Instances of Discovery

Did I once know that? I’m pretty sure I’m not the only teacher who, unearthing something written decades before, can hardly remember that I knew it, much less what it was.

Here, from 1978, are some reflections on an issue that is as alive today as it was two millennia ago. If you think it’s all old-hat, think again. Not all the wise are among the living. And to say that the Christian tradition is monolithic is preposterous.

[Note: Sources are indicated by

G. F. C. Grant, Hellenistic Religions: The Age of Syncretism (Indianapolis, 1953);
S: J. Stevenson, ed., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337 (London, 1960).]


Both “religion” and “the intellectual” are hard to define, and uncertainty is multiplied when they are juxtaposed. We can say, however, that for “the intellectual” “religion” is something that is at least curious (in the double sense of both odd and intriguing), and is either to be rejected as an offense to the intellect or to be taken seriously as requiring some sort of modification of the intellect in order to take account of it.

There are many reasons one might reject religion: it is silly, even infantile; it is a delusion, even if sincerely believed; it is degrading.

There are many reasons one might want to take religion seriously: “nothing human is alien to me,” and I need a salve for my bad conscience about intellectual elitism; it is best to play it safe, both personally and socially; there is hidden profundity in religion, and all the curious rites and beliefs provide a field for the exercise of analysis and judgment. It is always possible to favor theology and oppose religion; one can be interested in religion without any intention of participating in it.

The Roman Empire had many religious heritages. It is an interesting exercise of historical imagination to try to figure out how anybody might come in contact with any particular one of the religious traditions. Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Helena, about Emperor Constantine’s mother, makes vivid the dizzying array of religious options that were available to her son and his subjects.

There was a widespread fascination with the foreign and the strange. Perhaps many people went out actively searching for the latest new age religious import. Some intellectuals then as now were bookish, while others felt that to understand a religion you had to experience it. Religion was intimately tied up with science (and/or magic; see Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of science in Cat’s Cradle as “magic that works”), medicine, psychology, politics, art. It would have been difficult even for the intellectuals to extricate religion from the fabric of their culture.

Still, there were highly varied opinions on the subject, and it is important to notice how the opinions shape the language that is used to talk about religion.


1. Religion appeals to the dregs of society.

Lucian of Samosata (fl. ca. 170 C.E.) subjected religion to his barbed, caustic (and very funny) satirical wit; the Christians were among his targets. Some Christian apologists turned the argument around, and made a virtue of their lack of intellectual sophistication.

A. When the city had become overcrowded with a mob of witless, senseless humans, not in the least resembling decent bread-eating men, but distinguished from sheep only by their looks, then Alexander took his seat on a couch in a small room. He was magnificently attired, worthily of the god. … Picture to yourself a little room, dimly lighted, with a crowd of people gathered from everywhere, excited, deliberately wrought up, all agog with expectation.

Lucian, Alexander the False Prophet, 15-16 (G97)

B. Therefore they [the Christians] despise all things equally, and view them as common property, accepting such doctrines by tradition and without any precise belief. And so if any charlatan or clever trickster, capable of taking advantage of every occasion, comes among them, he at once gets rich by imposing upon simple-minded people.

Lucian, The Death of Peregrinus, 13 (G 99)

2. Religion is not worthy of the intellectual because it despises the intellect.

Celsus (fl. ca. 160 C.E.), a Platonist who wrote a broadside attack on Christianity, used arguments that could be extrapolated into a general critique of religion. We know Celsus’s work through quotations in the Contra Celsum of Origen (ca. 186-254 C.E.).

C. After this he [Celsus] urges us to “follow reason and a rational guide in accepting doctrines” on the ground that “anyone who believes people without so doing is certain to be deceived.” And he compares those who believe without rational thought to the “begging priests of Cybele and soothsayers, and to worshipers of Mithras and Sabazius, and whatever else one might meet, apparitions of Hecate or of some other daemon or daemons. For just as among them scoundrels frequently take advantage of the lack of education of gullible people and lead them wherever they wish, so also,” he says, “this happens among the Christians.” He says that “some do not even want to give or to receive a reason for what they believe, and use such expressions as ‘Do not ask questions; just believe,’ and ‘Thy faith will save thee.’“ And he affirms that they say: “The wisdom of the world is an evil, and foolishness a good thing.”

Origen, Contra Celsum 1.9 (S 140)

Some Christians spoke as Celsus says they did. The most forthright of these was Tertullian of Carthage (ca. 160-after 220 C.E.), himself a highly educated and articulate person.

D. For philosophy is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy. … The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by heretics and philosophers; the same arguments are reconsidered. Whence comes evil? and why? Whence man? and how? Besides the question which Valentinus has very lately proposed—Whence comes God? … What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church? What have heretics to do with Christians? … When we believe, we desire no further belief.

Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, 7 (S 178)

Other Christians, however, argued just the opposite: that Christianity was the fulfillment of all that was best in the intellectual tradition of Greece. Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 214 C.E.), the teacher of Origen, was determined to show that Christianity was the only proper home for the intellectual.

E. Philosophy then before the coming of the Lord was necessary to the Greeks to bring them to righteousness, but now it is profitable to bring them to piety, seeing that it is a sort of training for those who are gaining the fruit of faith for themselves by means of demonstration. … Philosophy educated the Greek world as the law did the Hebrews to bring them to Christ. Philosophy therefore is a preparation, making ready the way for him who is being perfected by Christ.

Clement, Miscellanies, (S 196-97)

3. Religious opinions and actions are as groundless as any other opinions and actions.

The extremely radical critique of religion by Sextus Empiricus (fl. mid- to late-2nd cent. C.E.)--a critique which, rather like Hume’s, quickly spills over into the whole region of epistemology--was not widespread, but it can be seen as a logical extension of the underlying principles of more moderate critiques.

F. Nor do any of the things we have mentioned above have their attributes by nature, but all are matters of custom and exist relatively to something or other. … ln fact, anyone who assumes that anything is either good or bad by nature, or is unquestionably right to practice or not to practice, will be upset in a variety of ways.

Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, III 232, 237 (G 103-04)


1. We share a common humanity, and nothing human is alien to us.

We find the founder of Epicureanism, Epicurus (342?-270 B.C.E.), who argues that the majority are fundamentally wiser than they know; the Stoic (and slave) Epictetus (fl . ca. 120 C.E.), who appreciates religion for holding speculation in check; and the Christian Justin Martyr (d. ca. 165 C.E.), who insists that there is a community through time of “right-thinkers,” and religion explains the unity—all claiming that intellectuals who understand their true place in society will not despise religion.

G. For gods there certainly are, since the knowledge of them is a matter of immediate perception. But they are not what the majority of men believe them to be; in fact, they do not take care to represent them as they really believe them to be. And the irreligious man is not the one who denies the gods of the majority, but the one who applies to the gods the opinions of the majority. For it would be much better to follow some myth about the gods than to be a slave to the Destiny pictured by the natural philosophers.

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, 123, 134 (G 157-60)

H. I declare, by Zeus and all the gods, one single fact of nature would be enough to make any reverent and grateful person realize the providence of God. Don’t tell me about great matters; take the mere fact that milk is produced from grass, and cheese from milk, and wool from skin. Who is it that has created or planned these things?

Epictetus, Discourses, 1.16 (G 155)

I. Whatever things were rightly said among all teachers, are the property of us Christians. For next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since also he became man for our sakes, that, becoming a partaker of our suffering, he might also bring us healing. For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them.

Justin Martyr, Apology, II.13 (S 64)

2. Religion is politically snd socially advantageous to the Empire, and why not play it safe?

This is an argument that had been classically formulated by Cicero, himself a religious skeptic. Melito of Sardis (fl. ca. 185 C.E.), a Christian, in his Apology addressed to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, turns the argument to Christian advantage.

J. For our philosophy at first flourished among barbarians; but after it had appeared among your peoples during the mighty principate of your ancestor Augustus, it became to your empire especially an auspicious boon. For from that time the power of the Romans increased to something great and splendid. And to this you have become the successor whom men desired; yes, and such you shall continue to be, along with your son, if you protect the philosophy which goes with the empire and began with Augustus, which also your ancestors honored, as they did the other religions. And this is the greatest proof of the fact that it was for the good that our doctrine flourished alongside the empire in its happy inception: that from the time of the principate of Augustus no evil has befallen it, but, on the contrary, all things have been splendid and glorious in accordance with the prayers of all.

Melito of Sardis, Apology (S 70)

3. There is hidden profundity in religion, even in the parts which appear bizarre.

Plutarch (d. ca. 125 C.E.), himself a priest of the oracle at Delphi and a man with deep attachment to his home region and its traditions (he chose not to stay in Athens, with its high intellectual culture), and Sallustius (later fourth century C.E.), who composed the closest thing we have to a pagan “creed” or “systematic theology,” have much in common, I believe, with modern students of myth and meaning in religion. They understand the function of symbolic language, and are aware that proper interpretation of religious phenomena requires extreme care. They appreciate the challenge that religion poses to the intellect.

K. So also men use various consecrated symbols, some obscure, some more intelligible, in order to guide the understanding toward things divine, but never without a certain amount of risk. For some have completely missed their meaning and have slid into superstition; while others, flying from superstition as from a quagmire, have unwittingly fallen over a precipice into atheism.

Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 67 (G 94-95)

L. Those who would learn about the gods need to have been well educated from childhood and must not be bred up among foolish ideas; they must also be good and intelligent by nature, in order that they may have something in common with the subject. Further, they must be acquainted with universal opinions, by which I mean those in which all men, if rightly questioned, would concur; such opinions are that every god is good and impassive and unchangeable. …

It is worth our while to inquire why the ancients left the statement of these truths and employed myths, and so to obtain this first benefit from the myths, that we inquire and do not keep our intellects in idleness. Consideration of those who have employed myths justifies us in saying that myths are divine; for indeed the inspired among poets, and the best of the philosophers, and the founders of solemn rites, and the gods themselves in oracles, have employed myths. … So the myths represent the gods in respect of that which is speakable and that which is unspeakable, of that which is obscure and that which is manifest, of that which is clear and that which is hidden, and represent the goodness of the gods; just as the gods have given to all alike the benefits to be drawn from objects perceptible to the senses while restricting to the wise the enjoyment of those received from objects perceptible to the intellect, so the myths proclaim to all that the gods exist, telling who they are and of what sort to those able to know it. Again, myths represent the active operations of the gods. The universe itself can be called a myth, since bodies and material objects are apparent in it, while souls and intellects are concealed. Furthermore, to wish to teach all men the truth about the gods causes the foolish to despise, because they cannot learn, and the good to be slothful; whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the former from despising philosophy and compels the latter to study it.

Sallustius, Concerning the Gods and the Universe, 1, 3 (G 179-80)

Concluding reflection: In my own judgment, the intellectual whose attitudes and thoughts are shaped by fascination with religion is a more adequate interpreter of the world than is the intellectual who is a scorner. I find Plutarch more worth reading than Lucian—although not as much fun. And Sallustius’s “The universe itself can be called a myth” is worth pondering.