Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why did pagans convert?


Following up on my last post on the absurdity of attributing the conversion of pagans in the Roman Empire to the excellent system of Roman roads, let's look at what, in my opinion, are the top three reasons why pagans converted to Christianity.

First and foremost, as a kind of overarching supra-reason behind all the other factors accounting for the growth of Christianity, we must place the will of the Holy Spirit: God wanted the Church the spread to the four corners of the earth and actively intervened to accomplish His will. This, of course, would not be mentioned in secular accounts, but we ought to keep it before our mind as we look at these three other factors, all of which can be seen as the working out of this one principle in the realm of history.

In the first place, we could call to mind the witness of the martyrs. The deaths of the martyrs stood for something substantial and meaningful, as opposed to the frivolous Greco-Roman myths which were amusing and sometimes moving but not ultimately hope-giving or consoling. The fact that the martyrs were quite willing to be put to death for their faith only made it that much more evident to the pagans that their faith was not worth being put to death over; i.e., that it lacked any of the instrinsic worth that Christianity possessed. Men and women were put to death for refusing to deny Jesus, because they had a true and proper belief. Sure, pagans believed in their gods, but not in the same way Christians did. G.K. Chesterton pointed this out in The Everlasting Man when he said, "One did not say "I believe in Zeus, Hera, and Hermes" in the same way that a Christian would say, "I believe in God the Father almighty . . ." The witness of the martyrs proved to a pagan world that Christians did possess something of great value, which they evidently lacked.

The martyrdoms do not prove the truth of Christianity - they just prove that its adherents found some ultimate value in the religion, something which led others to examine it and to find that "pearl of great price." Thus, Tertullian is correct when he says "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." This is especially pertinent since the Feast of the First Holy Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church is approaching on June 30th.

In the second place, I am going to quote Dr. Ramsay MacMullen, Professor Emeritus of History at Yale and world renowned scholar on the conversion of Rome who has spent decades studying Rome in the second, third and fourth centuries. In his book Christianizing the Roman Empire he says that the most frequently cited reason (in ancient accounts) of why pagans converted to Christianity was because of belief in miracles; meaning, because one had either seen one, heard about one from somebody trustworthy, or was the object of one themself (Christianizing the Roman Empire, 108-109). This factor is certainly under reported in secular accounts of the Christianization of the Empire, but was of pivotal importance in the early Church .

Especially powerful tools of conversion were when miracles accompanied martyrdoms, such as the miracle of the flames at the killing of St. Polycarp and other like incidents. Miracles had an especially potent power in the Roman world due to the natural awe proper to humanity when confronted with a miracle, something which was only magnified by the traditional Roman superstitiousness. These miracles continued confirming the message of the Church well after the Empire's conversion, and St. Augustine wrote in 419 that "even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by his sacraments or by the prayers or relics of his saints" (City of God, 22:8). Miracles are still a powerful yet underrated reason why many people convert.

Third, I would cite the innate superiority of the Christian approach towards life and death over that of the pagans. Some years ago, I had a copy of the classic work Documents of the Early Christian Church by Bettenson, in which one can read many of the inscriptions found in the catacombs and the tombs of the martyrs. Here is an example of some of them:

Here lies Marcia, put to rest in a dream of peace.

Lawrence to his sweetest son, borne away of angels.

Victorious in peace and in Christ.

Being called away, he went in peace


Clearly, when confronted with death, even the agonizing death of a Roman martyr, the early Christians approached it with a sense of serenity and acceptance. This was unknown to the pagans, among whom death remained a bitter and unfair burden on the human condition, one that was not alleviated by their multidue of gods and goddesses. Let's look at some pagan tomb inscriptions from the same period:

Live for the present hour, since we are sure of nothing else.

I lift my hands against the gods who took me away at the age of twenty though I had done no harm.

Once I was not. Now I am not. I know nothing about it, and it is no concern of mine.

Traveler, curse me not as you pass, for I am in darkness and cannot answer.

These inscriptions reveal a pessimism and profound dissatisfaction with the pagan religions' answers to the most difficult philosophical problems of life. Regardless of whether or not a pagan may have derived any happiness from their religion, it is undoubtedly the case that when confronted with issues surrounding death, the destiny of the soul and the meaning of life, the pagans remained dumb. As Christian thinkers became more precise in their language and adept at explaining the mysteries of the faith to the people, the pagans perceived the inherent superiority of the Christian worldview to their own proto-nihilistic pessimism about existence. The fact that all the pagans did end up converting to Christianity is the strongest historical witness to this truth.

So there you have it - the witness of the martyrs, the many miracles wrought by the fathers and saints of the early Church, and the philosophical superiority of Christian thought over pagan thought, all part of the Holy Spirit's grand design for advancing Christianity throughtout the world.

Is this not a more satisfying account of Christianity's spread than 'Roman roads'?

8 comments:

Just another mad Catholic said...

Excellent Post Boniface, I do especially enjoy reading your historical articles, keep up the good work and God Bless

arturovasquez said...

You forgot my favorite: "sit tibi terra levis".

It is good of you to bring up miracles. This is indeed an underrated historical reason for the spread of Christianity.

If you really want to perform an interesting academic exercise, you should read about the last pagans in the Roman Empire, such as Chauvin's A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, or the writings of Iamblichus and Proclus (which, ironically, were absorbed into Christian theology through Pseudo-Dionyisus). It is interesting to see that in the end paganism proved too convoluted and impersonal to hold the attention of the masses, and paganism could never get over its elitism and fatalism, in spite of the personal tenderness and even poetics of a Plotinus or Proclus. What good came out of it was quickly siphoned off into nascent Christendom.

Helvécio Jr. said...

great blog 'Filipi'

you have a new fan from Brazil now.

Iesus Christus, eri et hodie, ipse et in saecula!

Anonymous said...

You state that Pagans were not willing to die for their gods, however all of pagan Scandinavian culture revolved around having a valiant death to serve Odin. Everything in life was merely preparation for what lies after and Ragnarok. The Vikings' lack of self preservation shows that Christians weren't the only ones willing to die for their gods.

BONIFACE said...

Well and good, but the article is dealing with the Greeks and Romans, not the Scandanavians. It is addressing the conversion of pagans within the Roman empire.

JR said...

Excellent blog post. I would add that not everyone has imbibed the "Roman Roads" theory for the Faith's expansion. I would recommend the book Cities of God by conservative sociologist Rodney Stark. He is a protestant but his book(s) especially this one has nothing overtly protestant that would bother a Catholic. He recently wrote a book defending the crusades (not too shabby for a protestant).

In it he comments on this Roman Roads myth and says that the idea of the road's greatness really is attributable to the classicists who had no first hand knowledge of them. Furthermore the roads were, as Stark says, really built primarily for the Roman legion not for everyday travel. They were not always well kept and too narrow for the needs of the ordinary citizen. You can read part of the book that discusses it here

http://books.google.com/books?id=PauahJvQFSAC&pg=PA74&lpg=PA74&dq=rodney+stark+roman+roads&source=bl&ots=GV1PD4tHmv&sig=5C_KWFgKy0wleIRuKKIpKDP6_Kw&hl=en&ei=GzoiTar5McKBlAeUz6mrDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

(If this link doesnt work just google "Rodney Stark Roman Roads" and the first link should get you directly to that part of the book in Google books)

He reminds us that the mode of travel most used was not the roads but the sea. They traveled throughout the empire by ship as in the case of St. Paul.

If I had to disagree with anything in your blog it would be that it is not necessarily a repudiation of the supernatural elements of the Faith's rise when discussing the natural circumstances that made it happen. I believe those who discuss those things are for the most part are attempting to credit Divine Providence with having brought the Eternal Son into history at a time when circumstances called allowed for the best possile situation. I agree with you that some do you use it to desupernaturalize the Faith.

JR said...

Excellent blog post. I would add that not everyone has imbibed the "Roman Roads" theory for the Faith's expansion. I would recommend the book Cities of God by conservative sociologist Rodney Stark. He is a protestant but his book(s) especially this one has nothing overtly protestant that would bother a Catholic. He recently wrote a book defending the crusades (not too shabby for a protestant).

In it he comments on this Roman Roads myth and says that the idea of the road's greatness really is attributable to the classicists who had no first hand knowledge of them. Furthermore the roads were, as Stark says, really built primarily for the Roman legion not for everyday travel. They were not always well kept and too narrow for the needs of the ordinary citizen. You can read part of the book that discusses it here

http://books.google.com/books?id=PauahJvQFSAC&pg=PA74&lpg=PA74&dq=rodney+stark+roman+roads&source=bl&ots=GV1PD4tHmv&sig=5C_KWFgKy0wleIRuKKIpKDP6_Kw&hl=en&ei=GzoiTar5McKBlAeUz6mrDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

(If this link doesnt work just google "Rodney Stark Roman Roads" and the first link should get you directly to that part of the book in Google books)

He reminds us that the mode of travel most used was not the roads but the sea. They traveled throughout the empire by ship as in the case of St. Paul.

If I had to disagree with anything in your blog it would be that it is not necessarily a repudiation of the supernatural elements of the Faith's rise when discussing the natural circumstances that made it happen. I believe those who discuss those things are for the most part are attempting to credit Divine Providence with having brought the Eternal Son into history at a time when circumstances called allowed for the best possile situation. I agree with you that some do you use it to desupernaturalize the Faith.

Anonymous said...

To the Anonymous guy about scandinavian paganism:

Meh. What we know of scandinavian paganism is nothing, and it is widely believed that what we know of it today is so-called "upper class" nordic paganism, which is why it survived and was documented at all. I seriously doubt the average göta-farmer at 900 AD would have thrown himself at a spear because if his five inches high wood-carved idol at home. And in any case, scandinavia was also converted, with little trouble.