Thursday, March 24, 2022

Europe: Was It Ever Really Christian?

Europe: Was It Ever Really Christian?  by Anton Wessels. Something must be missing about this book stylistically, because I really had to fight my way through most of it, even though the subject matter interests me. Wessels is a Dutch professor, and I can't quite suss him out theologically. I thought throughout that he is heterodox in some way, but could not put my finger on it.  I decided not to research who the gent is until the end, so that I could let the book stand or fall on its own, without prejudicing my view of him.

I will not go on at great length. The book has value, but I don't think enough value to take up that much of my time, or yours. He notes that Europe has fallen off in its Christian practice and become in need of (re)-evangelism. Perhaps, he speculates, we should look at how it was evangelised the first time to see if there are any useful lessons. An interesting idea, yes. He starts from the ideas of Mircea Eliade the 20th C Romanian religious phenomenologist, who believed that Christianity had succeeded the first time, not by suppressing the pagan religions as they encountered them, but by by adopting their images and myths and elevating them, transforming them into something Christian. I have some attraction to the idea, as it fits with the CS Lewis idea that the other religions of the world are not 100% wrong, but find their completion in Christ - a similar though not identical idea.

Briefly, Wessels divides the book into three parts and catalogues how in the encounter with Graeco-Roman thought and mythology, the Church sometimes forbade and suppressed where it could, sometimes reinterpreted what was on the ground, and found itself influenced by both the high philosophy and the primitive superstitions of that world. I detected that Anton seemed to take some pleasure in pointing out that items we might suppose were fully Christian in our day were actually pagan in origin. Well, it is fun, and if Eliade is correct it is only what we would expect.  But may antennae went up.

He then describes what happened in the encounter with the Celtic, especially Irish pagans. He stresses how those customs were deeply tied to nature worship, especially regarding the sun and fertility.  Also, there was a tradition of traveling about the world to grow spiritually, to become detached from nation and family and become holy through trials and self-denial. In this world the resurrected Christ was understood more easily than the suffering Christ - the circle on the solar cross that is the Celtic cross derives from the sun. Again, we have that refrain of "you didn't know that, did you, that these Christians things were originally pagan?" I still thought it was mostly humorous, because much of it was information I had encountered before. If he was having sport with me, I chuckled in return that he had some overlap with those fundamentalists and odd sects that thunder about the pagan origins of all our holidays in order to forbid them.  But still, he's not wrong, and I did pick up a fair bit of new stuff. As with the Greek and Roman philosophers, if you like that sort of digging in to see where paganism rubbed up against the faith and was both transformed by it but was also transformed and elevated itself, there is plenty of information here. As before, the Church did a fiar bit of forbidding and suppressing of anything pagan, though not very successfully. The technique of destroying a temple or sacred grove and declaring that no harm would come to the destroyer because he had the more powerful god was a common tactic.  It was quite effective.

I should note here that I found him flat wrong about prehistory in a few places, but he seemed to at least be accurate about written sources.  He spends a fair bit of time on Arthur and his tie-ins to Celtic paganism, most of which was not new to me.  But I may not be a fair audience for that, having read a fair bit about him over the decades.  Also, the book was originally written in Dutch and seems to be aimed at Europeans in general, so much of it might be new to that audience.

By the time he gets to the Germanic pagans he is running parallel and at the same speed as those old fundies I recall reading.  Even the name Yule is pagan and it's still being used!  Odin had an eight-legged horse and flew through the sky for the solstice!  Get it?  Eight legs, eight reindeer? Chimney, presents, holy trees?  Much of the third section is taken up with this, and by that time I was no longer charmed.  Again, if you like digging out the amusing - or infuriating and embarrassing - pagan origins of Christmas in particular, Wessels has collected a lot of it here. The Scandinavians were the last to convert and held on to their paganism the longest. Swedes celebrating Luciafest is not a revival of charming old ethnic customs, it is quite continuous and was taken quite seriously until fairly recently, when Scandinavians stopped believing in Christianity and paganism both. 

He also spends a lot of time on the sagas, and how the type of Christ that was preached and most successful in the Germanic lands was the tribal leader of warriors who will conquer in the end, making him sort of the same as Balder and the gods, but also better, because this guy wins! The idea of obedience to said leader is also described as especially German.  I am less convinced of that, but ...maybe.  It is aset of explanations I have heard before, and they're not wrong.  But it is more than a bit oversimple.

In the last section he asks what could go wrong about trying to again embrace the pagan myths and transforming them in Europe and spends a great deal of time illustrating how the Nazis burrowed in deeply to German paganism and even succeeded in corrupting the Christian church thereby. Lots of examples of where and how this happened.  So he warns us away from this - and then not.  He doubles back and then asks again if we are quite careful, could we not embrace Celtic pagan nature-emphasis again, and allow ourselves to be re-influenced, and thus have the Church become leaders in care of the earth? What about all those nice things said about peace that have their echo in some of the Greeks?  Couldn't we go back to that again and become really peace-y?

You see where this is going, and was in fact going all along in the book, though I didn't see it coming. It is not that there is nothing to be said for these ideas, it's just that they are fairly trite by now and needn't be brought out breathlessly. There are already debates about this, with some refuting that these should be Christian emphases while others insisting that this is where the Church should be going. I decided that the book has a lot of very good information about the interaction of Christianity and the paganism in place in the areas of Europe.  It makes a good case for Eliade's idea that adopting and transforming the symbols encountered is the way to go in evangelism. Beyond that, the thinking is shallow.

1 comment:

james said...

"could we not embrace Celtic pagan nature-emphasis again, and allow ourselves to be re-influenced, and thus have the Church become leaders in care of the earth"
Where does he propose to find those Celtic pagans to "teach" us? Perhaps he wants us to learn the care of rivers from the way the Hindus treat the Ganges?

John Wright noted that the original pagans honored the gods and sacred places of their fathers--and the ancestors of today's neopagans worshiped the Trinity in cathedrals.

Thank you for reading it so we don't have to.