Christians vs. Pagans, Round Two?
Steven D. Smith shows how the culture wars reflect differences between transcendent and immanent accounts of the sacred
Christianity was conceived in a Jewish womb but born into a pagan world. For the first four centuries of its existence, Christianity struggled against the polytheism, violence, and sexual immorality of classical culture, eventually displacing paganism as the default faith of the West.
That dominance continued through the Middle Ages until the 16th century, when conflicts between Catholics and Protestants divided Christendom and set the stage for the rise of Enlightenment secularism. Since then, secularism has slowly displaced Christianity as the West’s go-to ideology.
That’s the standard narrative of Western history, at any rate. Steven D. Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City offers a thought-provoking counter-narrative inspired by T.S. Eliot’s 1939 Cambridge University lecture, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” Speaking six months before the start of World War II, Eliot stated his conviction in binary terms: “I believe that the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.”
At first glance, Eliot’s conviction and Smith’s counter-narrative seem implausible. In a 1954 lecture at Cambridge, C.S. Lewis expressed impatience with “those Jeremiahs … who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism.’” He laughed at the very idea: “It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t.” Why? Because history does not move backward. “The post-Christian” — Lewis’ term for modernity — “is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.”
Fair enough. We can all have a good laugh with Lewis. But what if he misidentified an incidental feature of paganism (sacrifice) as an essential feature? What exactly is paganism, after all? Smith describes “the pagan orientation” as “the commitment to the immanent sacred.” This orientation “beatifies and sacralizes the goods of this world.” It teaches that “‘the sacred’ exists … in this world and this life.” By contrast, Smith explains, “the Christian position has never been to deny the goodness of this world, but only to insist that it is not the ultimate good, and that its goodness derives from a more transcendent source.”
What is at stake in all these debates is the kind of community America has been, will be, or should be.
This description of paganism throws a clarifying light on the term secular, which derives from the Latin term saeculum, meaning “generation” or “age.” According to Smith, “the secular” comes in three forms. In the “pagan secular,” “this world and this life … are viewed as having a sacred quality.” In the “Christian secular,” “this life has value … because it is a (subordinate) piece of the larger domain of eternity.”
Finally, there is “the distinctively modern positivistic secular reflected in the naturalistic worldview associated with modern science.” Like the pagan secular, the positivist secular has no concept of transcendence. Unlike the pagan secular, however, it also has no concept of sacredness — that is, of life’s goodness, value, or meaning.
When, therefore, public intellectuals speak of Christianity being displaced by secularism in the modern world, they need to define their terms more carefully. The positivistic secular exists, but it is a distinctly minority position. The hardest battles in today’s culture wars are fought between the pagan secular and the Christian secular — that is, between immanent and transcendent accounts of goodness, value and meaning.
Smith illustrates these battles in the debates over public religious symbols, human sexuality, the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and religious freedom. Smith is Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego in California, and an acknowledged expert on religious freedom and the relationship between law and religion.
What Smith writes about the debate over religious freedom in particular applies just as well to the other three debates. “One side of the debate favors a conception of religious freedom that is consistent with … a city or a political community that respects and is open to transcendence.” The other side works “to maintain a public square whose commitments are confined to the satisfaction of ‘interests’ and to immanently sacred values.”
At the end of the day, then, what is at stake in all these debates is the kind of community America has been, will be, or should be. Or any other political community where Christianity and paganism clash, for that matter.
As is the case with any book that tackles as large a subject as this one, careful readers will find nits to pick with the author throughout. Whatever those nits may be, however, Pagans and Christians in the City is a real achievement, clarifying the religious nature of the culture wars that have roiled America for the past few decades and showing their deep continuity with the original four-centuries clash between Christians and pagans.
Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018).
This is a preview of an article appearing in the March/April 2019 edition of Influence magazine.