Rome and Christianity
Toleration, Revolutionary Substance and Celsus


The problems of imperial theology, however, could not be solved by a linguistic compromise. The Christians were persecuted for a good reason; there was a revolutionary substance in Christianity that made it incompatible with paganism. The new alliance was bound to increase the social effectiveness of this revolutionary substance. What made Christianity so dangerous was its uncompromising, radical de-divinization of the world.

The problem had been formulated perhaps most clearly by Celsus in his True Discourse, of ca. A.D. 180, the most competent pagan critique of Christianity. The Christians, he complained, reject polytheism with the argument that one cannot serve two masters. This was for Celsus the "language of sedition (stasis)." The rule, he admitted, holds true among men; but nothing can be taken from God when we serve his divinity in the many manifestations of his kingdom. On the contrary, we honor and please the Most High when we honor many of those who belong to him while singling out one God and honoring him alone introduces factiousness into the divine kingdom. That part will be taken only by men who stand aloof from human society and transfer their own isolating passions to God.

The Christians, thus, are factionals in religion and metaphysics, a sedition against the divinity that harmoniously animates the whole world in all its subdivisions. And since the various quarters of the earth were from the beginning allotted to various ruling spirits and superintending principalities, the religious sedition is at the same time a political revolt. Who wishes to destroy the national cult wants to destroy the national cultures. And since they all have found their place in the empire, an attack on the cults by radical monotheists is an attack on the construction of the imperium Romanum.

Not that it were not desirable, even in the opinion of Celsus, if Asiatics, Europeans and Libyans, Hellenes and barbarians, would agree in one nomos, but, he adds contemptuously, "anyone who thinks this possible knows nothing." The answer of Origen in his Contra Celsum was that it not only was possible but that it surely would come to pass. Celsus, one may say, discerned the implications of Christianity even more clearly than Cicero the implications of Greek philosophy. He understood the existential problem of polytheism; and he knew that the Christian de-divinization of the world spelled the end of a civilizational epoch and would radically transform the ethnic cultures of the age.

CW VOL 5,
The New Science of Politics
The Struggle for Representation
in the Roman Empire,

§7 pp 169-170.
[U.Chicago ed., pp 100-101]

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