Pagans and Christians in the City (2/2)

Don’t bring immanent evidence to a transcendent argument.

One of the attractions of Steven Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City is that its basic premise—that the cultural conflict between Christianity and paganism, in antiquity and today, is rooted in competing orientations to transcendence versus immanence—holds considerable explanatory power for daily experience. One of the regular elements of online discussion, for example, is dealing with intrusions of a particular kind. Coffee, as we all know, is bad. Ancient and modern scripture are unanimous, Joseph Smith and all the prophets since him have warned against it, and church policy forbids it. But, someone interjects, if two people really love each other, why shouldn’t they enjoy a cup of coffee together? Mutual coffee is just natural, after all. Inevitably, discussion gets no further than one side accusing the other of ignoring empirical evidence, and the other side accusing their opponents of rejecting God and his church. If I’m having a discussion ultimately rooted in transcendent commitments (which I’m usually doing here on this blog) and you keep coming at me with this-worldly arguments, communication is guaranteed to fail. And yet there is a constant effort to reduce “loving God and neighbor” to just “love your neighbor.”

Smith’s analysis is similarly helpful when it comes to making sense of the contemporary religious landscape and the religions known as “secularism.” Fairness and human rights and environmental protection are all good things, even necessary for peaceful human co-existence: But “science” doesn’t make them so, because science can only demonstrate that these too are merely marginal aspects of Stephen Hawking’s “chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.” In light of Smith’s work, it seems to me that secularization, often treated as a drifting away from childhood faith, may more accurately be seen as the successful transmission of a pagan ethic beginning in childhood, perhaps at home or with little resistance from religiously indifferent parents, reinforced each day in the media and through 13 years or more of schooling, and rewarded socially and professionally after that. What comes after Christianity, however, isn’t scientific naturalism or even secularism as a civic religion, but the condition that preceded Christianity: an uneasy coexistence and struggle between diverse pantheons, including ethnic nationalism and other kinds of identity-based tribes. Christianity, then as now, could accept the bargain offered by paganism and remake itself into one more pagan sect (which includes the sect of mainstream respectability). This would be as much of a betrayal of the Gospel in the 21st century as it was in the third century. Just as some number of professed Christians throughout the centuries were and are latent pagans (as Smith notes), it would not surprise me if some Latter-day Saints might more accurately be described as Mormon pagans, less committed to transcendent deity than to immanent issues, whether that’s Mormonism as an ethnic nationality, a local ward as a social group, or the rooting of sexual morality in the natural world without all that offensive intruding by religious busybodies.

Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-8028-7631-7

Smith additionally offers a close reading of U.S. legal history to tease out how the law once made special allowance for the demands of transcendent religion (with regard to compulsory military service, for example), but now prefers instead to defer to matters of conscience, while transcendent religion has become something that must not be given special deference. Smith argues that concerns about religious freedom are real, and worrisome, and that the space in which people can practice their religions or even talk openly about faith, following the loss of the public sphere and the marketplace, is shrinking toward irrelevance. In Smith’s view, Rawls’s approach – for all participants in the public sphere to limit themselves to public reasons – doesn’t work. As Smith points out, Rawls would require a large segment of the population to silence their real reasons for making an argument, and thus to choose between inviting the accusation that they are arguing in bad faith, or remaining silent altogether. Telling a large number of citizens that their actual views are irrelevant and not welcome has bad down-stream consequences.

But as dismal as the prospect of dwindling Christianity and intractable culture war may seem, Smith also offers grounds for hope. In his view, a vigorous liberalism and willingness to disagree should be able to accommodate citizens with vastly different religious commitments. And the position of paganism is still as weak today as it was in the 4th century. Modern paganism, as a caustic reaction against the preceding Christian culture, does not yet have a capacity to sustain a community to match the power of its critiques in tearing communities down. Scientific naturalism offers only Bertrand Russell’s “unyielding despair,” which is not a viable way to live for nearly everyone, and paganism remains unable to answer the questions people have about the purpose of life. Without a scientific argument for fairness or equal rights, paganism has to find ways to smuggle in assumptions borrowed from transcendent religion. So why not frankly worship the author of those principles, the God who created all people equal in the first place?

If I could convince Steven Smith to address just one question in a guest post, I would ask him: How does the Restored Gospel fit into his analysis? The church is rarely mentioned in Pagans and Christians in the City, but I frequently found Smith’s analysis insightful and applicable to our place in American society, even while it raised new questions. To add one more paradox to the list, the Latter-day Saints can be both radically transcendent and radically immanent. Does this offer any potential for a new approach to peace in the culture wars, or are we merely at risk of losing either our claim on the Christian tradition or our Mormon particularity?

1 comment for “Pagans and Christians in the City (2/2)

  1. Ivan Wolfe
    January 22, 2020 at 9:18 pm

    I don’t have much to add, other than you have convinced me to read this book.

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