The New Pagans

Kierkegaard ought to be the philosopher of the new evangelization. Wielding its Summas, it seems to me that Catholic evangelization has stormed many an ivory tower over the past several decades. But how far does that go?

In this month’s issue of First Things, J. Budziszewski (recently received into the Church himself) wrote an incisive and smart piece on the new evangelization. But it shows how the Thomistic approach to the new evangelization, armed with natural theology, can be polarizing. He explains how late moderns are neo-pagans:

“the neo-pagan world is brimming with [Christian ideas]. The makers of that world have even appropriated some of them — but have emptied them of Christian meaning. For example, the neo-pagan might have a high view of faith, hope, and love… yet he is likely to use the term ‘faith’ for clinging to the illusions of a barren life, ‘hope’ for sheer worldly optimism, and ‘love’ for a desire or sentiment without sacrifice or commitment to the will. Another example of such emptying is the way some neo-pagans accept the Christian view that history has meaning and direction, but purge God from the story so that it becomes a bland take of ‘progress’ towards whatever they want the world to have more of. Pagans believed not in progress but in endlessly repeated recurrence.”

Budziszewski reprises parts of Kierkegaard’s critique of modern self-identified Christians who are, in fact, pagans. Augustine’s critique of the Physicists’ eternal recurrence was the last great Christian critique of ancient pagan time; Kierkegaard’s critique of modern “Christians” who lose sight of eternity is the first great Christian critique of modern pagan time. For Kierkegaard, our modern paganism — whatever its Christian veneer — is a consequence of our time-consciousness. Instead of recognizing the eternal in the temporal (the Absolute Paradox), we lapse into what Fredric Jameson calls the “eternal present”.

The power of Kierkegaard’s account, as opposed to Budziszewski’s, is that Kierkegaard shows us how much modern paganism threatens to subliminally inundate committed Christian believers. Budziszewski is too confident (too Straussian risks a genetic fallacy) in his “us vs. them” dichotomy. If Thomism is the antithesis to modern neo-paganism, we have an anachronistic dialectic. How can we talk to modern pagans in terms they can understand? This, of course, is the project of Kierkegaard’s indirect communication. Perhaps because he lacks natural theology, Kierkegaard appreciates the radical skeptics of modernity who, after all, may well be correct.

Felicitously, many contemporary philosophers are talking about “cognitive closure”. According to these mysterians, we may never verify or falsify (indeed philosophers like Colin McGinn think it is impossible to tell) whether we “are” non-physical minds or purely physical brains. Kierkegaard would regard this as a coup de grâce. We need to ‘leap to faith’ about who we are, first and foremost. Pushing skepticism to its limit, we begin to see ‘leaps to faith’ all over the place. And why not? In the ancient and Patristic image, man is the frontier (methorion) between God and the world. A wild and lawless frontier, these days.

Whether against “the new pagans”, for “us”, or both, Budziszewski highlights the need for critical appreciation of the subtle disciplinary techniques of our modern immanent frame. In a similar vein, there is this absolutely brilliant piece by James Chastek, which I take to be on the new evangelization.


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