2017-07-12
Roman Emperor Constantine was a hot topic a few years ago, as historians took a look at his sometimes brutal imposition of Christianity on his realm. Now Jonathan Kirsch, a Los Angeles lawyer and self-taught biblical scholar, has written "God Against the Gods," about Constantine's successor Julian, who died before he could undo Constantine's work. Had Julian lived, Kirsch says, paganism might have shown us a safer, freer road to Western civilization. We interviewed Kirsch recently about his book.

You tell the story of the Roman Emperor Julian, known as Julian the Apostate for his attempt to roll back his predecessor Constantine's effort to Christianize the empire. What's fascinating is that he was a pagan, but was punctiliously moral. It's not entirely clear his empire would have been a less Christian place in that sense.
It's a very important assumption that I make that there was a morality in the world of late classical paganism that was not greatly different from Jewish and Christian morality.

Is that because Jewish and Christian morality and pagan morality have a common source? Or does society organize itself along the same lines no matter what the idea of the divine may be?
I'd have to come down on the side of those who see morality as a human characteristic common to many cultures, rather than one that flows from ethical monotheism. The best argument I can make is that by the period of the Common Era, wherein Christian and Judaism are contending with the other religions in Rome, there is a great commonality of belief about what a decent life consists of. We're taught to regard paganism as something dissolute and promiscuous and superstitious and crude and cruel, and it was not necessarily any of those things. Julian insisted on seeing a resemblance between paganism and Judaism. He says, "We're alike in all of our religious practices, except you worship one God and we worship many gods. In all other ways we're alike." Certainly, Julian was not just a proper person, but almost a puritanical person.

Had paganism not more or less run its course, however?
By late antiquity, the pagans were jaded about their religious practices. Ceremonies were not as elaborate as they had once been. One reason the Romans were quick to embrace exotic, imported gods, including the Christian one imported from Palestine, was that they were jaded and bored with their own gods and goddesses. They had lost the mystery and the thrill that had once been attached to it.

It's also true that they engaged in many ceremonies as part of everyday life. The most important example is the deified emperors, the symbols of political loyalty to the Roman empire. A loyal Roman citizen was expected to sacrifice to the image of the emperor as a gesture of political loyalty. It was nothing more than casting a pinch of incense on a little brazier of hot coals set up in front of an image of a dead emperor. It was something along the lines of the Pledge of Allegiance: it wasn't elaborate, it wasn't extreme, it didn't require much effort or thought. Christians and the Jews were instructed by their faith that even that much accommodation to someone else's religion was not only prohibited, but evil.

How did one anoint oneself a follower of one god or the other?
You could pick and choose among virtually hundreds of gods and goddesses. A god would have some special appeal to you, have some claim on your allegiance because of your trade or profession, or the local gods of your city or region. The core value of classical paganism is what we would today call freedom of religion. It's human nature, human beings being as diverse as they are, to have different ways of understanding and envisioning divine power. Really, this is a very dramatic phenomenon where Christianity comes to power in Rome and suddenly for the first time in history, state power is dictating what you can and cannot believe.

In my book, I point out that there was a convergence taking place. In Rome some worshipped a god called Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, who represented a kind of pagan monotheism. It showed that some pagans suspected that there was one ultimate all-powerful source of divinity and that all other gods and goddesses were just reflections of this one god. If this convergence had been allowed to proceed, it might have resulted in a kind of universal monotheism-without the Inquisition.

The problem was, that while the pagans were willing to kind of accept many different ways of understanding the one all-powerful divinity, Christians and Jews were not willing to do that. Whenever they had the physical power to compel submission to that one true God, they were perfectly willing to do it.

Do you see that same tussle today in this country?
Absolutely. We have this idea that the New Age is something new-using the term to describe precisely this free market in religion. Go into any bookstore, not just a so-called New Age bookstore, and you'll find every manner of religion, ancient and modern, traditional and improvised. That's new only in that Christian civilization has not permitted that kind of freedom of choice for centuries. Most people in America today embrace the idea of religious diversity and religious liberty. Ironically, they are behaving in the way pagans behaved.

There are also people in America today, among Christians and Jews and Muslims alike, who are not tolerant, who believe that anyone other than their co-religionists are simply wrong and maybe worthy of punishment. The men who flew those airliners in the World Trade Center felt called upon by the One True God to do that. It's in the headlines every single day. That's what I call in my book the dark side of monotheism, and I compare it to what I call the bright side of paganism.

Yet polytheistic Rome wasn't exactly a pacific state.
Clearly. Roman civilization was capable of tremendous cruelty and violence, but it wasn't based on religious persecution. One reason that Constantine found Christianity so compelling was that he aspired to be the sole ruler of Rome. It appealed to him to embrace a religion that believed in one God on earth and by implication and extension, one God in heaven and one king on earth. In any political system where you're trying to enforce uniformity of thought, uniformity of action, of conduct, monotheism is a useful tool. The pagan model is for many sources of power in heaven and more than one source of power on earth.

Others who had tried to impose monotheism failed. Yet Christianity does catch on. Why?
One argument can be made that Christianity only prevailed in those places where it was allied with state power, and that when church and state were separated, people had the freedom to choose and they chose many different varieties of Christianity and some forms of religion that were not Christian at all. In the United States today, where we have almost completely unfettered freedom of religion, there are people who choose to be druids and Wiccans, every manner of Christian and every manner of Jew, and there are people who choose to be Hindu or Sikh or Confucian or Taoist and Buddhist. I personally feel that that's a safer and more benign world to live in.

I saw you quoted saying that "humanists view the history of our evolution moving toward greater individual liberty. And I have the nagging feeling we might have gotten there faster in a more direct way had Julian lived."
This point of conflict between paganism and Christianity is one of the great "what ifs?" of history. What if Julian had reigned as long as Constantine-30 years rather than less than two? What if Julian had used the power of an absolute monarchy in a totalitarian state to champion freedom of religion rather than to delegate power to one church, which took it upon itself to limit freedom of religion? That's the great "what if." It's my speculation that perhaps we could have been spared the agonies that we've gone through to reach this point where we find ourselves today, where at least in the West we have an unprecedented measure of personal freedom.

But there is an argument that says individual liberty could not have been possible without Christianity.
There's a certain egalitarian ideal that was absent from Roman paganism and was present in Christian gospels. On the other hand the idea of defusing power is very much a part of the pagan world. We style our democratic institutions after Greece and Rome. The founding fathers consciously saw in Greece and Rome the precursors of democracy.

So pagan Rome, almost synonymous with immorality and licentiousness, was actually a hotbed of religion and higher principles.
It was a cosmopolitan place, and it was a place where many different cultures were permitted with varying degrees of warmth to come and live and make their lives. It was not a racially exclusive place or a religiously exclusive place. And that's another way in which it really resembles the modern world. You know, you walk down the streets of New York or Los Angeles or Toronto or Washington or London and Paris, you'll see signs in the languages of the world, you'll see all different kinds of religious shrines and temples in gathering places, because we embrace a global cosmopolitan culture. That's what Rome did too.



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