When “Pagans” Return, Who Gets Hurt?

I read an alternative-history novel now and then,1)Robert Harris’ Fatherland remains an all-time favorite. especially those in which the Pagans triumph. For instance, John M. Ford created a 15th-century world, Dragon Waiting: A Masque of History, in which Julian the Philosopher, the last Pagan emperor, did put on his armor before that skirmish with the Persians, and, consequently, made possible a Pagan empire centered on Byzantium — not that they are necessarily the good guys to Western Europeans.2)Bonus: fans of Richard III of England will like this one a lot. There are also vampires.

Another book that I have ordered is The Kingdom of the Wicked, Book One: Rules by Helen Dale, an Australian writer who is also a lawyer and one-time Classics scholar. In an review essay titled “Return of the Pagans,” she writes,3)Law & Liberty describes itself as focused “on the classical liberal tradition of law and political thought and how it shapes a society of free and responsible persons.”

Kingdom of the Wicked is a work of speculative fiction. It takes place in a Roman Empire that’s undergone an industrial revolution. My initial academic training was in classics (I became a lawyer later to pay the bills), so I’m well aware pagan Rome had different cultural values from those now present in the modern, industrialized West.

She says of herself that she “lacks a religious orientation.”

This serves to explain [my] mystification at adherents of both immanent and transcendent religions. We classical liberals really do spend a lot of time asking, “I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” In doing so we forget how rare we are in the population. Minding other people’s morality is deeply human. It turns up everywhere, a cosmic homeopathic joke with only memories of being funny.

Her essay discusses Steve D. Smith’s Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, another book I need to read. By “Pagans,” Smith does not mean today’s Wiccans, Druids, etc. but rather those who lack a “transcendent” orientation to god(s) above.

The first half of Pagans & Christians in the City is given over to comparative religion. Smith outlines the underlying logic of Roman paganism and emergent (Catholic) Christianity and draws out similarities and differences. He discusses how paganism locates the sacred within the world — it’s an immanent religiosity whereby the divine emerges from the natural environment. Christianity and Islam, by contrast, are instances of transcendent religiosity — they place what is most sacred outside the world, in part because God made the world.

While classicists and scholars of comparative religion appreciate this distinction, it’s not widely known otherwise. For my sins I once spent a couple of years tutoring Latin, losing track of students’ pleading enquiries about what Romans actually believed. That I resorted to suggestions like “read Ovid’s Metamorphoses while stoned” or “go to Japan and get a priest or priestess to explain the significance of The Great Ise Shrine” gives a sense of the magnitude of Smith’s achievement. Without once falling back on theologically similar Shinto (which I’ve pillaged as a novelist and teacher of classics), he takes Roman paganism seriously as a religious tradition on its own terms and renders it real and alive.

In the second half of Pagans & Christians in the City, Smith sets out a bold claim. In short, he argues that paganism never went away. The immanent orientation to the sacred it advances is not only in direct competition with Christian transcendence, but competition between the two orientations continues today — it manifests in the US as “culture wars” — because a number of progressive values comport readily with pagan conceptions of the sacred. This is particularly so when it comes to sex and sexuality. To take two of Smith’s case studies among many: modern liberal democracies have simply abandoned the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim view of same-sex attraction and abortion and substituted the pagan Roman view wholesale.

Where this leads includes a discussion of what happens when monotheism goes wrong: “bigotry, misogyny, vandalism, and what amounts to a war on human sexuality” contrasted with the other extreme: “If, however, you’re one of those fashionable humanists for whom Roman civil religion and civic nationalism seem sophisticated and high-minded, you will learn how those fine ideals were drenched in blood — both animal and human — and the extent to which Roman sexual liberality was founded on terrifying exploitation of slaves and (sometimes) non-citizens.”

Again we have the argument that environmentalism functions as a substitute immanent religion, a theme familiar both to some religion scholars and to some Christian preachers.

So “the Pagans” here are not contemporary religious Pagans, be they Heathens or Hellenic reconstructionists. But they are a broadly drawn collection of people whose values might well match with those of many or most Wiccans, etc. etc. And these values are in sometimes violent conflict with the “transcendental” values, even when the conflict is cast in secular terms.

Read it, just to stretch your brain.

And if you are commuting, listen to the related podcast interview with Steven Smith. Downloadable mp3 audio at the link.

You may not want the culture war, but the culture war wants you.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Robert Harris’ Fatherland remains an all-time favorite.
2. Bonus: fans of Richard III of England will like this one a lot. There are also vampires.
3. Law & Liberty describes itself as focused “on the classical liberal tradition of law and political thought and how it shapes a society of free and responsible persons.”

2 thoughts on “When “Pagans” Return, Who Gets Hurt?

  1. Thanks for the recommendations. These look very interesting.

    Speaking of speculative fiction, back in the late 1970s, I came across a novel by Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin entitled “The Masters of Solitude” (pub. 1978) The book’s so old the pages are crumbling! Anyhow, the back cover declares, “The Plague was once again upon the people of the Forest – a pagan world of sensuous joys governed by the covens, tribes of hunters and magicians. they were separated by ancient rites and bloody clashes, but the ravages of this unstoppable death united them in a quest for the cure.”
    This was the first anti-Christian novel I had ever read and I was shocked that there even was such a thing as an anti-Christian novel. I was unaware, at the time, of the Wicker Man film.
    Of course another anti-Christian novel is Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, which definitely puts the Christians in a really bad light.

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