This piece below was first published in Chronicles (A Magazine of American Culture), April 1996.
Can we still conceive of the revival of pagan sensibility in an age so profoundly saturated by Judeo-Christian monotheism and so ardently adhering to the tenets of liberal democracy? In popular parlance the very word “paganism” may incite some to derision and laughter. Who, after all, wants to be associated with witches and witchcraft, with sorcery and black magic? Worshiping animals or plants, or chanting hymns to Wotan or Zeus, in an epoch of cable television and “smart weapons,” does not augur well for serious intellectual and academic inquiry.
Yet, before we begin to heap scorn on paganism, we should pause for a moment. Paganism is not just witches and witches’ brew; paganism also means a mix of highly speculative theories and philosophies. Paganism is Seneca and Tacitus; it is an artistic and cultural movement that swept over Italy under the banner of the Renaissance. Paganism also means Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Charles Darwin, and a host of other thinkers associated with the Western cultural heritage. Two thousand years of Judeo-Christianity have not obscured the fact that pagan thought has not yet disappeared, even though it has often been blurred, stifled, or persecuted by monotheistic religions and their secular offshoots.
Undoubtedly, many would admit that in the realm of ethics all men and women of the world are the children of Abraham. Indeed, even the bolder ones who somewhat self-righteously claim to have rejected the Christian or Jewish theologies, and who claim to have replaced them with “secular humanism,” frequently ignore that their self-styled secular beliefs are firmly grounded in Judeo-Christian ethics. Abraham and Moses may be dethroned today, but their moral edicts and spiritual ordinances are much alive. The global and disenchanted world, accompanied by the litany of human rights, ecumenical society, and the rule of law—are these not principles that can be traced directly to the Judeo-Christian messianism that resurfaces today in its secular version under the elegant garb of modern “progressive” ideologies? Read more