Even the Pagans Do That

At a recent meeting at Harvard Divinity School, I had occasion to give a general introduction to comparative theology, my field of study. I stressed the importance of belonging to a tradition and community, precisely as we strive to learn from another religion: the trick is to learn to think creatively across boundaries, yet within the bounds of belonging and believing in a specific way. A student came up to me afterward and thanked me for my presentation. She added, indicating the seriousness of her intent, that she would need to think through the communal and theological roots of her own religious tradition—paganism. We did not talk for long but, having met other pagan students in the Cambridge area, I quickly recognized that she is committed to a revival of ancient connectedness with nature, the cultivation of the energies of male and female creativity and sexuality, and the worship of deities who are immanent, gendered, and material. At the same time, she sees that this pagan tradition needs to refine its boundaries and distinctiveness in relation to other religions. So perhaps she and other young believers today indeed have much in common.

But paganism? Most theological reflection on dialogue focuses on relations among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three religions taken to be Abrahamic and monotheistic—that is, nonpagan. Except in the most conservative circles, Christian dialogues with Hinduism and Buddhism also honor those religions as not-pagan. “Pagan” represents our antithesis; we are still thinking, perhaps, of depraved Roman emperors, Christians thrown to the lions, the blood sacrifice of tender young victims by crazed priests—or about St. Paul’s reminders to the early communities about how they had turned away from demons and idolatry in becoming Christian. On the first page of his new book Among the Gentiles, Luke Timothy Johnson quotes Tertullian’s famous question: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” But even as Greek philosophy was rehabilitated and put to good use by Christian thinkers, pagan religion remained apart, marked polemically as entirely different from the Christian: worse than Athens.

But suppose paganism is not merely a dangerous opposite to Christianity? Suppose we have a much longer creative and positive history with paganism than we imagine? Johnson, a frequent Commonweal contributor, thinks we do. In its formative first centuries Christianity grew up in the midst of, and in active relationship with Greek and Roman religion, and owes part of its form to the Greek and Roman religions we indicate broadly as paganism. According to Johnson, this ancient Mediterranean paganism was much more complicated than we might imagine, and we should now recognize its rich complexity. The problem, from the start, is not the challenge of relating the two entities known as Christianity and paganism, but rather the very idea that they were separate entities not already interrelated. In impressive yet accessible detail, Johnson shows us how to reimagine our relationship to paganism, by paying attention to history and by shifting our perspective from polemic and doctrine to ways of religious living.

He builds the book around four models of lived religion—life ways—that were shared by Christian (and Jew) and pagan alike, other differences notwithstanding. Each is illustrated with reference to a pagan author. First, religion as participation in divine benefits, through vividly imagined interactions with the divine in personal and communal worship and religious experiences (Aelius Aristides, the famed orator and proponent of religious healing); second, religion as moral transformation, in the exercise of an ethical and ascetical cultivation of virtue (Epictetus, the Stoic teacher); third, religion as transcending the world, enabling seekers to become free of the bonds of this world and the flesh (Poimandres, a mystic teacher who wrote about the true meaning of human existence and the higher realms); and fourth, religion as stabilizing the world and the good order of society, including the right relationships of the divine and human spheres (Plutarch, the famous writer and proponent of Greco-Roman piety). Each is then explored a second time with respect to how early Christianity developed in the New Testament and first centuries. For example, participation in divine benefits is illustrated by reference to the community in Corinth with its charismatic gifts, and by later noncanonical “acts of the apostles” that stress the extraordinary powers the apostles possessed. Transcending the world is illustrated by Gnostic Christian texts that sought a way beyond this world and beyond the bonds of the flesh. All the models are Christian, all of them also pagan.

This new approach need not result in a leveling of religious differences, but rather in a new image of Christianity’s relation to paganism, as a light among the Gentiles; this is not, and never was, merely a battle between light and darkness. But appreciating paganism’s complexity does rob us of a simple foil to a pure Christianity; we are forced to realize Christianity’s own complexity as including different life ways, most of which are not so entirely apart from those of the pagans. In the long run, we can eventually rethink the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, a tradition that itself had come to share much with Roman and Greek religion.

Johnson says that he is not taking up directly theological and doctrinal matters, and in fact he does not compare Christian and pagan theologies. Yet he is shifting the ground on which a robustly theological reading of paganism might best occur, and rendering less plausible the cruder and more absolute forms of Christian claims to distance from the pagan. If religious practices and goals have so much in common, it becomes all the harder to insist that Christian doctrine will serve, late in the game, as the measure by which to exclude the pagan treated as its opposite. The dichotomy posed by Tertullian seems laid to rest even more thoroughly. Yet we can ask whether there is a fifth Christian model, for which there are fewer pagan analogues: the instinct for an irreducibly particular and exclusive grasp of Jesus Christ, seen as a stumbling block to Jews and a scandal to Gentiles, pagans included. It seems possible that this deep sense of enduring difference can quite easily subsist alongside recognition of how much Christians and pagans share.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s approach helps us as we ponder religious diversity today. It nicely confirms the sensitivities about complexity and practice many scholars are already bringing to the study of the religions of Asia and Africa, for instance, where attention to life ways discloses rich possibilities that could never be measured by doctrines or Scriptures studied as abstracted ideals. Religions are always about helping us to live better and usually, we can presume, have much in common in helping people to live well, for this world and the next. Too neat divisions—pagan vs. Christian, true religion vs. false—oversimplify differences, diminish the religious lives of our neighbors and ourselves, and diminish the significance of all the religions involved. If we take to heart Johnson’s superb historical and cultural approach, our sense of dialogue and interreligious engagement will be considerably refreshed and deepened.

Here at home, we are now faced with the prospect of modern Americans seeking to be honest and honorable pagans. If Johnson is right, we can draw a non-polemical conclusion that does not deny faith and truth claims, but places the most important differences in a religious and not secular context. American pagans and American Christians have much in common as we seek to live out our spiritual lives in well-being, and we accomplish nothing good by reducing paganism to immorality and superstition. Our Christian distinction will then lie in our core commitment to Jesus Christ, not in the superiority of our morality or spirituality or hierarchy. And if young pagans are now theologizing their traditions, we may soon have the opportunity to reconsider our own pagan-Christian relationship, not by way of polemic but through wider theological insight.

Published in the 2010-01-15 issue: 

Francis X. Clooney, SJ, is the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, and director emeritus of the Center for the Study of World Religions.

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