Gene Expression

Pagan & Christian

The late 4th century witnessed the death of the pagan world and the rise of the early medieval era. Today, our culture focuses on the here & now and we neglect the past. But the past is important because we can learn from the rivers explored by our ancestors. In our modern age of religious pluralism, poised between the past and the future, I am often struck by how apropos the dispute between the pagan Prefect of Rome, Symmachus, and the great Christian cleric Ambrose, seems.

Here is Symmachus:

The divine Mind has distributed different guardians and different cults to different cities. As souls are separately given to infants as they are born, so to peoples the genius of their destiny. Here comes in the proof from advantage, which most of all vouches to man for the gods. For, since our reason is wholly clouded, whence does the knowledge of the gods more rightly come to us, than from the memory and evidence of prosperity? Now if a long period gives authority to religious customs, we ought to keep faith with so many centuries, and to follow our ancestors, as they happily followed theirs.

Who we are is in part conditioned upon who our ancestors were. Some political thinkers in moments of sentiment suggest that society is constrained by promises made to generations past and to those of the future. But there is some truth in this for many human beings. And yet we also look forward into novel and dangerous territory. Here is Ambrose:

I do not blush to be converted with the whole world in my old age. It is undoubtedly true that no age is too late to learn. Let that old age blush which cannot amend itself. Not the old age of years is worthy of praise but that of character. There is no shame in passing to better things. This alone was common to me with the barbarians, that of old I knew not God. Your sacrifice is a rite of being sprinkled with the blood of beasts. Why do you seek the voice of God in dead animals? Come and learn on earth the heavenly warfare; we live here, but our warfare is there. Let God Himself, Who made me, teach me the mystery of heaven, not man, who knew not himself. Whom rather than God should I believe concerning God? How can I believe you, who confess that you know not what you worship?


  1. #1 Mark Paris
    April 20, 2006

    It’s interesting that you say, “the death of the pagan world and the rise of the early medieval era.” Most modern christians think of their religion as somehow different (that is, true) when compared to other religions, especially what they call pagan religions. The irony is that modern christianity has subsumed so much of pagan belief and practice that I suspect it would be unrecognizable to jews of the period of its orgin as a belief that stems from judaism.

  2. #2 Mathew Lipman
    April 20, 2006

    christianity was mixed with pagan religion to make it more attractive to the pagan population… for example Dec 25th was the day in which the sun god was celebrated, They switched the birthdate of jesus to Dec 25th so the pagans could keep their Dec 25th celeberation. There are plenty more examples of this…

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