Sunday, September 4, 2011

Will Durant and Faith

Will Durant, the author of a monumental series called The Story of Civilization, was not an orthodox Christian, but I love to read what he says about Christianity. In 1905, after being raised in the Catholic Church, he "exchanged his devotion for Socialism," as puts it. His "Declaration of Interdependence" refers to a "Divine Father," but in his Dual Biography he said, "I am still an agnostic, with pantheistic overtones." His wife Ariel, who co-authored the last several volumes of TSoC, spoke once of "that sentimental, idealizing blend of love, philosophy, Christianity, and socialism which dominated his spiritual chemistry." So his faith and mine have substantial differences, yet when I read his accounts of Christian history, I learn about my faith -- "faith" both in the sense of religion-as-historical-movement and in the sense of understanding-of-God-and-relationship-to-Him.

That I can learn so much from him is possible first because of the humility and respect with which he writes about not only Christianity but Judaism and Islam as well. In his preface to the volume on the Reformation, he says concerning religion: "It is a fascinating but difficult subject, for almost every word that one may write about it can be disputed or give offense. I have tried to be impartial, though I know that a man's past always colors his views, and that nothing else is so irritating as impartiality." Durant never takes any opportunity for either hasty generalization or easy sarcasm. In what I read yesterday, for instance, he says that "five churches in France vowed that they held the one authentic relic of Christ's circumcision" with no comment other than the wry smile couched in his euphemistic turn of phrase. A page later, he lets a contemporary do the math, noting that Abbot Guibert of Nogent said that John the Baptist must have been a hydra since several churches claimed to house his decapitated head.

"In many aspects religion is the most interesting of man's ways, for it is his ultimate commentary on life and his only defense against death." From the first sentence of this year's reading, Durant had me thinking about my faith and about religion in general. I've learned that the medieval Catholic hierarchy put limits on the people's reverence for relics and that the Fourth Lateran Council recognized the abuse of indulgences and tried to stem it. Durant points out that while medieval faith seems fairly uniform (most writers having been churchmen), dissent of all kinds can be found: from skepticism about saints' tales to out-and-out atheism. According to Durant, hocus pocus comes from Hoc est corpus meum; apparently some of these dissenters, not convinced of transubstantiation, found these words from the liturgy of the Mass little more than the formulaic patter of an illusionist.

Durant sees the Church alternating in its history between emphasis on Hell and emphasis on mercy, according as it saw the need. Early medieval theology, early Protestant preachers, and General Booth of the Salvation Army, he points out, all taught the dangers of Hell to great effect. But the medieval people had a great craving for mercy. Again Durant gives me new perspective when he shows that the typical parishioner of the Middle Ages saw the Father only as the vengeful God of many Old Testament stories and Jesus only as the strict Judge. Looking for mercy, they found Mary weeping at the foot of the cross and made her the most popular figure in all of human history. Durant calls the cult of Mary a new religion and sees the Catholic Church assimilating it. Now Spengler also saw a new religion in medieval Europe. But in my recent reading of The Decline of the West, I found Spengler saying that the new religion was one based on Teutonic mythology that had adopted the terms of Christianity, replacing the original religion, perhaps as stone replaces wood in a fossilized tree. I found that account of a new religion hardly worth considering. By contrast, Durant's idea has me thinking. Apart from whether I think he's right, at least his interpretation deals with the fact that medieval theologians still read and agreed with Paul and Augustine.

"I am skeptical not only of theology but also of philosophy, science, history, and myself," he said humbly. "We are all fragments of darkness groping for the sun. I know no more about the ultimates than the simplest urchin in the streets." Put that way, I would find it hard to disagree.

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