"Besieged": Sanctifying the Pagan – The Imaginative Conservative

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The baptism or sanctification of the pagan reflects the baptism and sanctification of the self. Like the former pagan sites, the Christian person too goes through a process of being lost, baptized, and sanctified.
bright 1600px Saints Sergius and Bacchus 1St. Paul, at Mars’ Hill, had helped break the Heraclitian, Platonic, and Stoic cycles of the classical world, by sanctifying the best of the classical and Christianizing it. While standing on Mars Hill, he congratulated the Athenians for being religious. Specifically, he noted, he was impressed with their statue to the “unknown God.” Christ, he told them in no uncertain terms, was their unknown God. All of their religion, philosophy, and culture had pointed them to Christ. Paul even quoted approvingly, though sanctifying the meaning, of two Pagan philosophers and poets, Aratus, a Stoic, and Cleanthes, Acts 17:28: “‘In him we live and move and have our being’” and “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”
The Church has followed these practices throughout its history. In his “On Christian Duty,” St. Augustine wrote, “[If philosophers] have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.” In much of the City of God, St. Augustine uses Cicero and Plato to support his argument that a thriving Christianity was compatible with a stable post-Roman world. For his example in “On Christian Duties,” St. Augustine referred to the Jewish acquisition of Egyptian gold, silver, and garments as the Hebrews departed for the promised land. Augustine justifies Hebrew actions by noting that the Egyptians failed to use God’s gifts properly. Further, “human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life–we must take and turn to a Christian use.” Clement of Alexandria, living in the late second and early third centuries, presaged Augustine’s argument. Pre-Christian faiths, he argued in Miscellanies, served as a “preparatory teaching for those who [would] later embrace the faith.” Additionally, he speculated that philosophy was given to the Greeks as an introduction to Christianity. For philosophy, Clement concluded, “acted as a schoolmaster to the Greeks, preparing them for Christ, as the laws of the Jews prepared them for Christ.” That is, Plato and Aristotle served to prepare the way for Christianity in a manner similar to the way Abraham and Moses had.
As the profound Catholic don and fabulist, J.R.R. Tolkien, argued, the anonymous author of Beowulf followed Clement’s and Augustine’s advice, appropriating the best of pagan culture and sanctifying it as Christian, the project of the Christian Humanist—to show the continuity of time and space, sanctified by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the Logos. Clement and St. Augustine were both responding to Tertullian’s famous question: “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” In Anglo-Saxon England, a variant of this question was asked, with reference to the “Christianity” of Beowulf: “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?” Truth belongs to God, whether codified in scripture or nature or even within elements of paganism. With the creation of the world, the natural law reveals much, though certainly not as much as direct revelation. And, by being the Author of all society and the plethora of cults/cultures, God placed a part of His Truth in each culture. Therefore, as each non-Christian culture encounters Christianity, it has some piece of the larger truth, allowing it to accept the full Truth of Christ’s Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection. By writing or recording his mythology, Tolkien followed the same practice, the true art of the Christian Humanist, appropriating northern myth and baptizing it. C.S. Lewis put it more succinctly than Tolkien: “Paganism does not merely survive but first really becomes itself in the v[ery] heart of Christianity.”
Other examples of sanctification include the holidays of Christmas and Easter being placed on high pagan holidays; St. Augustine’s sanctification of Plato and Cicero; St. Aquinas’s sanctification of Aristotle; and even the Catholic monks who built their monastery on top of the highest mound/temple in Cahokia, Illinois, the former site of the priest-king of a vast Indian Empire. Indeed, churches throughout Europe and North American sit on formerly sacred pagan sites. They, in essence, baptize the corrupt ground, just as Augustine and Aquinas baptized pagan ideas. As St. Paul told the Ephesians, they must “redeem the time.”
On another level, though, the baptism or sanctification of the pagan reflects the baptism and sanctification of the self. Like the former pagan sites, the Christian person too goes through a process of being lost, baptized, and sanctified. One is reminded of the disciples on Easter morning. The two women who find His tomb empty experience bewilderment. At their encounter with the risen Christ, they are overwhelmed with surprise and then, upon understanding, joy. The story of Easter morning serves as an allegory for all baptism or sanctification. It is mythical in that it reaches the depths of our being; it tells us truth, and no factual science could ever repeat the death and resurrection of Christ. Or, for that matter, any of the Christian mysteries. But, humans themselves—because of the Incarnation—are part of the Christ story. Tolkien once described each human person as “an allegory, embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life.”
Still, as a devout Christian, Tolkien also understood that the divine revelation is always superior to the natural law. As St. Thomas Aquinas argued in chapter three of Summa Contra Gentiles, “For certain things that are true about God wholly surpass the capability of human reason, for instance that God is three and one: while there are certain things to which even natural reason can attain, for instance that God is, that God is one, and others like these, which even the philosophers proved demonstratively of God, being guided by the light of natural reason.” Tolkien’s mythology, though, is pre-Christian, and, therefore, prior to the full revelation of the Trinity. Tolkien noted that the Hobbits, for example, bear similarity to the ancient and virtuous monotheists, understanding “natural theology” implicitly.
Following these teachings of the early Church, Gregory the Great best summed up the stance of the Faith in his famous letter to St. Augustine of Canterbury: “For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Therefore select from each of the Churches whatever things are devout, religious, and right; and when you have bound them, as it were, into a sheaf, let the minds of the English grow accustomed to it.”
With the Beowulf poet, Tolkien believed that the sanctification of the pagan was a lifelong project for any Christian and for the Catholic Church as an institution. He dealt with it often in his personal life. To illustrate such a sanctification in an everyday situation, Tolkien once found a celandine flower while on a walk in the woods with his good friend, George Sayer. He pointed to it and stated to Sayer, “Did you know that when picking celandine various combinations of Aves and Paternosters have to be said? This was one of the many cases of Christian prayers supplanting pagan ones, for in ancient times there were runes to be spoken before it was picked.” Such sanctifications must occur in every Christian’s life as a part of one’s existence and duty, as one of our missions as citizens of the City of God while pilgrims in the City of Man is to bring all things to Christ.
While the Church succeeded in converting the Germans, it became locked in serious of hot and cold wars with the religion of Islam, which could not be sanctified, but only endured, avoided, or defeated. Aquinas saw almost no room for compromise.
On the other hand, those who founded sects committed to erroneous doctrines proceeded in a way that is opposite to this. The point is clear in the case of Mohammed. He seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure to which the concupiscence of the flesh goads us. His teachings also contain precepts that were in conformity with his promises, and he gave free rein to carnal pleasure. In all this, as is not unexpected, he was obeyed by carnal men. As for proofs of the truth of his doctrine, he brought forward only such as could be grasped by the natural ability of anyone with a very modest wisdom. Indeed, the truths that he taught he mingled with many fables and with doctrines of the greatest falsity. He did not bring forth any signs produced in a supernatural way, which alone fittingly gives witness to divine inspiration; for a visible action that can be only divine reveals an invisibly inspired teacher of truth. On the contrary, Mohammed said that he was sent in the power of his arms—which are signs not lacking even to robbers and tyrants. What is more, no wise man, men trained in things divine and human, believed in him from the beginning. Those who believed in him were brutal men and desert wanderers, utterly ignorant of all divine teaching, through whose numbers Mohammed forced others to become his followers by the violence of his arms…. he perverts almost all the testimonies of the Old and New Testaments by making them into fabrications of his own, as can be seen by anyone who examines his law. It was, therefore, a shrewd decision on his part to forbid his followers to read the Old and New Testaments, lest these books convict him of falsity. It is thus clear that those who place any faith in his words believe foolishly.
This is part three of a series. See part one, “Besieged”: The Unwavering Church, part two, “Besieged”: Incarnational History, and part four, “Besieged”: The Saints—the Aristocrats of the Soul.
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The featured image, uploaded by James Gordon, is “Saints Sergius and Bacchus.” This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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