C. S. Lewis’ Christmas Sermon for Pagans

LewisThere is a very widespread confusion among modern people about the ancient world, specifically its religious aspect. I have been a witness to a number of discussions on Christianity where the skeptic tartly demands “contemporary secular sources” for the story told in the Gospels, before he will consent to accept the historical reality of Jesus. He believes these “secular” sources, though from the time of Jesus, won’t be affected by the religious fanaticism of Christians, who actually believed in miracles. I always wait in anticipation of the moment when the Christian apologist counters with: “But all the contemporary Greek and Roman writers were religious and believed in miracles too!” Happily, most modern apologists know their stuff; they will be alert to this kind of thing and able to counter it.

But many Christians too fall victim to this confusion. Many of them have been complaining about a creeping paganism in our culture. And by this they don’t mean that people are sacrificing to Diana or Zeus. This is clearly indicated by a newly published article by Mary Eberstadt, “The Zealous Faith of Secularism: How the Sexual Revolution became a Dogma” in First Things, January 2018. She writes:

To begin with a point to which many Christian thinkers would agree, the United States and other nations rooted in Judeo-Christianity have entered a time of paganization—what we might also call “re-paganization.” The gravitational pull of traditional religion seems to be diminishing, even as a-religious and anti-religious elements accumulate mass. This paganization is especially ascendant among the young, now famously more prone than any other group to checking “none of the above” when asked for their religious affiliation; according to the Pew Research Center and others, the combination of self-described atheists and self-defined “nones” is now the fastest-growing “religious” group.

The mistaken view that modern secularism is essentially the same thing as paganism is very problematic. In part, it may have come about by conflating ancient paganism and its simulated modern counterpoint, deeply infiltrated with modern New Age notions, with Wiccans who don’t really believe in the reality of their own earth-goddess, but who do really believe that “I am goddess.” To confuse something like this with ancient pagan religion is a fundamental distortion of the reality of the ancient world. And it actually distorts modernity too, and gives a false idea of our real problems.

No one knew how to address this question better than C. S. Lewis. He was a student of literature who was an expert on the classics and Greek and Roman myth; in fact, he loved these myths long before becoming a committed Christian as an adult, as well as a Christian apologist. This is why I was so delighted to learn a few days ago that a long-lost article by him on this subject has just-been discovered. Titled, “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” it was originally published in the popular British magazine The Strand in December 1946. Two modern scholars independently discovered it, and it is going to be re-published in VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center in January 2018.

Only a few excerpts have been published so far. But I have been carefully going through the issue, still, alas, under copyright, which is offered in “snippet” view on Google Books, testing keywords, and actually coming up with more of the article (Hey, some people stand in line all day to see Star Wars films, I do this).

Lewis begins:

When I was asked to write “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” I accepted the job light heartedly enough; but now that I sit down to tackle it I discover a difficulty. Are there any Pagans in England for me to write to? I know that people keep on telling us that this country is relapsing into Paganism. But they only mean that it is ceasing to be Christian. And is that at all the same thing?

Lewis begins by reminding people of the original of the word “pagan”; they were “the backward people in the remote districts who had not yet been converted, who were still pre-Christian.” He continues:

To say that modern people who have drifted away from Christianity are Pagans is to suggest that a post-Christian man is the same as a pre-Christian man. And that is like thinking … a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built. [They do have something in common], namely that neither will keep you dry if it rains. But they are very different in every other respect. Rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups and a lark singing overhead . . .

Lewis also pointed this out in more detail in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, in 1954:

It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are “lapsing 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 Westminister 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.[1]

Going back now to the new article, how does Lewis find that the pagan differs from the post-Christian? “Firstly, he was religious. From the Christian point of view he was indeed too religious by half. He was full of reverence. . . the earth was holy, the woods and waters were alive. . .”

Dryad-Baynes

Dryad, Narnia illustration by Pauline Baynes

Lewis is speaking here of the wood and water nymphs. He especially loved the dryads, or the tree spirits, and wrote delightfully of them in his Narnia tales. At the beginning of Prince Caspian, Narnia had undergone a long period of unbelief, not just disbelief in Aslan, but as a corollary, disbelief in the reality of the dryads, who never appeared any longer, but who lay asleep in their trees until with Aslan’s approach, Lucy sees them awaken and dance in the forest. Later, they come to Aslan, who provides them a welcome where modern secularists would not. In fact, the only way they can really survive as themselves is as creatures (even of the imagination) under him.

Pale birch-girls were tossing their heads, willow-women pushed back their hair from their brooding faces to gaze on Aslan, the queenly beeches stood still and adored him, shaggy oak-men, lean and melancholy elms, shock-headed hollies (dark themselves but their wives all bright with berries) and gay rowans, all bowed and rose again, shouting “Aslan, Aslan!” in their various husky or creaking or wave-like voices.[2]

But for Lewis, there was a second and more important likeness between ancient pagans and ancient Christians.

Secondly, they “believed in what we now call an ‘Objective’ Right or Wrong,” that is, that “the distinction between pious and impious acts was something which existed independently of human opinions . . . which (like the multiplication table) he had better take notice of. The gods would punish him if he did not.

To be sure, by Christian standards, his list of “Right” or “Wrong” acts was rather a muddled one. He thought (and the Christians agreed) that the gods would punish him for setting the dogs on a beggar who came to his door or for striking his father: but he also thought they would punish him for turning his face to the wrong point of the compass when he began ploughing. But though this code included some fantastic sins and duties, it got in most of the real ones.

Lewis knew that the idea of morality did not come into being with Christianity. I recall one of my professors in college, who taught my class in Roman History, had a very hard time grasping this idea. He saw the Romans as “enlightened,” especially in regard to sexual morality, avoiding the hang-ups that Christians have in these areas. Most of the sources we studied in regard to the Roman Republic, however, told a different story. They spoke of the virtues of the Old Republic, which included marital chastity and devotion to home and hearth, as well as moral integrity or virtus in other areas. Even the word “virtue” is of Latin origin!

Indeed, Lewis says, the difference between the post-Christian man and the pagan was that “[the Pagan] knew he had sinned.” He felt “a deep sadness” because he had not obeyed the moral law perfectly. “And the Pagan dealt with this situation in a rather silly way. His religious was a mass of ceremonies (sacrifices, purifications, etc.) which were supposed to take away guilt. But they never quite [did so].”

But today we have a different situation, Lewis wrote. “There is no objective Right or Wrong,” there are only different ideologies, but “none of these ideologies can be better or worse than another. For a better moral code can only mean one which comes nearer to some real or absolute code. One map to New York can be better than another only if there is a real New York.”

Modern relativists don’t understand that in getting rid of what they think is “repressive” Christianity morality, they are really getting rid of all the morality that has ever existed – not only that, but every morality that ever could exist, as Lewis showed in his Abolition of Man.

A third great problem that Lewis saw was the rise of the “post-Christian” view of nature. The problem has become even more acute in our own time, when modern secularists have replaced both the pagan reverence for nature and the Christian idea of stewardship of creation with another attitude that “complete already in some people and still incomplete in others – is quite different. According to it Nature is not a live thing to be reverenced: it is a kind of machine for us to exploit.”

Indeed, Lewis thought that nature in his time might be “hitting back.” There was “the present threat of world famine. We know now that it is not entirely due to the war. From country after country comes the same story of failing harvests: even the whales have less oil. Can it be that Nature (or something behind Nature) is not simply a machine” that we can do what we want with? Even if this is not the case, he says, the modern irreverent conquest over nature by humans is disastrous; it “yields new means of propaganda to enslave them, new weapons to kill them, new power for the State and new weakness for the citizen.”

Since Lewis’ time, secularists have acquired another and even more destructive ideological replacement for Christian and pagan beliefs: only reverence for nature, or “the environment” exists, neither God nor man is of any account. Humans are urged to kill themselves off as a species to protect the environment, though they can’t even give a morally coherent account of why the environment should be preserved. As Lewis explains, again in The Abolition of Man, they have taken one of the old moral principles and worship it in isolation, while allowing the whole moral framework that supported the principle in the first place to fall.

If correct, Lewis says, the post-Christian view means we have awakened into a true freedom from “the old fear, the old reverence, the old restraints,” But this freedom may not be what we had hoped:

A universe of colourless electrons (which is presently going to run down and annihilate all organic life everywhere and forever) is, perhaps, a little dreary compared with the earth-mother and the sky-father, the wood nymphs and the water nymphs, chaste Diana riding the night sky and homely Vesta flickering on the hearth. But one can’t have everything, and there are always the flicks [movies] and the radio: if the new view is correct, it has very solid advantages. . . .

But what if the post-Christian view is not correct? Lewis is building to his point. And, as always, his prose invites quotation:

It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. … For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.

The pagans had been aware of a “deep sadness” brought onto the world by sin. The very Pagan thing we do on December 25 of “singing and feasting because a God has been born” may be, Lewis says, our “way back not only to Heaven, but to Earth too.”


NOTES

[1] C. S, Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum,” in Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969). pp. 4-5.

[2] Lewis, Prince Caspian (London: Bles, New York: Macmillan, 1951), pp. 130-31.


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