America is known for being a melting pot. We have people from all over the world, from every culture, nation and religious system. We are a haven for the persecuted and a delight for the imaginative, who need only an opportunity in order to do great things. We are a land of opportunity because we believe “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Yet as of late we’ve watched as many of these rights appear to be slipping away. We’ve watched our country go from a respected world influencer to one of extreme debt that is mocked by foreign nations. What has changed? What has caused this cultural shift? While to be sure there are a multitude of influencers, I believe one of the key reason is because we have lost our foundation.
I am an avid lover of archaeology, because it is a snapshot of the past. In the world of archaeology the culture is static and frozen. The people have long since passed. The places and cultural ideas are no longer shifting and changing. They are the perfect subjects of study because they stay put and do not talk back. Yet as I’ve delved deeper into archaeological study I’ve found that it is also of great insight into modern culture. Because the subject of study is static and frozen, one can view the whole picture from beginning to end, as one views a painting or the story line of a book. The plot has already unfolded and one can see how the changes affected the culture at large, and ultimately the end of a particular way of life. In this way archaeology is instrumental in apologetics, because we are able to see the end results of a particular worldview as it has already played out in another culture.
One such worldview is paganism. Earlier this year I was asked to give a presentation on Neo-paganism at a conference. Knowing very little about Neo-paganism I decided to discuss it through the lens of archaeology. Paganism is not a new worldview, it is arguably the oldest and the most prominent in ancient culture. Neo-paganism is merely the resurfacing of that system. I would like to share a summary of my findings on the pagan worldview, because I think it is instrumental in answering the questions about the cultural shift we see in America.
Like in any worldview paganism ultimately answers six key questions about reality. Though not a formal religious system with complete religious texts and formalized doctrine, it nevertheless results in a worldview that shapes the way its adherents view life and circumstances around them. It provides the filter through which they process circumstances and ultimately formulate a response or reaction.
Paganism answers the questions as follows:
- What is the nature of ultimate reality? – Paganism is polytheistic, meaning the belief in multiple gods. While some recognize a supreme god, this is of little concern as most worship multiple gods based upon the god’s specialization and location of prominence. These gods are impersonal, fickle, and changeable, and their power is limited by location and operation.
- What is the nature of material reality? – Paganism sees nature as a theophany, meaning a manifestation of the divine. Different parts of the physical world are literally the different gods. For example in Egypt the sun was equated with the god Ra and the goddess Nut was literally the sky. This means that material is ultimate because it is synonymous with the divine and that it is chaotic and changing because the gods are fickle and changing.
- What is a human being? – Humans are the creation of the gods. The reason they were created is dependent upon the particular culture’s view of their gods, but ultimately mankind is insignificant, because mankind was created either for the purpose of being servants to the gods, accidently by the gods, or for the purpose of amusing the gods.
- What has gone wrong? – In paganism ultimately nothing has gone wrong because the material is ultimate. That means misfortune, pain and suffering are the result of a chaotic world, mischievous or angry gods, because one did not please or appease a particular god, or because an individual cursed you.
- What is the solution? Since ultimately nothing has gone wrong, then there is no ultimate solution to pain and suffering. The result is an individualized solution, which is to make the best out of the life you have. This is done through manipulation of one’s surroundings for personal gain, making humanity the solution to the problem.
- What happens to a person at death? – Paganism has a vague and ambiguous view of what happens at death. There is no formal judgment, people depart to a shadowy existence on “the other side.” Those that have died tragically or at an early age were often thought to roam near their grave until the end of their natural life.
While the term Neo-paganism often conjures Wicca, Witchcraft, Greco-Roman gods and goddesses, or Druid imagery in one’s mind, an analysis of modern culture shows that paganism is actually quite alive and well in modern America.
The most popular movies today surround super heroes and super humans. This is markedly similar to the pagan gods of the ancient world that were remarkably human yet more powerful than humans. While we do not worship these beings, this similarity points to a cultural desire for there to be someone greater than ourselves. The ancients desired supernatural beings in order to blame or explain the chaos of life, yet in modern times we desire super beings greater than ourselves to save us from the chaos of this world.
The idea of material as ultimate is nothing new to Americans, whether one is scientific or spiritual there is currently a prevalent belief in materialism. The scientific explain it through naturalism and evolution, the spiritual call it Mother Nature, but in reality they are two sides of the same coin. Both elevate the material world to the status of ultimate reality. Ancients did this to explain the chaos of the world, we do so because in a post-Christian culture we have no desire for a supreme ultimate being, because we do not wish to be accountable to such a being.
One need only walk through the check-out line of any store in America to see that our culture views humanity as insignificant. Pop culture praises appearance and material worth above all else. A person is considered only as valuable as their contribution to society which is why our culture accepts abortion and terminating the life of a terminally ill or permanently disabled child (infanticide) or adult (euthanasia). If material is ultimate and mankind is merely a higher evolution of mammals then mankind is not special and can only be measured based upon one’s contribution to the whole.
Our culture does not consider anything to be ultimately wrong, for “this is just the way it is” and so our solution to the suffering and pain of this world is to make the best of life, like ancient pagans. We do so by personal attempts to manipulate our surroundings. Our check-out lines are littered with magazines promoting ways to be wealthier, thinner, more muscular, more attractive through plastic surgery, happier by divorcing our irritating spouse, or more free through sexual expression. Since material is ultimate, nothing is ultimately wrong so the best we can hope for is to make the best out of life. This pagan fatalism leads to the idea that the solution is in human hands.
While I’m not arguing that zombie, ghost and other such movies are actually believed to be real by most Americans, the surge of interest in these types of movies point to a culture that is confused on what comes after death. While we were once guided by Christian principles our movies show an uncertainty regarding death. We no longer, as a culture, have a clear understanding of heaven/hell or divine judgment. Our movies point to the reality that people are trying to work out their feelings of uncertainty about death from a place of curiosity, fear and confusion.
The reality is that modern American culture is more closely knit with the pagan worldview than we might have realized. The reason our founding fathers were able to declare “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” was because they were coming from a worldview that viewed mankind as a special creation made in the image of one almighty ultimate God that did not have to quibble with other gods in order to declare or create us as such. They were able to promote the flourishing of humanity in the system they set out, because they came from a worldview that claimed that humanity is so uniquely valuable that God himself died to restore the broken relationship between God and humanity. Our culture has lost that foundation. Who we are as a nation is directly related to what the majority of the people that make up that nation hold as the key beliefs and foundation of their lives. It is not enough to desire to be good, we have to believe that goodness is possible, that humanity is intrinsically valuable and worth the cost it might bring us, and that there is a way things ought to have been that we can strive for as a nation. But these things find their foundation in the Christian worldview. The pagan worldview does not provide solid roots for these ideas to flourish and grow. If we want to see a rebirth of our nation we must fight for a rebirth of the people that make up our nation. We must do as the early church did and go and make disciples of all nations, or in our case all nationalities within our nation!
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