Paganism in Christianity, Part II

In my earlier post on this subject, I talked about my distaste for military imagery in Christian thought and theology. This time, I’d like to talk about something I think is even more dangerous—the quid-pro-quo.

We all know what the phrase means (from Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs if from nowhere else): “something for something”, a bargain, an exchange—perhaps especially driven by need more than desire.

The quid-pro-quo formed a foundational aspect of Greco-Roman religion. Given that the gods could be cruel and easily took offense at the unintentional misdeeds of humans, it seems that one might wish to avoid the attention of the gods to the extent possible. Similar to me and cats, for the same reasons.

On the other hand, the Greco-Roman pagans did seek otherworldly assistance in their lives. But, they asked and prayed for things more worldly than we might think of as proper (in Christianity). They wanted good harvests, protection from their enemies (or curses upon them, as many ritual objects attest), the love of someone they desired. Far less time was spent praying for things that would be considered “spiritual” or that concerned cosmic redemption or punishment.

There were many gods to ask favors of as well. There were the Olympian gods, the most powerful of the supernatural beings, but there were also daemones (not to be confused with demons—the daimones or daemones were nature spirits and tutelary spirits, who could be good, evil, or somewhat more ambiguous), genii loci (the spirits of places that had influence over that place) and many other beings of all manner of rank who were believed to have the power to effectuate change in the visible world.

For the ancient Romans (and probably also the Greeks, but I am somewhat less familiar with their religious practices—though fascinating), one simply did not approach a supernatural being empty-handed. Something must be given for something asked, a quid-pro-quo. And so sacrifices were made to the gods when a request was made of them. This could be something personal—an oath or vow made to a god if a request was granted—but animal sacrifice was common and human sacrifice, though quite rare, was not unheard of.

While we may have left animal and human sacrifices behind us, we to a large extent not abandoned the paradigm of the quid-pro-quo when dealing with the divine. This concept runs deeper than the place in prayer we’ve all been: “God if you do X for me, I promise I’ll never do X again,” or “God if X happens, I promise I’ll go to church more.” Other theologians have popularly described this as the “vending machine-God” approach.

It is comforting because it gives us some illusion of control, some ability to predict the movement of the divine so long as we hold up our end of the bargain. And yet, when we repeatedly find that that’s not how God works, our faith is shaken because it stands of the weakest of foundations.

This approach is also tied into the gospel of wealth movement: “If I’m a good Christian, God will make me wealthy and well-liked and powerful and important.” This empty theology has become concerningly popular and widespread in recent decades. Keep in mind, though, that this is only part of the reason the doctrine is so seductive; the inverse can also be a source of comfort from reality: “If I am rich and well-liked and powerful, I must be godly.” Dangerous stuff, that.

But this is not a post about the gospel of wealth. It’s about a more insidious type of quid-pro-quo—the spiritual bargain.

E. Stanley Jones, in his book form the early 20th century called The Christ of the Mount, tells us that we’ve been doing things the wrong way in Christianity  because we mistakenly believe that the point of Christianity is to “get into heaven.” For Jones, the point is “to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect,” but for now let’s focus on moving away from the wrong way rather than finding the right one.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Pascal’s Wager, named for apologist and philosopher Blaise Pascal. It goes like this: God is either real or not. In choosing how to live, we are told that God wants us to do certain things but not others, and that there are eternal rewards for those who follow God’s desires and eternal punishments for those who do not—again, if God is real. Without knowing for sure whether God is real or not (is the universe bluffing?), we must bet on whether we believe God is real. There are four possibilities then, based upon our bet and whether God is real. One, God is real and we believed and acted like God is real, so we get to go to heaven. Two, God is real and we ignored God and so we have to go to hell. Three, God is not real but we have lived our lives as though God is real, perhaps sacrificing some worldly pleasures and desires we might otherwise have enjoyed. Four, God is not real and we do not act as if God is real, nothing lost but nothing gained.

For Pascal, the answer to such a quandary is simple—one ought to act like the Christian God is real and try to obey God and be holy. If you’re wrong, your loss is minimal compared to God being real and not trying to obey, falling into perdition. It’s a betting man’s approach to faith, based upon probabilities, severity of the various possible outcomes, and the quid-pro-quo of what each possibility might net compared to the cost of the bet.

Pascal’s bet exemplifies the cynical quid-pro-quo approach to spirituality: “Don’t be faithful because of who God is; be faithful because it’s the fastest ticket to Heaven-town.” If this is the kind of faith that we have, it is no faith at all and we only deceive ourselves that we are seeking relationship with God.

The only way to avoid the illusion of the divine quid-pro-quo is to adopt an attitude of love—the kind of selfless love that we call agape—for God. It is a love that does not expect something in return, that does is not contingent upon a particular situation, that will not be rescinded when the unfortunate comes to pass.

Our God has negated the quid-pro-quo altogether. The work of Jesus Christ cleared the way to salvation and eternal life, not the bargaining or righteousness of man. We are called to sanctify ourselves to be sure, to pursue holiness and to become Christ-like. But this has been separated from salvation freely given by grace without cost. Our desire to be sanctified must come from our love for God, for by the time we make such a decision or have such a desire, God has long since given us the gift of life eternal. There can be no quid-pro-quo; the gifts have been poured upon us until our cups runneth over. We ought to act like it.

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