The valor of paganism is that everything detected in one's human nature, has a place. All the gods and goddesses are reifications of human impulses. This creates a subtle harmony in paganism between Nature (the order of the gods) and human nature. By giving offerings to each god in a particular way for particular needs, the pagan tries to connect his particular urges and needs with the deeper natural basis for them. This is eminently rational, for it gives each "aspect" of humanity an outlet, a pat on the head, and a logical complement.
But it precisely because each impulse is treated as each impulse, rather than the whole person being treated as one substantial life, that paganism is so eminently misguided.
To give the proper share at the proper time to each little god, is to give improperly. The essence of a gift is to GIVE. The reason we give limited, periodic gifts is because we can only afford small gifts, can only manage to give trinkets. But when a man truly gives a gift, at bottom he desires to give everything. This is why we reflexively feel embarrassed at the moment someone opens a gift from us. We wish we could have given more. We wish the gift could say more. We wish, in fact, the gift were meet for what we really want to give: namely, our whole love in an undiminished, unfragmented way.
The pagans were as faithful as they were to the many little gods, not for the honor of the gods, but on account of their own need for an approach, at least, towards what grounds human nature: namely, a total self-offering. The tons and tons of incense, lakes and ponds of animal blood, the hours and years of faithful kowtowing to every little god––it was all a stroboscopic attempt to do in many small ways what paganism never allows man to do in a big way: namely, give all one's best, all one's One-Whole, to the One.
The pagans could be as parsimonious among their many craving gods, because, at a deep level, they knew they weren't giving all that much. Paganism was the imperially sponsored equivalent of what office-gift giving is; everyone has to do it around the holidays and on special occasions, but no one can get too carried away, since the gifts aren't for any one person, but only for the general satisfaction of "the higher ups" and the faceless spirit of corporate camaraderie. Pagans worshiped with the same zeal as middle schoolers do on Valentine's Day; everyone gets candy but no one dare show their real heart and give the whole kit and caboodle to one special person. Regardless how dear a pagan may have held one small god above other small gods, the inherent logic of paganism always forbade any one god from being the One God. A patrician's preference for Mars was at best a personal idiosyncrasy, not a meaningful clue to the cosmos.
That same patrician could just as easily lose himself in a Bacchanalian orgy with half his neighborhood, as he could lose himself in the stately wafting incense of an oblation to the Caesar, for in both cases, he never really gave HIMSELF, but only, in the first case, his gonads, and, in the second case, his courteous mannerisms.
Hence, the outrage with which paganism met Christianity is probably best labeled a spasm of manners. It was not only illogical, given the variability and pluripotency of human nature, to hold only one god as One God, but also, much worse, simply bad form, downright unsightly, to proclaim such a singular faith in public. No one could take such singular madness seriously, until, that is, they began to see how such singular madness was in fact a singular kind of sanity. It was sanity to worship One God only because pagans knew, secretly, that it is sanity to love some One as One. Once the overarching unity of the Empire began to crumble, pagans came to see the only thing that had held together the gods, was the Empire itself. The Empire was the unspeaking, undying bedrock of Mt. Olympus; once it crumbled, the illusion of living in one empire, as one people, in one coherent cosmos, was shattered and all the gods filled the shards of the air like vultures seeking any tender morsel. It was only then that pagans began to see the bizarre sanity of Christianity, a sanity rooted in a bizarre threat: because there is no One besides the One Christ in whom all things are one, there is no grounds for living one life––towards one goal in one body––and thus any attempt to cling to one god, is simply to be ripped into shreds as small as every clinging god.
Once pagans saw that worship––the giving of one's highest––was incoherent unless there was in fact a Highest to whom one's highest should be given, then they could turn to the Cross as the shrouded source of the One's one love for the many. The struggle that remained, and which remains in the life of every Christian, is to refuse to be torn to pieces by the elemental forces of nature, to which the gods gave a face, and instead find a crucified, and in turn glorified, wholeness in the Creator of all natures.
In my title, I said "pagans are", not "pagans were", for pagans still thrive. Paganism is strong wherever "rational" people give a fair share to all their personal "sides" in the name of health and maturity. Gratifying one's "carnal side", for example, is a sure sign of being a "real human". But, to focus on the carnal side, since it already gets so much focus, it should be noted that gratifying one's carnal side only makes sense if there is a larger whole (self) of which carnality is a side. Once we see that wholeness behind the many sides modern pagan maturity, then we can appreciate why "gratifying" this or that side, without gratifying the whole self's need for a whole dedication to an even larger whole, is the eminently rational death of paganism. The very language of fulfilling various "sides" and "urges" signals the hollowness of the self those sides mask. For when one "enjoys" sex for the sake of being a "whole person", she immediately reveals her LACK of wholeness. Precisely by needing to fulFILL the drives of a paganized (because, if not polytheistic, then poly-aspectual) self, the modern pagan announces his need to fill an inner void. Carnal maturity is the means by which a pagan opens herself p enough, just enogh, to get from her partner what she needs to be a "whole woman." Without that sexual giving, which is really just a cloaked form of sexual taking, the modern pagan woman will always complain about her inability to live as a whole woman.
Only if one is already whole––in Christ––can one FREELY, and not vacuously (which is to say, slurpingly), give his "carnal" side to another "carnal side", and out of those two sides, make a new whole. Christian marriage is the gratification of carnal life that paganism always sought; the Known Love, as it were, which paganism could (and can) always only worship vainly as unto the Unknown Love (cf. Acts 17). Being whole in Christ does not automatically negate sexuality; it simply frees it to be a gift, either to the Lord via the body of one's spouse, or to the Lord via the sexless consummation of the religious life via the Bride of Christ, the Church. In both cases, Christian lovers give themselves fully to the Lord in the act of giving themselves fully to another human; for the married, the other person is the spouse, while for the religious, the other human is whoever is in need and in reach.
Unfortunately, modern pagans have failed to see what their ancient forebears did: namely, that because there are no other gods than the Christ-God, there is no other way to be "good", that is, piously attentive to the gods, than to offer a total gift of oneself to that One God. Until modern pagans see this truth, they will whittle themselves under the elusive altars of the many gods they find coursing in their veins––sex, status, wealth, power, health, etc.––a whittling process which will only stop when they swear off all such fragmentary prostrations. For the reason the gods can never dispense the fullness that each "mature" oblation is meant to procure, is because the one oracle they can speak, modern pagan man will not hear: "I cannot give what you need because I only dispense what you have already given me." Only when man stops bowing before the many gods he thinks make him up, like a quilt of natural urges, will the gods cease to be gods. Their altars stand as long as man bows to them, but no longer. Only when man stands away from the little altars––stands, mind you, to be lifted on to the One Altar of the Cross––will he see through the altars that are as empty as his own heart, and realize true worship is to give back all one has––that is, nothing––in place of all the One offers: namely, Himself as the One All.
My thoughts on these matters are inspired in large part by David Hart's riveting essay, Christ and Nothing. I close with the last paragraph of that essay:
But we Christians--while not ignoring how appalling such a condition [i.e., nihilism] is--should yet rejoice that modernity offers no religious comforts to those who would seek them. In this time of waiting, in this age marked only by the absence of faith in Christ, it is well that the modern soul should lack repose, piety, peace, or nobility, and should find the world outside the Church barren of spiritual rapture or mystery, and should discover no beautiful or terrible or merciful gods upon which to cast itself. With Christ came judgment into the world, a light of discrimination from which there is neither retreat nor sanctuary. And this means that, as a quite concrete historical condition, the only choice that remains for the children of post-Christian culture is not whom to serve, but whether to serve Him whom Christ has revealed or to serve nothing--the nothing. No third way lies open for us now, because--as all of us now know, whether we acknowledge it consciously or not--all things have been made subject to Him, all the thrones and dominions of the high places have been put beneath His feet, until the very end of the world, and--simply said--there is no other god.