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Divine Encounters

Christians use the term “pagan” to describe the culture around us as it becomes ever more militantly secular. But I wonder if pagan is the right term. Our post-Christian culture is radically different from the pre-Christian world. This is especially true as regards the concept of divinity.

In the classical world, it was better not to be noticed by the gods. Those humans who were visited by the gods paid a high price. The gods were terrifying and unpredictable, and interaction between the human and divine was frequently marked by violence. The encounters nearly always ended in suffering for the human.

Our creeping secularism is not at all a return to a pre-Christian understanding of divinity. Rather, it tosses out most of Christianity but keeps the Christian idea that the gods are benevolent (whether that god is Mother Earth or some new version of Jesus). Indeed, secularism adopts many Christian values—tolerance, care for the poor, equality—but forgets that those values come from Christianity. Mothers may have stopped telling their sons to be God-fearing, but they still tell them to be gentle.

And gentleness is that most Christian of virtues. Jesus said, “I am gentle and humble of heart.” That is something the post-Christian world still believes, for the most part. Whatever their other notions of divinity, they believe it to be non-threatening, nice, accommodating, nonjudgmental.

Their non-Christian divinity is nothing like Zeus, who chose Leda to bear his child. That child was Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, the cause of the Trojan war. Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan, but there was nothing gentle about his coming. In his poem “Leda and the Swan,” William Butler Yeats describes the horror of a god’s rape of a helpless young woman:

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead. Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air . . .

The mythical gods of Olympus exploited their power and human weakness for pleasure, entertainment, revenge. In the midst of this pagan world, the Holy Spirit came to the Virgin Mary with a message. The child-god she conceived came as a helpless babe: He used his strength not for himself but for us. Indeed, the last drop of his strength. This encounter between humanity and divinity also ended in violence, but it was God who suffered.

Jesus is neither the embodiment of pitiless power, as the pagan gods were, nor the passive, powerless god of the New Age. He is all power and all gentleness, as Randall Colton explains on page 6.

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