The story of the development of new paganism is the story of the Prodigal Son. The younger son in the parable is Western civilization, who in the sixteenth century goes to the spiritual father of Christendom and asks for a share of the substance garnered through the centuries. The spiritual father gives Western civilization a share of that capital in the shape of the necessity of a Church, the Divinity of Christ, the inspiration of Sacred Scriptures, the existence of God, and the necessity of religion. In the course of the last four centuries, Western civilization has been prodigal of that patrimony. In the sixteenth century, it spent its belief in the Church, in the seventeenth, the inspiration of Sacred Scripture, in the eighteenth, the Divinity of Christ, in the nineteenth, the existence of God, and in the twentieth, the necessity of religion. At the present day, the capital is all gone and now it is feeding on husks, under the names of “New Thought” and “Progress.” It was not so long ago that the father of Christendom could depend upon those sects that called themselves Christian to help defend the great fundamental truths of Christianity, such as the Divinity of Christ and the necessity of the salvation of the individual soul. That day is past. Many of the best-known preachers are today teaching nothing but a glorified Humanism and there are but few who would dare to speak of divine justice or retribution. We are, therefore, practically forced to carry on the battle for Christian truth alone, and this is something new in the history of Christianity.
In our day the religion of Christ is facing a crisis such as it has not faced, probably, since Constantine. By that I mean that up to this time the Church has been engaged in a kind of civil war, in which a Christian idea has battled with a misunderstanding of a Christian idea or in which sect has fought with sect. None of the great heresies of the first sixteen hundred years of the Christian era denied the existence of God, but they had misconceived the notion of the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the nature of Divine Grace, and the mission of the Church. In the last four centuries the conflict was not so much of idea and idea as the conflict of sect and sect. Today we are faced with something entirely novel. We are engaged now not so much in what might be called a civil war, but we are confronted with what Mr. Belloc has called “an invasion,” that is, a force of ideas that is as strange to traditional Christianity as Christianity was strange to Paganism. This new invading force is New Paganism. New Paganism may be defined as an outlook on life that holds to the sufficiency of human science without faith, and the sufficiency of human power without grace. In other words, its two tenets are Scientism which is a deification of the experimental method, and Humanism, which is a glorification of a man who makes God to his own image and likeness.
New Paganism is not the same as the old Paganism. The most important differences between the two are these: the old Paganism was a confusion. New Paganism is a divorce. The old Paganism did not deny God, in fact it asserted supreme powers, such as Zeus and Jupiter and the “Unknown God of Athens.” What it did, however, was to confuse divinity and humanity, matter and spirit, God and man, to such an extent as to reduce them to a kind of unity. Thus it was that idols of gold and silver, of marble and brass, were called “gods.” There was much that was reprehensible in this kind of theology, but there was also something that was noble. Why did the pagans make their gods in sensible forms like statues? Merely because in their ignorance they could make no distinction whatever between spirit and matter? May it not be more likely that in making their gods visible in matter, they were dimly expressing an instinctive yearning in the human heart for an Incarnation, or a God amongst men? May it not be that Bethlehem was the realization of those crudely expressed pagan ideals? And the very fact that idolatry passed out of the world with the knowledge of the Incarnation proves in some way that the human heart has had its cravings satisfied and its ideals realized.
New Paganism, on the contrary, does not confuse the human and the divine — it separates them, it divorces them. It runs a sharp sword of cleavage between the things that God joined together and forbade to be put asunder, that is, such tremendous realities as God and the cosmos, nature and grace, faith and science, body and soul, morality and conscience, husband and wife, maternity and Providence, divine action and human liberty. After having divorced the two, New Paganism immediately throws away the better half and lives worse with the other half. That is why today there is religion without God, Christianity without Christ, and psychology without a soul. That is why there are Behaviorism, Humanism, and all the other new labels. From this point of view, the old Paganism was preferable to the new, for at least it acknowledged the necessity of some power above man, even though it was only a household god who by his wrath might put down the fever and fervor of birth control.
The second difference between the old and the new Paganism is that the old Paganism worshiped the vital forces of nature and entered into vital communion with them and the cosmos by some sort of ritualistic magic that belongs to the domain of religion. New Paganism continues to worship the forces of nature, but it enters into communion with this cosmic order not by a ritualistic magic that belongs to the realm of religion, but by a mathematical formalism that belongs to the domain of science. The old Paganism with its ritualistic magic had the advantage of admitting the worshiper into some dim borderland of the unknown and providing him with an inspiration and awe that is foreign to the New Paganism, with its clockwork cosmos of pointer-readings and shadowy configurations of space-time. The old Paganism found a God, though it was only an unknown God. New Paganism finds a God — and its name is Man.
The third difference resides in the nature of the two kinds of paganism. The old Paganism was the perversion of natural lights and misuse of reason by those who could have come to a knowledge of the invisible God from the visible things of the world. This was the basis of St. Paul’s reproach to the Romans. New Paganism, on the contrary, is a perversion of supernatural lights, the putting out of the flame of Christianity and the light of faith and the revelation of Christ Jesus. The old Paganism put out the light of the candle of reason; New Paganism put out the light of the sun of Faith. The only way to understand the degradation to which man had fallen is to know the heights from which he had fallen, and no one will deny that it is impossible to fall from a greater height than the hope and life that Christ brought to this world, and in this sense the fall of New Paganism is the greater.
What will be the future of New Paganism? If present religious and philosophical conditions continue, it is not unlikely that the religious universe within the next century or two will be divided into two great worlds — the world of Peter and the world of Pan. First of all, that group in our society which believes in the existence of God, the Divinity of Christ, the necessity of redemption and spiritual sanctification, those who put on the panoply of Rome though they have not yet her soul, those who are outside of the Church but honestly seeking and praying for truth and light, will, by the very logic of their ways, slowly, surely, certainly, and inevitably end in the veneration of Peter or the Church of Rome. That other group, on the contrary, which babbles and prattles about the omnipotence of science, which believes that the idea of God must be suited to the new astrophysics and that a future life is a survival idea from uncivilized peoples — this group, I say, will by the very logic of their ways, slowly, surely, certainly, and inevitably end in the worship of Pan or Paganism. But there will be no more Peter Pans, no more Federations of Churches, no more “broad-mindedness.” We shall be either hot or cold. We shall either gather with Christ or we shall scatter. The day of compromise and timeserving will have passed.
And then what will be the issue? There probably will come a conflict of these two forces. For just as no nation can exist half slave and half free, so, too, Christianity cannot exist half Christian and half pagan. If the present indications mean anything, the conflict of Peter andPan in some future day will be translated into the conflict between the forces that worship the State and the forces that worship God. As men cease to believe in God, the State becomes God. The great and tragic scene before Pilate will be reenacted, in which the Church as Christ must always be misunderstood by the world, and in that future day as in the days of the old Paganism, another Tertullian will arise to plead for justice as the first Tertullian pleaded in the year 193:
“As to the Emperor and the charge of high treason against us, Caesar’s safety lies not in hands soldered on. We invoke the true God for the Emperor. Even if he persecutes us, we are bidden pray for them that persecute us, as you can read it in our books which are not hidden, which you often get hold of. We pray for him because the Empire stands between us and the end of the world. We count the Caesars to be God’s vicegerents and swear by their safety (not by their genius, as required). As for loyalty, Caesar really is more ours than yours; for it was our God who set him up. It is for his own good that we refuse to call the Emperor god; Father of his Country is a better title. No Christian has ever made a plot against a Caesar; the famous conspirators and assassins were heathen, one and all. Piety, religion, faith are our best offering of loyalty.”
As the world becomes better in one direction it will become worse in another. As it becomes violent in one direction, it will become saintly in another. As the individual hates his body, restrains it, mortifies it, persecutes it, his soul grows better, more spiritual, more refined, more saintly. Such is the meaning of the words of our blessed Lord, “If you wish to save your life, you must lose it.” What is true of the individual is true of the race. As it becomes wicked, it will also become saintly. As Pan becomes powerful, so Peter will become powerful. As the Church is persecuted and seems to be on the very threshold of death, it will be spiritually alive, awaiting its resurrection, as Christ was, even when He was laid in His tomb.
This intensification of the forces of good and evil can have only one issue and that issue will be — persecution and apostasy. Apostasy, because shallow minds will be affected by the New Pagan doctrine of the sufficiency of human knowledge without faith; persecution, because shallow hearts will be affected by the New Pagan doctrine of the sufficiency of human power without grace. Apostasy will be pride in action or the temporary supremacy of the fads and fashions of the age over the unchanging truths of eternity. Persecution will be Humanism in action or sentimentality gone mad. Persecution is a form of social sadism in which society takes pleasure, as perverted individuals do, in the infliction of pain. It comes not only with cold-bloodedness but also with hot-bloodedness, which is degeneration.
Christ has never promised His people earthly peace and repose, but He has promised them persecution. “As they have hated me, so will they hate you.” Every nation or group of people that has become particularly dear to Christ, because prosperous in the affairs of the soul, has become so through persecution. England paid for her faith by blood and that blood is now the purchase price of her re-conversion. France paid for her title as the eldest daughter of the Church in the Western world by the blood of the French Revolution. Ireland has paid for her faith so many times over as to be one of the peoples in the world whom God loves most. We have twenty million Catholics in this country who have not been bought with blood. Will they have to pay the price for that faith? Will they have to suffer to rise to new heights? Will they escape the law that Good Friday is the prelude to an Easter Sunday?
If persecution comes, when will it come? No one knows but God. But one thing is worth observing so far as the future is concerned. There are appearing in our periodicals at the present time a series of articles many of which have for their avowed purpose the destruction of everything Christian, God-like, and Christlike. These articles, some of which have been critically appreciated in these pages, still belong to the realm of theory. But how long can they be kept in the world of theory? How long does it take an idea to work itself out of two covers of a textbook into the great broad world? How long will it take the atheistic doctrines of many of our universities to ooze their way out through the four corners of a classroom and become translated into the language of the man on the street? How long will it take man to seize upon these ideas not as theories, but as principles of living? Fifty years ago, Darwin’s theory was a classroom theory. Now most people are living under the illusion that they have read Darwin, and many talk evolution as if they knew whereof they spoke. Even already everybody is talking about Einstein, though few know what Einstein is talking about. It may take longer for the immoral theories of self-expression ethics and the godless philosophy of space-time to work themselves into the very marrow and fiber of the common man. But when these ideas do work themselves out, then we shall have persecution or perhaps Sovietism. The only difference between the theory of godlessness of the Soviet State and the temper and tone of the articles I have mentioned is the difference between theory and fact. Sovietism does not write its articles in the learned journals but writes its beliefs with blood on church steps. It does not write against sanctuaries; it abolishes them. Sovietism is not concerned with the thrill that comes from “a bold challenge to morality,” but with the animal satisfaction that comes from the burning of a flame of hate in the very sanctuary lamp of God. It is Pan in action.
If that condition of godlessness is ever to be averted, if Paganism is ever to be thrust back, it can be met with only one force in the world, and that is the Church — and by that word, I mean the Church, not churches. The Church is the only thing in the world that knows anything about Paganism. She was born not of Paganism but in Paganism. She saw it grow; she saw its gods dethroned; she saw its State worshiped. But she also saw it decline, and we know, and all history knows, that the only reason Paganism declined was because of the civilizing and supernaturalizing power of Christ in His Church. The Church assisted at the deathbed of Paganism. The last beast of Paganism was fed on the body of one of her faithful. The last god that was overthrown was cast to earth by a convert to Christ from Paganism. Now, as then, the Church is the only force that knows it, and when the modern world calls it new, we remember it as something old. As the modern world looks upon it as something progressive, we look upon it as the degradation of barbarism. We know that if it must be crushed again, as it was crushed of old, by a surrender of our lives and our blood, we are willing to do it. When that conflict will come, if it comes, we know not; we know nothing of its details, nothing of the alignment of forces; we know not the kind of swords that will be unsheathed — but there is one thing that we do know, and that is that in that struggle with the powers of darkness and the errors of Paganism, in that warfare of Peter and Pan, if Truth wins, we win. If Truth — Ah! But Truth can’t loose!
Archbishop Fulton Sheen circa 1930