You are currently viewing God Is Dead. Long Live the Gods.

God Is Dead. Long Live the Gods.

“I call myself a cultural Christian, but I’m not a believer,” stated the famed atheist Richard Dawkins in a recent interview with Rachel Johnson of LBC News. “I love hymns and Christmas carols, and I sort of feel at home in the Christian ethos,” he continued. He wants the cathedrals and parish churches that speckle England’s landscape, just without the faith nonsense that informs them. This interview is yet another signal that culture is changing. Even atheists seem to long for something transcendent.

Nietzsche quipped that “God is dead.” And in many ways, he was right; in the West, “God” is dead in the sense that Christianity’s theological and moral claims have become unbelievable and no longer unify society. The age of Christendom in the West, beginning with Constantine, saw Christianity slowly suppress paganism and establish cultural hegemony, but the tide is turning. It seems we’re back where we started.

The age of the Caesars is, once again, upon us. Like in a Percy Jackson novel, the pagan gods have taken up residence in our world, becoming the spiritual thread uniting our society and informing its moral imagination. As Christians look for ways to live faithfully in the world, the ancient church provides a helpful model for living in a world that seems increasingly pagan.

Back to a Pagan World

In his book Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us, British political commentator Ferdinand Mount draws out the parallels between modern and ancient moral diversity in striking fashion:

By the time of the Antonine emperors in the second century AD—that period which Gibbon regarded as the summit of human felicity—Rome was a ferment of religious choice. You could believe in anything or nothing. You could put your trust in astrologers, snake-charmers, prophets and diviners and magicians; you could take your pick between half a dozen creation myths and several varieties of resurrection. Or if you belonged to the educated elite, you could read the poetry of Lucretius and subscribe to a strictly materialist description of the universe. In short, this is a time when anything goes and the weirdest, most frenzied creations of the human mind jostle with the most beautiful visions, the most inspiring spiritual challenges and the most challenging lines of scientific inquiry. It is hard to think of any period quite like it, before or since—until our own time.

Mount is not alone in identifying the second century as the closest parallel to our time. Historian Carl Trueman comes to a similar conclusion at the end of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Similarly in Pagans and Christians in the City, legal scholar Steven D. Smith frames his recommendations for Christian cultural navigation with the second century church in mind.

The vacuum created by the supposed death of God is being filled by paganism. We are experiencing a new iteration of the ancient struggle between paganism and Christianity.

Imminent Frame

A key parallel between the ancient pagan world and our own is the exclusive attention on the immediate world. This narrow focus on a tiny slice of time is a form of “modern paganism,” as T. S. Eliot calls it, and is dominant in the West. Others, such as Smith, draw attention to this parallel and note pagans lack any serious vision of transcendence, which curtails their view of reality.

A key parallel between the ancient pagan world and our own is the exclusive attention on the immediate world.

Robert Bellah and others note the modern tendency toward an “expressive individualism,” which is another symptom of this denial of transcendence. For the ancient pagan and the modern secularist, their only concern is this world and its immediate problems. They have no conception of where things are headed and, more importantly, no real hope to lean on.

This attention to the immediate world closely relates to philosopher Charles Taylor’s description of an “immanent frame” whereby people today see the immediate world and the internal person as the focus of reality. This world, this age, these people are the only things that matter. There’s nothing transcendent, nothing timeless—no God above us nor heaven awaiting us. For the pagan world, the Roman empire was their immanent frame, and one’s existence only mattered if it fueled the empire’s glorification.

Christians work from a different perspective. This world isn’t all there is, and God’s kingdom will not be seen or realized in its fullness until Christ comes again in glory. We never forget we’re embedded in this world to do the work of the Lord, but we’re always pilgrims longing for home.

Pursue Cultural Sanctification

The church thrived in the age of the Caesars by pursuing holiness and conformity to the likeness of Christ in any and every cultural context. This is what I call “cultural sanctification.” The process of cultural sanctification requires defending the faith, sharing the good news of salvation in Christ, and visibly embodying the virtues of Christian spirituality. Working from the margins, they were able to slowly and steadily persuade their neighbors that the Christian life offers something so much better for the world.

Christians such as Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons weren’t part of the cultural elite but, following the apostles’ footsteps, worked from below and slowly and steadily guided the church through a pagan world. They didn’t sit in the prominent seats of the senate nor hobnob among the intellectuals populating the philosophical schools. Instead, they worked “organically,” beginning with sincere and robust forms of catechesis and discipleship, slowly guiding people in Christian doctrine and morality, reshaping the way they viewed the world.

The church was a school for the broken, the downcast, and those longing to see a better world, and the Christian vision of life guided their way toward true human flourishing.

The church was a school for the broken, the downcast, and those longing to see a better world, and the Christian vision of life guided their way toward true human flourishing. We can learn from the example of the early church, who emphasized the need for the fruit of the Spirit in their public lives. Discipled in their vision of the good life, the early church reoriented their lives in the ways they approached both political and social spheres. Following the apostles, they cultivated an active citizenship—fearing God and honoring the king (1 Pet. 2:13–14)—and a culturally discerning spiritual life that navigated their pagan world’s virtues and vices. Through it all, they challenged each other to walk in hope, knowing the Lord had assured them he’d return to judge the living and the dead and establish a kingdom that has no end.

Continued Trust

There are many differences between our world and the ancient one. We’re watching the demise of a Christian culture instead of starting from scratch, and we must learn to grieve the loss of institutions and choose wisely between trying to revive them or creating new ones. I suspect our strategy needs to be a prudent combination, but we must let wisdom guide us and work toward cooperation among Christians.

We live in a world where some say “Long live the gods.” We need not despair; we’ve been here before. God is not dead. So, just like last time, God will see us through.


Leave a Reply