Christianity and Paganism Term Paper

Pages: 5 (1815 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 13  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Mythology - Religion

Christianity and Paganism

At the core of the apparent attempt by Christianity to condemn the pagan belief in controlling nature is a relatively simple 'leap of faith.' That leap involved taking man out of the place of power, and putting an external force -- the Christian God -- in that place instead.

Some scholars have proposed that the difference lay in removing spiritual practice from the imprecise indulgence by the laity and placing it in the hands of a specialist. Hillgarth notes:

The advantages that the Catholic Church possessed over its pagan rivals, notably the Eastern 'Mystery Religions' such as Mithraism, and over paganism generally, may be briefly stated, following, if slightly modifying, Gibbon, as: a clearer and much more precise mythology; a more organized asceticism, linked closely to moral teaching; an organized hierarchy; an exclusive and intolerant Creed; and a complete frame for life, beginning with Baptism and ending in the tremendous vision of the Last Judgment.

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While that may have been a simple concept, thousands of years of paganism doubtless made it difficult for the new hierarchy to hold the population's attention on the new approach to life and death. It was probably tempting for people not far removed from the simple, nature-based practices of pagan rites to use those, rather than bring their desires to an intermediary. Instead of having the perceived ability to control their worlds, they were obliged to seek, instead, comfort from a priest whose promise had nothing to do with saving today's crops and warding off starvation by invoking the local corn goddess; the priest's promise was that God would deliver whatever was best for them in good time but, even if the crops failed and they starved, he promised a greater reward in the hereafter. Doubtless that would have been a difficult concept for uneducated peasants to whom 'earth magic' was central not only to their beliefs, but -- they thought -- to their existence. The new religion was asking them to trade their everyday reality for a concept.

Allegory as successor to wonder

Term Paper on Christianity and Paganism Assignment

Success in creating that trade demanded a great deal of effort on the part of the new religion. As noted, the exclusive and intolerant creed of belief was one way. But considering the drama of the natural world, it would take something of equal dramatic value to supplant paganism in the mind of simple, arguably literal, populations. Allegory, which could be created to be as dramatic as nature itself, offered one avenue. Mann proposes that the allegorical buildings in medieval literature performed that function.

Moreover, fantastic as they were, they also provide the sort of 'magical' creation that could provide the element of wonder certainly present in pagan rites and rituals and, indeed, in the cycle of nature itself.

While buildings may convey statis, as they were used in early medieval literature, read by some but influential in society generally, the allegorical building was not static, but rather moved in fantastic ways. In medieval Christian literature, including the works of Chaucer, buildings "threaten to slide down mountain slopes or collapse in on themselves" in ways that convey a truth or concept the church wished to get across. Chaucer's House of Rumour is built of twigs which leave 'a thousand hole', and it whirls about continually (House of Fame, 1924 -- 85)." The lesson here is both based in a 'magical' corruption of nature, and on the desire -- transferred from reality to story -- of mankind to control nature. Moreover, in its emphasis on the power of words -- rumor -- and the evil they can do, it uses the pagan belief in words to control nature (incantation) and draws the concept of words into the cosmology of Christianity; it is now the words themselves that must be controlled.

Such allegories were useful tools to blend pagan naturalism with the constructs of a more legalistic religious framework. It was during the medieval period, also, that the human body became a buildings, a 'temple for the soul.' "Mediaeval allegorists, true to the more optimistic attitude to the body inspired by the Incarnation and the Pauline use of the building-metaphor, were ready to see the body itself as the building inhabited by the soul or by the presence of God."

Not surprisingly, Mann notes that the body of the Virgin Mary is often represented as a castle; this would make her unapproachable by the general population. By putting her symbolically beyond the reach of ordinary people, she becomes a source of 'magic' that can be accessed only by the priest.

Access to the allegorical buildings was a way of retaining power for the priest. Also, however, the use of the building allegory -- from the House of God to other phrases -- can separate believers in it from those who are at the mercy of natural forces. One early thirteenth-century English work represented the human body as a house within which "Godes treasor" (the soul) "can be kept safe from the attacks of the Devil and the vices who roam about outside its walls." Whether or not this is a clear reference to wood sprites and other elements of nature-based paganism could be argued. But clearly, those who would accept its metaphoric meaning would be seeking safety, for their soul and arguably their lives (recalling that churches were 'safe havens' from various civil and political forces) in the new church. Clearly, this posits the church as a strong and inviolable structure, something no oak forest could claim to be; indeed, the oak forest was alive with spirits needing control.

Of course, it cannot be imagined that medieval people truncated hundreds of years of paganism to fully accept Christianity in its entirety and all at once, even if its allegories did seem to offer a solidity and safety not available in pagan rites of magic. Simpson notes that in Richard Gordon's study of Greek and Roman magic, he demonstrated that there was "no single ancient 'view of magic,' but instead, an ongoing debate between competing ideologies...."

Moreover, it was not so monolithic that everyone believed that Nature was benign; some saw demons as causative factors for 'natural events.' "Some saw malign magic as a deliberate reversal and profanation of the rituals of socially approved religion, an attitude which seems to have gained ground towards the end of the period."

While magic had dealt with evil, and so did the medieval church, both also dealt with the concept of good. Ancient theologians put good in the center of a circle of beauty: Christian theologians co-opted that concept, putting God in the center of a circle representing all things. The outer circle was not filled, however, with beauty, accessible to all, but with the specific concepts of Mind, Soul, Nature and Matter.

Thus Mind, Soul, Nature, and Matter, proceeding from God, are bound to return to Him...thus God, the center of all things, Who is the most single unity and purest Act, grafts Himself into all things in the universe" Arguably, it would have been useful to early church theologians to use the circle concept, with which the population was quite familiar, and to create within what was once a simple idea a beauty a set of categories. In terms of the church gaining ascendancy, it is also useful. It is difficult to control a round object; it is easier to control four quarters, or rings, or any division that gives name and characteristics to something that had once been ineffable. Thus, the medieval theologians could use the familiar amorphous concept of beauty to introduce very specific concepts regarding the way in which man was to conduct himself. It is a very different matter to contemplate 'beauty' from that of asking for guidance regarding one's soul and one's mind. Moreover, it sets Nature apart from man; it sets matter apart from all that is. It creates problems in man's thinking about himself and the cosmos that did not exist before the concept of good/nature was sundered into the entities of God, Spirit, Soul, Nature and Matter.

The role of magic persists

Despite the use of allegory by the medieval church, and despite its borrowing pagan concepts and changing them to reflect a new way man was supposed to relate to God, the use of magic was not permanently put to rest during the medieval era. The use of pagan magic within Christianity has persisted even until today. Perhaps not surprisingly, modern Christian writers such as C.S. Lewis have used magic in a very medieval manner to introduce some very medieval concepts of spirituality. In his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis makes it clear that magic is required to enter the kingdom of Narnia, where, as it happens, medieval castles with allegorical meanings abound, and even wood-sprites are employed as vehicles to bring the souls of children to an understanding of the Christian message.

Conclusion

Medieval writers used allegory to build a universe that was seemingly as wondrous, but more stable, than that of the… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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