A Reflection on historians looking at religion

Originally posted on July 12, 2021

It is refreshing to get an historian’s perspective on religion. Recently I have been listening to audio books by Elaine Pagels – The Origin of SatanThe Gospel of Thomas and Revelations. Because Pagels is an historian she explores these themes in a way that is so refreshing compared with those who have a theological bent to their interest. She does not seek to interpret in a theological or philosophical way, but only in a historical way.  She has her own spiritual dimension that permits a sympathetic tone, as opposed to an atheistic or materialistic historian who may not see the subtleties of a situation – who may bring a critical judging tone as part of a ‘responsible critique’. Materialistic scholars who presume no validity to religion interpret history of religion through that filter of invalidation. For them religion is a primitive misunderstanding of reality.

I have also recently listened to Jean-Yves Leloup’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Leloup is a theologian, something I discovered only after I had quit the book less than 50% into it. That is an exceptional thing for me to do. I have endured some really bad books to the end. But not with Leloup.  My problem here was that I bought a book on a gospel and what I got was Leloup’s theological opinions – something I have no use for. Had the book’s title been something like “Reflections inspired by ….” I would have given it a wide berth.  I am not saying there is no place for Leloup’s work – just that I have no use for it, and I did not appreciate being misled into buying it.

I have a deep interest in the history of Christianity because it absolutely permeates our culture – for good and ill.  I have been frustrated because so much of what is written is by people who have a theological spin on their thinking – whether as true believers seeking deep understanding or as former believers reconciling themselves with what they have abandoned in terms of faith but have embraced as an intellectual journey.

I am, in a way, a member of the latter camp, though I abandoned the faith very early – around age 6. My father, a staunch Northern Irish Protestant, insisted under the threat of physical chastisement that I attend Sunday school. Once there I settled down and grew quite fond of Jesus. He was a really nice adult amid a turbulence of damaged and unpleasant people – my father being one at the time.

I was then obliged, under a similarly vigorous threat, to attend church. What a miserable bleak place that was.  Compared to the sunlight of Jesus, church was not just a dungeon, but, in my child’s sensibility, a foul and horrid one.  Worse, as my parents (my father in particular) became more involved, I found the church elders to be harsh unloving folk full of egotistical pride. They looked down on the parents of my school friends – people I had found to be loving, kind and generous.

It was many years later I came to acknowledge that behind my intellectual interest in the impact of Christianity on our culture lay a personal need to reconcile the disparity between my Sunday school Jesus and the unloving bleakness of the church experience.

I have come to learn that that is a complex quest shared by many. I am good with that. I am content it is a deep foundation to my inquiry. It seems like a karmic burden for our culture – to make sense of that disparity.

Being reacquainted with Pagels has renewed my curiosity about the so-called Gnostic gospels.  I am relieved that there is a good historical mind examining them. Their value is that they can shed some insight into the depth and complexity of thought generated in the formative stages of Christianity. I am sensing already a clarity that so contrasts against the comparative muddiness of the canonical gospels. It’s that disparity of my childhood being triggered. But it also speaks to a deeper question – about the tradition of non-conformity that has accompanied the evolution of our culture.

Now that would make an extraordinary historical inquiry! But for now, let’s focus on a remarkable historical inquiry.  

This brings me to historian Larry Siedentop whose masterwork Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism [2014] I am revisiting after a break of nearly 7 years. I read it in full at the time. It profoundly influenced me, so the return is to re-inspire my thinking. Coming back to a work after some years is always an interesting experience. The book is even more remarkable on the second reading.

Siedentop has achieved an astonishing feat. He has provided a lucid argument for how our present sense of the individual has evolved through the medium of Christianity as it infused into the European psyche.

Note that I say the medium of Christianity, not through Christianity itself. This is an important distinction to make. It is impossible to know, absent the emergence of Christianity, how that evolution might otherwise have happened. But that does not mean Christianity ‘owns’ the message; and should be applauded for developing it – though some expression of gratitude might be appropriate in some measure. However, let us also be perfectly clear that Christians have also opposed and impeded any notion of ‘liberalism’ (and individuality) for the span of the faith’s existence. If we see it as an evolutionary impetus and Christianity became the transmitter for a time, we will better appreciate the significance of that evolutionary impulse. Let’s not confuse the medium for the message.

Siedentop’s narrative begins in pre-Christian pagan cultures to set the scene for his argument. He does not attempt a pre-history, but that does not mean that the impetus toward individualism did not begin long before in the great human revolutions of developing agriculture and cities (the beginning of ‘civilization’). That does not mean, also, that individualism, or liberalism, as we know both, are the apex of that evolutionary impulse.

Siedentop convincingly shows that Christianity was a transformative force in European lands as the European culture evolved following the fall of the Roman Empire.

I was deeply involved with European paganism for quite some time from the mid 1970s. That meant that I accepted the assertion that Christianity had repressed the traditional ways; and was the enemy. While there was certainly intentional suppression of pagan beliefs, that was not the whole story. Christianity was also voluntarily accepted by pagans for a variety of reasons.

The idea that Christianity was the enemy was hard to surrender. It felt good to belong to a minority struggling to revive a repressed tradition that had a deeper respect for the natural world. As one who had abandoned the faith, I had no desire to look at it in a kindly manner.

There is no reason to imagine that Christianity, as the medium of the message, is ergo inherently virtuous. As a faith it did commit deep sins against human dignity. It continues to do so. My suspicion is that all media of transmission of evolutionary impulses are, from a certain perspective, good and bad at the same time. None is wholly good or wholly bad.

Siedentop makes the very clear point that Christianity was the only game in town at a time when communities once subject to Rome were in dire need of good men (at the time it was pretty much only men) with honour, learning and sensibility. The brought the good and the bad of the faith with them. Open non-conformists would have had no access to the same networks, resources. or status of the Church.

Christians like to claim these good men as their own, but, in fact, they would have flourished in any faith environment, precisely because they transcended the constraints of theology and dogma through a compassionate understanding that their roles were to serve the community. Hence, they prevailed through corruption, hypocrisy, and folly to do genuine and enduring good.

This is true of any culture or organization. There are good people who shine under what might be a tainted brand. But they are not the brand, only its working passengers.

I think Siedentop has written one of the most important books on the roots of our culture that will ever be written. Oddly, it seems little known among academics whose core business is religion. That is, I think, because there is nothing in the title that suggests the content. They seem to be coming to it late. Fair enough. It is a book on an aspect of the history of European culture. It is not a history of Christianity as such – but the faith got into the historian’s headlights, because what he was pursuing flowed through it.

How did you get to be who you are? You will understand yourself far better when the reading is done. You will understand your culture far better too. Almost by accident, you will also understand Christianity better. That does not mean that you will like it any more or less. I think also the book offers an insight into the function of religion that you will get only from an historian.

What it means to be an individual is complex. I think that evolutionary impulse has long jumped the Christian ship and is now ranging in our culture in ways that are both good and toxic. It has a long way yet to travel, and Siedentop has illuminated just a portion of its journey.

Individuality is a two-edged sword. What we value these days is but a stage on a developmental journey. We presently value individuality, but not self-awareness – at least not sufficiently. The self-aware individual is in contrast with the obedient and conforming. This is also the disparity of the faith.

Seek out the works of good historians of any spiritual tradition if you want to get a sound appreciation of its nature and character.

I highly recommend Inventing the Individual. Here’s a link to Amazon, which I include only because some may prefer the accessibility of the ebook version. Otherwise please support local independent booksellers.

Footnote: As I repost this I have just started listening to The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age by James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg, published in 1999. It’s a kind of materialist’s version of the same theme of individualism – and, in a way, the next stage in the evolutionary path described by Siedentop. I am keen to see where this take me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *