The holiday season is responsible for some of modern America’s most deeply felt traditions: cheap airline tickets on Christmas day, seasonal hymns like “Jinglebell Rock” and “Blue Christmas,” ACLU suits against the school Christmas pageant, and the Andy Williams Christmas special, for which the divorced Mr. Williams (one of whose wives killed her lover, Olympic skier Spider Sabich) had to hire actors to play the family he did not have.
The one holiday custom I kept religiously was to listen to Herbert W. Armstrong of the Worldwide Church of God, who every year came on the air to denounce Christmas as a pagan celebration. Alternating between biblical quotations condemning tree worship and news stories on the high rates of depression and suicide, Herbert W. (or, before they quarreled, his son Garner Ted) reveled in anti-Yuletide indignation. The Armstrongs were right about the Christmas blues. Even in the best of times Christmas can be depressing, if only because the reality of Christmas present can never live up to the imagination of Christmases past. But a few minutes of Herbert W.’s self-righteousness were always enough to restore my good humor. I might have been born in the wrong century, but at least, I would reflect, I am not a British Israelite.
I have never learned on what basis the British Israelites decided that the English are the lost tribes of Israel, but the condemnation of Christmas is all of a piece with fantasies about the children of Israel. Within Protestantism, there has always been a Judaizing strain that sought to purify Christianity of such pagan vestiges as icon-worship and holy water. Yule logs and jack-o’-lanterns, good works and Aristotelian philosophy. Every year at Halloween, I begin to think of myself as a persecuted minority. Here in the upper Midwest, our great Scottish holiday is boycotted by large numbers of Swedish and German Calvinists who mistakenly think themselves Lutherans. The same people would be shocked by Herbert W. Armstrong’s attacks on the pagan German custom of worshiping evergreens, but they condemn all the customs surrounding All Souls’ Day and its eve as Satanism.
We ex-Anglicans (there are almost literally no believing Anglicans left in the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America), we ex-Anglicans have always taken a more latitudinarian approach to pagan survivals. More than once, C.S. Lewis twisted St. Athanasius into saying that Christ was the fulfillment of the highest aspirations of ancient paganisms. The love He brought went deeper than Eros or Aphrodite, and in turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana, He revealed himself as the true Dionysus. If, as all Christians believe, Christ was the Logos, the divine Word through whom all things were made, then He was in the universe from the beginning, inspiring Hebrew prophets and pagan philosophers alike.
There is a hymn (Episcopalian, of course) which, after expressing thanks and praise for the prophets, moves on to the Greeks:
For Socrates who phrase by phrase
Talked men to truth, unshrinking.
And left for Plato’s mighty grace
To mold our ways of thinking;
For all who wrestled sane and free,
To win the unseen reality,
To God be thanks and Glory.
Some Christians, believing that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are a completely Hebraic compendium of all that our Creator wants us to know, profess to be shocked by such language, and this tendency to obscurantism was pronounced in many of the fathers of the early church. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” asked Tertullian. In some of the fathers, hostility to learning can be explained as part of their general revulsion against pagan society; in others, they were conscious of their own inferiority in engaging intellectual combat with educated pagans. But even so erudite and polished a writer as St. Jerome felt guilty for his secular learning. Christ came to him in a dream, he says, and rebuked him for being not Christianus but Ciceronianus.
Other fathers were more generous to pagan philosophy. Justin Martyr writes to the young Marcus Aurelius and his brother, claiming that the moral principles which pagan philosophers have only taught, Christians actually live out every day, and there is no need to discuss the importance of philosophy to such theologians as Gregory of Nyssa and Origen.
Perhaps the supreme example is Augustine of Hippo. Like many early Christians, Augustine—a learned and brilliant rhetorician by background—dallied with the idea of forming a school curriculum based on Christian and Hebrew writings alone, but in the end he had to give it up. Pagan culture, in the broadest sense, is part of who we are as civilized men, and to cut out the Greek and Roman elements from Christianity requires a finer blade than anyone has yet discovered. If any Protestants are under the delusion that purging the church of classical paganism was a main point of the Reformation, they will have to explain not only the immense erudition displayed by the principal reformers but also the contributions to classical philology made by Calvinist and Lutheran humanists, such as Joseph Justus Scaliger. Only look at the footnotes to Plato, Seneca, and Aristotle in Calvin’s Institutes. But there are no Lutherans any more, and scarcely any Calvinists, by which I mean theologians and ministers that Calvin would deign to speak with. Calvin wrote in Latin and French. How many of them, today, can read, much less write, either?
If this first objection to pagan culture may be dismissed as obscurantism, the second is rather the opposite in being too clever, too progressive. This familiar story goes something like this: there is a primitive Christianity that can be teased out of the Gospels, particularly Mark, which is subsequently contaminated by the Hellenistic interpretations of Paul and even John’s Gospel. This primitive Christianity, in some versions, knows of no distinctions between male and female, straight and perverse; it is nonjudgmental and anti-philosophical. Taken to one extreme, this is the gospel according to the World Council of Churches, and to another it leads to the Children of God, the Way, and countless other sects and cults that tell you, in John Lennon’s phrase, “All You Need is Love.”
But the facts of the case are somewhat more difficult to grasp. Those of us who believe it is no accident that the Son of God was born to a family whose head traced his ancestry back to David may also find it difficult to believe that it is any accident that he was born into a world where Roman law and administration made it possible to spread ideas throughout the Mediterranean world and into Northern Europe, from the sources of the Nile in Africa almost to the Firth of Forth. We might also wonder if it is any accident that He was born into a world whose mind was shaped by philosophers who provided the concepts and arguments in which the mysteries of creation and redemption could be expressed.
For a very long time philosophers have wanted to disentangle the Christian strand from the fabric of Christendom. The project has taken many forms. Among the earliest was Descartes’ sly professions of orthodoxy that he used to mask his revolutionary design of basing all humane learning—science, philosophy, ethics, politics—on a scientific method that is divorced from both tradition and revelation. In this century Leo Strauss and his disciples (e.g., the late Allan Bloom) have carried on a similarly covert campaign against Christianity, which they see as the chief obstacle to the realization of themselves as philosopher-kings. However, the most spirited attacks have been made by neopagans.
The earliest neopagans seem to have been Platonists like the Byzantine mystic George Gemistus Plethon, and some of the members of Ficino’s “academy” in Florence. The most effective of all the anti-Christian philosophers has been Friedrich Nietzsche, whose rich and valuable work I am loath to criticize in brief. Full of praise for the nobility and grandeur of the Old Testament, Nietzsche regarded the New Testament as a species of degenerate rococo.
To put his critique in a very small nutshell, the mad philologist thought that Christianity, while appealing to a very high type of humanity, degraded the artist into self-abnegation and a rejection of the world. “Piety, the ‘life in God,’. . . would appear as the subtlest and final offspring of the fear of truth.” Nietzsche does concede that for the majority of men, who are born for slavery, Christianity makes them content with their lot, and that even for those who will some day command, it is good for them to learn obedience; nonetheless, he consistently treats the religion of Christ as an infection, a cultural poison that has stunted human growth.
Later neopagans have not shared Nietzsche’s admiration for the Jews, and one of the principal charges against Christians is that they are warped by an Oriental and Semitic superstition that has weakened the character of Western man. At the extremes, this analysis serves as the justification for anti-Semitism and persecution, but in its milder forms neopaganism is little more than a nostalgia for the childhood of civilization. Alain de Benoist’s Indo-Europeanism is the best example of this tendency. At the very least, Benoist would argue, Europe has outgrown the need for Christianity and is free to return to its pagan and classical roots. So far from endorsing Nietzsche’s glorification of pagan violence, M. de Benoist contrasts the broadminded tolerance of the ancients with the bigotry of Christian witch-hunters and inquisitors.
Benoist and his friends have succeeded in putting their project on the table, at least among European intellectuals, but the reason does not lie, I think, in any yearnings after Odin and Zeus (although I did recently meet an English Odinist in a pub, and he almost turned the beer sour with his praise of Ingmar Bergman films and a project to make Old Norse a required subject).
The pagan gospel according to Benoist is attractive precisely because its anti-Christian arguments fit in neatly with the Enlightenment notions that have formed the minds of our intellectual class. Polytheism can stand in for diversity, and any stick—pagan or atheist—will do to whip the Christian dog. Deists like Voltaire and Jefferson were hoping to preserve all that is good in Christianity, while jettisoning both the New Testament’s miracles and the Old Testament’s Jewish superstitions and taboos.
If Christianity has made the West weak, sentimental, incapable of defending itself, it is odd that these tendencies first showed at the precise time when faith was growing faint. For more than 15 centuries. Christians served in armies, acquired wealth, defended themselves from attack, fought duels, and sought revenge. Where is the weakness in Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, who blinded an entire army of Bulgars, or Charlemagne, or Richard of England? It was only in the Enlightenment—a period of de-Christianization—that Europeans began to deride the Crusades, and it was a Christian reactionary. Sir Walter Scott, who wrote novels extolling the Christian heroism of the Crusaders.
Oh, well, I have been told, those heroes were not good Christians. Who says so? Not the first gentile Christian, a Roman centurion converted by Peter; not the Popes, who called repeatedly for Crusades; and not Archbishop Turpin, one of Roland’s companions, who, even with four lanceheads in his breast, dies fighting, surrounded by “four hundred men, / Some wounded, some clean through the body cleft, / And some of them made shorter by the head.”
Perhaps the greatest pressure against the rights of selfdefense and revenge was exerted by the Christian Church, which preached forgiveness of enemies and avoidance of bloodshed. Unfortunately, the Church’s positions on self-help, revenge, and capital punishment have been seriously distorted by liberal theologians. In the Old Testament, of course, death is the punishment for dozens of crimes—homicide, sacrilege, witchcraft, adultery, etc. Cases of homicide were a family affair, as at Athens. A close kinsman of the victim, the avenger of blood, was responsible for tracking down and killing the killer.
The age of “avengers of blood” had long passed by the time of Jesus’ ministry, and it was to an empire governed by Roman law and the law of the Jewish state that early Christians would have looked in their search for justice. There is no reason to assume that Jesus or his disciples were pacifists. Given the opportunity to denounce the profession of arms and capital punishment, neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke out.
For St. Paul, the sword symbolizes the power of the state to defend its subjects from evil: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:3-4). Note the somewhat technical term “revenger,” “ekdikos.” The just ruler, so far from acting as a disinterested enforcer of abstract rules, actually takes revenge upon the evildoer.
There were pacifists and quietists in the early church, but the mainstream of Christian theology recognized that both social necessity and justice were sometimes to be maintained only with the sword. Homicide in self-defense is permitted by St. Thomas so long as the force used is aimed at defense rather than killing, and there is little warrant either in Christian Scriptures or in the fathers for revenge killings or vendettas. For the early fathers, the assumption had to be that the Roman state was capable of dispensing justice; by the Middle Ages, justice was in the hands of the Emperor, kings, and minor nobles who might prescribe trials of ordeal or judicial combat. What Christian doctrine has trouble grappling with is the situation of a wild frontier, where there is no justice, with periods of insurrection where authority breaks down, or with social conditions like that of Albania and Montenegro 100 years ago, where the only justice possible lay in the hands of a murdered man’s next of kin.
What Nietzsche and M. de Benoist appear to dislike is not so much the robust faith of historic Christendom, as the mild-mannered Sunday-school Methodism, Deism’s foster child, that has replaced the militant Christianity that is inextricably bound up with all that is best in our civilization.
Benoist makes a good case for pagan generosity and tolerance of diversity, but there are two obvious difficulties. Greek pagans were, it is all too true, willing to concede that other nations had their gods and that some of those gods might well be identical with Apollo and Zeus. In what way this differs from the transformation of satyrs into saints, against which the late Herbert Armstrong railed for so many years, I cannot imagine. The ancients did, after all, engage in persecution even before the arrival of Christianity. In classical Athens—a period I choose because it is the high watermark of ancient civilization (why lie? of all civilization)—the prosecutions of Anaxagoras and Socrates, whatever the ultimate motives, prove that diversity of opinion had its limits. Look at the portrayal of the beer-swilling loutish Egyptians in Aeschylus’ Supplices, if you want to see what Athenians thought of immigrants, or of the same people in Herodotus’s Histories. The one thing we can concede to the Egyptians: they were exactly the kind of tolerant and openminded pagans celebrated by M. de Benoist, and they disgusted the Indo-European peoples he wishes to celebrate.
Let us put our objection in a nutshell: it is this very fetish of toleration and diversity that has landed us where we are, and as a defender of the West against our enemies, neopagans may turn out to be no more reliable than an American Catholic bishop or a Congregationalist Food Stamp facilitator.
Any dream of a new civilization liberated from the ancient faith is a progressive fantasy. Man will have religion, and if he cannot get the genuine article he will settle for any cheap knockoff he can get his hands on: Marxism, feminism, Gaia-worship, self-actualization cults, scientific racism, the Men’s Movement, Scientology. Bereft of God, we shall only worship Golden Calfs or moonfaced gurus. A civilized nonbeliever should work very hard to preserve Christianity as a civilized institution that channeled the religious impulse away from vulgar nonsense and into activities that have given us most of our greatest art and literature. The works of the Deists, which have done so much to subvert Christendom, he would want burned by the public hangman.
The East/West conflict today reminds us of our connections with the Greeks and with that form of Christianity that took shape in the territory of the Roman emperors whom Western barbarians insisted on calling kings of the Greeks. Our betrayal of our Orthodox brothers led to the fall of Constantinople, the near-conquest of Christian Europe by the Muslims, the subversion of every revolution against the Turkish rulers of the Balkans, and now—as prelude to the last act, when the followers of a prophet every bit absurd as the Reverend Moon have been pouring into Bosnia to firm up the staging area for their jihad against Europe—we are still fighting among ourselves, like Uniate and Orthodox Greeks on the eve of the Turkish entry into Constantinople: Catholic against Protestant, Western Christendom against Eastern, freethinkers against believers against Jews against pagans.
It is not that these quarrels are insignificant, but, from the point of view of the civilization, they are family quarrels among people who share a language of discourse and cultural reference that is completely foreign to the Muslims, fetishists, and cultists, who cannot tell the difference between Nietzsche and St. Paul. They want our blood, our treasure, our women, our nations. Sentimental Christians would hand everything over to them in the name of charity, and some sentimental pagans might do the same, admiring the vigor and persistence of the barbarians at the gates.