Evangelizing neo-pagans

J. Budziszewski

The Church has never before had the task of evangelizing neo-pagans.  The new pagans are very different from their earlier counterparts, the ones faced by the early Christians.  Evangelization “this time will not be the same” … “nothing like our task has been done before.”


Always the voice of clarity, J. Budziszewski has produced a series of contrasts between the old pagans and the neo-pagans—all of which is necessary as we consider how to present the Gospel in our post-Christian culture.


Re-evangelizing is not evangelizing as though for the first time again; the very fact of past proclamation makes re-proclamation different. For we proclaim the Gospel to a neo-pagan, post-Christian people to whom it does not come as new. The old world had not yet felt the caress of grace; our world, once brushed, now flinches from its touch.


Is re-evangelization completely and radically different from evangelization? No. The same Christ knocks at the door of the same human heart, though a heart with a different history. Is it more difficult? In some ways. Easier? In some ways. But different.


Here are a few of the contrasts that Dr. Budziszewski provides.


The moral law


The pagan made excuses for transgressing the moral law. By contrast, the neo-pagan pretends, when it suits him, that there is no morality, or perhaps that each of us has a morality of his own. Since they had the Law and the Prophets, it comes as no surprise that the Jews took morality for granted. But to a great degree, and despite their sordid transgressions, so did the pagans.


Not that skepticism was unknown among them: “What is truth?” Pilate asked, not waiting for the answer. Yet consider all the pagan errors to which St. Paul alludes in his epistles: Was relativism one of them? No. He could omit it then; he could not have omitted it today. …


The question of guilt


Related to that first great difference is another. The pagan wanted to be forgiven, but he did not know how to find absolution. To him the Gospel came as a message of release. But the neo-pagan does not want to hear that he needs to be forgiven, and so to him the Gospel comes as a message of guilt.


This inversion seems incredible, because the neo-pagan certainly feels the weight of his sins. But he thinks the way to have peace is not to have the weight lifted but to learn not to take it seriously. Hearing Christ’s promise of forgiveness, he thinks, “All those guilty Christians!” Having chosen to view the freest people as the most burdened, he naturally views the most burdened as the freest. “Everyone has done things he regrets. Everyone lies. Get over it!” …


The hazard of Christian sentiment


The pagan was raised differently. He was brought up in the ways and the atmosphere of paganism, and in order to be converted, he had to be removed from both. By contrast, though the neo-pagan has probably also been taught pagan ways, he may have been brought up in an atmosphere of Christian sentiment. Consequently, he regards the Gospel not as the story of true God become man but as a sentimental fable for children. Even Christian sentiments are difficult to take seriously apart from the actual life of grace. …


The distorted Gospel


Because the Gospel was new to him, the pagan needed to learn it from the beginning. The neo-pagan is in a very different position; he needs to unlearn things he has learned about the Gospel that happen to be untrue. We see a trivial symptom of the problem in the great number of people who think a little drummer boy was supposed to have accompanied the shepherds, a notion that makes the Christmas narrative seem most implausible to anyone more than ten years of age.


But nonexistent drummer boys are the least of the problems. The neo-pagan is likely to have entirely mistaken views of what Christians believe about creation, the Fall, and redemption—about God, man, and the relation between God and man. …


Idols old and new


One thing may seem to be unchanged: Now as then, the nonbeliever hails Caesar, not Christ, as Lord. But whereas the pagan reproached Christians for doubting distinctively ancient illusions, for example the eternal destiny of the Empire of Rome, the neo-pagan is more likely to reproach them for doubting distinctively modern illusions, for example the idea that by technology and social engineering we can devise a world in which nobody needs to be good.


In one way the pagan was less deluded, for he could hardly fail to know that he was an idolater. His idols were visible and tangible. They were carved from physical substances like wood and stone. The neo-pagan is much less likely to know that he is an idolater; if faith concerns things not seen, then in a sense he is more faithful, for his idols are invisible and intangible. They are woven of sensations, wishes, and ideas, like pleasure, success, and the future. Even his magazines have names like Self. Perhaps visible idols were always masks for invisible idols, but in our day the masks have come off. …


The pew as mission field


Finally, the pagan knew he was not a Christian. By contrast, a certain kind of neo-pagan may think that he is one. This oddity is perhaps the most challenging difference between evangelization and re-evangelization. In the ancient world, the people who needed to be evangelized were outside the walls of the Church; today they include thousands who are inside but who think just like those who are outside. When the Gospel is proclaimed, they complain.


A pew is a difficult mission field. It is hard for the shepherds to bring home the sheep if they think they are already in the fold. But that is a story for another day.



J. Budziszewski is professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas.He is the author of numerous books including The Line Through the Heart, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, The Revenge of Conscience, Ask Me Anything, and How to Stay Christian in College.


“Evangelizing Neo-Pagans” is available in the current edition of First Things (March 2014).  It is also available online to subscribers.




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