Sunday, 10 January 2010

A Pagan Christmas?

There were a few stories going around before Christmas about the revival of paganism, the winter solstice, with druids dancing around Stonehenge and uttering long-lost pagan oaths. It brought up the old stories of Christmas being a pale Christian version of good old pagan revelry in the depths and darkness of winter. Yet there was a good reason why Europeans gave up on paganism.
I spent part of Christmas reading G.K. Chesterton's Life of Francis of Assisi, quotable and pithy as GKC always is. He had a very interesting theory about the 'Dark Ages' - the period after the end of the Roman empire when nothing much seemed to happen in European culture, before it began to flower in the C12th and C13th. Perhaps, he argued, these were a kind of purging of paganism from European life and mind, before the heights of a Christian culture could begin to emerge?
Paganism is at its heart, the worship of nature, the worship of things as they are, or at least seem to be. The great problem with the worship of nature though, is that nature is often pretty unpleasant and cruel. Forest fires, tsunamis and earthquakes don't teach us much about forgiveness and grace. They are indiscriminate and deadly. No point in praying to them for mercy. Even our own nature is a dubious thing - as much full of jealousy and malice as goodness and love. The Christian argument against paganism was always that nature is flawed and for that reason it is at best pointless, at worst dangerous to worship it. Because if you worship something cruel and hreatless, you become cruel and heartless. You only have to wander around the Colisseum at Rome and realise the grisly delight in pain and death for which that building was built, to realise that paganism's entertainment industry was unpleasant to say the least. A culture that enjoyed watching slaves die, that made condemned criminals play the parts of characters to be murdered in plays so the audience could watch a real death on stage was only relflecting the nature of the gods it worshipped.
We had to learn to view nature with a bit of healthy scepticism, realising that it is not evil (God after all made it) but it is flawed. We needed to worship something better, someone better, who is at heart love, mercy and grace, not twisted and unjust. Chesterton's point was it took us almost a millenium to unlearn that destructive worship of nature. Only then could Europeans return to nature, as Francis did, to learn to respect it and enjoy its beauty as a creature not a god, without the temptation to worship it again. By his time, the average European had "stripped his soul of the the last rag of nature worship, and could return to nature." A bit strange then that we are tempted to look back at the pagan past with rosy-tinted fondness. It was always a culture of darkness that celebrated blind and pitiless fate, rather than the one that gradually replaced it, began to learn to glory in the world as the gift of a good, gracious and merciful God.

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