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Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac

Steven D. Smith
Published by Eerdman’s Publishing Group in 2018

T. M. Moore’s assessment of Pagans & Christians in the City is what any author hopes for—a review that is laudatory and charitable, but also comprehending and insightful. In this response, therefore, I might just say “Thank you” and stop there. However, Moore does call attention to some contestable choices in the book that in one form or another are likely to confront any scholar or author who is (or aspires to be) Christian, and who believes Christianity to provide a richer and truer understanding of the world than the secular alternatives on offer, but who is working in a world that is “post-Christian” and at least sometimes anti-Christian. So it seems appropriate in this response to reflect briefly on those choices.

One choice is whether to treat a fallen world’s inevitably flawed people and ideas and movements sympathetically or, instead, more severely and judgmentally. Here I think Moore’s invocation of the parable of the wheat and the tares is exactly right. From a Christian perspective, or from what we might call an eternal perspective, the world and all that dwells therein can present a sort of good versus evil binary: “He who is not with me is against me.” Everyone and everything that does not acknowledge the sovereignty of God leads away from God and is destined finally to some kind of judgment and condemnation. Ultimately (nobody knows the hour or the day) the harvest will come, the wheat will be gathered into the barn, and the tares will be bundled up to be burned.

I have emphasized the “ultimately.” For now and for us—mortals caught up in the here and now of a confounded but nonetheless divinely ordained existence—the world usually does not appear in that sort of good/evil, either/or perspective. On the contrary, philosophies, politics, historical movements, the people around us—we ourselves, our very churches—seem to be complex mixtures of good and bad, truth and error.

And so the Christian author faces a choice. Should one try to consider and write about one’s subject in a binary way and under the aspect of eternity, so to speak? Or instead should one consider the subject from the more temporal and human perspective in which good and bad seem all mixed up together?

I do not think there is any uniformly correct answer to that question. Chri-tians have written perceptively and powerfully from the binary perspective. Two relatively recent examples that come quickly to mind are C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce—a riveting and, for me at least, disturbing little book—and John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) with its provocative development of the theme of a “culture of life” clashing with a “culture of death.”

Often, though, it will make sense to emphasize, and to speak from, the less judgmental and more mixed perspective, leaving any decisive sorting out of wheat and tares for the harvester. For one thing, the more mixed and sympathetic perspective will seem to better describe colleagues and friends and others who are not Christians, and who may adhere to beliefs and practices that seem distinctly un-Christian, but who nonetheless exhibit virtues of charity and intelligence that may greatly exceed our own. A less judgmental approach may render our work more accessible—and thus, we hope, more beneficial—to these good neighbors. In addition, the more mixed perspective may come more naturally to those of us who do aspire to be Christian but cannot pretend to be seers or saints—who understand that there is in our own present composition a good deal of tare rather than wheat. It is the temporal not the eternal perspective, after all, that we ourselves mostly live in and with.

Even in choosing to write from the more mixed and human perspective, to be sure, the Christian author will remain convinced of the superior truth and insight of the Christian view. Should that conviction be conveyed, and if so, how? I think that is a hard question for which, again, there is no mandatory answer. Sometimes, though, the best approach may be to present both Christian and alternative interpretations as fairly and charitably as possible, and to refrain from drawing explicit conclusions, with the hope that if (as the author believes) the Christian interpretation is more true and illuminating, then honest and thoughtful readers will come to appreciate that superiority on their own. “Let [truth] and falsehood grapple,” as Milton famously and stirringly said, “whoever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” That at least has been my own frequent premise and choice.

So if the subject is paganism, or the worship and pursuit of immanent gods and goods, very different treatments are possible. It is possible to perceive paganism, as so many have done during what we call the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and still, as something that has supported glorious achievements in civilization and science and the arts. There is truth, I believe, in that perception. From a more overtly Christian perspective, it is also possible to understand paganism as a demonic devotion that leads ineluctably, within this world’s history, to a “culture of death” and ultimately to what the Bible I read sometimes describes as “hell.” There is truth in that depiction as well, I believe—ultimately, perhaps, a more important truth.

Particularly gifted or inspired authors may be able to perceive and present both dimensions. Augustine’s ability to do this is part of what makes his City of God such a timeless masterpiece. More recently, G. K. Chesterton wrote eloquently about both the glorious and the deadly aspects of paganism. For purposes of my book, though, it seemed best to emphasize the less ultimate, more glittery and glorious side of paganism. (Accompanied by hints, for the attentive reader, of the darker interpretation: thus, pages 57 and 58 briefly describe Rome’s abject poverty, corruption, gladiatorial violence, and infanticide, but then comment that “[o]ur policy … will be to take a sympathetic view: we come to praise Rome, not to bury it.”) That approach seemed best, among other reasons, because within human history it is the glorious aspect that has made paganism so attractive and hence so influential. And so, as Moore notes, my choice was to try to be charitable toward the subject, rather than (explicitly) judgmental.

These explanations, I expect, will already help to answer the more specific question that Moore raises: why does the book not make more overt use of scripture? The perhaps overly quick answer to that question might be given through a scripture: I Corinthians 9:19-23. There is respectable Christian precedent for trying, in some contexts, to be “all things to all people.”

The purpose of an academic book like this one, to be sure, is not exactly Paul’s—namely, to evangelize. But the book does attempt to address an audience that will not be exclusively or even mainly Christian. And like other works of its kind, it attempts to present that audience with Christian interpretations that they may consider along with non-Christian alternatives, hopefully without arousing or tapping into any anti-Christian bias or predisposition that might immediately provoke an unsympathetic response to the argument.

In such a book, it seems to me that scripture is best used discreetly. It is perfectly appropriate, I would think, to use scripture as evidence of what the Christian position has been, and is. Pagans & Christians does cite scripture for that purpose. But invocation of scripture as authoritative, as one might do in a homily (or perhaps in Christian Scholar’s Review), seems incongruent with the book’s purpose and presumed audience.

Still, I am not sure that this is the correct judgment. Moore is right to wonder, I think, whether conformity to secular conventions might sometimes amount to a subtle betrayal of one’s own Christian convictions. I have sometimes had a similar question, for example, about scholarship that easily converts all of the “BC” and “AD” dates to “BCE” and “CE.” Presumably everyone understands that the divide is still based on an estimation of the time of Jesus’s birth—there is nothing else that would designate the latter period as some kind of “Common Era”—so does the conversion amount to an effort to somehow suppress or ignore the historical significance of that transformative event? Or, rather, are Christian scholars who use “CE” merely prudently refraining from giving unnecessary offense in a detail that makes no real difference? Maybe. Still, for myself I admit to feeling uncomfortable switching to the “CE.”

These are questions and choices that Christian authors face and will continue to face, and Moore’s review properly calls attention to such matters, for which I am grateful. More generally, though, I thank him for a careful and charitable—which is to say a Christian—review.

Cite this article
Steven Smith, “Pagans & Christians in the City—A Response to T. M. Moore”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 51:2 , 237-2

Steven Smith

Steven Smith is Warren Distinguished Professor of Law; Co-Executive Director, Institute for Law & Religion; and Co-Executive Director, Institute for Law & Philosophy at the University of San Diego.