You read it in the newspapers. You see it on TV. It walks among us and you encounter it in many of your neighbors. It is the New Paganism. It is so much a part of our culture today, you might not even be conscious of it. You know it is there, but you tend to think of it as an aberration, and not as the altered reality of our daily lives. The society in which we live has turned against us, and the change is not as subtle as one would be tempted to think.
I bumped into it at my other job, just the other day. It was there in the insistence that we cannot end a telephone conversation with something like, "Merry Christmas". Doing so might offend someone whose religious sensibilities are different from our own. That rule makes sense in a religion-neutral world, I guess. I would think of that phrase as a simple greeting of the season. I don't allow myself to be upset when others express their beliefs in their greetings, but in a pagan world, Christianity is an offense!
It was there when one of my co-workers began to talk about how Muslims and Christians believe "pretty much the same thing". When I suggested that Islam was significantly different from the Christian faith in very fundamental ways, I was scolded. Her friend Ahmal (or some other, very Arabic sounding name) is a Muslim, and he told her that there was almost no difference. Besides, she said, she was talking about Muslims, not Islam. I tried to assure her that I understood Christianity, being a Lutheran pastor, and that I had invested a significant amount of time in the study of Islam, which is the same thing as Muslim (I said). She dismissed me out-of-hand, because her friend was Muslim, and he told her that they believe the same things, and they had talked about what their religions were all about. Besides, she said, the Koran and the Bible were almost identical.
At that point, I stopped talking and turned back to my work. There was no point. She possessed that singular gift of invincible ignorance. Nothing I would say would overcome her confidence that she was right. And who knows? She may have been speaking a profoundly telling truth; the little she understood about Islam may have matched precisely with her very idiosyncratic understanding of what she considered "Christian". After all, major denominations of the nominally "Christian" church on the world scene confess no doctrine that could not be confessed by Islam, and some of them have deliberately surrendered anything that would offend a Muslim, such as the doctrine of the Trinity or the deity of Christ. Even the Pope has weighed in on my co-worker's side by declaring that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worship the same God, and, as I understand modern Roman Catholic doctrine, the God the Pope worships could just be the same one Islam confesses. But it is not the God that I confess.
There is only one true God. That is not just a theological commitment, it is also a logical necessity, unless one were to suggest that there were many deities, as in ancient Greek and Roman mythology. If one is a monotheist, however, one confesses that there is only one God. Logically, we are compelled from that point to assert that only one God can be the true God, and others must be other than "the one true God". The new paganism gladly accepts the assertion that there is no knowing which God is true, if any, but violently rejects the Christian confession that there is only one true God, and that He is known only through Jesus Christ.
The new paganism is the force behind modern expression of the idea that there is no god, or that there is no one god that may be known and publicly confessed and proclaimed as the only God. Just as in ancient Rome, today you can believe anything you want as long as you are also so publicly tolerant as to never teach or confess that your God alone is the way, the truth, and the life, and that anyone who does not know Him faces eternal condemnation and distress. It was that exclusiveness that troubled the world in the time of the Apostles, and it continues to trouble the world today, and with a new, modern fervor.
This is the rationale behind the preferential treatment of those who are not Christian by the courts and the media today. We need to be sensitive to the religious sensibilities of the Muslim, the Wiccan, the Druid, and even the atheist among us. We must avoid public expressions of one's Christian faith in any circumstance where someone who is not Christian or "as Christian" may be present to be potentially offended, such as a prayer before a high school sporting event or a graduation ceremony. Prisons must accommodate their dietary requirements. Those of other faiths must be given room and opportunity to exercise their rites and rituals. Their periods of prayers must be respected. Their customs must be tolerated, sometimes even when they are outside of our laws. We must understand and give place to their rage in riots and demonstrations. Because they are numerically minorities, we must understand their sense of powerlessness and grant them a wider latitude than we would to others who are no more powerful, but who belong to a group considered to be the majority, i.e. Christians.
The truth is that those who sincerely follow Christ and trust in Him are counted unworthy of consideration or respect whether they are in the majority or in the minority. There is a double standard at work. I don't write these words to complain. What is, is. These are the conditions which we are given as modern Christians in America, in which we are to faithfully confess Christ, live out a testimony as to who it is that we believe in, and what we believe in Him for and about, and to be the light and salt of Christ in a world of darkness and paganism. As difficult as we might imagine our circumstances to be at times, in America we still enjoy unequaled freedom to be faithful Christians. Throughout the world, those who confess Christ face far more brutal circumstances and far more dangerous and lethal responses to their faith. Such circumstances are coming here, without a doubt, but we still have a great deal of liberty and religious tolerance for which we should give thanks, and in which we should work while it is till day, before the night comes when no man can work.
While we still may speak of our faith publicly without being jailed or assaulted physically with impunity, we need to speak out when we confront the new paganism in our daily lives. We don't need to be confrontational or unpleasant, except when others find our confessing the faith at all to be unpleasant to them, but we need to exercise both our rights as American citizens and our faith as Christians. The New Testament is full of instructions to us about humility, patience and forbearance towards others, respect and kindness, gentleness and perseverance. Our confession of Christ needs to be marked by the humility demonstrated by our Lord, who had no reason in His person to be humble, but chose to be as an example to us. We are, after all, just like those pagans around us, sinners, except that the grace of God has been revealed to us, and we have become possessors of God's grace by His gracious choice and working in us.
At the same time, we need to remember the perseverance mentioned in Scriptures. Just because we don't want to be obnoxious about our faith and make our confession odious to others by our attitudes, does not mean that we cannot or should not boldly confess. We also want to beware of being cowed into silence, or hiding our light under a bushel (so to speak).
The first step in confronting the new paganism of our times is to recognize the reality of what we face. The world around us is not 'just like us', only different in inconsequential ways. They are pagans. They have no knowledge of God, in reality, and so they are "without God", as Paul wrote about the Ephesian Christians (Eph. 2:12) before their conversion. As such, they are lost and condemned until and unless they learn of Christ, and come to trust in Him for forgiveness, life, and salvation. Your friends and neighbors are the mission field into which God has placed you.
The second step is to keep in mind that our lips can often be contradicted by the rest of our body. We want to be alert, then, to living in accord with what we confess. Our lives and our actions - and our casual conversations - need to be shaped by what it is that we believe. We believe in forgiveness, for example, so we exercise patience and forgiveness first. We trust God for life and health and every good thing, so we don't want to be speaking or acting in ways that suggest that we are terrified by life around us, or uncertain as to how things are going to turn out. God is with us personally day-by-day and moment-by-moment. We can be concerned without being fearful or appearing to be hopeless. God is holy, and He had made us holy by His grace in Christ, so we want to exercise that holiness in our daily lives and conversations. Gossip, and grumbling about life, and cutting corners, and cheating in ways small or large is a denial of that holiness. Before we ever open our mouth with a word of overt evangelism we can be a witness and live a testimony. Remember, the early church grew dynamically because God's people lived out their hope and love and holiness in very difficult circumstances.
The third step is to speak. Some people imagine that "evangelism" or "witnessing" means confronting somebody in an awkward and unpleasant manner and dumping a verbal 'box of Jesus' on them. I have been approached a number of times by people who were about the task of doing just that. Frankly, they give me the 'willies', and they make me want to shut them down in response to their 'testimony'. I am uncomfortable with that approach to evangelism, and really dislike the temptation their confrontation sets before me. I don't want to ever appear to be denying Christ or discouraging a faithful confession of Him.
When you speak, it should be in context, and it should reflect that humility, respect for the other person, and gentleness that the Apostles wrote of so frequently. I am impressed by the statement of Peter in 1 Peter 3:15-16: but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
Note that Peter instructs that we be prepared to answer those who ask you. Now, the way that they ask may not be strictly speaking a question, but may be in the form of a silly (or downright foolish) assertion in the midst of a conversation which begs you to say something you believe, and why. They may challenge you with some opinion or some statement of what they believe is a fact to confess your confidence in God's protection or providing in your life. It might be that they express fear, hopelessness, or despair, and you have the right answer. You can comfort. You can offer to pray with or pray for someone. Remember, prayer is not complex or formal, necessarily. Just because the Pastor reads formal prayers from the altar does not mean that your prayers with someone in a moment of need has to be formal - or long, or eloquent.
Now and again, you may be asked a question that invites a complete confession of the faith, or a somewhat longer explanation of doctrine, but that will not happen often. Most of the time it is a simple conversation in which you can express your hope in Christ, or your confidence in God's care and provision. Some opportunities may arise to express thanksgiving for God's goodness for this blessing or that. It can be as simple as not assigning the weather to Mother Nature, but to our heavenly Father, or not speaking of luck, but rather of blessings from God.
If the opportunity does present itself to speak more than a sentence or two about what you believe, and you are uncertain of what to say, remember your catechism. Sometimes the Creed is the perfect way of talking about what you believe. It might be the Apostles' Creed or it might be the Nicene Creed, but the Creed does a marvelous job of bringing the very basics of the faith into focus, and it provides a convenient starting point for your confession when the question is raised, or the opportunity to speak presents itself, and your mind is drawing a blank. You may not need to say more than the basic words of the Creed, but if you do, it provides a wonderful and familiar outline for you. And remember, the people you may be speaking to are less likely than you may imagine to be familiar at all with the Creed. Many so-called Protestant churches do not use the any one of the creeds regularly, and some never use them at all.
The new Paganism is among us, and it going to be an increasingly burdensome reality in the life of the Church. Remember, these are the times in which God has placed you to confess Him and live in the light of His grace. Do not fear, God is with us. And He will keep us and bless us and enable us to serve Him!
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.
Send Pastor Robin Fish an email.