But renewal is not just a political question. It also has a religious or cultural dimension. Peter Leithart (ht. Chris Morrissey) argues:
Here, as on so many other questions, there’s much to be learned from Christians in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a truism among African theologians that the Church has grown most rapidly where traditional African religions are strongest. According to Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako, this is no accident but highlights the “special relationship” that African “primal religions” have with Christianity. Like primal African religion, Christianity displays a strong sense of human finitude and sin, believes in a spiritual world that interacts with the human world, teaches the reality of life after death, and cultivates the sacramental sense that physical objects are carriers of spiritual power. Christianity catches on there because it gives names to the realities they already know and experience.Primitivize the Enlightenment? Some of our champions of modernity might have trouble with that rhetoric from the Idaho pastor, but he's surely right that modernity as we have experienced it, and not just idealized it, has contained a lot of primitive sacrificial thinking. At a time when Osama bin Laden is recommending we read Noam Chomsky, there may well be more people becoming more aware of the underpinnings of the left-Islamic alliance, epitomized by men like Chomsky who on the one hand comes across as an arch-Enlightenment rationalist, but on the other is clearly allied to some violent and irrational sacrificial forces. How has this historical merger come about? When we can well explain this to ordinary educated people, and show how so much of modern "Enlightenment" is a form of not-so-enlightened Gnosticism, we will be on the way to renewing their interest in the truer traditions of Western culture and becoming useful champions of both modernity and tradition.
This special relationship is not unique to twenty-first-century Africa. Many African theologians invoke the patristic notion of a praeparatio evangelii, the belief that pre-Christian religion was designed to prepare the way for the gospel, to justify their approach to African religions. Athens might have been the birthplace of philosophy, but the Athenian citizens opened civic assemblies with sacrifices and Athenian women celebrated the Thesmophoria in honor of Demeter.
If Christianity is most successful among traditional religions, perhaps the Church has to reinvent primal religion before the West can be restored to Christ. Of course I don’t mean that churches should send their tithes to Wicca International or initiate pulpit exchanges with the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Re-paganizing the West means acting on the premise that, for all our pretense of sophistication, the West has never entirely escaped the impulses and habits of primitive culture, or that, by escaping Christianity, we are reverting to it. Re-paganizing the West means working out the implications of the French sociologist Bruno Latour’s assertion: We have never been modern.
Part of the trick is cultivating a healthy skepticism toward secularization theories. For Max Weber and armies of Weberian sociologists, modernity disenchanted the world, locking us all in the iron cage of rationalized bureaucracy. Even modern religion and music, Weber argued, submit to the tyranny of systematization and disperse the gods. Latour will have none of this. The world has not and cannot be disenchanted: “How could we be capable of disenchanting the world,” he asks, “when every day our laboratories and our factories populate the world with hundreds of hybrids stranger than those of the day before? . . . How could we be chilled by the cold breath of the sciences, when the sciences are hot and fragile, human and controversial, full of thinking reeds and of subjects who are themselves inhabited by things?”
Part of the trick, too, is recognizing the continuities between pagan and modern habits and learning to call them by their traditional names. If a rock concert looks, smells, and sounds like a bacchanal, why not call it that, with all the religious overtones that go with the name? If the rock star elicits frenzy, why not call him a shaman?
Kant moralized and modernized sin, atonement, justification, and the Church to bring Christianity to Enlightened maturity. Perhaps we must reverse the process and primitivize the Enlightenment, so that the gospel can again speak directly to our not-so-modern society. Perhaps we must re-paganize the West as a prerequisite to its re-evangelizing it.