Our Wobbly World

In antiquity, everything depended on tradition because people recognized that their ancestors were the oneswho had survived in a hostile world that wanted to kill them. So smart people listened to what their ancestors said and, Darwin being right about some things, tended to be the survivors, while stupid people ignored seasoned wisdom and wound up getting killed by a hostile world that, sure enough, wanted to kill them.

Is living by tradition therefore perfect? No. Many times, tradition wound up developing into some very dangerous mutations — as, for example, the traditions of Aztec human sacrifice and Moloch worship demonstrate. Jesus and the apostles likewise warn strongly of human traditions posing as the Tradition of God. And it was a world full of reverence for tradition and the Old Ways that crucified the Author of the New and Everlasting Covenant.

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Still and all, on the whole, the posture of the ancients (including the ancient believers in the New Faith in the Messiah) was to recognize that, if we see farther than our fathers, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants, and that running after novelty for novelty’s sake was a stupid idea.

With modernity, and still more with postmodernity, all this changed. Within a relatively short space of time, people came to regard the Old as the Outmoded and to see the accumulated wisdom of the past as ridiculous, even as they began to worship the Young, the New, and the Future. Americans, a people whose entire beginning is predicated on Revolution, have always been particularly prone to this. We are historical illiterates not only about our own revolutionary past but even about our recent past (recall the joke about Paul McCartney having been in a band before Wings, or just watch some old Jaywalking videos). And when it comes to the real historical and cultural bedrock of our civilization (namely, the Christian tradition), we are often so clueless that we will believe anything anybody tells us, just so long as it is not a priest or a bishop who knows what he is talking about.

And so we arrive at a present where, if you toss a little Olde Englysh mumbo jumbo into some religious claim or other, you can get any number of suckers to buy it as a revelation of cool pre-Christian paganism “suppressed” by the Church. All you need to do is look at the sales figures for The Da Vinci Code to prove that.

The funny part is, our culture’s growing allergic reaction to the Christian tradition — and therefore to people who, you know, actually know something about pre-Christian paganism — makes the Allergic ignorant of the debt they owe the Christian tradition for preserving paganism. For it is, after all, the Church that preserved the wreckage of high pagan civilization after low pagan barbarians destroyed it. Indeed, much of the “ancient mystical” paganism our culture tends to enthuse about (think Mists of Avalon, druids, Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge, various Celticized bits of rubbish, Wicca, etc.) is not Greco-Roman (which actually achieved something creative) but Anglo-Germanic and northern European in flavor. The thing is, northern European pagan patrimony to us is a few phallic standing stones. That’s because they spent most of their time getting drunk and stealing from each other, until they finally wandered in a raging stupor down to the Mediterranean to do a bit of raping and pillaging of the decadent Roman Empire.

All that noble Lord of the Rings Northern King of Righteousness mythology doesn’t really get going until these drunken thugs get Christianized by the former Mediterranean pagans they beat up. Then you start to get the groundwork laid for a Christianized Anglo-Germanic culture that can start to embody the virtues Tolkien celebrated in his love of Northern literature. But the very Catholic Tolkien would be the very first to tell Wiccans and fools who seek Lord of the Rings oracles for supposedly “ancient” pagan divination that they are historically illiterate suckers who need to learn what real northern pre-Christian paganism was like — starting with the human sacrifice. Thus Aragorn’s father is neither Arathorn nor the Viking King Gorm the Old, nor even Arthur. It is Jesus Christ, the real Once and Future King.

In short, the real Anglo-Germanic paganism is rather far from the edenic world of sexually free feminists who celebrated the goddess and pursued naturopathic healing arts, basket weaving, and telepathy with dragons until evil, repressive Christian missionaries introduced Guilt and Shame into the world and shadowed all happiness with their terrible cult of blood and sin. But modern “pagans” who are all, like, into ancient wisdom ‘n stuff don’t want to hear about that any more than they would have liked meeting the real Tolkien, who would have gone to Mass — in Latin — to pray for their souls. They want the World of Warcraft version or the Wicca version or the yoga version, which they tell themselves are what the world was like before Christianity gummed up the works.


This shallow silliness is not, of course, exclusive to Americans. The Bertie Wooster wannabes of the Chattering Classes in the Country that Used to be England were a trial for Chesterton a century ago for much the same reason:

The modern world will accept no dogmas upon any authority; but it will accept any dogmas on no authority. Say that a thing is so, according to the Pope or the Bible, and it will be dismissed as a superstition without examination. But preface your remark merely with “they say” or “don’t you know that?” or try (and fail) to remember the name of some professor mentioned in some newspaper; and the keen rationalism of the modern mind will accept every word you say.

These sorts of people have only gotten dumber since, all while congratulating themselves on not believing “the official story.”

Which brings us to today, where people go not to institutions that were historically the repositories of cultural memory (such as the church or the school) to learn about their own historical roots, but to Cracked Magazine, of all places, to discover the liberating truth that all this “ancient mysticism” stuff for which neo-pagans are such suckers is of very recent vintage. Wicca was cooked up a few decades ago by some spiritual dilettante. The company that invented the Ouija board still holds the patent on it. Yoga is just a little older than the Yugo. Mr. Potato Head is older than the Satanism of Anton LaVey, and his cult is, as he himself points out, pretty much Ayn Rand repackaged with smells and bells.

Catholics can, of course, cheer for common sense and truth wherever it is found, even in the odd locale of a web satire site for randy college boys. Indeed, given that college is often now a place dedicated to destroying such cultural memories and helping randy college boys get randier, we may be grateful that such sanity as our culture still possesses is available to young skulls full of mush in some location where it might cross their paths. If some college boy or his ditzy goddess-worshipping girlfriend learns from Cracked what their prejudices, university, or ignorance deny them from the Church, that’s a good thing — not least because it may prompt them to look at actual, ancient, mystical religion such as the Catholic faith. But Catholics should also be aware that the real takeaway from people who willingly listen to Cracked but not the Church is not, “So common sense is returning at last!” but something Chesterton observed a long time ago:

The world is what the saints and the prophets saw it was; it is not merely getting better or merely getting worse; there is one thing that the world does; it wobbles. Left to itself, it does not get anywhere; though if helped by real reformers of the right religion and philosophy, it may get better in many respects, and sometimes for considerable periods. But in itself it is not a progress; it is not even a process; it is the fashion of this world that passeth away. Life in itself is not a ladder; it is a see-saw.

Cracked demonstrates that there is always room for a humorist to make fun of what is fashionable. Phony “ancient mysticism” is fashionable, so Cracked mocks it. Like every reactionary, Cracked can see what is bunk. But like every reactionary, Cracked can’t see what is the true, the good, or the beautiful — or at least they cannot see it in full. So right there on the site with the ridicule heaped on phony ancient religion is ridicule heaped on real revealed religion. It has to be that way in our age, because we have rejected our past — and especially our Christian past — and embraced the age of the New, which must, among other things, find new things to mock in order to fill the needs of the Cracked website for fresh copy every day. A 24/7 information cycle, whether for an adolescent satire magazine or the MSM Noise Machine, is not something conducive to contemplating the wisdom of our elders or the revelation of God. Reflection is the enemy of a world addicted to novelty.

And so we wobble like tops bouncing from new to new. Even the old is interesting only if it is repackaged as the new. We don’t know where we’re going, but we are going to make sure we get there ahead of everybody else. And if we need an ancient religious authority to bestow a mystical blessing on our headlong rush to we know not where, we’ll just invent one. When somebody points out that we just invented a religion, we’ll simply reply, “So what? All religions are invented!” and wobble away like jesting Pilate, who asked, “What is truth?” and would not stay for an answer.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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