Ross Douthat has a rather brilliant essay in which he considers whether the church is facing a new pagan society, as in the first century. He thinks not, but he notices that some of the hostility against Christianity is very similar to the resentment against the faith expressed by pagan Romans. He cites a recent rant in Slate complaining that so many of the doctors battling Ebola are Christians and missionaries, and calling for a separation of religion and health care. Douthat said this is like Julian the Apostate’s frustration that “all men see that our people lack aid” from pagan sources, even as “the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well.”
From Ross Douthat, Pagans and Christians – NYTimes.com:
Occasionally in the debates about Christianity’s weakened position in American culture, you’ll hear traditionalists and conservatives analogize the Christian situation, now or soon, to the environment the faith faced in its earliest centuries, as an embattled minority in a hostile pagan empire. I’m not a particular fan of this analogy, for various reasons: Not only because lions-and-catacombs imagery risks trivializing the concept of persecution at a time when Christians outside the United States face actual Diocletian-style consequences for their beliefs (and don’t always receive the charity they deserve from their American co-believers), but also because describing contemporary American culture as pagan in the style of the ancient world strikes me as a category error, which underplays the extent to which middlebrow American spirituality is still infused with Christian-ish sentiments and assumptions and ideas, and underplays, as well, just how radically different a thoroughly repaganized society would be from the one we (happily) inhabit today.
All of that said, I wouldn’t want to say that there are never echoes of the ancient world in contemporary religious debates. Consider, as a for instance, this piece in Slate from the science writer Brian Palmer, which passively-aggressively complains about the fact that so many of the doctors fighting Ebola on the ground in Africa are … Christians … and worse still, Christian missionaries … and not that there’s anything wrong with that, but actually maybe there is something wrong with that (“I’m not altogether proud of this bias—I’m just trying to be honest”), or at least Palmer wants us to know that he’s a little troubled by its implications (“some missionaries are incapable of separating their religious work from their medical work … I suspect that many others have the same visceral discomfort with the mingling of religion and health care …“) even as, broad-minded guy that he is, he concedes that “until we’re finally ready to invest heavily in secular medicine for Africa,” the missionaries may deserve our grudging support.
Also, be sure to read this from Aaron Earls at the Federalist.