The Twilight of Christian Civilization

December 1988By Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried is a writer whose latest book is The Search for Historical Mean­ing: Hegel and the Postwar American Right.

The Pagan Temptation.  By Thomas Molnar. Eerdmans. 207 pages. $11.95.



The Pagan Temptation is an intellectually provocative work with a misleading title. The book deals only intermittently with paganism: mostly it deals with a declining Christian civilization. Molnar examines this weakened Christian world through the al­ternatives that have begun to take its place. These alternatives have still not been widely per­ceived as mutually exclusive, and so it is possible to encounter Zen Buddhism, a quasi-Westernized Islam, and various occult practices in the same post-Christian soci­ety, syncretistically adopted by the same enthusiasts.

Molnar does not treat these cultural phenomena with con­tempt. Though he indicates in what ways they are incompatible with Christian theology, particu­larly with the doctrine of crea­tion and the Christian sense of the person, for the most part he merely describes the changing religious landscape. The loss of the self, the blurring of any dis­tance between subject and object, the apparent Orientalization of theological discourse, and the drift into magic and superstition among self-described secularists are all closely studied here. Mol­nar scolds Christian leaders and teachers for conceding a window of opportunity to their adversar­ies. The failure of organized Christianity to appeal sufficiently to imagination and its pander­ing to intellectuals embarrassed by religious mystery have, accord­ing to Molnar, driven the masses into alternative forms of worship. At the same time, it is curious that theological rationalists who have urged the Catholic Church to shun its own mysteries have often been the first to applaud openings to non-Western mysti­cisms.

Molnar is emphatic in reveal­ing a link between orthodox Christianity and the desacralizing process that has created the pres­ent appetite for non-Western reli­gion. Early Christianity excluded the mythic beliefs of pagan and Oriental cultures — e.g., the iden­tification of divinity and nature; a cyclical history formed on anal­ogy to the alternation of seasons; and the attribution of evil to the universe rather than to human will. Since patristic times Christian theologians have insisted on the original goodness of creation and the accessibility of nature to human understanding. God is the master of the natural world rather than an expression of it. He and the human race (endowed by him with intelligence) are set over against mere nature. From the biblical perspective man is intend­ed neither to reject the reality of the natural order nor to consider himself merely a part of it. He is to use nature while recognizing it as a product of God’s will and goodness.

Molnar considers this bibli­cal cosmology a point of entry into the modern rationalist uni­verse. Though noted earlier by scholars such as Max Weber and, more recently, Fr. Stanley Jaki, the relationship of biblical reli­gion to science needs to be stress­ed as often as possible. Even a cursory look at my children’s “social studies” textbooks con­vinces me that the secularist-ma­terialist assault on historical truth continues. The work of Herbert Butterfield, Thomas Kuhn, and others notwithstand­ing, no scientific research, we are led to believe, would have occur­red if not for the “pagan” Renais­sance and Enlightenment. Such twaddle should be challenged, not from a sense of pious outrage but from a passion for the truth and a distaste for distortion.

One point in the book (pre­figured in the title) that needs further clarification is the use of the term “pagan” to refer to cur­rent alternatives to Christianity. In some passages, pagan is synon­ymous with all non-Christian reli­gion; elsewhere it is defined as pantheism, which, Molnar argues, has recurrently challenged Chris­tian orthodoxy ever since the rise of neo-Platonism. In my opinion, one is justified in speaking of pa­ganism only in discussions of Greco-Roman culture. Molnar is correct in designating as “neo-pagan” the selectively paganized thinking of Alain de Benoist, Jean Raspail, Jean Cau, and oth­er New Right figures in France. It may also be justified to apply the same phrase to Machiavelli’s appeal to Roman civic virtue and to Nietzsche’s concept of heroic fatalism. As for authentic pagan­ism, it has not been around since antiquity, save for those remnants incorporated into later European cultures. Contrary to what Pope Pius XII stated in a pronounce­ment of February 1939, General Franco did not triumph over pa­ganism during the Spanish Civil War; he defeated pseudo-Chris­tian sentimentalists beholden to scientific materialism. A related misunderstanding (in this case, one suspects, deliberate) crops up in the historian Peter Gay, who treats the Enlightenment and his own sentimental Marxism as derivative from pre-Christian, pagan antiquity.

What has been pushing Christianity out of Western cul­ture for several generations now is, in both senses of the Latin term, a succedaneum. Christian­ity has been challenged by alter­natives that chronologically fol­low it and express some side of the Christian heritage in an ex­aggerated form. Confronting the Christian world is not a vision of the ancient polis restored, but modern Christian heresies — e.g., Marxism and rationalism. Even the penchant for things Oriental should be understood in the same light. The fads of today are not Buddhism, Islam, and Hindu­ism, but selected aspects of these religions dressed in Western theo­logical garb and adapted to the recreational needs of retirees and young professionals. Molnar trac­es the breakdown of Christian orthodoxy before the onslaught of heretical views, but it may be asked whether this breakdown has occurred because of either paganism or the power of Orien­tal thinking. Christianity has grown internally weak because of a crisis within the Western world. This crisis can be understood independently of the current West­ern vogue for Oriental foods and Buddhist exercises. Nor does it clarify matters to ascribe the cri­sis of Christianity to a pagan temptation equated with panthe­ism.

Despite these reservations, I believe that The Pagan Tempta­tion is a serious work of scholar­ship that brings honor to its au­thor. Its range of learning attests to Molnar’s identity as an intel­lectual historian with ties to a rich, but (alas) mostly vanished European civilization. Even his errors teach more than many other authors’ puny truths.



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