Pagans and Christians in the City

Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac

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Steven D. Smith
Emory University Studies in Law and Religionn
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
    , November
     2018.
     384 pages.
     $48.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780802876317.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac has many virtues, chief among them being clarity. Steven D. Smith lays out his argument well and marshals a wide variety of sources in thinking through Christianity’s relations with Roman religious practices and modernity. Smith’s attempt has some minor flaws, but overall the work is well worth reading. 

The book takes its start from T.S. Eliot’s assertion that society needs a distinctively Christian flavor of “control and balance” lest all balance be lost; this solution may be purgatorial, but the alternative, a pagan religious identity, is hell on earth (Christianity and Culture, Harcourt, 1967). Agreeing with Eliot, and running counter to C.S. Lewis and other authors who hold that history marches ever onward, Smith argues that Western Europe, and so the United States, were once pagan and could very well return to paganism. So goes the first chapter.

Smith goes on to contemplate what it means for human beings to be homo religiosus (chapter 2), focusing on the human’s relation to the sacred, understood as either immanent in paganism or transcendent in Christianity and Judaism. Smith spends two chapters examining “how religion pervaded Roman society,” and the various modes of pagan belief in the gods. Unlike the many pagan cults, Christians’ understandings of God as transcendent prevented them from participating in the worship of the gods that knit Rome together, made Rome less of a home and more of a waypoint on the way to heaven, gave them an allegiance above the citizen’s duty to obey earthly authority, and had implications for their sexual behavior (chapter 5). Such disagreements naturally led to tension and persecution (chapter 6) until Constantine underwent conversion and “the West Was (and Wasn’t) Won for Christianity” (164). Or did the struggle end? In Smith’s words, “if paganism is not exhausted by these outward manifestations [of animal sacrifice] but rather is understood in terms of the immanent orientation that sacralizes life in this world, denying or at least remaining practically noncommittal toward any other, then it seems that neither Christian emperors nor bishops could or did abolish the substantial essence of paganism” (192). In chapter 8, Smith argues that the Christianization of Rome was less comprehensive than we normally think, and is in some ways closer to “a veneer covering over a mainly pagan world,” always lying under the surface, and sometimes on the surface, until the Renaissance (212).

As the common narrative goes, the struggle between paganism and Christianity, in Rome and the medieval age, was ended by the emergence of secularism. However, most moderns—self-declared secularists included—hold an implicit or explicit belief in the immanent sacred; Smith’s chief interlocutor on this subject is Ronald Dworkin and his illuminating work Religion without God (Harvard University Press, 2013). Such an immanent sacred is the mark of paganism. This argument, playing out in chapter 9, is the heart of Smith’s project to connect Roman paganism with modern “spiritual but not religious” tendencies.

Pagans and Christians in the City fully hits its stride in the last three chapters, not surprisingly given Smith’s legal training. In Smith’s reading, the First Amendment and the US Constitution were texts “agnostic in matters of religion; they were compatible with a Christian nation, a pagan nation, a pluralistic nation, or a nation mostly devoid of religious convictions and commitments” that are being “turn[ed] to the cause of secularism of immanent religion” (267). Smith spends chapters 10 and 11 interpreting the culture wars in the light of the conflict between those understanding the sacred as immanent and those for whom it is transcendent. The book concludes with an examination of the problems inherent in a newly ascendant paganism, and its implications for the practice of religious beliefs in the modern day city.

Smith insightfully points out areas of continuity between Roman practices and what he terms modern day paganism. He is clear about some of the important differences between the old and the new, and does not deny the effect of Christianity on modern paganism. However, this distinction could have been made clearer. A contrast between the two would not weaken the thrust of his argument, but would more fully ground his identification of what is essential to both forms of paganism. Similarly, Smith recognizes God’s presence in the world according to Christian theology and the Christian duty to contribute to the common good. Christianity is not pure transcendence; it has an aspect of immanence as well. At times, however, Smith’s qualification of the immanent vs. transcendent contrast stays at the implicit level, leading to a potentially misleading understanding of the Christian life as a wholly otherworldly endeavor, one that Smith would deny.

These modest critiques side, I found Smith’s interpretation of modern times enlightening and a helpful way of examining hotly contested subjects. Smith is not shy about stating his position on these questions, but engages with those with whom he disagrees charitably and honestly; he does not aim for cheap points, but strives to reach his interlocutors’ intellectual foundations. Modern-day “pagans” may not agree with Smith’s argument. They may have a quibble or two about Smith’s interpretation. However, I do not believe they would see the text as a caricature of their position. For its insightful look at the culture war in light of how one locates the transcendent, I would recommend Pagans and Christians in the City without hesitation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin E. Jones earned his doctorate in Systematic Theology from the Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven D. Smith is Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego and serves as codirector of the university's Institute for Law and Religion. His other books include The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom.

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