The New Polytheism and its Tempter Idols
Benedict XVI sounds the alarm. Forgetfulness of the one God clears the way for a world dominated by a plurality of new gods with seductive faces. A voyage among the devotees of modern paganism
by Sandro Magister
ROME, December 9, 2010 – “Polytheism”: this word echoed like thunder, last October, in a speech by Benedict XVI at the synod of the bishops of the Middle East, the very birthplace of the one God made man, Jesus, and of the most powerful forms of monotheism in history, Judaism and Islam.
“Credo in unum Deum” is the mighty chord that gives rise to Christian doctrine. But for Joseph Ratzinger, pope theologian, polytheism is anything but dead. It is the perennial challenge that still rises up today against faith in the one God.
“Let us remember all the great powers of the history of today,” the pope continued at the synod. Anonymous capital, terrorist violence, drugs, the tyranny of public opinion are the modern divinities that enslave man. They must fall. They must be made to fall. The downfall of the gods is the imperative of yesterday, today, and always for believers in the one true God.
But today’s polytheism is not made up only of dark powers. Its many gods also have friendly faces, and the ability to seduce.
It is the “gay science” prophesied by Nietzsche more than a century ago, which offers every single man “the greatest advantage”: that of “setting up his own ideal and deriving from it his law, his joys, and his rights.”
It is the triumph of the individual free will, without the yoke of a tablet of the law anymore, only one for everyone because it is written by just one intractable God.
That admiration for the “Genius of Christianity” which had inflamed Chateaubriand and the Romantics is today giving up ground to an enthusiastic rediscovery of the “Genius of paganism,” the title of a book by the French anthropologist Marc Augé.
In Italy, another anthropologist, Francesco Remotti, is lashing out against “L’ossessione identitaria,” the title of his latest book, and reproaches the pope, in another of his books in letter form, for his stubborn proceeding “against nature,” against a modernity that instead offers the delights of polytheism, so fluid, pluralist, tolerant, liberating.
THE “SPIRIT OF ASSISI”
Of course, the current revival of polytheism is not bringing the cults of Jupiter and Juno, Venus and Mars, back into vogue. But the philosophy of the learned pagans of the Roman empire is again blossoming intact in the reasoning of many modern proponents of “weak thought.” And not only of these. Those who today reread, sixteen centuries later, the dispute between the monotheist Ambrose, the holy patron of Milan, and the polytheist Symmachus, a senator of pagan Rome, are strongly tempted to agree with the latter, when he says: “What does it matter by what path each one seeks, according to his own judgment, the truth? It is not by one road alone that one may reach such a great mystery.”
The magnanimous equality among all religions and gods that these words seem to inspire also enchants many Christians. The “spirit of Assisi” born from the multi-religious gathering held in 1986 has so infected common opinion that in 2000 the Church of John Paul II and of then cardinal Ratzinger felt the duty to remind Catholics that there is only one savior of humanity, and it is the God made man in Jesus: a truth on which the entire New Testament stands or falls, a truth that over two millennia the Church had never felt the need to reiterate with an “ad hoc” pronouncement. And yet, that declaration of 2000, “Dominus Iesus,” was greeted with a firestorm of protests, inside the Church and outside, because of its exclusion of a plurality of paths of salvation all sufficient in themselves and full of grace and truth.
That these sentiments might conceal nostalgia for a plurality of gods is possible, but today’s polytheism, on a mass level, is more subtle.
The current idea is that the various religions are in their way all an expression of a “divine.” And nonetheless this supreme divinity, as the pagan Symmachus explained to Ambrose, is unknowable and far away, too far away to impassion men and take care of them.
From a Latin writer of the third century, Minucius Felix, another dialogue has come down to us, highly refined, in which the pagan Caecilius, walking along the beach of Ostia, after paying homage to a statue of Serapis, explains that “in human things everything is doubtful, uncertain, undecided,” but precisely for this reason it is good to follow the religion of the ancients and adore “those gods whom our father taught us to fear, rather than to know too closely.”
In a homily in Saint Peter’s Square last June 11, Benedict XVI said that “Oddly, this kind of thinking re-emerged during the Enlightenment.” And in effect, a champion of the age of the Enlightenment like the nonbeliever Voltaire ordered his relatives and servants to pay homage to Christianity and its precepts, for reasons of civic good manners. God exists, maybe. And maybe he’s the one who created the world. But then he became so disinterested as to disappear from the horizon. His goodness lies entirely in causing no disturbance whatsoever.
And so, under the heaven of this vague and remote divinity, the earth has been populated with new gods. In secular and pragmatic clothes.
POLYTHEISM OF VALUES
Already in the nineteenth century, in his “Three Essays on Religion,” the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that polytheism was much more functional than monotheism in describing that plurality of ethics that characterized the scenario of life in the first industrial society. And Max Weber, in the early twentieth century, coined the formula “Polytheismus der Werte,” polytheism of values, precisely to indicate the pantheon of modern society.
In a world that has become disenchanted, no longer with a single God who might proclaim commandments valid for all, each of the social spheres – from politics to the economy, from art to science to religion itself – is directed by its own god with his own oracles. Oracles often in conflict with each other, with man dramatically alone only in the hour of decision.
Weber, with the impeccable detachment of the scholar, did not say whether this modern polytheism was a good thing or a bad thing. But other thinkers who have come after him are no longer concealing where their sympathies lie.
In the second half of the twentieth century, to the “political theology of monotheism” promoted by Erik Peterson (one of the authors most read and admired by Joseph Ratzinger since he was a young professor), the German philosopher Odo Marquard counterposes a “political theology of polytheism,” and in the title of his essay praises this polytheism as “enlightened.” In his judgment, man always needs myths, and the important thing is that these myths be numerous and open to infinite variations, as in ancient mythology, unlike Judaism and Christianity, which rest on unique and incontrovertible historical events.
In Spain, the philosopher Maria Zambrano has criticized Christian spirituality’s asceticism of medieval origin, destructive of the sentiments. It is poetry, in her view, that can free man from “monolithism” and restore him to his joyous native polytheism.
In Italy, Salvatore Natoli is the philosopher who defends an “ethics of the finite,” meaning a collection of multiple “polytheistic” references that offer man points of support, never definitive but nonetheless always capable of saving him provisionally from the anarchy of his instincts.
Certainly, however, the work that has most instilled a reevaluation of polytheism in contemporary Italian culture is more literary than philosophical: it is “Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia” by Roberto Calasso, from 1988, with its glorious evocation of classical mythology.
FOR A REENCHANTMENT OF THE WORLD
In spite of the “disenchantment of the world” described by Weber, in fact, modern society does not appear immune from the opposite seduction of a newly enchanted world.
Alain de Benoist, a thinker of the French “nouvelle droite,” is the most passionate promoter of this return to neopagan sacrality.
For the cultural current that he represents, the great enemy is precisely the Judeo-Christian perspective with its “desacralizing” idea of creation. If there is no other God apart from the one God, in fact, creatures no longer have anything divine about them, and even the stars, as the first page of Genesis says, are mere “lights” hung by the Creator from the vault of heaven to mark the day and the night. The world is definitively relegated to is profanity.
Leonardo Lugaresi, a professor in Bologna and Paris and a specialist on ancient Christianity, observes: “In the accusation today that Christianity is responsible for the desacralization of the world, what is coming back into play, under new forms, is nothing other than the old accusation of atheism lodged against the Christians of the first centuries.”
And he adds: “As back then, so also for a certain neopagan mentality of today Christianity is harmful because it has taken away from the earth its enchantment, its gods, and has deprived man of a religious relationship with nature. As a result, the new paganism wants to heal the world of the ‘monotheistic rupture’, which means restoring to it the sacrality and divinity that Christianity has taken away.”
NOT JUST ANY SORT OF GOD
The formula “monotheistic rupture” refers back to the studies of a great Egyptologist, the German Jan Assmann, who studied in depth the revolutionary innovation introduced by the one God of the religion of Moses with respect to the polytheism of Egypt at the time. It is no surprise, therefore, that the publishing house il Mulino, in publishing this year ten essays assigned to as many authors on the ten commandments of the Mosaic decalogue, assigned to Assmann the commentary on “You shall have no other God.”
Assmann is not an apologist for polytheism. But he sees in Mosaic monotheism, since its emergence, an exclusive and intolerant opposition to the other religions. All of the forms of monotheism that have come to light in history, from Judaism to Christianity to Islam, bear within themselves, in his view, the poison of violence. And so he asks monotheism to move beyond its absolutes and “reach the transcendental point thanks to which true tolerance becomes possible,” which means elevating itself to the superior form of “religious wisdom” or of “deep religion” embodied by wise men like Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rabindranath Tagore – in short, elevating itself “to the eighteenth-century ideal of tolerance expressed by the Mason Lessing in the parable of the three rings, in the story of Nathan the wise.”
And what is this if not the religion without norms or dogmas of the Enlightenment, with its remote God? And for what can it make room, this vague religion, if not for a new and arbitrary polytheism?
Last September 13, in receiving the new German ambassador to the Holy See, Walter Jürgen Schmid, Benedict XVI raised his eyes from the written text and continued: “Generally many people show an inclination for more permissive religious concepts, also for themselves. A supreme, mysterious and indeterminate being who only has a hazy relationship with the personal life of the human person is succeeding the personal God of Christianity who reveals himself in the Bible. These conceptions are increasingly stimulating discussion in society, especially in the area of justice and legislation. Yet, if someone abandons the faith in a personal God, the alternative arises of a “god” that does not know, does not hear and does not speak; and, especially, of one that has no will. If God has no will of his own, in the end good and evil are no longer distinguishable; good and evil are no longer in contradiction but in an opposition in which the one would be a complement to the other. In this way human beings lose their moral and spiritual strength which is essential for the person’s overall development. Social action is increasingly dominated by private interests or the calculations of power, to the detriment of society.”
From these words it is even more clear why today, for Pope Benedict, “the supreme and fundamental priority” is that of reopening access to God for a disoriented humanity.
And “not just to any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in a love driven to the very end, in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.”
(From “L’espresso” no. 50 of 2010).
It is against this background that one must interpret Benedict XVI’s decisions to institute a new dicastery in the curia “for the new evangelization” and to dedicate to this same theme the synod of bishops in 2012, as also the initiative for dialogue with nonbelievers that he has called “court of the gentiles” and entrusted to his minister of culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi.
Among the recent speeches by Pope Benedict on God and polytheism, see in particular the meditation delivered at the synod of bishops for the Middle East on October 11, 2010:
The speech addressed on September 13, 2010 to the new German ambassador to the Holy See:
The homily of June 11, 2010, at the closing of the Year for Priests:
And the “lectio divina” given to the seminarians of Rome on February 12, 2010:
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.