When I say that I want to be a pagan, I am not referring to the motorcycle gang that wreaked havoc in Eastern Pennsylvania in my teenage years, rivaling the Hell’s Angels for atrocious acts. No, I am referring to the groups of tribal peoples that missionaries called pagans as they carried the Good News of Christ to them. They were called pagans because of their supposedly inferior spiritual beliefs. We associate pagan not only with an inferior belief system, but also with an inferior civilization, making the name pagan a pejorative term among Christians. I cite an example of the use of the word from Merriam-Webster: “the Spanish conquistadores regarded the native peoples of the lands that they conquered as pagans (my emphasis) who were uncivilized and inherently inferior.”
With such a negative definition, why would I want to be a tribal pagan? It’s because I believe that they live closer to God’s intention for humanity than most of us “moderns” do, including Christians. In his book Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong, John O’Donohue writes: “For the ancients, prayer was an attempt to enter into harmony with the deeper rhythm of life. Prayer tempered human arrogance; it became the disclosure point of the deeper, eternal order. In post-modern society, the isolated individual has become the measure of all things. It is no surprise that in our loss of connection with Nature, we have forgotten how to pray. We even believe that we do not need to pray,” p. 186-187.
If we assume that in O’Donohue’s quote “the ancients” are the tribal peoples (pagans) who inhabited the earth before the onset of “modernity,” and many of which still survive today, we have several examples of how they live(d) closer to God’s intention for humanity. First, they were at harmony with the “deeper rhythm of life.” Celtic thinkers call this the “heartbeat of God.” “To listen for the heartbeat of God is to listen both within the vastness of the universe and within the intimacy of our own hearts,” writes Philip Newell in this book A New Harmony. There is a connectedness with ourselves, with nature, and with everyone and everything else. Moderns have split off this connectedness and we have become fragmented, lonely, disembodied souls.
This fragmentation is the result of moderns, even Christians, raising the individual to god-like status. As O’Donohue says, “the isolated individual has become the measure of all things.” In contrast, pagans live as part of a tribe and recognize their need for each other. Mutual aid, so clearly defined in the practice of the early Christian church in the book of Acts, and re-emphasized by the Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation, has been shoved into the background by modern Christians as each individual must learn to “pull their own weight.”
Finally, prayer, instead of a list of demands on their deity, was the glue that held everything together. Because of the interconnectedness of all of life, prayer was unceasing. Prayer flowed out of this sacral life; there was no separation between one’s Sunday behavior and the rest of the week. One was attuned to the heartbeat of God. Because we are so fragmented, O’Donohue writes not only that we have “forgotten how to pray,” but also that “we believe that we do not need to pray.”
It is interesting that in spite of most of us thinking that “pagans” are inferior both in spirituality and in culture, Christianity has borrowed heavily from their sensibilities and traditions over the centuries. One doesn’t have to look far for such syncretism—nearly all the Christmas and Easter traditions in North America are based on pagan ceremonies; even the date of Christmas itself. Perhaps you are more pagan than you imagined.
Celtic Christianity has done the best job of melding the wisdom of the ancient “pagans” with the hope of Christ. Anabaptist Christianity also has the potential to bring the two together, and there is increasing interest in both of these theologies. The Amish, heirs of the Anabaptists, are one example of this integration. (See my blog post AmishSpirituality). I also see hope in today’s young adults who long to become reconnected to the whole, to reclaim their ancient “pagan” past, and to heal their fragmentation. “Deep within us, amid our differentiations as individuals and nations and species, is the desire for oneness,” writes Newell. “This holy longing is found not only in the human soul, but in the soul of the universe, at the heart of everything that has being.”
Because of this yearning in my soul I want to become more pagan. Do you want to join me?
Caveat: I was made aware by two good friends and subscribers to my blog that not all in ancient “pagan” cultures is to be admired; there was plenty of barbarity and living outside of God’s intention for humanity. But as a sage once told me, “all cultures reflect the image of God and all cultures distort the image of God.” In my syncretism I was attempting to combine the best of ancient culture with the best of Christianity in order to get closer to God’s intentions for us.