TAG | Christianity
In the Spectator a review by Sean McGlynn of a new book intended to show that there was more to the Middle Ages than mud and blood:
For those who imagine the medieval period along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail — knights, castles, fair maidens, filthy peasants and buckets of blood and gore (you know, all the fun stuff) — Johannes Fried’s version may come as something of an aesthetic shock. His interests lie in the more rarefied world of theologians, lawyers and philosophers. So while the kings and emperors of the Middle Ages are afforded largely thumbnail sketches, it is the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, William of Ockham and Peter Abelard that attract Fried’s closest attention in his study of the ‘cultural evolution’ of the Middle Ages.
Fried also, refreshingly, touches on less well-known cases, as in his treatment of female mystics, such as Christine de St Trond from the early 13th century, who would whirl herself into unconsciousness ‘like a dervish’ in a state of self-induced ecstasy. Her trance-like states carried her ‘quite literally to new heights, as she would clamber into the rafters of churches and climb towers and trees, flirting with death’. Her dedication went way beyond the self-punishing rituals of the flagellants…. Christine ‘tried to replicate the torments of sinners in Hell by putting herself in ovens, plunging into boiling water, having herself lashed to mill wheels and hanged on gallows, and lying in open graves’.
If there is a border between mysticism and madness it is lightly guarded.
More about Christine the Astonishing (in German, Christina die Wunderbare seems a better translation) here. Hallucinations are involved. Although she was never canonized or even beatified, Wikipedia notes that “prayers are traditionally said to [Christine] to seek her intercession for millers, those suffering from mental illness and mental health workers”.
Christianity has—stretching from its murky beginnings to its wildly syncretic present—quite a few of those.
Writing on his always fascinating (if sometimes infuriating) blog, Andrew Sullivan takes Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin to task for making insufficient effort to reconcile their views on Pope Francis’s demagogic attacks on free markets with the Christianity that the two also profess. I don’t have a god in this fight, but read what Andrew has to say, and judge for yourselves. I should say that this this was one of his high-octane days, and that can make for a rough ride, but I’ll admit that this made me laugh:
In the Church of Limbaugh, there is no greater heretic than Saint Francis. Francis even believed in the sanctity of the natural world, regarding animals as reflecting the pied beauty of a mysterious divinity. Sarah Palin, in contrast, sees them solely as dinner.
And how right she is.
“Pied beauty of a mysterious divinity”, or just beautiful in pies?
With apologies to Gerard Manley Hopkins (and pun-hating readers), I’ll take the latter.
Christianity is one of the most powerful critiques of radical market triumphalism. And it’s now coming – more plainly and unmistakably in our lifetimes – to a church near you.
Well, “radical market triumphalism” is a mistake, but one that is more talked about than real: for the most part it is a straw man. On Andrew’s broader point, we’ll have to see whether the religious left is indeed going to enjoy another surge. Maybe, maybe not. It won’t be the first time. Or the last. But, there is a slight something in Andrew’s tone—a shadow, no more than that—which is a reminder that when such surges occur, liberty frays.
Much as I am not a fan of the public nuisance better known as Karen Armstrong, the opening two paragraphs of a review she has written for the FT today caught my eye:
Over the course of his long, distinguished career, Geza Vermes, the first professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford university, has made a major contribution to our understanding of the historical Jesus. In Christian Beginnings, as in his groundbreaking work Jesus the Jew (1973), he shows that Jesus would have been a recognisable and familiar figure to his contemporaries. A healer, exorcist and compelling preacher, he was the latest in a line of charismatic prophets who existed for centuries alongside the established priestly tradition and offered an alternative form of Judaism, based on vision, ecstasy and miraculous healing, and frequently in conflict with the Israelite ruling class.
In this book, however, Vermes takes the story further, showing how the human figure of Jesus became increasingly other-worldly until, at the Council of Nicaea in 325, he was declared fully divine. Vermes points out quite correctly that in much of the New Testament, Jesus is perceived as “a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders and signs” (Acts 2.22), a typical definition of a charismatic prophet. In Judaism, the title “Son of God” was simply a human being who enjoyed special intimacy with God and had been given a divine task: kings, prophets and priests – and the entire people of Israel – were all called “sons of God” in this sense…
Getting to grips with the pathologies of multiculturalism is no easy task, but here from the Wall Street Journal is retired (center-right) Dutch politician Frits Bolkenstein having a go. This, in particular, caught my eye:
The other foundation of our current masochism is, ironically, the very Christianity that modern generations have been so eager to cast off. Whether we like it or not, our civilization remains deeply marked by Christianity. Consider the Gospel of Saint Matthew, which states that “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (23:12). Friedrich Nietzsche characterized this as “slave morality.” But one does not have to go that far to realize that this saying, along with instructions to “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile,” do not exactly prod people to stick up for their own.
If Islamic civilization may be described as a shame culture, Christianity is a guilt culture. Listen to Bach’s “Passion According to Saint Matthew.” The chorus—that is to say the people—sings, “I shall be punished for what you [Christ] have suffered,” and, “You are no sinner, like we and our children.” Pride joined guilt and we in Europe soon came to believe that the mote in our eye was heavier than the beam abroad.
This would not be a problem if the burden of a bad conscience came with atonement, forgiveness, confession, expiation or any of the other theological or liturgical forms for purging guilt from the sinner. Formerly, Catholicism and Lutheranism provided for the atonement of guilt. But these traditions no longer have credibility in Europe. Feelings of guilt are not sublimated. This also goes for Calvinism, which in its purest form knows no remission of guilt in this life. Its effects have been deep in Europe and outlast the doctrine.
Thus in 1996 the Dutch government declared that its “debate about multiculturalism must be conducted on the principle that cultures are of equal merit.” And so it has gone, for years.
A stretch, I feel, but intriguing…
One academic’s (the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College) response to the pope’s claim that the Nazis were atheists (in reality, some were and some were not) can be found here. An extract follows:
Christian theologians, Catholic and Protestant, reassured Germans that Nazism was in full accord with Christian principles. This was not a marginal effort; at the 1934 Oberammergau passion play, watching Jesus being hoisted on the cross, the audience saw a parable of the Third Reich, calling out: “There he is. That is our Führer, our Hitler!”
Hitler became Christ, the redeemer of Germany, thanks to a reinterpretation of the Gospels: Jesus was not a Jew, but an Aryan who came to redeem them from the Jews who sought their destruction. Karl Adam, the prominent German Catholic theologian, affirmed in 1933 that Hitler was the one “prophesied by our poets and our wise men” who suffered in his fight for Germany’s salvation. Adam continued in 1941: “Christ’s teaching was entirely anti-Jewish in its tenor (that is why he was crucified).”
Nuts, of course, but atheist?
Well, here is Hitler (cited in Table Talk) on October 24, 1941:
It’s senseless to encourage man in the idea that he’s a king of creation, as the scientist of the past century tried to make him believe…The Russians were entitled to attack their priests, but they had no right to assail the idea of a supreme force. It’s a fact that we’re feeble creatures, and that a creative force exists.”
Hitler’s comments on this topic are often contradictory, and often self-serving, but those remarks do not sound like the opinions of an atheist to me.
Sometimes readers will ask about a good book on the history of religion, and I’m pretty hard-pressed to recommend something without qualification, caveat, or caution. But I can recommend The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died without any riders. I have a long review up at Discover blogs outlining why. In my review I forgot to mention that you can read the first few chapters on HarperCollins’ website.
One of the pleasures (really) of blogging away on an interesting topic is when a reader alerts you to an angle or a source of which you were previously unaware. That brings me to a book called The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-45, by Richard Steigmann-Gall (Cambridge University Press). To say that it appears to be relevant to my earlier post concerning the pope’s curious comments on the “atheist” Third Reich is an understatement.
Here’s part of the publisher’s blurb:
Analyzing the previously unexplored religious views of the Nazi elite, Richard Steigmann-Gall argues against the consensus that Nazism as a whole was either unrelated to Christianity or actively opposed to it. He demonstrates that many participants in the Nazi movement believed that the contours of their ideology were based on a Christian understanding of Germany’s ills and their cure. A program usually regarded as secular in inspiration – the creation of a racialist ‘people’s community’ embracing antisemitism, antiliberalism and anti-Marxism – was, for these Nazis, conceived in explicitly Christian terms. His examination centers on the concept of ‘positive Christianity,’ a religion espoused by many members of the party leadership. He also explores the struggle the ‘positive Christians’ waged with the party’s paganists – those who rejected Christianity in toto as foreign and corrupting – and demonstrates that this was not just a conflict over religion, but over the very meaning of Nazi ideology itself.
The work of a crank? Well, when one reads extracts from reviews like this one by Richard Evans (Regius Professor of Modern History, University of Cambridge), you are inclined to think not:
‘There has been a huge amount of research on the attitude of the Christian Churches to the Nazis and their policies, but astonishingly until now there has been no thorough study of the Nazis’ own religious beliefs. Richard Steigmann-Gall has now provided it. He has trawled through a lot of very turgid literature to show that active Nazis from the leadership down to the lower levels of the party were bitterly opposed to the Catholic Church, but had a much more ambivalent attitude to Protestantism and to Christianity in a wider sense … Far from being uniformly anti-Christian, Nazism contained a wide variety of religious beliefs, and Steigmann-Gall has performed a valuable service in providing a meticulously documented account of them in all their bizarre variety.’
The book’s introduction is online here, and it concludes with these words:
“For many of its leaders, Nazism was not the result of a “Death of God” in secularized society, but rather a radicalized and singularly horrific attempt to preserve God against secularized society.”
I’ll have to actually read the book (of course!) before coming to any judgement. On the basis of its introduction, however, it seems that some of my own assumptions about this whole topic may well not emerge unscathed. Much more importantly, to the extent that the author’s arguments hold up, they will (again) raise the question of what the pope, who must be assumed to be well-versed in these matters, thought he was doing when he described Nazism as an atheist creed.
I note, incidentally, that among the reviews extracted by the publishers is one by Michael Burleigh, a fine historian of the Third Reich, a great historian of ‘political religion’, a conservative and, I should add, a devout Roman Catholic. The extract reads as follows:
‘The Holy Reich is both deeply researched and thoughtfully argued. It is the first comparative analysis of the religious beliefs of leading Nazis and a timely reminder of the intimate relations between liberal Protestantism and National Socialism. This is an important and original book by a talented young scholar that deserves as wide a readership as possible.’
So many books, so little time.
The heritability of religiosity is modest in the American environment. In some environments, such as Saudi Arabia, a normal range in variation in religiosity obviously can not express itself. But under more relaxed conditions it seems that around half of the variation in religiosity in the population can be traced to variation in genes; in other words, the trait value runs in families. Obama’s father was born a Muslim, but was an avowed atheist. I couldn’t find survey data from Kenya, but I did find some from Tanzania. According to the World Values Survey 8 out of 1171 respondents did not believe in God in Tanzania. The equivalent figure for the United States was 51 out of 1200. And his mother, from what we can tell, was also an atheist. The United States and Kenya are not, and were not, Saudi Arabia, but neither were they Sweden or Japan. Though one had license to be an atheist, it was certainly culturally atypical, and all the pressures would have gone in the other direction. From this I conclude that Barack H. Obama lacked a natural disposition toward supernatural belief.
That early Christianity was a highly syncretic religion is no great revelation (so to speak), nevertheless this Guardian piece on the pagan traditions incorporated within the Easter celebration is (if you discount the irritating hints of nature worship lurking in its penultimate paragraph) a good read.
In particular, I didn’t know this:
In an ironic twist, the Cybele cult flourished on today’s Vatican Hill. Cybele’s lover Attis, was born of a virgin, died and was reborn annually. This spring festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday, rising to a crescendo after three days, in rejoicing over the resurrection. There was violent conflict on Vatican Hill in the early days of Christianity between the Jesus worshippers and pagans who quarrelled over whose God was the true, and whose the imitation. What is interesting to note here is that in the ancient world, wherever you had popular resurrected god myths, Christianity found lots of converts.
In the meantime, I’m glad to report at least one restaurant in New York City yesterday afternoon was serving hot cross buns (a traditional English Good Friday Treat), and very good they were too…
The idea that religious proselytizing is something to be avoided lest it cause (dread word) “offense” is idiotic, and all too typical of our times. Just because someone is from a family or, indeed, an ethnicity or nationality, usually associated with one particular faith does not make it wrong to try and change his or her mind. That’s called debate – and there is no good reason that religious ideologies should be immune from it.
And yet here we find a writer for the New York Times who is at least somewhat critical of Christians for trying to take their faith into Muslim areas of Nigeria. To be fair, the piece is reasonably subtle and well worth a look, but nevertheless this, in particular, struck me as revealing of a certain type of cultural cringe:
…Whatever form the recruiting takes, it is often perceived by Muslims as cultural aggression — unprovoked aggression, since they’re not generally inclined to proselytize, and serious aggression, since in many Muslim cultures it’s a grave thing for a believer to stray from the fold.
To which the response must be ‘too bad’. Christians should be free to try to tempt people to sign up for their faith, and so should Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists and, for that matter, anyone else, for theirs. That’s part and parcel of the free flow of ideas, and those who think that such a free flow is a good idea should not be in the business of propping up the cultural and religious taboos that stand in its way.