Which “Paganism” Did the New York Times Mean?

When New York Times (mostly) political columnist Ross Douthat wrote a December 12 column titled “The Return of Paganism: Maybe There Actually is a Genuinely Post-Christian Future for America,” some Pagans got a little too excited — look, the NYT is writing about us!

Remember, there are at least three definitions for “pagan/Pagan.”

  1. A nonreligious person or an unbeliever, from a monotheistic perspective.1)For Jews, this means to never have them as close friends or family. For Christians, it means they should be converted. For Muslims, it means they should be converted, and meanwhile, it permissible to enslave them.
  2.  A person philosophically opposed to monotheisms on the grounds that they are life-denying cosmologies that desacralize the world. An example that I will return to is the French philosopher Alain de Benoist, known for his book On Being a Pagan, and other works. Camille Paglia fits here too. Such philosophical Pagans, however, often look down their noses at category 3.
  3.  Persons who declare that they are following a Pagan religion. This may represent a reconstructed version of what their ancestors did or a new set of practices deemed compatible with ancient Paganism or a reconstructed version of practices from an admired ancient culture (for instance, if I were a Hellenic reconstructionist although not Greek by heritage). In addition, “Pagan” sometimes is employed to cover all polytheistic,2)There are “atheist” and “humanistic” Pagans, it is true. Perhaps they are merely Unitarians who like to be in the woods. animistic, and indigenous religions

A lot of Douthat’s piece is about position #1.

Here are some generally agreed-upon facts about religious trends in the United States. Institutional Christianity has weakened drastically since the 1960s. Lots of people who once would have been lukewarm Christmas-and-Easter churchgoers now identify as having “no religion” or being “spiritual but not religious.” The mainline-Protestant establishment is an establishment no more.

Then he goes into a “spiritual smorgasbord” section, where the “religious impulse” produces new creations of spiritual entrepreneurs who “cobble together pieces of the old orthodoxies” that are still under the overarching monotheist worldviews.

Nevertheless, he continues, there comes a “moment when you should just believe people who claim they have left the biblical world-picture behind, a context where the new spiritualities add up to a new religion.”  He quotes a new book by Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, which speaks of a “new religious conception”:

What is that conception? Simply this: that divinity is fundamentally inside the world rather than outside it, that God or the gods or Being are ultimately part of nature rather than an external creator, and that meaning and morality and metaphysical experience are to be sought in a fuller communion with the immanent world rather than a leap toward the transcendent

That sounds exactly like what Benoist was writing in the early1980s, or like various other people in the “#2 Pagan” category. But we have not even gotten to Wiccans, Heathens, Druids, etc.!

He finally gets to Wiccans, etc., at the end, consigning them to a “New Age” category, which just shows his ignorance. After all, if your Paganism includes “the gods are a part of nature,” you are not New Age but very Old Age. “New Age” is all about leaping towards the transcendent, just in a more gnostic way than in the churches.

By the end, he is broadly hinting that this “new paganism” will lead to an increase in demonic possession — just follow his last hyperlink.

Writing for The Wild Hunt, Manny Tejado-Moreno claims that “Douthat has it backwards. . . . Douthat appears to be profoundly disturbed at the loss of central moral authority, and, apparently unable to cope with what organized religion has done to itself, seeks a scapegoat in Paganism.”

But no, it’d not “backwards” insofar as Doughtat is not really writing about us practicing Pagans. We are just an afterthought. He is indeed concerned about the loss of Christian hegemony, a concern raised a couple of generations ago in western Europe but only more recently popping up in North America, where Christianity was always the 600-pound gorilla in the religion room.3)Now it’s what, the 300-pound gorilla? He sees the #1-#2 “paganism” that is replacing it as a falling away from The Truth.

If you want to watch a thoughtful Christian writer struggle with that issue, bookmark Rod Dreher’s blog or read his book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in Post-Christian Nation, which is selling well in translation in France and Italy, I wonder why.

Notes   [ + ]

1. For Jews, this means to never have them as close friends or family. For Christians, it means they should be converted. For Muslims, it means they should be converted, and meanwhile, it permissible to enslave them.
2. There are “atheist” and “humanistic” Pagans, it is true. Perhaps they are merely Unitarians who like to be in the woods.
3. Now it’s what, the 300-pound gorilla?

Evidence of Jesus’ Wife?

You don’t think a good Jewish boy from a peasant culture got to be thirty years old without being married, do you?

Now there is textual evidence that suggests that he was.

“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” Dr. [Karen] King said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

Was or was it not Mary Magdalene, that is the question. Or was she just a well-off woman who helped to finance the ministry, as so often happens? Or as the Gnostic gospels suggest, one of the disciples — maybe one with special privileges — which brings us back to the question of her possible spousal status. Or were there two Marys — Magdalene the patroness and Mary the wife?

Quick Review: The Aleppo Codex

If you liked The Da Vinci Code or The Historian or The Name of the Rose, you might enjoy The Aleppo CodexThe difference is that it is a factual story, and its context is modern Syria and Israel, not medieval Europe.

From the dust jacket: “It’s a tale that involves grizzled secret agents, pious clergymen, shrewd antiquities collectors, and highly placed national figures who, as it turns out would do anything to get their hands on an ancient decaying book.”

The codex in question was created in the tenth century by an expert scribe and a noted rabbi working together. The scribe could write Hebrew like it came out of a laser printer, as the author will later note, while the rabbi then added various marginal notes to the completed pages. Unlike the Torah scrolls used in synagogues, this parchment book was designed to be the most accurate and complete reference edition of the entire Hebrew Bible.

It was looted when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem 170 years later, ransomed by Egyptian Jews, studied by Maimonides, then somehow later transported to the chief synagogue of Aleppo in northern Syria.  The codex, now known as the “Crown of Aleppo,” was no longer read but functioned more as a talisman for the Jewish community.

There in November 1947, angered that the United Nations had approved creation of the state of Israel, a Muslim mob attacked Jewish homes and businesses and trashed the synagogue.  Most of the Crown’s pages were recovered after the synagogue was vandalized during the riot—but then the story grows murky, foggy, and complicated.

When author Matti Friedman, a Canadian-born reporter working in Jerusalem, becomes intrigued with the story of how (and how much of) the Crown came to be in an Israeli museum, one of his sources tells him, “You’re entering a minefield . . . . There are traps and pitfalls and mirages and cats guarding the cream. Say the wrong thing to the wrong person, and ten other doors will slam shut.”

Trying to write the modern story of the codex, Friedman enters a world where public records disappear, where histories have large gaps, and where passions run high. One murder possibly connected with the Crown causes him to write that it was a “story could have been written by Agatha Christie, if Agatha Christie were an ultra-Orthodox Jew.”

A typical interaction goes like this:

My conversation with Zer followed the usual pattern for exchanges with people in the Aleppo Codex Underground: they would float vague pieces of information to see if I knew more than they did, and I did the same.

It is not the information within the codex that makes it so important, but its enormous significance as tangible Judaica—like a lost emperor’s crown or the Holy Grail, it is important for its associations.

Not coincidentally, another of his collaborators, the grizzled retired Mossad agent referred to on the dust jacket, describes how as bullets were still flying in the Six-Day War of 1967, he and an Israeli colonel traveled to Bethlehem in search of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls believed held by an antiquities dealer there. Eventually the dealer sells it to the government for a high price—but it is an offer that he cannot refuse.

Not only was the new state of Israel seeking to bring back Jews from all over the world, it was determined by any means necessary to bring back texts connected with Jewish history, and in that determination lies the probable explanation of what happened to the Aleppo codex.

South Koreans Love Judaism

Sometimes I think we study religions just for the weirdness of the passing parade. Consider this article on South Koreans’ fascination with Judaism: Stories from the Talmud as a required school text? Jewish books in vending machines?

A few South Koreans have converted, but they have to go elsewhere to do so, since there is not much formal Jewish life in the country.

Jewish observance in Seoul is almost entirely centred on Friday night services in the back of a Christian chapel on a US Army base. Every week, the tiny congregation of ex-pats and locals flip pews containing hymns books and New Testaments to face a pokey little ark for prayers. At the end of the night, everything gets put back in place for Friday night Mass. If there was not a small Ner Tamid hanging above the ark, you really would mistake it for a cupboard.

Most of the regular and long-serving members of the congregation are non-Jewish Koreans – civil servants, doctors and a politician from the ruling party, who is currently squeezing in his attendance between bouts of campaigning for local elections. They have no wish to convert but they take their interest in Judaism seriously. Most boast impressive collections of Judaica and read Hebrew fluently.

Yet I wonder, will some convert en masse as did the aristocracy of the Khazars?

Sacrificing sheep in Jerusalem

Cambridge University classics professor Mary Beard recently suggested that today’s Hellenic Pagans were inauthentic because they did not sacrifice animals.

Set aside the Pagans for a moment. What about Jews?

A small but controversial movement in Israel wants to revive Temple-based religion, including sacrifice.

The present-day Sanhedrin Court decided Tuesday to purchase a herd of sheep for ritual sacrifice at the site of the Temple on the eve of Passover, conditions on the Temple Mount permitting.

The comments on the article pretty well represent a spectrum of Jewish religious squabbling, from the ultra-orthodox who think that the state of Israel is an affront to their god, to those who think that sacrifice is “cruelty to animals” and those who think that it is not, to those who just want to kick the Muslims off the Temple Mount. Oy vey!

Via Mirabilis.