Paganism Redeemed

Lord Dunsany has written a charming short story about two “local gods” obliged to share the same temple. Every Tuesday the priests enter the inner sanctum, praise and sacrifice to the elder idol, Chu-bu, until one day they bring a fresh-carved “usurper,” Sheemish. “There is none but Chu-bu … there is also Sheemish,” they intone. Now that the gods must share the people’s worship, they become incurably jealous of each other. Being but local gods they exert all their limited power towards causing—in concert, though in that respect by accident—a minor earthquake that razes their temple, destroys Sheemish and disfigures Chu-bu. The story ends with the narrator, who has rescued Chu-bu from the temple rubble, placing the proud, venerable idol on his mantelpiece, occasionally invoking his assistance in a game of cards.

My synopsis has not, perhaps, properly conveyed the humor of the story, but it is sufficient for our purposes to note that Lord Dunsany does not especially lampoon the acts of praising, bowing or sacrificing before idols. We might draw two conclusions from this omission: either this heathenish behavior needs no ridicule because its error is sufficiently obvious (and outmoded), or the behavior, though heathenish, is obviously nothing to mock. In fact, I think both readings are true, but it is the latter on which I wish to focus.

It is to Lord Dunsany’s great credit that he did not skewer the priests and people for ritually entering a holy place, burning fat before mute bits of wood, and intoning the greatness of the minor deities. For if he had done so, he would have set himself squarely against all that is human. We know the people erred, because we know that Chu-bu and Sheemish do not exist. And even if they do, neither they nor their ornately-carved idols are the proper objects of our worship. But the people did not err because they built a temple, or because they burned fat, or because they exulted, or because they bowed down. In doing so, they did something deep and ancient and holy: they sought the spiritual through the material. Lord Dunsany was too smart to reject such ageless sacredness.

There is something else that does not reject it, and that is Catholicism. I am a Catholic, in part, because Catholicism does not reject it. For the Catholic Church truly redeems the world, the whole world, just as the Redeemer, when he was lifted up, “drew all peoples” to himself.

Most say to the pagan: “Your gods are bosh, and so is your form of worship. Repent, believe and be rational! Come now, no more of this silly bowing and kneeling, no more of these gauche, glittering priestly garbs—throw them off as you would shackles! Do not light incense or burn fat, for it does not avail you. Burn instead for the word of God.”

But Catholicism says to our “benighted” friend:

Come. Your gods are false, but your worship right and true. You bowed before false idols, now bow before the one true God who is truly present in this bread. You drank the blood of lambs, now drink the Precious Blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. You prayed to a dumb, mute, and blind statue, now use this dumb, mute, and blind statue to lift your soul as you pray to the One who truly lives. You prayed to your ancestors, who ate the bread and died, now pray to God’s servants who ate the true Bread from heaven and live more fully than ever. You clothed yourself in ornamental robes, now don these vestments, for you join the company of men and saints and angels in worshipping the Most High. You cleansed yourself in the river, come, be baptized in water and Spirit. You smeared yourself with oil, be anointed with oil in the Spirit. Come, hear the word of God and receive the Word of God. For you worshipped many gods—now worship the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.

For, though the man from the Far East is wrong to worship his ancestors, yet we sense he cannot be wholly in error. Our ancestors are not gods, so we should not worship them, but if they were indeed just they are surely more alive now than they ever were before. So, Catholicism comes along and offers veneration of (but not worship of) and prayer to the saints. Or again, we know the pagans were wrong to worship a graven image, for a god is not the same as some gold or stone. But our pagan friends were on to something, and so Catholicism offers something better: the one true God of the universe truly present in the “Bread of life” and “Chalice of salvation.” For the intense localism of the heathens is not entirely erroneous: God is immanent as well as transcendent, humble and lowly of heart as well as majestic and exalted, the God of the manger as well as the heavens. And though an idol of silver cannot be a god, yet a wafer of bread can become God so that we may receive Christ, for he does not dwell in a temple made of human hands, but the temple made of divine hands, the temple of the Holy Spirit: man.

Almost the whole point can be seen by reading Milton’s poem, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Christ is born and the old gods are defeated. They are defeated, but not redeemed. However much there may be a tinge of sorrow and regret at their going, they are gone. And that, if I may be so bold, was Milton’s great mistake. “Each fetter’d Ghost slips to his severall grave” could never have been written by a Catholic. A Catholic would have compared them to grains of wheat dying, if he could not improve the metaphor. For although Milton was right—the gods are dead—yet he was wrong to suggest that paganism was not redeemed in Christ. But Dante understood, and made Cato the gatekeeper of Purgatory.

It is no coincidence that Milton sounds the death knell of paganism in a poem about the Incarnation. It is truly the Incarnation that was decisive for the “old beliefs,” though not precisely in the way, I submit, that Milton thought. Paganism was not merely defeated, it was redeemed, and exactly what aspect of paganism is redeemed in Catholicism may be clearly seen by reflecting on Christmas; or more particularly, on the Incarnation and what I call the “Incarnational Principle.” The birth of Christ marked the ultimate marriage between the spiritual and the material. God supremely expressed his immanence, but without diminishing his transcendence. In doing so, man was “taken up” into the Divinity: matter, without diminishing its status qua matter, was united to God. After such an astonishing, unprecedented event, the material was forever altered. Matter was, if you will, truly “dignified” as a vehicle capable of and suitable for expressing the Divine. This idea, that matter is confirmed as the gateway to the spiritual—or better put, that all of matter has been redeemed by Christ’s nativity—we may call the “Incarnational Principle.” It is this principle that informs, underpins and justifies the sacraments. Now that God has become man, now that he has revealed himself to us fully through the material, it is only fitting that the spiritual life be intimately connected with the material world. Man is a unitary composite of body and soul, matter and spirit. God has responded to the nature of man by meeting him where he is: at the nexus of the spiritual and material planes. He does not cease to pour out his grace to us in a manner commensurate both with man’s nature and the mode of God’s redemptive act: in the sacraments, where man has access to the spiritual through the material—truly the only way he can have access to the spiritual while remaining man.

Now, sacramentalism, as defined by and practiced in the Catholic Church, is, I maintain, the fulfillment of that brilliant pagan insight: that the spiritual is to be found in and through the material world. But the pagan vision was necessarily incomplete, was partially erroneous: the pagan knew that God could be found in water, and he was to that extent correct; where he erred was in thinking that God was god only of the water. Enter Catholicism, offering him the sacrament of Baptism—sign and instrument of our “birth into the new life in Christ.” Water is the means, the transcendent-immanent God the end. The pagan confused means and end, equating the two and emphasizing God’s immanence such that his transcendence is lost. But he was not wrong to seek God in water. His soul panted for the water, he simply should not have stopped there.

Or again, the pagan discovered the divine in a tree, and worshipped the dryad. Had he listened to Moses, he would have realized he was looking too high: our God is, as it were, humbler than all that and he is to be found in a burning bush—much lower to the ground than our pagan tree, and much higher because of it. For God is immanent as well as transcendent, and almost the whole message of the Incarnation and the sacraments is contained in that insight. “I AM WHO I AM” says the Most High from the lowly bush. Christ, the “bread of life,” dwelt among us, and he is God: “I AM,” he says in the garden. That bread came down from heaven, returned but did not leave: Christ’s Real Presence remains in the Eucharist, the sacrament of sacraments. “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Paganism, Judaism, and Catholicism thus share a commonality: the Deity, immanent and transcendent, is to be found, not ethereally but concretely, in and through his creation.

This bespeaks a perspicuous vision of God—and of man, for it implies an acute awareness of man’s true nature as body and soul. These are human religions, not as being the sole creation of man, but as being proper to man’s nature. Paganism erred in many ways, but it did not, to its supreme credit, err fundamentally regarding man’s nature. This great discovery concerning who and what man is has been preserved and enhanced—has been redeemed, really—in Catholicism, and finds its most potent, vivid expression in the sacraments—so proper to the nature of man and the way God has chosen to act in regard to him. This great discovery is lost, I maintain, in the Protestant religion, insofar as it eliminates the sacraments and tends otherwise to diminish man’s composite nature in practice, even if remaining orthodox in theory. But God became man and so he gives grace to man through the material world. In this regard the great error of the Protestant religion is not that it is not spiritual but that it is not sensual. It is not sacramental. Yet even the pagan lived a sacramental life despite lacking the sacraments, for he expected to receive grace from some deity by bathing himself in blood or pouring some oil on his head or burning some incense: he expected to touch the divine by touching the material. The Catholic expects no less: “I am sure there is no God,” says the atheist Turnbull; “But there is,” responds the Catholic Madeline, “Why, I touched his body only this morning.”

Catholicism doubtless redeems paganism in many ways other than what I have delineated. Indeed, as pagan philosophy was a sort of preparatio evangelica for Christian philosophy, so it may be said that pagan religion was a sort of preparatio evangelica for Christian religion. So, when the world sneers at me because I am Catholic, because they think me a Christianized pagan, I humbly bow and thank them for the compliment. For the pagan was human, as was his religion, and I am human, as is my religion, for it was founded on the one true Man who was, is, and ever shall be the one true God. It is the Protestant religions that are really inhuman, which ask me to cast aside all of humanity and be something I am not, which is to say a sort of pure intellect. But Catholicism tells me to be what I am, a man, who needs ritual and sacraments, as my pagan ancestors did, because I am material and spiritual and can only access the latter through the former. ‘Ecce homo,’ said Pontius Pilate, and he never spoke a truer word. For Christ also was Man, and was baptized in the river; he was Man, and he said not only “This is My Body,” but “Take, eat.” “Tolle lege,” said the voice to St. Augustine, and it was right, but it is the Protestant who stops there, and remains only an angel, because he uses only his spirit. But St. Augustine, because he was a man, went further and ate and drank, feeding his soul through his senses (as all sensible men do), and the world remembers him forever for it, just as the world ever remembers the pagan because he is redeemed.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from an engraving by Gustave Doré of Dante and Virgil meeting Cato in The Divine Comedy.

Justin Bradford Smith

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Justin Bradford Smith practices law in Texas, focusing on criminal and civil appeals. He is a graduate of Baylor University School of Law. Smith and his wife have three children.

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