Richard Schragger and Micah Schwartzman discern a renewal of Christian critiques of paganism and they’re not happy about it. On Twitter, Schwartzman has applied his argument to a recent column by Ross Douthat in what I think are unhelpful ways — but I also think Ross’s column blurs some issues that invite the unhelpful response from Schwartzman. Let’s see if we can do some disentangling.
The key reference point for Douthat’s column and Schragger and Schwartzman’s essay is a recent book by Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, in which Smith attempts to reclaim and update the argument made by T. S. Eliot in The Idea of a Christian Society that English culture was then (80 years ago) faced with the increasing dominance of a kind of “modern paganism.” Wrote Eliot, “The choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.”
But what does Eliot mean by “pagan”? Alas, he never clearly defines it. But when he says that he thinks England has reached “the point at which practising Christians must be recognised as a minority (whether static or diminishing) in a society which has ceased to be Christian,” that seems to be what he means by a “pagan society.”
For C. S. Lewis, this is just carelessness. In a passage from a lecture in which he does not mention Eliot but clearly has him in mind, Lewis says,
It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ” relapsing into Paganism”. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.
And elsewhere in the lecture Lewis says, “Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.”
What’s interesting about Smith’s book is that he knows this critique by Lewis, indeed he quotes it — but then he ignores it, and instead uses “pagan” in the frustratingly loose, and in my view indefensibly inaccurate, way Eliot uses it.
Because Smith uses the term “pagan” in this way, Schragger and Schwartzman assume that every Christian critic of paganism does the same. In this respect they’re careless, and indeed, I don’t get the sense that they’ve paid much attention to the writings they’re denouncing. In their first footnote, where they purport to list such critiques, they name an essay by Adrian Vermeule in which the term “pagan” is used only in a historical sense, and they don’t even get the title of Rod Dreher’s book right. In Schwartzman’s Twitter critique of Douthat, he assumes that Douthat is using “pagan” to mean “non-Christian” — but it’s not obvious that that’s right.
In fact, Douthat (following Smith in this) demonstrates awareness of multiple forms of post-Christianity:
- “First, there is a tradition of intellectual and aesthetic pantheism that includes figures like Spinoza, Nietzsche, Emerson and Whitman, and that’s manifest in certain highbrow spiritual-but-not-religious writers today. Smith recruits Sam Harris, Barbara Ehrenreich and even Ronald Dworkin to this club; he notes that we even have an explicit framing of this tradition as paganism, in the former Yale Law School dean Anthony Kronman’s rich 2016 work ‘Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan.’”
- “Second, there is a civic religion that like the civic paganism of old makes religious and political duties identical, and treats the city of man as the city of God (or the gods), the place where we make heaven ourselves instead of waiting for the next life or the apocalypse.”
- Third, “there are forms of modern paganism that … offer ritual and observance, augury and prayer, that do promise that in some form gods or spirits really might exist and might offer succor or help if appropriately invoked. I have in mind the countless New Age practices that promise health and well-being and good fortune, the psychics and mediums who promise communication with the spirit world, and also the world of explicit neo-paganism, Wiccan and otherwise.”
But like Smith and Eliot before him, Douthat (as I read him) seems content to describe all these as forms of paganism, rather than what they actually are, which is three wholly different ways of looking at the world. I think faling to maintain these distinctions leaves us vulnerable to misunderstanding all three movements. And when Christian critics of such movements blur those lines, that leads to a further blurring by those, like Schragger and Schwartzman, who mistrust those Christian thinkers. I think all this blurring leaves us with two big problems.
First, it leaves us unable to respond appropriately to something really interesting, which involves Douthat’s third category: those who — from the right and the left, as I noted yesterday — are genuinely attempting to renew paganism as such, are striving to disprove Lewis’s account of “the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal.” How many of these people are there? And how successful are they likely to be in their project of restoration?
Second, we’re faced with a kind of Jewish problem, which is what Schragger and Schwartzman, in their essay are primarily interested in. S&S argue that when people like Eliot and Smith and Douthat seek the renewal of some kind of Christian society — Douthat recently wrote, with tongue just barely touching his cheek, that his ideal ruling elite for the Americas is “a multiracial, multilingual Catholic aristocracy ruling from Quebec to Chile” — and present that society as an alternative to paganism, then that tends to cast Jews as pagans. (This is especially true of what Eliot called “free-thinking” Jews, that is, people who are ethnically Jewish but lack religious belief.) Here again some distinctions need to be made, this time among several groups who resist the secularization of Western societies:
- Those, like Eliot, who seem interested in the cultural and indeed legal dominance of a kind of generic Christianity (it’s hard for me to see just how specifically Anglican Eliot’s ideal is);
- Those — like Milton Himmelfarb (whom S&S quote) and Will Herberg (whom they don’t but should) — who appeal to a highly generalized “Judeo-Christian” inheritance which they typically want to be dominant in civil society but not enshrined in law;
- Proponents of Catholic integralism —perhaps including Douthat, whose comments on integralism over the years have oscillated between wariness and admiration — who want Roman Catholicism to regain what they believe to be its proper temporal as well as spiritual power.
For the first group, it’s hard to see how Jews don’t get lumped in with pagans; for the second group, Jews and Christians are theoretically cooperating in the project, though given the numerical disparity between the two groups, keeping the Judeo- in Judeo-Christian might well be a challenge; and for the third group, all of us non-Catholics are effectively pagans, as I have argued.
Maybe it’s because I suffer from nostalgia for the philosophical thinness of liberal proceduralism, but I’m suspicious of all these models. They all, it seems to me, think about politics from the position of power, from some imagined world in which Our Boys are the ones making decisions. In contrast, I find myself recalling and admiring — as I often have in the past — George Washington’s great letter to the leader of the Newport synagogue in which, responding to their gratitude for his tolerance of their religion, he says, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”