When it arrived in the world, Christianity announced the end of sacrifice. But in its growth over the long centuries since then, it may have muted its own founding message, a victim of its own success. Does Galatians have much to say to people who have never worried about ritual contagion or the danger of contracting impurity from table companions? Does the Letter to the Hebrews resonate with people who have never seen a sacrifice, much less performed one? Can the New Testament speak to people who have lost all sympathy for primal religion?
In Europe and North America, the Church faces an unprecedented challenge. American Christians don't deal with paganismnot real paganism anyway. In the West, the Church is surrounded by the spiritual lethargy that accompanies a surfeit of wealth and aimless ease. We face a general accedia. Our neighbors are adherents of a sometimes jaded, sometimes gleeful, post-Christianity. The Church has triumphed over paganism before. But never before has she confronted a sophisticated civilization haunted by Christ.
Here, as on so many other questions, there's much to be learned from Christians in the Southern Hemisphere. It's a truism among African theologians that the Church has grown most rapidly where traditional African religions are strongest. According to Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako, this is no accident but highlights the "special relationship" that African "primal religions" have with Christianity. Like primal African religion, Christianity displays a strong sense of human finitude and sin, believes in a spiritual world that interacts with the human world, teaches the reality of life after death, and cultivates the sacramental sense that physical objects are carriers of spiritual power. Christianity catches on there because it gives names to the realities they already know and experience.
This special relationship is not unique to twenty-first-century Africa. Many African theologians invoke the patristic notion of a praeparatio evangelii, the belief that pre-Christian religion was designed to prepare the way for the gospel, to justify their approach to African religions. Athens might have been the birthplace of philosophy, but the Athenian citizens opened civic assemblies with sacrifices and Athenian women celebrated the Thesmophoria in honor of Demeter.
Sophisticated as Roman politics and military were, they cleansed the burned Capitolium in A.D. 69 with a suovetaurilia sacrifice to Mars of a pig, ram, and bull; and Trajan's column shows the emperor offering the same sacrifice to purify the Roman army. Tacitus records that the Germanic tribes outside the empire sacrificed animals and humans, met their gods in sacred groves, and predicted the future with twigs and bird auguries. The Letter to the Hebrews, with its talk of priests and sacrifice, of blood and miasma and purgation, spoke to Greeks and Germans as much as to Jews.
If Christianity is most successful among traditional religions, perhaps the Church has to reinvent primal religion before the West can be restored to Christ. Of course I don't mean that churches should send their tithes to Wicca International or initiate pulpit exchanges with the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Re-paganizing the West means acting on the premise that, for all our pretense of sophistication, the West has never entirely escaped the impulses and habits of primitive culture, or that, by escaping Christianity, we are reverting to it. Re-paganizing the West means working out the implications of the French sociologist Bruno Latour's assertion: We have never been modern.
Part of the trick is cultivating a healthy skepticism toward secularization theories. For Max Weber and armies of Weberian sociologists, modernity disenchanted the world, locking us all in the iron cage of rationalized bureaucracy. Even modern religion and music, Weber argued, submit to the tyranny of systematization and disperse the gods. Latour will have none of this. The world has not and cannot be disenchanted: "How could we be capable of disenchanting the world," he asks, "when every day our laboratories and our factories populate the world with hundreds of hybrids stranger than those of the day before? . . . How could we be chilled by the cold breath of the sciences, when the sciences are hot and fragile, human and controversial, full of thinking reeds and of subjects who are themselves inhabited by things?"
Part of the trick, too, is recognizing the continuities between pagan and modern habits and learning to call them by their traditional names. If a rock concert looks, smells, and sounds like a bacchanal, why not call it that, with all the religious overtones that go with the name? If the rock star elicits frenzy, why not call him a shaman?
The work of René Girard provides a model. He demonstrates how Stalinist show trials, the Dreyfus affair, and the Shoah, the Armenian holocaust, the Gulag, and the Terror, all exhibit scapegoat mechanisms reminiscent of Oedipus Rex and the Scandinavian myth of Baldr. Because of the impact of Christianity, moderns can never quite put their hearts into scapegoating the way ancients did, but the vestiges of the ancient system show through. Girard has helped to move the concerns of Leviticus and the Letter to the Hebrews back to the center of theological and cultural discussion, and in so doing has unmasked the underlying primitivism of modernity.
Kant moralized and modernized sin, atonement, justification, and the Church to bring Christianity to Enlightened maturity. Perhaps we must reverse the process and primitivize the Enlightenment, so that the gospel can again speak directly to our not-so-modern society. Perhaps we must re-paganize the West as a prerequisite to its re-evangelizing it.
Peter Leithart is professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. He is also the author of many books, including Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature and 1 & 2 Kings: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.