Religious Studies

Prominent public intellectuals, as opposed to us obscure private ones, often brashly castigate religious thinking.  They may be aware that the vast majority of the world’s population is religious, but there’s  a kind of arrogance that comes with public adulation, I suppose.  I was just reading about the European Middle Ages and I was reminded once again just how seriously religion was taken and how the very foundation of civilization is based on it.  During said Medieval Period everyone knew—note I don’t say “believed”—knew that human beings had eternal souls.  They also knew there were eternal consequences to our actions and therefore correct religion was absolutely essential.  The Enlightenment began to change some aspects of received wisdom, but not all.  Many intellectuals who led the charge still believed in God and Heaven and Hell.

Whenever I consider the sorry state of academic religious studies today, and look at how politics are unfolding, my thoughts turn to history.  Just because we no longer think in a certain way is no reason to forget just how formative religion is to human life.  The Republican Party has cynically accepted this as a means to power.  While leaving left-leaning intellectuals to debate their choices, they roll toward electoral victory.  They acknowledge that people are religious, and that’s what it takes to win their trust.  Where was Dawkins when Brexit was decided?  It may not have been religiously motivated, but nationalism is closely tied to religious thinking.  While religious thought may be gullible it’s not necessarily so, and without those who think religiously there’s no way to a true majority.

I’ve always had more questions than answers, and one of my largest unanswered ones is why prominent public intellectuals don’t think studying religion is important.  Religious thinking isn’t going away just because they say it is.  In fact, the data show exactly the opposite.  The Middle Ages are quite instructive for understanding the way people behave.  Although belief in the religious structures may be eroded, people still want to find a way to continue their impact beyond their earthly lives.  Modern Nimrods are just as concerned with image as religiously motivated Nimrods were.  To understand where we are it’s necessary to look back.  Looking back entails a certain comfort level with ways of thinking that many moderns find embarrassing.  Religion is part of who we are.  Looking around we can see the consequences of denying it. 

Bearing Light

Jeffrey Burton Russell knows a devil of a lot about the Devil. I’ve just finished the third of his five books on the subject, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, and I certainly learned a thing or two. As someone who considers himself an historian of religion, being exposed to a concept over several volumes has a way of making me feel humble. The theme of this series, at least so far, is that the Devil is a conceptual way of dealing with evil in the world. In the days of polytheism a single source of evil wasn’t needed, but no matter how you slice it, monotheism implicates God in the fact of evil in the world. The Devil is one way to try to lift some of that burden from the divine shoulders.

Lucifer is an interesting installment because ideas of the diabolical really took off in the Middle Ages. Russell’s previous volume, Satan, became heavily theological and there’s a bit of that here as well. While there’s no doubt some average people in the Dark Ages tried to figure out where Devil came from, the officials sponsored by the church were those whose ideas were written down and preserved. Those ideas, unsurprisingly, were theological and complex. Scholasticism, which began in the Middle Ages, launched what was to become known as systematic theology in the modern era. Among the many topics with which it concerned itself was the Devil, and evil. Ranks of angels, both fallen and un, peopled the atmosphere. Galileo’s perspective would eventually change this cosmology by making it both simpler and more complex at the same time. Lucifer, however, still survives.

One of the stranger developments of the Devil in this time period is as a form of light relief. The idea of plays (which had been around since classical times) also took off in the Medieval Period. In these plays Lucifer and his demons often took on a comical cast. Even when the tone was serious (and what morality play isn’t?) the Devil could be used for laughs. An incredibly rich mythology had been adopted by the church at the time—think Star Wars with more religious characters—that assured the laity that Satan’s doom was sure. Besides, we like to make fun of the things we fear. Think Washington, DC. Now that I’m halfway through Russell’s oeuvre on the subject, I’m curious where his next volume will go. No matter how much you think you might understand evil, as we’re daily finding out, there’s always so much more to learn.

Death Challenged

Long before the Walking Dead, and even before Twilight or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, people took the undead seriously. Now, I know ratings are important (they attract advertisers and their money, after all), but when the fear is reality the stakes are upped a bit. Two readers sent me a Guardian story this past week of Yorkshire villagers mutilating the dead. In the Middle Ages, that is—it’s perfectly safe to die in Yorkshire now. The story by Maev Kennedy describes how archaeologists have been studying deliberately defiled corpses, well, actually the bones from those corpses to be precise, to solve a centuries-old mystery. Their conclusion? Medieval folk really did fear the dead coming back from the grave.

Now, Easter’s just around the corner and resurrection’s on a lot of minds. Outside the context of the Bible, however, resurrection of the dead is one of the most ancient and persistent of human fears. Nobody’s quite sure why. Dreams and visions of the recently departed are extremely common. Belief in ghosts is ancient and fairly universal. The destruction of the bodies of people already dead is not. We treat our gathered ones with respect. To me it seems to come down to the puzzle of consciousness. Call it a soul if you like, but I have a feeling things would be getting rather crowded in here if too many distinct entities claimed this body as home. Mind, soul, spirit, psyche, consciousness. We don’t know what it is because it can’t be studied empirically. We know that something like it exists and opinions of what happens to it after death vary. The body, we can all agree, has a more prosaic end.

That’s what makes fear of the undead so fascinating. They are only bodies. Bodies without souls. Rather like leaders of the Republican Party. We fear them because when we look into their unblinking eyes we see no vestige of human warmth or sympathy. Those who walk among us and who don’t care about those of us not yet undead remain a perennial fear. In the case of the Yorkshire corpses these were people already buried. Putting them back in their graves seemed kind of pointless when they would only climb out again. We don’t know what it was like on the ground in the Middle Ages. History, however, has an ironic way of repeating itself. We’re entering a new age when I suspect we’ll want to make sure the remains of some remain well and truly gone once they’ve finally given up the ghost.

Banned Magic

Grimoires“If you believe in the power of magic,” Eric Woolfson plaintively sang, “then I can change your mind.” A song that bewitched my younger years, when the atmosphere is just right, it can still bring a silent tear to my eye. Magic is a powerful elixir.

On my own personal almanac of holidays, Banned Book Week is one that takes the most preparation. In anticipation, for it is next week already, I read Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Since this blog doesn’t get nearly the readership of a banned book, I might explain that witches are among my favorite topics. Despite that, and despite growing up with constant curiosity about religion, I only learned about grimoires recently. Davies makes it clear in his book that apart from some standard texts that have been around for a few centuries, the idea of a magic book is really relatively recent. Yes, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had books of magic, but the concept of a grimoire only really fits the Zeitgeist of medieval Europe particularly well. Such books may draw on or cite oriental wisdom, frequently stepping into the forbidden territory of Arabic learning and alchemy, but they reflect the worldview of the Middle Ages when magic still seemed possible. In earlier centuries conjuring seems to have been subsumed under the miracles associated with Jesus, and we don’t hear much about magi beyond people like Simon Magus.

Davies packs a lot of information into his book, but my reason for focusing on it here, now, is the banned nature of grimoires. Many of them are considered rare and valuable books today, but in their day they were dangerous and forbidden. The concept that an idea can be suppressed is an odd one. In fact, many ideas have a very difficult time finding receptive minds. Once it is written down, however, an idea can circulate. The surest way to guarantee that it will is to ban it. People want to know what is so dangerous about this idea that it must be kept hidden. It makes an idea powerful, esoteric. Forbidden fruit, we all know if we’ll only be honest, is the sweetest.

Grimoires were considered most efficacious when written by hand. Although it took the printing press to proliferate such books, magic was believed to be most potent in the hand-written form. By writing text, one engages intimately with it. This is a reality we are in danger of losing in the computerized age. I grew up with only a second-hand typewriter acquired by my family when I was in high school. Most of what I wrote—for inspiration seldom comes when you’re sitting at your desk—was done by hand. My own little grimoires. Now we’ve added the interface of a keyboard. It is faster, and more efficient. Clinical even. But often the magic seems to be gone. And that is testified in many banned books. They especially, I would aver, believe in the power of magic.