Peter Kreeft strikes out: A misdiagnosis of paganism

Peter Kreeft

Peter Kreeft, wrong again

Every so often you run across something so wrongheaded and uninformed, it simply begs for rebuttal. This blog post by Catholic theologian Peter Kreeft, purporting to refute the “new paganism,” is one such thing.

This was brought to my attention a couple of years ago by a Roman Catholic friend. I refuted it in dialog with him at the time, but now that I have this forum, I think it is worth reiterating here. It is indicative of the misunderstandings of paganism that many people outside of it hold, coupled with the kind of arrogance that leads the critic to believe he has no obligation to actually understand what he criticizes.

Many years ago, while I was a Christian, I found Kreeft’s books to be worthwhile. One of them, Making Sense Out of Suffering, was especially useful in parsing that theological puzzle. Perhaps his thinking has gotten lax, or perhaps it always was and I didn’t notice before; either way, he is completely out of his league in the post at hand.
Kreeft says that “Paganism is simply the natural gravity of the human spirit, the line of least resistance, religion in its fallen state.”

This would be pretty damning if he had any idea what he was talking about, but his further comments make it clear he does not.

Kreeft avers that paganism before Christianity was pretty great, but argues that now that it has been supplanted by the real religion (Catholic Christianity), its revival can only be a pale shadow.

He claims that the old paganism had a sense of piety, while “The new paganism is the virtual divinization of man, the religion of man as the new God. … Its aim is building a heaven on earth, a secular salvation. Another word for the new paganism is humanism, the religion that will not lift up its head to the heavens but stuffs the heavens into its head.”

No piety? Piety is one of the specifically enumerated virtues for ADF Druids. Outside of ADF there is a strong vein of devotional polytheism. Honoring gods as gods, and nature as itself inherently worthy of reverence, is, if not universal, at least prevalent in “the new paganism.”

Strike one for Kreeft.

He then says that the old paganism had a sense of objective morality but: “This has all changed. The new paganism is situational and pragmatic. It says we are the makers of moral values. It not only finds the moral law written in the human heart but also by the human heart. It acknowledges no divine revelation, thus no one’s values can be judged to be wrong.”

Kreeft is wrong here as well, but in a different way. The notion of “objective morality,” i,e., a moral order created and enforced by a single Supreme Being, is and always has been an aspect of monotheism. Paganism, in fact, does have a strong moral sense, but it is more likely to be expressed as virtues and honorable behavior, rather than a list of laws handed down from on high.

It’s also true that what pagans consider to be moral and virtuous may differ from one to another. To an extent, this is related to the particular pagan’s affinities. A devotee of Artemis may have a different view of sexual virtue than a follower of Cernunnos, for example, while a pagan whose spirituality is more about nature than deity may consider how we treat the Earth to be a much more important moral concern than one’s sexual conduct.

Kreeft is certainly correct, once you peel away the condescension in his words, that modern pagans do not share a single and God-decreed moral code. Where he goes wrong is in thinking it was ever different.

Stirke two.

Kreeft then claims the “new paganism” has no sense of the transcendent, “the sense of worship and mystery. What the old pagan worshiped differed widely—almost anything from Zeus to cows—but he worshiped something. In the modern world the very sense of worship is dying, even in our own liturgy, which sounds as if it were invented by a Committee for the Abolition of Poetry.”

Again, anyone who has attended an ADF ritual, or a Heathen blot, or a Wiccan rite can see that this claim is laughable. Today’s pagans may not acknowledge a single, supreme deity, but we see mystery worthy of reverence n many things, including the gods but also more than that.

Some pagans do recoil at the word “worship,” especially those who came to paganism from bad experiences in Christian churches. Even those who don’t use the word, though, are likely to describe their sense of the divine in reverential terms.

Strike three.

Kreeft is out.

But I can’t send him back to the dugout without noting one more of his absurd, ignortant assertions: “No one believes in Zeus and Apollo and Neptune any more.”

Well, not all pagans do, of course, but many of us do indeed believe in those gods. Zeus, Odin, the Morrighan, Bast, and any and all of a thousand other gods. We honor them, make offerings to them, pray to them and ask them for aid and favor.

Kreeft really has no idea what he’s talking about, but that doesn’t stop him from talking. That kind of smug certainty serves no purpose but to divide.