Worldview, or way of life?

I’ve just finished reading Robert Louis Wilken’s book Christians as the Romans Saw Them. It taught me a few valuable things. First, that once Christians had the upper hand they proceeded to destroy what had been written by unbelievers that was critical of their faith; what remains of those writings must be pieced together from what Christian writers quoted as they proceeded to refute their critics.  Second, the Romans and Greeks, who had a faith that went deeper than the conventional ridicule of idol worship would suggest, saw the gospel not so much as a theological challenge as a social one—to them, religion was the foundation of community, and they saw Christian separatism as a refusal to shoulder social responsibilities—and much of the response from church fathers was to explain why Christians did not present any such challenge.

Third, many of the more sophisticated theological concepts (e.g. the Trinity) emerged from efforts by scholarly Christians to make Christianity more respectable in the eyes of the pagans whose respect they craved; when pagans who respected monotheism objected that the Christian worship of Jesus was tantamount to polytheism, the average Christian didn’t care much what the pagans thought, but the objection stung the big thinkers into coming up with rational defenses.

Only a few enterprising [Christian] intellectuals, and only after more than one hundred years of Christian history, had begun to take the risk of expressing Christian beliefs within the philosophical ideas current in the Greco-Roman world. Most Christians were opposed to such attempts. As late as the third century, after the apologetic movement had introduced Greek ideas into Christian thinking, Christian preachers complained that the rank-and-file opposed such ideas. In the few places in early Christian sources where philosophy is mentioned up to the mid-second century, the term was used pejoratively. It referred to pagan belief, never to Christian teaching or life.

But probably the most interesting thing I learned was that some pagans viewed Christianity not as a superstition but as a credible philosophical school, which had a very specific meaning to them.

As we have already observed, earlier critics had agreed in calling Christianity a superstition. That Galen [a second century philosopher] does not use this term may be significant; yet what is more significant is that he chose a new term—namely, philosophical school. The term superstition accented that Christianity was a foreign cult whose origin and practices stood outside the accepted religious standards of the Greco-Roman world. Superstition, by definition, was opposed to genuine religious feelings.

The philosophical schools, on the other hand, were part of the public life of the empire. There were times, as for example under the capricious emperor Domitian, when philosophers were sent into exile, but in general people respected the philosophical life, and some from the upper classes identified with particular philosophical schools. In Galen’s time the emperor Marcus Aurelius had become a Stoic even though his tutor Fronto disapproved. Fronto, like Pliny, preferred rhetoric to philosophy. Marcus nevertheless went ahead with his plan.

In calling Christianity a philosophical school, even one whose dialectical skill did not impress him, Galen gave Christianity a boost on the ladder of acceptance within the Roman world. From another of Galen’s works it is clear that what led him to call it a philosophy was the success Christians had in leading men and women to a life of virtue. [Emphasis added]

In these enlightened times it doesn’t make much sense to us to judge a philosophy based on its effectiveness in changing lives. The most important things about philosophies (or systematic theologies, or biblical worldviews) are that they be rationally consistent and complete—because, presumably, an airtight argument will have its day and the rational man will acquiesce in the face of one. But though such a view of philosophy had once held sway in ancient times, by the second century it had lost its appeal.

Philosophy in Galen’s day had become less a way of thinking than a way of living. Although philosophers were the inheritors of intellectual traditions that dealt with the great metaphysical issues, and many still wrote books on these topics, they had gone into the streets of the cities to address the populace and to offer men and women advice on how to live. As we have already seen in Lucian’s account, the term used to describe the philosophical schools was bios (way of life), and the selling point of the various philosophies turned more on life-style and ethics than on metaphysical or epistemological questions. Philosophy was a matter of moral discipline, and its goal was a life of virtue. Marcus Aurelius described philosophy as a moral ideal which contrasts with the vain and empty goal most men pursue. Socrates was said to have risen above his ordinary human instincts by the practice (not study) of philosophy. […]

In the early years of the Roman Empire philosophy had become a popular idea. The philosophical schools offered, writes A.D. Nock, not only “intelligible explanations of phenomena” but also “life with a scheme.” They spoke about fear and friendship, about courage and peace of mind, about anxiety, love, freedom, about old age and death, about wealth and fame. In short, they preached to men and women about how to live among the twists and turns of fate and fortune. The philosophers sought to set people on a firm and sure path. For this reason, when a man or woman turned from his or her former ways to embrace philosophy, he or she was sometimes said to be “converted.”

It is in this sense that Galen identified the early Christian movement as a philosophical school. Christians led people to embrace lives of discipline and self-control, to pursue justice, to overcome the fear of death. Though they did not provide men and women with intellectual foundations for their beliefs, they did achieve a way of life not inferior to that led by “those who are truly philosophers.”

Galen recognized that Christianity successfully offered “life with a scheme,” not because of the soundness of its intellectual foundations—it didn’t have any—but because of the demonstrable changes it occasioned in the lives of believers. This is consistent with Rodney Stark’s observation that early Christianity spread rapidly in the ancient world, going from a few hundred believers to thirty million in just three hundred years, primarily because of the lives that believers lived before a watching world.

We’ve long since remedied the lack of intellectual foundations in Christian thought. But it’s also been a long time since the watching world marveled at the lives lived by ordinary Christians. Perhaps the quest for intellectual respectability has robbed us of something else. In his biography of Aquinas, Chesterton tells a similar story:

It was of [St. Dominic] that the tale was told … that the Pope pointed to his gorgeous Papal Palace and said, “Peter can no longer say ‘Silver and gold have I none;’” and the Spanish friar answered, “No, and neither can he now say, ‘Rise and walk.’”

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7 thoughts on “Worldview, or way of life?

  1. I see from your sidebar that you’re also reading Norms and Nobility. That has been an eye-opening experience for me — I feel almost as though it has given arms and legs to my faith. I always like it when reading a book inspires me to get up and be a better wife and mother, and reading Hicks has done that.

  2. Kelly,

    Unfortunately, I have not read Norms and Nobility. But I’ve been following the discussion on Cindy’s weblog, and I was so struck by that particular quote that I had to have a go at compressing it into 140 characters.

    Enough enthusiastic things have been said about the book that I’d like to read it, so perhaps it’s time to submit an interlibrary loan request.

  3. Having read *Christians as the Romans Saw Them* earlier this year, and Stark in a few years ago, I appreciate this take on Wilken and its relation to Stark.

    I do agree that”way of life” is by far the more important factor in evangelism. But there are a certain number of people who, once attracted to Christianity through the examples of others, need a certain amount of apologetics to push them up to the edge so they feel they can make the leap of faith. As my pastor says, there *is* no airtight argument for any religious belief. But there is a point where the preponderance of the evidence makes it possible for you to put aside your constant doubts long enough to act on it.

    I don’t think you set up a false dichotomy, but I just wanted to emphasize that there is a very legitimate use for apologetics. I struggled mightily with skepticism as a college student, and apologetic works were a great help to me. They still are. But I do think that apologetics exists to make way for belief, not as an end in itself.

    As much as you read up on your books, you may have figured out my hypothesis already, but it looks to me as though Wilken wrote this book on his way to orthodox belief himself. He seems to have been a liberal Bible scholar when he set out to write it, and thus *Christians as the Romans Saw Them* is a deeply skeptical book. At times he almost seems to be trying, like the Romans, to sarcastically dare the apologists to give him a decent argument. He eventually converted to Roman Catholicism, and wrote a sequel, *The Spirit of Early Christian Thought,* which I have purchased, but not read yet. I gather that he eventually appreciated the efforts of the early apologists, but I look forward to finding out the details later.

    P.S. I’m with you on Norms and Nobility. I am not having the easiest time getting into it, since I’m not fond of the prose style and think Lewis says many of the same things in a more memorable way. But if this many people rave about it, I’m going to have to find out what the appeal is for myself.

    P.P.S. Printing out your articles above on Great Books and the internet. I look forward to reading them later in the day. We lost internet for four days last week and it almost frightened me to realize how many things I needed to do (like finish my taxes) and couldn’t!

  4. Laura,

    Having read *Christians as the Romans Saw Them* earlier this year, and Stark in a few years ago, I appreciate this take on Wilken and its relation to Stark.

    I’m pretty sure I decided to read Wilken’s book after seeing it on your reading list. Stark’s book I read shortly after it came out, and so I’m going strictly on memory. I recall liking about half of it—alternating chapters, strangely enough. But Starks point about the evangelistic effectiveness of Christian lives stuck with me. Also his observation that one could get from a handful of Christians in AD 33 to thirty million in Constantine’s time by each Christian making a convert every twenty years.

    I don’t think you set up a false dichotomy, but I just wanted to emphasize that there is a very legitimate use for apologetics.

    I think I will talk about this in a separate post.

    At times [Wilkens] almost seems to be trying, like the Romans, to sarcastically dare the apologists to give him a decent argument.

    I agree, but that is one of the things I found most useful about the book; together with his explanation of Roman thinking on these subjects, it helped me see that the criticisms were not thoughtlessly dismissive but legitimate and even pointed. It also helped me see that many of the answers that have been developed to these criticisms (e.g. that Christian separatism is damaging to community) did not leave the Christian challenge intact (yes, we really do reject the legitimacy of earthly kingdoms) but ended up being accommodationist (we’re not so bad, we won’t interfere with your own activities, we contribute in other important ways). And I wonder if indulging that impulse is what led Christians to embrace Constantinian legitimacy, rather than recoil in horror from the idea.

    I’m very interested to hear about Wilken’s later book, and maybe even read it. I read something he wrote about it (the introduction, I think) where he said that his original plan was to tell the same story as the first book but from the Christian point of view—but somehow it was too constraining, and he ended up writing a more comprehensive account of the development of apologetics.

    Printing out your articles above on Great Books and the internet. I look forward to reading them later in the day.

    I will also be posting on the Great Books article, which I think is very good. For now I’ll say that I agree with almost everything Deneen writes—except for one critical point, and the difference leads us in very different directions.

  5. “It also helped me see that many of the answers that have been developed to these criticisms (e.g. that Christian separatism is damaging to community) did not leave the Christian challenge intact (yes, we really do reject the legitimacy of earthly kingdoms) but ended up being accommodationist (we’re not so bad, we won’t interfere with your own activities, we contribute in other important ways). And I wonder if indulging that impulse is what led Christians to embrace Constantinian legitimacy, rather than recoil in horror from the idea.”

    Interesting point, to which I do not know the answer, so I’ll keep reading.

    I thought the internet article’s cartoons were pretty funny, and many of them reminded me of comments homeschoolers get. For that matter, they remind me of comments I get every time remove myself from any group. Good food for thought.

  6. The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like The Rest of the World?

    “In spite of the renewal movement’s proud claims to miraculous
    transformation, the polls showed that members of the movement divorced their
    spouses just as often as their secular neighbors. They beat their wives as
    often as their neighbors. They were almost as materialistic and even more
    racist than their pagan friends. The hard-core skeptics smiled in cynical
    amusement at this blatant hypocrisy. The general population was puzzled and
    disgusted. Many of the renewal movement’s leaders simply stepped up the
    tempo of their now enormously successful, highly sophisticated promotional
    programs. Others wept. ¶ This, alas, is roughly the situation of
    Western or at least American evangelicalism today.…

    If Christians do not live what they preach, the whole thing is a farce.
    “American Christianity has largely failed since the middle of the
    twentieth century,” Barna concludes, “because Jesus’ modern-day
    disciples do not act like Jesus.” This scandalous behavior mocksChrist, undermines evangelism, and destroys Christian credibility.”

  7. DHM,

    Tolstoy identified the problem, I think: “Everybody wants to change the world, but nobody wants to change themselves.” If the individual Christian really thought he was in need of transformation, he would be in despair over the fact that the promises of scripture are not being realized in his life. But instead we are encouraged to believe that it is enough to be a right-thinking Christian, and that the transformation will come when there are enough other right-thinking Christians out there.

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