Recently I finished a small but powerfully written book on the world of pagans and Christians in the third century AD: Pagans and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, by E.R. Dodds. Dodds was a great classical scholar, a good writer, and the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford for twenty years. He retired in 1960. He possessed a thing which is becoming rarer and rarer today in the world of academia and scholarship: he could write a good book on an esoteric topic, without jargon, that was also deeply learned and accurate, and easily comprehensible to the layman. This was a art that was cultivated quite well by older British scholars.
Dodds main premise is that personal religious movements often arise out of the psychological anxiety that is engendered by political turmoil, and the third century AD was a very tumultuous time, as the Roman Empire was beginning to become more strained and uneasy politically, militarily, and culturally. There were many religious movements at the time, many from the East, such as the mystery cults of Mithras and Isis. Christianity was one of these many competing religious movements.
I often wonder what made Christianity the most successful of these different religions? Why did it triumph while the others vanished? It is a complex question, one that cannot be answered in a simple few lines. But Dodds does succinctly theorize some of the reasons why Christianity succeeded, and the other religions passed away. He gives a few interesting hypotheses.
To begin with, Christian martyrs were admired by the pagans. As Dodds points out, paganism was a religion not worth dying for, whereas Christians did die for their religion. This type of courage in the face of death was something always admired and respected in the ancient world, and the Christians displayed it better than others. The example of martyrs, although historically not of a great number, did leave a deep impression on the pagan mind at the time.
Christianity also offered a clear and unambiguous road to salvation. There were literally thousands of little cults and deities that one could choose from in the late Roman Empire, and the sheer number must have been very confusing for those seeking some sort of spiritual path. Christianity was clear in its beliefs that it was the one true religion and its “refusal to concede any value to alternative forms of worship” meant that those who became Christians knew and were confident that they had found the one truth. Today Christian intolerance may seem to be problem and I think it is in many ways, but it was precisely that intolerance towards other religions in its early years that allowed it to define itself clearly in the face of competing religious movement. This helped its survival.
Next, Christianity was inclusive, whereas most religious movements were exclusive. It was open to all social groups. One did not need to be educated, to be member of the aristocracy, to be wealthy or powerful in order to belong to the Church. Rather, the mass of Christians actually came from the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised sections of society, such as slaves and women. The pagans mocked this at the time as being a weakness, but in fact the ease of becoming a Christian for any and all interested fueled the spread of Christianity.
It also offered a clear hope of personal salvation. Heaven was a possibility for anyone; eternal life was the ultimate message of Christ. This was a much more powerful message than, say, the transmigration of souls preached by other religions, or a vague notion of unity with a divine being after death. Christianity preached the resurrection of the body after death, which was a radical concept at the time. For most spiritual movements, the body is dissolved forever after death, but with Christianity the body lives on in a state of heavenly bliss for all eternity with God. Christ was real man who rose from the dead. This gave people something that was sorely missing in the ancient world at this time: clear hope of real afterlife.
And, perhaps most importantly, Christians were the most well organized religion, with a sense of community unlike any other at the time. This gave people living in a very large and impersonal world, a world of mass movement and political turmoil, a sense of belonging to some community of people who cared about them. This has always been one of the great strengths of Christianity, and even the pagans at the time had to begrudgingly acknowledge this. Christians took care of their own, they helped widows, orphans and the poor, they buried their dead, and this created a cohesion unlike anything in other religions at the time. Today we take the Christian influence on social welfare for granted, but at the time Christians revolutionized the ideas and practice of helping others. One of the tragedies of the recent clerical sex scandal was the fact that many of the men involved in sexual misconduct, either in the deeds themselves or in the cover up, were deeply involved in the care and helping of others. There were stories of how Cardinal Law would often show up at the hospital without notice to minister to people who were sick. But no one remembers that or credits him with such things now. Such acts of charity were lost in the justified furor over the terrible crimes committed by so many.
Again, this a very simple summary of a very complex topic. There are many other aspects of the dialogue between Christianity and paganism at the time which Dodds covers, but I have not mentioned here, such as the relationship between ancient philosophy, such as Platonism or Neo-Platonism and Christianity. But, what his book show is that the world of the Late Roman Empire was very different from our own, but also quite similar at the same time, interesting, sophisticated and tumultuous, with a multitude of religions, and much psychological angst, much like our own. One big difference however, not mentioned by Dodds, is that Christianity at the time was on the ascent, whereas today it is more on the descent, at least in the Western world. We once again live in a more religiously amorphous world in the West. So, in some sense, perhaps humorous, 1500 hundred years after the triumph of Christianity in the West, the old pagan gods and ideas never really went away, they simply went underground and have now returned. Whether this is a good or bad thing remains to be seen. Whatever the case, I now wonder how Christianity will fare in the West now, when we are once again in a world of vastly different and competing religious movements and experiences and great political changes and psychological anxieties.
If Tony Perkins and Rick Santorum are any indication, the future of Christianity in the West is not looking too bright.
Jacob Ian Stalk said:
” the future of Christianity in the West is not looking too bright.”
Loved the post but I want to push against this last statemenr, not because I disagree with the sentiment behind it, but because Christianity isn’t “in” the West so much as the West is “in” Christianity.
The influences that determine the success of any civilisation are not independent of the fundamental moral laws that inform them. The opposite cannot be said to be true – that moral laws are dependent on civilisation. Like scientific laws, moral laws are irreducible and civilisation can’t function without them. Perfect Christianity is a blueprint for perfect civilisation, so it has absolute primacy over the imperfect attempts (e.g. the West) that delusional Man thinks himself capable of producing. In other words, the future of Christianity does not depend on the West.
Sooner or later a tipping point is reached if a society continues to disobey those moral laws (whether one believes in Christ or not) and it will disintegrate. The laws themselves won’t change and another righteous civilisation will emerge. God works like that.
Another point I’d like to make, for the benefit of non-religious readers, is that what ensures Christianity’s survival is that it not only embodies and personalises those irreducible moral laws into a Perfect Man, as do many religions, but it deifies that Perfect Man and then declares all further deifications forever off-limits. The implications of this, while seemingly short-sighted, are profoundly long-sighted: everyone – every man, woman and child who will ever live – has protection in Christ against any assault on their moral autonomy and free will, whether such despotism be from their own genetic imperative, a tyrannical state, a robot-controlled post-singularity, or the prescriptive tendency of misinterpreted Darwinism.
It is vanity that human beings will allow the vagaries of any temporal kingdom to undermine the inevitability of the eternal kingdom represented by Christ, whether or not they acknowledge such faith.
Racer X said:
Thanks for the comment. Yes, that is an interesting point about Christianity not being in the West, but the West being in Christianity.
I’ve been thinking about going pagan. How is it working for you? My wife and I are both looking for women to… make friends with. We are kind of shy in that manner.
Racer X said:
Well, I am still sorting through different things. I have not really rejected Christ, just various forms of modern Christianity. I suppose I am sort of a pantheist at the moment. Perhaps I see Christ as the culmination of polytheism? I really do not know right now. As I said, I am working through these things at the moment.
As far as finding another woman, good luck with that. You are more likely to find the holy grail. The threesome is more an urban legend than anything else, and it is notoriously difficult to plan out, search for, and find an available, attractive woman to join your and your wife in bed. Most threesomes are spur of the moment thing, a result of opportunity and luck more than anything else, as fleeting as a summer’s breeze. Anyway, those have been my experiences with threesomes: you can’t plan for them, they just happen.
Already happened a few times – and you’re right about planning.
Ian Ironwood said:
I am a Pagan, and have been for more than 25 years. Yes, I rejected Christianity, for much the same reason than my paleo-pagan forebears embraced it: what I was doing wasn’t working, and I needed something that would.
Christianity’s appeal lay largely in the near-mystical place that writing and literature held at the time. When only 2% of the world’s population is literate, anyone who can read is near-magical, and when they can literally “hear the words of the dead” in their books, that was a powerful mystical motivator. Add to that an inclusive philosophy that welcomed every soul they could get their hands on and an institutional genius for organization and funding, and it’s easy to see why Christianity took over when it did.
It’s also easy to see why it is failing now.
Christianity lost its mojo when it failed to respond to the three great horrors of the 20th century: industrialized warfare, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb. Instead it buried its head in the sand of collective guilt and abstract theology and lost the faith of the people. It’s anti-science tendencies and hidebound moralism keep it a religion mired in the mud of the Agricultural Age, when our civilization has transformed into a post-industrial economy. Revelatory religions and promises of immortality just do not appeal to people who are focused on their individual spiritual journey anymore. The needs of the people have changed, and Christianity failed to change with them. Hence low church attendance, church closings, and the decline in the relevancy of the institution put Christianity on a long, slow collision course with the iceberg of history.
Do I think Paganism is going to fill that void for most people? Of course not, nor would I want it to. We live in an age where individual spiritual pursuit and orthopraxy is more important than collective belief and orthodoxy. Paganism is merely one of many ways you can get there from here. And that’s the point: when presented with every religious and spiritual idea man has ever recorded, it’s going to be tough for the Abrahamic religions (well, Christianity and Islam) to survive indefinitely without major reform at both the doctrinal and compositional level.
Racer X said:
Thanks for the comment. Your analysis of some of the problems Christianity faces at this point in history is quite interesting. I agree that major reforms are needed. Also your observation of the importance and power of the written word in ancient societies that had low literacy rates is good too. Christianity certainly benefited from that.