Thursday, April 1, 2010

Religious transformations

In his study of the Christian suppression of paganism, Ramsey MacMullan sets out how Christianity, originally very much a religion of the Word, came to incorporate elements from paganism. In the light of that, it is worth noting that one view of the Reformation was that it was a revolt against pagan survivals in Christianity. Particularly given the Reformers’ overwhelming focus on the Word. To put it another way, the original process of Christianisation was to add the pagan sense of "sensuous immanence" to the Christian notion of the Transcendent Word. The Reformation sought to take the pagan "sensuous immanence" out again so as to put the focus back on the Transcendent Word: something greatly assisted by the advent of printing. (And their criticism of Catholicism as engaging in "idolatry" had some genuine force to it.)

Which also makes, in the current day, the Salafi textual purist reformers in Islam the equivalents of the Protestants, not the Islamic modernisers. The latter, whose Reformation era equivalents were liberal humanists such as Erasmus, seem to be doing about as well in much of contemporary Islam as the liberal humanists did in C16th Europe. (The liberal humanists did better a few centuries latter, but only after much mayhem and murder, the explosion in knowledge about the globe and the arrival of the first stages of modern science.)

The Pentecostal movement—the most successful social movement of the last 100 years—represents an attempt to go back to the early Christian movement as lived experience. But, of course, one can never really go back: history has happened. Thus Pentecostalism incorporates aspects of public experience and open demonstration that are less likely to have been an element of Christian experience prior to Constantine.

It is worth considering MacMullen’s analysis in the light of the Hindu response to the Buddhist challenge. The Vedic religion of India experienced much the same challenge from Buddhism as paganism did from Christianity, with Ashoka playing a very similar role to Constantine. Yet Buddhism ultimately failed in India because, unlike paganism, the Vedic tradition was able to “re-invent” itself into that set of accretions we call “Hinduism”.

It fought off the Buddhist challenge in India by acquiring doctrine and elevating sacred texts (the Mahabharahta, especially the Bhagavad Gita, and Ramayana), including building on and extending the already existing Upanishads. In other words, it became more intellectually serious and coherent. Helped by the fact that the Maurya and Gupta Empires did not have the institutional depth, continuity or dominance of the Roman Empire in the classical world while the Brahmin priests became lawgivers in a situation of weak and ephemeral states: though that itself required a coherent intellectual structure to work with. In other words, a resurgent Hinduism was able to grab the institutional high ground: perhaps aided by the fact that Buddhist was less exclusory, and so less ruthless, than Christianity—Japan provides an instructive example in this with Buddhism’s generally harmonious co-existence with Shinto. Being less exclusory also allowed elements of Buddhism to be incorporated into Hinduism even more smoothly than Christianity absorbed elements of paganism.

Yet Buddhism did triumph in the rest of the Hindu world—South East Asia. Possibly aided by the fact that Hindu traditions were a weaker export when separated such distances from totemic geographical features and Brahmin centres.

Either way, paganism never put together the sort of intellectual challenge to Christianity that Hinduism managed to do to Buddhism. Perhaps the works of Homer—no matter what their poetic power—just did not provide enough to work with: after all, Christianity won out against Nordic paganism too. Possibly also the proto-scientific outlook of a Pliny, Plutarch or Plotinus et al was not a basis for religious resistance. Hence Christian dominance of the solitary Roman state was never effectively challenged.

Contemporary parallels
Thus MacMullen’s disturbing, but well-documented and judicious study, reveals not only the process of Christianisation of the Roman world, but also throws light on other periods of religious challenge and transformation. One of which we are also living through.
MacMullen points to the massive increase in imperial bureaucracy prior to Constantine as undermining a separate, elite, intellectual culture by creating a large, literate, but less educated, social layer which was more “populist” and “low brow”. Likely so, but there is another way to consider the effects of bureaucraticisation.

The massive increase in imperial bureaucracy created a large layer of literate folk for whom belief was about status and career but who were not paid—still less encouraged—to exercise independent judgement. Typically, they were more about making processes work than operating any independent structure—a business or an estate—in a cosmopolitan empire. This was in marked contrast to how the early Empire worked. Under the early Empire—lacking a large bureaucracy—officials were more independent and more embedded in a commercial, trading society.

A Pliny, Plutarch or Plotinus—with their empirical and sceptical outlook grounded in philosophy and classical learning—thus represented a very different world of social judgement than the Late Empire imperial bureaucrats. MacMullen repeatedly notes the gap between the independent scepticism of a Pliny, Plotinus or Plutarch from what literate folk produced in the Christian Empire. Certainly, there was a change in mentality but there was also a change in social structures and in the forms and pattern of judgement: MacMullen notes that the change in underlying mentality predates Christianisation and ties it to the bureaucratisation. Even those who adhered to the classical heritage often did so with a isolation to what was happening around them that seems hard for us to credit: as with the C5th Romano-Gallic scholars and aristocrats that Eileen Power dissects.

Bureaucratisation meant that the literate mental universe was less and less about judgement where one dealt in a practical way with consequences, where one sought solutions for problems whose consequences were direct. Instead, it was more and more about correct processes and conformity. Christianity, with its doctrinal focus and concern for salvation (a consequence not of this world), fitted right in.

Such cognitive conformity encourages decision-making that is more and more self-referential. Now, consider our current circumstances. We live in an age of huge government and educational bureaucracies. We can see much the same processes of belief-as-status markers and opinion conformity going on: particularly with the spread of green progressivism, whose concerns are often not much more tied to anything genuinely measurable than salvation. We see the same turning away from science, with new forms of credulism.

Including a decline in the status of classical study and of the inheritance from the past generally. (It does not seem implausible that a decline in classical study means an increase in credulism, as it undermines the ability to form and use an intellectual framework critical of whatever are the current enthusiasms.)

Maybe those of us who admire the soaring edifice of science, who take a sceptical view of fashionable enthusiasms and who respect the heritage of our civilisation are as much voices in eclipse in the face of the “green religion” as any educated pagan classicist unable to believe that those superstitious Christians were the future: centuries and centuries of it as it proved to be. Though perhaps these trends apply more so in Europe than in the Antipodes or (particularly) the US.

Ramsay MacMullen’s deeply informative study is not only disturbing about the origins of our civilisation, it raises disturbing possibilities about its future.

ADDENDA I have amended the first paragraph to include the point about the effect of printing and the tension between transcendence and immanence.

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