Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Ancient Paganism and Modern Paganism

The words pagan (paganus) and paganism are derived from the Latin and had a number of secular usages in ancient Roman society.1 In early ecclesiastical Latin, however, the terms are used pejoratively by Christians to designate those who do not share Christian faith; hence they are heathens or pagans. The word pagan is used in much the same way that the Greek word ethnos (the nations; usually translated “gentile”) served those of the Jewish faith (and later Christians) to designate those who did not profess faith in the God of Israel. This same word (ethnos) is also used by Paul to designate the prior polytheistic status of the Corinthian members of the Pauline gathering (1 Cor 5:1; 12:2, see also 10:20) where it is translated by the word pagan.2 In the fourth century paganism is broadly conceived as the “religion of the peasantry,” what was practiced in the countryside.3 A pagus was a person who lived in the country out of the city and practiced the old polytheistic ways of the Greco-Roman religions.

            Modern paganism seems to be something different from ancient paganism in the early Christian period. From what little I know about modern paganism it does not worship the ancient Greco-Roman Gods. My limited knowledge comes from a book I ran across in a modern book cemetery (Good Will). I rescued it and brought it home to read.4 The book is by two practicing pagans and appears to be a primer for persons considering a pagan faith and lifestyle (pagan wannabes). The sub-title to the book (see notes) characterizes the basic tenet of modern paganism. According to the authors, modern paganism originates in a particular attitude to the universe of which our earth is representative. The author briefly discusses only what he regards as the two major faith groups (Wiccan and Asatru; he alludes to others). I came to think of the groups, simplistically, as “denominations” in Earth-Centered Religions, similar to the various faith groups in Christianity.

            The authors of Paganism find a set of core principles (pp. 39-41) to Earth-Centered Religions, with which they think most pagans would agree. Three of these they emphasize as integrating “a variety of mystical and scientific perspectives” (pp. 133-34).

“Principle #4: Everything contains the spark of intelligence. Many pagans believe that everything from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest planetary system contains a spark of intelligence, or has some type of consciousness” (p.133). Hence, the universe is alive, has an interconnected sentience, is supportive, and is trustworthy. It operates “not only at levels that are physically grounded in time and space, but also at levels outside of time and space (p.199).

“Principle #5: Everything is sacred” (p.133). Hence the universe has a “sacred nature” and pagans “frequently feel a sense of kinship and connection with the universe”; they “may also believe that Deity permeates the universe and therefore see the universe as holy and blessed” (p. 134).

“Principle #6: Each part of the universe can communicate with each other part and these parts often cooperate for specific ends.” “Herin lies the heart of magick.5 Magick is a natural, not supernatural process, which in its simplest form, is the communication of many consciousnesses” (p. 134). Hence the pagan can engage the universe by the “process of stepping into the universal flow and choosing to participate with it in a deliberative fashion” (p.163) in much the same way that other religions think of prayer, meditation, inspiration, bliss, visions, revelation, miracles, etc. (p. 163).

            Although it may be dismissed as only figurative, Paul also appears to use sentient language of the creation in Romans 8:19-23: the creation waits with eager longing…subjected to futility not of its own will…creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God…creation has been groaning in labor pains…Eager longing (i.e., desire), having its own will (i.e., intent); sharing liberty (i.e., participating in redemption); groaning in labor pains (i.e. consciousness of pain and discomfort).

            Some interpreters of Romans seem to take Paul’s sentient language seriously: There is “a mysterious sympathy between the world and man…Creation is not inert utterly unspiritual, alien to our life and its hopes. It is the natural ally of our souls…[Creation] is the world and all that it contains, animate and inanimate…”6

            Does Paul express an attitude similar to that of modern paganism with his description of a sentient universe (κτσις)? Or, put another way, is Paul only using anthropomorphic language poetically and one should not, therefore, take it literally? So, how do you know?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1P. Rousseau, “pagan, paganism” in S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.; Oxford), 1091.

2C. T. Lewis and C. Short, A Latin Dictionary (London: Oxford, 1922), 1290.


4Joyce and River Higginbotham, Paganism. An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2002).

5Pagans use this spelling to distinguish magick from magic, slight-of-hand, and parlor tricks (Paganism, 163).

6W. R. Nicoll, The Expositor’s Greek Testament (5 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), vol. 2. 649.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

Here is a quote from Walter Wink's book The Human Being (2002) that seems to have an affinity with paganism's consciousness view of nature

"Human beings today can no longer regard themselves or other creatures, or even the earth itself, aa an object possessing purely instrumental value. Since we are coextensive with the universe and can say nothing about God or nature that is not at the same time a statement about ourselves, we must learn to think of ourselves as the universe reflecting upon itself. . . Human life has begun to emerge because the heart of reality itself is human." (47)

Wink quotes Berdyayev, "Humanity is indeed the chief property of God, not almightiness and omniscience and the rest, but humanity, freedom, love, sacrifice..." (48)

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

Thanks Gene,
I find his comment: "we must learn to think of ourselves as the universe reflecting upon itself" particularly appropriate.