Monday, February 24, 2014

The Tolerance of Paganism

David Bentley Hart, in Atheist Delusions, writes about the kind of religious culture early Christians left behind when they accepted baptism:

"Quite apart from their more revolting ritual observances, however, the religions of the empire were— to a very great degree— contemptible principally for what they did not do, and what in fact they never considered worth doing. Occasional attempts have been made by scholars in recent years to suggest that the paganism of the late empire was marked by a kind of 'philanthropy' comparable in kind, or even in scope, to the charity practiced by the Christians, but nothing could be further from the truth (as I discuss below). Pagan cult was never more tolerant than in its tolerance— without any qualms of conscience— of poverty, disease, starvation, and homelessness; of gladiatorial spectacle, crucifixion, the exposure of unwanted infants, or the public slaughter of war captives or criminals on festive occasions; of, indeed, almost every imaginable form of tyranny, injustice, depravity, or cruelty. The indigenous sects of the Roman world simply made no
connection between religious piety and anything resembling a developed social morality. At their best, their benignity might extend as far as providing hostelry for pilgrims or sharing sacrificial meats with their devotees; as a rule, however, even these meager services were rare and occasional in nature, and never amounted to anything like a religious obligation to care for the suffering, feed the hungry, or visit prisoners. Nor did the authority of the sacred, in pagan society, serve in any way to mitigate the brutality of the larger society— quite the contrary, really— and it would be difficult to exaggerate that brutality. To take an example more or less at random... Tacitus relates the tale of the murder of Pedanius Secundus in A.D. 61 by one of his own slaves, which brought into effect the ancient custom that in such cases all the slaves of the household should be put to death— a custom that meant, on this occasion, the execution of approximately four hundred men, women, and children. There was, commendably enough, considerable public protest against the killing of so many innocents, but the Senate concluded that the ancient ways must be honored, if only for the example the slaughter would set, and nowhere in the course of the debate, it appears, was any concept of divine justice or spiritual virtue invoked. That might seem a rather irrelevant anecdote here, admittedly, but the points to note are that the social order that the imperial cults sustained and served was one that rested, not accidentally but essentially, upon a pervasive, relentless, and polymorphous cruelty, and that to rebel against those cults was to rebel also against that order.

"This, above all, must be remembered when assessing the relative openness or exclusivity of ancient creeds. We may recall with palpable throbs of fond emotion how the noble Symmachus pleaded for a greater toleration of pagan practices, and we may generally be disposed to endorse his view that the roads to truth are many; but we would do well to avoid excessive sentimentality all the same....It should probably neither surprise nor particularly disturb us, then, to discover that Christians of the late fourth century were not very inclined to agree with Symmachus that all religious paths led toward the same truth, given that one could walk so many of those paths quite successfully without ever turning aside to bind up the wounds of a suffering stranger, and without even pausing in alarm before unwanted babies left to be devoured by wild beasts, or before the atrocities of the arena, or before mass executions. If, as Christians believed, God had revealed himself as omnipotent love, and if true obedience to God required a life of moral heroism, in service to even “the least of these,” how should Christians have viewed the religious life of most pagans if not as a rather obscene coincidence of spiritual servility and moral callousness? And how should they have viewed the gods from whose power Christ had liberated them if not as spirits of strife, ignorance, chaos, fate, and elemental violence, whose cults and devotions were far beneath the dignity of creatures fashioned in the divine image?"

His book is available here.


Tom Schuessler said...

Fascinating post, John. Christians really did change the world.

Anonymous said...

Not forgetting that those who heard Symmmachus' nicely turned out periods knew, amd may even have remembered if they were old enough, that similarly rounded oratorical art had backed the last pagan emperors in an increasngly savage and desperate effort to root the Christians up from the earth.