The new paganism

Uniformity may have given way to personal choice, but, Hugh Baker argues, we cannot just pick and choose the beliefs which best suit our needs

If, like me, you are a School Governor, you may find your school’s parents are exercised by food, or more precisely, school dinners. ‘They’re not good enough,’ they complain, ‘and there should be more choice.’ If only they knew the school dinners of my youth! When I was a Mixed Infant, brave men were still navigating their way through the remains of Europe’s minefields to bring us…tapioca. This nutritious substance would be heated by the hundredweight, and dolloped into your dish with an audible thud. A fearsome prop forward of a woman called Joan loomed over you with the injunction ‘Eat it all up, or you can’t go out to play.’

If ‘the medium is the message,’ then the message was Uniformity. There was a correct way of eating, dressing, raising your hat to a lady, addressing an Archdeacon and, of course, worshipping God. He was to be addressed from a standard book, in a standard place, at a standard hour of a standard day. A stranger could walk in and immediately understand the rules of the game. This was Britain, Britain was Christian, and our mores, deeply ingrained in us by our religion, were known, understood, agreed and widely adhered to, even by those who would have liked to have done without them. There was a common national life, and Christianity was the glue whose values held it all together. You were sent to Sunday School to learn, as much as anything else, how to be British.

Choice is king

Nowadays, Choice is king in every part of our life, and not always for the better. A visit to the crematorium nowadays goes with a bracing of the nerves, to see what degree of naffness is attributed to the deceased by his imputed posthumous choice of incidental music on entry and exit. Will someone please explain to me how Christ was glorified, or the grieving relatives uplifted, by the blasting out of the theme tune to Only Fools and Horses at the coffin’s arrival?

More seriously, with the rise of Choice we see the re-entry of the pagan gods. Poke about the burgeoning ‘psychic’ sections of our bookshops, and they are all there, waiting to return from antiquity. To take one example, Ginette Paris, a Jungian analyst (what else?), tells us in The Sacrament of Abortion (1992):

‘It is time to call back the image of Artemis, the wild one, who despite her beauty refuses marriage and chooses to belong only to herself …when the Artemis myth manifests itself, it can be recognised by a sense of no longer belonging to a family…the most extreme example of fusion being the connexion between a mother and her young children… Our culture needs new rituals as well as laws to restore to abortion its sacred dimension…I’ve heard women address their fetus directly…and explain why it is necessary to separate now. Others write a letter of farewell and read it to a friend, a spouse, or even the whole family. Still others invent their own farewell…like offering a little doll to a divinity as a symbol of the aborted fetus.’

Curing guilt?

Whatever needs you may have, paganism will find you a god to suit. Tired of that inconveniently inflexible monotheistic deity you grew up with? Ten Commandments, and all that goes with them, starting to be inconvenient? Not to worry! We’ll find you something supernatural for you to relate to which will justify everything you may have a twinge of guilt or confusion about. A set of gods can be tailor-made, out of the pagan pantheon, to leave you with a totally undemanding set of cosmic consumer outlets to whom you may present your emotional shopping list. You’ll receive no forgiveness or assurance of pardon, of course; but who needs that in a cosmos that has made sin redundant? (Paris’ chapter quoted above is entitled ‘The Cure for Guilt.’)

This polytheism gains much of its power from the fact that it has crept up on us, unnoticed, over centuries. It has slowly bent Christianity to its own shape with the slow, stifling grip of a cultural anaconda. It began with the Renaissance – the re-birth – of the Graeco-Roman myths whose content is displayed on the walls of any post-Jacobean stately home you visit, and is expressed through much of the art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Perhaps it is not surprising that conservative Catholicism, whose roots are pre-Renaissance, can offer a stronger critique of things modern than much Evangelicalism, whose thought forms have been moulded, unseen, by this mental Leviathan. In these latter days, when we have descended from neo-classicism to artistic nihilism, paganism has moved into the philosophical. It now gains public acceptance by pushing all the right establishment buttons. It ties in with ‘tolerance,’ ‘diversity’ and all the evanescent values of the multicultural experiment.

Creating problems

The really frightening thing about the pagan gods is that they have a certain amount of reality and ability to answer prayer. In and of themselves, these gods are no more than the dressing up, in supernatural guise, of our own godless answers to life’s pain and problems. This is not to say that they do not have reality or the power to cause mischief. Our Enemy, having limited demonic resources at his command, will pour them into things which will keep us from God in guilt, shame and addiction. Just as self-control is the ultimate fruit of the Spirit, so addiction – to drink, drugs, pornography, power, violence or whatever – is the fruit of trying to avoid God by worshipping the needs of our own brokenness, rather than bringing them to God in confession for his forgiveness and healing.

The present schism in the church is totally unlike the High Church/Low Church divide we have grown up with. That was a propositional argument between people who believed that there was one God; that things were either true or false, and neither side could be simultaneously right. Whatever their disagreements about our sacraments’ origins and administration, they were agreed on the nature of the Godhead. Our argument now is with folk who, calling themselves Christian, sit light to any kind of restraint on belief or practice: Scripture, tradition and even reason have now to bow to my right to believe what suits me.

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