Religious Communities

The communities of pagans were elaborate affairs made out of webs whose strands included geography, custom, language, religion, kinship and so many things that persons living in those communities were only dimly aware of everything they held in common. At least, that’s what I understand Garth Fowden to say, and it seems to me to make sense. And Israel had something not unlike in that it was a kindred, a nation, a religion, a language and a geographical place. Christianity clears away the outward. We are left with the orthodoxy of Israel, expanded by new but not contradictory revelation, and the orthopraxy of the apostolic tradition, which breaks away in that first century from the spent orthopraxy of Israel (richer in doctrine and simpler in practice). Christianity has no fixed place, has no ethnic or social boundaries, and is flexible about the circumstances in which it can be practiced.

What pagans clearly had in common, what they were conscious of, especially in the Roman empire which made itself into a flexible and expansive community in which citizenship was open to the world, was a community of orthopraxy. About this they were rigid, and viewed deviance as stubborn, superstitious and inimical to their prosperity. Pagan religion never had any orthodoxy, but rather revered the practices by which the unexamined and impenetrable network of what was held in common was visibly honored. It was a community of orthopraxy, and perhaps Rome provided what one might call orthopathy: pietas.

What Gnosticism represents is the pagan indifference to orthodoxy entering the church, and the church realized that if it did not hold everywhere the same belief it was doomed to fragmentation and dissolution. Doctrine was indispensable to its continued community. That was an internal battle. The external battle was with the orthopraxy of Rome, and the inimical Christian orthopraxy. As Rome became too big to hold together, as its internal and external troubles mounted, the orthopraxy became more and more vital in the view of the failing emperors. Polytheism too was failing: it had been under prolonged attach by philosophers, prophets (very peripherally, but increasingly centrally) and now apologists.

Constantine, in the renewal and transformation of the empire that was ongoing from the previous century and passed through his times, needed an orthodoxy, a strong spiritual center to the community he was determined to hold. But he knew he could only have that on terms the Christians who had shown their unwillingness to give it up at any cost could accept. So the old empire of honor became the new empire of ritual– and eventually it was Christian ritual. It was held together by imposed orthodoxy–debated and struggled over at the highest levels–and orthopathy (I think ritual is more about feeling than practice, but it does join them since one is the visible manifestation of the other).

I think of the anecdote I heard in one of the lectures about the time the bishop of Rome went to visit the Emperor Justinian. Justininan needed the pope to sign off on some matter in which the pope was unwilling, for reasons of doctrine. Justininan paused his personal attempt to persuade and instead invited the pope to attend mass with him in the Hagia Sophia. After the elaborate and impressive ritual the pope seems to have said, Where do I sign? Overawed and persuaded that God himself was on Justinian’s side. It was the visible and external imposition of a spiritual community–as it were. An ingenious–doomed, but ingenious–new thing.

The only thing like a community of orthodoxy in the ancient pagan world was that of the philosophical schools: they had their orthodoxy, and their orthopraxy too, they were ways of life. They were critical of pagan indifference to right belief. And that is really what Julian the Apostate’s project was: he wanted to restore paganism, but he wanted more. Christianity had proved that pagan religion provided no lasting spiritual community. It could only do so in the darkness of mysteries unexamined by the mind and embraced only by the heart by means of an unchanging orthopraxy to which philosophy itself was inimical. He realized the Christian hierarchy gave the church coherence, that its organized charity was proper. He wanted to imitate that and have an enhanced, examined orthopraxy. But he wanted the doctrines of the degenerate and theurgical neoplatonism of Iamblicus to provide his orthodoxy. He aimed at a new paganism with doctrinal correctness, and that’s why he wanted to organize the pagan priests. Perhaps that’s why he thought Iamblicus was greater than Plato: he planned a religious heart for the pagan community, not just a common mind.


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