Thursday, 3 November 2011

Pagan missionaries?


I sometimes think we need pagan missionaries, almost as much as we need Christian missionaries. Indeed they could be the same people - adjusting their strategy.

Christian missionaries are very good at converting pagans, but nobody seems able to convert modern secular hedonists.

The jump between secular hedonism is too great - between believing whatever you like to believing a complex set of interlocking propositions (which perhaps don't make any better sense than secular hedonism unless they are all present and correct).

But maybe, simple paganism could be restored - and later on the person might be amenable to Christianity?


Simple paganism is the natural, spontaneous understanding of the world we had when children; and then there is also the complex philosophical paganism of the Ancient Greeks.

Intellectuals ought to be able to follow the logic of Plato or Aristotle to discover that there must be a god (or gods) for the universe to cohere at a very basic explanatory level.

This god/s is not, of course, the Christian God (although Christians might consider  them to be angels). It is not a personal God, and it is not a loving God - indeed it is not even a creator God (it is a mistake to try and prove the necessity of a creator God to an atheist - this necessity was not apparent to Plato or Aristotle so why should modern butterfly intellectuals be compelled by the argument?).

What I am suggesting is that missionaries stop - for a while - at the necessity of god/s - and refrain from pushing straight on to God.

At any rate, if modern intellectuals can be got as far as the intelligent pagans of the Greek and Roman era, that would be an enormous advance in Truth.


And if the mass of ordinary people could be got as far as paganism (even if they denied Christian revelation) - then there is something-to-work on, and a perspective from which Christian conversion might happen in the blink of an eye.

But so long as the modern Western populations are distracted 24/7 by media and gossip and drugs and busyness and the deliberate derangements imposed by the Left... well, for so long no reasoning at all is possible, apparently, no illogic too extreme; and from this unrepentant state where even the need for repentance and the fact that there is anything even in principle to repent seems unclear - Christianity seems almost impossibly remote.



The Crow said...

I think I agree ;)
I think.
Therefore I agree.
Christianity is too big a leap, yes.
As in why. Why go through all those hoops.
Especially if one may discover a life that fulfils, grants one a place, a duty, and a reward.
Especially when life is good enough to not need an afterlife, but to be completely grateful for the life one has/had.
Life really is good, once one casts aside the intricate madnesses of social interaction.
Good enough to not desire more.
Eternity may arrive, anyway, as a totally unexpected bonus. Or not.

dearieme said...

The main paganism of the moment is presumably Hinduism. I suppose Buddhism doesn't count.

Daniel said...

"At any rate, if modern intellectuals can be got as far as the intelligent pagans of the Greek and Roman era, that would be an enormous advance in Truth."

Or if they could be got as far as children!

I had a conversation recently with a very bright, modest young woman who is highly educated and lives in the world of high-powered PR execs and political types. She talked some about her job, and though I could see her natural goodness shining through, she also had a hard-bitten side that she clearly put on when dealing with these issues.

Later I asked her to tell me something about something non-work-related. Learning she was an English major (as I was) I began to ask her about her favorite books. And she began to tell me of the last book she read, a book about horse-riding. (She grew up on a cattle ranch in the western US and knows a lot about horse riding).

The book was mainly about the auras that both horse and human possess and that both horse and human can sense in the other. And it was about trusting these connections and letting them inform how you approach and tame and ride a horse. She was positively glowing as she talked about it. She told an anecdote of a recent encounter with a specific horse, when she intuited and acted on exactly the kind of thing the book was talking about.

She knew herself to be alive as more than just a string of chemical reactions, and she knew the same was true of the horse. And she felt all of this quite strongly, as her eyes made clear when she told the story.

I thought this is an example of intuitive paganism. Natural and spontaneous, as you said. You should have seen how this girl's entire being changed when she stopped talking about career and started talking about horses. That's the kind of thing which is inherent in many people if you only know where to probe, that a pagan missionary might encourage, no?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daniel -

Modernity is much less natural to women than men (on average) so women do it less well: by rote; and find the whole process of modern life alienating and soul-destroying.

Then we see women doing things that are profoundly alien to women - choosing sterility, avoiding their own children, making themselves ugly (tattoos etc), being casually promiscuous, wandering alone and helpless into known-dangereous situations - and (partly in order to make themselves do these) deliberately getting intoxicated.

And so on.

Lost souls - demonic souls, indeed - souls which have embraced despairing nihilism - trapped in this by pride and self-will.

Souls which are so cut-off from reality as to be capable of almost anything so long as it is anti-Good, anti-natural, ugly and inverted in morality.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes think we need pagan missionaries,

I write this from the vicinity of several lovely Daoist/animist temples. Would you like me to send some missionaries over to the USA for you?

As dearime mentioned, there is Hindu paganism as well as the European varieties (Druidic or Norse or whatever else Europe might have). Further, there are numerous varieties of Asian animism, there is African religion - the world is full of paganism. Perhaps some corners of the world, such as the USA or Saudi Arabia, are still under-served.

ajb said...

"But so long as the modern Western populations are distracted 24/7 by media and gossip and drugs and busyness and the deliberate derangements imposed by the Left..."

I think the secular project is sustained by the sense of progress. The present is better than the past (because of secularism), and the future will be better than the present (as long as religious types can be controlled-diminished).

Do things not make sense when one tries to connect the dots or think things through? Yes, but they will make sense, because our secular knowledge of the universe is progressing, washing away the reasons (or 'unreasons') for superstition or various elements of religious belief. One day, we will understand the nature of morality, say, from a secular perspective, and it will make sense, and it will be good (usually, this is understood in utilitarian sense).

So, most secularists don't fashion themselves nihilists, and believe in truth and goodness (regardless of whether their beliefs undermine such concepts when carried to their conclusions). They believe in the scientific project, not as a distraction, but as a revealing of that truth, and a means to achieve more of a utilitarian good.

Bruce Charlton said...

@pg - if you think it would help...

(I operate from England, not the USA).

But these are complex paganisms, with the accretions of centuries: my notion was that very core intellectual paganism (based on metaphysical rational argument) might do for the elite; while animistic paganism based on the spontaneous perceptions of childhood, might be a way ahead for the rest.

The trouble is that nobody would stay still, shut up, disconnect from the media, listen for ten minutes solid then follow at least two steps of logic.

Nobody would do this - it is just too much to ask!

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - yes, all this is correct.

But it is interesting how 'progress' underwent a profound transoformation - which is the same transformation as divided Communism from Political Correctness.

This relates to how we measure progress.

Old style progressives had a very clear idea of what constiotuted progress, and how to measure it.

But since c1965 progressive thinking has changed so that none of this is possible anymore, yet 'progress' somehow still still remains, and does the same kind of validating work.

But if this transformation had NOT happened, then the Left would have needed to kill itself, since that to which progress was to deliver us had already arrived: notably the abolition of poverty and the virtual arrival of equality of opportunity (meritocracy, social mobility by ability).

The Left shifted from objective absolute definitions to subjective and relativistic definitions - which ensured that progress would never arrive (and the Left would never have to disband, or hand-over power).

It is now mainstream to claim nonsense such as that 'poverty' is a problem, or women are oppressed - that no *real* progress has been made and everything is still to do...


Whereas Leftists of the past could claim not to be nihilists, on the basis that things would make sense in the future - I think this is almost impossible to claim now.

It is no longer really conceivable that things will ever become real again along the line of progress - but only by abandonment of it.

Catherine said...

How remarkable that you should write about this now. I have been praying for the conversion of a person close to me who since before I met him has considered himself 'neo-pagan'. Discussions have never helped - in fact I've deliberately avoided them because his ideas on Christianity were so misinformed that I was afraid I wouldn't be able to stay calm (I'm definitely not a saint in the 'anger management during arguments' area). This Sunday, I took him to liturgy at an Eastern Catholic church and a small 'conversion' happened within the morning.

I've realized that his upbringing and the crowd he fell into have made him 'immune' to Christianity - any familiar trigger or reference point came up, and he'd start mouthing slogans with no thought involved, despite being an intelligent and thoughtful person. Simple exposure to Christian practices and traditions outside of the liturgy has worked better because it doesn't send him into verbal argument mode, and the Eastern liturgy is unfamiliar enough to circumvent the mental "Christianity! Run!" shutdown. Talking to me afterwards on Sunday, it was clear that he'd never *heard* the Bible before, despite attending dozens of services and reading countless books on the history of religion. He asked me a bunch of questions about all the events he'd seen painted on the walls, because he'd never really been exposed to them despite a quarter-decade plus of Christmases and Easters.

The point here isn't to focus on the East/West divide(although there's more to be said about that) but to confirm that it's very possible to be a 'true' pagan in modern America (a virgin, not a divorcee, as CS Lewis would put it) and that once someone is at the 'pagan' stage, there's really not a large step between him and the Church.

I should also point out that the non-liturgical 'traditions' I mentioned above - home altars, seasonal traditions, devotions to saints, etc - are the same thing that modern American Protestantism so often condemns as 'pagan'.

Wurmbrand said...

Hmm -- I don't think paganism is "simple." Modern New Age-y "paganisms" may be simple, but no, not the real thing. The real paganism that we sense in ancient literature and that we encounter in some parts of the world is rife with obligations to departed ancestors (not out of love for them but to keep them from bothering you) and various other spirits, and with taboos about food, seasons, blood, certain animals, or the like. My sense is that real paganism tends to perceive individuals or communities as getting snagged in various kinds of violations/transgressions that have to be dealt with by some form or other of sacrifice. Much of this can be somewhat attractive to look at, from the prospective of a crap society such as most of us live in, but from the inside "simple" is not a good description of it, I'm sure.

Banshee said...

Well, paganisms have worldviews, obligations, customs, geasa/taboos, etc., but they don't have intricate, logical, highly worked-out theologies, for the most part. (Unless you want to argue Hinduism as studied by Brahmins.) Most pagan systems leave all the logical arrangements to the philosophers, and all the religion and myth to the temples, sacred places, and grandparents.

Wurmbrand said...

Suburbanbanshee, that is what C. S. Lewis said about Hinduism: that you have, on one distinct side, the cult, the ritual, the devotions, the priest-figure, etc. -- and, on the other side, the philosopher, the theoretician; and they hardly overlap. That sounds like something that would be true of paganism in general, but not of Christianity, where, as Lewis said (paraphrasing) an ivory-tower scholar like himself is bidden come to a Blood feast, and a convert to the faith who has come from the matrix of taboo and purification ritual is bidden subscribe to a carefully-worked-out system of ethics and a Creed with quite sophisticated conceptual terms ("being of one substance with the Father," etc.). He saw Christianity as the completion, fulfillment, of the best in both sides of paganism -- and I would agree.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - the idea of Pagan Missionaries is of course stolen/ adapted from Lewis - he preferred (real) paganism to secular hedonism.

Wurmbrand said...

Yes -- but, as I won't need to point out to you, Dr. Charlton, but others might not know -- Lewis believed real paganism could not make a comeback. Surely he is right; the Gerald Gardners and so on may have a forlorn kind of pleasure in "reviving" paganism.

But it's dead; it's been killed, as Chesterton (The Everlasting Man) knew. We may have -- and we will, we will -- any number of earnestly-intended spiritualities (they will often be called cults by outsiders). But they will not be the old paganism reborn.

Just look at much of the art enjoyed by people who like to think about real "faeries" and so on: art created by 19th- and 20th-century artists who felt free to use the old "properties" imaginatively (cf. Wind's Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, writings of Gombrich and Panofsky with regard to the eralier work of artists such as Botticelli). Some of the pretty Rackham art, or the more sublime Renaissance art, may be quite delightful, but those artists did not believe in Venus or elves.

Perhaps there will be some seekers who will meet "faeries" or even "god/desses" and have paranormal experiences, engineered by devils.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - "Lewis believed real paganism could not make a comeback."

I don't think this is quite correct. Lewis believed that paganism was not *making* a comeback (at the time he was writing) - but I don't think it correct to say that he believed that it *could not* make a comeback.

In fact, Lewis regarded paganism as the spontaneous religion derived from 'natural law' without divine revelation; so surely it is inevitable that paganism *will* come back in any situation where humans are allowed to be natural and where other religions (such as Christianity) are not already present.

Therefore, I think paganism *will* come back - spontaneously - as soon as modernity begins to collapse (especially when the mass media shrinks substantially) in those areas where Christianity, Islam etc are absent or weak.

Wurmbrand said...

Lewis: "When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Would that she were.’ For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ... ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcĂ©e differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me."

I don't think Lewis thought authentic paganism could come back. In a moment, some quotations from Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, on the same topic.

But let me say that the myth of the death of Pan is, I think, central to this topic. See Plutarch's work On the Obsolescence of the Oracles (De Defectu Oraculorum).

Wurmbrand said...

Now here is the first of a few quotations from Chesterton's The Everlasting Man:

Polytheism, or that aspect of paganism, was never to the pagan what
Catholicism is to the Catholic. It was never a view of the universe
satisfying all sides of life; a complete and complex truth with
something to say about everything. It was only a satisfaction of one
side of the soul of man, even if we call it the religious side; and I
think it is truer to call it the imaginative side. But this it did
satisfy; in the end it satisfied it to satiety. All that world was a
tissue of interwoven tales and cults, and there ran in and out of it, as
we have already seen, that black thread among its more blameless
colours; the darker paganism that was really diabolism. But we all know
that this did not mean that all pagan men thought of nothing but pagan
gods. Precisely because mythology only satisfied one mood, they turned
in other moods to something totally different. But it is very important
to realise that it was totally different. It was too different to be
inconsistent. It was so alien that it did not clash. While a mob of
people were pouring on a public holiday to the feast of Adonis or the
games in honour of Apollo, this or that man would prefer to stop at home
and think out a little theory about the nature of things. Sometimes his
hobby would even take the form of thinking about the nature of God; or
even in that sense about the nature of the gods. But he very seldom
thought of pitting his nature of the gods against the gods of nature.

Wurmbrand said...

#2 from Chesterton:

is the whole point, even of this final chapter upon the final decay of
paganism, to insist once more that the worst sort of paganism had
already been defeated by the best sort. It was the best sort of paganism
that conquered the gold of Carthage. It was the best sort of paganism
that wore the laurels of Rome. It was the best thing the world had yet
seen, all things considered and on any large scale, that ruled from the
wall of the Grampians to the garden of the Euphrates. It was the best
that conquered; it was the best that ruled; and it was the best that
began to decay.

…the shepherds were dying because their gods were dying. Paganism
lived upon poetry; that poetry already considered under the name of
mythology. But everywhere, and especially in Italy, it had been a
mythology and a poetry rooted in the countryside; and that rustic
religion had been largely responsible for the rustic happiness. Only as
the whole society grew in age and experience, there began to appear that
weakness in all mythology already noted in the chapter under that name.
This religion was not quite a religion. In other words, this religion
was not quite a reality. It was the young world's riot with images and
ideas like a young man's riot with wine or love-making; it was not so
much immoral as irresponsible; it had no foresight of the final test of
time. Because it was creative to any extent it was credulous to any
extent. It belonged to the artistic side of man, yet even considered
artistically it had long become overloaded and entangled. The family
trees sprung from the seed of Jupiter were a jungle rather than a
forest; the claims of the gods and demi-gods seemed like things to be
settled rather by a lawyer or a professional herald than by a poet. But
it is needless to say that it was not only in the artistic sense that
these things had grown more anarchic. There had appeared in more and
more flagrant fashion that flower of evil that is really implicit in the
very seed of nature-worship, however natural it may seem. I have said
that I do not believe that natural worship necessarily begins with this
particular passion; I am not of the De Rougemont school of scientific
folk-lore. I do not believe that mythology must begin with eroticism.
But I do believe that mythology must end in it. I am quite certain that
mythology did end in it. Moreover, not only did the poetry grow more
immoral, but the immorality grew more indefensible. Greek vices,
oriental vices, hints of the old horrors of the Semitic demons began to
fill the fancies of decaying Rome, swarming like flies on a dung heap.
The psychology of it is really human enough to anyone who will try that
experiment of seeing history from the inside There comes an hour in the
afternoon when the child is tired of 'pretending'; when he is weary of
being a robber or a Red Indian. It is then that he torments the cat.
There comes a time in the routine of an ordered civilisation when the
man is tired at playing at mythology and pretending that a tree is a
maiden or that the moon made love to a man. The effect of this staleness
is the same everywhere; it is seen in all drug-taking and dram-drinking
and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger
sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense.
They seek after mad oriental religions for the same reason. They try to
stab their nerves to life, if it were with the knives of the priests of
Baal. They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with

Wurmbrand said...

#3 from Chesterton:

At that stage even of paganism therefore the peasant songs and dances
sound fainter and fainter in the forest. For one thing the peasant
civilisation was fading, or had already faded from the whole
countryside. The Empire at the end was organised more and more on that
servile system which generally goes with the boast of organisation,
indeed it was almost as senile as the modern schemes for the
organisation of industry. It is proverbial that what would once have
been a peasantry became a mere populace of the town dependent for bread
and circuses; which may again suggest to some a mob dependent upon doles
and cinemas. In this as in many other respects the modern return to
heathenism has been a return not even to the heathen youth but rather to
the heathen old age. But the causes of it were spiritual in both cases;
and especially the spirit of paganism had departed with its familiar
spirits. The heat had gone out of it with its household gods, who went
along with the gods of the garden and the field and the forest. The Old
Man of the Forest was too old; he was already dying. It is said truly in
a sense that Pan died because Christ was born. It is almost as true in
another sense that men knew that Christ was born because Pan was already
dead. A void was made by the vanishing of the whole mythology of
mankind, which would have asphyxiated like a vacuum if it had not been
filled with theology. But the point for the moment is that the mythology
could not have lasted like a theology in any case. Theology is thought,
whether we agree with it or not. Mythology was never thought, and nobody
could really agree with it or disagree with it. It was a mere mood of
glamour and when the mood went it could not be recovered. Men not only
ceased to believe in the gods, but they realised that they had never
believed in them. They had sung their praises; they had danced round
their altars. They had played the flute; they had played the fool.

Wurmbrand said...

#4 and final from Chesterton:

….the human family itself began to break down under servile
organisation and the herding of the towns. The urban mob became
enlightened; that is it lost the mental energy that could create myths.
All round the circle of the Mediterranean cities the people mourned for
the loss of gods and were consoled with gladiators. And meanwhile
something similar was happening to that intellectual aristocracy of
antiquity that had been walking about and talking at large ever since
Socrates and Pythagoras. They began to betray to the world the fact that
they were walking in a circle and saying the same thing over and over
again. Philosophy began to be a joke; it also began to be a bore.

Wurmbrand said...

I know that that is a lot of Chesterton to read as blog comments, but surely he is on to something pertinent.

So once again: I don't believe there can be a return to paganism. There can be a turning to demonism, and there is.

Incidentally, the (I assume) non-Christian writer Donna Tartt wrote an interesting novel about 20 years ago on a somewhat related theme, called The Secret History.

But a better book relevant, if obliquely, to this topic, is Lewis's Till We Have Faces -- really I think this topic is one of that under-read novel's themes.

OK, enough from me for a while!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - unfortunately, the Chesterton formatting has gone seriously astray. I think it is better to link to long quotations.

I am aware of the passage from Lewis you quote, but Lewis's logic is that paganism is spontaneous. Therefore unless there is something to stop it, it will spontaneously return.


Against this is the idea of End Times. That history will not repeat, paganism will not return, because we are in a different phase.

Fr Seraphim Rose wrote a lot about this, therefore I think it must be correct. However, he also emphasized how the timescale and specific detail is not knowable.

If Leftist modernity does *not* collapse, then the End Times will proceed quickly and there will be no resurgence of paganism.

But if modernity does collapse in the next decade or three (massive economic collapse, collapse of mass media, removal of elites, fracturing of major nation states, widespread starvation, disease and warfare) then I would expect paganism to return, as a natural expression of human nature.

Anonymous said...

paganisms have worldviews, obligations, customs, geasa/taboos, etc., but they don't have intricate, logical, highly worked-out theologies, for the most part. (Unless you want to argue Hinduism as studied by Brahmins.)

There are quite a few Mandarin-speaking philosophers who would also note Daoism and animism go together like Pythagoreanism and Hecate-worship.

The problem is that we're talking about "paganism" as C. S. Lewis understood it. Lewis was ignorant about ancient China.

Wurmbrand said...

The book is out of print now, but used copies are inexpensive, last time I checked (see,, etc.), so: I recommend Lars Walker's near-future thriller Wolf Time as an entertainment dealing with revived paganism and a book with some good thinking underlying the story. If you are a fan of C. s. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, you might like this book quite a bit too.

Anonymous said...


Lars Walker's novel Wolf Time is now available free on the internet via the Baen Free Library! The Baen Free Library is a pioneering effort by Baen Books and author Eric Flint, in which certain Baen Books are made available to the public online at no charge. They can be read directly on the site or downloaded in various formats.

Just downloaded an rtf copy. Thaanks for the recommendation.

Arakawa said...

Well, since we are well off the reservation of standard Christian doctrine...

My own serious consideration of paganism runs into a number of issues that I lack the wisdom to answer.

The first is the fact that nowhere in Christianity are we taught of the existence of neutral spirits. Everything is either an angel (not worth bothering with) or a demon (worth avoiding at all costs). The only thing that tells me that a house, or the lake, or a grove of trees has its own spirit is plain animist intuition. And it does not strike me that the particular spirits of these things would be particularly angelic or demonic; they would much more probably be house-ish, lake-ish, or tree-ish. They may be warred over at certain times by angels and demons who try to protect or corrupt the thing in question, but in that sense they would not be in a dissimilar position from human beings, and we _might_ try relate to them on the same level.

Thus, in the animist understanding, a plot of land that a family has derived sustenance from for generations is just as much (if not more!) a member of the family as an honoured grandparent, and commands respect on the same model. The question is whether this respect is to be expressed in _positive_ actions, i.e. some kind of ritual whereby we interact with the spirit in question, or merely _negative_ prohibitions, an understanding that certain actions are defilements, that one can do mortal offense unto a thing just as one can unto a human being.

_Negative_ prohibitions seem to me absolutely necessary. Without them, we treat more and more of our world as a mere thing, and wind up on the slippery slope that C.S. Lewis described in _The Abolition of Man_, where in the end even human beings are mere things, and there is no more sentiment or moral sense that could prevent the rulers of humanity from unleashing unimaginable atrocities for trivial reasons.

The barrier to _positive_ pagan ritual is -- obviously -- the fact that, historically speaking, the impulse seems to have endlessly been perverted into idolatries (imputing divinity to created things), perversions (e.g. shinto possession rituals), and downright atrocities (human sacrifice). (This does not necessarily strike me as categorically different from the endless perversions that occur between human beings.)

I observe that the most common 'pagan' impulse in the West is a sort of crude nature-worship (Gaiaism) seems to skip straight to the perversions of paganism (right up to human sacrifice) without any intervening redeeming aspects. We seem to be caught in a two-pronged attack, since the upsurge of Gaiaism is happening _at the same time_ as demonic forces push us towards an 'Abolition of Man'-style scenario. (Ever hung out with the Singularitarians?)

I do not have the wisdom to definitively say yea or nay to the question of positive ritual to relate with the spirits of created things, so I will keep praying for a resolution to my questions.

My immediate sinful impulse is seek out a way to administer the sacraments to the spirits of particular things that I would like to see saved, which is (speaking mildly) unlikely to be a popular project. It certainly is not in my purview to suggest it seriously right now, though this sort of thing is not _completely_ unprecedented at the far fringes of Christianity. Off the top of my head, Mormons consider it acceptable to perform sacraments for the unbaptised dead _in absentia_; more prosaically, old time sailors seem to have related to their ships to the extent of performing 'Christenings' for them with the utmost solemnity. (When your survival depends so much on a vessel, it evidently takes a lot of work to suppress your animist inclinations to it.)

Arakawa said...

I should probably give a particular example of animist understanding. I'll use houses for this, since they are not a thing people are used to anthropomorphosizing, they are in fact the products of human labour and industry, and hence there is less risk of falling into Gaiaism.

Some of Tolkien's observations in Notion Club Papers on ghosts that linger in haunted old houses and show a stubborn tendency to ignore renovations may just as easily be explained in terms of the house remembering some individual it was acquainted with, rather than some actual residue of the individual somehow returning to the house. It also explains why hauntings are associated with traumatic events -- a murder, say, is such a defilement that even the house that witnesses it is traumatized.

On the other hand, we might imagine a haunting where the house recalls a particularly fond or happy memory, though those are far more rare. It seems likely that a house would share that kind of memory in the form of a general atmosphere of safety and comfort and presence, rather than as an explicit and therefore alarming haunting.

It also explains why hauntings are associated with old houses. Houses aren't built able to remember and communicate with humanity from the very beginning, any more than a newborn child is born able to do the same thing. Sharing its memories in a human-understandable form would have to be very much a learned skill for the house. Or, much like an animal becomes more human-like in its expressions and habits and ability to communicate as we domesticate it, a house might become _more_ like a person if we allow it to exist for a long time in close commerce with humanity, and thus more likely to be haunted. Unlike a housecat, a house might have hundreds of years in which to get to know humans.

It seems not impossible to me that virtuous pagans in the past may have managed to teach certain houses to relate to their inhabitants on an even more human-like level, leading to the stories of domovye, or zashiki-warashi, or other house-dwelling spirits of a generally benevolent (though often also cantankerous) attitude who are far more like anthropomorphic beings than recorded memories or angels or demons. Whether this is at all possible or safe to do amid the temptations of the modern age, I cannot say. (For starters, we are very fond of demolishing houses rather than speaking to them.)

It also strikes me that people versed in pagan practice may have had a better perception of the spirits of things. They are more likely to perceive hauntings, but this faculty also makes conversion to Christianity easier. A devout pagan that goes into a Christian church may have been more likely to simply _feel_ the sort of God whose presence is in the Church, which would directly corroborate the message of the faith.

I, personally, live in a North American city where some of the churches are being converted to condominiums, so there's little room to talk about respecting our ordinary houses if we can't even respect the houses specifically reserved for the spirit of God to dwell in. (I was always bewildered and dismayed by a particular solution to 'preserving the heritage' of one church that was demolished to make way for a high rise apartment building. The front wall of the church was kept standing, and turned into the front wall of the apartment lobby. Over the main doors of an apartment building was thus to be found the engraved admonition: "THOU SHALL NOT HAVE ANY OTHER GODS BEFORE ME". Even back when I had zero interest in religion, it seemed to me a bewilderingly dishonest way to 'respect' a church.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - excellent reflections, thanks.

"nowhere in Christianity are we taught of the existence of neutral spirits" - This was something that seemed to exercise Tolkien, who had various speculations on the topic. One idea I came across in History of Middle Earth was that they may include elves who had 'faded' into insubstantiality.

On the other hand, it may be that neutral spirits were simply taken for granted by early Christians; who built on top of, rather than denied, this world view.

Wurmbrand said...

Dr. Charlton and all,

I have read around a bit in early patristic writing, ancient liturgies, etc., and for what my opinion is worth, I don't think there would be support for "neutral" spiritual beings in the ancient Christian worldview. Aside from God or human beings (departed this life or still this side of the grave), it's holy angels or wicked spiritual powers such as demons, period, so far as I can see, for the first several centuries.

Sometimes people cite Galatians 4:2-3 as referring to spiritual beings who were tutors to mankind. This seems to be an iffy interpretation, since the context suggests that St. Paul is referring to elements of the ancient Hebrew law that have served their purpose and are no longer binding.

I would guess that the idea of more or less neutral spiritual beings would derive either from popular folk beliefs or from Neoplatonic speculation.

However, I could be mistaken. The most likely place to look for another category of spiritual being might be the Jewish idea of the Watchers, from the Hellenic period and the early AD centuries. These are different from "pagan" spirits, though.

If anyone can find evidence that, in the first few centuries at least, there was any significant countenancing, among Christians, of the idea of nymphs, dryads, etc., that were anything other than evil spirits, I'd be interested....

Arakawa said...

Yes, that seems to match my impression of the doctrines: the non-human spirits divide cleanly into two opposing sides with (as one person I discussed this with puts it) "no room for freelancing".

The only instances I can point to of Christianity and paganism coexisting are at the edges of the Empire, where laity at the fringes of the congregation might retain some pagan practices, for a time. Obviously, this paganism eventually evaporated into mere folklore, or descended into perversion and was stamped out.

It's hard to judge if the end result of this process was good, in the end; and, if not, where the tipping point was. At the very least it's opened the field for philosophers, and scientists to wreak some serious damage. They were left with the question of how to treat created things -- clearly they are neither angels nor demons nor animals nor mortal men. That about exhausts the doctrinal possibilities. Are they, then, mere soulless matter to be manipulated? You can't do offence to God by mistreating a rock, can you? So let us build ourselves an artificial mockery of Creation with scientific magic, giving no acknowledgement to what came before, and then at the end our pride will lead us to believe that we have no need for God whatsoever, and that we can't do offence to God by mistreating our fellow man, either. We seem to have progressed very far down that slippery slope already.

Because my only argument for considering this issue comes from intuition and experience, however, I'm not prepared to do more than wonder vaguely about this as of yet. And I don't think intellectual arguments about things like the Watchers would help resolve this -- absent some specific doctrine that links them to the present day, it's not obvious how digging into the exploits of fallen angels in the days before Noah's Ark would dictate what my attitude should be towards perfectly commonplace things that I see whenever I look around me.

Only thing I can do is keep praying for an answer. It just as likely that, instead of an answer, I will be guided to the understanding that these concerns are not important.

I... I don't know. My problem is that I've only been led to Christianity as a result of haphazard personal experiences (based on which I am led to believe in the existence of, at the very least, demonic and neutral spirits), combined with long and difficult reasoning which led me to finally adopt basic assumptions that are at variance from materialism. However, these assumptions produce a framing of Christianity that is totally unsupported by Church teaching. So now I have a long and difficult process ahead of me, either renouncing each of the assumptions and experiences that doesn't fit (in spite of the fact that they led me to the religion in the first place) or somehow reconciling them with Church doctrine.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Arakawa - I take your concerns seriously and have felt them - I came to Christianity via something rather like neo-paganism.

Elsewhere on this blog, if you search Sheldrake, you can find more discussion of these matters. Some Aristotelian ideas like Sheldrakes, can be used to explain some intuitions and experiences which seem left out by Christianity.

Another way on may be to look at modern Christians in Africa, and the kind of living faith they profess.

Animism is, perhaps, not a 'belief' in the way that Christianity is a belief - rather it is a context for belief, a background or environment.

In sum - I suspect that Christianity is - in some circumstances - much more robust with respect to animism than we suspect; probably the corruptions of animism come from the corruptions of Man, rather than from animism itself - after all, animism has never led to such a fundamentally anti-Christian society as modernity - and the least animistic moderns are the most anti-Christian (as a general rule, with exceptions).

As I think I have mentioned to Dale before, what we may be up against is the tendency of human nature to classify everything as either forbidden or compulsory (a negative or positive evaluation).

It seems to be very difficult for humans, and even for for human institutions, to sustain the state of mind or of practical behavior that regards something as neutral, or to regard something as allowed but not compulsory.

Wurmbrand said...

I wonder if Molnar's Pagan Temptation

would contribute usefully to this discussion -- a discussion worth having, even if it leads to the emergence of questions that need to be left unanswered.