Catholicism as a Mystery Religion

Many atheists accuse Christians of having plagiarised the ancient Egyptian mystery religions. They gleefully affirm that the legendary Horus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead. They infer from this that Jesus was a fraud, make-believe, never existed, and so the entire Christian message loses its credibility. It seems very easy.

The Church Fathers were very keen on showing the Old Testament as a prefiguring and symbolic prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. Like Judaism, since Christianity was also addressed to the Gentiles – people who were not born Jewish – the old pre-Christian religions of the Roman Empire, Greece, Egypt, Arabia and Persia were perceived also as prophecies of the one who would bring salvation and reconciliation between man and God or the various deities those people worshipped.

A mystery religion is so called because it contained secret rites known only to the initiated. This was certainly true of early Christianity with the disciplina arcani. The Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation (Chrismation) and the Eucharist are called the Sacraments of Christian Initiation.

The ancient mystery religions were found all over the eastern Roman Empire and beyond. There were also public religions without secret initiations. Among the secret esoteric religions, there were the Eleusinian and Orphic cults, Demeter and Dionysus, Cybele and her beloved Attis. Isis and Osiris (which become Serapis) come from Egypt. Adonis originated in Syria and Palestine and the better known Mithra came from Persia and was immensely popular in the Roman army. I have myself visited the temple of Mithra under the Basilica of St Clement in Rome. It is very impressive. As for meals, the worshippers lay prone each side of the altar on which a bull (or meat from the already dead bull) was sacrificed. Those soldiers sought manliness and strength.

There were hundreds of these mystery cults as there were many more public religions, usually polytheistic. There was no single or common religion in the ancient world. The various religions tended to mingle and become eclectic from about the beginning of the fourth century of our era. Many mystery religions had some ‘characteristics in common. Considerable significance was found in the rites of spring and autumn, respectively new life and death. Nature became symbolic of spiritual processes. Worshippers joined the mystery religions by initiation into secrets about the life of the deity and how humans may find union with that spiritual principle. Emphasis, as in Gnosticism, was placed on personal experience and esoteric knowledge. The mystery religions were based on a myth of the return to life after death of the deity, together with the notion of redemption or the transfiguration of the lower to the higher. These myths were expressed in “sacramental dramas”, which made the ineffable accessible to ordinary human beings.

Though Christianity is essentially based on the Judaism in which Christ was born and was brought up, there are theories about Christ’s youth as with figures like John the Baptist. They came into contact with other spiritual and mystical traditions and disciplines. There were the Essenes, a mystical version of the Jewish faith, as there was also a Gnostic undertow in both Judaism and early Christianity. The tendency of modern Christians to believe in an absolutely united and uniform early Church seems quite ludicrous. As Christianity spread to the non-Jewish world, it adapted and expressed itself in as many ways as the mystery religions. Read St Paul in this light, and a light bulb might suddenly light up in your mind!

I have written to some extent on this subject in Odo Casel and Liturgical Theology, Reflections on Ressourcement Theology and Another Kind of Traditionalism in particular. Over the past hundred years, there have been many advances in historical and theological scholarship. We owe a great debt of gratitude to some of the Modernists at the beginning of the twentieth century who got such a raw deal from Pope Pius X.

Christian evangelism was not an affair of glitzy advertising or psychological manipulation tactics. It involved searching for man’s deepest aspirations and showing how Christ completely fulfils what was known only partially before. The liturgy touches the whole person and not only the intellect.

Dom Odo Casel devoted much of his life to studying the mystery religions. There is a very important work by Dr Theodore Filthaut, Die Kontroverse über die Mysterienlehr, published in 1948 – his doctorate thesis defended at Munich University. I have a translation of this book in French, but I know of no English translation. If a reader can find one, please give us the link. This book describes the controversy in German theological circles between those who followed Dom Casel’s thought and those who stuck to the more classical scholastic theology which give much less importance to the liturgy.

Casel presented the ancient mystery religions as a preparation for the coming of Christ, whilst the liturgy of the Church is the ideal and divine accomplishment of these mysteries. Casel’s main adversary was the Jesuit Father J.B. Umberg. According to the Jesuit, explaining the re-actualisation of past events by the omnipresence of the Logos is an unacceptable hypothesis. There can be no essential resemblance between Pagan and Christian mysteries.

Casel departed from scholasticism and sought a new way of presenting the Christian Sacraments, not by transposing the pagan spirit into Christianity, but to see the essential unity of all religions through the notion of mystery. Casel saw a doctrine of mysteries through the Tradition of the Church. I won’t go into the details of this controversy, because it would take ages – but it would suffice to say that Casel’s vision could not be contained in the old bottle of scholasticism the good Jesuit was upholding. Clearly the limits of scholasticism were becoming evident, as I myself found when I started reading Fr George Tyrrell and the great “new” theologians of the post World War II period. By the time of Vatican II, the Rhine needed to flow into the Tiber, to quote the title of a book widely read by Roman Catholic traditionalists.

Casel sought to see a complete and whole view of the mystery of Christ and the re-actualisation of all the events of salvation history, and not merely the Passion. This was a more Platonic view rather than the Nominalist view that began to prevail in later scholasticism and the Reformation. It is a view expounded by the divines of Radical Orthodoxy. On this subject, there is an article on a new book by Catherine Pickstock on the liturgy – The Contribution of Catherine Pickstock to Liturgical Renewal. I read this illuminating article a few days ago, and meant to mention it on this blog. I was sidetracked by my trip to England and the call of the sea!

I was discussing this kind of thing with my Bishop. The Anglican Catholic Church is ideally placed to work on recovering the spirit, theology and liturgical experience of the Catholic Church of before the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, of before the era when God’s word was frozen in amber by both Catholics and Protestants. This is the starting point of a true renewal, away from clericalism and institutionalism, away from claims of particular institutions to be the true church rather than seek fidelity to the one Church that has always been there and in which we all participate through the Mysteries.

It is a mammoth work, which was clearly the intention of Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church, but which came up against the opposition of conservatism and the spirit of inertia. The movement was to come through the Liturgical Movement and Ressourcement theology. This movement did not intend to the Church to come to terms with the modern world, but to find ways of communicating with the modern world to get over transcendent truths and mysteries.

It is in this spirit that I have always worked hard to promote a kind of Catholicism that gets behind clericalism and conservatism to be radically orthodox or whatever any of us might want to call it. For this we need young blood, men and women capable of serious study and openness to what is new or different from our previous experience.

As I have had the occasion to explain, this blog is the essential of my teaching ministry. An insignificant and humble contribution, for which I thank modern technology.

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One Response to Catholicism as a Mystery Religion

  1. Francis says:

    The intuition of the Ressourcement, and the work of Lubac especially – in his engagement with the very foundations of Thomist thought – was the right one: return to the Fathers and reappraisal of the instruments of the rational apprehension of the Faith. Two reasons why it foundered, forgive my temerity, could be that: 1. the close and complex relationship of the proponents of Ressourcement with the ecclesial authorities tended to reduce this intuition to a policy line on a programme of ecclesial politics; 2. the failure of the proponents of those movements to see the value of the liturgy as it then was (notwithstanding its imperfections) – as a legacy from the Fathers – was decisive (+ dubious modern scholarship) crucial in the liturgical “renovations”. I would surmise that this has something to do with the Jesuitism (in a non-derogatory sense) of the proponents.

    It would have been beneficial had the impulse to critique a closed thomism been coupled to a deep spiritual and liturgical life based on the Fathers, and had it not to a certain degree surrendered to an overly optimistic reception of the zeitgeist.

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