Most of human history is pagan. The advent of Christianity is a relatively recent affair. Some say Christianity is now receding. Some say Christianity has not yet fully taken hold. Is secularism taking hold? Is paganism reemerging? Do we live in a strange time characterized by a return to paganism, though with Christian characteristics? Whichever account is correct has implications for America in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
The pagan world was the world of many gods, each associated with a people who made payments and sacrifices to their gods. Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract that when pagan nations battled other pagan nations, soldiers did not battle soldiers; rather, gods battled gods. Hence, the cathartic rage of pagan wars.
Christianity toppled the pagan world. The cathartic rage of war, Christians argued, in which one nation purged another, could not solve the problem of man’s stain, which was original, a term we no longer really understand. Original sin means that sin is always already there, prior to a person being born into membership of this nation or that nation. What this means is that blood rage cannot expiate stain; the sins of my people can no longer be purged by cathartic rage toward your people, and vice versa. That is why Rousseau concluded that Christianity had ruined politics, and had produced a civilization of pacifists, whose rage toward other nations could not be enkindled for the purpose of war. If you doubt this, ponder the fact that Christianity developed a “doctrine of just war,” according to which cathartic rage could not be reason enough to go to war.
Against the backdrop of pagan history, Christianity is revolutionary, not evolutionary. The evolution of paganism, had it occurred, would have brought about novel forms of cathartic rage toward other peoples. Christianity declared that no matter what evolutionary “advance” paganism might bring, it could never adequately address the problem of man’s stain. Christianity was revolutionary because it declared that we must look elsewhere than toward others, with cathartic rage, to expiate our stains. That “elsewhere” is divine, not mortal. Only through Christ, the divine scapegoat, who “takes upon himself the sins of the world” (John 1:29), can man be cleansed.