When Christianity took over the world of the Roman Empire, it did so practically without firing a shot. It was not a bloody military takeover, or a coup. A lot of people today seem to think it was a controversial event. In reality, Christianity was arguably the fastest, largest, most widespread movement in history up until that time. Years of official repression of the faith did next to nothing to slow the tide of disaffection from the officially sanctioned cults over to the new, foreign faith.
How this happened, and why, is not so hard to see. Christianity was open to anyone, of all races, of all classes, even to slaves. It was open to the common citizens of Rome. It was perhaps most importantly open to the Freedmen-those former slaves and sons of slaves who by the virtue of their merit and value to the Empire had won their freedom, and citizenship.
Yet, for many of these people, inclusion within the major cults of Rome was not an option. In order to be a member of most of the pagan cults of ancient Rome, you had to have a sponsor-a patron, if you will. You spent some time, possibly years, as a neophyte, before you finally were accepted as a full-fledged member. After that, you were expected to pay a regular fee, in addition to performing specific duties. It is not going too far to say that joining one of these cults was not so much like becoming a member of a religion as it was, at best, like joining a secret society like the Masons. At worse, it was more like joining a country club.
It was an arduous, time consuming process that, it bears repeating, was not open to slaves, or to common citizens, or even to the many valued and important Freedmen-who nevertheless made up the civil servants, public officials, and even the highly paid and skilled members of Roman society who, in point of fact, kept the Roman Empire not only running smoothly, but functional.
Like the slaves and commoners, they could not simply walk into the environs of a pagan temple, attend a worship service, and at the end walk up toward the front and express a wish to become a member of the sect. Such a thing would have been unheard of at the time.
Certainly, anybody could go to a temple during set times and during certain periods, and pray, and naturally they could offer some form of sacrifice, or offering. Actually, this would be expected-and required. But as far as being an actual member of the temple sect community, they were wholly excluded.
Even though most households had their households deities to whom they ostensibly prayed and worshiped, and even though the citizens of Rome partook in the various different religious fesitivities-such as the Saturnalia, for example-this is something they did as a family, in the first instance, or in the latter case as members of the wider community of Rome, during these limited festive occasions. There was outside of this, however, nothing to make them feel as though they were a part of a specific religious community, which meant they were lacking in spiritual guidance and religious education, something for which there was a natural hunger and yearning.
What they had that might have been available was limited to the many mythologies that were created to serve as explanations for natural phenomenon, or in some cases, they were actually created by the state as a way of augmenting and rationalizing the power of the state as a prerogative granted from on high by divine providence.
Virgil's The Aeneid was a pertinent example of the latter case. The Aeneid, to this day considered a classic, and even by many as a sequel to Homer's Illiad, was actually commissioned by the Emperor Augustus as a way of gaining acceptance of the belief in his divine right to rule as Imperator of the former Republic of Rome. At one point within the work, Augustus's birth is "prophesied". This in fact was a "prophecy" that was years later mistakenly taken as a prophecy of the birth of Christ.
Outside of these instances, there was no great religious or philosophical teachings available to the vast majority of Roman citizens-until that is Christianity came along. Once it outpaced its rival foreign sects amongst the general populace, and continued to grow, the Roman elites knew they had both a potential souce of many problems, and at the same time, a valuable opportunity.
In other words, the rulers of Rome did not force Christianity on the people of Rome. Instead, the Roman rulers actually jumped on the bandwagon, beginning with Constantine. Once Christianity became over time the officially sanctioned cult of the Roman Empire, it was not long before all others were officially discouraged, and then, unfortunately, all-together outlawed. This was more than likely a way to insure unity and cohesion within the Empire, but let's be clear on this-even at that, there was not a great deal of disruption, and certainly little in the way of bloodshed, or for that matter even protest.
The new Christian leaders were hardly the same as the old disciples and apostles who made their way uneasily out of the Judaean wilderness and the Galilee. For the most part, by the time Christianity became the official religion of Rome, most of these leaders were in fact native born and educated Romans themselves. As such, they were very savvy, both politically and socially. They very wisely expropriated the most popular of the ancient Roman cult festivals, and adapted them to the new Christian faith with remarkable ease. Christmas and Easter are the two most obvious examples of this process.
The peoples of Rome then were given the best of both worlds. They were given, with Christianity, a religion with a religious community to which they felt they could belong and contribute in a positive way, to a movement which taught them that they were equal in the eyes of a loving, all-powerful God who would forgive their sins and take them at the end of their life for an eternity in heaven. As a sop, they were allowed to keep the only thing from the old pagan traditions that they ever really cared about to begin with-the festive holidays that they all enjoyed and which brought some degree of pleasure and relief to what had been a meager, unfulfilling, perhaps in some cases even a miserable existence.
And all they had to give up in order to have all this was a bunch of cults made up of people that would not allow them to join anyway, who worshiped a bunch of deities that didn't really give a rat's ass about them or their families, from their perspective-assuming they even really existed at all.
For the vast majority of the citizens of Rome, it was not a hard bargain at all. Even most of the ones who truly cared about the old cults-that is to say, those who were allowed to belong to them-adapting to the change was probably far easier than we might imagine. After all, for most of them, belonging to these cults was not a matter of faith, so much as it was a factor of elite privilege and distinction, and for that matter, a means to influence. After all, if you were accepted, you could hob-nob with the great and the near great. The religious cult trappings, while doubtless endearing and attractive, possibly even charming and creative, were more minor considerations.
The fact that Christianity, and the Church, over time became more and more corrupt, is a simple fact of the dangers of power. The Roman cults, like ancient Rome itslef, likewise was corrupt. That goes with the territory. It was this corruption that did indeed lead to suppression, sometimes by brutal violence, of other religious beliefs. This is true of the treatment of the Church towards holdouts from among the old pagan cults, of course, what few might have remained, but it should be pointed out that this was mainly the case of rival movements within Christianity itself-the so-called Gnostics, who were as brutally persecuted by the Church as the early Christians had been by the leaders of pagan Rome.
The whole process was repeated throughout the Empire, including Europe, where Germanic chieftains would adopt Christianity, and then lead a movement to evangelize and baptize their people, all of whom typically acquiesced without protest.
Many of the new pagan philosophies of the modern day seem to have learned the lesson of the past, and forgotten others. They know that in order for them to grow, they have to be open and inclusive of the general population. That is the lesson they have learned.
What they have forgotten is that with great power and influence come not merely the potential, but the certainty of corruption. The fact that so many of them have so unfortunately become so enmeshed in Democratic and Green Party politics is perfectly illustrative of that point. We already have certain people just chomping at the bits to write the newer, modern version of the Aeneid, in which the gods and goddesses who reign over the natural gas and oil reserves of the earth are ready to lash out with a vengeance against the evil mortals who "plunder" their domains, and at the same time stand in the way of they and their friends and associates reaping the benefits and the rewards, inherent in the presumed promise and potential of green energy.
For the good of Mother Earth, of course.
A good clue to the intentions of people who complain about the influence of Christians on the American political climate is that they have chosen to throw their lot in with a political party to whom the power of the federal government is seen as a means to several self-serving ends, usually involving increasing bureaucracies and regulations, taxation, and suppression of individual liberties for the benefit of mostly a few groups inculcated with a culture of entitlement. Some people would seem to want to add the pagan movement to that ever growing list of grievance groups.
I'll put this as delicately as I know how. The Christians can keep their power and influence. They are more than welcome to the corruption it brings. I know that if they go too far, the people in general, including many from among their own ranks, will rebel and boost them from their lofty perch as surely as Martin Luther gave the Pope his walking papers centuries ago.
I don't want the drama. I didn't sign on to be a part of a political movement, it has been thrust upon me. I would just as soon be a member of an exclusive, elite, secret society that aims for the personal growth and spiritual development of it's own members, and yet might in some way make a positive contribution to society and humanity, while keeping most of them at arms length, thank you.
Failing all that, I'm fine with just being a member of an exclusive country club.
Instead, I spend my time preaching the virtues of Federalism and hoping somebody somewhere listens, and feeling all the while like I'm preaching to a bunch of kids about the value of eating their spinach while their cramming Milky Way bars in their mouths. And it's not even nothing against Milky Way bars, in my case, so much as it is perspective and moderation.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night? I guess so. Maybe one of these days we'll all have a good laugh over all this, if we don't end up killing each other first.