Spiritual, Not Religious by Hunter Baker

Book Review

Spiritual, Not Religious

Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac by Steven D. Smith

One of the staples of the sociological view of religion is that it is a sort of serious game that we play in which we glorify some collective vision of ourselves. In other words, the “cult” in culture is manufactured by us, for us. When religion is considered that way, it is easy to understand something like idol worship and systems of sacrifice. We simply affirm our participation in the ritual thing and put some skin in the game. It is a way of being a member of the group. Because this cultic identity is important to the broader society by way of ordering classes, enchanting an otherwise mundane existence, sanctifying law, and/or even giving structure to the calendar, everyone must participate in it. This sociological religion is paganism. It was the faith of the Roman Empire before Christianization. 

Paganism was not greatly concerned with matters of truth and doctrine. It was religion oriented around participation and performance rather than seeking the ultimate truth about reality. Where the Christian “believed” in God, the pagans “had” gods. Where Christians heatedly debated questions of heresy, it hardly occurred to pagans to have such disputes at all. But when it came to religion and deference to the public cult (if only to demand a simple sentence or a symbolic action with no real expectation of actual belief), the pagans were utterly serious. Many Christians faced torture and death in consequence of refusing to comply.

We all know the rest of the story. Constantine became emperor, ascribing his military victory to Christ, and favor replaced persecution. Paganism was vanquished. The Church outlived the empire and set the religious tone for Europe and ultimately for much of the modern world. Returning to sociology, however, we see various versions of the secularization theory at work, in which it appears to many—note the numerous breathless survey reports of the growth of “nones”—that the world is casting aside religion in favor of some new modern sensibility. But is there another reading available? Is there another way to understand what is happening?

Both Tolerant & Oppressive

Steven D. Smith, the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, insightfully describes the relationship between Christianity and paganism and offers a different, more compelling diagnosis of what is happening in the twenty-first century. According to Smith, paganism never disappeared. Christianity replaced it as the dominant frame for Western society, but to some extent the change was one of veneer rather than a fundamental and complete transformation of society. Paganism continued to be attractive to many and has re-emerged with new strength.

Looking at the modern culture war through the lens of paganism pushing its way back into prominence proves to be intellectually satisfying (though disquieting emotionally and spiritually) and may offer a new kind of guide for the perplexed. American Christians find themselves in a state of shock. Their faith was once something almost all politicians hoped to claim for themselves. That is part of why the U.S. never had a Christian Democratic party of the type common in Europe. Both major parties were eager to style themselves as Christian. Secular agendas moved beneath a Christian canopy. But with the virtual collapse of liberal, mainline Protestantism, committed Christianity has become more of a polarizing position than a unifying force. 

Given the rapid ascendance of sexual identity politics, Christians (especially those with serious faith commitments) readily discern a renewal of ancient problems in their relationship with the state. Christian florists and bakers may struggle with civil rights commissions over wedding services, but will the censorious eye of officials focus upon educational institutions, teachers, healthcare providers, a wide variety of non-profits, and even the churches themselves as current trends roll inexorably forward? Secular guardians of modern justice have little interest in accommodating the Christians who struggle with collisions between their faith and the regulatory apparatus. But the question is why?

Professor Smith has the answer. In matters of religion, we look back to see the Romans as both tolerant and harshly oppressive. How can we reconcile their openness to the plethora of new deities they comprehended within their growing empire, and their persecution of Christians? The answer is that paganism is a public thing and is nothing without its performative, public nature. New gods could always be added to the pantheon. Jesus could perhaps have simply been reckoned among the accepted list of immortals eliciting worship within the confines of empire. Christians caught by officials were offered easy terms for avoiding fines, imprisonment, and death. Say a few words, make a ritual gesture or two, and go home without trouble. They need not have submitted to a searching examination that would vindicate them of heresy. It was enough to affirm surface adherence to the public cult. 

But the Christians did not feel they could offer even the appearance of obeisance to any god but God, and to any king above Christ. Thus, we have the stories of martyrs that frighten, inspire, and embolden Christians, while constituting mule-headed foolishness in the view of others. 

Immanent versus Transcendent Religion

And what would explain that gap in understanding? Why did Christians die when a token would have served? The answer has to do with the fundamental religious divide that runs through history to the present day. It is the difference between what Smith calls immanent religion and transcendent religion. Transcendent religion is the one we know. The transcendent God is the God of the Bible. He does not exist in the world, but rather is the creator and sustainer of it. He does not participate in reality, but rather defines its terms. One might think of C. S. Lewis’s portrayal of heaven in The Great Divorce as the most real place imaginable, so real that the main character fears being crushed and killed by solid blocks of light. And maybe the image of a terrifyingly real reality explains both the attraction and repulsion of the Christian faith and the transcendent God. We might also think of Lewis’s Aslan, who is good but “not safe.”

The immanent religion of paganism is a different thing. There is not a transcendent creator God, but rather a general religious sense that can fill the interstices of life. In the remote past of Rome’s empire, it took the form of a world full of gods. Today, it takes on a new look. Smith astutely observes that while those in the modern social and intellectual vanguard promote their embrace of science and reason, they have been unable to live with the positivistic consequences of their view. Instead of dwelling in the darkly comic (or flatly despairing) world of cosmic accident and values that can be based on little more than either power or aesthetics, they seek some form of sacredness to impart meaning and some sort of foundation for the rights they believe must exist beyond their imaginations. 

The result is a move over time from the Christian separation of church and state toward a positivistic secularism (a brief stay because few can live with it) and then on to a pagan form of secularism. That which is explicitly Christian is ruled out of bounds almost as a matter of course, with little explanation other than an “everyone knows” sort of narrative, while the pagan secular sensibility (maybe like the one offered by Anthony Kennedy in his jurisprudence on sexual autonomy) thrives unfettered. Asking what is merely rational won’t do. Instead, we pursue the Rawlsian standard of “reasonableness” that displaces Christian views without sticking around to protect their disenfranchised proponents. 

We arrive at our current state. The transcendent has come to be seen as dogmatic, intolerant, and an infringement on liberty. While the Christian tradition may have helped us to develop the foundation of rights, freedoms, and limited government we enjoy, modern pagans believe they can offer a sacred grounding without the transcendent baggage, through their immanent religion. We will all be “spiritual, but not religious.”

The Post-Obergefell Picture

When we think about such slogans about spirituality and tolerance, we tend to imagine them as free of oppression and coercion. But that is not the picture we see developing as the post-Obergefell Polaroid photo slowly resolves into a clear image. Part of the reason is that sex has become a new form of salvation. Many value it for its obvious qualities, but also because they see sexual license as a victory over Christian repression. The symbolism is important. That helps one understand the surprising fury exhibited when Hobby Lobby won its case against the HHS mandate requiring it to provide birth control to its employees through its insurance plan. After all, Smith notes, we don’t expect employers to provide food, transportation, a cell phone, or a variety of other necessities of life. The specific denial of birth control as an employer-funded benefit constituted an outrage because the company wasn’t brought to heel and forced to pay obeisance to the new form of the sacred, the immanent sacred connected to sex.

The growing battle over religious liberty is directly tied to the question of the transcendent versus the immanent in religion. The concept of accommodating religious dissenters made sense for a culture that had more sympathy for the believer caught in a bind between the obligations of law and obedience to a God above law. Cynical commentators describe protections for religious liberty as a kind of trump card that allows any believer to disregard valid laws, but Smith accurately points out that religious liberty protection is itself a creature of law. When accommodations are extended, that, too, is the process of law and not some maverick, extra-legal procedure. 

Giving due regard to religious liberty is a way of improving the love of citizens for their country and each other, as John Courtney Murray argued in his work. To take account of religious belief and the needs of an integrated person through legal means when possible can actually reduce tensions and pave the way for better relationships. Respecting religious liberty in law, then, is not chaos, but is instead an investment in a more harmonious political order. 

If we look back to the Romans, they resolved the tension by asking the Christian to make a seemingly trivial gesture he or she could not make and then applying an overwhelming sanction. Today’s pagans don’t propose to kill Christians, but they do wield official penalties that can destroy businesses and bar people from functioning as professionals. 

Smith tells the story of one of Constantine’s successors, Julian, who came to the throne as an unreconstructed pagan. He was determined to restore the pre-Christian state of affairs in the empire. To that end, Julian banned Christians from teaching in schools. He reasoned that they were morally unfit. It is not hard to see that his strategy was a masterstroke. Within a fairly short time, the wholesale change of personnel in schools could have made strides toward the elimination of nascent Christianity. A stray arrow in battle ended his reign and the threat of a re-empowered paganism in ancient Rome. We live in a time when it seems Christians should be thinking about what it means to be governed by an elite growing in its appetite for strategies such as Julian’s. 

Hunter Baker , J.D., Ph.D., is the dean of arts and sciences at Union University, a fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and an affiliate scholar of the Acton Institute.