In August of 2010 I posted a book review of the Pagan Temptation on Good Reads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/115890432
That review was a revised version of one I posted on a blog that has long disappeared. So I’m not sure when I first decided to review the book, probably around 2000. I had read the book originally in 1988.
I’ve been listening to the 3 books podcast and intend to revisit this book as one of the three most influential books of my life. I plan to write a revised review in the coming months, and for now, I’m posting the original 2010 review here for reference.
Thomas Molnar died last month at the age of eighty-nine. Born in Budapest and educated in France, the young Molnar (a leader in the Catholic student movement) was interned by the Germans and sent to Dachau. After the war he returned to Budapest where he witnessed the gradual Communist takeover of Hungary. He moved to the United States and earned his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1950.
He lived the life of an academic, writing for Commonweal, Modern Age, Triumph, and other journals. His career was distinguished with honorary doctorates, guest professorships at Ivy League universities, and his final elevation late in his career to the Hungarian Academy of Arts.
His best known book, The Decline of the Intellectual (1961), was, in his own words, “greeted favourably by conservatives, with respectful puzzlement by the left, and was dismissed by the liberal progressives.” The book argued that the intelligentsia of the nineteenth century destroyed their ability to influence social change by becoming desperately enamoured with various ideologies.
He went on to publish a series of conservative books related to politics, the church, and philosophy. The Pagan Temptation was written, most agree, to refute Alain Benoist’s neo-paganism. Benoist was the founder of the “New Right Movement” (the Nouvelle Droite) which argued that Europe should seek alternatives to communism and capitalism in pre-Christian and Indo-European social systems such as could be found in Nordic, Celtic, Greek and Roman civilisations.
Andrew Cusack writes, “Molnar and his work have become sadly neglected for the very reasons he detailed in his major work: the overwhelming triumph of ideology over the intellectual sphere.”
I stumbled upon the Pagan Temptation in a remainder bin in the Christian Bookstore I was working in while attending university. I was struck by this sentence: “The pagan thinker regarded the soul as subtly material: the Stoic sage considered it part of the fiery world-soul, and the Epicurean postulated no soul at all but only material particles – cohesive heaps of them, as Lucretius suggested.”
Molnar reminded me that it was Epicurus who first popularized the idea that the universe contains only matter and void and that human beings, their intelligence and cognition, are an accident of organic life. Epicurus was an early Greek agnostic, who postulated the rather contemporary sounding philosophy that the best ethics rise out of the search for happiness. Materialism was in full bloom in the “pagan” world that predated Christianity. I had naively thought of pagans as tribal hordes, dancing around bon fires worshiping idols and performing secret initiations.
Molnar said that pagans were the “pre-Christian” religions/philosophies that shared, by and large, the belief that a person’s goal in life was to become a Sage. Sages, which latter included the Gnostics; saw the world as basically a failed attempt by God or the Gods to make something that we, in our humanness, can never know. All we do know, according to the Sages, is that it didn’t work. Creation was a botched job, a catastrophic explosion of the divine into shards of reality that became the reality we know. According to this view the only hope we have is that possibly at some distant date all the fragmented particles of God will return back out of the world. The goal of ancient paganism, then, was to rise from lower consciousness by fostering distance from and contempt for the shattered state, the body, the world, and any lower thought. This, Molnar said is real pagan fundamentals. This was the wisdom of Greece, and Rome and, though Molnar does not say it, Egypt too.
Onto this scene came nascent Christianity exalting the notion that spirit was made flesh in an act of special divine grace for the sake of mankind, just the opposite of what the sages taught. What is more, this spirit made flesh was the central object of worship as a God-Man who suffered torments in his flesh, shed tears, felt betrayed, and predicted with an infinite sorrow the destiny of his Holy City. The Sages saw in humans only a particle of the divine worthy of re-absorption into God. The body and even the soul were mere trappings of some long term education project the divine was conducting for itself. Christianity with its insistence on the resurrection of the body was an oddity at the outset, and a sore adversary when it came right down to it.
According to Pierre Duhem, quoted in Molnar, the failure of Greek science to continue on the path to modernity was due to the influence of this pagan view of the questionable use of bodily existence. To Christianity not only was the universe not a mistake, it was not either, as the pantheists suggested, a Divine given. It was open to investigation and management. For Christians, God was not outside the universe, nor was he made up of the Universe. God permeated the universe and so to study the Universe is to study the creation of God.
Today there is a resurgence of Paganism, Molnar said, in response to the failure of the modernity that Christianity spawned. The saints, in the past as now, were motivated to eliminate suffering and injustice. But as in the past they are now out numbered by those interested in exploitation and manipulation those who suffer to their own ends. It is tempting to believe that the evil in the world is too strong. Classical Paganism, in fact, threw up its hands in the face of such odds, believing it to be a natural part of existence.
An example of what Molar is talking about would be Schumacher who in his book “A guide for the Perplexed” says that the two highest levels of being for us are consciousness and self-awareness. Good pagan ideals. He says that thought is at the conscious level and that as we enter self-awareness we become aware of the limitations of thought, opinion, and debate. We use ideas to think with but higher awareness is a waking up from thought. This way past the intellect to real insight is certainly tempting. It is the Pagan Temptation.
Or is it? What if the move past thought, opinion, and debate is just an acceptance of the complexity of things, and a higher type of thought that attempts to put all the pieces into a very elaborate puzzle? Writers like Ken Wilber and others who postulate higher states of knowing certainly argue this convincingly.
This level of knowing is something like stillness, a mental act of pushing back a bit from the table of debate so that the bigger picture can be glimpsed. It is the grasping of mega-connections, super clusters, patterns and links. It is an acceptance of what is without classification, dissection, or codification. It is whole vision. Pagans used myth to capture this, and it is not surprising that our “mythless” present longs for some metaphor, ritual and symbols that express this largess beyond thought.
The pagan, old and new, says that if God is bigger than the aggregate, more complex than the most complex understanding, if we are to rise from self-awareness to God-awareness we must become more broad and curious than thoughtful and analytical.
We are, the pagan says, attempting to view the invisible, to push beyond our known field of knowledge, and attempt some perception of the emergent, fully interior Other. Jesus told the woman by the well that God calls us to worship in Spirit and in Truth. Two things that are abstract and without physicality.
If Religion is Re-legio (re connection with reality, Truth, God) then it is the religious person who treads on to the thin ice of the unseen. And how, I have asked myself repeatedly, are we to navigate without thought, sight, and all the methods we employ to expose evil and deception. Can we trust awareness alone? Can we trust God to protect us? or is this Eastern idea, transplanted from its pagan motivation, just another deception to cause us to mire and fall?
Huston Smith has noted that there is a common vision in the religions of the world that he refers to as the “forgotten truth.” Non-scientific wisdom has always suggested that reality is bigger than the world of our senses, and that the higher things influence greatly the things on our plane. He goes on to explain that east and west share a common analogy, the idea of the light within. He does not, however, draw attention to an important distinction that Molnar makes:
East – The light is in everyone. We must remove the dirt and soot from our life and let it shine out of us.
West – We must allow the light into our dark room so that we may be ignited and have the divine light clear away our darkness.
Paradoxically both views are right is some way. When the Christian “asks Jesus into their heart” it is an invitation into a house that, in Christian theory, God himself has built and occupied continually. According to this view we are lit from birth with the flame of creation and God’s omnipresence. Never the less, it is our conscious invitation of Jesus into relationship with us that allows for the cleansing that so many feel upon conversion. In this view the Religious life is the submission to the light that has always been apart of our existence. When we give our life to God, we are seeking to not only recognize the invisible reality of things but to allow that personified reality to take control.
The reconnection of our awareness with that higher reality in the form of a relationship, a friendship, is a concept as foreign to western materialism as it was to Roman materialism. Detachment is the Pagan ideal. Relationship is the Christian ideal.
If all this is true, why is there not more unity among Christians? If we are really in relationship with High-reality why is there not more harmony, peace and love? And if it is because of the evil in human hearts or because of an evil reality on a higher plane, then why has God made it so hard for us?
If this plane of spirit and truth which is beyond consciousness and beyond self-awareness is so real, why are we left with so little access to it? In other words, if we are to make sense of life, if we are to reconnect with something real that is beyond what science can detect why are we not better equipped to deal with it? Is it meant to tantalize us, to stretch us beyond our natural limits, is there something in this formula and cloaking that works for our benefit in the long run? The success of modern science and materialism revolves around a central imperative: The story of evolution and the theories of science explains everything without reference to this reality.
The Pagan temptation is so compelling, in part, because it has the power of Occam’s Razor behind it. Reality can nicely be explained without the need to refer to a relational deity. There is something bigger, Pagans and Christians agree, but what the bigger is, and how we are to understand it is the crux of the dispute.
Molnar does not answer these questions, but he provides a very sure spot-light on them. They are competing world views. Western Philosophy has tried in a variety of ways to integrate them for a very long time. Molnar points to some of the successful attempts. His warning is that the appeal of Myth and Pagan “intuition” is so tempting, because, in the end, it is closer to meaning than rational thought can get. But if it is not informed by Christian sensibility it becomes awkwardly irrational.
This, in my mind, is the great strength of Molnar, and what makes him an important and admirable writer. He sees the danger of over-rational philosophy divorced from the relational balance of Christianity. Molnar’s careful and insightful book traces the pendulum swing between Paganism and Christianity, pointing in its guarded way, to some sort of paradoxical knowing. This signpost quality makes it a luminous beacon lost in obscurity.