Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac
If there is, in the corpus of Jesus’ teaching, what might be considered a defining parable, my vote goes to the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13.24-30, 36-43). Here Jesus provides a framework for history and a template for thinking about the progress of the Kingdom of God. The parable covers the time from Jesus’ first sowing of the good seed of the Kingdom until the last day of reaping, gathering, and judgment. The entire world is its staging ground, with the nations and peoples of the world divided into two groups. We might loosely refer to these as the citizens of the Kingdom and the citizens of the world, or, in Augustinian terms, the city of God and the city of man. The parable casts the course of history as a conflict between these two cities. It accounts for the source of each city—the Son of Man and “the enemy”—and defines the city of man as “those who practice lawlessness”—that is, any ethics and practices contrary to the teaching of God’s Law. All Jesus’ other parables, and indeed, all His teaching, can fit within the framework provided by this defining parable. From the beginning of my reading of Steven D. Smith’s remarkable book, this parable sprang into my mind, and continued there throughout the course of his carefully unfolded history of Christian/pagan interactions from the period of the early church to the present. Smith’s book is a dramatic and convincing demonstration of the veracity of Jesus’ teaching. Pagans & Christians in the City clarifies the reason for Rome’s episodic opposition to Christianity; qualifies the Church’s “victory” over paganism during the 4th century; demonstrates the staying power of paganism through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the period of the Enlightenment; casts new light on the pagan and religious nature of contemporary secularism; and explains why contemporary paganism must pursue animus against true Christianity. Smith’s book underscores the truth of Jesus’ parable on the wheat and the tares, bringing its teaching to light from within the maze of history like an image in a stereogram.
Pagans & Christians in the City is a volume in the Emory University Studies in Law and Religion series. Smith’s narrative unfolds toward the resolution of two questions. The first, proffered by T. S. Eliot during the last century, concerns which of two social imaginaries—Christianity or paganism—will ultimately prevail in the West. The second asks why the Romans were so intent, especially during the 3rd and into the early 4th century, on stamping out Christianity, particularly since, as certain of Christianity’s advocates explained at the time, Christians were such good and loyal citizens of the empire.
Smith begins by showing the thoroughly religious nature of pagan Roman society. “Rome was,” he writes, “in a sense, a kind of magnificent megachurch” (81). Reminders of the pagan gods were everywhere; and all Romans, to a greater or lesser extent, did homage to them. Roman religion propped up the privileged class of Rome and gave license to their sexual proclivities. Thus, the threat posed by the one God of Christianity, and His revealed system of morality, was to virtually every aspect of settled Roman society: religion, ethics, social order, and sexuality. Rome persecuted Christians because they would not go along with the empire’s toleration protocols. To do so would have required renouncing their own faith. The Roman solution to Christian recalcitrance was persecution, with the end game being preservation of the Roman way of life.
The Constantinian “solution” of the 4th century did not eliminate paganism. It merely relegated it to a place in the social order where it was enabled to continue and managed to influence the dominant Christian order in a variety of ways. Paganism was never eradicated; it wasn’t even defeated. It simply continued within the framework of Christendom, “under a Christian canopy” (193ff), reviving at times locally, and at other times—such as during the Renaissance—in a more widespread and “respectable” manner.
Smith’s scholarship is broad and thorough; his argument is careful and convincing; and his writing is lucid, consistent, and winsome. The most important contribution of this book is Smith’s persuasive recasting of modernity and secularism into their true and religious light: “the old rivalry in the West between paganism and Christianity, or between immanent and transcendent religiosities, shows signs of becoming reinvigorated” (218). That is putting it mildly. In Smith’s argument, the Enlightenment, the rise of science and evolution, and the age of modernity and postmodernity were not alternatives to religion. These were all religious movements. What we see in the identity politics, tribalism, relativism, consumerism, and narcissism of our day is only the ancient paganism of Rome, cloaked in appropriate twenty-first-century garb. Today’s “secularists” worship history and themselves; they believe that the flow of history has brought their time to light, not unlike the east European intellectuals who capitulated to Marxism in the ’30s and ’40s, and whose folly Czeslaw Milosz exposed in The Captive Mind.1 This explains why, like the ancient Romans, today’s pagans cannot be content merely to allow Christianity to exist alongside them. They insist that Christians validate their pagan views and ways, which Christians can no more do now than they could in ancient Rome. And when they will not—for example, bake a wedding cake for a gay couple—they must be taken to court and punished. They must be made to bring their religion under the big tent of paganism, or they must be silenced.
An important foundation for Smith’s argument is his explanation of the religious nature of all human belief. Whatever views of life we may adopt are designed to meet our needs and account for our sense of the sublime, as well as to bring meaning, significance, purpose, and direction to our existence. And whatever those views are or promise, they are embraced and pursued by faith through acts of devotion and discipline. All social imaginaries engender a wide variety of “liturgies” to aid in the realization of their hoped-for ends. Today’s secularism is as much a religious movement as the faltering Christianity it aspires to supplant.
Smith’s book is about our own day, but his approach to understanding the times is historical, psychological, cultural, and legal. Especially in the last few chapters, Smith demonstrates how American pagans have sought to bring the Constitution to heel and make it serve the purposes, not of the Christian consensus in which it was conceived, but in the new flow of history which it must now serve. He shows how today’s pagans have succeeded in bending the Constitution to favor their own religious symbols, ethics, and practices, and have thereby set the stage for silencing any competing social imaginaries. He does not go as far as Christopher Caldwell in arguing that paganism has managed to establish a “second constitution” as its base of legal operations—one comprised of Supreme Court decisions, civil rights legislation, bureaucracies, and government regulations.2 But his argument runs on an equally valid and parallel track.
Smith describes his approach as conciliatory and not audacious. He is not out to bash and trash paganism. He wants to understand it, and to help pagans understand their own social imaginary so that they may come to realize that, in the end, it cannot deliver the goods. Paganism is no final place to come home to; it creates no solid or lasting community and offers no way to connect with unchanging, transcendent realities. He consoles anxious Christians with the reminder that
Christian societies have embraced as an aspiration and critical standard a transcendent ideal (“Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”) that they have known in advance would not be realized in this world…[I]n the Christian earthly city the citizens are never, and are not supposed to be, fully at home. (378)
the wheat and tares must grow together; the world will always be a place of confrontation, competition, and conflict between them. But Christians can endure this fray and frenzy because they seek a city to come.
Some readers might wish that Smith would go further and supply us with strategies and tactics for recovering primacy of place for the Christian worldview. But the purpose of this important book is not to “fix” paganism. It is a call to understanding, to listen to pagans in their own voices—such as Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, and Barbara Ehrenreich especially—as they sort out their beliefs and edge closer to some version of life “under the heavens” rather than “under the sun.” Pagans & Christians in the City is a charitable book; but it is devastating to the claims of secularists, atheists, and non-religionists of all sorts, who will find it difficult to refute Smith’s argument and uncomfortable to discover themselves and their agenda in the distant mirror of ancient pagan times.
If I have any quibble with this book, it is a small one. But perhaps not. From the early pages of Smith’s book, I began making marginal notes, including Scripture references that seemed to me as either foundational to, supportive of, or illustrative of Smith’s argument. My margins are dotted with references to the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, the gospels, and various prophets and apostles. I can only imagine that Steven D. Smith saw many of those same references as he composed this excellent apologetic. Why not note them in the argument? Or at least in the footnotes? Early Christian historians—Eusebius, Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomen, and Augustine, notably—as well as scholars (Boethius, the anonymous author of the seventh-century Liber de Ordine Creaturarum), artists (Dürer), and natural philosophers (Horrox, Ray) seasoned their writings liberally with references to the Word of God. I am aware, of course, that scholarly conventions discourage such inclusions today. But is acquiescing in such conventions not itself an accom-modation to secular and pagan demands? Steven D. Smith has provided a clear and useful account of the pagan/Christian conflict through the ages, using the best scholarship in a highly effective manner. Might he also have struck a blow for the integrity and reliability of Scripture by offering more than passing reference to it, and that rarely?
But do not allow my letdown to mar the excellence or importance of this book. Historians, sociologists, educators, pastors, theologians, and others in the Christian community and beyond will benefit from a careful consideration of Steven D. Smith’s Pagans & Christians in the City.
Cite this article
- Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).
- Christopher Caldwell, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 171: “Only with the entrenchment of political correctness did it become clear what Americans had done in 1964: They had inadvertently voted themselves a second constitution without explicitly repealing the one they had. Each constitution contained guarantees of rights that could be invoked against the other—but in any conflict it was the new, unofficial constitution, nurtured by elites in all walks of life, that tended to prevail.”