Pagans were the country folk (‘pagan’ means country dweller) who resisted organised religion and practised ancient rituals and ceremonies. Their pre-Christian religion could be described as animism – the belief that everything is alive with natural or supernatural spirits.
The ancient pagans used magical enchantments, honoured a myriad of gods and goddesses, and lived close to ‘mother earth’ which they tended to deify. Due to their somewhat bizarre beliefs and practices, which sometimes included devil worship, they were easily dismissed. But this is beginning to change.
Many of today’s pagans reject super-naturalism, tending toward a ‘natural’ spirituality without systematic theology or dogma.
Modern paganism (or ‘neopaganism’) includes a variety of spiritualities, but they almost all share a respect for (even worship of) mother earth.
Neopagans are an eclectic bunch. Since the 1950s they have multiplied so rapidly that they could be the fastest growing religious group in the world. They have no single organisation or doctrines, and many people embrace a neopaganistic worldview without realising it.
A surprising number of people I know could be described as neopagan, though they would be astonished if I said so. Others, however, have no problem with the identification.
Caring and ethical
My experience is that they are caring and ethical people, who live well and do well. They believe that all nature is sacred and therefore to be cared for. They speak of gods and goddesses – of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Druids, for example – as though they were real, all the while knowing they are not.
Some neopagans are attracted to the ‘Great Spirit’ that many American Indian tribes believe in. Many practise ancient, naturalistic, healing methods. They may be vegetarians and frequent stores that sell organic, health food products.
Their political stance is often radical, sometimes highly so, and focuses on the environment.
Live and let live
Neopagans will not reject me because of my Christianity and hold some of the beliefs that I do. However, they are mostly relativistic, allowing me my truth and holding to their own without worrying about the contradictions.
They are rarely quarrelsome and are not readily attracted to theological debate, preferring to ‘live and let live’.
Neopagans’ commitment to the earth, however, borders on pantheism. The earth becomes Gaia, the earth goddess. Their goal is to take care of mother earth so that mother earth will take care of them.
For many neopagans, a chimpanzee, a primitive microbe, and a human being all have equal rank and value. Humans, therefore, have no transcendence and are not made in the image of God.
All life is here and now, passing quickly never to return. Humans are simply, and temporarily, at the top of the food chain.
A natural spirituality
Neopagans are attracted to ritual and ceremony, observing the onset of the four seasons and special days like May Day. This ‘worship’ takes many forms, but a common goal is to escape from the normal state of consciousness.
Mind-altering drugs, ceremonies and rituals may be used to achieve alternative states of consciousness, allowing them to access ‘higher spiritual planes’.
Neopagan spiritual leaders are not teachers as much as facilitators – of experiences that harmonise devotees with the flow of nature. It is a peaceful, meditative, simplistic religion with little dogma and no centralised authority.
It is just what many, fleeing the frenzy of modern life, are looking for.
The real church?
From its establishment in the fourth century down to even this very day, the organised church has sought to crush paganism. Possibly millions of ‘witches’ were killed, many burned at the stake, and practitioners of the old ways went underground.
But today, in a technological age when people are out of touch with nature and themselves, neopagans are gaining a hearing. And there is some validity in what they say. I can see why many young adults spurn the church altogether.
However, for the most part they have little understanding of real Christianity. They could not so easily ignore it if they understood its true nature.
The God of the Bible
The God of the Bible is Creator of all that exists, yet he stands above the creation. Nevertheless, as the sustainer of all things, he is intimately involved with the material world in which we live.
God told the first humans that they were to care for the world and have dominion over it (Genesis 1:26). Of course, ‘dominion’ can be misinterpreted as freedom to exploit and ravage the environment, but this is not what it means.
God’s care and involvement were demonstrated most clearly when he took flesh and fellowshipped with humans in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Jesus cared for those in need and in pain. He healed, fed, and freed needy people. And he suffered and died for sinners like ourselves. His was and is the highest ethic.
Mankind was given the right to live off the land but not to abuse it. As the only creatures made in the image of God, humans are responsible for the care of the earth. But making earth a goddess is idolatry.
The earth is not our mother. It is simply where we ‘live and move and have our being’.
Paul’s words to the Athenians in Acts 17 speak pointedly to the neopagan viewpoint and experience.
‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed … I found also an altar with this inscription, “To an unknown god”. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
‘The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.
‘And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, and in the hope that they might feel after him and find him.
‘Yet he is not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”.’
A temporary abode
The earth is our home, made that way by God. And he remains deeply involved with his creation. God is personal, loving and caring and, says Paul, intends us to seek after him – for this true and spiritual God of the Bible is knowable.
But the earth is temporary. Science is pretty much agreed that the universe will eventually either burn up or freeze out. The Bible is more specific:
‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up’ (2 Peter 3:10).
The ‘day of the Lord’ will usher in a new history and a new home – the paradise of God. The earth we know is filled with corruption and disease, but new heavens and a new earth await those who trust in Christ.
Neopaganism can be dangerous. Seeking ‘higher levels of consciousness’ may instead bring devotees face to face with evil spirits through occult practices.
I have often wondered if it dawns on neopagans why they are so dependent on rituals and ceremonies – from spells to drumming, chanting and dancing. Is it not to induce altered states of consciousness? Are our minds so numbed by life that we have to manipulate and be manipulated?
Some neopagans recognise that they are connecting with spiritual entities – which they break down into good, neutral, and evil spirits.
The Bible, however, tells us there is only one Holy Spirit and the rest are neither good nor neutral. Neopaganism is serious stuff – much more serious and even dangerous than most people realise.
Satisfying and peaceful
It is not difficult for me to understand the appeal of neopaganism. Jesus talked about the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choking the Word of God (Mark 4:19), while Paul warns against being ‘conformed to this world’ (Romans 12:2). Christianity has a rich history of simple living, including appreciation of the created order and harmony with it.
But in rejecting ‘the world’ and seeking tranquillity, an undiscerning Christian can fall into the trap of deifying nature, just like the neopagan. Christian tranquillity is found, not in communing with nature or in altered states of consciousness, but in knowing Jesus Christ.
Christians are free to live in the hubbub of the modern world or to retreat from it. But, either way, they are called to live first and foremost for the praise, worship and service of Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth.
Neopaganism misses the mark. It boils down to worshipping the creation and rejecting the Creator – and that is a big mistake.
It may sweep up many who feel their environment is toxic and out of balance, but it is powerless to deliver what it promises – a satisfying and peaceful life lived in harmony with nature.
Only in Christ can we find both joy and peace and a proper relationship with this impermanent earth. The earth is our home for a while, but those who trust in Christ’s salvation have another home, eternal in the heavens, whose builder and maker is God.