by Matt Koehl
II. Christianity and the West
When Christianity in its Nicene form first made its appearance amongst the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, the future progenitors of the West greeted the new doctrine with considerable suspicion and less than full enthusiasm. For their part, they felt more comfortable with their own indigenous gods and beliefs than with the strange new import from out of the East. Even with the accretion of Hellenistic and Roman elements during its migration from Judea, Christianity—with its underlying Oriental/Semitic character—remained essentially alien to the personality and disposition of the proud Teuton. Within the soul of our ancient forebears, the very concept of original sin was perceived as unreasonable and perverse, just as calls for pacifism and self-abnegation were regarded as demeaning to their inherent dignity.
The inborn religiosity—Frömmigkeit—of these men of the North involved values of personal honor and loyalty, upright manliness, courage and heroism, honesty, truthfulness, reason, proportion, balance and self-restraint, coupled with pride of race, a questing spirit and a profound respect for the natural world and its laws—ideas representative of a worldview which the early Christian missionaries found incompatible with their own doctrine and which they proceeded to condemn as heathen.
If they displayed but little inclination to embrace the new faith, these early Teutons were by the same token not unaccommodating in their attitude. With characteristic Nordic tolerance in such matters, they were perfectly willing to permit the peaceful coexistence of a foreign god alongside the natural deities of their own folk.
For its part, however, the intruding new doctrine—impelled by a hitherto-unknown Semitic spirit of hatred and intolerance—commenced to demand the elimination of all competitors, insisting that homage be rendered to but one jealous god, the former Jewish tribal god—Yahweh, or Jehovah—and to his son. Alien in its doctrine, the Creed of Love now felt obliged to employ equally alien methods to achieve its purposes. Under the auspices of the sword and accompanied by mass extermination, Christian conversion now made great strides where formerly peaceful persuasion had failed. In this manner, for example, were the tender mercies of the Christian savior disclosed to Widukind’s Saxons and Olaf Tryggvason’s Norsemen. If it was hypocritical and inherently contradictory, it was nevertheless effective, and all of Europe was thereby saved for Christianity
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It would be a mistake, however, to assume that only through force and violence did Christianity prevail. In the propagation of its doctrine and the fulfillment of what it considered to be its holy mission, the Church displayed amazing flexibility and suppleness. It was not loath, for instance, to adopt and adapt for its own purposes as it deemed appropriate certain aspects of ancient heathendom, particularly those which were most firmly rooted in the folk experience of our early forebears. Not only did this serve as an aid in the conversion process, making the Christian notion more palatable to the Nordic prospect, but it was also useful in inducing greater conformity and submission on the part of those already converted.
Especially during the reign of Pope Gregory did this policy receive definitive sanction. Former heathen holy places were appropriated as sites for the new chapels, churches and shrines. The Northern winter solstice celebration, Yule, was arbitrarily selected as the official birthday of the Christian savior. The spring celebration of reawakening Nature, Easter, was designated as the time of the Christian resurrection following the Jewish Passover. The summer solstice celebration, Midsummer, was transmogrified into the Feast of St. John, accompanied by the traditional rites of fire and water. In similar manner were other ancient festivals taken over and transformed: Whitsuntide, or High May, became the Day of Pentecost; the Celtic festival of Samhain became All Hallow’s Eve; and Lent, acquiring Christian coloration, recalled a former season of the same name.
Not only was Christian adaptation confined to sacred days alone, however, it extended to heathen deities, customs and symbols as well. A multiplicity of saints and angels, for example—not to mention demons—came to replace the various gods and heroes of pre-Christian times. Ritual infant-sprinkling became Christian baptism, or christening, just as the salubrious effect of holy water generally was quickly discovered by the new faith. Similarly, the lighted tree and evergreen decoration at Christmas time were taken over virtually intact from previous heathen custom. Even the Cross itself was adapted from pre-Christian sources, replacing the earlier Fish, Dove and Star as the emblem of the faith—a fact which led to considerable distress and controversy when it was first introduced in the early Church!
And so, in addition to those Hellenistic, Roman and Babylonian elements which already overlaid an original Jewish nucleus, a Northern component was now introduced to the spiritual mélange which was to become medieval Christianity. With all of these accretions, however, it was essentially the outer form of the faith which was affected and modified; the inner substance of the doctrine retained its basically Oriental/Semitic character. If the new creed was not particularist like its Judaic parent, this had to do with its conceived leveling function among non-Jews. For what had originally been an exclusively Jewish sect had become—at the instance of the erstwhile Pharisee Saul/Paul—a universal creed directed at the Aryan world, denying the validity of all racial, ethnic and personal distinctions.
Thus it was, that out of this alien germ there emerged the faith which was to form the spiritual mold of Western culture.