine, Mr. Milman's External Theory seems to us to result or manifest itself in the following canon:—That nothing belongs to the Gospel but what originated in it; and that whatever, professing to belong to it, is found in anterior or collateral systems, may be put out of it as a foreign element. Such a maxim easily follows upon that denial of the supernatural system, which we have above imputed in large measure to Mr. Milman. They who consider with him that there was, for instance, no spiritual agency in what is called demoniacal possession, on the ground that the facts of the case may be satisfactorily referred to physical causes, are bound, or at least are easily persuaded, to deny for the same reason any doctrine to come from Christ, which they can trace to the schools of men. Such persons cannot enter into the possibility of a visible and an invisible course of things going on at once, whether co-extensive or not, acting on each other more or less, and sometimes even to the cognizance of our senses. Were the electric fluid ascertained to be adequate to the phenomena of life, they would think it bad philosophy to believe in the presence of a soul; and, sooner than believe that Angels now minister to us unseen, they deny that they were ever seen in their ministrations. No wonder then that in like manner as regards the articles of the Creed, they deny that what is historically human can be doctrinally divine, confuse the outward process with the secret providence, and argue as if instruments in nature preclude the operations of grace. When they once arrive at a cause or source in the secular course of things, it is enough; and thus, while Angels melt into impressions, Catholic truths are resolved into the dogmas of Plato or Zoroaster.
A theory does not prove itself; it makes itself probable {231} so far as it falls in with our preconceived notions, as it accounts for the phenomena it treats of, as it is internally consistent, and as it excels or excludes rival theories. We should leave Mr. Milman's undisturbed, and proceed at once, as we proposed, merely to give instances of its operation, except that it might seem to be allowing to that theory, as it were, possession of the field, when, in truth, there is another far more Catholic philosophy upon which the facts of the case, as Mr. Milman states them, may be solved. Now, the phenomenon, admitted on all hands, is this:—that great portion of what is generally received as Christian truth, is in its rudiments or in its separate parts to be found in heathen philosophies and religions. For instance, the doctrine of a Trinity is found both in the East and in the West; so is the ceremony of washing; so is the rite of sacrifice. The doctrine of the Divine Word is Platonic; the doctrine of the Incarnation is Indian; of a divine kingdom is Judaic; of Angels and demons is Magian; the connexion of sin with the body is Gnostic; celibacy is known to Bonze and Talapoin; a sacerdotal order is Egyptian; the idea of a new birth is Chinese and Eleusinian; belief in sacramental virtue is Pythagorean; and honours to the dead are a polytheism. Such is the general nature of the fact before us; Mr. Milman argues from it,—"These things are in heathenism, therefore they are not Christian:" we, on the contrary, prefer to say, "these things are in Christianity, therefore they are not heathen." That is, we prefer to say, and we think that Scripture bears us out in saying, that from the beginning the Moral Governor of the world has scattered the seeds of truth far and wide over its extent; that these have variously taken root, and grown up as in the wilderness, wild plants indeed but living; and hence that, as the inferior animals have {232} tokens of an immaterial principle in them, yet have not souls, so the philosophies and religions of men have their life in certain true ideas, though they are not directly divine. What man is amid the brute creation, such is the Church among the schools of the world; and as Adam gave names to the animals about him, so has the Church from the first looked round upon the earth, noting and visiting the doctrines she found there. She began in Chaldea, and then sojourned among the Canaanites, and went down into Egypt, and thence passed into Arabia, till she rested in her own land. Next she encountered the merchants of Tyre, and the wisdom of the East country, and the luxury of Sheba. Then she was carried away to Babylon, and wandered to the schools of Greece. And wherever she went, in trouble or in triumph, still she was a living spirit, the mind and voice of the Most High; "sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions;" claiming to herself what they said rightly, correcting their errors, supplying their defects, completing their beginnings, expanding their surmises, and thus gradually by means of them enlarging the range and refining the sense of her own teaching. So far then from her creed being of doubtful credit because it resembles foreign theologies, we even hold that one special way in which Providence has imparted divine knowledge to us has been by enabling her to draw and collect it together out of the world, and, in this sense, as in others, to suck the milk of the Gentiles and to suck the breast of kings. 
I can think of few better summaries of the Church's mission to the world - and what else is Newman describing here than what Nicolás Gómez Dávila described as "[putting] the chorus of the heroes and the gods in order around Christ"? Rather than undermining the Church's credibility, Newman sees this process as doing just the reverse: proving her universal assimilative, and indeed, universally incarnational power. The Church is like a great ocean into which all the streams of authentic natural religion flow and are absorbed and assimilated. This is quite in accordance with the truth of the Incarnation: man, the microcosm, brings all nature through himself to offer to God in consecration; yet man apart from the self-revelation of God can only do this partially, incompletely, and often with error and idolatry. Only Christ fully and universally actualizes this religious potential locked within human nature, gathers all of its natural expressions into the fold of His Mystical Body, and arranges them around Himself at the center. Looking backwards from modernity, one cannot help but think that what we have lost, in the wake of Protestantism, the liberal Enlightenment, and the liturgical reform, is not only our Christian inheritance but indeed the pagan inheritance of Christianity itself - which is to say, the general inheritance of religious man as such. 
In particular, the vibrancy and visibility of symbolic ritual, the bearer of a convicted faith in the reality of an invisible world of spirits, has all but disappeared from the practice of the liturgy in the Catholic Church since Vatican II. (Actually, this gradual disappearance could be traced back somewhat further than that.) There is a world of difference between the bourgeois monotony of the liturgy which one experiences in the typical American Catholic parish and the traditional rites of the Church, whether in the East or the West. The latter are impregnated with the affirmation, not merely in words but also in outward form, of the presence and reality of invisible powers; the former by contrast often resembles the didactic services of puritanical Protestantism, emptied as it is of the concrete assertion of the reality of the Incarnation. It is true: Protestantism has at least the sacrament of Baptism, and therefore it enjoys some of the benefits of the Incarnation; and yet the disposition of Protestantism is entirely anti-Incarnational. It is quite the reverse for paganism: the pagans did not have the Incarnation, nor the graces which flow from it; yet they were in a real sense ready for it, they enjoyed the disposition towards sacramentality, symbol, and imagery - the fleshy mode in which God purposely revealed himself in Christ. Happily the Catholic liturgies of modernity are not wholly devoid of sacramentality, retaining as they do the sacramental core of the rite; yet the outer vesture in which they are commonly clothed is pale by comparison to the many ancient rites of the Church, whose (non-idolatrous) forms were often inherited from the pagans themselves.

. . .

Much of the above depends, of course, on a very particular usage of the word "pagan" which, perhaps, many will not find commonplace. Theologically minded folk will only think of "idolatry" when they hear "paganism," and with reason. Yet the word is used to describe systems of philosophy, such as Platonism or Aristotelianism, in a historical sense, without thereby being a threat to the integrity of Scholastic thought which assimilated these systems to itself. Aristotelian philosophy is, as a matter of mere historical description, pagan; and Thomistic philosophy is Aristotelian. Yet it does not therefore follow that Thomism is an idolatrous philosophy. Paganism here refers merely to the fact that this philosophy once existed in the context of a religious practice that was certainly outside the bounds of the Church (or the Jewish religion, more precisely). The truth contained in this philosophy is not undermined by that fact; nor is the truth of Thomism undermined by the fact that Thomas Aquinas willingly incorporated a historically pagan system into his own. In doing so, Thomas was doing nothing other than setting the pagan "gods" in order around Christ - indeed, arguably Thomas himself understood his task in exactly this way, as one might gather from his commentary on the Neoplatonic Book of Causes. To think of it yet another way, one might think that especially in his angelology Thomas was doing little more than renaming the gods of old, putting them in their proper place beneath the God of Abraham and Isaac, as Adam named the animals and creatures in the book of Genesis. 

Again, it is important to emphasize the historical nature of these claims. "Paganism" in this sense is no more than the name given to all instances of religiosity which happen to have appeared around the world outside the Church, whether true or false. It is merely a fact that these same instances of religion are often harvested from the world by the Church herself; and sometimes the likeness is, as a matter of mere history, simply accidental (though not without reason). Theologically, however, it is quite true that what St. Thomas does in his opus, and what Dionysius did in his, arranging the hosts of spiritual beings around the central figure of the one God, is altogether different from what the pagans did. Thomas could not be clearer that the reverence of latria belongs to God, and God alone; and that no other creature, however lofty and spiritual in nature, is a self-sufficient, absolute, infinite, uncaused being in the way that God is. So to emphasize the historical-pagan character of Christian religion is not at all to claim that Christian theology is, as such, a pagan theology: e.g. polytheistic or pantheistic, errors which arise from the very natural yet unguided tendency to link the natural elements to divine power. 

As Dom Odo Casel OSB explains in his masterpiece, The Mystery of Christian Worship, those religions which were polytheistic or pantheistic often succumbed to a certain "terror of the terrible power of nature which takes a man up and, after brief sport, destroys him.... [leading] to the enslavement of the spiritual in man, to the tyranny of sense, and to panic before the predatory beasts which lurk in unredeemed nature." (87) With great eloquence, Casel describes simultaneously the external, empirical, or historical likeness of Christianity to paganism while also making utterly clear its theological difference: 
The Christian too, knows that nature groans under sin, along with man; it longs for redemption, which will come to it when it comes to the children of God. But he also knows in it the print of God's passing. Yet he stands over it; nature is tool and image of the spiritual. The liturgy, therefore, from the very beginning, from the time when the Lord made bread and wine the elements of the mass, has given nature its part to play. The church was not afraid to take over natural symbols which the heathen had used in their worship and, by putting them into proper place, to give them their true value. By doing so she has made them holy, just as through the sacraments and sacred gestures, she made the human body; in fact the church has given to nature the first fruits of glory, the gifts of the children of God. (87)
It would indeed be an understatement to claim merely that the Church shares with paganism the symbolic attitude, the sacramental mindset - surely, an essential component of all authentic expressions of natural religion, and thus an essential component of paganism itself. Nay, the Church exceeds paganism in precisely this outlook upon the world: as penetrated thoroughly by God and by his subordinate ministers, semi-gods and demi-gods, the angels who keep the universe in motion, the souls of heroic men that exemplify his power on earth, like the mythical Hercules of Greek antiquity - as well as fallen and evil spirits who wage war from the depths. Spirit is everywhere; when the  Holy Spirit breathed over the waters in Genesis, he filled the earth with his presence and likeness. For their naive belief in the omnipresence of spirits and demi-divine energies, the pagans are derided as superstitious; if they are superstitious, then Christians can be no less so. They cannot settle back into materialist comfort and routine if they believe in God and the angels as intensely as the pagans believed in their gods. 

I am firmly of the opinion that the the restoration of Christian vitality requires, in some sense, the "re-paganization" of religion - so to speak, with all the appropriate qualifications and equivocations. More precisely, what is required is the total reversal of the de-mythologization of religious belief, ritual, and symbolism, which took place at the hands of modernists such as Galileo, Descartes, Bacon, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Harnack, Bultmann, Bugnini, and a host of others, whose project was an assault upon the metaphysical truth of religion. The realism of religious mythology and symbolism is an essential element of religion in general, the elimination of which will very nearly amount to the elimination of religion - or, perhaps, the transference of religiosity to other and more diabolical objects. The attitude of the modernists towards all religion, including especially both Catholicism and paganism, is one which empties it of its mythological substance, making of the myth an empty shell of moralistic imagination. The outcome of this is manifold: Protestantism, liberalism, modernism, and industrial rationalism. 

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