I was brought up a secular, Reform Jew, which means I didn’t know Aleph from Bet. I knew nothing, and therefore I cared nothing. My father cared culturally, but that’s all. So when I came home from Africa, I thought to myself, there’s this incredible oral tradition in Ghana, passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, for thousands of years. Don’t I have something like that? I’m a member of the oldest group of human beings still known as a group that managed to cohere enough to survive – and I know nothing about it. So I started studying at Lincoln Square Synagogue in midtown Manhattan, an Orthodox temple, that had an incredible adult-education program for the likes of me – and I asked whether they would teach a course in biblical Hebrew, and they said sure, and they brought a professor down from Yeshiva University to teach that, and I studied the weekly portion – I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a weekly portion and commentaries thereon.
So this whole world opened up for me – it was 1975, at about the same time as I met my wife, Beryl, and so all of this sort of came together and it did occur to me – isn’t it curious that I had to go to Ghana to go back to my own traditions because I think if you understand any historical group, or any other religion for that matter, in any detail, then you’ll be able to approach another one with more understanding. So the answer to your question is yes. The longest yes you’ve ever heard.
Alexander Zubatov tries to rescue the term “Cultural Marxism” in this post, and I don’t think he succeeds. Now, he might succeed in defending some users of the term from some of the charges Samuel Moyn makes here, but that’s a different matter (and one I won’t take up here). I simply want to argue that the term ought to be abandoned.
Here’s Zubatov’s definition:
So what is cultural Marxism? In brief, it is a belief that cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures, so we must scrutinize and judge all culture and ideas based on their relation to power.
The problem here, put as succinctly as I can put it, is that you can take this view of culture without being a Marxist, and you can be a Marxist without taking this view of culture.
Taking the latter point first: in The German Ideology Marx and Engels state quite clearly that there is a relationship between the art that is produced at a given time and place and the overall character of that time and place:
Raphael’s work of art depended on the flourishing of Rome at that time, which occurred under Florentine influence, while the works of Leonardo depended on the state of things in Florence, and the works of Titian, at a later period, depended on the totally different development of Venice. Raphael as much as any other artist was determined by the technical advances in art made before him, by the organization of society and the division of labour in his locality, and, finally, by the division of labour in all countries with which his locality had intercourse. Whether an individual like Raphael succeeds in developing his talent depends wholly on demand, which in turn depends on the division of labour and the conditions of human culture resulting from it.
But notice that there is a lot more going on here than “underlying power structures.” Marx and Engels are making a rather commonsensical point, which is that the history and social organization of Florence meant that the work produced in it would (of course!) be different than the work produced at the same time in a society such as that of Venice. They are implying that those who really want to understand a work of art will make themselves familiar with the wide range of circumstances that form a given culture, only some of which are political or economic. Certain “technical advances in art” — the use of varying pigments, for instance — might arise in a given place less because of the economic conditions than because of a particular artist’s ingenuity.
To be sure, many later Marxists would get highly agitated by Marx and Engels’s use of the word “determined” in the passage just quoted. But a decade after The German Ideology, in an appendix to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx would clarify this point:
As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society, nor do they therefore to the material substructure, the skeleton as it were of its organisation. For example the Greeks compared with modern [nations] …. It is even acknowledged that certain branches of art, e.g., the epic, can no longer be produced in their epoch-making classic form after artistic production as such has begun; in other words that certain important artistic formations are only possible at an early stage in the development of art itself.
Marx believed that capitalism was an advance over feudalism, which was in turn an advance over more primitive forms of political organization; that did not mean that he thought Benjamin Disraeli a superior writer to Homer — or that you could explain Homer’s greatness by invoking the politics of his world. But if you want to understand a given work of art you need to pay attention to what Marx and Engels habitually called its “material conditions.”
So, if we grant that Marx and Engels are Marxists, we must then conclude that Marxists do not necessarily believe that “cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures.” And many later Marxists, including some of the ones Zubatov quotes, go even further in separating the superstructure of cultural production from the economic base. (Georg Lukács, for instance, was taken to task by Bertolt Brecht for writing criticism insufficiently attentive to the base and therefore to the revolutionary imperative: “It is the element of capitulation, of withdrawal, of utopian idealism which still lurks in Lukács’s essays and which he will undoubtedly overcome, that makes his work, which otherwise contains so much of value, unsatisfactory; for it gives the impression that what concerns him is enjoyment alone, not struggle, a way of escape, rather than a march forward.”)
Moreover, the one figure who did the most to consolidate the idea that all culture is deeply implicated in the “underlying power structures,” the power-knowledge regime, is Michel Foucault, and there has always been the suspicion on the academic Left that Foucault is actually a conservative.
It is equally clear that one can believe that an advocate “for the persecuted and oppressed must attack forms of culture that reinscribe the values of the ruling class, and disseminate culture and ideas that support ‘oppressed’ groups and ‘progressive’ causes,” without endorsing any of the core principles of Marx’s system. (There are forms of conservatism and Christianity that are as fiercely critical of the ruling class as any Marxist, while having no time for dialectical materialism or communism.)
I am not convinced by Moyn’s claim that there is something strongly antisemitic about the contemporary use of the term “Cultural Marxism” — though I’d be interested to hear him develop that argument at greater length. I tend to see there term deployed in the classic Red Scare mode of the McCarthy era: in some circles, now as then, there’s no quicker and easier way to discredit an idea than to call its proponents Commies. And that’s the work that the “Marxism” half of “cultural Marxism” does.
My friend Tim Larsen has written an absolutely fascinating brief biography of John Stuart Mill. (It appears in the Oxford Spiritual Lives series, of which Tim is also the editor.) Everyone knows that Mill had little time for or interest in religion, and that his father James Mill, aide-de-camp to that great enemy of faith Jeremy Bentham, was even more hostile than JSM himself. Given JSM’s secular and rationalist upbringing, it cannot be surprising that, as he put it, “I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something which in no way concerned me. It did not seem to me more strange that English people should believe what I did not, than that the men I read of in Herodotus should have done so.”
However, as Tim shows convincingly, this statement is seriously misleading to the point of being simply untrue. The same must be said for the familiar family story. James Mill was a licensed preacher and had turned to the life of a writer and public intellectual only after failing to get the kind of pastoral position he thought he was qualified for — a fact he carefully hid from his children — and probably didn’t become a complete unbeliever until he was in his mid-forties, by which point JSM was already a ten-year-old, or older, prodigy. James’s wife Harriet was a Christian, each of their nine children was baptized in the Church of England, and probably only two of them (JSM and his youngest sibling George Grotesque) departed in any significant way from standard-issue Victorian religion. JSM grew up learning not only the Bible but the worship of the Church of England. Nothing about that religion was strange to him.
Moreover, Tim also demonstrates that throughout the course of his life JSM held to a minimal but stable theology, which he summarizes thus:
Even from a scientific point of view and without any intuitive sense or direct experience of the divine, there is still sufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion that God probably exists; God is good, but not omnipotent; the life and sayings of Christ are admirable and deserve our reverence; the immortality of the soul or an afterlife are possible but not certain; humanity’s task is to co-labour with God to subdue evil and make the world a better place; the affirmations in the previous points such as that God exists and is good cannot be proven, but it is still a reasonable act to appropriate these religious convictions imaginatively not he basis of hope.
(One of the most interesting parts of Tim’s book is his exploration of the potent role “hope” played in Mill’s moral and intellectual lexicon.) There is much more than I might comment on, especially Mill’s alliances with evangelical Christians in his campaign for the rights of women — his rationalist friends were generally cold to this idea — and the interestingly varied religious beliefs of his family, but I will just strongly suggest that you read the book. Its subtitle is “A Secular Life,” and JSM’s life was indeed secular, but not in a modern sense. As Tim puts it, in the Victorian era, even for atheists “the sea of faith was full and all around.”
There’s a general principle that underlies yesterday’s posts about the Catholic Church’s current problems, and it’s this: The more time people spend on social media, the more prone they become to recency bias, and especially the form of recency bias that inclines us to believe that what has just happened is far more important that it really is.
Everyone everywhere is prone to recency bias, but I think we are more prone to it than any society in history because our media are so attentive to the events of Now, and we are so immersed in those media that anything that happened more than a week or so ago is consigned to the dustbin of history. The big social-media companies function as what I have called the Ministry of Amnesia, and the result is that we lack temporal bandwidth. Unless we work hard to cultivate that temporal bandwidth, we won’t have the “personal density” to resist the amnesia-producing forces that make us think that whatever happens today is more important than anything that has ever happened.
Increasingly, I think, the people who rule our society understand how all this works, and no one understands it better than Donald Trump. Trump knows perfectly well that his audience’s attachment to the immediate is so great that he can make virtually any scandal disappear from the public mind with three or four tweets. And the very journalists who most want to hold Trump accountable are also the most vulnerable to his changing of the subject. He’s got them on a string. They cannot resist the tweets du jour.
This tyranny of the immediate has two major effects on our political judgment. First, it disables us from making accurate assessments of threats and dangers. We may, for instance, think that we live in a time of uniquely poisonous social mistrust and open hostility, but that’s only because we have forgotten what the Sixties and early Seventies were like.
Second, it inclines us to forget that the greatest of social changes tend to happen, as Edward Gibbon put it, insensibly. Even when they seem sudden, it is almost always case that the suddenness is merely a very long gradual transformation finally bearing fruit. There’s a famous moment in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” the man replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” But the “suddenly” happened because he was previously insensible to the “gradually.” Likewise, events are always appearing to us with extreme suddenness — but only because we are so amnesiac that we have failed to discern the long slow gradual forces that made this moment inevitable.
And so we float on, boats with the current, borne forward ceaselessly into an ever-surprising future.
I write these words on the day following the death of Senator John McCain, and I find myself thinking about one particular moment in McCain’s long and varied career. When he was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, having been so deprived of food that his weight dropped to 105 pounds, having been beaten regularly, having been thrown into solitary confinement, he one day found himself offered the possibility of freedom. His father had recently been named Commander of the U.S. forces in the Vietnamese theater, and his captors understood that releasing the young man would likely be a public-relations boon for them, an open declaration of their magnanimity. McCain refused — unless the men who had been captured with him were also released with him. This demand went unmet, and McCain not only remained in prison, he was also subjected to intensified beatings and torture so severe that for the rest of his life he would be unable to lift his arms over his head (as was often noted, he always had to have someone around to comb his hair, because he couldn’t). He waited another five years for his release.
All of which leads me to a thought, and a question. Several decades after McCain’s torture a man who had taken great care to avoid serving in the military, and who indeed had never done an hour’s work of public service, denied that McCain was a hero, mocked him for having been captured, cited McCain’s experience as proof that torture “works” — and in spite of such monstrous perversion of spirit was elected President of the United States with the overwhelming support of the very people most likely to say that they “support our troops.” How did this become possible?
The answer is: Gradually and then suddenly. We all saw the “suddenly.” But we have not thought nearly as carefully, as rigorously, as we should about the “gradually.” It’s too late to avert Trump, of course. But we damn well better be asking ourselves what else is happening gradually that will spring upon us with shocking suddenness if we don’t develop more temporal bandwidth and personal density. And do it now.
What I really am, by vocation and avocation, is a historian of ideas, and when you’ve been a historian of ideas for several decades you’re bound to notice how a certain vocabulary can take over an era — and not always in a good way. Consider for instance the period of over half the 20th century in which Freudian language completely dominated humanistic discourse, despite the fact that it had no empirical support whatever and was about as wrong-headed as it is possible for a body of ideas to be. Some tiny number of people flatly rejected it, a rather larger group enthused over it, and the great majority accepted it as part of their mandatory mental furniture, like having a coffee table or refrigerator in your house. (“It’s what people do, dear.”) Eventually it passed not because it had been discredited — it had never been “credited” in the first place — but because people got tired of it.
This exhaustion of a vocabulary happens more and more quickly now thanks to the takeover of intellectual life by a university committed to novelty in scholarship. But that’s a topic for another day.
Anyway, when you do this kind of work you develop — or you damn well ought to develop — an awareness that many of our vocabularies are evanescent because of their highly limited explanatory power. You see, in a given discipline or topic area, one vocabulary coming on as another fades away, and you don’t expect the new one to last any longer than the previous one did. I think this makes it easier for you to consider the possibility that a whole explanatory language is basically useless. But while those languages last people get profoundly attached to them and are simply unwilling to question them — they become axioms for their users — which means that conversations cease to be conversations but rather turn into endlessly iterated restatements of quasi-religious conviction. “Intersecting monologues,” as Rebecca West said.
Often when I’m grading essays, or talking to my students about their essays, I notice that a certain set of terms are functioning axiomatically for them in ways that impede actual thought. When that happens I will sometimes ask, “How would you describe your position if you couldn’t use that word?” And I try to force the same discipline on myself on those occasions (too rare of course) when I realize that I am allowing a certain set of terms to become an intellectual crutch.
Moreover, I have come to believe that when a conversation gets to the “intersecting monologue” stage, when people are just trotting out the same limited set of terms in every context, that says something about the inadequacy of the vocabulary itself. Not just its users but the vocabulary itself is proving resistant to an encounter with difference and otherness. And that’s a sign that it has lost whatever explanatory power it ever had.
I think that’s where we are in our discourse of gender. And that’s why I am strongly inclined to think that there’s nothing substantial behind that discourse, it’s just a bundle of words with no actual explanatory power. And even if that’s not the case, the only way we can free ourselves from bondage to our terministic axioms is to set them aside and try to describe the phenomena we’re interested in in wholly other terms.
This, by the way, is the origin of all great metaphors, the “metaphors we live by”: the ones that make a permanent mark on culture are the ones that arise from an awareness of how our conventional terms fail us. Those coinages are (often desperate) attempts to throw off the constricting power of those terms. It was when Darwin realized that the explanatory language of natural history had reached a dead end that he coined “natural selection,” a term whose power is so great that it is hard for most people to realize that it is after all a metaphor. Our whole discourse of gender needs Darwins who can’t bear those constrictions any more and decide to live without them. And the first term that should go, as I suggested to you earlier, is “gender” itself.
Careful writers of narrative, whether that narrative is fictional or historical or journalistic, will, like composers, work with themes and variations on those themes. For example, consider Edward Gibbon: reading his account of Rome’s decline and fall a few years ago, I noticed his fondness for a particular adverb: insensibly. “It was by such institutions that the nations of the empire insensibly melted away into the Roman name and people.” “We have already seen that the active and successful zeal of the Christians had insensibly diffused them through every province and almost every city of the empire.” “The heart of Theodosius was softened by the tears of beauty; his affections were insensibly engaged by the graces of youth and innocence: the art of Justina managed and directed the impulse of passion; and the celebration of the royal nuptials was the assurance and signal of the civil war.”
Why does Gibbon like this word so much? Is it just a verbal quirk? I think not: rather, it embodies a key theme of the whole history, which is that major transformations in the life of the Roman empire happened slowly, gradually, and without anyone noticing them: people were insensible to the changes, and by the time anyone figured out what had happened, it was too late for a reversal of course. And this insensibility affects political structures, social and religious developments, military cultures, and the hearts of emperors alike; this particular theme has many and wide-ranging variations.
The reader who notices this word, then, notices a vital, not a trivial, point about the story Gibbon tells.
If a man in the fullness of his days, at the end of his life, can pass on the wisdom of his experience to those who grow up after him; if what he has learned in his youth, added to but not discarded in his maturity, still serves him in his old age and is still worth teaching the then young — then his was not an age of revolution, not counting, of course, abortive revolutions. The world into which his children enter is still his world, not because it is entirely unchanged, but because the changes that did occur were gradual and limited enough for him to absorb them into his initial stock and keep abreast of them. If, however, a man in his advancing years has to turn to his children, or grandchildren, to have them tell him what the present is about; if his own acquired knowledge and understanding no longer avail him; if at the end of his days he finds himself to be obsolete rather than wise — then we may term the rate and scope of change that thus overtook him, “revolutionary.”
— Hans Jonas, from Philosophical Essays (1974), p. 46
In her book The Craft of Thought, Mary Carruthers identifies the purpose of memorization in medieval intellectual culture:
The orator’s “art of memory” was not an art of recitation and reiteration but an art of invention, an art that made it possible for a person to act competently within the “arena” of debate (a favorite commonplace), to respond to interruptions and questions, or to dilate upon the ideas that momentarily occurred to him, without becoming hopelessly distracted, or losing his place in the scheme of his basic speech. That was the elementary good of having an “artificial memory.” …
I repeat: the goal of rhetorical mnemotechnical craft was not to give students a prodigious memory for all the information they might be asked to repeat in an examination, but to give an orator the means and wherewithal to invent his material, both beforehand and — crucially — on the spot. Memoria is most usefully thought of as a compositional art. The arts of memory are among the arts of thinking, especially involved with fostering the qualities we now revere as “imagination” and “creativity.”
Today people will tell you that memorization is the enemy of creativity; these medieval thinkers understood that precisely the opposite is true: the more you have memorized the greater will be your powers of invention.
I longed for the loan of the Time Machine — a contraption with its saddle and quartz bars that was plainly a glorification of the bicycle. What a waste of this magical vehicle to take it prying into the future, as had the hero of the book! The future, dreariest of prospects! Were I in the saddle I should set the engine Slow Astern. To hover gently back through centuries (not more than thirty of them) would be the most exquisite pleasure of which I can conceive.
— Evelyn Waugh, from the first page of A Little Learning
In The Solitudes, the first volume of John Crowley’s Aegypt series, the series’ protagonist Pierce Moffett reflects:
He had the idea that not many children had been conceived in the year of his own conception, most potential fathers being then off to war, only those with special disabilities (like Pierce’s own) being left to breed. He was too young to be a beatnik; later, he would find himself too old, and too strictly reared, to be a success as a hippie.
Pierce was born in 1942 — the same year as John Crowley himself, whom he does not in other obvious respects resemble — which means that he would have been a child when the beatniks emerged, but well into adulthood when the Era of the Hippie began. Pierce was therefore born between two possibilities of rebellion against bourgeois conventionality, possibilities at which he could look longingly but into which he could never fully enter.
Thomas Pynchon is five years older than the fictional Pierce Moffett and the nonfictional John Crowley, but in his introduction to Slow Learner, a collection of his early short stories, he describes precisely the same experience. When he returned to university (Cornell) after spending a couple of intermission years in the Navy, he found that he and his classmates “were at a transition point, a strange post-Beat passage of cultural time…. Unfortunately there were no more primary choices for us to make. We were onlookers: the parade had gone by and we were already getting everything secondhand, consumers of what the media of the time were supplying us.“ The Beats had faded, but their commodified leftovers could be picked up at the local five-and-dime — or, by proxy, on TV.
So “when the hippie resurgence came along ten years later,“ Pynchon’s primary feeling was one of “nostalgia”: nostalgia for something he never quite had, and at his age at the time (early 30s) could no longer grasp. He was again an onlooker.
For Tom Wolfe (born 1931) in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, observing the hippies’ world produced a mocking disgust; for Joan Didion (born 1934) in Slouching Towards Bethelehem something more like bemused contempt, leavened by occasional moments of gentle envy. But for Thomas Pynchon and Pierce Moffett and, I think, John Crowley the feeling is more wonderment at a vast world of possibility — possibility for the hippies, but not, alas for those condemned by their age to watch the marvelous parade from the sidelines.
Many readers of both Crowley and Pynchon find their obvious affection for the Sixties hard to swallow, but that’s because we know how it all turned out. The utopian or millenarian hopes of the era — the belief that the Age of Aquarius was being ushered in (Pierce, a historian, keeps telling people that they’re a few hundred years off, though he may be wrong about that) — seem comical in retrospect. Bell-bottom jeans, tie-dyed t-shirts, Wavy Gravy, bathetically pseudo-visionary art by Peter Max….
And whatever elements of it tapped into something genuinely powerful — well, there were people who knew how to commodify that and to do so more thoroughly than those hidden persuaders of the Fifties could have dreamed of. (A point to which I shall return.)
But those bedazzled onlookers like Pynchon and Crowley didn’t know that at the time. It could have worked out differently … could it not?
The great theme of Crowley’s Aegypt is: “There is more than one history of the world.” The past, as well as the future, is a garden of forking paths. Here’s how Pierce explains that theme, about which he hopes to write:
“It’s as though,” he said, “as though there had once upon a time been a wholly different world, which worked in a way we can’t imagine; a complete world, with all its own histories, physical laws, sciences to describe it, etymologies, correspondences. And then came a big change in all of them, a big change, bound up with printing, and the discoveries of Copernicus and Kepler, and the Cartesian and Baconian ideals of mechanistic and experimental science. The new sciences were hugely successful; bit by bit they scrubbed away all the persisting structures of the old science; they even scrubbed away the actually very strange and magical way the world appeared to men like Kepler and Newton and Bruno. The whole old world we once inhabited is like a dream, a dream we forgot on waking, even though, as dreams do, it lingered on into all-awake thinking; and even now it lingers on, all around our world, in our thought, so that every day in little ways, little odd ways, we think like prescientific men, magicians, Pythagoreans, Rosicrucians, without knowing we do so.”
And the emergence of those new sciences changed not only the future — the future they would bequeath to us — but what preceded them. The world of the magicians and astrologers and mystics, of John Dee and Giordano Bruno and Paracelsus and all the disciples of thrice-great Hermes and the wisdom he learned from ancient Aegypt, not only disappeared but became retroactively false. Until the Cartesian moment magic worked and always had; after the Cartesian moment magic didn’t work and never had. The paths fork both ahead and behind.
But if the world can be changed in such a way that the validity of magic is erased from its past as well as its future, might it not possibly change again? Might not the 1960s and 1970s have been another decisive moment, another fork in the path, the initiation of a true novus ordo seclorum?
Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo:
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.
These are the possibilities of that moment as discerned by Crowley and Pynchon, and because they discerned those possibilities then they have remained ever since deeply attracted to the ideals of that era. Had the hippies won, our histories of thought would feature John Dee where they now feature Francis Bacon, and Giordano Bruno where they now feature Descartes; and who knows what the shape of our social order might be?
But the hippies didn’t win. What won instead is the Californian ideology. And if you want to picture the moment when the victory of something genuinely “spiritual” and non-commodified and non-panoptic became impossible, when the fusion of fake spirituality with commerce and governmental control ascended its throne, here you go:
There’s an argument on the Wikipedia page for the story of Dick Whittington and his cat about whether young Whittington could have heard the ringing of the Bow bells from Holloway. Sometimes I love Wikipedia. Also, that delightful story is a rare example of a genuine folktale arising almost in modern times – possibly as late as the early 17th century – and based on a well-known historical figure.
There are impulses at work in the Church, on both the right and the left, a desire to sweep away the tired old past and to start over again. This desire is founded on an illusory hope. The demands of “justice,” “love,” or “truth” will not sustain the weight pressed upon them as the single interpretive tool to order the Church’s life. These demands cannot trump orthodoxy, or the rich experience of the Church in the past, which is the context of orthodoxy. History is where God works and reveals his will. Those who want to sweep away the mistakes of the past by escape from it are more likely to perpetuate those same mistakes, in the very process of wielding their own theological and pastoral “broom.” The history of the Church is littered with examples; of course, you have to have a commitment to history to notice.
So today I want to speak about why we chose to remove these four monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, but also how and why this process can move us towards healing and understanding of each other.
So, let’s start with the facts. The historic record is clear. The Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal—through monuments and through other means—to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.
— Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans. Not “the wrong side of history,” that fatuous and overused phrase: the wrong side of humanity.
The conviction that everything that happens on earth must be comprehensible to man can lead to interpreting history by commonplaces. Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us — neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality — whatever it may be.
— Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
The city of Liège, Belgium in 1914, under siege, and in 2009. When, in August 1914, the German armies decided to cut through Belgium on their way to France, thereby mocking the treaty Germany had signed to protect the integrity of Belgium, they expected no resistance. They got resistance.
Their immediate response was to burn a nearby village to the ground, shoot a good many random civilians, and round up Catholic priests and execute them on the totally spurious, invented-on-the-spot grounds that they were spies working against Germany. All that happened on the first day of the German invasion. When those actions did not lead to a Belgian surrender, the Germans sent zeppelins over the city to terror-bomb it into submission.
The notion that the Great War was fought in a relatively civilized way, and that it was only World War II that introduced terror against civilians as an essential element of military strategy, is belied by these first events of the earlier conflict. The German army didn’t continue in this vein simply because it couldn’t: it had limited access to major population centers for the rest of the war. But from the moment the war began the Germans were prepared to destroy anyone who stood in their war, without regard to any other consideration, no matter how time-honored or essential to humanity.
This head depicting the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis is from a colossal statue that stood over 4 metres tall. The statue is thought to be from the Temple of Serapis, a huge sanctuary measuring 101 metres by 78 metres, which once stood in the ancient Egyptian city of Canopus. The impressive remains of this sanctuary were recently discovered by underwater archaeologists led by Franck Goddio.
In this statue, Serapis wears his characteristic headdress, a corn measure known as a kalathos, symbolising abundance and fertility. Alongside his funerary and royal roles, Serapis was worshipped for his healing powers, which according to ancient historians were particularly potent in Canopus. People came from afar to sleep within the temple complex in order to be healed by ‘incubation’, when miraculous cures were delivered in a dream.
The god Serapis is said to have been introduced to Egypt by the ancient Greek ruler Ptolemy I. Serapis was aimed at Greeks living in Egypt and his worship developed where Greek presence was prevailing, notably in Alexandria and Canopus. The popularity of this universal god also flourished outside Egypt in the Greek Mediterranean world, then later in the Roman Empire.
Colossal head of Serapis. Canopus, c. 200 BC. On loan from Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk.
© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
On August 2, 1100, the English king William Rufus was killed by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest, probably in an assassination, possibly by a genuine accident. We really don’t know. In modern times, though, that story developed an unexpected afterlife through the work of a bizarre scholar called Margaret A. Murray (1863-1963). Murray was a distinguished Egyptologist, who developed a grand unified theory of European witchcraft. She argued that the records of witch-trials were not simply fictitious, but actually contained accounts of genuine underground pagan cults that flourished within a notionally Christian Europe.
This theory was not wholly new to her, and she had plenty of predecessors over the previous decades, including feminists like Matilda Joslyn Gage. However, Murray brought the idea to a mass audience. That theory was expressed in Murray’s enormously influential 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and in The God of the Witches (1931). These books inspired countless horror novels, and Murray’s writings are even cited in H. P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu. They also largely inspired the actual creation of the Wicca movement, the supposedly revived witchcraft created by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s. Notionally, that too was a revival of an ancient pagan cult.
Today is the Feast of Saints Basil & Gregory Nazianzen, which reminds me that some years ago I wanted to write a book for the church that took the Cappadocians as our models. I never got beyond the proposal, in part because the editors I talked to weren’t enthusiastic; my idea seemed neither fish nor fowl, too churchy for an intellectual audience and too intellectual for a churchy audience. So I set the idea aside and am not likely, now, to return to it. In lieu of that I’m posting the proposal here.
Heroes. One of my heroes is Paul Farmer. Farmer is a physician who teaches at Harvard, co-edits a journal called Health and Human Rights, and leads an organization he founded called Partners in Health. That last role leads him to spend much of his time in Haiti, Rwanda, and other parts of the world where health care for the poor has traditionally been poor or nonexistent. For a couple of decades now Paul Farmer has done as much as anyone in the world to save the lives of people whom the world in general thinks not worth saving. And key to his devotion is his lifelong Catholic Christian faith.
I have other heroes. Some of them work for Care Net, an organization founded in 1975 by evangelical Christians to provide pregnant women with alternatives to abortion — and to provide counseling and compassionate attention to women who have had abortions. The people of Care Net also share the good news of the Christian gospel with the women whom they serve.
I have at times been in groups of people who know and respect the work of Care Net, but if in those contexts I mention my admiration for the work of Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, I am liable to get some suspicious looks. Paul Farmer’s theology is on the liberal end of the spectrum, as are his politics: for instance, he is a vocal admirer of the Cuban government’s health care system. He has had a book written about him by Tracy Kidder, also a political liberal and a thoroughly secular writer; Sixty Minutes, even, has done an admiring segment on him. He’s the liberal elite’s ideal do-gooder. What does that have to do with Christianity?
In other groups, people join enthusiastically in my praise for Paul Farmer — but become nervous when I mention my admiration for Care Net. They hear of an organization trying to provide women with alternatives to abortion and they think of large photographs of bloody fetuses held aloft by abortion-clinic protestors; they think of reactionaries who want to control women’s bodies and keep them barefoot and pregnant; they think of a conservative evangelical church in thrall to the Republican Party. If they saw the institutional history Care Net provides on its website they would be even more worried: “Care Net was influenced by the evangelical leadership of former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop and Christian apologist, Dr. Francis Schaeffer.”
And yet both Partners in Health and Care Net are pursuing the Biblical mandate to care for the weakest and most helpless among us. In so many ways they are doing the same work, and even are dedicated to the same goal — the preservation and healing of the lives of people made in the image of God. Why must we see them in opposition to each other? (And for all I know they may even see themselves in opposition to each other.) Such an attitude is simply tragic.
And the cause of the tragedy is this: that the categories of American politics determine the way that many American Christians think about ministry, mission, and service. The talking points and platform statements of the two major political parties provide the guidelines that many Christians use to judge things of the Gospel. Simply put, many American Christians have been intellectually formed by our political debates — especially as they are digested and interpreted on television news programs — far more than by immersion in Scripture or the great movements and figures of Christian tradition.
There have of course been attempts to bridge this political gap, primarily through Catholic social teaching. The late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago was particularly associated with the notion of the “seamless garment” of life, the necessarily interwoven character of all attempts to promote human survival and human flourishing. Others have adopted the phrase “consistent life ethic” to indicate much the same emphasis. But often these voices have been ignored because they have been perceived as coming from a particular “side” in the already-existing political debate. (Similar criticisms have been directed against Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics: many a reviewer has commented that God’s politics seems to be indistinguishable from that of recent Democratic Party platforms.) Moreover, these movements tend to be grounded very specifically in Catholic theology, in ways that can be daunting or confusing for people who do not know that tradition well.
What is needed at this moment is a way of approaching these immensely complex yet utterly essential issues that evades our usual and comfortable political categories. We need to be taken out of our own time and place, so that we might see what a real Gospel of Life looks like to Christians who didn’t look much like us, think much like us, or live much like us. We need to travel to Cappadocia during the time of the Church Fathers. There we will find one family who, among themselves, practiced the Gospel of Life in all its fullness.
The Cappadocians. Cappadocia is a region in what is now central Turkey. In the time with which we are concerned, it was an economically and culturally vibrant place. To the north is the district of Pontus and the Black Sea. To the west are the shores of Asia Minor, then dotted with great cities — Ephesus particularly well known to us because of Paul’s visit and letter to the churches there. Due south one would have found Tarsus, Paul’s home town, whose great Mediterranean harbor was even then silting up and landlocking it. To the southeast is Palestine. In the late Roman world, Cappadocia was a great crossroads.
Sometime around the year 270, probably in the Pontus region, a woman was born named Macrina. Later she married — we don’t know her husband’s name — and had children. She was a faithful Christian, which it was not good to be in that time and place, for in the year 303, when Macrina’s son Basil would have been around eight years old, the Roman Emperor Diocletian and his colleagues Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius began issuing a series of repressive edicts aimed directly at the Christians of the empire. Eusebius, the great historian of the early church, who was around forty when the persecutions began, described the situation in this way:
This was the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in March, when the feast of the Saviour’s passion was near at hand, and royal edicts were published everywhere commanding that the churches should be razed to the ground, the Scriptures destroyed by fire, those who held positions of honor degraded, and the household servants, if they persisted in the Christian profession, be deprived of their liberty.
And such was the first decree against us. But issuing other decrees not long after, the Emperor commanded that all the rulers of the churches in every place should be first put in prison and afterwards compelled by every device to offer sacrifice [to the old Roman gods]. Elsewhere in the Empire, particularly in the far west and north, these edicts were enforced half-heartedly or not at all; but in Cappadocia and Pontus the officials pursued Christians with real, and frightening, enthusiasm. Macrina and her family fled into the countryside, probably to the shores of the Black Sea, and waited out the persecutions.
The attempts to suppress Christianity waned over the next few years and were officially ended in 313, when Constantine the Great and his co-emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed religious freedom for Christians. Pontus and Cappadocia were safe again, and Macrina raised her children in the Pontine city of Neocaeserea. Later her son Basil would marry a devout Christian woman named Emmelia — her father had been martyred in the persecutions — and move to Ceasarea, which would become the center of this family’s life. Basil established himself as a teacher of rhetoric and, more important, a lay teacher of the Christian faith, celebrated throughout the city for his wisdom and piety.
Basil the Elder, as he came to be known, and Emmelia went on to have ten children. We know the names of five of them: Macrina, Basil, Gregory, Naucratius, and Peter. We know those five names because all of them became recognized as saints of the church — as did Basil the Elder, Emmelia, and the matriarch Macrina the Elder.
Let us pause to contemplate this for a moment: one family; three generations; eight saints.
What did these people do to earn such lasting fame and praise? Here I will offer just a brief account:
- Macrina the Elder was canonized for her faithfulness in time of persecution;
- Basil the Elder for his powerful and influential teaching;
- Emmelia largely for the extraordinary family she raised, though she may also have had an active role in the ministries of some of her children;
- Macrina the Younger for her teaching of her younger siblings, and as the founder of a community for widows, abandoned women, and orphans;
- Basil, later Basil the Great, for his work as priest, bishop, scholar, defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, champion of the poor and hungry, and founder of the Basileion, the first Christian hospital;
- Gregory, later Gregory of Nyssa, for much the same work as his older brother Basil did, though on slightly less titanic a scale;
- Naucratius, for his holy life as a hermit and as a servant of, especially, the elderly poor;
- Peter, later Peter of Sebaste, for his work as priest, monk, bishop, defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, and as partner with his sister Macrina on behalf of the poor.
It’s all really quite overwhelming, and, when related in detail (as this book will do), deeply moving and encouraging. What’s especially noteworthy for anyone interested in the Gospel of Life is how seamless the family’s garment of service is. This can be seen with particular clarity in the career of Basil, who moved so easily from advocating for the poor in the pulpit to building the first hospital to combatting Arianism and other heresies of the time. It was one Gospel to him — and, I think, to the rest of his family — one unified model of human flourishing in Christ.
In order to understand why the way of life offered by this single Cappadocian family is so important an example for us, we might turn to the thirty-fourth chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Here Ezekiel is lamenting the circumstances that led to the collapse of Israel and the carrying off of its people, including Ezekiel himself, into captivity in Babylon. The fault, he says — or the Lord says through him — lies with the “shepherds,” the elders of Israel. The Lord denounces the shepherds thus:
The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. . . . My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
Several things are noteworthy about this passage: the powerful condemnation of sins of omission, for which most of us tend to excuse ourselves; the opposition of ruling “in force and harshness” — domination — to compassionate care; and especially the bringing together of very different forms of suffering.
There are five categories of sufferers in this passage: the weak, the sick, the injured, the strayed, and the lost. It’s pretty clear that the first three apply in equally literal ways to sheep and to people: the Lord is accusing the elders of Israel of neglecting the physical sufferings of the people. But the remaining two categories have an equally clear metaphorical meaning when applied to people, as they do throughout the prophets (“All we like sheep have gone astray”). The Lord clearly says that the elders of the nation have neglected the spiritual as well as the physical needs of the people — they have been shamefully negligent across the board, obsessed instead with maintaining their own power to rule.
The behavior of the shepherds of Israel is a lamentable inversion, then, of the gospel that our Cappadocian family practiced. What the shepherds “did not” the Cappadocians did, like the two groups Jesus contrasts to each other (“those on his right” and “those on his left”) in Matthew 25, a passage that strongly echoes Ezekiel 34. It is by striving to see ourselves in these two distant mirrors — and not by situating ourselves or others on today’s American political map — that we 21st-century Christians can find our proper roles in Christ’s Kingdom, can find the genuine Gospel of Life.
I plan to narrate the story of this great Cappadocian family immediately after the book’s introduction (which will say in more detail many of the things I say in the opening paragraphs of this proposal). The family’s story is a powerful one, and will provide a host of examples that I can draw on throughout the book.
The Image of God. The next stage will start from a question: What was the biblical-theological model that our Cappadocian family was living out? What were their key principles, their core convictions? (Note that for us, as for Basil and his fellow Catholic bishops, sound orthodox theology and reverence for Scripture are indispensable to our lives in the Kingdom, and properly inseparable from the kind of work usually called “social ministry” or “compassionate ministry” — as though it is neither social nor compassionate to preach to all the story of Christ crucified.) My answer will follow a sequence of propositions that follow from the belief that all of us are made in the image of God. As Gregory of Nazianzus said in his great sermon “On the Love of the Poor,” “Do not despise those who are stretched out on the ground as if they merit no respect…. They bear the countenance of our Savior.”
- To be made in the image of God is to have dominion over creation.
- To be made in the image of God is to be in communion with God and with one another.
- Because we are fallen beings, the image of God is defaced in us, but it is not erased. We still show it imperfectly.
- We sin against the image of God in our neighbors when we fail to see that “they bear the countenance of our Savior,” and try to exert dominion over them instead of embracing communion.
- To follow Christ, to live in him and be conformed to his image, is to have the image of God in us restored.
- We are made in the image of God and yet — sometimes because of sin and sometimes because of the variety of created beings — we are all in some sense weak.
- The Biblical picture of God centers on his compassion for all forms of human weakness.
- Insofar as we are conformed to the image of Christ, we too will exhibit that compassion for weakness.
- And we will do so all the more because we too experience weakness and hope that people who are stronger will have compassion on us.
- To be in communion with one another is to give and receive help appropriate to our weakness — to be blessed through giving and receiving compassionate love.
- To be in communion with one another is to acknowledge that we are many members (organs) of the body of Christ and will therefore pursue different aspects of the one Gospel of Life.
- We are not the primary agents in the economy of love: as the Lord says later in Ezekiel 34, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”
The unpacking of those propositions, and their relation to one another, will occupy more than half of this book.
What to do? The last major stage of the argument will simply ask “What do we do now?” The answer will involve five categories of action:
- Discern the weak among us;
- Identify the different forms of weakness;
- Know our own weaknesses;
- Pray to see the image of God in all other human beings;
- Trust in the strength of the “great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13).
With our hearts encouraged by the example of one great ancient family, and our minds fortified by the theological principles they embraced, and our wills committed to the necessary forms of action, we twenty-first century Christians will be prepared to live out the real, the full, Gospel of Life.
The ancient Greeks saw the Celts as warlike peoples whose strange customs set them apart from the civilised Mediterranean world. Writing around 60–30 BC, Greek historian Diodorus Siculus described Celtic peoples wearing horned helmets into battle.
This helmet was cast into the River Thames over 2,000 years ago, perhaps as an offering to the gods. It was dredged from the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge in the early 1860s. It is the only Iron Age helmet to have ever been found in southern England, and it is the only Iron Age helmet with horns ever to have been found anywhere in Europe. Horns were often a symbol of the gods in different parts of the ancient world. This might suggest the person who wore this was a special person, or that the helmet was made for a god to wear. The helmet is made from sheet bronze pieces held together with many carefully placed bronze rivets. Its swirling decoration may have carried hidden meanings.
Ancient Greek warriors wore less elaborate headgear, like this helmet. Greek writing can still be understood, unlike the enigmatic Celtic designs on the horned helmet.
See these amazing objects in our exhibition Celts: art and identity, until 31 January 2016.
The inability of evangelicals to agree on how slavery should be construed according to Scripture, which all treated as their ultimate religious norm, was in fact connected to the economic individualism of American society. The recourse to arms for civil war did reflect, at the very least, a glaring weakness in republican and democratic polity. From the outside [i.e. in Europe] it was clear that American material interests exerted a strong influence on American theological conclusions. … Foreign commentary makes clear how tightly American religious convictions were bound to general patterns of American life. Only because religious belief and practice had grown so strong before the [Civil War and Slavery] conflict, only because they had done so much to create the nation that went to war, did that conflict result in such a great challenge to religious belief and practice after the war. The theological crisis of the Civil War was that while voluntary reliance on the Bible had contributed greatly to the creation of American national culture, that same voluntary reliance on Scripture led only to deadlock over what should be done about slavery. … The issue for American history was that only two courses of action seemed open when confronting such a deadlock. The first was the course taken in the Civil war, which effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. … The second [course of action] though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War. That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of scripture. The result of following that second course since the Civil War has been ambiguous. In helping to provoke the war and greatly increase its intensity, the serious commitment to Scripture rendered itself ineffective for shaping broad policy in the public arena. In other words, even before there existed a secularization in the United States brought on by new immigrants, scientific acceptance of evolution, the higher criticism of scripture, and urban industrialization, Protestants during the Civil War had marginalized themselves as bearers of religious perspective in the body politic.
To all of us, I believe, in the middle of the twentieth century, the Roman Empire is like a mirror in which we see reflected the brutal, vulgar, powerful yet despairing image of our technological civilization, an imperium which now covers the entire globe, for all nations, capitalist, socialist, and communist, are united in their worship of mass, technique and temporal power. What fascinates and terrifies us about the Roman Empire is not that it finally went smash but that … it managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth or hope.
(What follows is a post I wrote this morning for one of my class blogs, which are private.)
Erasmus is sometimes referred to as Erasmus of Rotterdam, but that’s primarily to distinguish him from his namesake, St. Erasmus of Formia, also known as St. Elmo, patron saint of sailors. (That Wikipedia page also says he’s the patron saint of abdominal pain, whatever that means.) But our Erasmus really wasn’t of Rotterdam at all, even if he was born there. He considered himself to belong to that international group of scholars and writers that would later come to be called the Republic of Letters. His “countrymen” were Thomas More, who happened to live in England, and Aldus Manutius, who happened to live in Venice, and Johannes Frobenius, who happened to live in Switzerland.
Centuries later, as World War II was breaking out, the poet W. H. Auden would write of that same sense of connection with people separated by citizenship in the modern nation-states:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
In contrast to this highly cosmopolitan vision, we should be aware that Machiavelli is much more aware of himself as a citizen of one particular city, Florence, whose greatness he wishes to restore. He is as local and particular as Erasmus is universal and general.
And yet, when Machiavelli was in exile from Florence he wrote of how central to his life was his reading of, his conversation with, the great writers of the past. Here he sounds like the truest possible humanist:
When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me.
Machiavelli was a complicated guy.
Not everyone agreed that gout was a malady, or a bad thing. Some saw it as Nature’s warning, or as a deliverance from worse afflictions (it was better than haemorrhoids, for instance), and had no desire to be cured of it. As this book says, it was often regarded as a life assurance, not a death sentence. Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles II, ‘supposedly offered £1000 to any person who would “help him to the gout”, looking upon it as the only remedy for the distemper in his head, which he feared might in time prove an apoplexy; as in fine it did and killed him’. William Cowper congratulated a friend on contracting the disorder, ‘because it seems to promise us that we shall keep you long’. Hester Piozzi’s husband grew worried and alarmed if his gout did not return regularly.
Besides, gout was very much a mark of status. Lord Chesterfield said it was ‘the distemper of a gentleman, whereas the rheumatism is the distemper of a hackney coachman’. It attacked not only the wealthy but the creative, which meant that no man of letters could afford to be without it. Some thought it was the hallmark of genius, a view obstinately perpetuated by Havelock Ellis. In short, it was an honour to have gout and the phrase ‘the honour of the gout’ was in free use. The authors quote Earl Nugent’s apology to the Duke of Newcastle for failing to wait on him: ‘He received the Honor of His Grace’s card here, where he has been detained by the Honor of the Gout.’ For a person of the lower orders to aspire to the honour of the gout was unthinkable. Artisans and crofters did not know their luck; hard work every day kept uric acid at bay. ‘Live upon sixpence a day – and earn it’ was the cure for gout advocated by the surgeon John Abernethy.
[James] Wood praises [Hilary] Mantel for her “cunning universalism”, a slicker version of CS Lewis’s unchanging human heart. But there are great historical novels that insist on the past’s fundamental difference: William Golding’s The Inheritors, for example. Variations in behaviour in that book are not merely a matter of social constraint, as in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day or Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.
It may be that the historical novel genre is as unjammed with greatness as the crime genre, the science fiction genre, the romance genre and the “literary fiction” genre (come on, On Chesil Beach seemed to be rated by David Cameron and most book reviewers, but precious few readers). I rather suspect that Wood’s frustration is with “historical romance” in the true 19th century sense, rather than any of the novels mentioned above. Whatever differences we have, I always agree with Wood that the great is rare and precious.
Stuart Kelly. I like Kelly’s defense of the historical novel here, in opposition to Wood’s prim condescension, but he seems not to know that Lewis coined the phrase “the doctrine of the Unchanging Human Heart” in order to refute that doctrine. As a shrewd and learned student of the past, Lewis knew that those people didn’t think as we think at all.
Which leads to the chief problem with Hilary Mantel’s novels about Tudor England. Wood likes what he calls the “universalism” of making Thomas Cromwell seem modern, but that’s what’s wrong with the books. Mantel could only pick as her protagonist a figure whom she can plausibly construe — or so she thinks — as rather like a modern educated Englishman: shrewd, skeptical, tolerant when it serves him but ruthless when he needs to be. As Wood points out in his New Yorker review (not online at the moment) of the new book, Mantel seems neither to like nor to understand her “religious” characters, like More and Cranmer. (Operating in the narrow royal and aristocratic world that she does, she doesn’t have to confront someone like Tyndale, which is just as well.) Moreover, while it’s certainly possible that Cromwell was the pure pragmatist she portrays him to be, it’s also possible that his attitudes towards religion were more complex and more interesting.
By making Cromwell her protagonist, the one through whose eyes we see much of what happens in these books, and then making Cromwell so much like herself, Mantel evades the most serious challenge a writer of historical fiction can face: how to make characters vivid and human when they’re not at all like us.
For the early-twenty-first-century literary writer, the primary way that people from the past are “not like us” is in their religious beliefs. Aside from Marilynne Robinson, how many highly-regarded writers today even make an effort to imagine what religious belief might feel like from the inside? It’s odd that James Wood, who has written so intelligently and movingly about the displacement of religion from the center of European high culture, and from his own life, is blind to the problems this neglect poses.
Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.
— Auden’s review of Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture, first printed in The New Republic in 1944.
Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental — the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised-Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity — that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity — and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (See Marcus Aurelius.) …
I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been “humanized,” and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery prayer of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.
If a return to the older method now seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization — there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.
From a letter W. H. Auden wrote to his father in October of 1942, explaining his decision to use a largely contemporary setting for his long poem For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio. I’m working on a critical edition of that poem for Princeton University Press, and goodness, it’s fun.