On the train into London recently a girl next to me was reading the Pagan Times.
I thought it was a joke paper, but no — there were headlines urging people to oppose the public celebrations of Christian feasts and any form of official support for Christian events.
In Britain, it is now a widely held belief that Christianity — and Catholicism in particular — is a dangerous, repressive, unjust religion that historically replaced a gentle, “green” and tolerant pagan ideology in Europe.
Britain’s tour guides boast a number of places where we can see something of what our long-ago ancestors built and where we can speculate on what they believed and why, and for centuries these have intrigued visitors, scholars and historians. But today there is a fashionable vogue for announcing that these places have much to teach us about “the real, genuine old religion” that we need to rediscover.
At Avebury stone circle a couple of summers ago, we watched as barefoot ladies in flowing dresses and bearded men in tatty jerseys swayed and hummed together in circles, and then settled down for a picnic — and here, as at Glastonbury where similar events take place, they were being assured that they were reviving an ancient and beautiful pre-Christian religious faith that will make the world a better and more tolerant place. A nearby gift shop sold crystals said to have magic powers, books of spells and material promoting various occult messages.
But did our pagan ancestors really eat veggie burgers and rice salads while talking about aromatherapy workshops and buying crystal earrings to promote spiritual balance? And, if they didn’t, so what? Shouldn’t we charitably allow self-styled pagans a pleasant day out at Avebury, even if it is enhanced by some fantasizing?
Perhaps we should. But we need to be aware that pagans had their day in the sun once before in modern times. Consider two examples.
First, a “grace” that was used by children at a holiday center. To avoid using any Christian language, it praised nature instead of God:
“Earth that did this food bestow,
Sun that made it riper grow,
Dearest sun and dearest Earth,
We will not forget your worth.”
Second, a country yearbook for farmers that banned all mention of Christian feasts, substituting pagan ones, and with a gratuitous mention on Good Friday of the “4,500 Saxons massacred by Charlemagne as well as of the 9,00,000 others — fighters for justice, heroes of the faith, heretics and witches — who were murdered, tortured to death and burned at the stake.”
Both these examples come from Germany in the late 1930s, and are quoted in a most interesting book — now out of print — The Persecution of the Catholic Church in the Third Reich: Facts and Documents.
It was published in Britain in 1940, clearly partly to impress upon the British public the pagan and viciously anti-Christian nature of the enemy they were fighting. But it makes extraordinarily interesting reading today.
There are, of course, horrible examples of Nazi brutality and repression, such as we cannot, thank God, imagine taking place in a democracy: arbitrary arrest, priests beaten up, Catholic youth gatherings disrupted.
But of more worrying relevance is the steady and quite sophisticated emergence of alternatives to Christianity — particularly nature worship — and the resurrection of older and supposedly more attractive beliefs that a cruel Church destroyed centuries earlier.
Here are some samples:
A German newspaper described country customs in April 1939 this way: “Easter, the spring festival of our forbears, in spite of all attempts to falsify it, has preserved its original meaning as the feast of victory, the celebration of the resurrection of life and victory of the sun over the forces of winter.”
The story omitted to add that the village customs it described specifically centered on an outdoor Way of the Cross that took place through the local woods and hills with traditional hymns and prayers, and that local Easter fireworks were greeted with a hymn celebrating Christ.
At Christmastime, the government’s employment service suggested that Germans light bonfires to celebrate the winter solstice, with the fire greeting the dawn light as it emerged over the mountains, and everyone honoring this with outstretched arms.
I don’t mean to say that the families picnicking next to ancient stones are Nazis. The Nazis emerged in the aftermath of misery created by World War I and capitalized on the confusion created by the abolition of Germany’s monarchy and the chaos of hyper-inflation and acute poverty. They had evil racist ideas and were eventually crushed by the united efforts of other nations in which our own played a spectacularly courageous and noble role.
But their treatment of religion was one of the key elements in their rise.
For instance, in 1936 the local authority banned the decoration of any public buildings for the traditional feast of Corpus Christi in Bavaria, adding that, of course, “There is no objection to civil servants taking part, as private individuals, in the religious services and the accompanying procession for the feast.”
In other words: Religion was acceptable, so long as it was strictly private. Sounds all right? Think again.
It turned out that official “neutrality” on Christianity was only a mask. There were deeper ideological battles taking place. Religious acts are public acts. To force religion into privacy was to deliberately crush Christian tradition in a country with deep Christian roots.
Of course today the essential problem lies with us, as Christians, and especially as Catholics.
Mass attendance across the once-Catholic parts of Europe has slumped in the last three decades. We feel embarrassed and unable to uphold the idea of a wide and deep heritage that is part of community life. We feel vaguely guilty about the Church’s claim to public territory. We bend before the torrent of words that assure us that the Catholic Church has been responsible for half the wars in history, for massive genocide, for evil crushing of human dignity in public and private for centuries.
But are we right to feel this way? Should we succumb?
The feast of Corpus Christi, German Catholics were assured in an official publication in the 1930s, originated as a feast in the 13th century to celebrate the Church’s vicious slaughter of innumerable innocent people under the guise of crushing the Albigensian heresy. The subsequent processions and festivities were a way of binding ordinary people unjustly to obedience to Church law and to Catholic moral teachings (and for good measure, the moral teaching that sex be confined solely to lifelong marriage was also later to be denigrated in the same official publication).
To oppose these moves by the German government wasn’t “old-fashioned and narrow-minded.” It was the only right thing to do — and the world did it.
Today, to submit to the notion that the Church has always behaved badly and that one’s own private faith is but a personal whim isn’t “tolerance” or “equanimity.” It is a betrayal. The Catholic faith is the foundation for the civilized values of Europe. When it fades, those values will fade, and with them all that makes life worth living.
Does it matter that at the beginning of the 21st century there is pressure to marginalize signs and symbols of the Christian faith from public life in once-Christian countries?
It will matter very much if the pressure succeeds.
The resulting culture in America and across Europe will not be a vacuum: Nature notoriously abhors that.
Don’t assume for one moment that pagan beliefs will automatically include charity to the poor and sick, forgiveness, neighborliness, protection of innocent life, respect for individual rights, fidelity in marriage, or the fostering of what is true and beautiful in art and culture. If we want those things, we need to be part of a faith that holds them central and sees them as gifts from a God who loves us and became one of us.
Defending the faith has always been a prerequisite for ensuring its survival in any one country at any one time. Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church: It’s God’s will that it survive. But the promise did not specify America, Britain, France, Italy — or any other nation.
These will only survive to the extent that they embrace the one who made that promise.
writes from London.