By Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella
There is one thing, and one thing only, in existence at the present day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin, and that is Christianity.”-G.K. Chesterton
The above quote by G.K. Chesterton may at first sight appear contradictory and illogical. I think it was intended to be paradoxical, to attract attention to a thorny issue with which Chesterton contends in some of his books, namely this: is Christianity integral part of the European identity? The issue boils down to a clarification of the proper role of pagan mythology in such an identity.
At the turn of the 21st century the issue of the European cultural identity has become crucial in the light of the formation, some sixty years ago, of a polity called the European Union. Few would deny nowadays that there is afloat in this polity a veritable cultural identity crisis which some call the issue of multiculturalism but at its core revolves around the issue of religion, specifically Christianity which is considered an Asian- imported religion with little affinity to the original pagan European religions based on traditional European mythologies. It is that dichotomy pagan/Christian and or history/mtyh which creates much confusion and consternation, despite the fact that the founding fathers of the EU were, by and large, traditional, pious, practicing Christians (one thinks of Schumann, De Gasperi, Aedenauer, etc).
This preamble leads logically to the following questions: is Christianity responsible for some of the acute socio-political problems we are experiencing nowadays on both sides of the Atlantic? Nietzsche, for one, certainly thought so. He blamed Christianity for the dilution and even the weakening and emasculating of European culture. The true European culture resided with the Vikings and Germans of old.
So the question arises: is Paganism and its mythology true in any sense? Would a resurgence of paganism bring us back to our original mores and values and restore a more authentic identity? In other words, will it save us from our present predicament? Here too, many believe so, and demonstrate this belief in theory and in practice. It appears that in Europe soccer stadiums are much better attended than churches on Sunday. As we speak, the number of practicing Christians (whether Catholic or Protestants) diminishes steadily. The only noticeable exception is the continent of Africa; an intriguing exception, if there ever was one.
This phenomenon has not escaped notice to Vladimir Putin who has latched on to it as an example of a corrupt pagan society named the West to be contrasted with a pious Christian Orthodox culture of which he fancies himself an example.
As Vico has well taught us, religion is found at the very outset of any human society (together with language and the family); it runs the very core of people’s convictions (even if in a negative mode) and how they view the world around them. To declare oneself “secular” is surely to have a stance vis a vis religion. Some think the solution is simple: simply eliminate religion from the public discourse in the agora and relegate it to the private sphere, if not eliminate it altogether. But is it that simple? Vico points out that religion, while inseparable from people’s ethnicity, history and language, is nevertheless integral part of a people’s culture, even when such a culture rejects religion in practice. It cannot be eliminated in theory as is the case in Europe nowadays wherein many consider themselves in a post-Christian epoch and therefore relieved of any duty of allegiance to the traditional religion of their forebears, those who founded the polity called European Union.
This viewpoint has gained increasing momentum lately. Many in the West have become increasingly convinced that Christianity was part of a long and unfortunate foreign process that led to the subversion of traditional European values and cultural norms. It is not indigenous; it originated in the Middle East and it is based on Jewish mythology, so the argument goes. We, as secularized enlightened humans, heirs of Greco-Roman culture, and the Enlightenment, of course (and here one thinks of Voltaire and his despising of religion) have emancipated ourselves from it and are all the better for it; returning to it would simply bring us right back to where we are now with all the problems of multiculturalism and white guilt and preferences to non-white others; paganism is an improvement on our current circumstances for it allows for indigenous expressions of the European identity.
During the trial of Christ, Pontius Pilate asked Christ a profound, simple, and penetrating question: “What is truth?” This is, of course, the question that should be asked before any argument is made regarding the utility of pagan beliefs. The simple fact is that the idea of the universe being governed by a discordant group of superhuman deities is beyond the scope of believability for most modern Europeans. The ancient Greeks and Romans had discovered the basic laws of physics, astronomy, and biology, and these scientific facts contradicted the pagan idea that the world or universe was governed by the whims of deities who were all too human themselves and prone to all the vices and vulnerabilities of humans.
Paul addresses the problem of pagan beliefs in his sermon on Mars Hill. He argues that the pagan deities could not have created or governed the world when the gods and goddesses themselves were fashioned from metal or stone. “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands. Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.” Paul concludes that “we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.” This argument cuts to the core of the issue with pagan deities. Their whole existence was predicated on their supposed animation of inanimate figures and statues. Paul correctly points out the absurdity of believing that these inanimate figures could have created living creatures. Paul counters this idea with the Christian belief that the one true God created humanity in His own image.
As is well known, the pagan Romans ultimately set out to try to conquer the world and make the whole world Roman. They almost succeeded. Caesar became recognized as a god himself, and the worship of all gods or goddesses were tolerated as long as such worship was subordinated to the state. Christians were persecuted not because they were worshiping foreign gods and myths but because they would not worship Caesar, that is to say, the State. Contrary to what Gibbons maintains in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the current decline and death of the West may be due to this brand of Roman imperial paganism and colonialism, not to anything corrupting within the Christian paradigm.
But in fact one of the weightier issues that discussions of paganism usually evoke is the question of the causes of the impending doom of the West. What has caused the West to contemplate suicide? The reason that this topic is important in any discussion of paganism and European racial and cultural survival is because pagans, since Gibbon and Nietzsche and Marx (who called religion the opium of the people) often cite Christianity as the primary cause or one of the primary causes of European decadence. Many neo-pagans consider Christianity to be a foreign import of Jewish myths into Europe, maintaining that the Christian doctrines of repentance, contrition for sin, the cardinal virtue of charity (all unknown to the pagan Aristotle) and the concept of salvation being freely offered to all, are contradictory to European values and to their survival.
These arguments of course deserve fair consideration, but it is worth noting that from the onset that Christianity itself, through the teachings of Christ, accounts for the possibility of Christians losing influence on society because of their own faithlessness. Christ in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) calls his disciples the “salt of the earth.” The analogy to salt is a metaphorical application to the function of salt in preservation. Ideally, the Christian Church should act as a conservative influence in society and be a means of preserving health in our institutions. If we Christians lose our resolve and convictions in Christian truth, then we will definitely see ourselves displaced, and the “salty” influence that the Church is to wield will vanish. Christ asks his disciples if they, the “salt,” lose their savor, then how will the earth be salted?
We are currently experiencing the result of this widespread apostasy in the West. Hilaire Belloc correctly observed that “the Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith.” What Belloc is asserting is the simple fact that Europe and Christianity seem to go hand in hand. Christopher Dawson and G.K. Chesterton said pretty much the same thing. They also asserted that at the very least the recognition of that cultural fact is needed to preserve European civilization. It appears that as the Faith has declined amongst us, so too has our own sense of our identity and purpose. Confusion seems to abound. As a result we seem to become progressively more disillusioned and embrace nihilism and despair.
Few would deny that manners and customs have declined, traditional marriage and birthrates have dropped precipitously. Europe stands on the brink of a cultural disaster despite its relative material and technological progress, all buttressed by positivism or a near religious belief in science. The torch of Christianity has dwindled in tandem with European influence. It seems that Belloc had it on target: as the Faith goes, so goes Europe; that seems to be the trend, independent of the practice or non-practice of one’s faith.
The question persists: what is then the proper role of mythology in Western identity? It can safely be declared that, if nothing else, the major benefit that pagan mythology provides is its rich history in European literature as well as the appropriation of pagan symbols for Christian use. C.S. Lewis was very appreciative of such influences. Christian Europeans have a long and proud history of appropriating the myths, symbols, holidays, and traditions for Christian usage. By appropriating the best elements of our pre-Christian past, they were able to create a vibrant culture that wed Christian orthodoxy with the good taste of what came before. This is especially evident in the era of Humanism which originated in Italy in the 14th century and synthesized Antiquity to Christianity. Without humanism there would not have been any Renaissance either.
It is important to understand that this did not mean mixing pagan and Christian elements together in worship. No Italian humanist worshiped in Greek or Roman temples, not even Machiavelli who liked to study Roman history dressed in a Roman toga. Pagan deities were simply honored as heroes of ages long past who were not divine and could not deliver anyone from sin, death, or evil, never mind the devil himself. This did not mean for our European forebears that pagan symbols and traditions could not be cleverly redesigned to convey a Christian meaning. A good classical example of the synthesis of pagan history reinterpreted through the prism of Christian theology is the Sibylline Oracles, which is an excellent example of classical poetry.
Another prominent example of the appropriation of pagan symbols to Christian use is from the Celtic conversion: the endless knot which was a pagan symbol representing the mythic union of the sea, land, and sky. When the Celts converted to Christianity the endless knot was converted in its meaning to represent the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. A similar example is the example of the sun wheel, a Neolithic European symbol intended to worship the Sun. This symbol was given a new Christian meaning and is now easily recognizable as the Celtic cross (see the picture above).
Traditional Christian symbolism abounds with examples of pagan traditions and symbols being used to convey a Christian meaning. The pagan Phoenix came to represent the Resurrection of Christ. The Easter egg came to represent Christian rebirth. The pagan feast of Saturnalia corresponds with the dates of the Christian Great O Antiphons leading up to Christmas. The Christmas tree is partially derived from the northern European pagan feast of Yule, and is given a Christian meaning in renewal. There are many more examples of Christians appropriating the best pagan symbols for Christian use.
Pagan theology is unquestionably no longer a tenable worldview for the European mindset. Europeans have been conditioned by centuries of Christian belief to see the universe ordered by a single all-powerful God, and the existence of pagan deities was simply interpreted as representing the heroes and mighty men of old before the days of Noah. The pagan heroes came to be worshipped as gods due to their extraordinary longevity and prowess. By the time of the advent of Christianity in Europe, paganism had long since run its course and had degenerated into state-worship. Chesterton and Dawson point out that it took a good thousand years of medieval purgation, so to speak, to cleanse and escape the gross enormities to which the pagan mind-set had descended. This is not to deny that Aristotle had arrived rationally at the idea of one god who creates the universe which Aristotle calls First Cause, and then gives it a natural law; but his image of god remains abstract, impersonal, a mere product of reason, a mere idea, albeit the highest idea a philosopher can conceive and contemplate.
Aristotle’s idea of God is certainly not the personal, providential god of history, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So, in many ways the modern West is experiencing the same problems that the pre-Christian West did. Europeans are now preoccupied with hero and state-worship, and they are experiencing the same abuses of the state that our ancestors did under Caesar, to wit the EU myopic bureaucracy unconcerned with the spiritual and the transcendent aspects of the life of destiny of Man which remains integral part of the Christian faith. The whole game now consists in a Machiavellian quest for power.
What Chesterton means with that above quixotic initial quote is that, contrary to the protests of neo-pagans, Christianity is the native natural religion of the European people. It is natural to revere heroes; it is unnatural to worship heroes as gods. Pagan religion was a perversion of the natural inclination to admire the finer traits of the human character. Christianity was a positive transition in Europe to the worship of the one true Trinitarian God. Nevertheless we Europeans are obliged to our pagan predecessors who forged many of the abiding symbols that we use today in the Christian faith. Christian authors, architects, composers, theologians, and artists have always demonstrated a profound respect for the pagan traditions and symbols of Europe. But this respect has always been demonstrated within the context of a steadfast devotion to Christian orthodoxy. We Europeans and Western people in general can and should appreciate the exploits of Thor, Odin, and Zeus without worshipping them as gods, rather honoring them as ancestors of our ancient past.
The most laudable attribute of our European ancestors as exemplified by the founding fathers of the European Union was their quest and desire to understand and express truth. The question returns: what prompted Pontius Pilate to ask Christ about truth? It was Christ’s simple and yet profound assertion that He himself was the Truth, the Way and the Life, and that truth could only be ascertained through belief in him? Christ stated that the whole purpose of His ministry was to convey the truth. “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.” A good question to ponder at Christmas time.
Christ is certainly not a myth like Zeus, Thor or Odin but an historical person born at a particular time in a particular place among a particular people but his mission is not particular but universal, meant for all people, for it is the truth that shall make us free. Pope John Paul II’s words to the European Congress and Christopher Dawson’s words in his The Making of Europe, remain prophetic: as Faith declines, so will our beloved Europe. For Europe, and indeed the West, to be the West again and assure its survival and salvation even in the merely political temporal universe, it must once again become the Faith.
Emanuel L. Paparella is a former professor of Italian language and literature at the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Central Florida. He is the author of various books: Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Mellen Press, New York, 1993), A New Europe in Search of its Soul (Authorhouse, 2005), Europa: an Idea and a Journey (Exlibris, 2012), Tre Novelle Rusticane di Giovanni Verga (ed. 1975, Florentia Publisher), as well as innumerable articles on Italian literature and philosophy.