This article was first published at Patheos
I was brought up in Pennsylvania in an independent Bible Church. Our church building was a large auditorium designed for people to listen to Bible-based sermons. At the front was a big central pulpit and behind the preacher were some pews for the choir. Behind the choir was a recessed baptismal pool, and on the wall behind the pool was a large empty cross. In the church building there were no stained glass windows. There were no Stations of the Cross. There were no flowers. There were no candles. There were no statues of saints.
After college I had the chance to travel and I visited both Europe and India. In France I went into a Catholic cathedral for the first time. As I stepped into the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the interior was dark due to the deep colours of the stained glass windows. Amidst the musty antiquity I could smell the faint fragrance of incense and flowers. Little side chapels dedicated to various saints broke up the vast space of the interior. I went into one and saw in the shadows, the statue of a woman high above an altar. She was dressed in blue, wore a crown and held a child. Beneath her feet a serpent writhed in terror. On and around the altar were vases full of flowers. Banks of candles guttered in the darkness, and when I looked around I saw that there were two or three old women kneeling in prayer, gazing up at the statue of Mary.
When I went to India a few years after that I visited a Hindu temple. Like the Catholic cathedral, inside the temple was an altar before a statue. Offerings of flowers were everywhere. Joss sticks of incense and rows of oil lamps burnt before the image of the pagan god. All around people knelt or stood in prayer.
Coming from my background both Catholicism and Hinduism seemed equally foreign. In fact, Catholicism seemed to be more similar to the pagan Hinduism than it did to my form of Christianity. I remembered the lurid and sensational Chick tracts I’d read as a child and could have concluded that Catholicism really was just as pagan as it’s Protestant critics made out.
Similarity and Same-ness
I could have made that conclusion, but I didn’t, because by the time I was travelling I was already an Anglican. I was studying theology in England and had come to accept that Catholic forms of Christianity were authentic. In visiting the medieval churches and cathedrals of Europe I couldn’t help but be struck by the beauty, antiquity and power of the Christian art on display. But the visit to India also made me aware of how very different Christianity is from Hinduism.
That might seem strange because the visit to the Hindu Temple and the Catholic cathedral actually revealed the similarities between the two religions. Both the cathedral and the temple had statues on display for devotional purposes. In both the temple and the cathedral there was an altar placed in front of the statue. In both of them people were lighting candles in front of the statues. In both of them people placed offerings of flowers in front of the statues. Both groups both of people were praying in front of the statues. Mustn’t we conclude that both groups of people were, in fact, praying to the statues? Weren’t both groups worshipping idols?
Its true that there are similarities between Catholic worship and pagan worship. But that’s what you would expect isn’t it? They’re both world religions, and people do the same kind of religious things no matter what their religion. We don’t throw out elements of Christianity just because the same elements happen to exist in other religions. If we eliminated everything that was similar to other religions we would have to throw out Scripture and cancel our Bible studies because Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists also have Holy Scriptures and spend time studying their Holy Books.
Just because two things are similar it doesn’t mean they’re the same, or that they’ve come from the same place, or that they’re headed in the same direction. To say that Catholicism is the same as paganism just because there are some things that look similar is like saying a Cadillac and a Corvette are the same thing. It’s true that they’re both cars, and there are many similarities between them. Both Cadillacs and Corvettes have glove compartments, exhaust pipes, four wheels and a trunk. But the Cadillac and the Corvette are also very different. It’s the same between pagan worship and Catholic worship. They have similarities, but they also have very important differences. Continue Reading