Sunday, January 25, 2009

Pagans and Christians by Robin Lane Fox

I think three months -- or was it four? -- to slog through a 681-page book on antiquity's epochal change from paganism to Christianity, which has sat on my shelves for twenty years and whose author may have long since died for all I know, is all right, isn't it? And did I say that right?

Robin Lane Fox's aims in Pagans and Christians are staggeringly ambitious, and are set out right there on the dust jacket for all to see and cope with, or flee as the case may be. I salute whatever book designer it was who composed this summary and squeezed it below a large illustration, but above the (large-print) title and (small-print) author's name. The summary announces sternly, RELIGION AND THE RELIGIOUS LIFE FROM THE SECOND TO THE FOURTH CENTURY A.D., WHEN THE GODS OF OLYMPUS LOST THEIR DOMINION AND CHRISTIANITY, WITH THE CONVERSION OF CONSTANTINE, TRIUMPHED IN THE MEDITERRANEAN WORLD.

Oh, that.

I write in some exasperation only because the author annoyed me just a tad, on page 662, as I finished the book this morning. In one paragraph on this page it seemed to me that he negated two major theses for his entire book, and took his reader right back to the standard arguments for this epochal change, encapsulations of which you could probably find on Wikipedia this minute: that ancient paganism died because pagans were tired of its hopelessness, tired of not knowing whether to fear or not fear their goofy little statue-gods.

But that was just one paragraph, on page 662. Perhaps I missed some nuance in the previous 661 pages which would have proved to me that it all fit right in and that Mr. Fox had not thereby contradicted himself wholesale at all.

If I am confused I can't blame his writing style, which is excellent throughout. It is plain, elegant, respectful of the reader's intelligence, but blessedly un-academic. I find it curious, though, that after six hundred-odd pages of it, interspersed with lots of deeply careful tracings and retracings of this source or that, this letter, that inscription, this translation of that reference only known in Eusebius until a fragment of a papyri turned up in Egypt in 1980 -- dear me, you shouldn't dismiss with mimicry historians' tremendous hard work, but sometimes it just seems you have to -- I find it curious that what he ends up saying is simply that Christianity "triumphed" because, after a while, more people liked Christianity than liked paganism.

Of course that's not the only reason for the collapse of the old gods' dominion. I would say the fundamental story Mr. Fox is telling in the book is that, circa 300 A.D., an ageless pagan religious worldview in which communities of people from time to time sought the help or knowledge or mercy of the gods through the interpretation of dreams, or through civic celebrations and attendance at professionally staffed (but still genuinely eerie or "uncanny") oracles, gave way to a new Christian worldview in which individuals, possibly saved for heaven by Christ's sacrifice but also uniquely commanded to moral behavior, suddenly admitted the authority of a holy scripture into their private lives. Sin therefore as a daily worry, including sin in thought, and eternal life as a daily hope, were new. When enough people adopted this worldview, contributed money to it, lived by it, and caused it to shape society -- in other words, when "Christian business became public business" -- it rose to govern not only private lives, but the formerly pagan Roman state.

In Fox's telling, pagans seem to have adopted Christianity piecemeal, for a variety of reasons some of which remain mysterious. One of his major themes is "overachievement." Especially in its very early days when Christ's second coming was believed to be imminent and the faithful postponed baptism until they had reached an absolutely perfect sinless state worthy of it, the new religion held up standards of interior moral scrutiny and vivid spiritual achievement that appealed, and will always appeal, to certain personality types. (Christianity also eventually introduced to the world, he thinks, a commensurate phenomenon, the slacker majority.) The "years of instruction and preparation" for that baptism also appealed, making people feel "they were exploring a deep mystery, step by step." Christian belief in the power of the holy Spirit as a link between God and man, "the source of man's knowledge of himself, a power of conscience which pagan teaching had not recognized," was also new and led, for believers, to a "new and immediate miracle: a potential change in human nature itself" (pp. 314-316).

Persecution and martyrdom, when they happened, could impress witnesses, and sometimes prompted more conversions. After the passing of a few centuries, pagans in the ancient world, still very much the multitude -- the vitality of pagan worship and culture throughout this period is another major theme -- nevertheless noticed that Christians took care of their sick, widowed, orphaned, and elderly in organized ways that pagans did not necessarily do. They noticed also that Christians, along with Jews, held to indubitably higher standards on what we might tactfully call social issues. They "vigorously attacked" infanticide, the exposure of children, and abortion and, when they attained real power, they outlawed violent gladitorial shows.

What did early Christianity lack? After all, many pagans were never interested in it. Many witnesses of martyrdom did not watch in respectful awe, but blanched at what seemed Christians' grotesque zeal, and tried to reason eager victims out of their immolatory frenzy by pointing out the lovely earth and lovely weather, and asking whether it wasn't good to be alive, even if it did mean paying lip service to some Olympian formula for a minute. And Christianity stubbed its toe against a number of empirical problems. The decades and centuries passed, and Christ did not return, nor did the world end. Hope of eternal life with Jesus ("the wholly new idea of man's Redemption") was a beautiful thing, but the actual resurrection of the body seemed to most people a demonstrably foolish idea. Open any grave and see what's left of the human body after a little while -- and besides, if everybody comes back, how is all our property to be divided? Christian refusal to participate in "Romanity" (merely saying prayers for the safety of the Emperor, for instance), their concern to police each other's beliefs -- as the Church grew, "heresy" grew -- and what seemed their sterile glorification of celibacy, virginity, and chaste widowhood all struck pagans as hard and atheistical refutations of the human project. A project which could be summed up, I suppose, in the word civilian.

Civilian, in the sense of being civil? Not exactly. But the word isn't chosen at random. Very early in Pagans and Christians, Fox explains that the word pagan is an ancient Christian slang term, applied in the sense of "civilian," non-combatant, to people who were not yet soldiers in the army of Christ, enlisted to fight Satan.

The book closes with Christianity's triumph under the Emperor Constantine, who converted and then really made things happen. Lone, powerful men can do that. Among other acts he built churches, ended persecutions, and decreed that any party in any lawsuit could appeal to that new authority figure, the Christian bishop, for judgment -- and the bishop's decision then bound any other judge (p. 667). With the passage of time, Constantine gained to his side the most powerful argument of all, that the sky had not fallen with Christianity's usurping of the ancient gods' powers, and therefore they obviously had none and perhaps never did. "The lack of divine reprisals," it seemed, "did show that the 'anger' of the gods was no match for Christ" (p. 672). And in time, Fox argues, Christian worship fell into the patterns familiar to pagan life, patterns which he seems to think are natural to the human mind: long-dead saints began to "appear" to believers, as protecting gods did to Homer's heroes, and artists began to paint and make mosaics of Jesus' face, whose true lineaments no one knew.

The book is so rich in scholarship that anyone could pick out a different handful of themes and write a completely different review which would still be an accurate summation and yet not do the author justice. I'm sure I've overlooked topics or arguments which anyone else would consider major. Monasticism, the role of the wealthy urban religious patron, confession and confessors; and I've overlooked the little anecdotes from the modern day that Fox sprinkles throughout the book, and that help prove his point that "the transition from paganism to Christianity is where the ancient world still touches ours." He was writing in the 1980s, when Yugoslavia was on the brink of falling apart -- not that anyone knew it -- and little girls in Medjugorje were seeing visions exactly as had the martyrs of two millenia before, and the Homeric heroes of two millenia before that. What did they see, and why? "No generation," he says in his preface, "can afford to ignore whether Christianity is true and, if it is not, why it has spread and persisted."

For a Christian reader, this last statement will exemplify a great flaw in the book. Obviously the author is not a believing Christian, and so is cut off from simple truths. He nowhere quotes "For God so loved the world ...." For my part, I found the ending puzzling. He seems to try very hard, and to want to, but to actually tie nothing up. When it grew strong enough, yes, the Christian church eventually stamped out Mediterranean paganism. After Constantine made them safe, individual Christians could pull down pagan shrines without fear of reprisals, and the church could and did torture into silence the staff at pagan oracles. The official Christian view became that paganism had at best only prophesied the coming of Christ and Christianity, and had done nothing else on a day to day basis for the people living by it. By about the year 500 A.D., the pagan story was over.

Fair enough, and fairly clear. But Fox concludes with a short ramble concerning the Sibyl, prophecy, a church built over a Sibylline oracle at Rome, and then a vague worried hint that if Christianity in turn collapses, all religious experience must cease. Why? (This is a pretty large claim with which to end a book.) Because "yet 'not to everyone do the gods appear ...' " So ... some human beings will always receive some kind of epiphany, -- yet not?

At this point, one is tempted to take a break, turn to a google search, and see just for curiosity's sake whether the old fellow is still alive. Why, my goodness, yes he is! And who am I calling old? Just in his sixties. And even got a cameo in a movie he consulted for. Well, well. I must rearrange my ideas, and stop picturing a white-haired soul in a Bath chair, lap robe, and slippers, sitting by a fire in Oxford and scribbling notes in Latin. And no mistake: it's a great, great book.