Christianity and neopaganism – synchroblog
When I have read or participated in electronic discussions on religion in general, and the relation between Christians and neopagans in particular, I have commonly found an expectation of hostility. Christians are expected to be hostile towards neopagans, and often are. Neopagans are expected to be hostile towards Christians, and often are.
Much of the hostility I have seen in electronic discussions arises from ignorance. Christians and neopagans do not so much attack each other as they attack caricatures of each other. And when they really get into the swing of the attack, they sometimes start behaving like the caricatures too. I believe the writings of the Inklings can go a long way towards removing the caricatures.
Some Christians have never heard of neopagans, and wonder what they are, and there is even disagreement about that, so here is a brief description. The word “pagan”, as used by Christians, originally meant someone who wasn’t a Christian. It was probably derived from Roman military slang, where it meant a civilian as opposed to a soldier, and for Christians it meant someone who had not enlisted, by baptism, in the battle against the evil “Prince of this World”.
As a result of this origin, in the early days of Christianity, pagans were not aware of being “pagan”, though as time went on some doubtless became aware that Christians called them that. They had many different gods and cults and philosophies, depending on where they lived. But whatever else they worshipped or didn’t worship, citizens of the Roman Empire had a universal obligation to participate in the Emperor cult. Christians were awkward in refusing to do so, and this sometimes got them into trouble with the authorities, and there were sporadic persecutions of Christians.
In many of the places where Christianity spread people stopped worshipping their old gods altogether, and became Christians; sometimes this happened because they wanted to do so, sometimes their king or other local ruler became a Christian and then forced all his subjects to do the same. For whatever reason, though, the worship of the old gods ceased.
In the 19th and 20th centuries a movement of secularisation spread through Europe and other parts of the world. Religion ceased to hold a central place in people’s thinking, and in some places, the so-called Second World, it was actively suppressed. The Western world had become post-Christian. People who were nonreligious, for whom God meant nothing, often called themselves, and were called by Christians, “pagans”. But some people were dissatisfied with a secular worldview, and many were spiritual searchers. Some of these searched in the pre-Christian religions of their countries, and began worshipping gods that had long been neglected. And they came to be called “neopagans”, new pagans, to distinguish them from those who had worshipped those gods before the coming of Christianity (who were sometimes called “paleopagans”). These revived pagan religions were not the same as the originals, and had a totally different social base. Many neopagans were eclectic, choosing gods who had never been worshipped together, and some worshippped gods of their own devising. It is impossible to describe all the different varieties of neopaganism here. Some have particular names: Asatru, the worship of the old Norse gods; Hellenism, the worship of the old Olympian gods of ancient Greece; Wicca, the worship of a goddess, and sometimes a god who is a consort.
As a result of some fanciful and now-discredited ideas propagated by Margaret Murray, some neopagans, and Wiccans in particular, came to believe that the Great European Witchhunt in Early Modern Europe was actually a persecuton of a pagan religion (labelled The Burning Times), and that the “witches” then persecuted were precursors of modern Wiccans. This fuelled the hostility that some neopagans felt towards Christians, while some Christians accused neopagans of being satanists and devil worshippers, and in some cases neopagans experienced real persecution in the present, and did not need imaginary persecutions of the past to make them aware of hostility.
One thing that strikes me about the fiction of the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien et al) is that they are often enjoyed by Christians and neopagans alike. These three authors, and perhaps others who write in similar genres, may provide a way for Christians and pagans to communicate with each other without such hostility.
Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were Christians, and I am a Christian, so what I say here, I say from a Christian point of view, and I am mainly addressing my fellow Christians. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want neopagans or others to read this. Anyone who is interested in the topic is welcome to do so. It’s just that I don’t advocate a neopagan viewpoint here, and nor do I pretend to a neutral “objectivity”. So if you are a neopagan, you’ll probably disagree with a lot of what I say. A lot of Christians might disagree with it too.
Tolkien’s Lord of the rings is probably the best-known and most widely read of the Inklings’ works. In the rec.arts.books.tolkien newsgroup, there are periodic discussions on whether it is a Christian book or not. Christians often claim that it is a Christian book, whereas non-Christians often claim that is is a “pagan” book. The elements of pagan mythology are plain to see, whereas there are none of the externally-recognisable elements of Christian “religion”. The characters don’t read the Bible, they don’t go to church, and Christ is never mentioned. There isn’t even a recognisable Christ-figure, like Aslan in the Narnian books of C.S. Lewis, to provide a reference point.
It is also fairly well known, at least among Inklings fans, that there was some disagreement on this point between Tolkien and Lewis. Tolkien disliked allegory, and said that he regarded the Christianity in Lewis’s books as too explicit. Some neopagans also find the Christianity in Lewis’s books too explicit, and avoid them for that reason. Others enjoy them, and either ignore the Christian references, or regard them as another “path” that they themselves do not need to take, though they acknowledge that it may have been legitimate for Lewis and others.
Lewis’s fiction works might be a good starting point, however, precisely because they are most explicitly Christian. Even though this is so, one could also say much the same of them as many have said of The lord of the rings – there are no church services or Christian ministers, or any other religious activities. There is no religion in them. But there is quite a lot of pagan material in them.
Consider, for example, C.S. Lewis’s The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. A child from the normal everyday world hides in a wardrobe during a game, and finds herself transported by magic into another world, where she has tea with a faun, a figure from ancient Roman pagan mythology. A faun is half human, half goat, and the encounter is an introduction to a world of intelligent talking animals – beavers with sewing machines and the like. Lewis has no hesitation in blending Christian and pagan mythology in his Narnian books. There is even salvation. Salvation is at the centre of the plot of the book, but one would have to look hard to find it attributed to any religion at all, Christian or pagan.
Of course Lewis was known as a Christian, and his conception of salvation is a Christian one, but in this particular book he does not deal with what seems to be the central question for many Western Christian “theologians of religion” – the question whether there is salvation in “other” religions.
The next book in the Narnian series, Prince Caspian, is even more populated with pagan deities – Bacchus and Silenus, nymphs and Maenads, and even a river god. Lewis does not identify these with the forces of evil – they are not “satanic”, as many Christians seem to think pagan deities ought to be (and many neopagans think that Christians think neopagans’ deities are). They are rather part of the army of liberation, and are themselves liberated from the powers of evil in the course of the story.
One could give more examples from the other books in the series, but the picture one gets from all of these is far removed from some of the common Western perceptions of the Christian attitude towards paganism and pagan deities, whether seen from the point of view of Christians or of neopagans. That is, the perception that Christianty and neopaganism are, and perhaps ought to be, hostile to each other.
This hostility was not always around
Back in the early 1970s a group of us were trying to set up a Christian commune in Windhoek, Namibia. We made contact with other groups with similar interests, largely through an exchange of underground magazines in something called The Cosmic Circuit (a kind of hard-copy Webring). One magazine dealing with communes was produced by a neopagan group in Wales, and was edited by Tony Kelly of the Selene Community there. We sent them our Christian magazine Ikon in exchange for their publication Communes. They also sent us a few copies of their neopagan magazine The Waxing Moon. There was no hostility that I could discern. The people who published The Waxing Moon appeared to want to revive the pre-Christian nature religions of north-western Europe. It seemed to be part of a wider “back-to-nature” movement, a reaction against the urban-industrial society of the 20th century with its wars and political systems.
Then we lost contact. Our community in Windhoek was broken up by deportation and banning, and we went our separate ways and got involved in other things. In the 1990s I once again came into contact with neopagans, mainly through electronic computer links, such as bulletin board conferences and reading Web pages put up by neopagans. The bulletin board conferences were more informative, because they were more interactive. But there seemed to be differences from my experience of 20 years earlier. There was a hostility and suspicion that I had not noticed before. It also seemed that where there was this hostility, there was also a lack of communication. Christians and neopagans did not so much attack each other as attack caricatures of each other. The electronic media made it possible for people who might otherwise never meet to talk to each other, but when they did, they failed to communicate and just talked past each other. As someone once put it, these new electronic communications media made it easy to communicate with people of other countries and cultures, but very often it is communication without community.
One difference, which may be significant, is that the neopagans we were in touch with in the 1970s were in Britain. Most of those I encountered in the 1990s through BBSs were American. And some Americans, at least, seem to get a lot more aggressive and bitter about things, and were more inclined to divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys”.
But what I think may be even more significant is the time. I got the impression (which could be mistaken) that the neopagans of the 1960s and 1970s were engaged in a search for spiritual values in reaction against secular modernity. They failed to find those values in Christianity, because many Western Christians had sold out to secular modernity. The most influential Christian books at the time were all about how the Christian church must come to terms with modernity and secular values: The secular meaning of the gospel (van Buren), The secular city (Cox) and Honest to God (Robinson) are a few of the better-known ones. Anyone looking for spiritual values at such a time would have been hard-put to find them in the Christian churches of the West. While Christian theologians were saying how difficult it was for “modern man” to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the youth were marching in the streets in their thousands with posters proclaiming that “Che Guevara lives” and “Chairman Mao will live for 10000 years”. The theologians who were trying to address the “with it” generation were quite obviously “without it”.
In the 1990s, however, when I began communicating with neopagans and others electronically, I got a different impression (which could also be mistaken) – that many people who had turned to neopaganism in the 1990s had reacted not against secular values, but against religious ones, and those religious values were those of Christianity, or, perhaps more accurately, those which American sociologists have called “Judeo-Christian” when trying to describe the middle ground of US culture. The difference between American neopagans of the 1990s and British ones of the 1970s was that the former were rebelling against a “Judeo-Christian” upbringing, whereas the latter were rebelling against secular materialism, and could therefore more easily find common ground with Christians who were rebelling against the same things. Those who are rebelling against a “Judeo-Christian” upbringing might on that account be more inclined to be hostile towards Christianity.
What happened to make the change?
I suspect that one cause is that in the 1970s many Western Christians rebelled against the “secular sixties”, and changed. This rebellion took several different forms. One form was radical Christian “Jesus freaks”. Another was the spread of the charismatic renewal, with its rediscovery of a sense of miracle and mystery. It is possible that in the 1970s this attracted many who in the 1960s might have been attracted by neopaganism.
By the end of the decade, however, a reaction had set in. The charismatic renewal had become institutionalised and domesticated in a kind of Protestant neo-scholasticism. A thousand loose-cannon prophets receiving direct revelations from the Holy Spirit (so they said) found that these revelations seemed to concern all the other groups and teachings but theirs, and began calling on the faithful to “Come out of Babylon” and join their particular version of the New Jerusalem. The denunciations became stronger, and the tolerance of deviation less, and euphoria of the 1970s led to the hangover of the 1980s, which some called “charismatic burn-out”. The miracle and the mystery had been swallowed up in a sterile intellectual rigidity. (I’ve been toying with the idea of a research project into the history of the charismatic renewal in South Africa to test some of these hypotheses).
Having observed this process among Western Christians, I am a little disturbed by signs of something similar beginning to happen among Orthodox Christians in the West, only three decades behind the Protestants and Roman Catholics. There seems to be an idea going around that Orthodox Christianity must be inculturated in the West by having clean-shaven clergy in business suits, with pews and microphones and musical instruments in the churches. Orthodoxy could be beginning its own sell-out to secular Western culture. Not entirely, though. Groups such as the Youth of the Apocalypse, with their slogan of “Death to the World”, affirming the countercultural character of Orthodoxy, might provide a counter weight.
So much for the background (as I see it) to the hostility between many Christians and many neopagans. What does the fantasy literature of people like Lewis, Tolkien and Williams have to do with it?
In the 1960s Lewis and Williams’s fiction was reprinted in paperback, and so became more accessible. Tolkien’s Lord of the rings was reprinted in 1966, and enjoyed a new popularity. Until then, Lewis had been widely known as the author of popular works of Christian apologetics. In a smaller, more specialised circle, he was known as the author of some works of literary criticism. Williams continued to be known mainly by a fairly small circle of enthusiasts. All three writers based their work, mainly or in part, on premodern myths and legends.
At the same time as professional theologians were writing works extolling the virtues of modernity, of the modern world-view or “paradigm”, and calling for Christianity to be “demythologised”, these authors were in effect reaffiming the value of myth. At the same time as the publication of Robinson’s Honest to God, which caused such a stir in the West, J.V. Taylor published The primal vision. Both Taylor’s and Robinson’s books were discussed at conferences of the Anglican Students Federation of South Africa, and their somewhat incompatible messages seemed to cancel one another out. Demythology was very trendy, but Taylor included in his book a quote from Nicolas Berdyaev, who pointed out that “myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept”.
But the best means of communicating the value of myth is myth itself. The primal vision is almost forgotten, but the demand for the works of the Inklings has grown over the last 30 years.
I’ve already mentioned the appearance of pagan themes in Lewis’s Narnian books, and have discussed the appearance of some of these themes in his Cosmic trilogy, and especially Out of the silent planet on another web page. The third novel in the trilogy, That hideous strength, comes closer to the writings of Charles Williams. It has been described as Lewis’s attempt to write a novel in the style of Williams. Like Williams’s novels, and unlike the other two in the trilogy, or the Narnian books, the setting is this world, rather than an imaginary one, or a setting on other planets.
In That hideous strength spiritual powers manifest themselves in this world – the ancient Greek and Roman deities, who are also the planetary rulers, show themselves in human society, and, in alliance with a revived Merlin of the Arthurian legends, confound the powers of evil. The Arthurian theme has echoes of Williams’s poetry in particular. It has echoes in the children’s novels of Peter Dickinson, who wrote of a revived Merlin whose awaking provoked an atavistic fear of modern technology among the inhabitants of Britain.
Alan Garner, whose children’s novels The weirdstone of Brisingamen and The moon of Gomrath were first published in the 1960s, wrote of a wizard, Cadellin Silverbrow, who is guarding a company of sleeping knights, who are threatened by the evil power of the Morrigan and Nastrond. The sleeping knights are to waken when Britain is in extreme peril.
The return of a half-forgotten power from a mythical past to battle an evil in the present is common to That hideous strength and the works of Garner. Lewis uses Graeco-Roman mythology in developing the characteristics of the planetary rulers, and also uses Romano-British mythology and folklore for the idea of a revived Merlin. Garner uses Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and modern folklore – the idea of the “old straight track”, for example, which he uses in The moon of Gomrath is a recent one.
Unlike Lewis, Garner’s books do not have many clearly-identifiable Christian elements. Yet for Christians, Garner’s books are as enjoyable as Tolkien’s. Neopagans have sometimes recommended Garner’s books as an introduction to a pagan worldview and pagan values for children. I believe that the attraction of these books could offer a key to understanding the common ground shared by Christians and neopagans, and also the differences between them.
One of the attractions for Christians is a struggle between good and evil powers, which is a central feature of the Christian worldview. In That hideous strength Lewis asserts Christian, liberal and democratic values against those of a fascist technocracy, and suggests that the latter are part of a satanic cosmic plot. This happens at several levels. For the modern worldview, nature and politics need to be demythologized (see Harvey Cox, The secular city). Lewis effectively remythologizes them. For the early Christians (and for most of their contemporaries) political and spiritual power were inseparable. The emperor cult, which Christians refused to participate in, bore witness to this. Lewis shows how this power operates in a modern setting.
In Garner’s books the struggles are for the possession of the symbols of power – the weirdstone of Brisingamen itself, for example. But there is the same struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.
In Tolkien’s Lord of the rings the primary symbol of power is the One Ring carried by Frodo Baggins to Mount Doom, to be destroyed in the fire in which it was forged.
Where does that take us?
This article has been nearly ten years in the writing. I posted it on a web page, and have added to it from time to time, as new ideas have occurred to me, but the main point has been to pose questions rather than to give answers. In the blog format it is easy to respond by comments, and I hope that it may be the beginning of a conversation. The conversation need not be limited to a blog, and could take place in face to face discussions, or even in a reading group.
Here are some of the questions that occur to me. I hope that if this provokes any ideas, you may respond in comments, or even with other questions.
What values do you see in the writings of the Inklings? Which ones are common to Christians and neopagans? Which ones do you think are incompatible with one or the other?
For Christians: what kind of Christian theology of religions to you see behind the works of the Inklings? What are the similarities and differences between it and that of your community or tradition?
For neopagans: what do you think of the view of pagan deities in tho books of the Inklings? Do you find it hostile, friendly, condescending, cooptive?
[ Continued at Towards a theology of Religions ]
See the other Synchroblogs on the theme of Christianity and neopaganism:
This article is loosely based on an article I posted on my web pages about 10 years ago, and have been adding to since then. An older version may be found at Christianity, paganism and literature
It is also a continuation of a series of posts on Theology of religion, which bedan with the August synchroblog on Christianity, inclusive or exclusive. The instalment previous to this one can be found at Theology of religions and interreligious dialogue. The next instalment is at Towards a theology of religions.
See also an earlier post on Beats, Inklings, Christian literature and paganism.