At the center of the contemporary pagan/Christian controversy are the nature, the localization, and the psychological-mythological motivation of the sacred. The last one dominates the debate because as the transcendent God becomes less focused the sacred turns into a basically human domain. The question, no longer addressed to heaven, is not over how God communicates with man (revelation, natural law, moral conscience, and indeed the sacred), but through what psychological needs does man become aware of God? And thus if God is dead, did we not kill Him so as to take His place? Under the circumstances, we must reinvent a new pantheon, or rather a new, “objectless” sacred, a new understanding.

Paganism has an important edge over monotheism. Even the average religious person admits today that while God, or at least His image, cannot die, culturally He is in eclipse. The pagan, however, acts upon the position that his philosophical-minded forebears always held: the world is an interlocking network of self-generated and self-shaped natural products, autonomous, eternal, material with matter’s “complexifications.” This cosmos undergoes cyclical changes according to some unfathomable rhythm. All movements and changes are motored by necessity—the atoms of Democritus, the mechanistic view of man by the Enlightenment, Jacques Monod’s theory—because who would bring into the system an element of contingency and freedom? At one time, it seemed convenient to explain these phenomena by invoking the “gods”; today this view is relegated to mythological times. The pagan gods themselves are discredited or are rehabilitated only in small circles associated with Heidegger. There remain what are inconsequentially called “humanistic values,” but without a scintilla of sacredness. Neopagans themselves do not expect to restore the gods, but merely to speak about them in a historical-nostalgic tone. And if God is dead, so is the sacred, as an illusionless Nietzsche had the courage to suggest.

The fact that both paganism and monotheism have engendered brilliant civilizations around the sacred—art, literature, philosophy, law, science—is a sign of the difficulty of arbitrating between them. It seems that awe and wonder are constants of human nature, and so is the impulse to sacralize places, times, persons, and events. The Christian shrines, pilgrimages, local cults of saints, relics, and sacred events are often continuous with their pagan cultic predecessors: a new sacred added, as it were, to an old and immemorial consecration. The essential difference is that the pagan position asserts the exclusivity of nature, hence the self-engendered, immanent universe, over against the Christian view of an extracosmic creation and continuing intelligent, personal providence. In other words, the pagan sacred is derived from a cosmic self-sacralization, adumbrated by the worshiper through his tradition-imposed feeling of the tremendum (nature’s power and majesty), whereas the Christian sacred is chosen for the worshiper by God, a supernatural being infinitely above him, but with whose intelligence, love, and compassion he can identify (incarnation). The Greek went to Delphi attracted by Apollo’s prophetic power, and Apollo was himself a sun-god—in other words, nature’s manifestation; Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to hear Yahwe, the personal being richer than any tremendum, able to give orders for the right conduct of life.

The difference is enormous, and so is the nature of the two kinds of sacred. Philosophically, the Greeks, the Christians, and the “Westerners” demand a Being behind beings, and thus inquire about an ultimate cause, the cause being different from and superior to what it caused (Aristotle). Let us grant that, aesthetically speaking, a self-caused universe may be just as admirable as a created one, but only because its order, in spite of its philosophical premises, is not haphazard but intelligent. In order to speak meaningfully of the sacred, it too must refer to a transcendent causation, not to a fortuitous encounter of circumstances, one circumstance being “popular imagination.” The latter plays, of course, an important role; but worshipers also refer to divine presence and intervention, without in each case tracing the why and the how. At any rate, the thesis that an arbitrary “nature” is the being behind the beings, the ultimate reference, is not tenable; it falls by its own weight. It is absurd, because it reduces the sacred to a folkloristic event. On the contrary, monotheists are convinced that the sacred is performed by a supernatural agent: it is a willed act, sustained by other willed acts. In this light, the accusation against monotheism, that God gathers up all the sacred, leaving “nothing” to human believers or to nature, turns out to be nonsensical: Who else but a supreme intelligence would order his creation and the sacred manifestations in it? Popular imagination does the rest when it surrounds the place (for example, Golgotha) with legends and people’s own handiwork (the mosque where Mohammed ascended to heaven, or Sinai where Yahwe handed Moses the Decalogue), preserving the event in consciousness and aesthetic sensibility.

The sacred exists in all civilizations, but monotheism alone produces reasoned arguments for it, in addition to the mythic, poetic, and emotional elements that reason does not block in the least. “Reason” does not mean here a mere tool of rational analysis, but a quasi-metaphysical penetration to a secret, mysterious area. In its manifestation, the sacred means nothing unless it is the awe-filled recognition of, and surrender to, a superior presence, which is not of the same substance as the sacrificer, the ritual act itself, or the impact which remains afterward among the congregation (for example, the sacred act of Abraham commanded to sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah). This shows up with its unlimited wealth in all our feast days, personal and public sacrifices, which are not merely acts of gratitude or atonement, but also humble celebrations for our integration in a wide order: family, nation, church. The higher the order—and pagans also focus their worship on the highest god—the more meaningful the sacrifice, the more numinous the Presence.

The presence is that of the absolute Otherworldly with which we feel integrated. If there is no extra-worldly agent, then what or who sacralizes the cosmos, our deeds, inner life, sense of justice? Why would certain parts of these, but not others, be sacralized and celebrated? Paganism follows its own logic when it regards the entire universe as sacred; monotheism does not do that, first because it views the universe as contingent (it could be quite different, or not be at all), and secondly because God reserves the choice of lifting some (persons, places, events, etc.) and making others feel the weight of His anger. Note that the sophisticated pagans, the Greeks, were aware that their gods were only natural forces; they did not place them much higher than human beings. The gods’ only “divine” attributes were fittingly what humans longed for: happiness, that is isolation from ordinary upsets, and immortality. The Greeks’ sacred was mostly a matter of communal tradition and social mores (see Alcibiades’ incident with the hermae statues). In fact, Greek philosophy was a vast operation of epistemological desacralization. Christianity came to satisfy this epistemological need with its concepts of creation and incarnation.

We have mentioned the most impressive neopagan argument against the metaphysical and moral overlordship of the Christian God: that because power is widely distributed among gods and men in paganism, there is no monopoly of positive acts, no all-powerful God versus puny humans. Yet, paganism is not so innocent when it comes to transcendent ukases. It neglects to admit that the cyclical changes and their rhythm, which determine mankind’s fate, are just as arbitrary as the commandments of Yahwe; moreover, the former take place independently of human merits, and all are struck down (punished?) when the hour of the Great Year strikes. All that Spengler could do with the notion of rise and fall was to show its simultaneity across various civilizations. We mention this theme for the sake of a more precise and just view. Granted, the monotheistic worshiper may be ill-equipped facing God’s omnipotence—although Job’s story displays the more nuanced side of this arrangement—^but what are the alternatives in the pagan/Christian dispute? As Paul Ricoeur observes, in the pagan worldview no individual or communal act carries weight, for moral issues are hashed out among the gods, whose interdivine confrontations decide humanity’s rewards and punishments. The “sacred,” in this case, consists of the human individual’s supplication and sacrifice to his tutelary deity for being protected. If his god loses the battle of wills—for example, Poseidon to Athena—the former protégé becomes the victim, independent of his own acts. Odysseus was lucky for being on Athena’s side. In contrast, the monotheist burdens man with the weight of his own acts, he is good or evil, and is dealt with accordingly. Thus God, supposedly the jealous possessor of all the sacred, all the good, all virtue, grants much more freedom (including worship and its refusal) to man than the pagan god, a determined (unfree) and determining agent. For the monotheistic God contains, as it were, the summum bonum and does not have to confront other, equal-ranking gods while carrying unfree humans in his baggage. His regime accepts the consequences of man’s (limited) freedom and responsibility: a higher, but of course not divine, status for the human being.

In the two outstanding areas where man meets God, the areas of the good and the beautiful, the sacred is the privileged mediating agency through which higher things are perceived and approached. This perception and approach provide us with all the richness of religion and cultural life, since we model all our work on the sacred, no matter how distantly and imperfectly. When we travel abroad, we can tell when we face a different sacred from ours, therefore a different style, different values, a different appreciation of acts. (The present terrifying uniformity is a sign that the sacred is everywhere in eclipse.)

The pagan artist is neither better nor worse than his monotheistic confrere. The sacred is the object of their labor— of their painting, sculpting, building, composing, and dancing —since the sacred is most expressive of their civilization, of the circumscription of their educated sensibility. How does one decide about the superiority of the “Smiling Christ” of Moissac, in France, or the smiling granite face of the pharaoh at Karnak? Between Greek liturgical music and the Gregorian or Bach’s? True, in the Greek epic poems and tragedies responsibility is borne by gods and goddesses for any significant human action, but by the fifth century, Antigone assumes a free moral conscience: her sacred is internalized, and it challenges that of the community; she appeals to what transcends. The separation, deplored by neopagans, of the world and God thus made an early appearance, a leap from pagan to Christian morality.