Towards a New Paganism
The Apostle Paul tells us we’re all going to worship one of two things. We will either worship the Creator, or we will worship the creation (See Romans 1). It’s pretty simple. We will either allow the world to point us beyond itself to its source, as King David does in Psalm 19, or we will suppress the truth of God’s existence, that we all know deep down, and, in his absence worship some created thing, be it ourselves, someone else, or nature itself.
Christian author Peter Jones describes these options as oneism and twoism. Either all of reality is one thing, the Cosmos, hence oneism. Or, reality is accurately represented in the categories Paul gives us of Creator and creation, twoism. Every way of seeing reality can be boiled down to these options. Reality is either one or two. Choose wisely.
A magazine I regularly read is Aeon, a thoughtful online resource about ideas, philosophy, and culture. Earlier this month they published the article “A New Paganism: Now is the Time to Revitalise our Relationship with Nature and Immerse Ourselves in the Little Wonders of the Universe” by Ed Simon, an author who regularly writes about beliefs about God. Simon argues, in the absence of God, we need to turn our attention to the natural world to find a new expression of the sacred. This is the worldview of oneism.
Simon refernces an often quoted passage from the influential twentieth-century philosopher Bertrand Russell in which Russell says it is only upon the firm foundation of unyielding despair that anyone can hope to find safe haven for their souls. Put aside for the moment the fact that Russell didn’t believe in any such thing as a soul, an immaterial part of the human personality that survives the grave. Simon quotes him to disagree with him. Though Simon describes himself as post-Christian, he rejects the idea that a world without God need be described as nihilistic. Simon writes:
“To take atheism seriously is to admit that the abolishment of a belief in objective meaning must alter how we approach the Universe. There is no going back after the death of God, but that death is always experienced through a particular type of absence – the absence of religious belief. Nihilism is always a particular species of frustrated Christianity. Whitman and I don’t labour under those same suppositions because, more than a post-Christian (and I assume that I’m that), I find that the problem of meaning in this void is often best addressed by a type of pantheism, an embrace of that change. More than a former Christian, what I think of myself on some days as is an aspiring pagan.”
Simon recognizes a real challenge to this sort of new paganism — in seeing the land itself as sacred — is the threat of an unhealthy nationalism. Whose land is more sacred? His alternative is to argue for the holiness of all of humanity. Like our founding fathers, this is a move towards making human equality grounded in some sort of self-evident set of facts. But the biggest fact about us seems to be our inequality, based solely on the evidence of how we treat one another. Our founding fathers illustrated that well.
The irony of trying to find the sacred in a world without God, is not that nature and humans are elevated so much as they are stripped of all value and hope. This new paganism seems to be an enterprise that traffics in terms emptied of all meaning. Soul, sacred, holiness, all are just a veneer on a sort of inescapable nothingness.
This void is not well covered by jargon, regardless of how well-intended or articulate. It cannot be papered over. It can only be traversed by a transcendent love bright enough to outshine all our worldly aspirations and close enough to whisper to our broken hearts in all their futile grasping. As C.S. Lewis once said, God cannot give us a happiness apart from himself. It doesn’t exist not even in the beautiful world he created.