21. Are you a Christian?

No. However, I do not stigmatise Christians as “fundamentalists,” which is a tactic favoured by new age partisans. Instead, I have attempted to probe Christian history in the light of due recognitions.



Luther and Dissolution of the Monasteries


From Scrying to Darwin


Friar Roger Bacon


The Celtic Monks and Hermits


John Scottus Eriugena


Antony the Copt

21.1  Luther and Dissolution of the Monasteries

The stand of Martin Luther (d.1546) against the sale of indulgences serves to highlight the innovations of ecclesiastical dogma. This Augustinian monk of Germany opposed a slogan employed to advertise indulgences: “A penny in the box, a soul out of purgatory.” He was excommunicated in 1521 by Pope Leo X on the basis of forty-one heretical statements. Luther survived the stigma to become the major incentive to the Protestant Reformation. He successfully circulated his views in the vernacular via pamphlets on the new printing press. His anti-Jewish writings are controversial.

In Britain, the calculating Tudor monarch Henry VIII was keen to preside over the dissolution of the monasteries, as this event enabled him to increase his finances. Between 1536 and 1540, approximately 8,000 monastic institutions were closed down, their extensive properties and lands being transferred to the Crown. The landed gentry welcomed this development as a means of enlarging their estates. The lands, tithes, and coal-fields of the monasteries passed by gift or purchase into the hands of wealthy families favoured by the monarch. The monasteries were plundered for stone with which to build the many grand new houses of the gentry that appeared in England during the mid-sixteenth century.

The last abbot of Glastonbury Abbey was Richard Whiting. At the time of the dissolution, commissioners were sent to inspect his abbey, and they gave a good report of the monastic discipline there. Yet an excuse was now required for suppression of that establishment, and this expedient was easily achieved. In the library of Glastonbury Abbey was found a book opposed to the divorce of the monarch. Abbot Whiting then refused to take the proffered oath of supremacy to Henry VIII. The scrupulous abbot was then arrested and subjected to a nominal trial. He was sentenced to be hanged, and the undeserved execution took place upon the Tor overlooking the abbey where Whiting had lived an exemplary life. (A Guide to Glastonbury and its Abbey, The Abbey Bookstall, Glastonbury, n.d., pp. 11-12). Whatever the flaws in wealthy monasteries, their successors were a greater problem.

Many hospitals were also closed down by the royal feat of monastic dissolution, and the despotic monarch was reluctant to reopen them, despite a plea from the citizens of London in 1538. The new wave of property developers did not always set a good example. In London, they sold off grounds in the monastic estates and pulled down chapels which sometimes became alehouses. The new Protestant capitalism had begun.

Some monastic guest-houses were turned into factories by the Tudor speculators endowed by Henry VIII. He sold to them, and they made further profits. Two-thirds of the landowning gentry (or lords) acquired monastic estates, and their cupidity was such that many of them wanted to evict tenants, increase rents, change the terms of leases, and enclose common land at the expense of the poor. Peasants protested against the enclosure of arable land for pasture. There were anti-enclosure riots and even rebel armies in formation. Destitution was widespread at this period, along with an accompanying perception that the selfish landowners were intent upon using their newly acquired estates as “commercial assets to be fully exploited for quick profits, rather than as valued possessions enabling whole communities to supply their own needs” (Christopher Hibbert, The English: A Social History 1066-1945, 1987, p. 177).

21.2  From Scrying to Darwin

The celebrated era of the Italian Renaissance had some disadvantages in the confusions created by magic. A related drawback was inherited in Britain by the mathematician John Dee (d.1608), whose reliance upon spiritualistic messages from the scoundrel and scryer Edward Kelley might be considered a major instance of proto-scientific instability and aberration (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, pp. 215ff.).

The Puritan spirit strengthened in opposition to Charles I. The reign of his frivolous successor Charles II is chiefly notable for the creation of the Royal Society, which served to mediate the new disposition of scientific enquiry. Fifty years after their founding, in 1712 the Society officially supported Isaac Newton (d.1727) against his German competitor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (d. 1716) in the controversy over the calculus. Much of this dispute was conducted in theological terms. Posterity has awarded the philosopher Leibniz an equal claim to the important invention, which was closely related to physics (ibid., pp. 237-8).

The secularising mood of the Georgian era resorted to evocations of ancient Rome, caesars being preferred to popes. The convivial philosopher David Hume associated with Protestant churchmen while being in evident disagreement with their beliefs. Slavery was pursued to an extensive degree by the colonialists, though subsequently campaigned against by the more civilised inhabitants of Britain, who finally triumphed.

The subsequent Victorian era was marked by a strong national spirit and extensive overseas activity via the British Empire. The study room of refined gents gained an unprecedented significance in middle class homes, complementing the libraries of the more well endowed Victorians. Educational achievements were accompanied by a religious milieu that some considered static by comparison. The theory of natural selection propounded by Charles Darwin (d.1882) was a major blow to the dogmatism about human origins that was associated with Biblical interpretation.

21.3  Friar Roger Bacon

Problems of feudalism are encountered when going backwards in time, especially on the Continent. The Inquisition activities of the late medieval era are execrable. The theological struggle against heresies is not convincing; it was undertaken with far too much violence, as in the campaign against the Cathars. Yet the arguments of the Christian schoolmen are diverse. The ninth century figure of John Scottus Eriugena is sometimes counted as an early schoolman, but he was quite different from most of the others, if not all of them. He was an Irish Neoplatonist who lived in Gaul (France), a scholar of Greek who has been called a pantheist. In later centuries occurred the resuscitation of Aristotelian logic via the Muslim philosophers, though Christian writers often employed this legacy for theological purposes. The output of Thomas Aquinas (d.1274) is a case in point. By contrast, Friar Roger Bacon (d.c.1292) was far less of an apologist and much more of a critic.

Roger Bacon was born in the second decade of the thirteenth century at Ilminster, Somerset. He became a Master of Arts and taught at both Paris and Oxford. He lectured on Aristotle in the version associated with Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina). About 1256 he became a Franciscan friar at Paris. He was on good terms with Pope Clement IV, who was in office only a few years (1265-68). At this Pope’s request, Bacon sent him the book Opus Maius, a distinctive treatise of the friar that includes a description of mathematics, optics, and alchemy, and which has been said to anticipate later inventions such as microscopes and telescopes. Bacon also believed in astrology. He notably advocated the experimental method (scientia experimentalis), though he has to be viewed as a medieval scientist rather than a modern empiricist. Contrasting assessments of the subject are marked in the literature that has accumulated over the generations.

Friar Bacon knew several languages and advocated the due linguistic study of sources that were in use amongst academics and theologians. He emphasised that academic professors did not learn Greek, an omission which he regarded as a serious failing. He urged a reform of the theological curriculum, and advocated the study of all known sciences. He composed various works. This friar was very outspoken in some of his comments, and criticised certain leading rivals. At Paris in 1278 he was placed under house arrest by the Minister General of the Franciscans. There have been different explanations given for his confinement. His interests in astrology and alchemy have been suggested as the reason. Another view is that his affinities with the ascetic left wing of the Franciscan Order were the factor causing the official disapproval. The length of his confinement has been variously estimated from many years to only a few years or less. A recent scholarly version states that he returned circa 1280 to Oxford.

Friar Bacon’s tangent from the increasingly conformist Franciscan Order has been associated with the Franciscan dissidents known as Spirituals. This grouping were severely oppressed in Italy by ecclesiastical strictures. Yet he was more bookish and philosophical than those unfortunate radicals. Roger Bacon was a very unusual thinker by the standards of his time, and his commitment to Franciscan ideals was apparently multi-faceted. See further Jeremiah Hackett, ed., Roger Bacon and the Sciences (1997); Hackett, “Roger Bacon” (2007) in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/roger-bacon. See also Shepherd, Psychology in Science, 1983, pp. 73-81; id., Some Philosophical Critiques, pp. 203-208.

The supreme irony involved in the plight of the Spirituals was that this party wished to live the more strict life promoted by the Franciscan founder instead of the diluted career imposed by the theological establishment. Francis of Assisi (d.1226) had become a legend within a few decades, his example inspiring different streams of Christian outlook. The academic theologians were the victors. The pursuit of reliable detail in the biography of Francis has to reckon with two religious orders he created, the second being for women, and known as the Poor Clares. Francis is notable for emphasising that money, property, and learning could lead to severe setbacks from the spiritual perspective (Adrian House, Francis of Assisi, 2000, p. 237). His attitude to learning appears to have been that prestigious clerics needed to renounce their accomplishments if and when becoming Franciscan friars.

21.4  The Celtic Monks and Hermits


Memorial to the Celtic monk Aidan at Holy Island, Lindisfarne

The Franciscan Spirituals might have pined in their dire captivity for the much earlier lifestyle of the Celtic monks and hermits who occupied far-flung sites in the British Isles before the Viking invasions. Iona and Lindisfarne were two major island retreats of these migrant Irish who had such different habits to the later cloistered programme which replaced them. “They had a distinctive eremitical ideal of flight to solitary places, and in this way occupied many islands off the British coastline, a haven from plague and political intrigue; their affinity with nature and their simple habitats contrasted with the opulence of the clerics of Rome and their satellites” (Some Philosophical Critiques, p. 192).

Numerous monks left Ireland to “seek more penitential surroundings on the rocky islands off the west coast from Skellig to Aran” and “in the remote islands to the west and north of Scotland as far as Iceland.” (Tomas O Fiaich, “Irish Monks on the Continent” (101-139) in James P. Mackey, ed., An Introduction to Celtic Christianity, 1995, p. 103). These monks also emigrated to countries in Western Europe. “The primary motive was ascetical rather than evangelical” (ibid.).

The specific features of Irish monasticism have been much discussed. Asceticism and study were complementary features of the phenomenon. The native schools of druids and related categories in pre-Christian Ireland have been invoked as one explanation for the study aptitude. “Owing to the Celtic, as distinct from the imperial, character of Irish civilisation, many small features of monastic life in Ireland have no parallels elsewhere” (John Ryan, Irish Monasticism: Origins and Early Development, second edn 1972, pp. 408-9).

Iona and Lindisfarne were centres of more outgoing activities. Columba (d.597) of Iona is often described as the leader of the Irish mission to Caledonia (Scotland), but this had some rather different attributes to the Roman mission to Britain associated with Pope Gregory. Yet the scope of information is restricted. A famous biography of Columba written by the abbot Adomnan is a hagiography consisting almost entirely of miracle stories; the subject had been dead for a century by the time that work was composed. See Adomnan of Iona, Life of St. Columba, trans. Richard Sharpe (1995).

Another monk at Iona was Aidan (d.651), and there are some fairly reliable details about him preserved by Bede. He selected Lindisfarne island as his base. Aidan spoke Gaelic and had to learn the native Northumbrian language when he was made a bishop. He supervised the building on his island of a simple church, which was no more than a rectangular wooden hut thatched with reeds. The primitive monastic buildings here were easily destroyed by the Vikings at a later date. Those buildings are thought to have included the typical refectory and kitchen, library and scriptorium. The Irish permitted dormitories for novices, but the older monks had private cells or huts.

Aidan is said to have accomplished most of his laborious journeys on foot, travelling like a serf, disdaining the use of a horse preferred by noblemen. When gifted with a horse, he gave it away to a beggar. He maintained the Irish esteem for books; these monks are said to have assimilated not merely canonical texts, but old Irish mythology, Latin classics by authors like Virgil, and apocryphal scriptures forbidden by the Roman church. “Aldhelm, a Saxon of the early eighth century who received much of his education from Irish monks, described the thorough grounding in grammar, mathematics, physics and exegesis that was taught by them” (Brendan Lehane, Early Celtic Christianity, 1968, p. 145).

Meanwhile, the Celtic evangelical missions in Britain lost out to the Roman mission that spread extensively from Kent amongst the Saxons. The disputed Celtic tonsure was only one indication of the differences between the two monastic traditions. The Saxon monk Bede (c.672-735) commemorated Aidan in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, though he was a member of the Roman camp. Bede was a learned Benedictine monk of Northumbria. The Synod of Whitby in 664 caused the Irish bishop Colman to retreat from Lindisfarne and return to Iona with most of the Irish and a few Saxon monks. Bede wrote of Colman and his group that their austere ways involved owning no property except cattle; any money they received from the rich they would immediately give away to the poor.


The Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library)

Some two generations after the death of Aidan, the Lindisfarne monastery produced the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. This illuminated manuscript was the work of the Saxon monk Eadfrith, who was bishop of Lindisfarne until 721. Both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic motifs are represented. The Lindisfarne manuscript rivals the Book of Kells, the creation of Celtic monks which may have commenced at Iona and been finished at the abbey of Kells in Ireland at c. 800 A.D.

The radical sixth century Irish monk who became known as Columbanus (d.615) demonstrated a rugged lifestyle on the Continent that is illustrative of Celtic monasticism prior to Romanisation and clerical control (see G.S.M. Walker, ed., Sancti Columbani Opera, 1970). This very outspoken monk was in friction with lax ecclesiastics of Gaul, and he also wrote a letter to Pope Gregory refusing to compromise Celtic ways. He and his monks farmed and trekked long distances, even over the Alps. They founded the monastery of Luxeuil, though the offshoots adopted the Benedictine Rule.

21.5  John Scottus Eriugena

A later figure was John Scottus Eriugena, a ninth century scholar and philosopher who lived in Gaul and who mastered Greek. He marks a different trend to the earlier monastic temperament. Neoplatonist elements are here strongly visible (see, e.g., Dermot Moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena, 1989). To be more specific, Eriugena was a Christian Neoplatonist, basically using Christian sources written in Greek. He was only partially acquainted with Plato via the Timaeus. Eriugena is thought to have been born in Ireland c. 800 A.D., and he may have been a monk. His major work reflects a distinctive Neoplatonist philosophical system, cast in the form of a dialogue. The Periphyseon (De Divisione Naturae) was condemned as heretical in the thirteenth century for promoting the identity of God and creation. However, the author also maintained divine transcendence.

Eriugena has been described as a more systematic thinker than Augustine of Hippo (d.430). He argued for the compatibility of reason and revelation, though close analysis has emphasised that his philosophical standpoint credited reason as primary and religious authority as secondary. “Above all, Eriugena is a mystic who emphasises the unity of human nature with God.” This quote comes from Dermot Moran, “John Scottus Eriugena” (2004) in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. One theme in the “pantheism” of the Periphyseon is that an elect group can achieve deificatio, which signifies a complete mergence with God. A thousand years later, Eriugena was claimed by Hegelians as a precursor of German Idealism, though there are subtleties which may contradict that assumption.

21.6  Antony the Copt

The earlier events of the Desert Fathers phenomenon had long ago been appropriated by ecclesiastical hierarchies. Athanasius (d.373) was the primary agency here. This Bishop of Alexandria wished to create a unified and orthodox Egyptian church, and with this objective he composed the influential Life of Antony, a document which has since been very sceptically assessed. The third/fourth century Antony the Hermit (c.251-356) here became the paradigmatic exemplar of the Coptic monks and anchorites. His orthodox guise in the version by Athanasius cannot be taken at face value. Readers should “not treat the Life of Antony as a source of historical information about the real Antony, but as a piece of social discourse between Athanasius and his readers” (David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, OUP 1995, p. 202).

The Life of Antony is substantially hagiographical; the preferred image of Antony as a simple-minded supporter of Athanasius is strongly offset by other documents. The long neglected epistles of Antony have been described in terms of “the obvious dependence on popular Platonic philosophy and Alexandrian theological tradition reveals that the author was no ‘ignorant monk’ who had simply exchanged the garb of the peasant for the monastic habit” (Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, Fortress Press, 1995, p. 11). The author of those epistles was a literate follower of Origen expressing some pointed mystical emphases. The epistles have been shown to be authentic, though they were for long doubted in this respect. Athanasius evidently preferred to believe that Antony had rejected gnosis and reasoning in favour of faith. One should never have faith in hagiographies. (See also my Some Philosophical Critiques, p. 305 note 572).


Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. Page uploaded August 2008, last modified September 2011.