The brilliant 20th century author G.K. Chesterton summarized the entire history of religion in one sentence. He wrote, “Paganism was the biggest thing in the world, and Christianity was bigger, and everything since has been comparatively small.”
We often dismiss paganism as foolish and ignorant, and for that matter, quite blasphemous, since pagans worship the sun and the moon and other aspects of nature, rather than the Almighty God who created nature.
However, just imagine you are living in a primitive culture, say, three- or four-thousand years ago. All you and your tribe know about the origin and purpose of life is what you’ve observed: people are born, they live, and then they die. Some people are much stronger and talented than others, and often become powerful leaders and kings, but ultimately even they die, too. On the other hand, elements of nature—the sun, moon, stars, wind, and rain—seem eternal. Or at least they’ve been around a lot longer than any mere mortal. And on many occasions, especially during storms or heat waves or forest fires, these various parts of nature are plainly much more powerful than mere mortals.
If you were living in those primitive circumstances long, long ago, the only logical course of action would be to look upon nature with awe and reverence. And since human beings have an instinctive desire to worship, it would make perfectly good sense to bow down and worship nature.
What makes Christianity, in Chesterton’s words, “bigger” than paganism, is the fact God has revealed Himself to us. If God had not yet done what He actually did at specific moments in history—make a covenant with Abraham, give the Law to Moses, come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church—then paganism would be the highest form of religion. It would be the most honest and noble response to a limited understanding about the origin and purpose of life.
Thankfully, the Lord God Almighty is not silent. He did not leave mankind to grope around in the dark forever. He did not wish to see His precious creatures bowing down to the sun and moon indefinitely, so when the right time came, He spoke to Abraham, and began the long and amazing process of salvation history, which culminated in the death and Resurrection of His only Son, Jesus.
We now live in the age of grace, and the Catholic Church has been entrusted with the fullness of the faith, the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are no better than the ancient pagans, we’re just blessed to be living in an era that has so much more information about God. (But don’t think that means we have FULL knowledge of God. When it comes to knowing the mind of God, we’re a lot like chipmunks trying to figure out how a computer works.)
The knowledge of God that we possess comes at a price: the responsibility to use it properly. The ancient pagans had a good excuse for worshiping the sun and moon: God had not spoken to them. In our day and age, we cannot worship nature—let alone things such as money or pleasure or power or ourselves—and then plead ignorance when we stand before God at the final judgment.
So, the next time you see a huge full moon on a clear night, try to imagine you’re living thousands of years ago, and you don’t know much about the origin and purpose of life. But you do know that big ol’ moon is an amazing sight. Gaze at it with awe and wonder, and then, because you have divine knowledge that’s been revealed to mankind, don’t worship that marvelous moon. Instead, worship and thank the Almighty God who made it.