A scene from Midsommar

Upon the apparent demise of Christianity as a force for the effective shaping of Western culture, a number of philosophers have been hailing the West’s return to paganism. This is not a new claim; Nietzsche made it 130 years ago. Chesterton discussed paganism in chapter 12 of his Heretics as long ago as 1906, well before he became a Catholic. At first glance, it might even seem as if the forces of secularisation which have been at work since the Enlightenment are on the brink of removing a layer of Christian paint that has disfigured an ancient Greco-Roman temple.

I only wish this alleged new flourishing of paganism were real. As Chesterton put it, “If only the young were pagans!”. Writing as a Catholic, paganism is far from my own preferred option, especially when one recalls the Roman practice of killing Christians for public entertainment from time to time. But, as a lesser evil, classical paganism might be a good second choice.

Tilling the soil for Christianity

Christianity has often been depicted as the mortal enemy of classical paganism and its Promethean humanism. However, it is no less true that Christianity found in Greco-Roman culture a fertile soil. The discourse of Paul of Tarsus at the Areopagus of Athens in 50AD is usually considered a failure. A careful reading of Chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, however, shows that his Athenian interlocutors —the politically correct people of the time, whose main occupation was listening to and passing on the latest news— at first gave him a respectful hearing.

“And some said, “What would this babbler say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” — because he preached Jesus and the resurrection. And they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you present? For you bring some strange things to our ears; we wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

They paid attention right up to the point at which Paul mentions resurrection of the dead. According to Luke’s account, not an eyebrow was raised before that. The Apostle’s reference to a provident God who rules the world, rewards the good and punishes the bad did not surprise his largely Epicurean or Stoic audience. That we must all seek him because “we are of his lineage” (and here he cited a Greek poet, Aratus), because idolatry is wrong, and because a universal judgment will someday be handed down, was in no way shocking to his listeners.

Paul was given a fair chance to explain himself. Were he to address an equivalent forum today, wouldn’t he be de-platformed? Would a Western university audience in 2019 quietly accept an exposition of an ordering of our world accessible to common reason and of a provident God who rewards and punishes?

The link between Christianity and of pagan philosophy went far beyond Paul’s discourse in the Areopagus. When we read passages from Aristotle or Cicero, we feel as if we were reading one of the ancient Fathers of the Church. The famous jurist Papinian (142-212 AD) was called “the Christian jurist” even though he was a pagan.

What did Greco-Roman paganism offer Christianity?

It had “pietas” (a concept broader than “piety” which is very noticeable in the poet Virgil’s hero, Aeneas); a belief in an order inherent in the world; the logos, word and reason; a universal moral law as well as natural law; and, crucially, a certain moderation. The cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) may be found, for example, in Cicero’s De Officiis (On Duties). If the Roman Empire had an heir, it was the Church.

Post-human paganism

Midsommar, directed by Swedish director Ari Aster, opened recently to rave reviews. It’s about what happens when American university students participate in a pagan-revival festival in remote northern Sweden. Although it begins with idyllic scenes of blonde young women dressed in white doing folk dances, it is rated R for “disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language”. Those good old pagans would be repulsed by its repugnant horror.

I am sorry about this because it will affect my children and grandchildren, but we are not moving backwards towards a more innocent pagan and anthropocentric world as some neo-pagans claim. Rather, we are entering a post-human culture. Post-Christian society is not going to be a re-enactment of the procession in the Parthenon Frieze; nor is it going to be an garden party of merry young garlanded people in white tunics.

When C.S. Lewis moved from a college tutorial fellowship Oxford to a professorial chair at Cambridge in 1954 he gave a magnificent inaugural lecture, De Descriptione Temporum. It is worth reading in full, but here is his dismissal of the possibility of true neo-paganism in the modern world:

“It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are “relapsing into paganism”. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went”, and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past, and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.”

In the end, what secularizers have done is not just to peel off mediaeval paint covering a classical original. Instead, in their zeal to restore the fresco, they have scraped off layers of the stone beneath.

Today’s post-Christians are not pagans. Their models are not Socrates, Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. Post-Christians lack nearly all that classical pagans had. While our world is utterly disenchanted, paganism was enchanted to the point of gross superstition. While pagans erected burial monuments to their dead that have lasted to this our day, post-Christians are toying now with human composting. While pagans worshipped heroes, our culture watches Seinfeld. Promethean man strove to steal the fire of the gods, while post-Christian progressives are downgrading man to the level of apes, if not of algae.

The much-acclaimed Harry Potter books offer readers no one to admire. Fifty Shades of Grey sold copies by the millions by repugnantly pandering to the basest of instincts, not excluding sordid violence toward women. The final scenes of Midsommar are just the opposite to the “eucatastrophe” proposed by Tolkien in his essay On Fairy Stories. If films like these are the ethics of the future, our children will find themselves wallowing in muck that would have disgusted Juvenal.

Modern economics and technology are in the main unfavourable to Christianity. Let us not pretend, however, that they are fostering paganism. On the contrary, they are ushering us into an inhuman/anti-human/posthuman scenario. If a post-Christian world is hostile to the thinking of Thomas Aquinas, it is no more friendly to Plato and Aristotle.

The moral of the story is that you can stop acting as a Christian if you want to, but once the spell is broken — as it was broken some 20 centuries ago — you cannot be born again as a pre-Christian pagan. You can make Christians out of pagans, but you cannot make pagans out of neo-pagans.

I wish our world had a solid phalanx of honest, sound, pre-Christian, and very human pagans. Since human things have a divine value, especially after the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, such a society would provide a foundation for our building in common. Quite a few of those pagans might become Christians. As Chesterton put it, paganism ended up in Christianity.

How wrong Dostoyevski was! In his novel The Brothers Karamazov he maintained that if God does not exist, everything is permitted. If only. God has disappeared in modern culture, and it seems that less and less is permitted. Bring back those good old pagans.

Antonio-Carlos Pereira-Menaut is Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain