Archive for the 'religion' Category

Amin Maalouf: Adrift

January 21, 2021

         It’s not often I read a book and end up thinking, everyone really needs to read this! But this is one of those rarities, the reflections of a wise and thoughtful Lebanese writer and novelist on the current state of the world, and why it’s in such a dreadful mess. He professes to be haunted by the image of our species heading ineluctably for shipwreck. And, a rarity, the book has been translated from French into English.

There are plenty of pundits who offer relatively superficial and partisan analyses of the world’s woes: Maalouf isn’t one of those. He begins modestly reflecting on his origins and family background, at some length: they are Lebanese, with historical connections with Egypt, and so his exploration is firmly anchored in how the problems of the Middle East, and of Islamic nations, are at the heart of so much that has gone wrong, a microcosm of the world’s greater problems.

It is false to think that the homogeneity of nations is a good thing: Spain became weaker after expelling Muslims and Jews after 1492, France became weaker after the expulsion of the Huguenots in 1685. Often the benefits of minority groups to a nation are only perceived when they have gone. I obviously thought of Brexit here!

The failure and collapse of communism as an ideal has helped move the world into its current disastrous state. Communism didn’t just appeal to the working class but also to minorities as a way of transcending divisions; briefly, Jews Christians and Muslims worked alongside each other in communist movements worldwide. A liberating space, an inspirational space has disappeared. And Maalouf weeps no tears for Stalin, Mao or any of the other tyrants: the failure of dirigiste state ‘socialism’ tarnished anything and everything vaguely resembling it, allowing conservative forces to invalidate social democracy and the welfare state too.

The Six Day War of 1967 had a devastating effect on the Arab world from which it has never recovered, and allowed political Islam to come to the fore. Equally, victory in that war has been a trap for Israel. Maalouf then notes the calamitous effects of the oil price rises of the 1970s, which were a direct response by Arab nations to the debacle of the 1973 war, in which the USA had supported Israel.

In his more general analysis, Maalouf sees 1979 as a turning point: the year conservatism declared itself revolutionary, with the election of Thatcher in the UK, followed by that of Reagan in the US the following year: the only option for the left was to try and hang onto what it had painfully won over the decades. At that time, Khomeiny also came to power in Iran, Deng Xiao Ping took the reins in China and changed its political and economic direction, and the Catholic Church elected John Paul II as Pope. And the USA let the genie of radical Islam out of the bottle by deliberately drawing the Soviet Union into the quagmire of Afghanistan… Maalouf points out that until then, the Muslim world had been gradually moving in a progressive and tolerant direction, towards modernity and laicisation; the West wrecked all this. Conservatism has moved openly hand-in-hand with the perfidious forces of nationalism and racism.

And as the purpose of the Reagan/Thatcher revolution was a massive attack on state power, the work of states as unifying forces was seriously harmed; suspicion of big government has fed into our inability to tackle issues such as the climate emergency in our own time. Maalouf knows that the state can, and must have a role in creating and fostering social cohesion. Instead, widening social divides have been accepted, and public authorities are now mistrusted by many. It’s hard to do justice to the depth of his reflection, which is that of a lifetime, and his knowledge of history, and the interactions between nations.

Maalouf articulates, far better than I’ve ever been able to, a good number of the thoughts and ideas I’ve worked out about the state of the planet over the years. He has written the most profound, reasoned and intelligent analysis and commentary on our times that I’ve ever read; he does not proffer any simplistic solutions beyond helping understand where we have gone adrift, and sadly, he admits to a great pessimism about our future…

Richard Holloway: Stories We Tell Ourselves

January 2, 2021

     I’m not sure what it was that prompted me, last year, to read Richard Holloway’s autobiography, Leaving Alexandria, which tells the story of how a Scottish episcopalian, who rose to become Bishop of Edinburgh and then Primus of Scotland, eventually found himself unable to believe in God any longer, and consequently laid down those high offices. But I found his story, and his thinkings on all sorts of questions, both very thought-provoking and also very helpful.

This, his latest book, is basically his exploration of God as a human construct, and the stories we have told ourselves since the dawn of ages, about a higher being, and our need for one: the idea that we construct God in our own image, rather than the biblical trope of God creating Man in His image (upper-case deliberate there).

Holloway writes about the flawed nature of us humans, and our therefore necessarily flawed knowledge and understanding of what we ‘know’. There is no easy answer to the question of existence or non-existence of a deity, no universal or all-encompassing answer, especially one that any group or organisation has a right to force on others. Equally, there are dangers in accepting or welcoming the ready-made, neat answers of others as solutions to our, or the world’s problems. At this point I felt I was reading a book which offered nothing new, other than a great deal of common sense, all gathered together in one place, satisfying enough. But it got better.

He struck a chord with me when he referred in some depth to a book I remember from many years ago as an important insight into the world of my youth, Theodore Roszak’s The Making of A Counterculture, and I wished I’d retained my copy to refer back to it.

Clarity is here: Holloway’s disagreement is with the organised, structured, regulating church rather than the religious or spiritual impulses within us, and he is honest enough to admit that someone like himself, steeped lifelong in religion, as it were, even when he works his way to a clearer understanding such as the one he is presenting us in this book, nevertheless is drawn to what he knew and what used to sustain him… He writes of a ‘general tendency in subsequent generations to over-define and concretise the original revelation’, and suggests that ‘gods always fail: they are us absolutised, enlarged with our own worst nightmares’.

In the later chapters, he moves on to considering a world in which a supposedly loving God allows so much suffering, which he rightly thinks poses a major ethical problem for any believer who thinks. He then comes on to consider what sense can be made of Jesus, and his life and teaching, nowadays. He outlines his own position, which he links back to earlier philosophers, and particularly to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which is that we ought to act ‘etsi deus non daretur’ – as if there were no God: to strive to be good and do the good that religion enjoins us to anyway, out of a love for our fellow- creatures. I found a powerful and intriguing link there with Philip Pullman’s conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy: that it’s up to us to build the Republic of Heaven ourselves, here on earth.

After Leaving Alexandria, it was astonishing just to read an account of this man’s spiritual journey, a very personal affair at one level, offered to all: here is someone who thinks, and reflects, continually; the quest never ends. As I mentioned earlier, at one level there’s a lot of the pretty obvious to many here, but to accompany someone working it all out for himself, as I strive regularly to do myself, I found very liberating: here was someone who spoke to my condition.

I was very tempted to go straight back to the beginning and start a re-read immediately, but thought better of the impulse, and decided it would be helpful to wait a little while. But return I shall.

Richard Fletcher: The Cross and the Crescent

December 16, 2020

     This is a short, well-written and very readable account of the interactions between Christianity and Islam in their early days. Various pieces of a complex jigsaw are laid out clearly, and contrasts, connections and overlaps between the two faiths and their world-views explained lucidly.

There were a number of reasons why Islam tolerated both Judaism and Christianity in the lands it rapidly overran in the seventh and eighth centuries: partly the injunctions in the Qur’an about respecting the other ‘peoples of the book’ and partly Muslims were often in the minority, and needed the remnants of the old Roman Empire to continue functioning, which meant using its learned men and its bureaucrats.

What had never occurred to me was that the only possible framework within which Christianity could explain and view Islam was that of heresy: there were plenty of heresies that the orthodox church was trying to suppress in those days, and the such an idea was reinforced by the evident overlaps between the Christian and Muslim holy writings. Certainly there was no concept at all of a ‘new religion’. Equally, there was a tendency among in Islam to ignore Christianity, given the belief that Muhammad was the last of the prophets, with the final and perfected message from God, which necessarily superseded that of the Old Testament and Jesus… Christianity was passé, if you like.

Nor did the Christian lands seem to have very much to offer the Islamic world and its rulers; society in Christian lands was backward, primitive, agrarian. Although they were not very interested in each other as belief systems, there was much interest in the spread and sharing of knowledge, and eventually in trade. The gradual diffusion of the learning of the ancients was a lengthy process involving translations through multiple languages. Here was the greatest and most fruitful area of co-operation: curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge knows no boundaries. Yet, once the Christian West had gained the knowledge it wanted from its Eastern rivals, the two worlds gradually drifted apart, and Islam became more aloof and self-isolating.

And while Christians threw themselves with great energy and violence into Crusades to recapture the holy places from the ‘infidels’, the Muslim world was largely indifferent to what were merely pinpricks, and was far more concerned with serious dynastic rivalries and other more weighty issues. On the other hand, the Crusaders were having their eyes opened to a much wider world than the one they had known…

So Fletcher offers us a good number of refreshing new perspectives, which certainly helped me deepen my understanding of what went on in that era, from the seventh century to the Renaissance. He also explores, as far as the available evidence allows – and recognises where it is lacking or incomplete – how the Christian world eventually came to gain the edge over the Islamic world. He is clear that it was a complex spread of factors involving trade, Mongol invasions, dynastic rivalries in the Muslim nations and others… and others have also highlighted that the rapid adoption of printing technology in the West but not in the East, had much to do with this.

In Fletcher’s judgement, through the Middle Ages there was a persistent failure by both sides to try and understand each other – and I feel he is more than hinting at a message for contemporary readers here – which he recognises was probably inevitable. Certainly the rise of the West took the Islamic world by surprise, and it has probably never recovered from this. Here is a really interesting and useful read.

On service, duty and selfishness

December 5, 2020

Somehow the words ‘duty’ and ‘service’ have an old-fashioned ring to them; they do not seem to sit with our world. And yet, they are words I often find myself reflecting on.

Service conjures up something enforced – against our will – like military service, or ill-paid drudgery, like domestic service. And yet, I think the concept is a much wider one, and we ought to be able to see that many of the professions essential in our world are a form of service to the wider community or the nation, even though they are paid, salaried rather than undertaken for nothing or for love. To work in medicine serves the greater good of society, as does working in education: how are citizens of the future to be raised and kept in good health? To work in what seem much more menial jobs perhaps – street-cleaning, waste disposal – is also service to society, though it is less well-paid and perhaps also less sought-after work. The police and the military also serve society, although I may well have quarrels with the kind of tasks they perform at times.

To me, service is about doing necessary work, as opposed to other forms of work which do not have the same vital or necessary function in society. Shops where we can purchase the necessities of life are useful, but do not serve in the same sense: they are almost all out to make a profit for someone. Banks may be useful in certain ways, but are a bane in many others. And I’m afraid I utterly fail to see the point of investment bankers, stockbrokers, hedge-fund managers and their ilk…

I also feel there is a growing culture of disparagement of those whose work serves society in the ways I’ve outlined above. They are generally not as well-paid as workers in other comparable sectors of the economy, and they are easy whipping-boys whenever mistakes are made or inadequacies identified. In the past, lower wages and salaries were compensated by reasonable pension arrangements, hard-won rights fought for by trades unions over the years: these are now envied by others and consequently being dismantled piecemeal. The politics of envy is cheaper and easier than deciding to provide decent conditions for everyone; the idea that workers might band together in solidarity to strive for better wages and conditions has been made to seem quaint and old-fashioned…

Duty is an even more difficult idea to engage with in our world, where we are increasingly taught to view ourselves as isolated individuals with rights and entitlements, which we often demand vociferously, but with no corresponding expectations of us in return: we don’t seem to think we also have duties towards our fellow-citizens. I can’t help feeling there is something wrong here. A society surely involves mutual obligations and duties: we give, and receive in return, according to our need, and this idea fosters the thought that in some ways we should care about our fellow human beings. Once everything is reduced to cost and value, profit and self-interest, we are on a slippery slope, as well as much more easily exploited and taken advantage of.

I’m old enough to date a sea-change in our society triggered by Margaret Thatcher’s government, telling people that there was no such thing as society, and elevating the idea of the private individual as the most important, entitled ruthlessly to ignore or push out of the way anyone who impeded one’s rush to money and profit. She entrenched the notion that paying taxes that were used to further public good is a bad thing: we should be able to keep ‘our’ money. Look where that has got us and our public services over the past decades.

Selfishness is an interesting word, often frowned on, especially by churches, as a moral failing. It’s more complicated than that: selfishness in terms of looking after and caring for oneself so that one has something to live for, and to offer others, is not a bad thing; selfishness as “me, me, me, I’m all that matters and I’m not bothered about what that means for you”, destroys the bonds which should knit us together.

I hope that the pendulum will eventually swing back again, and look forward to that day…

On the meaning of it all…

November 21, 2020

Logically, life – being alive – cannot have a meaning or a purpose, because it is something that happens to us unrequested, as it were, through the volition (or not) of other people, with varying intentions or none. And then, here we are: get over it or get on with it, as they say. But, what to do with it remains a question that has vexed and perplexed minds over the ages. I’m no different.

Biologically, the purpose of life is to ensure that there is more life created; most of us ensure this happens, at which point our usefulness and purpose is over.

And we are here, and to make sense of it if we can. Many people pass through life, being and doing, without very much thought at all; it feel dismissive and patronising to observe that, and yet there are times when I briefly feel envious of them, until I recall Socrates’ point that the unexamined life is worthless. And I come back to what I feel is the most amazing part of me: my mind, my brain, my ability to perceive, reflect, think about myself and my time here. Whether it’s God-given or a product of millennia of evolution is neither here nor there, really: either way, it astonishes me.

I’ve always loved staring at the night sky and the stars and planets. I’m no astronomer: I can identify some of what I see up there. It’s the effect on my head of looking up, and realising the awesomeness of what is out there. I’ve read science fiction since I was a child, and this has enhanced my imagination: what might be out there, that we will never know about. How small we are, and our world. I’ve said before that the first moon landing was the most exciting day in my life; I’d love to live to see humans land on Mars; I’d love to be around when we make contact with an intelligence form another world. And that will never be – me being around, I mean.

So, there’s my infinitesimal space in the entire scheme of things, and my tiny allotted amount of time here: what to do with it all?

Much of that time fills itself with the mundanities of growing up, learning, living and working, raising a family, growing old; the time is used up without a lot of effort. Once I was young, had dreams, had fun; there was a lot of work and life and now I’m much older. Where did it all go?

But then there’s the reflection: what is the point? What makes it worthwhile? Back to meaning. Obviously, this is where deities and religions come in, as humans over the ages have striven to come to terms with the fact that it all does come to an end one day. We are the only species with a consciousness, an awareness of that, and for many of us, it drives our reflections and our desires. If we can believe – if we can have faith – then there is an anchor in the idea that there is something – maybe better – which comes after this life. It is harder if we cannot. We were once undistributed atoms in the cosmos and ultimately that is where we will return, but I have to say that so far I do not find that very much comfort.

To do something useful with our life may help; to live a good life, where we help our fellows, we serve our community, we help our world move gradually to ever better things. And yet, this is very vague. We do it, some may notice it, although that ought not to be our motivation, and then we are gone, with our efforts. One day, you will only be a story: make sure it is a good one, says the old Arabic proverb. I like this, it comforts me as much as anything else does or can: that people who remember me, for a generation or two, will have a good memory of me. I won’t know about it, and that will be that. I will have had my brief moment in the sun…

Ella Maillart: Ti-Puss

October 23, 2020

     I’ve long enjoyed the travel writings and photography of the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart (you can find reviews elsewhere on this blog if you’re interested) and this, as far as I’ve been able to find out, is chronologically the next to last of her books, dating from her time in India during the Second World War. By this time, she had largely moved on from roaming far and wide around the globe and the focus of her personal journey had moved inwards: in India, she explored Hindu philosophy and spirituality under various teachers, and remained in the country for a number of years, and subsequently returned regularly,

Ti-Puss is a curious little book, largely focused on Maillart’s deep relationship with an Indian street cat which she adopts, and through this relationship she learns and writes much about love, affection, attachment and separation, in personal as well as spiritual ways.

She is clearly familiar with India and some of its ways, having already been there some two years before she meets and takes up with her new companion, and we see a genuine affection develop, which appears mutual – and we all know how independent cats are! The very idea of a cat as a pet or companion is a very unusual concept in India and Maillart is aware of being perceived as self-indulgent, but clearly craves and needs the closeness. From reading all her books (and I’m aware that these are not necessarily any clue to the wholeness of a life) I’m unaware of any similar attachment to another person…

What she learns at this stage of her journey is largely mediated through life with the cat. She is as descriptive as ever: in the days when travel was relatively limited, photography a complex and quite expensive process, and television in its infancy, a writer’s ability to create a real sense of being somewhere still largely depended on the skilful use of words. We also have brief accounts of some of her discussions with various sages, as well as mentions of other westerners who seem to be on variations of a similar journey to hers. Again Maillart embeds herself as far as possible in the local way of life, habits and routines, and this has always seemed natural in all of her travels. Clearly as a published writer and relatively privileged European she has sources of income, but she remains true to the way in which she had begun some twenty or more years previously, immersing herself in her surroundings and observing people and places very closely.

As I said before, the cat is at the core of the book, and when Maillart leaves her for two weeks to go climbing in the Himalayas, the cat finally asserts her independence, and the sense of loss, at leaving the cat behind and never knowing what has become of her, is genuinely moving, even painful – if you’ve ever been a cat-owner, you will know what I mean. Although it’s a good read, I would have liked to know more about the places and the spiritual quest, too…

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha

October 13, 2020

     I’m not sure what exactly it is that occasionally but regularly draws me back to a couple of Hermann Hesse’s novels. It’s probably the idea that the whole of life is a quest for meaning and understanding. Hesse was a very popular writer in my student and hippy days – oh so long ago now! – and I acquired almost all of his novels and short stories, most of which have sat untouched on the shelves since then. Only Narziss and Goldmund, and yesterday again, Siddhartha are the ones I return to. And in some way, I find them both very hard to read, not in the story sense, but because they confront me so forcefully with my own life and yearnings and search for understanding…

Siddhartha is short, readable at a sitting, and there is also a good librivox recording I’ve listened to a couple of times whilst on my travels. As the title suggests, it focuses on the Buddha and his followers, but with the focus on the spiritual quest of a single individual. As I read this time, I tried to plot out what he actually derived from his different life experiences.

He starts out with everything a young person could wish for: beauty, popularity, intellect but these are not enough: he rejects these, along with his father’s expectations of him. Already he has inklings that ultimately the answer to one’s yearnings must lie within oneself. He flees from his self, denying it and following the path of asceticism. He becomes suspicious of teachers: he has realised the importance of seeking one’s own enlightenment, not someone else’s. The parting from his lifetime friend Govinda, who makes a different choice, is painful to read, and yet the importance of fidelity to oneself is emerging. Alone-ness of the self, the utter aloneness of one’s individuality, is scary, and yet cannot be avoided.

He tries the worldly path of material success, wealth and beautiful women: self-gratification is shown to be both incredibly pleasurable and highly seductive, capable of permanently diverting one away from the quest. It is not the solution, for pursued to its end, even what you had previously learned will be lost. Finally, realising that this is happening to him, he walks away from it all. Indulging the self had repulsed him.

Water, a river becomes a metaphor, as he returns to a ferry crossing he used many years before, and attaches himself as an apprentice ferryman for the remainder of this existence, realising that time does not have to exist, and that the long search which has occupied his life in different ways, is actually an ongoing and unending preparation of the soul…

Or, that is what this novel said to me this time around. I hope I have another call to read it one day.

Still not reading books…

August 19, 2020

Despite all be best intentions and renewed efforts, I’m still not succeeding in reading very many books during the pandemic and all the extra time I have at home at my disposal, as this blog shows. I’ve accumulated a few new books with the best of intentions, but…

Recently I’ve been distracted by the way I use the internet. In a very old-fashioned way, I’m very fond of RSS feeds, which I discovered many years ago, but which now seem to be dying the death. Interesting websites allowed a feed to be set up, usually in an e-mail client (which was very convenient) so that one could be notified of new articles; these would remain in a list – just like emails – for me to look at whenever suited, but they contained links to the actual articles, so if the feed title looked interesting enough, I’d read the article, otherwise I’d just delete the header.

It’s only people like me that use desktop email clients; tablet and phone email apps don’t have built-in RSS aggregators, and purpose-made ones annoyingly insist on trying to ‘curate’ (god, I hate that word!) a list of articles they think I’ll be interested in, ie fill up with crap.

Anyway, I’d built up a stack of feeds over several years and only visited them desultorily, but over the last week or so I’ve been carefully making my way through everything I’d saved and reading everything that grabbed my attention: a lot of very interesting stuff, raging through a wide range of topics. The stuff I save is mainly literary, with some religion and politics thrown in. Arts & Letters Daily sends me three chosen links a day and rarely do I delete them all without reading one. Strong Language started up a couple of years ago and is a blog dedicated to swearing in all its forms and languages, and I find it fascinating. Then there’s Strange Maps, which, as the name suggests, offers all sorts of interesting cartographical perspectives on our world. And of course, Project Gutenberg is forever throwing new delights as ebooks into the public domain, and the marvellous volunteers at Librivox are regularly recording them for our delight.

Attempting to read the articles after some time has not been without its frustrations: some of them have just vanished, some of them are now behind paywalls, some of them dislike my adblockers, and I often have to clear the cookie cache in order to visit the same site more than a couple of times in a day. I’m still surprised that no-one seems to have found a way to make micropayments work for access to the occasional article on a site; I’m quite willing to pay a small sum for this.

I’m aware this has all been a displacement activity, but a very useful one in that it’s tidied up the laptop, the email, given me some more space back, and the few articles I may want to return to at some future date are saved as pdfs. I am planning to get my hands on some real, paper books in the near future…

Umberto Eco’s Baudolino: a tale for our times

June 18, 2020

81HNUy7Y7iL._AC_UY218_     I’ve read this – Eco’s second mediaeval masterpiece – several times, but for the first time in English, as when the novel was first published, the French translation came out a year before the English one. But I’ve wanted to read it in English for a long time, as Eco himself praised his translator William Weaver so highly. And it was very good, and also had me reflecting on my reading of French and my decreasing fluency with age in that language, for initially I found the English version of the novel much lighter, more flowing and easier to read…

What you have to wonder and marvel at is Eco’s total mastery of the mediaeval world, the confidence and knowledge which allows him to weave in every aspect of its ways of being and thinking into his novel… history, geography, theology, you name it, he can present it all from the mediaeval perspective.

From the outset, it’s a story about languages and understanding them, as Baudolino the hero has the ability quickly to learn and communicate in any dialect; given the travels and adventures he is to become involved in, this is a necessary. Along with this goes his ability to make things up, and for them then to become real and believed by many: this mediaeval trope has clearly reappeared in our less rational times…

As Constantinople burns and is looted once again, in the early thirteenth century, Baudolino rescues an official of that city and regales him with his life story, although we are constantly invited to be sceptical of this story-teller, who moves so seamlessly from fact to invention, from things that are to things that ought to be – and the thing is that, if something ought to be, then it surely is, somewhere, if only we knew where to find it. What you imagine as a possibility can become real just by fiat, by thinking of it; the borderline or demarcation is so much vaguer. This opens up a marvellous world of fantasy into which Eco weaves the mysterious death of the Emperor Frederick, and the quest for the (mythical?) Prester John, somewhere in the orient.

Having heard a rumour of this mysterious, very powerful Christian potentate somewhere in the East, Baudolino and friends make him real through writing letters from him to the Emperor, and convince themselves to go in search of him and present him with the holy Grail, a relic which they have ‘found’ – relics are manufactured to order in these times, six heads of John the Baptist in particular.

They encounter all sorts of weirdnesses – natural marvels and wondrous creatures – that were believed to exist in mediaeval times, such as those that adorn the frieze of the famous Hereford Mappa Mundi. The strange humanoid races that the travellers encounter as they approach the realm of Prester John are used to embody a huge range of Christian heresies, and open up an entire world of theological disputations such as were common in mediaeval times.

Again, Eco’s mediaevalism supports the nature of his story, which is not so much a novel with a plot and sharply defined characters (apart from the elusive eponymous hero) as a linear narrative in the style of the simpler and cruder mediaeval tale. As in mediaeval times, he does not shy away from copying others: thus there are links suggested between the Dalai Lama and the elusive Prester John, and at least one of the mysterious languages met in the orient is lifted from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

It’s not for everyone and not an easy read, but if you’ve enjoyed The Name of the Rose, I highly recommend this as a marvellous yarn, full of surprises, knowledge and entertainment, and another example of Umberto Eco at his very best. And the exploration of truth, lies and make-believe is somehow alarmingly resonant today.

Tom Holland: Dominion

February 12, 2020

91jqczH5FaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    This is a very thought-provoking and demanding read. There is an interesting trend in recent history-writing to not merely regurgitate, repeat, or go over the same ground again in the same way, but to seek new angles and perspectives on old material; sometimes this can be perverse and gratuitous, but it’s often enlightening how it can suggest connections not previously made, and explore a different narrative. It seems obvious to me that such enterprises cannot and should not exclude or over-write conventional histories, but that they do offer illuminating possibilities…

Holland sets out to show how Christ and Christianity shaped and made the West, and allowed the West to shape the world in its image; in some ways this ties in with what I’ve always known as ‘cultural Christianity’. Initially he surveys different Middle Eastern peoples and their gods, and their attempts to explain the cosmos and find a sense of order and meaning; there is the gradual evolution of the idea of evil being in the world because of people ‘disobeying’ the gods. For the Jews, this explained their plight, and in addition it was all the fault of a woman…

Holland also enlightens us on the complex development of the Hebrew Bible, and it was helpful to be reminded of how monotheism itself took time to evolve: there are numerous references to a multiplicity of gods in the Old Testament.

When we get to New Testament times, the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ message was underlined by Paul, and it is at times mind-boggling to see unpicked and laid out clearly the gradual development and articulation of a Christian theology over time. It was certainly not a coherent totality from the outset as some would like us to think.

Although Holland attempts a flowing narrative of the development of specifically Christian thought and practice, I didn’t find it completely coherent, particularly in the way he develops a particular strand thoroughly in a chapter and then leaps ahead to a completely different starting-point for his next chapter. This disjointed effect was initially quite annoying and had the effect of negating the sense of continuity he wanted to show.

We see clearly how the new religion was quite rapidly militarised and identified with secular power, which was a major factor in the unification of Europe over the centuries. As time passes we see the monumental struggle between royalty and papacy, the increasing corruption of the Church, the separation of church and state, the institution of clerical celibacy, and the crystallisation of the idea of sacred and profane. Where everything becomes totally warped and light-years away from the original, simple message of Jesus is, of course, in the way that religious power came to fear and then to seek ruthlessly to extirpate all possible signs of disagreement, independent thought or unorthodoxy, under the label of heresy.

Holland also shows how the religious regulation of marriage was about controlling sexual appetites and expecting men to be monogamous as well as women; this was to lead to individual ‘rights’ moving to the foreground, as well as creating the modern concept of the family. Here his analysis is newer and more interesting, I think. The labelling of same-sex pleasure as sinful and evil is a specifically Christian development, too.

Luther’s challenges reflected the angry mood of the times across Europe, and ushered in the mood of individualism in questions of religion, salvation, interpretation of the Bible, and these anarchist tendencies are shown leading to everything flying apart; certainly the contrast between the highly centralised Roman Catholic Church and the plethora of different Protestant churches and sects reflects this. Secular power eagerly colluded in the inevitable transfer of authority from church to state; Luther was driven to compromises very quickly, and we are in the transitional state which eventually, after much warfare and slaughter was to lead to the toleration of the individual’s right to worship where, when and how they pleased; from these originally religious beginnings was to flow the concept of ‘human’ rights as espoused in the French and American revolutions.

In the wider world, as the dynamism of Christianity led Europe to colonise large tracts of the world, it saw other belief systems as replicas of its own, and so non-Christians were made to identify with ‘a’ religion: thus Holland sees Judaism and Hinduism, for instance, as externally imposed categories. Ultimately the narrative takes us to the development of international law, another Western concept which, as we can see, is not necessarily accepted by all peoples (nor by the USA when it doesn’t suit!).

As we move closer to our times, Holland shows how Marx’ communism goes back to the early Christian communities’ sharing of goods and property, how the Nazis’ anti-Jewish ideology was spawned by Christianity, and how the roots of the messages of Martin Luther King, the Beatles and the summer of love may all be traced back to such earlier roots. The other important point he emphasises is the fragmentation of Christianity into liberal and evangelical camps, both of which lay claim to authority from two millennia ago. I have still not thought through his interesting parallel between Protestantism as a fundamentalist approach to faith, and Muslim fundamentalism…

Holland’s narrative of how all these developments ultimately flow from Europe’s Christian history is convincing to me, but I am not a professional historian, so I would be interested to hear historians’ take on his book. I find myself wondering where the tipping point was, at which the Christian West had so much the upper had that it was able to more or less shape the entire world, in terms of conquest, empire and industrial revolution. Equally, what might have prevented it, and would that have been a good or bad thing? There is an imperialism in the West seeing its values and beliefs as universal, its way of looking at the world as the only valid one and expecting all cultures to worship at its altar. Christianity comes across as an enigma, a hydra, and the roots of the Western control of the entire world…

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