Friday, January 23, 2009

Paul Johnson: A History of Christiany

Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. New York: Atheneum, 1977.
Christianity is essentially a historical religion. It bases its claims on the historical facts it asserts. If these are demolished it is nothing. Can a Christian, then, examine the truth of these facts with the same objectivity he would display towards any other phenomenon? Can he be expected to dig the grave of his own faith if that is the way his investigations seem to point?
Johnson's work is an attempt to answer this question in the affirmative, despite the fact that "In the past, very few Christian scholars have had the courage or the confidence to place the unhampered pursuit of truth before any other consideration. Almost all have drawn the line somewhere".

I can't claim adequate knowledge to fully evaluate how well he succeeds at reaching unvarnished truth, but I came away somewhat unsatisfied.
More than a catalogue of events, the book left an impression on me as a succession of profiles of the important personalities of Christian history--always colored by Johnson's own commentary and evaluation. I found this approach of Johnson's engaging and interesting in his other works I have read. (Namely, Modern Times and The Birth of the Modern. Intellectuals was enjoyable at points, but, as I recall, I was mostly turned off by its ad hominem approach.) It may be that A History of Christianity just hits closer to home and I would like to "draw the line somewhere", but I found Johnson's--to my mind--overwhelmingly negative assessments of his subjects tiring. In Johnson's telling, we tread through century after century of darkness desperate for some character to sympathize with, until at last we meet at last what Johnson is looking for in Erasmus.

Certainly, there is much to be said in favor of Erasmus, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that Johnson's perspective, however it may be colored by his Christianity, is more clearly still colored by modern humanism. If we moderns admire Erasmus in contrast to the countless saints who preceded him, surely it is largely because we see so much more of ourselves (or what we aspire to be) in him. We do not need to collapse into complete relativism in order to acknowledge that to some degree we view the past through the prism of our own times--its ideas of what is real and what is important--and that that prism can sometimes distort the picture. Even if Johnson does not fall into the complete ludicrousness of, say, Marxism, which would explain everything in terms of class struggle, he does tend to see things as primarily political, giving short shrift to the doctrines and beliefs that motivated actions. The result is hardly suprising: ignoring someone's explicitly stated reasons or dismissing them as delusions is a quick path to a cynical and unsympathetic portrait.

For example, the arch-villain to our hero Erasmus is St. Augustine. Johnson portrays him as swatting down the proto-humanist Pelagius and plunging Western Europe into the dark ages with his dour view of human nature. But such a characterization leaves the perennial appeal of Augustine's work unexplained. Is this really what the controversy over Pelagianism was about, and is Augustine at his most negative truly indicative of the character of the ages that followed him? And isn't the tri-partite view of history that this seems to hearken back to (Classical Golden Age, Dark Middle Ages, Modern Re-birth) a little tired? Surely, the middle ages seem foreign to us, but if we are to be honest with ourselves, there is just as much of them in us--if not more--than of ancient Greece and Rome. (And, I would guess, more of the ancient world in them than there is in us.)

The idea that modernity arose solely from the recovery of classical learning is a myth we tell ourselves, but the dynamism of modern society owes much to the developments in learning and the reform movements that arose in the high middle ages. Even if the Renaissance humanists took their inspiration from classical sources, the immediate foundations they built on, the world of thought and civilization they operated in--Europe itself--were medieval creations, far different from the Mediterranean world of ancient Rome. Erasmus did not emerge from Athens but from Europe, and Europe arose out the growth of Christianity after the decline of Rome in the West. Inasmuch as every bit of Western Christianity bears Augustine's stamp to some degree, Erasmus is perhaps not just a negation of Augustine at his worst, but a development of him at his best.

But perhaps I am misinterpreting what Johnson is aiming at with his presentation. In the afterword, he clarifies his stance, writing beautifully of the Christian humanism that motivates his writing:
The account of Christianity presented in this book has necessarily stressed its failures and shortcomings, and its institutional distortions. But we have been measuring it by its own stupendous claims, and its own unprecedented idealism. As an exercise in perfectionism, Christianity cannot succeed, even by its internal definitions; what it is designed to do is to set targets and standards, raise aspirations, to educate, stimulate and inspire. Its strength lies in its just estimate of man as a fallible creature with immortal longings. Its outstanding moral merit is to invest the individual with a conscience, and bid him follow it. This particular form of liberation is what St Paul meant by the freedom men find in Christ. And, of course, it is the father of all other freedoms. For conscience is the enemy of tyranny and the compulsory society; and it is the Christian conscience which has destroyed the institutional tyrannies Christianity itself has created--the self-correcting mechanism at work. The notions of political and economic freedom both spring from the workings of the Christian conscience as a historical force; and it is thus no accident that all the implantations of freedom throughout the world have ultimately a Christian origin.
Whatever the faults of its manifestations through the ages, we ultimately have Christianity to thank for the freedoms we hold so dear in our own age. He is right. By its own internal standards, the Church will be judged, and ought to judge itself, harshly in any age. Still, one wonders if a little more realism about some of the the silliness that characterizes our own age might make us pause before judging the past primarily in terms of how well it did at preparing for the present.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Faith, Reason and the Plague

Cipolla, Carlo M. Faith, Reason and the Plague in Seventeenth Century Tuscany. Trans. Muriel Kittel. New York: Norton, 1979.

This little snapshot of how one town lived through an encounter with the plague is quite fascinating, offering a window into the complicated relationship between faith and reason and between Church and state in early modernity.

Cipolla tries to avoid modern stereotypes, admitting that clergy were often among the heroes fighting the plague with the best knowledge available at the time and that those working with what we would recognize today as a more scientific approach, attempting to isolate material causes, were, in fact, as confused and bewildered as anyone.

Nonetheless, he isn't entirely successful in that avoidance, speaking at times as if there were a "party of faith and the Church" and a "party of reason and the state", when, in fact, there was no sharp separation of these things at the time. Looking back at previous ages and reading our own conflicts into them can be misleading. We tend to think of modern scientific reasoning and the modern non-sacral nation-state as if they are simply the way things are--the natural state of man when the shackles of superstition, slavery and tradition are removed. The reality is more complicated. Modern scientific reasoning and the nation-state are, in reality, achievements that, for the most part, grew out of the specific conditions of Christian Europe. To regard the story of their development as primarily one of conflict with Christianity is to miss the point. Certainly new ways of thinking led to conflicts, but (at least in this case) these were conflicts between Christians, within Christianity, rather than conflicts between Christianity and non-Christian science. Scientific reasoning was not something "already there" to be discovered by simply peeling back Christianity, it is something that had to be created--and, to a large extent, it was created within Christianity.

Thus, to me, the interesting question is not so much "How could faith and scienctific reasoning have coexisted in the same individual?" but "How did science develop?" and "Why did it develop in Christian civilization and not elsewhere?" In an age when the clergy made up a large part of the educated class, it is hardly surprising that a priest could be both a man of faith and a man of science--and Cipolla's speculation that this caused Fr. Dragoni inner turmoil seems anachronistic. Certainly there was conflict over whether the plague should be addressed by public religious processions or by strict quarantine, but in backing the quarantine, Fr. Dragoni could have cited not just the (not entirely correct) scientific idea of the time that plague was spread by human-to-human contact, but scriptures: "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test" (Mt 4:17).

Whether or not he did so, one can easily imagine that notions like these within Christianity have something to do with the fact that (at least, according to Cipolla, page 1) unlike in the Muslim East, in the Christian West, the belief that the plague was a sign of divine judgment did not lead to passive acceptance of it. If the advocates of "reason" often lost such debates, it wasn't just because of superstition but because they didn't quite have the evidence (or the facts) on their side. Being ignorant of the primary vector (rat fleas), their quarantines were not demonstrably more effective than simple pleas for miraculous deliverance.

But all of this is perhaps less a criticism of Cipolla's work than it is a wish that he had written the book I wanted to read (and maybe that has already written by Fr. Stanley Jaki). Cipolla's speculation and editorializing is actually quite minimal, and other than a couple of statements like these (and a curious inability to understand the appeal of the depictions of Christ's sufferings to the downtrodden--Cipolla dismisses it as "irrational") is interesting and unproblematic. I am truly only quibbling over a couple of scattered statements. His reconstruction of the events in Monte Lupo make for fascinating--and thought-provoking--reading: a fitting follow-up to Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


In the West, Epiphany is mostly associated today with the adoration of the magi, but its focus is more broadly on the Lord making himself manifest in the flesh, calling to mind, in addition to the magi, his first miracle at Cana and his baptism in the Jordan (the latter remains the primary focus in the East).

Even though the Baptism of the Lord has received its own feast, the Epiphany liturgy still bears some indications of the threefold celebration. For example, the antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah at Lauds ties all three together as actions of Christ claiming his bride, the Church:
Hodie caelesti sponso iuncta est Ecclesia, quoniam in Iordane lavit Christus eius crimina; currunt cum muneribus magi ad regales nuptias; et ex aqua facta vino laetantur convivae.
Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan's waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.

Similarly, the antiphon for the Magnificat at Second Vespers has:
Tribus miraculis ornatum diem sanctum colimus: hodie stella magos duxit ad praesepium; hodie vinum ex aqua factum est ad nuptias; hodie in Iordane a Ioanne Christus baptizari voluit, ut salvaret nos, alleluia.
Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.

Today, today, today: the use of the present tense in the English to translate the perfect in the Latin brings out the strangeness to the modern ear. We are accustomed enough to annual commemoration, but the near identification of the feast with the original occurrence seems nonsensical, and the identification of the day of the three events celebrated, which did not coincide in their original occurrence, is stranger still: like celebrating your birthday and wedding anniversary on the same day. (In fact, that's very nearly exactly what the antiphons say we're doing in regard to Christ.)

We operate entirely out of the sense of time as empty and homogeneous. As Charles Taylor describes it, in A Secular Age, "One thing happens after another, and when something is past, it's past. Time placings are consistently transitive. If A is before B and B before C, then A is before C. The same goes if we quantify these relations: if A is long before B, and B long before C, then A is very long before C."

Previous ages, however, saw this secular time as being punctuated by what Taylor calls "higher times". "[H]igher times gather and re-order secular time. They introduce 'warps' and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events which were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked." Thus, for instance, the sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion of Christ "were linked through their immediate contiguous places in the divine plan. They are drawn close to identity in eternity, even though they are centuries (that is, 'aeons' or 'saecula') apart. In God's time there is a sort of simultaneity of sacrifice and Crucifixion. Similarly, Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer's day 1997."

From such a perspective, it makes perfect sense to see these three distinct events in the life of Christ as closely linked--behind the scenes, as it were, via eternity. And similarly to see our celebration of the feast--in faith that Christ remains with us even today--as "taking us there" in a sense, to adore the Christ-child with the magi, to wonder with John at the opening of the clouds and to rejoice with the wedding guests in the choicest wine.