What is a Pagan?

“Paganism” is a term fraught with all sorts of connotations. It originally meant something like “country dweller”, “rustic”, or even “hick”. That’s because (contrary to popular myth) Christianity did not spread among the Hee Haw-watchers of antiquity, but among the city dwellers and urban folk. The very last people to receive the Faith were the rural folk who clung to the worship of the old gods and the customs of their ancestors long after Christianity had become thoroughly established in the cities. So the term originally referred only to “country folk”.

However, because the country folk were devoted to the various gods of the Gentiles, “pagan” came to mean something else: a worshipper of non-Christian deities. And as those deities receded into the past and became conflated with the demons of both revelation and of the medieval imagination, “pagan” came to take on a much darker significance. It became fraught with imagery of devils, horned gods, and all manner of wild witchery (which paganism was sometimes, in fact, fraught with). To call somebody a “pagan” in this sense was no longer to describe where they lived, but to say something desperately dark about their soul.

Finally, in these latter days, “pagan” has taken yet another turn and is now used in some circles as a compliment. Among a growing number of people, “pagan” now means “post-Christian religionist who is attempting to rescue reverence for Nature from the hands of evil Judeo-Christian earth rapists”. The notion behind this version of “pagan” is that there was once a magical far-off time when humans dwelt in harmony with Mother Earth, everybody was comfortable with their various Jungian archetypes, and all was well as we worshipped the “gods” and “goddesses” who both expressed the beauty of Nature and got us in touch with our inmost selves (and lots of libido to boot). Who needs all that stuff about sin, dying to self and the need for redemption? The great blunder of the human race was when the old gods were swept away by the evil Judeo-Christian God. We have to return to our natural state of innocence with the gods (and especially the goddesses) of Nature that reigned before God mucked everything up. Then we will find the happiness we are all seeking.

The first thing to note about paganism, is the last thing that I note: it is seeking something. Paganism is, according to G.K. Chesterton, a search. Chesterton had a very high regard for pre-Christian paganism. He famously said that paganism was the attempt to reach God through the imagination. He declared, “Paganism was the largest thing in the world and Christianity was larger; and everything else has been comparatively small.” The thing it is seeking is the thing we all seek: the thing St. Thomas says we can’t not seek—happiness.

But that brings us to our second point, namely that paganism takes two basic forms: pre-Christian and post-Christian. Pre-Christian paganism was, says philosopher Peter Kreeft, a virgin. Post-Christian paganism is, he adds, a divorcee. And that matters enormously because there are two basic reasons people ask questions: to find something out and to keep from finding something out.

Pre-Christian paganism was (for the most part) an attempt to find God. It was (as we shall see in our next discussion) often alloyed with all sorts of error and hampered by original sin. But the fundamental goal was a search for God. As such, it was ordered toward reality, though much hampered in the pursuit by the effects of sin.

Post-Christian paganism is, first and foremost, a search for an escape from God. It is a hunt for the blessings of heaven without the trouble of submitting to heaven. As such, it is ordered toward unreality, though much hampered in the pursuit by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Now it should be noted here that merely living in the 21st Century does not automatically make you a post-Christian pagan. It is quite possible for pre-Christian pagans to exist in this day and age. I well remember a woman I worked with who was spurred by  Joan Osborne’s song “One of Us” to remark: “Wouldn’t that be a cool idea for a story?”

“What?” I queried.

“Well, suppose God became a human being. Wouldn’t that be a great idea for a story?”

I remarked, “Yeah! You could call it ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ or something.”

She had no clue that this was what Christianity taught. It was, even at this date, news. And she was amazed.

But others are, in Chesterton’s phrase, “weary of hearing what they have never yet heard”. These divorcee post-Christians are looking, not for God, but for something—anything—else.

Understanding that is the essential first step. Next time, we will discuss the next step.

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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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