What Christians can learn from the Romans

This last Monday I was in Pompeii, the Roman town whose occupants were famously wiped out by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. There are countless interesting things in this well-preserved ancient town, but something that struck me on reflection was the recognition of the gods in pretty much everything.

The main forum (town centre area) is dominated by the remains of several enormous temples, dedicated to gods like Jupiter, Juno, Apollo and the town’s ‘divine protectors’. Outside of the forum, there are signs of the ancient gods wherever you look: in a rich man’s house there were public and private shrines to local gods and to the ancestral gods of the household and even in the local brothel (which our tour guide insisted that we queued up to see…) there was a picture of Priapus, a minor fertility god.

I don’t know what the Romans thought about all of this, but to the outsider (in both time and space) the image of Roman culture is one that blends the religious and the secular so much that it seems wrong to even put them in separate categories. Seeing all this and reflecting on it makes me think how far I, as a 21st century English Protestant Christian (those pre-modifiers are important in this instance), am from this integrated reality.

But why wouldn’t I be a long way from that? Surely modern Christianity should look very different from 1st century Roman religion. Yes, it should look very different. But here’s where things don’t add up. I claim to believe in, love and worship a God who knows me and everyone around me intimately and completely, who takes an active interest in the lives of his creations. I claim to follow a God who cared about humanity so much that he became one of us, knowing that it would be impossible for us to know him without such an act.

The Romans, on the other hand (and I hope not to treat them unfairly) believed in thousands of different deities who took varying levels of interest in human lives, caused a lot of trouble for themselves and for their followers (if the stories we have of them are anything to go by) and required much in the way of material offerings.

Why, then, did the Romans take so much more notice of their myriad gods in everyday life, when I find it so easy to separate my personal, relational God from pretty much everything I do?

Part of it is probably the lack of visual reminders. Western Protestantism, with its aversion to icons (images) of God, leaves you with few external reminders that God should be honoured and worshiped in everyday life. There are some ways round this, of course, with various forms of media available that you can tune into throughout the day, but there is nothing along the lines of obvious public temples and household shrines that the Romans employed as visual reminders of the significance of the gods in all their activities.

Now, the West will probably never again come to the point where symbols of faith blend into secular, public life – and I don’t think it should. I’m perfectly happy living in a society where our government and public sphere is secular; Christianity was never meant to be a religion of the powerful.

However, I wonder what more I could do in my own life and what more the Christian community around me (the local church, for a start) could do to bring more awareness of God into everyday Christian life, which, for the Christian, is simply life.

For a start, I think we need to drop any notion that ‘church’ on Sunday is a singular focus of the Christian’s week. Church on a Sunday is, to be sure, a beautiful thing. It is where pockets of Christianity meet to be encouraged, to get to know one another and to worship together as a collective, which has a flavour that is very different from anything on a smaller scale.

Despite all that is good about church on a Sunday, there is so much more to Christian life. Church on a Sunday is not the only place that we can worship God (I really dislike the language that assumes that ‘worship’ is a synonym for the handful of songs you sing in a church building) and it is also not the only place that we can experience God. Church on a Sunday gives one powerful flavour of the experience of God (namely, that which comes through communal worship) but that experience does not stand apart from any other that comes through our daily lives.

Once we dethrone church on a Sunday as the only time and place to really meet with God, we can start to draw closer to that integrated religious and secular life so clearly seen in Pompeii. How? Well, what makes you think about God?

For me, a shift started when I started working more podcasts and books by Christians into my life. For a time, listening exclusively to music by Christian artists also helped, though I don’t see that as especially important for me anymore.

What else could you do? Perhaps meeting up with people from your church outside of a Sunday or other organised times and going beyond small talk. If routine works for you, then work out some kind of routine for Bible reading or prayer. Perhaps even visual reminders, such as certain pieces of art, might call God to mind more. Meditation, or contemplative prayer, can be really helpful practices if you struggle to slow down and give God space to talk to you.

You may not want to put a shrine up in your house a la the Romans, but there are so many ways to remember that he wants to be a part of every aspect of your life. I’ve offered nothing more than a collection of thoughts, ideas and prompts. In fact, the most important thing in all of this is simply to remember that God is interested in everything we do and that worship goes beyond Sunday. The secular (by this, I mean activities without any consideration of faith) has its place in public life, but there is no place for it in Christian communities and individuals, unless we want to starve ourselves of the wonder and joy that comes of a life devoted to God.

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