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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

The Re-Paganization of Christianity

A relationship to the land, and thereby to the seasons, naturally fosters a relationship to the cosmos, but such, in our technology-driven age, should not be assumed. Technology increasingly isolates us from the cosmos by feeding to us, especially through the internet and smartphones, a false sense of cosmos. Indeed, the practices of industrial agriculture have done much to estrange the soil itself from the cosmos. Estranged from the real cosmos, we are ensnared in a virtual one. And we no longer remember how to discern the Real.

Indeed, the internet is our commons. But unlike the rural commons of the past, the virtual commons disconnects us from the Real. In fact, like the elites who stole the commons from the peasantry, today’s elites prefer to keep us in the virtual commons so we don’t notice how we’ve been buffered from the Real and thus continue to consume like the sheep in More’s Utopia, thence to be fleeced by our managers. We turn to the virtual commons to fill a hunger that can only be satisfied by the sacramental cosmos. The virtual commons, it is true, fills, but it can never nourish. As a result, we waste away, malnourished, on a diet designed by demons.

To counter this a-cosmological (or, to be more honest, anti-cosmological) sterility, it will be necessary to re-paganize Christianity. G.K. Chesterton, in his great wisdom, knew this to be true. “If we ever get the English back onto English land,” he wrote in 1908, “they will become again a religious people, if all goes well, a superstitious people. The absence from life of both the higher and lower forms of faith is largely due to a divorce from nature and the trees and clouds.”[1] For, “Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.”[2] Indeed, Catholic Christianity fulfills “the best pagan impulses.”[3] Unfortunately, in recent years some American dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church have adopted the barbaric practice of transferring major feast days—Ascension and the Assumption of Mary, for example—to the following Sunday. The USCCB doesn’t even wince. It truly doesn’t get any more a-cosmological than this variety of practical nominalism.

People desire, innately desire, connection with the cosmos, which is at heart the sacramental desire for union with God, to finally know where we belong. Wicca and such attempts at nature worship can really be understood in precisely this way. But what they really desire, I would argue, is a Christianity not compromised by Enlightenment sensibilities, nominalism, and politics at the expense of mystery, reality, and beauty. Rosemary Haughton located these qualities in Celtic Christianity and “its feeling for the presence of the divine in natural beauty and in the unexpected, its single-minded devotion to the quest for God, and its sheer wealth of symbol and fantasy.”[4] She recognized this same longing in the young people visiting the annual Glastonbury Festival. These young pilgrims, she observed,

earnestly studying the I-Ching, smoking hash, reading Thomas Merton, making candles, and discussing organic farming or the Second Coming are on a quest as much as young Parsifal. Like him they are apt to miss their chances, ask the wrong question, or not ask, and make the confusion worse. But at least they are setting out from their round table, and a few may achieve the Grail. It is a thoroughly Catholic quest, under the occasionally erratic guidance of Sophia. If, most of the time, they do not pay much attention to Mother Church, Sophia will no doubt help them to make contact with her when necessary.[5]

Many of them do eventually wander into the Church, but are just as likely to wander out again. The community they hoped to find often proves a mirage, and they become dissatisfied or even feel betrayed in some way. The reality doesn’t live up to the brochure. All they are offered is the intellectual purgatory of RCIA and a box of envelopes. Some stick around for a little while before moving on to fill their still unquenched thirst elsewhere. And, even if they stay, their children will probably leave. We don’t have a culture that can hold them.

Christianity is at its foundations a pagan religion, especially if we take into account the etymology of the Latin paganus (“villager, rustic”). Simone Weil, more melancholically perhaps, thought Christianity a religion of slaves (though in a rhetorical context quite alien from Friedrich Nietzsche’s). She was not incorrect, no doubt, but “pagan” is more all-encompassing a descriptor. The apostles and disciples were almost to a person rustics. Over time, of course, Christianity became formalized and developed an elite of its own. I suppose this is just what happens. Nevertheless, I cannot help but recall the story of St. Francis of Assisi returning to his community after traveling to Egypt in his nearly successful attempt to convert the Sultan. In his absence, they had “reorganized” their community, bringing in new furniture, a new administrative structure, generally modernizing and streamlining things. Francis, dismayed, sat on the floor, covered himself with ashes, and refused to participate. The administrative class, I am told, has a purpose. Only, I’m not sure what it is. But I do know that if Christianity were primarily a religion for a managerial class of intellectuals and aesthetes, it wouldn’t be worth a damn.

The foregoing is no doubt why John Milbank has observed, and accurately, that now “The family, local economies, even the economy as a whole, along with voluntary associations, are treated as if they were politically incidental.”[6] This situation may be expedient for the managerial class, but cannot be sustainable over the long run. The managerial class, seriously buffered from zoë, maintains a bios not only virtual, but at best as artificial as a plastic flower, at worst positively demonic. The unreal has replaced the Real. This is the source of the general malaise that permeates culture.

The ways by which we are buffered from the Real are manifold: from the environments in which we live and work, to the foods we eat, to the clothes we wear, to our understandings of health, our conceptions of nature, and our passive acceptance of what constitutes currency and exchange. Taking inventory of the synthetic accoutrements of our lives may prove disconcerting. Scientific breakthroughs continually introduce new substances into our lives—fiberglass, plastics, polar fleece, GMO foods, pesticides, fungicides, innumerable varieties of drugs, unnecessary use of hormone therapies, currencies based on absolute fiction and theft—but the scientific and political spheres (encouraged by business) rarely have the foresight to see what damage these “breakthroughs” might (or often will) cause, and new breakthroughs to repair the damages caused by the former breakthroughs are called for. This is madness.

Overwhelmed, it seems that we can do nothing about our condition other than make the best of a bad situation. Perhaps there is something we can do.

David Bohm on wholeness and fragmentation:

This is an excerpt from Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything by Michael Martin. It will be published in Fall 2018 by Angelico Press.

Michael Martin is a philosopher, poet, musician, biodynamic farmer, and the Director of The Center for Sophiological Studies.

[1] Gilbert K. Chesterton, Heretics (New York: John Lane Company, 1908), 101.

[2] Ibid., 99.

[3] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), xiv.

[4] Rosemary Haughton, The Catholic Thing (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1979), 105. My emphasis.

[5] Ibid., 130.

[6] John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order, 156.

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