In Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Kindle Edition, c. 2018), Steven D. Smith, a law professor at the University of San Diego, contends that many people share the beliefs of the ancient Romans. They may be “godless”from a theistic perspective, but they passionately revere such things as racial equity and sexual freedom and environmental purity. They have sacred spheres, but they are all within the natural world, rather than the supernatural realm dear to Christians and Jews. They are the “modern pagans” T.S. Eliot described in his 1939 lectures, and they are as likely to shun or persecute Christians today as they were 20 centuries ago.
Smith begins his discussion by presenting undeniable evidence that we are homo religiosus. By nature we are as deeply religious as we are rational or tool-making or playful. Drawing on sources as diverse as Sophocles, Victor Frankl, Leo Tolstoy, and William James, he illustrates the ancient adage: “man does not live by bread alone.” Throughout human history there’s been an insatiable craving for meaning and purpose in life, for answers to the great “why” questions. Thus, said Ludwig Wittgenstein: “‘To believe in God means to understand the question about the meaning of life.’ ‘To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.’ ‘To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning’” (p. 45). To Rabbi Abraham Heschel, religious reflection begins with the “awe” or “wonder” we feel when confronting creation. Importantly: awe “‘is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding. Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves’” (p. 48).
It’s simply part of who we are—religious, meaning-mongering creatures. So it’s never a question of whether or not we’ll have religious concerns but rather what form these concerns will develop. Consequently, in the ancient world, both pagans and Christinas were deeply religious, but pagans sought meaning in this world, which may include certain invisible realms, while Christians and Jews discerned it in an invisible, metaphysical one. With all their gods and goddesses, temples and public ceremonies, Romans were in many ways “‘the most religious people in the world’” (p. 87). In its grandeur Rome certainly possessed military, economic, architectural and cultural riches, but it also featured distinctly religious goods—“meaning, sublimity, and communal connection to the sacred” (p. 105). These goods were present in the natural world, with its beauty, order, and awe-inspiring fecundity.
Then Christians boldly challenged this Roman religion with an offensive theology and ethics. Over the centuries Rome had tolerated various tribal deities and mystery cults, but Christianity was something else. Above all, it insisted to uniquely possess “the way, the truth, and the life.” It wasn’t simply one of many ways, which would have been most congenial to the Romans, but it was The Way! Importantly, whereas the pagan gods inhabited only this world, Christians worshipped “‘the creator of the world, which he guides in its course and maintains in its existence—an invisible, hidden, spiritual god who dwells beyond time and space’” (p. 146). For pagans, the natural world is our home, and we should settle in and enjoy its goods. For Christians, however, a heavenly home awaits us as pilgrims. Beholding the heavens, the pagan “exclaims, ‘How divine!’ The theologically fastidious Christian looks up and says, ‘What a sublime manifestation of the divine!’” (p. 152). To the pagan, the good life meant good food, casual sex, comforts of various sorts. But Christians would forego all temporal goods so as to gain “eternal life.” Pagans disdainfully rejected any notion of the resurrection of the body—death simply ended, once and for all, one’s life. But St Paul exclaimed: “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?” In fact, “Luc Ferry asserts that ‘the entire originality of the Christian message resides in “the good news” of literal immortality—resurrection, in other words and not merely of souls but of individual human bodies’” (p. 233).
Inevitably these two worldview clashed. The greatest analysis of this conflict, of course, was St Augustine’s City of God, showing how the earthly city constituted itself by loving self self rather than God, whereas the heavenly city was composed of those who disregarded this-worldly matters in pursuit of everlasting well-being. Though generally tolerant of religious diversity, when pressed Rome resorted to persecuting Christians when they too clearly threatened the stability of their “earthly city.” And when Christians became politically powerful in the fourth century, A.D., they often (and generally half-heartedly) sought to eliminate paganism. Christians, of course, prevailed and subsequently established the Western Christian Civilization that so shaped Europe for a millennium.
And yet, Smith thinks: “In a certain sense, the Western world has arguably always remained more pagan than Christian. In some ways Christianity has been more of a veneer than a substantial reality” (p. 251). Throughout the Medieval world vestiges of paganism persisted—witchcraft and astrology, names and holidays, philosophy and literature. Then came the Renaissance, which some historians, such as Jacob Burkhardt, think featured a resurgence of ancient paganism highly evident in the great artistic works of that epoch. To Paul Johnson the Renaissance incubated “‘the first great cultural war in European history’” (p. 260). And inasmuch as Christianity survived the Renaissance it faced an even more formidable foe in the European Enlightenment.
“Consequently, in his admired and admiring history of the movement, Peter Gay interprets the Enlightenment as ‘the rise of modern paganism.” And how exactly were the Enlightenment thinkers ‘pagan’? Primarily, in Gay’s telling, in their forceful criticism and rejection of Christianity. ‘The most militant battle cry of the Enlightenment,’ Gay explains, “ecrasz l’infame, was directed against Christianity itself, against Christian dogma in all its forms, Christian institutions, Christian ethics, and the Christian view of man.’ The Enlightenment amounted to a ‘great campaign against Christianity’” (p. 264). Of Voltaire, a prominent exponent of Enlightenment verities, “Gay explains that the torrent of pamphlets that poured out . . . in the last sixteen years of Voltaire’s life reveals a distaste for Christianity amounting almost to an obsession.’” As Voltaire declared: “Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.” All things Christians he despised—“the Trinity, the chastity of the Virgin Mary, the body and blood of Christ in the Mass, all are cruelly lampooned” (p. 265). Though less malicious, his counterpart across the Channel, was the skeptic “David Hume, ‘the complete modern pagan’” (p. 265). Such paganism was on full display amidst the furor of the French Revolution, when Notre Dame was rededicated as a “temple of reason,” the clergy vilified and martyred, and Christianity widely denounced.
Lest we think the Renaissance and Enlightenment were novel epochs, however, Smith thinks that paganism is simply man’s natural condition, and whenever Christianity recedes it resurges. But what we see emergent today is an irreligious agnosticism—“secular humanism”—which finds nothing sacred, not even human beings. There is no ultimate purpose or “telos” to anything, just an evolutionary unfolding of a material world. To a Princeton philosopher, Walter Stace, the triumph of modern science gave us a philosophical (scientistic) naturalism “which is ‘purposeless, senseless, meaningless. Nature is nothing but matter in motion.’ This new worldview, Stace thought, ‘though silent and unnoticed, was the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated through the world’” (p. 286). It lacks the consolations of paganism as well as theism.
Yet not all thinkers embrace this revolution, portending the failure of sheer secularism. Such was one of the “most influential (and thoroughly secular) English-speaking legal scholar and philosopher of recent decades, Ronald Dworkin” (p. 293). As he aged, Dworkin hungered for something more than mere matter-in-motion. He longed for a “moral realism” giving some basis for ethics as well as something “sacred” to endow his life with some sort of meaning. And in his final book he “explicitly embraced “religion”—albeit “religious atheism,” as he called it” (p. 296). There could be nothing transcendent, so he found comfort in the views of Spinoza and Einstein, “whose philosophies he offered as representative of the kind of ‘religious atheism” he himself advocated.” To Spinoza God and the world are one and the same. And Einstein “‘did not believe in a personal god, . . . but he did ‘worship’ nature’” (p. 298). In the disenchanted world of modern secularism, Dworkin prescribed re-enchanting it with nature-worship. It’s a revival of paganism, reclaiming “the city that Christianity wrested away from it centuries ago” (p. 330).
Consequently we have a divisive cultural war, pitting traditional believers committed to a transcendent Authority against a progressive cohort locating all moral authority within this world. “In short, the conflicting orientations—toward ‘transcendent’ or conversely toward ‘inner-worldly’ sources of moral authority—reflected, and reflect, the competing transcendent and immanent religiosities” seeking to control America. “In that sense, the condition of contemporary America is comparable to that of fourth-century Rome, when Christianity and paganism, each with its powerful representatives . . . . struggled for mastery within the city” (p. 337). For example, there is a struggle over symbols, traditionalists seeking to retain and progressives to remove Christmas creches, 10 Commandment monuments, “under God” additions to the pledge of allegiance, etc.
Then there’s sex! The past half-century has witnessed a momentous “struggle over a variety of issues connected in various ways with sexuality: contraception, pornography, abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage.” All were once illegal. Now they’re all contested, and traditionalists are losing! Though it may seem that a “new morality” is triumphing, it’s actually nothing new, for in antiquity sexual standards sharply divided Christians from the pagan world. Contraception and abortion were embraced in the ancient world, as they are by today’s progressives, helping constitute, Mary Eberstadt says, “‘a new, quasi-religious orthodoxy’” (p. 256). “As in Rome, it may seem, contemporary society ‘find[s] in erotic fulfillment nothing short of salvation’” (p. 356). The victories progressives have won have taken place primarily in the nation’s courtrooms, where Christian values have been relentlessly disregarded. This is vividly evident when considering contraception, “the expressive or symbolic core of the transformation in sexual morality” (p. 361). Legal restrictions were discarded as the sexual revolution of the ‘60s commenced, and sexual intimacy was effectually severed from its “its traditional connections to procreation and marriage” (p. 361). Consequently, “the Christian norms of sexual morality and marriage that previously were officially recognized in law, and has moved the law decisively in the direction of a view of sexuality that resonates with the immanent religiosity of both ancient and modern paganism” (p. 368).
Modern pagans endeavor to dismiss the freedom of religion along with traditional sexual standards. Ancient pagans tolerated a variety of religions but routinely persecuted Christians. That was because all of the pagan religions shared a commitment to an immanent metaphysics. When Christians injected their beliefs in a transcendent Creator who prescribes ethical absolutes, the pagans turned malevolent. Two thousand years later, despite their pretense of “tolerance,” modern pagans increasingly illustrate an “intolerant tolerance” flourishing in the halls of Congress as well as social media. Epitaphs such as “racist” or “bigot” or “Hitler” are plastered on whomever dares disagree with them. These modern pagans are determined to repudiate the Supreme Court’s 1892 claim that “we are a Christian nation.” Rejecting not only the notion that America is a Christian nation but the 1992 Restoration of Religious Freedom Act, today’s pagans want to stamp out any hint of transcendence in the public square. What you do by yourself in your own home is fine, but you dare not bring your religious commitments into the workplace (bakers, florists, pharmacists, photographers) or school or armed services. When, for example, the Indiana legislature recently passed a law securing religious freedom “it was vehemently denounced by a veritable legion of politicians, pundits, government officials, scholars, CEOs, late night talk show hosts, athletic directors, and major corporations. Boycotts were threatened. Governors and mayors announced that public officials would not be reimbursed for travel to do business in the Hoosier state” (p. 398). Hoosiers quickly buckled under the assault, and religious freedom retreated.
Smith’s amply-documented, cogently argued case brings an insightful perspective on developments in our world.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In 1939 T.S. Eliot delivered a series of three lectures at Cambridge University, published the following year as The Idea of a Christian Society (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., c. 1940). Though noting the “difficulties of the moment,” as Europe stood on the cusp of WWII, he insisted on addressing more urgent, fundamental issues, looking at things with a long lens and seeking to understand them. He made no pretense to be a scholar or pundit, simply a poet trying the plumb the inner essence of what made Europe Europe—a Christian Society forged in Medieval times that was rapidly being displaced by what some thinkers judged a Pagan Society birthed by modernity. That had not finally occurred, he thought, but he wondered if the once-prevailing Christian Society had any hope of resurgence. To be clear, Eliot believed that a real Christian “can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organization of society—which is not the same thing as a society consisting exclusively of devout Christians. It would be a society in which the natural ends of man—virtue and well-being in community—is acknowledged for all, and the supernatural end—beatitude—for those who have the eyes too see it” (p. 27).
Such a society would feature many factors, synthesizing subsidiary “units of the community,” including family, workplace and church. But its most notable feature would be education. Indeed: “A nation’s system of education is much more important than its system of government; only a proper system of education can unify the active and contemplative life, action and speculation, politics and the arts” (p. 33). Unfortunately, education had become equated with “instruction,” generally of a utilitarian sort. The sidelining of the liberal arts so evident in today’s universities was clearly on Eliot’s mind! Still more, he understood that wherever the state takes control education becomes a tool for indoctrination, making youngsters devotees of the political regime. But “a Christian Society education must be religious,” not in that it is controlled by the clergy or committed to doctrinal indoctrination, “but in the sense that its aims will be directed by a Christian philosophy of life” (p. 30).
A Christian philosophy of life would be maintained not because it was useful, but because it is eternally true. At its heart is dogma rather than development. And it would encourage a right “conformity with nature.” Long before “ecology” became popular, Eliot lamented the mechanization of life following the industrial revolution, leading to both a “deformation of humanity” and “the exhaustion of natural resources,” so “that a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly” (p. 48). He believed that “a wrong attitude towards nature implies somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and that the consequence is an inevitable doom. For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: it would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet.” Without reverting to revering the primitives, we could well heed their examples in some areas. Unfortunately, we’ve bowed before the altar of progress and thereby compromised our “spiritual knowledge and power.” In fact: “We need to know how to see the world as the Christian Fathers saw it; and the purpose of reascending to origins is that we should be able to return, with greater spiritual knowledge, to our own situation. We need to recover the sense of religious fear, so that it may be overcome by religious hope” (p. 49).
This of course was not Eliot’s England a century ago, for it had been largely shaped by a Liberalism which was eroding the Christian Society it merely tolerated. Committed to an insatiable progressivism, it had carelessly jettisoned religious traditions and dogmas. “By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinion of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos” (p. 12). This Liberalism was, however, weakening, and a deeply non-Christian materialistic philosophy appeared poised to replace it.
Eliot’s hope for a return to a robust Christian Society was, of course not to be, as was evident in post-WWII Europe. But his lectures stand as a monument to what once was—and what might be—if the Church could once again provide guidance for our world.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In 1942, amidst a war that was “more disastrous than any that Europe had known since the fourteenth century,” the noted historian Christopher Dawson published The Judgment of the Nations (New York: Sheed and Ward, c. 1942; republished by The Catholic University of America Press, 2011). Noted for his many works detailing the power of The Faith in shaping Western Christian Culture, he wrote with dismay at the evident “disintegration” of that culture. The world had changed more in the past century, he thought, than in any other “period in the history of the world” (p. 3). WWII revealed the accelerating power of evil orchestrating “a spiritual catastrophe which strikes directly at the moral foundations of our society, and destroys not the outward form of civilization but the soul of man which is the beginning and end of all human culture” (p. 10).
After analyzing the religious origins of European disunity and the failure of both Liberalism and the League of Nations, Dawson discussed “The Secularization of Western Culture.” On a purely material level, the West has progressed impressively—our standard of living is demonstrably superior our grandparents, not to mention their grandparents! But: “This is the greatness and misery of modern civilization—that it has conquered the world by losing its own soul, and that when its soul is lost it must lose the world as well.” (p. 67). The classical 19th century Liberalism of Adam Smith granted religion a small sphere of autonomy and influence—the “freedom of religion” established in America’s Bill of Rights. “But the progress of mechanization and the social organization which it entails, has steadily reduced this margin of freedom, until today in the totalitarian states, and only to a slightly less degree in the democratic ones, social control extends to the whole of life and consciousness. And since this control is exercised in a utilitarian spirit for political, economic and military ends, the complete secularization of culture seems inevitable” (p. 72). Our technological society, it seems, plows ahead as relentlessly as a bulldozer, leveling everything to a purely secular level. And it cannot but demolish both religion and personal freedom.
Though Dawson lamented this destruction, he did not despair. So he crafted a series of chapters calling for the “restoration of a Christian order” to contravene the planned societies espousing Socialism (whether in Stalin’s Russia or FDR’s America). Mandating equality at the expense of freedom, modern “civilization” seeks to control both the natural world and the persons resident in it. “A free culture is an unplanned culture” (p. 81). Consequently, a planned culture is an unfree culture. A planned culture cannot but destroy the freedoms needed for art, literature, philosophy and religion to flourish. And so it goes!