Addressing a crowd gathered this weekend for the “Rediscovering God in America” conference, former House speaker Newt Gingrich told the audience that “we (Americans) are surrounded by paganism”. He didn’t mean it as a compliment. But what did he mean?
Newt’s no fool. Agree with him or not, but this is a really smart guy. So what is talking about? Is “paganism” now synonymous with whatever certain Christians don’t agree with? Is that a riff borrowed from the Hebrew Bible, which might be summarized as one lengthy battle with idolatry, which is often thought of as the same thing as paganism?
But are they same? Is the Hebrew term avodah zarah, literally strange or foreign worship, the same as either of those English words?
A more careful analyses (and this is not the place for it) might yield a definition of avodah zarah which is a function of strangeness over familiarity, hostility to Judaism over tolerance of Judaism, and a false absolutization of the infinite. This would explain why Jews living under more hospitable Christians (the Meiri for example) found no idolatry in Catholicism, those living under Islam found none in that tradition, and why it seems that we ought not find it, in Buddhism for example.
In fact, it seems to me that many of what we might rush to call pagan or idolatrous traditions, are actually acutely sensitive to the infinite and make images precisely because they know that such images are not full picture of the infinite but aids to approaching what is. Ironically, if Newt is any example, we may be witnessing a far more idolatrous i.e. falsely absolutized, version of Christianity than we are getting from the traditions against which he seems to be railing.