Georgetown professor explores Christian definition of paganism

By Robyn Sanders

Dr. James O’Donnell explored the changing light in which Christians viewed other religions Wednesday in his lecture “The Death of the Gods: What We Can Learn from the Pagans.”

O’Donnell is a professor of classics and a provost at Georgetown University. He has published numerous books and articles on the history of the ancient Mediterranean world. His most recent volume, “Pagans,” explores ways to connect ancient figures and texts to their modern readers and students.

O’Donnell described a trip he once took to Kathmandu, Nepal, during which he became interested in the day-to-day activities of the people in the city.

“I realized . . . that what I was looking at were manifestations of religious behavior,” O’Donnell said.

Following this realization, O’Donnell said he began to ask himself how he was able to recognize certain behaviors as religious, and how others from different cultures viewed his own practices.

O’Donnell gave the audience an overview of the roots of “western” religion, starting 2,000 years ago with the ancient Romans and moving on to Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, to offer context to the changes in Christian perception he discussed.

O’Donnell discussed the meaning of the word “pagan,” and how it came to be used by Christians as a differentiation between Christians and non-Christians.

“It means ‘people who are not like us,’ and particularly, ‘people who are not like us by virtue of their religious practices,’” O’Donnell said. “That’s all it means by the time the Christians get through with it.”

Things evolved from there, O’Donnell said.

What gradually emerged was not only the assertion by Christians that Christianity is a superior form of religion to other, he said, but that everyone who does not have that superior form of religion should acquire it.

O’Donnell said because there are so many different denominations of Christianity, its practices have begun to appear inconsistent.

“The mistake we make in looking at ancient religions is that we, ourselves, still have no consistent position within the same religious community on issues about the . . . reality of divine power and where to find it in the world,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell said the study of ancient religions is of great value.

“We live in the ambiguities of these inconsistencies, and my view is that they are not to be resolved in our society and in our time until we do a better job of understanding, and making sense of, the way the ancient gods dealt with each other,” O’Donnell said.

The lecture was part of Phi Beta Kappa’s Visiting Scholar Program, which invites renowned experts to come speak about their experiences in their particular field.

Dr. Alden Smith, professor and chair of the classics department, said of the lecturer, “Dr. O’Donnell is a tough professor. It’s an honor to have him here. He’s my friend. He’s my mentor.”