Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Who Put the Heath in Heathen?


I had occasion to look up the word pagan the other day, and as is true of so many deceptively simple words, it has an interesting and elusive background.

Ultimately, it comes from a Latin word that means a country dweller, a geographical rather than theological designation. Obviously, it has traveled a long way to get to today’s meaning, and the route is not entirely clear.

One suggestion found in dictionaries is that Christianity had its fastest growth in its early years in cities or along important trade routes. Thus, those who lived in remote areas clung to polytheistic worship longer than those in densely-populated regions; they were pagani -- rustics.

A second line of reasoning taking us from “rural” to “heathen” suggests the US vs. THEM dichotomy. If you were not of my community, if you did not live in my village, you were out there somewhere in the heath--bare, uncultivated wasteland.

Another meaning of paganus in Latin was a civilian, as opposed to a member of the military. So the line of reasoning used here is that Christians became soldiers of Christ, while non-Christians were civilian, or unsaved. Read Ephesians 6:11-17 for military metaphors involving armor: breastplates, shields, and helmets. A classic division of Christian church members spoke of The Church Militant (those still on earth) and The Church Triumphant (those already in heaven).

The ironic thing about this is that you’ll probably find more pagans in big cities than in rural America.

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