For the past two years, I along with a group of fellow pastors have been studying 1 Peter. When Peter writes this letter to the Christians in Asia Minor in about AD 64, there is some persecution going on. Some of it may have been violent, but much of persecution would have been soft persecution in the form of social and economic exclusion. Peter is likely writing before the bloody persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Nero.
What did this soft persecution look like? The Roman society was very tolerant of other gods. As they conquered new areas, they were able to incorporate new gods into the large group of gods already being worshipped. After a time, they even included emperors in their group of gods. So it was perfectly normal for a person to worship one god at home, another at a temple, another to get into the market, another god who was worshipped by their industry or guild. It was completely normal and expected that people would worship all the gods that they encountered.
What they couldn’t tolerate was for a group to reject all the gods in favour of only one God. The Jews, of course, did exactly that. However, the Jewish way of life was bound up in an ethnic identity. One needed to be descended from Abraham to be Jewish or else one had to undergo an extensive process to become a "God-fearing Gentile." Such a person could be associated with a Jewish Synagogue, but would have second class status. In addition, Jews did not go out of their way to try to convert people to their way of life. For these reasons, the Jews were tolerated, with some suspicion, in the Roman world. They were granted an exception to the rules regarding the worship of other gods.
Christians, however, declared along with their most famous evangelist, Paul, that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek. The dividing wall between Jew and Gentile had been brought down by the arrival of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Now, Gentiles could worship the God of the Jews, without becoming Jewish first. The result of all this is a growing number of non-Jewish Christians, refusing to worship the gods of Rome and expecting the same legal protection that non-Christian Jews enjoyed. Tensions naturally begin to increase.
From the Greek or Roman side, it was unthinkable that a person wouldn’t offer sacrifices to all the gods encountered on a daily basis. Furthermore, it would have been beyond to pail to say, as Christians did, that the gods of the Greeks and Romans weren’t really gods at all. When people came to the Christian faith, they would have had difficulty in their homes where the gods of the house were worshipped. They would be cast out of their industry and guilds for not worshipping the gods there. They may not have been welcomed in the markets where offerings were expected to another set of gods. They certainly were looked down upon for not worshipping the emperor - an expectation of a good citizen of the Roman Empire. Christians would have been seen as very strange.
Let’s think about a specific example. Imagine that you live in a small farming village, coincidently the term pagan comes from the Latin word for farmer. You and your fellow pagan farmers worship the god of the sun and the god of the rain. As long as everyone worships the god of the sun and the god of the rain, the gods are happy, the sun shines, the rain comes and the crops grow. Now, in your village you’ve got a small group of people who decide that they are not going to worship the god of the sun and the god of the rain anymore. “These gods,” they say, “Aren’t really gods and should not be worshiped.” This is a problem. Because as a good pagan farmer you know that if everyone doesn’t worship the god of the sun and the god of the rain, the gods will get angry and the sun won’t shine and the rains won’t come and the crops won’t grow. You have to get rid of these people who aren’t worshipping the gods, or you will starve! Here we can see a bit of why Christians were persecuted by their neighbours. There was a lot more at stake then “you worship your God and we will worship ours.”
Peter is writing to Christians having these kinds of experiences and in our present culture we are finding that Peter's words are relevant once again.
When we started our research for our Bible Study on 1 Peter, we noticed that the people who used to be the vocal opponents of the Christian worldview – people like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris - were fading to the background. They had claimed that we would all get over “primitive superstitions” and become secular atheists. However, that didn’t happen. What did happen is that people became more spiritual even as church attendance declined. To illustrate, in a recent lecture about those who have no religious affiliation, Nathan Jacobs quoted a woman who told him “I don’t believe in God, but I think my apartment is haunted.” Curiosity about things like ghosts and the paranormal is going up. Now it is fair to say that almost no one believes that we are in a material universe devoid of gods, spirits, ghosts or demons. So what is this new spirituality?
As we looked into this further we realized that this new spirituality actually seemed to be very old. In fact, there are many similarities to religion in the Roman pagan system and the new spirituality of those who aren’t sure about God, but live in haunted apartments. Like the Romans, such people don’t think too much about one God who rules over all, but instead they are pre-occupied by lesser gods or ghosts, or the various powers that can be contacted through mediums. Also like the Romans who included more and more gods in their ever expanding pantheon of gods, people today are likely to embrace a variety of spiritual practices and beliefs from a variety of sources. A person who believes her apartment to be haunted, might also practice yoga (rooted in Hinduism) while believing in karma (another Hindu idea), while at the same time encouraging her kids to practise mindfulness (rooted in Buddhist thought). She might watch a medium on TV, from the western spiritualist tradition, and probably go to church on Christmas because “all religions are the same.” This wouldn’t be that much different really a Roman who worshiped Athena in Athens and Artemis in Ephesus and wondering if maybe Athena and Artemis were in some sense the same.
[As an aside: We know from the writings of the Apostle Paul that there was a considerable debate within Christianity about whether or not Christians could eat food sacrificed to idols. How involved can Christians be with the practices of other religions? Some Christians would eat what was put in front of them. Other Christians would abstain. These same considerations come into play today when Christians consider yoga or mindfulness.]
Unlike Christianity, there isn’t a book to guide this new (old!) spirituality. Pagan spirituality is far more intuitive and takes the experiences of people very seriously. Dreams and visions are interesting once again. And some are even trying to live as neo-pagans, complete with spell casting, secret rituals and magic. As Christianity declines, people in our culture are not becoming atheists, they are becoming more spiritual and their spirituality is getting weirder.
The Good News is that this presents wonderful opportunities for us. We’ve been here before, as Christians. After all, if Christianity could grow in the Roman world, then surely it can grow in ours. And this makes I Peter, written by the Apostle Peter to Christians in the first century AD suddenly relevant again. For generations, commentaries on I Peter would begin by stating that I Peter was not really applicable because the culture was Christian, and for the most part that was true. But now, we will need to study I Peter in earnest. Our culture turned pagan right under our noses. Everyone’s apartment is haunted and the gods have returned. Let us turn to Peter who tells us how to “live such good lives among the pagans.”