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Saturday, September 13, 2014

God and Paganism

Many Christians and Atheists love to point to the pagan origins of some of the religious practices of our society. The followers of Herbert Armstrong and the Jehovah's Witnesses underscore the pagan origins of most holidays and forbid their members to participate in those events. Likewise, some Atheists like to underscore the pagan origins of almost all religious practices and use this as exhibit A in their argument that all of those practices are the product of man's imagination. Hence, I think that it is reasonable to ask: What does God think about Paganism? and Does the existence of Pagan practices within the Christian Religion prove that it is a man-made hoax?

In beginning to answer these questions, I believe that it would be instructive for all of us to ask ourselves a few other questions relative to the topic: If God does exist, wouldn't "He" be the God of everyone who has ever lived (whether or not they acknowledged "him" as such)? If so, how can we so casually dismiss such a large and historically important part of humanity (Chinese, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, etc.)? Is it appropriate to simply turn our backs on our heritage from these folks? Did God care about them or have any contact with them? Were they all completely cut-off from God and condemned? Does the fact that many of the religious ideas of today can be shown to have their origins in the beliefs and practices of these people somehow discredit or negate those ideas? It seems to me that how we respond to each of these questions will inform our answers to the larger questions asked in the opening paragraph of this article.

First, can we all agree that the Pagan influences on our culture are pervasive? We've already hinted at the impact the Pagans have had on our religious life, but what about other areas? Like it or not, many of our ideas about government and philosophy have their origins in these pagan cultures. The calendar that we currently use (including the names of the days of the weeks and months) has its origins in Pagan deities and practices. Likewise, the Pagans have had a profound effect upon our artistic, musical and architectural tastes. In fact, almost every aspect of the society that we live in could legitimately be said to have been shaped and influenced by the heathen past. Hence, if we are to reject Pagan practices, we are going to have to embark on a cultural revolution that would put Mao's little experiment in China to shame!

Nevertheless, we are talking about religion here - right? Yes, in particular, we are discussing Pagan influences on Christianity. Many Atheists love to point out that things like the symbol of the cross, virgin birth, mother and child, resurrection, angels and demons, story of the flood, heaven and hell, et al. all existed before the Christian era. The obvious implication is that Christianity merely borrowed these concepts from their Pagan predecessors, but is that the case? Do the existence of these concepts among pre-Christian cultures constitute proof that Christianity appropriated them for their own use? Admittedly, this certainly suggests that it is possible that these Pagan concepts were the basis for the later Christian stories; but to say that a cause and effect relationship has been established by their very existence is a bit of a stretch. In a fair evaluation of the evidence, we have to ask: Are there important/significant differences between the Pagan and Christian elements? Is there any other basis for the Christian traditions (i.e. things like the Hebrew Scriptures, actual people and events of the First Century, Divine revelation, etc.)? And, if we rule out any other sources, is it possible that the existence of these artifacts from pre-Christian times is evidence of the fact that God was dealing with these people and inspired some of their traditions? In other words, which came first, the chicken or the egg?

On the other side of this equation, there are many conservative Christians who point to the Christmas holiday as a prime example of the pernicious influence of Paganism on Christianity. It is certainly true that some of our traditions regarding this holiday have Pagan roots: Yule logs (how widespread is this practice today?) which sometimes burned for twelve days (how many folks still observe twelve days of Christmas?), boughs of evergreen, gift giving, feasting, the date and mistletoe. Nevertheless, we can also confidently assert that many of our Christmas traditions belong to the Christian era. After all, we do refer to the holiday as the Christ Mass. Like it or not, there is a nativity story about Christ in the Christian Scriptures. (Matthew 1-2, and Luke 1-2) Legend has it that Martin Luther observed the starlight through some evergreen trees while walking home one evening and gave rise to the tree that is at the center of most celebrations. The English received this tradition from their Germanic royal family, and we Americans received it from them and our many German immigrants. Santa Claus can be traced back to a person named Nicholas (later made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church) who lived and worked in what is now Turkey during the Third Century.

In fact, it is truly amazing just how many of our Christmas traditions can be traced to developments of the last two hundred years of our history! For instance, many of our modern notions of Christmas observance date to the publication of some stories by Washington Irving, a poem by Clement Moore (Twas the Night Before Christmas) and a story by Charles Dickens entitled A Christmas Carol. These pieces of literature were introduced in the early to mid portions of the Nineteenth Century! An American diplomat to Mexico named Joel Poinsett introduced to the United States the plant that bears his name in 1828. John Horsley began the tradition of sending Christmas cards in the 1830's in England. The song Jingle Bells made its debut in 1857. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer originated as a story written by Robert May and published by the Montgomery Ward Department Store in 1939. The song White Christmas made its debut in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. So it sure seems to me that very little of our modern observance of Christmas could justly be attributed to the Pagans!

"But what about what Moses said to the Israelites?" my persistent friends on the Right will demand. They will quote: "When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dewellest in their land; Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish form it." (Deuteronomy 12:29-32) A few questions: Who was God addressing in this passage? (the children of Israel with whom "He" had just made a covenant which stipulated certain instructions about their behavior - especially regarding religious observances) Isn't God warning them not to proactively enquire about the religious practices of their predecessors? (Do you honestly think that most modern Americans have any notion about the pagan origins of the things they take for granted?) Do any of our modern Christian observances come close to sacrificing children in fire?

"What about Jeremiah's condemnation of the Christmas tree?" some of them will persist. They will quote: "Hear ye the word which the Lord spake unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not." (Jeremiah 10:1-4) This is a prime example of lifting a passage out of context and employing it to say something that you want it to say. The truth is that this passage has absolutely nothing to do with a Christmas tree! If one actually takes the time to read this scripture in context, then it quickly becomes clear that the author was talking about an idol. (Jeremiah 10:5-15)

Maybe some folks should lighten up on the Romans and Babylonians? After all, if we delve too deeply into this subject of Pagan influences on our current culture, some of us may discover things we wish we hadn't! (For my more serious-minded readers, I'm kidding here). Moreover, I seem to recall a very pertinent question of Paul's to the saints at Rome that could justly be addressed to all of us with regard to this matter: "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant?" (Romans 14:4)

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