Thursday, September 23, 2010

religious commitment, boredom and counsels of dullness

Still reading, and almost at the end of, Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians, a most excellent book which has massively informed me about the so-called 'pagan' religion of the Graeco-Roman world, as well as about the organisation, and sometimes lack thereof, of the early Christian church, and about the details of various heresies, persecutions and new religions, further offshoots of Christianity, such as the phenomenally successful cult begun by Mani.
Fox has a wonderful way with the throwaway comment which you certainly wouldn't want to throw away. Two of them have, to me, provided entrees into thinking about religion generally. First, he writes about 'boredom, that great enemy of religious commitment', and then he refers to 'counsels of dullness'. Whether or not Fox himself is religious, I've no idea, but he strikes me as realist, not without a wry sense of humour.

In his comment about boredom he was referring specifically to the late third century of the Christian era, during and after the emperorship of Gallienus, when the persecution of Christians, and their consequent obsession with martyrdom, faded to nothing. With their growing power from the early fourth century, heresy became the obsession. But of course this observation about boredom and religious commitment has modern application. It helps explain the battles over intelligent design, the bombings of abortion clinics, Peter Jensen's need to meddle with ethics classes, and Ratzinger's urge to keep himself in the spotlight with assinine remarks about atheism's links to Nazism. For the fact is, there are some religious types, and perhaps especially Christian types, who will never do what Anthony Grayling wants them to do, that is keep their religion to themselves. For them, religion is all about drawing attention to themselves, and if there are no controversies ready to hand, they must create them. Hence you'll always find noisy young earth creationists, placard-waving Christian homophobes, flashy predictors of the Last Days, evangelical excitement machines and the like. In the early years of Christianity, 'over-achievers' [another delicious term employed by Fox] drew attention to themselves by absurdly long periods of fasting, in-your-face devotional acts, and constantly attracting martyrdom by spurning the Graeco-Roman gods.  When there wasn't enough real martyrdom to feed their need for perpetual religious excitation, they invented stories about martyrdom, of which there were hundreds. Interestingly, though, the early Christians martyrs didn't go the next step, of committing terrorist acts, as modern, mostly Moslem 'martyrs' do. I don't think that this was simply because they hadn't thought of it or because a 'fashion' for it hadn't arisen. I think it was more because of the example of Jesus, as presented in the gospels, whose passive martyrdom and other-wordliness had set the trend. Many over-achievers sought to out-Jesus Jesus in terms of suffering, as well as in other ways, such as poverty, simplicity and meekness.

The term 'counsels of dullness' refers to all the early killjoy precursors of Malcolm Muggeridge. As Christianity became more commonplace, and as the End of the World or the Second Coming receded into the unforeseeable future, many Christians became just as worldly as their opponents. The acquisition of wealth and power, illicit sex, over-indulgence of all sorts, these started to become the concern of those bishops who weren't 'part of the problem'. Fun was never part of the gospel message. This world was meant to be endured not enjoyed, and certainly not taken advantage of. Muggeridge and Ratzinger continue in this long, thin tradition.

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