This was originally published in “The Federalist”: http://thefederalist.com/2016/09/20/what-todays-christians-can-learn-from-antiquity-about-living-in-a-pagan-world/
To survive in a hostile culture, Christians must articulate and exemplify an alternative vision of human flourishing.
SEPTEMBER 20, 2016
Mollie Hemingway . . . suggests that our society’s sexual obsession is a new religion. . . (T)his new religion has fervent adherents and strict dogma, but it’s also true that the doctrines are still being formed. Now that marriage has been redefined away from sexual complementarity, the project to redefine the sexes themselves is moving forward. The doctrines governing biological reality, monogamy, polygamy, beastiality, pedophilia, and other issues will continue to be debated . . . She overlooks the holy sacrament of abortion in her list of dogmas: it is the one practice that is beyond debate in this new paganism. . .
Yet many facets of this “new religion” are actually depressingly familiar. Current conditions are strikingly similar to the paganism practiced in Ancient Rome around the time Christianity came along, as Rodney Stark describes in his 1996 classic “The Rise of Christianity.” Perhaps we can learn how to deal with the New Paganism by considering how Christians replaced the Old Paganism in a very short time (at least by historical standards). . . Stark examines the early Christian movement strictly on the basis of social practices, and considers how the values of the Jesus movement provided cohesion in a pagan empire that was already falling apart in the first century.
The empire’s primary problem was low fertility. . . There were “serious population shortages” by the second century. The reasons for this are many, . . . Rome was extremely male-dominated. Roman men didn’t have much use for women, due in part to widespread homosexuality and prostitution. . . (T)here was an extreme shortage of women in the Roman Empire.
But when Christians came on the scene, they changed all of this. They absolutely prohibited abortion and infanticide within their own ranks. They also prohibited homosexuality, applied the same standards of chastity and fidelity within marriage to both men and women, and gave women much higher social status than the Romans allowed.
Given these advantages, women were more likely to convert to Christianity than were men. The Christian community soon enjoyed a higher female to male ratio and actually had a surplus of marriageable women. . . , resulting in a far higher fertility rate and a growing presence within the empire. . .
But another phenomenon also helped boost Christian growth: the sudden onset of two epidemics . . . In each case, they produced devastating mortality, killing as much as 30 percent of the population each time.
The pagan response was to flee as far from infected people as possible. . . But the Christian explanation was radically different. . . (W)hat did God expect their response should be? . . . (T)hey cared for one another even in the face of death.
The consequence of this caring could easily be seen as miraculous. . , that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or even more” (emphasis in original). . . So while pagans were abandoned and left to die in droves, Christians fearlessly cared for their own (and later for their pagan neighbors) and recovered in large numbers. What religion could be more appealing?
After all this, Rome did not decline because of invasion by “barbarian hordes” (as many of us were taught in school), but through depopulation. . , while Christianity grew to become a majority religion in just a few generations.
What Does This Mean For Christians Today?
Christians must get used to being a minority in a pagan world. . . In today’s climate, Christians have to restore Christ’s message of love and joy . . . (by) living it every day. . . We don’t win over pagans by diluting our faith. . .
To do that, we have to identify our world for what it is: pagan. . . Today’s pagans have their own gods just as surely as the Romans and Babylonians had theirs. These include the gods of sex, political power, and celebrity, and they are every bit as futile as the Roman and Babylonian gods were. They fail to bring meaning or contentment to their devotees—instead, they bring emptiness and dissatisfaction. . .
Next, while social conditions today are not identical to those of Roman times, the similarities are striking. A society that invests itself in homosexuality and abortion will terminate itself in a generation. We may not practice infanticide today, but we have replaced it with sexually transmitted disease. . . STDs have become a serious crisis in the United States. . . The “hookup culture” will prove to have a bitter legacy when even the CDC is recommending monogamy as the best way to prevent the disease. Suddenly, Christian standards of behavior may look pretty appealing. While pagan practices lead to infertility, evangelical Christians are having babies. One estimate from an atheist website is that “Mormons and Christian evangelicals have nearly twice the birth rate of non-religious Americans…”
Some will point out that one of the biggest differences between ancient Rome and modern pagan society is the status of women. Today women are liberated, free to be whatever they want to be. . . That would seem to be indisputable. Yet it is also true that women disproportionately suffer the consequences of New Paganism. Women, far more than men, suffer from STDs. . , are left to rear children born out of wedlock. . , who have to get abortions and suffer the emotional and physical results. It is women who suffer from sexual predators unrestrained by moral codes. . . (and) are sold into the global sex trafficking market. Indeed, pagan “liberation” seems to have mostly liberated men from taking responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. These are big prices to pay. . .
A faithful Christian community would offer women all the advantages of education, career advancement, and self-determination enjoyed by pagan women without the negative consequences. A faithful Christian community will tend to the ill and the hopeless . . , will demand moral behavior from men every bit as much as women. . , will identify pagan practices as sinful, but welcome such sinners with love and compassion. . , will see the image of God in every human being, regardless of race, class, or national origin.
Who wouldn’t be attracted to such a community? It may be the only hope left for a society that has gone so badly off the rails.
Now, I’m not trying to go all “preacher man” here, but objective distance can see that much of this perspective has the ring of truth to it. (The original is more exhaustive, thus persuasive, if interested).
With the political “Silly Season” in full swing, I thought returning to First Principles might provide a touchstone of sorts. Neither candidate is what I consider moral, much less Christian. And don’t get me started on the mega church hucksters. So, the darkness will indeed come before the dawn.
But genuine Christianity is not a “religion” per se, but a personal relationship with Christ. Real Christianity is far removed from legalistic tithing, tract passing, witnessing, and, worst of all, judging. Christ expected Believers to be productive, honest members of society, earning blessings, rewards, and material abundance, just not focused on the love of wealth itself.
That attitude can lead to real community and societal purpose that can be enlightening even within that national gloom. Such a caring Christian community can provide a fulcrum or pivot upon which a successful surviving national community can shine a light to flourish from.