Sunday, April 22, 2012

3rd March 2012

Humanists are breast-beating about the wicked influence of Christian practice on civil life. Julius Caesar would have put them straight.

There were no pagan scriptures underpinning creeds, belief in one true god, or moral and ethical standards. Polytheistic religion was simply a system of cult practice: performing ritual - doing the right things, in the right way, at the right time - taking auspices, and interpreting portents. It was performance-indexed piety, designed to help men keep gods onside and understand their will. Further, since worshipping one god did not prevent you worshipping any other, and morality did not come into it, only in very exceptional circumstances did the Roman state intervene in any individual’s choice of deity.

The big, public rituals were run by state-appointed priests. These were not trained professionals. Julius Caesar, a virtual atheist but knowing the political importance of the role, was elected (at vast personal expense) to the top priesthood, pontifex maximus, in 63 BC, spent ten years conquering Gaul, defeated Pompey in a civil war, made himself dictator and was assassinated. He gave no moral or spiritual guidance, laid on no coffee mornings. He just performed the rituals for all to see.

Romans never publicly questioned the validity of this religious system, based as it was on unchanging, constantly repeated, traditional rituals, linking past with present and future, for ever. That is what made it a religion, and them Roman. Almost every aspect of institutional life had some ritual protocol wrapped round it. Caesar may not have believed a word of it, but he was not so thick as to underestimate its human and political importance.

Romans would see the C of E serving precisely the same vital function for us, though in quite different, and to them baffling, terms. That is why Julius Caesar’s example is so telling. Christianity has a ritual part to play in many aspects of civil life as a human communal force, creating cohesion, lending gravity to proceedings, recalling the way things have ‘always’ been done, making us what we are. Humanists, live up to your name.

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