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.

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