Christians are often found bewailing the possibility that we are returning to the time of the ancient church, when it was living under the shadow of pagan influences. In the last few years, many Christians have noted with dismay the return to prominence of neo-pagan expressions in both pop culture and the academy. This observation is coupled with a resignation that the Star of Bethlehem is slowly and irreversibly replaced by the Pentagram – the constant peals for Christians to return Christmas back to the Pagans is a case in point at this time of year. But is the twilight of Christianity in contemporary culture inevitable?
In his Heretics, G.K. Chesterton wrote to a certain Lowes Dickinson, who asserted that the ideal religion for the West was not Christianity but “the pagan ideal”. Chesterton’s response is at once forceful and subtle, for it even concedes the possibility of a Christian recapitulation to pagan influences. This possibility, however, does not seem to faze Chesteron. One needs to read to the end of this paragraph from Heretics (below) in order to understand.
My objection to Mr. Lowes Dickinson and the reassertors of the pagan ideal is, then, this. I accuse them of ignoring definite human discoveries in the moral world, discoveries as definite, though not as material, as the discovery of the circulation of the blood. We cannot go back to an ideal of reason and sanity. For mankind has discovered that reason does not lead to sanity. We cannot go back to an ideal of pride and enjoyment. For mankind has discovered that pride does not lead to enjoyment. I do not know by what extraordinary mental accident modern writers so constantly connect the idea of progress with the idea of independent thinking. Progress is obviously the antithesis of independent thinking. For under independent or individualistic thinking, every man starts at the beginning, and goes, in all probability, just as far as his father before him. But if there really be anything of the nature of progress, it must mean, above all things, the careful study and assumption of the whole of the past. I accuse Mr. Lowes Dickinson and his school of reaction in the only real sense. If he likes, let him ignore these great historic mysteries—the mystery of charity, the mystery of chivalry, the mystery of faith. If he likes, let him ignore the plough or the printing-press. But if we do revive and pursue the pagan ideal of a simple and rational self-completion we shall end—where Paganism ended. I do not mean that we shall end in destruction. I mean that we shall end in Christianity.