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Traditionalist Christians who oppose same-sex marriage and other cultural developments in the United States wonder why they are being forced to bracket their beliefs in order to participate in public life. This situation is not new, says Steven D. Smith: Christians two thousand years ago faced very similar challenges.  Picking up poet T. S. Eliot’s World War II–era thesis t Traditionalist Christians who oppose same-sex marriage and other cultural developments in the United States wonder why they are being forced to bracket their beliefs in order to participate in public life. This situation is not new, says Steven D. Smith: Christians two thousand years ago faced very similar challenges.  Picking up poet T. S. Eliot’s World War II–era thesis that the future of the West would be determined by a contest between Christianity and “modern paganism,” Smith argues in this book that today’s culture wars can be seen as a reprise of the basic antagonism that pitted pagans against Christians in the Roman Empire. Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City looks at that historical conflict and explores how the same competing ideas continue to clash today. All of us, Smith shows, have much to learn by observing how patterns from ancient history are reemerging in today’s most controversial issues.


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Traditionalist Christians who oppose same-sex marriage and other cultural developments in the United States wonder why they are being forced to bracket their beliefs in order to participate in public life. This situation is not new, says Steven D. Smith: Christians two thousand years ago faced very similar challenges.  Picking up poet T. S. Eliot’s World War II–era thesis t Traditionalist Christians who oppose same-sex marriage and other cultural developments in the United States wonder why they are being forced to bracket their beliefs in order to participate in public life. This situation is not new, says Steven D. Smith: Christians two thousand years ago faced very similar challenges.  Picking up poet T. S. Eliot’s World War II–era thesis that the future of the West would be determined by a contest between Christianity and “modern paganism,” Smith argues in this book that today’s culture wars can be seen as a reprise of the basic antagonism that pitted pagans against Christians in the Roman Empire. Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City looks at that historical conflict and explores how the same competing ideas continue to clash today. All of us, Smith shows, have much to learn by observing how patterns from ancient history are reemerging in today’s most controversial issues.

30 review for Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac

  1. 4 out of 5

    Gary Beauregard Bottomley

    The author thinks that the ‘public debate itself continues as fiercely as ever as annual battles over “Merry Christmas”…reflect’. That strikes me as statement that belongs in bizzaro world. At best that belongs in a DC comic book or on Fox News, and besides didn’t Donald Trump tell me he ‘made it safe to say “Merry Christmas”’ last Christmas season. I’m sure he did. The war is over. Nobody participated except perhaps for the denizens in bizzaro world. But, that’s not the reason why I disliked th The author thinks that the ‘public debate itself continues as fiercely as ever as annual battles over “Merry Christmas”…reflect’. That strikes me as statement that belongs in bizzaro world. At best that belongs in a DC comic book or on Fox News, and besides didn’t Donald Trump tell me he ‘made it safe to say “Merry Christmas”’ last Christmas season. I’m sure he did. The war is over. Nobody participated except perhaps for the denizens in bizzaro world. But, that’s not the reason why I disliked this book so much. Moreover, I did not dislike the book as much as I did because of the way he three times juxtaposed ‘pederasty and homosexual conduct (or same sexual-relations)’. First (on page 74), when he tells us the Pagan Roman sexuality was subject to an ethic of machismo for its ‘acceptance of pederasty and homosexual conduct’; the second time (on page 122) when Christians made sex acceptable only in marriage with no more ‘double standard’ and states ‘same-sex sexual relations were condemned, as was pederasty’; the third time (on page 284) after Christianity became the dominant religion of the empire and said ‘pederasty and homosexual conduct were forbidden’. You do realize how bizzaro that sounds to the people who realize that ‘pederasty’ has absolutely nothing to do with ‘homosexual conduct’ because pederasty is when an adult rapes or sexually violates a child. See the difference? Unfortunately this reminds me of the Pope Emeritus Benedictine XVI recent six thousand word letter which blames ‘homosexual cabals’, ‘lax morals’ and sexual promiscuity for the pedophilia within the Catholic Church. That Pope is probably more responsible for enabling pedophilia than anyone else still alive and should know better than blaming ‘homosexuals’ for pedophilia. This author purposely seems to mix the two for reasons only known to him. Would you ever say ‘rapist and heterosexual conduct’ in the same sentence, three times in the same book unless you were trying to conflate the two concepts, one evil one perfectly fine? The author has the similar garbage arguments that were in William Lane Craig’s book, ‘On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason’ which I had just finished reading before starting this book. Smith has most of the crap that was in that book such as, without a transcendental immaterial entity there can be no ‘objective morality’, and meaning needs to be infinite in order to make life meaningful, and a first mover must be necessary for creating a universe, and a designer is necessary in order to explain the order in the universe, and he even had some superfluous bible citations without telling me why I should treat them any different than from any other book without first establishing a foundation, and both did not acknowledge the incoherence inherent within a transcendental God which by necessity is an immaterial entity (and what the heck is that?) except perhaps the onetime 2000 years ago he came down on earth to redeem your sins by vicariously suffering on the cross for your sins. In addition, Smith has William James, Wittgenstein, Cicero, and a host of all too familiar others as defenders for his concept of a transcendental immaterial entity of some undefined kind. But, this kind of thing is not why I disliked this book so much. The nut graph of the book is from a Libertarian or what I prefer to call ‘mystical anarchist with an invisible hand’ who wonders why any gay (or lesbian, transgender, or bi-sexual) person would want to do business with somebody who doesn’t want to do business with them because of the way God (or the universe) chose them to be. Smith thinks that for the owner of the business ‘religious freedom’ trumps all other considerations. Smith makes the point that the mystical anarchist he cites, Laycock, is not religious and Smith also points out that he himself is not a Libertarian as if that has anything to do with the quality of the argument. I want to point out that Libertarians (mystical anarchist) would have used that argument when black people (who are also born ‘black’ and did not have a choice since a transcendental God (or the universe itself) made them that way) tried to eat at the Woolworth counter during Jim Crow days in the 1960s. Smith would say for the gays of today they could just eat somewhere else and be done with it. As with almost all Americans today (except KKK and white nationalist), I would say I for one am glad they ate at that counter and consequently ended up changing the law and societal norms. Smith’s shabby argumentation is why I disliked this book. Hiding behind a cloak of invisibility by appealing to an invisible friend and calling him a transcendental God just as the KKK member C P Ellis appeals to in the movie ‘Best of Enemies’ (my wife and I enjoyed that movie this week and we would recommend it) doesn’t add one iota in justifying ones ‘racism, bigotry, homophobia, or sexism’. I used those four derogatory words because Smith claims in his book that using those epitaphs even appropriately debases both sides in a debate, but if the shoe fits perhaps one should name call when appropriate. Smith trots out the trope that ‘tolerance requires being tolerant of the intolerant’. When it comes to KKK or white nationalist tolerance is never a suicide pact and one does not need to be tolerant of the intolerant. If somebody believes that fairies live in my shoes because their imaginary immaterial entity told them, I’m fine with them believing that. It’s their live and I have no interest in convincing those who have entered into their beliefs without reason through dissuading them with reason. The moment they put rules or regulations on the kind of shoes I can wear or where I can buy my shoes because of that, I will no longer be tolerant and would not support them using imaginary fairies to discriminate against me or fellow shoe wearing beings. When it comes to beliefs based on nothing more than feelings or a feeling that an invisible transcendental immaterial entity talks to you directly or outsourced it to a book or a preacher, I’m happy with being intolerant of their discriminatory actions. I would strongly suggest the book ‘Born Again Pagan’ instead of this book. This author spoke highly about that book in this book, but it came out too late for him to incorporate it into his book. That book has a depth that this book definitely doesn’t have, and a narrative that actually worked. This book did not. In addition, almost everything that was in Smith’s book including the superficial and misinformed Roman pagan history, childish theology, complaining about saying ‘Merry Christmas’, superficial theological arguments, telling me Sam Harris is a truculent atheist, Dworkan, Dawkins, Rawls and the ‘religious freedom’ arguments, really almost everything in this book was overly familiar already to me and there was very little reason I could recommend this book to anyone except for the diehard Fox News viewer who is waiting for the return of Bill O’Reilly and his annual ‘Merry Christmas wars’ and a return to bizarro world.

  2. 5 out of 5

    George P.

    Christianity was conceived in a Jewish womb but born into a pagan world. For the first four centuries of its existence, Christianity struggled against the polytheism, violence, and sexual immorality of classical culture, eventually displacing paganism as the default faith of the West. That dominance continued through the Middle Ages until the 16th century, when conflicts between Catholics and Protestants divided Christendom and set the stage for the rise of Enlightenment secularism. Since then, Christianity was conceived in a Jewish womb but born into a pagan world. For the first four centuries of its existence, Christianity struggled against the polytheism, violence, and sexual immorality of classical culture, eventually displacing paganism as the default faith of the West. That dominance continued through the Middle Ages until the 16th century, when conflicts between Catholics and Protestants divided Christendom and set the stage for the rise of Enlightenment secularism. Since then, secularism has slowly displaced Christianity as the West’s go-to ideology. That’s the standard narrative of Western history, at any rate. Steven D. Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City offers a thought-provoking counternarrative inspired by T. S. Eliot’s 1939 Cambridge University lecture, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” Speaking six months before the start of World War II, Eliot stated his conviction in binary terms: “I believe that the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.” At first glance, Eliot’s conviction and Smith’s counternarrative seem implausible. In a 1954 lecture at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis expressed impatience with “those Jeremiahs … who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism.’” He laughed at the very idea: “It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t.” Why? Because history does not move backward. “The post-Christian” — Lewis’ term for modernity — “is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.” Fair enough. We can all have a good laugh with Lewis. But what if he misidentified an incidental feature of paganism (sacrifice) as an essential feature? What exactly ispaganism, after all? Smith describes “the pagan orientation” as “the commitment to the immanent sacred.” This orientation “beatifies and sacralizes the goods of this world.” It teaches that “‘the sacred’ exists…in this world and this life.” By contrast, Smith explains, “the Christian position has never been to deny the goodness of this world, but only to insist that it is not the ultimate good, and that its goodness derives from a more transcendent source.” This description of paganism throws a clarifying light on the term secular, which derives from the Latin term saeculum, meaning “generation” or “age.” According to Smith, “the secular” comes in three forms. In the “pagan secular,” “this world and this life … are viewed as having a sacred quality.” In the “Christian secular,” “this life has value … because it is a (subordinate) piece of the larger domain of eternity.” Finally, there is “the distinctively modern positivistic secular reflected in the naturalistic worldview associated with modern science.” Like the pagan secular, the positivist secular has no concept of transcendence. Unlike the pagan secular, however, it also has no concept of sacredness — that is, of life’s goodness, value, or meaning. When, therefore, public intellectuals speak of Christianity being displaced by secularism in the modern world, they need to define their terms more carefully. The positivistic secular exists, but it is a distinctly minority position. The hardest battles in today’s culture wars are fought between the pagan secular and the Christian secular — that is, between immanent and transcendent accounts of goodness, value and meaning. Smith illustrates these battles in the debates over public religious symbols, human sexuality, the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and religious freedom. Smith is Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego in San Diego, California, and an acknowledged expert on religious freedom and the relationship between law and religion. What he writes about the debate over religious freedom in particular applies just as well to the other three debates. “One side of the debate favors a conception of religious freedom that is consistent with … a city or a political community that respects and is open to transcendence.” The other side works “to maintain a public square whose commitments are confined to the satisfaction of ‘interests’ and to immanentlysacred values.” At the end of the day, then, what is at stake in all these debates is the kind of community America has been, will be, or should be. Or any other political community where Christianity and paganism clash, for that matter. As is the case with any book that tackles as large a subject as this one, careful readers will find nits to pick with the author throughout. Whatever those nits may be, however, Pagans and Christians in the City is a real achievement, clarifying the religious nature of the culture wars that have roiled America for the past few decades and showing their deep continuity with the original four-centuries clash between Christians and pagans. Book Reviewed Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018). P.S. This is a preview of an article appearing in the March/April 2019 edition of Influencemagazine. It is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission. P.P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    This is a very important book. Smith, a scholar of jurisprudence, takes up the fascinating thesis of TS Eliot that the future is either a rebirth of Christendom or a “modern paganism.” He associates one (Christianity) with transcendent religion and the other (paganism) as imminent religion. There is much covered here but it really is so good. I have some questions and thoughts on how the thesis might be strengthened (specifically with regard to other ‘transcendent’ religions like Islam and Judais This is a very important book. Smith, a scholar of jurisprudence, takes up the fascinating thesis of TS Eliot that the future is either a rebirth of Christendom or a “modern paganism.” He associates one (Christianity) with transcendent religion and the other (paganism) as imminent religion. There is much covered here but it really is so good. I have some questions and thoughts on how the thesis might be strengthened (specifically with regard to other ‘transcendent’ religions like Islam and Judaism). But overall, this book helps to reframe the debate regarding secularism as a debate between “religious and non-religious” people. Smith would demur, it’s a debate between two different types of religions. Highly recommended.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Joel Mitchell

    This book takes as its starting point a statement by T. S. Eliot to the effect that people are better off living in a Christian society than a pagan one. A hefty chunk of the book is taken up with defining what is meant by “Christian society vs. pagan society.” The author comes down on a basic definition of “transcendent religion (acknowledging or at least open to a God and objective ultimate good beyond the universe and in eternity) vs. immanent religion (finding ultimate good in this world and This book takes as its starting point a statement by T. S. Eliot to the effect that people are better off living in a Christian society than a pagan one. A hefty chunk of the book is taken up with defining what is meant by “Christian society vs. pagan society.” The author comes down on a basic definition of “transcendent religion (acknowledging or at least open to a God and objective ultimate good beyond the universe and in eternity) vs. immanent religion (finding ultimate good in this world and lifetime). He purports to show how these incompatible views have constantly fought to be the dominant view undergirding society. He starts with the early Christians in the Roman Empire and then jumps to modern Western civilization in general and the US in particular. He examines how each view shapes society, what kinds of conflicts arise (and why), the meaning of religious freedom for each side (I found the historical and legal issues related to this to be especially interesting and relevant), and a host of other implications. When someone talks as if they have discovered THE key to understanding a huge issue, I take it with a grain of salt, but overall this was a thought-provoking book. The hysteria and paranoia that frequently underlie “culture war” discussions is replaced with calm, relatively even-handed description of both sides of most arguments. I don’t necessarily agree with the author’s sometimes vague conclusions (I’m deeply suspicious of trying to “Christianize” society, especially via politics), and the book is pretty lacking in the “how shall we then live?” element, but there’s a lot to chew on here. If you’re looking for an academic analysis of the “culture wars” without the usual hysterical rhetoric, this is worth reading.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Peter Bradley

    I chanced to be reading Professor Steven D. Smith's "Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac" during the height of the Black Lives Matter Riots ("BLM") of 2020. As a Catholic, I had noticed the odd behavior of white BLM activists engaging in behaviors that I associated with my faith tradition. For example, there were confessional liturgies where what activists would recite in unison their apologies and guilt for their "white privilege." We had discussions th I chanced to be reading Professor Steven D. Smith's "Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac" during the height of the Black Lives Matter Riots ("BLM") of 2020. As a Catholic, I had noticed the odd behavior of white BLM activists engaging in behaviors that I associated with my faith tradition. For example, there were confessional liturgies where what activists would recite in unison their apologies and guilt for their "white privilege." We had discussions that accused whites of an "original sin" of racism. What finally clinched it for me was an SJW activist on Facebook discussing how she spent 15 minutes and 20 seconds - the time George Floyd had been knelt on by a Minneapolis police officer - recreating in her mind the second by second experience of Floyd. For any Catholic acquainted with the Stations of the Cross, what she was doing was an obvious analogy to contemplating the Sorrowful Passion of Our Savior. So, as I'd never seen before, the leftwing BLM movement was shot through with familiar religious impulse and imagery, but, yet, somehow different than what I was familiar with. Professor Smith's book seems to provide the key to understanding our present moment. His thesis is that human beings are inherently religious but two forms of religion war with each other. One religious impulse places the divine in this world and looks for ultimate fulfillment in this "immanent" world. The other places religious source and fulfillment "out there" beyond nature in the supernatural and "transcendent." Classical paganism was the model of "immanent" religiosity. Gods were those who could be bargained with and dealt with because their concerns involved the present world since there was no other world. Why was the pagan world so saturated with sex such that images and statues of phalluses and priapism were everywhere? Because sexual orgasm was the closest that an immanent religiosity could come to transcendent experience in this world. Of course, immanent paganism was displaced by transcendent Christianity, which reoriented values to a transcendent God and a transcendent final goal. Goods came with this reorientation as Smith explains: "On the positive side, however, a fair assessment would likely credit Christianity with helping to bring about many of the features of modern civilization that are most valued—including respect for the dignity of the individual,53 human rights,54 the commitment to equality,55 and concern for the poor.56 These ideas and ideals, foreign to ancient paganism, reflect the biblical claims that humans are made “in the image of God,” that God has infinite concern or love for these creatures or children (even “the least among them”),57 and that God gave himself for human beings." On the other hand, a sense of dislocation - of being not "at home" in this world - also came with the transcendent religion: "The pagan orientation, in short, accepts this world as our home, and does so joyously, exuberantly, worshipfully. (Or at least that is one part of the pagan orientation; we may encounter other, darker aspects as we proceed.) The transcendent monotheism of Judaism and Christianity, by contrast, disrupts this comfortable sense of being at home. Though created and sustained by God, the world is now also separated from God—a separation aggravated, in Christian doctrine, by the Fall. Christians (and also Jews) effectively undid the pagan sacralization of the world, and instead effected a “desanctification of nature,” as Heschel explained.56 As a result, Assmann observes, the monotheist “does not feel entirely at home in the world any more.”57 Judaism and Christianity are religions “of distantiation, in contrast to religions of complete immersion in the world.”58" Of course, neither form of religion is perfectly "transcendent" or "immanent" at all times and all places for all persons. Immanent religion favored a unified, holistic ethos. Public, personal and civic mores and ethics were unified. All people shared the same mores and ethics because all were part of a single city and there could be nothing greater than the city and the gods who it worshipped. The gods, however, were not going to cause division because they were propitiated by the city. Transcendent religion is not unified or holistic. Transcendent religion postulates that the city is a temporary and imperfect thing - and always will be - with one's perfect home to be found outside of this reality. Transcendent religion in the Christian version postulated a "Two Cities" political philosophy. One city was the city of this world to which one owed political allegiance but over and above that city was a greater City to which one owed total and ultimate loyalty. This "two city" political philosophy could and did engender conflict; it is not for nothing that the first time a Roman empire was forced to do penance for doing his job and slaughtering people was the Christian Emperor Theodosius who was required to perform a public penance by Bishop Ambrose. After exploring the sociology and history of paganism and the rise of Christianity, Smith looks at the current situation and finds that secular thinkers are uncomfortable with mere immanence. They truly desire values that transcend this circumstance or that circumstance that they can ground their philosophical systems in. By and large, in my opinion based on Professor Smith's discussion, this project has been largely a failure and an obvious effort to smuggle the valuations most desired by thinkers such as Dworkin into their schemes on ad hoc basis. However, despite the failure to transcend the immanent as an intellectual proposition, secular thinkers, who exalt the immanent and despise the transcendent that might limit their cathedral building have been very successful in capturing elite culture. Professor Smith turns his attention to two areas- sex and religious freedom - where he demonstrates that the values of the transcendent have been displaced in favor of the values of the here and now. Concerning sex, Professor Smith writes: "In recent decades, however, activists and lawyers in the “progressive” camp have worked—with considerable success—to reconceive and reconstruct the Constitution as an instrument that can be used to resist and invalidate the earlier civil religion and its manifestations. In this context, therefore, the struggle has not been to transform a Christian element into a pagan one, but rather to capture what had previously been a more neutral framework or arrangement for governance and turn it to the cause of secularism or immanent religion. This development is especially portentous because, insofar as it has succeeded, it has transformed a revered and previously inclusive authoritative artifact—the Constitution—into a partisan weapon, and has thereby undermined the ability of that authority to hold together a community increasingly divided between “orthodox” and “progressive” constituencies." Concerning religion, Professor Smith notes that there has been a trend against the accommodation of religious practice as the State has come to take over more and more of the territory of society. Just as Christians in pagan Rome could not do business in the marketplace without offering a sacrifice to pagan gods, Christians today cannot do business unless they sacrifice to progressive gods of transgender and homosexual rights. The only space for Christians is "outside the walls" and that space is shrinking as the State grows: "There is precedent for such a position. In ancient Rome, Christians often lived and practiced, and were largely left free to live and practice, outside the walls of the city. That is where the Christian catacombs were located, for example, where Christians often buried their dead. And in the confessional states of early modern Europe, dissenting religious communities were sometimes permitted to meet and worship outside the city walls.132 This was religious freedom—of a tenuous sort, to be sure. It was far from full inclusion. But the faithful could live out their faith, as long as they were willing to pay the price of staying out of the public sphere. It was a steep price; still, religion has often fared worse. As noted, the successful completion of phases one and two would leave the contemporary devotees of transcendent religion in a similar position. Considering the alternatives, many might be satisfied with—even thankful for—this sort of free space “outside the walls” in which to practice their faith.133 But then a third phase may set it. In this phase the city swells and the walls are moved outward, so that the space for the free practice of transcendent religion becomes ever more cramped." As in Rome, the war is being fought symbolically. Why are we seeing today (July 2020) such attacks statues of Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Catholic Saints and Jesus Christ? Why the most recent attacks on Catholic Churches? The answer is that today, as in Rome, the party that controls the symbols, particularly the transcendent and constitutive symbols, controls the culture. And, thus, we return to "two cities" political philosophy. Are people who believe only in the here and now, who think that this place is our home, who think they can build a utopia, going to allow people to dissent from their utopia based on their allegiance to a transcendent God? Not likely. Smith observes: "Indeed, as we have seen, the basic conception of the community as under or subject to a higher authority (from which the rest of the accommodation logic follows at least naturally, if not quite ineluctably) has been reiterated repeatedly through the course of American history. Conversely, as that conception of the community comes to be displaced by a secular conception—“secular” in the immanent and positivistic senses—the acknowledgment of such a higher authority will come to seem offensive, unacceptable, almost incomprehensible. Deference to a higher power will now seem an impermissible relinquishment of the community’s complete sovereignty.92" So, down come the statues of Lincoln, Douglass, Catholic Saints and Jesus. Interestingly, I found an article in Communio - Augusto Del Noce on Marx’s Abolition of Human Nature Carlo Lancellotti - which argues that Western Bourgois culture in its long war with Communism incorporated Marxist elements, including an abandonment of the transcendent. So, similar diagnosis but different etiology. What is to be done? I think Professor Smith's book is very useful for putting together the threads of the current situation. What appear to be momentary, episodic or insane discrete events are actually unified into a malignant whole. We have to be careful about how far we can take the "pagan" language. Smith points out the modern pagans are not the ancient pagans. They are not worshipping immanent gods and their form of paganism is not likely to revive a common civic life, except in the way that the Soviet Union with its mandatory parades, voting and propaganda simulated a civil life. We can see this in the way that our Work Leftists turn on and crush dissenters in its midst. Perhaps the answer is to focus on the transcendent and the goods that the transcendent bring and evangelize those good.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Elisa

    ah MAN all the historical stuff was fun but then you get to the end and he's like "and that's why gay marriage is morally similar to christians being murdered in ancient rome" [paraphrase] and it's kind of a bummer.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Albert Norton

    Stephen D. Smith is the author of several works concerning secularism and religious freedom, some of them from a Constitutional and legal perspective, as befits a law professor, as he is.  In this book, he convincingly advances the theme that we have not so much moved to post-Christian sterile materialism, as to a resurgence of paganism.   Smith contends that the pagan world never really left us.  Over history it has been tamped down, so to speak, or relegated to the margins as Christianity asce Stephen D. Smith is the author of several works concerning secularism and religious freedom, some of them from a Constitutional and legal perspective, as befits a law professor, as he is.  In this book, he convincingly advances the theme that we have not so much moved to post-Christian sterile materialism, as to a resurgence of paganism.   Smith contends that the pagan world never really left us.  Over history it has been tamped down, so to speak, or relegated to the margins as Christianity ascended, but it never really went away.  He considers the chief elements of this latent paganism to be as follows. First, a sense of immanence.  This is more a “feel,” than a hard fact.  It is the sense of enchantment to the world that, Smith contends, still obtains despite the materialist secularism now prevalent.  That immanence stands in opposition to transcendence.  Some clarification is in order.   Christianity holds there to be a transcendence to reality, which means God and His host in heaven, but His presence also running in and through physical reality; meaning that He is present with us.  It does not mean, however, that divinity in some way infuses or animates physical reality.  To the contrary, a signal feature to the rise of Christianity as against paganism is that physical creation stands apart from its Creator.   Smith uses “immanent” to mean embodied within physical reality.  This can be confusing, at first, because God is said to be immanent and Smith uses immanence in opposition to transcendence.  Smith apparently means to assert that pagan gods are immanent  like God is immanent, but that they are only immanent; that is, not transcendent from a supernatural realm as with God. Second, a repudiation of immortality.  Belief in an afterlife is rejected, by pagans, as it is among many post-Christian neo-pagans.  Smith points out that this does not necessarily translate to a sense of meaninglessness, however.  In fact, many pagans argue that life has more meaning because of the absence of an afterlife.  In the present age, many secularists have considered the question, and, like their pagan forbears, argue that life has more meaning, not less, as a result of there being no afterlife as Christianity proposes. Third, a longing for earthy richness that paganism is thought to provide, in place of moral austerity that Christianity is thought to stand for.  To his credit, Smith gives this felt sense in people the attention it deserves, despite its subjective nature.  He cites to the sense of longing people have had, all through the Christian era, for a return to earthy pleasures uninhibited by shame and guilt, especially with regard to sexual license.  There is a sense that paganism was “a merry dance,” lost to us now inside the constraints of Christianity.  It makes sense, therefore, that the distinguishing feature of the post-Christian zeitgeist is greater sexual license.  The removal of inhibitions against sex outside marriage is the definitive turn from a Christian to a post-Christian, pagan view of the world. An overarching theme to Smith’s observations is that paganism survives and becomes again ascendant because it relies on feelings – subjective longing for freedom, rather than critical analysis of truth.  From the Enlightenment period forward there is a repeated series of falsehoods about Christianity that (citing Rodney Stark in Stark’s Bearing False Witness) “are so mutually reinforcing and deeply embedded in our common culture that it seems impossible for them not to be true.”  The result is that misunderstanding about the effects of Christianity feeds the subjective impression that its moral demands can be safely ignored.  Christianity (or Judaism, or even Islam) is the harder version of reality to accept and embrace.  Smith observes, from our subjective feelings rather than objective truth, that “it might be plausibly argued that paganism is the natural condition of humanity.  From the moment of our birth until the hour of our death, after all, we see and hear and feel and act within this world.  This is the world that we know directly and personally – the world we can be sure of.  Conversely, we are consigned to rely on inference or intimation or faith to discern anything beyond this world.  So we will naturally tend to find meaning and sublimity within this world – the one we know and inhabit.  Paganism in this existential sense may draw sustenance from ancient precedent, but even without that support, it will naturally arise on its own.  And Christianity could not reasonably expect to eradicate that natural orientation."  Again, this is not to say Christianity is untrue, but Smith is explaining here why paganism has been latent in the Christian era, ready to arise whenever obstacles are removed. Smith captures where we have come from and where we are going.  There are insights on every page, too many to do justice in a short review.  But I recommend this book, even if you only read one book to try to understand the place of religion in the modern age. 

  8. 4 out of 5

    Joe Farmartino

    Smith's thesis is that the current culture wars pitting an increasingly secular left against a more socially conservative right can be best understood through comparisons to the Christian-pagan feud in classical Roman times. Where as the Christians located the sacred in a transcendent deity, pagans in classical Rome worshipped more immanent Gods that sacralized even the most mundane day-to-day activities. To work out this comparison, Smith spends a great deal of the book covering historical mate Smith's thesis is that the current culture wars pitting an increasingly secular left against a more socially conservative right can be best understood through comparisons to the Christian-pagan feud in classical Roman times. Where as the Christians located the sacred in a transcendent deity, pagans in classical Rome worshipped more immanent Gods that sacralized even the most mundane day-to-day activities. To work out this comparison, Smith spends a great deal of the book covering historical material about Roman history and the emergence of Christianity. Smith covers what Romans actually believed about the gods of mythology (some viewed them symbolically like Cicero, others were more superstitious) and in what ways Christianity represented a break from the classical world. These chapters were informative and developed his recurring theme that humans are religious creatures that create sacred values to navigate a morally complex world. Christianity located the sacred in a transcendent God and triumphed over ancient Rome, enshrining their transcendent values as the norm up to recent times. However, Smith argues that a more pagan version of morality that is immanent and fundamentally confined to the here and now of earthy existence still persisted, though hidden beneath a Christian canopy. Throughout the book, Smith returned to a question asked by religious liberty scholar Douglas Laycock about why "parties insist on suing people whose services they neither need nor want? (6)" as in cases like the Masterpiece Cakeshop dispute over a Christian baker not wanting to bake a cake for a gay wedding. Smith argues that this makes sense because "their goods and services may or may not be needed, but their message is a standing affront to dignity, and their presence is an irritant and an insult to the kind of community to which modern progressive pagans aspire" (363). This pagan community is one where sacred values are immanent and earthly, and stir feelings of reverence and devotion as they sacralize the here and now for supposedly "secular" pagans. The battle for where society ("the city") will derive its cherished sacred values from is one that rules out any compromise. One aspect that stands out in Smith's book is how central questions of sexuality are to this culture war. He quotes Roman historian Kyle Harper that sexuality "came to mark the great divide between Christians and the world" (xii). Two thousands years later, this same battle over sexuality rages between Christians and pagans. Pagans increasingly see the affirmation of sexual identity and freedom as key to being "fully human" and a recognition of their dignity (286). Smith quotes Mary Eberstadt argument that pagan sexuality is "a new, quasi-religious orthodoxy" and Smith continues "As in Rome, it may seem contemporary society 'find[s] in erotic fulfillment nothing short of salvation' as Kyle Harper observes" (287). Sexuality, above all other pagan values, is where the immanent sacred is to be located. No wonder so many fights revolve around this arena. Smith ends with a reflection on how courts and individuals can navigate a society where transcendent values do not go away, but are increasingly seen as illegitimate in the public sphere. No source of morality can stand above the immanent sacredness of pagan values, but those who continue to hold to these conceptions are increasingly seen as pariahs. Smith ends on a skeptical note that modern day pagan values are too thin to fill the religious void they have helped create.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Larry Kaufmann

    Professor Smith brings an enormous amount of information and lifetime of scholarship to a fascinating topic (the rise of "modern paganism" and its relationship to the battle between paganism and Christianity between the fourth and sixth centuries). However, he doesn't stick the landing, because he fails to consider the nature and appeal of modern paganism in enough detail. Definitely worth reading, but this would be a five star book if Smith had cut the historical discussion by 20% to 25% and sp Professor Smith brings an enormous amount of information and lifetime of scholarship to a fascinating topic (the rise of "modern paganism" and its relationship to the battle between paganism and Christianity between the fourth and sixth centuries). However, he doesn't stick the landing, because he fails to consider the nature and appeal of modern paganism in enough detail. Definitely worth reading, but this would be a five star book if Smith had cut the historical discussion by 20% to 25% and spent more time assessing the cultural (and not just legal) implications of the latest iteration of paganism.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Garry Geer

    Smith works from the premise that the culture battles have always been between Pagans and Christians from Rome even until today. He acknowledges that while there are not neatly divided categories yet one can see some common general trends. I especially appreciated his examination of the recent hostility against Christian businesses through the lens of transcendent vs. immanent. If you are looking for something to help you make sense of the current (and past) culture wars, this is a great resourc Smith works from the premise that the culture battles have always been between Pagans and Christians from Rome even until today. He acknowledges that while there are not neatly divided categories yet one can see some common general trends. I especially appreciated his examination of the recent hostility against Christian businesses through the lens of transcendent vs. immanent. If you are looking for something to help you make sense of the current (and past) culture wars, this is a great resource.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    Worth reading, as a study on the parallels of ancient Rome to modern times in the struggle between Christianity and 'paganism', or 'immanent spirituality', in which the sacred exists only in the bounds of this world. I would have liked him to flesh out his definitions by more examples of what the commonality is of current non-Christians belief that he defines as immanent sacred (or paganism).

  12. 5 out of 5

    Corey Piper

    I couldn't put this book down! His insights perfectly frame the culture wars going on right now. His focus on immanent relgions and transcendent religion as the dividing forces of our day--and of days gone by--is right on. He brings quite a few "Exactly!!" moments.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Steve Herreid

    One of the best books I have read over the last few years. Analyzes the clash between Christians and pagans in ancient Rome, and draws insightful parallels to today's culture wars. Amazing book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Alexander Sperber

    Pagans and Christians in the City is an excellent book. It focuses on the broad sweep of Western Civilization, looking at the interplay between pagan religion and values and Christian religion and values. While Christian values may have supplanted those of the Roman Empire, it appears that many of those same values have made a resurgence in modern times. The book is weakest when it tries to tie these trends to the modern day culture wars, where the author's more conservative views become abundan Pagans and Christians in the City is an excellent book. It focuses on the broad sweep of Western Civilization, looking at the interplay between pagan religion and values and Christian religion and values. While Christian values may have supplanted those of the Roman Empire, it appears that many of those same values have made a resurgence in modern times. The book is weakest when it tries to tie these trends to the modern day culture wars, where the author's more conservative views become abundantly obvious. Nevertheless, I would highly recommend the book. It opened me up to a broad vision of what might be the overarching storyline behind Western Civilization and has helped me to better understand some of the trends motivating today's underlying social tensions.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Embry

  16. 5 out of 5

    Richard

  17. 5 out of 5

    Brad

  18. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    I so wanted to like this book. However, Mr. Smith either is afraid to state what he thinks or doesn't know what he thinks. He pads his sentences with extraneous words, wanders through the topic, and never answers his main question. The worst of legal and philosophical writing - all the pretty words getting in the way of the point. (I did come away with one lesson. Ancient Rome impacted the Catholic church in the sense that male sexuality, at least that of the superiors, is to be accommodated if n I so wanted to like this book. However, Mr. Smith either is afraid to state what he thinks or doesn't know what he thinks. He pads his sentences with extraneous words, wanders through the topic, and never answers his main question. The worst of legal and philosophical writing - all the pretty words getting in the way of the point. (I did come away with one lesson. Ancient Rome impacted the Catholic church in the sense that male sexuality, at least that of the superiors, is to be accommodated if not indulged. Read Chapter 3 - City of the Gods)

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sam Wolkenhauer

  20. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

  21. 5 out of 5

    Noah Johnson

  22. 4 out of 5

    Peter

  23. 4 out of 5

    Tanwin

  24. 5 out of 5

    Zach Hollifield

  25. 5 out of 5

    Peter Newman

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Hart

  27. 5 out of 5

    Noel Meza

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bryan Baise

  29. 4 out of 5

    David Williams

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mike Lutz

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