I’ve been reading a book titled “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them” by Robert L. Wilken (Yale University Press, 2003). I have a great interest in church history, especially the ancient church. And quite frankly, society today is beginning to treat the church the way her ancient critics and attackers did. So perhaps there’s something to be learned from ancient times that can be helpful for us in living and upholding our faith today.
How were the earliest Christians viewed by their pagan neighbors? Although these views varied over time, an early accusation was that Christianity was a “superstition,” by which the Romans meant that Christians had beliefs and practices foreign and strange to Roman society, so much so that the Roman historian Tacitus called Christians “haters of mankind.”
Christians were accused of antisocial tendencies because they refused to participate in any way in the public and civil life of the cities of the Roman Empire. In the words of one ancient text: “You [Christians] do not go to our shows, you take no part in our processions, you are not present at our public banquets, you shrink in horror from our public games.” (Minucius Felix, Octavius, 12) Why was this so? Because public and civil life was inseparably bound to acts of pagan worship in which Christians could not, in good conscience, participate.
This led to the further Roman accusation that Christians were arrogant and intolerant. Pagans like Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius found Christian martyrs to be self-righteous. After all, there were a variety of religions and gods in the Roman world. Why were Christians not tolerant like others for the sake of the cohesion and stability of society? Criticizing the efforts of Christians who sought to preach the faith to others, the pagan intellectual Celsus sarcastically wrote, “… they alone, they say, know the right way to live.”
Christians were also looked upon as gullible and their beliefs irrational. Christian faith that God became incarnate in human flesh and rose from the dead in a human body was thought by the Romans to be offensive and unreasonable. “As for the flesh, which is full of things it is not even nice to mention,” says Celsus, “God would neither desire nor be able to make it everlasting contrary to reason.” A God who is contrary to reason is not a fit object of devotion.
After two millennia of Western philosophy and theology we know that these attacks can be refuted in a way that does justice to both faith and reason. And we also know that Christianity is not destructive of society. Far from it! Christianity has given rise to a very great human and cultural flourishing in every sphere.
There have always been unbelieving skeptics, critics, and scoffers ever since the angel appeared to Mary at the Annunciation. Whatever the attacks of pagan Romans, however, they were not atheists. As Wilken points out, pagans had a “belief in divine providence, in the necessity of religious observance for the well-being of society, and in the efficacy of traditional rites and practices.” (p. 63)
In the modern era, things have changed. Attempts to discredit and exclude religion from public life, to portray it as a threat to human progress and a cause of evil, are evident in the extremes of the French and Russian Bolshevik revolutions. And as our own country slips further and further away from Christian faith and morals, we now see the rise of a “new atheism” movement fueled by popular books like Christopher Hitchens’ “god Is Not Great” and Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.”
In a recent lecture, Peter Feldmeier, Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo, offers some insight into what is happening. In his words:
“I became interested in the New Atheism movement because of three conversations that happened in quick succession. he first was from a former student who stopped me in the hall. He wanted to know if I knew who Christopher Hitchens was and if I had read his book, ‘god Is Not Great.’ … The second conversation happened at a dinner party where a casual friend wanted to know what I thought about Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion.’ He was impressed by the book, by its insistence on the scientific method and by what appeared to be gratuitous claims by religions, that is, beliefs without evidence. The third was just two weeks later. I was at a coffee shop and four middle-aged, white, educated, liberal types (just like me) were discussing both of those books, while laughing at how naïve religious believers were … In ‘The Evolution of God,’ Robert Wright argues, “In the space of only a few years, the more-or-less official stance of intellectuals toward believers moved from polite silence to open dismissal if not ridicule.”
Professor Feldmeier says that “while the New Atheists imagine they are framing the discussion as one between obvious truth and obvious delusion, between science and religion, between reason and superstition, what we see is a movement that feels free to shuck, jive and manipulate data, to make massive errors in method, to assert without evidence and, above all, fail to understand the implications of its own ideology.”
Given these trends, is it any wonder that traditional institutions like marriage, and religious freedom itself, are under attack by both cultural elites and by government. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” It will be a sad day in America when the state of the economy is considered more important than the most fundamental truths upon which our civilization and our nation are founded.
That is why it is important for Catholics who are believers, in fact and not just in name, to understand the cultural trends that are developing around us and to prepare themselves, as St. Peter says in his first epistle, “to be ready always to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” (1 Pt 3:15)
Before all else, let us remember this: Christ is truly risen, Christ the King of glory, the Conqueror of sin and death, He is truly risen. Alleluia!