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 Gods 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 childrens 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 Machiavellis appeal to Roman civic virtue and to Nietzsches 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 Molnars 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.