What is our religion? What is our identity? What does it mean to be a Man of the West? To some these questions no longer have meaning, and to those that they do, it is increasingly difficult to give a fully convincing answer. This being the case, I have entertained some rather unorthodox ideas regarding religion and identity, seeking some solution to our predicament. As unsatisfactory as it has undoubtedly been, I believe it has been necessary.
The very existence of the work of those such as René Guénon and Julius Evola, who in their lives tried to rediscover the Tradition that the West had long forgotten, is proof of the absolutely dire situation the West was in during their lifetimes, and certainly the situation is far worse now. Their work, while extremely valuable, has not changed the overall direction of the West, nor did they believe that it would, and neither provided a clear direction on the question of religion, especially on a societal or cultural scale. That is, they did not say that simply returning to Christianity was the answer. Guénon’s early work may have suggested that, but his own life choices indicate otherwise, and there is no question about Evola. While I greatly value the Traditionalist school, and most especially the work of Evola, if he is to be counted as one of that school (some say he should not be), I believe it is insufficient to the task at hand. We cannot look to the East for our salvation, which, regardless of theory, in practice is often what Traditionalism amounts to in the end. Indeed, one author has referred to Traditionalism as “Westernized Islam.” While I disagree with those who criticize Guénon for converting to Islam — mostly because Guénon, unlike Evola, never showed much regard for the Western tradition, either in the form of pagan antiquity or the Hermetic tradition, and that in his particular circumstances it made perfect sense to do so — it is true that his life should not generally serve as an example for a Man of the West, and it is understandable that in these difficult times, some would see his choices as discouraging if not an actual betrayal. As I said before, I believe that truly honoring our ancestors is the path to the spiritual resurrection of the West, and I believe it is the only path. But what does it mean to honor our ancestors?
In The Crisis of the Modern World, Guénon spoke of efforts in his own day to revive Celtism, but he claimed that such efforts were unnecessary as Christianity preserved everything that was of value in the pre-Christian religions, in this case specifically the religion of the ancient Gauls. There are two questions to ask about this statement. First, is that actually true, did Christianity truly preserve everything necessary from those religions? Secondly, why did people feel the need to revive these religions? Evola would agree that Christianity preserved much from pre-Christian times, though he emphasized Christianity often did so uneasily, reluctantly, and with a great deal of conflict and that this synthesis had been greatly weakened and perhaps lost altogether in modern times, James Russell in The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity makes a similar argument. People were looking to revive Celtism, or paganism more broadly, because they felt something important had been lost, but that by returning to the old ways, at least as much as possible, that something of the old spirit, the genuine essence of their culture and people, could be recovered. Of those who seek to revive these religions, both then and now, attitudes toward Christianity vary considerably, some are quite negative, others are far more charitable, possessing even a nostalgic feeling. But for many, there is no question of returning to the Christian faith.
And to reject Christianity is, according to some, to reject the West, its culture and heritage. But this is a rather simplistic way of looking at things, and would not necessarily be the case, first of all because it fails to recognize nuance. Bach and Handel were not “true” Christians by the standards of Roman Catholicism, yet their contribution to Western culture is far greater than the vast majority of Catholics who have ever lived. Also, many people who have identified as Catholics have been far from orthodox in their thought and behavior. And those who argue that neither Catholicism nor Protestantism are true Christianity but that only the Eastern Orthodox faith remains true to the teachings of Christ further compromises this argument. Besides that, in my opinion at least, the art, architecture, and most certainly the music of the East is, if not inferior, less interesting and aesthetically pleasing, than that of the West, there are significant differences between the two expressions of the faith, differences that have led to division and conflict. How different is it really to argue that the West should become Orthodox than to argue that it should become Muslim? If applied in an uncompromising way, any such conversion could lead to great destruction. The example of Eastern Orthodoxy should make one who believes that preserving culture is important, reconsider any objection to the notion that religions are molded, and must be molded, to fit the culture. Second, this argument fails to take into account Christianity’s own history. The rejection of the Roman gods did not mean the total rejection of all Roman culture. In the same way a post-Christian West, though not a secular West, could reject Christianity, but at the same time preserve much of it, including some specifically religious elements. Third, a general rejection of Christianity in the West would not at all mean the disappearance of Christianity in the West. Even today Christianity is still present in the Muslim world, and there is no reason to believe that there would develop some widespread, direct persecution of Christians in the West. The Roman situation is not really comparable, and in any case is usually misunderstood. Finally, it must be recognized that to reject or accept Christianity today is not quite the same thing as rejecting it or accepting it would be in Medieval times. The Church of the Middle Ages no longer exists, nor does the culture that it sustained. In those times being a Christian was simply a matter of course, and if today “pagans” or anyone else were living then, they would have been Christians (though likely heterodox ones) and there might have been no significant resulting difference in beliefs.
Some say that the West owes its very existence and survival to Christianity, that is, without the unifying force of Christianity, the West would have fallen to Islam, as the native paganism would have left the people of the West too weak and divided. There are are a number of problems with this idea — the most important is that it’s simply not true. While obviously, yes, without Christianity there could not have been a Christendom, the defense of the geographical area of the West cannot be attributed to Christianity, at least not exclusively. The former capital of the Roman empire, and long the center of the Christian world has been a Muslim city now for hundreds of years. Greece, the origin of Western Civilization was under Islamic rule for hundreds of years. And if one follows the esoteric tradition, the true origin of the West, Egypt, which was once Christian, has been Muslim now for over a thousand years. Christianity could not “protect” these places. More importantly, this claim about Christianity simply takes it as a given that Islam is false and/or evil. Why exactly, would it have been such a bad thing for the West to “fall” to Islam, but it isn’t considered bad, when Europe “fell” to Christianity? And the fact that Europe became Christian cannot be used to prove the truth or superiority of the Christian religion, as the same argument could be used to prove the truth and superiority of Islam. Indeed, if Europe had become Islamic centuries ago most likely the very same people, or ones very much like them, who today insist that to question or criticize Christianity is to betray the West, would instead be shouting about the truth of Islam. Finally, to me it appears rather odd when some claim that while Christianity and the Church were responsible for defending the West from Islam, they are not, and simply cannot be responsible for failing to defend the West today from liberalism and all the effects of modernity. Instead this is due solely to the weak character of those who happen to lead the Church today. If that is so, is it not at least possible that it was not Christianity that saved the West, but the strength, courage, and wisdom of those men who stood at the gates, who carried a heritage far older than Christianity?
But it must be admitted that there is a significant difference between now and earlier times. It is not a question today of paganism versus Christianity or heresy and orthodoxy but rather of secularism versus Islam. The West has already rejected Christianity and it is now widely recognized that secularism cannot sustain a culture and society, and it is feared that Islam, if its influence in Europe continues to grow, would not preserve the Western heritage, to even the degree that it is being preserved now. I tend to agree with this, as Islam is an old religion, and it is unclear how far it could be “bent” to fit Western Man (and the same applies to Eastern Orthodoxy). While I have not changed my view, that Islam should be viewed as a potential ally, as should all traditional religions, I am not in favor of any mass conversion to any new foreign religion.
While I am opposed to the further expansion of Islam in Europe, I am equally opposed to the West remaining secular. So what is to be done? Could the West return to Christianity? If not, is there any other option besides returning to Christianity? Could there be a post-Christian, but non-secular, West? Perhaps we could create a new religion, or revive an old one?
But is such a thing possible? Can new religions be created or old religions be revived? Traditionalists generally hold that they cannot, and that only a select number of living religions are valid, and that many of the currently existing religions are in fact spurious pseudo-traditions. While I am unaware of any definitive list of “genuine” religions, Islam is generally regarded as the final, true revelation. And neither Islam, nor any other tradition such as Hinduism seems to be a valid option. So, for someone in the West, returning to Christianity would seem to be the only possibility.
Lately, there has been some interesting discussion about whether the Church is to be understood as masculine or feminine, what responsibilities the Church has in the contemporary Western world, and who is ultimately responsible for the current state of the Church. My own position is that the Church should be understood as feminine and that the primary reason for the Church’s decline is due to poor leadership rather than any inherent flaw. Does this mean that if quality people, who for one reason or another are not currently part of the Church, were to decide to enter the Church and take positions of leadership, that they would be able to turn the Church and the West in a better direction and eventually reverse our decline? Perhaps, but I think most are underestimating the difficulties and complexities of what that would actually involve.
This discussion also brings up an issue from Christianity’s own history and challenges its claim to exclusive truth. If the flaws of the Church are to be blamed on the flaws of individual Christians rather than Christianity itself, could not the ancient pagans have said the very same thing to the Christian converts? Could they not have said that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the pagan religion, and that whatever objections the Christians had to it were, at least in part, the fault of the Christians themselves due to their lack of support, but that if they would return to the old ways, all would be well? How could a Christian respond to this? If he was to remain a Christian he could either say that the pagan religions were false and always had been, or he could say that they had been true, or at least more true in the past, but that they had degenerated over time, and were now beyond saving, and that it was necessary to move on. But today a non-Christian could also say the same thing.
Julius Evola lived in the very heart of Catholicism, yet not only was he not a Catholic, he could be very critical of Catholicism and Christianity generally, much more so than the other Traditionalists with whom he is associated. And this criticism applied to Christianity generally, not to any specifically modern deviation. Anyone who takes his work seriously, whether he agrees with this criticism or not, cannot casually overlook this point. From his work it should become obvious that criticism of Christianity is fully justified, and in no way whatsoever means that one is necessarily rejecting the Western heritage. In his chief work Revolt Against the Modern World, he explains that Western man is currently trapped in an impossible predicament, one that he cannot offer any solution to, other than the personal path of riding the tiger, a path that can never be applied on a large scale. According to Evola, the most obvious solution, that of returning to Catholicism in the hope that it could lead to the revival of the West, is an illusion. It is an illusion because the very essence of Christianity is ultimately incompatible with the spirit of Western man, and will not allow him to fully develop and express his own true spiritual essence. And because of this fact, Western man has instead been forced to devote his spiritual energies to the material world where he is (or was?) able, though in a greatly reduced way, to realize his true identity. He has been cut off from higher spiritual realities and instead trapped in the material world, and Christianity does not offer a way back. This process did not begin recently but goes back hundreds of years.
But were things not quite different in the past? Was not Europe at one time truly Catholic? Yes and no. According to Evola, most people in medieval times, regardless of what they called themselves, were in fact pagan at heart. As pagan influence never died out, Catholicism gained a composite character, and much of its greatness was due to Roman and Germanic influence. But these influences were never fully integrated and were often in conflict with the more specifically Christian (and Jewish) element, this conflict growing stronger over time, eventually resulting in violence and open warfare. If this is not the case, then how is modernity to be explained? Why did modernity originate in the West? Why has there been a break between Christianity and the West? Why is the West the least religious place in the world? Why is the Church today in such a weakened and corrupted state? Is there a flaw within Christianity generally, within Catholicism specifically, or within the Western people themselves? Or were there unusual circumstances present in the West but not elsewhere? These questions have to be answered. To resolve the problem, we must understand exactly what the problem truly is, and how it came about.
The fundamental problem, put simply, is that we have forgotten who we are. Even if we call ourselves Westerners, or Christians, or pagans, rarely do we understand what that really means. While the world of Medieval Christendom was certainly superior to what we experience today, it was flawed, guaranteed to eventually collapse, and I do not believe that it can be revived. Reviving paganism, whether of the Greeks and the Romans, or the Norse and the Celts is an even more daunting idea. How can this be remedied? Is it that all is lost? Is it now every man for himself? No. It doesn’t have to be that way. I believe there is another path.
In his article “The Heart of the West” Cologero Salvo suggests studying the teachings of the following figures for those wishing to understand and recreate the West at a spiritual level: Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Philolaus, Plato, Apollonius, and Plotinus. This list was created by Marsilio Ficino, the man who first translated much of Plato, Plotinus, as well as the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin. Ficino was also the first director of the Platonic Academy in Florence, the existence of which is in large part due to the work of George Gemtistos Plethon, who Ficino honored by calling him “the second Plato.” Plethon was a pagan, who wished to revive the old Greek religion, or at least his interpretation of it. While that of course did not occur, during the Renaissance his influence did result did in much fruitful investigation and discussion of the idea of a Prisca Theologia, that is the ancient theology, an eternal wisdom that had been passed down from the beginning of time through many pagan philosophers and teachers, including the ones mentioned above. The period of the Renaissance is sometimes criticized for breaking with tradition and being the birth of the modern world, but in my view the Renaissance, the real Renaissance represented by such men as Plethon and Ficino, never really happened, at least not on a large scale. Rather it is that this Renaissance did not take place that created the modern world. If their ideas had been able to spread and flourish, our world would look very different.
If Christianity is to be the fulfillment of paganism, surely that idea cannot simply be asserted, it must be lived. Perhaps this pagan/Christian synthesis has been achieved in certain extraordinary individuals, but that does not mean that Christianity as a whole ever did, and it certainly does not today. If this synthesis had been achieved, we would not be where we are today. If the error of Protestantism is that it re-Judaized Christianity, should it not make one question why the Jewish element is needed at all, or it least why it needs to be emphasized and given a privileged position? Is it not rather odd that for a religion that is supposed to be for all men, or that has a special connection to the West, that not a single pagan writing was included in the canon, more than that, as far as I know not a single pagan work was even considered, and yet at the same time, the entire scripture of one particular people was included, was considered to be absolutely essential, yet those very writings attack pagans and their beliefs, including most importantly the Egyptians? It’s more than odd, it’s directly contradictory. How can one claim to honor our ancestors and fulfill the pagan heritage and yet reject, or even mock, their holy writings, beliefs, and spiritual practices? If these authors are the heart of the West and if Christianity is the religion of the West, then I do not understand why their works could not be made part of scripture. Why could they not be made saints? Why could people not offer prayers to them? Why could not icons and statues of them be made? Why are Moses and the Hebrew prophets to be given a superior position? Why are they to be given any position at all? Do we not already have our own prophets?
I do not know if paganism could be truly revived or not, I’m not even sure what that would mean, and despite what some have thought, my own proposals have been far more modest. Unlike Plethon who wished to revive Hellenism, or Giordano Bruno who wished to bring back the Egyptian religion, all I have called for is the integration of the different traditions of the West, something that has precedence in the work of many Christians going back hundreds of years. While it would not be easy, either in terms of practically implementing it or in intellectually resolving difficult questions, I believe it still offers us a way forward, a way to honor our ancestors, and a way to the spiritual resurrection of the West.
For those wishing to learn more about the Prisca Theologia, this presentation by Wouter Hanegraaff is a good place to begin.