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  • Debate and Dialogue: Christian and Pagan Cultures c. 360-430
  • Ramsay Macmullen
Maijastina Kahlos . Debate and Dialogue: Christian and Pagan Cultures c. 360– 430. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate Press, 2007. Pp. x + 213.

The defense of Christian beliefs by the early church champions more often took the offensive; it is quite misleadingly called "Apology." But the Greekism has long been a fixture. To survey the whole of it across three centuries might be too much for 184 pages (plus notes). A longer book, on the other hand, might be consulted, but never read through. Dr. Maijastina Kahlos has made a welcome choice in deciding to look only, or almost only, at the production of Augustine's lifetime and in Latin (the title of the book promises much more than is attempted).

It is indeed useful to see in a handy form the very broad front of argument across which the Latin bishops mustered their forces of polemic and refutation. True, some matters disputed in the Greek-speaking world they ignored; but sooner or later, added all together, these men whose sermons and tractates Kahlos draws on covered a great many points of real or potential detraction: for example, through opposing the (non-Christian) wicked to the (Christian) good, the Devil to Christ, daemonia to dominus, man to God, many to One, Babylon to Jerusalem, mundus to paradisus, corpus to mens, visibilia to invisibilia, (non-Christian) superstitio to (Christian) religio, demons to angels, and so on through many more pairings. In works on which Kahlos draws, "dualismo" (U. Bianchi) and "l'autre" (J. Botters, R. Shusterman) have offered a framework for scholarly discussion; as also the sharpness of distinction between Christian and non-Christian ("L'intoleranza," L. Cracco Ruggini) and the [End Page 96] intent of "constructing identities" (R. Miles). Kahlos seems well informed in current scholarship of this sort.

She takes account of the church's internal problem that gave rise to apology: namely, the sharp increase, or more truly the flood, of converts over the course of the first three generations or so post-313. Converts brought with them much religious baggage, to be stripped away before they could be decently accepted into the Christian "mainstream." It may be anachronistic to describe this latter as "Catholic" meaning Roman, and very odd, as it strikes me, to struggle over the question whether "paganism" is "a religion"; but certainly there were two bodies of faith, thought, and ritual opposed to one another. Bishops set and patrolled the boundaries of their own that would be tolerated, and did their best to enforce their will against the imperfectly formed new members of their congregation. It is in this sense, aiming at what Kahlos calls the incerti, that the whole of apology is to be rightly understood. It was not aimed at non-Christians.

Of course it was troubling and awkward to the church leadership that so much of their gestural traditions, their art and architecture, their calendar and vocabulary of worship, derived from an older faith, as all these features could not help being derived, and as Kahlos rightly brings out. Her discussion could be considerably improved by an understanding of non-Christian faiths seen through some lens other than the few champions who picked a fight with some local bishop or through those doubters who invited illumination. But a better treatment would have taken Kahlos beyond the reach of the bishops themselves.

For, as she often makes clear, they were astonishingly ignorant of the religious world around them. Or certainly they seem so. The social distance between ordinary believers and the likes of a bishop, a big fish in a small pond, or in a far bigger one in Hippo or Milan with friends among the highest imperial elite, was immense. No doubt it raised barriers to sympathy. Was ignorance a result, then, and real, or was it only a pose of class? Was it a little beneath one's dignity to listen to, let alone understand, the faith of one's cook or barber, most likely a slave, or of a greengrocer or tinsmith? It was certainly much safer to address oneself to one's peers, misguided though they...


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