Historical “Amnesia” Supports Religious Faith

Over at HuffPo Religion, Diana Butler Bass asks: “Is Western Christianity Suffering from Spiritual Amnesia?”  Her affirmative answer is simultaneously strange and naive.  Most religions avoid objective histories of their origins and development for good reason: history — far more than science — corrodes religious faith.

Butler begins her article by explaining that she was teaching history at an evangelical college, an (oxymoronic) institution “where the students were serious young Christians.”  She continues:

One day, lecturing on the medieval church and the Crusades, I explained how in 1095 Pope Urban II launched a holy war against Muslims. Most of the students took notes. One young woman, looking very worried by the idea of Christians starting a war, shot up her hand. “Professor,” she began, clearly wanting to blame Roman Catholics for the affair, “what did the Protestants say about this?”

“Well,” I answered slowly, “there were no Protestants in 1095.” I did not have the heart to tell her that Protestantism would not exist until more than four hundred years later.

I find it astonishing that a college professor lacked the “heart” to teach one of her students about the basic history of the Christian religion.  I find it equally astonishing that as a non-Christian, I know more about the history of Christianity than any of my Christian friends.  Although I am more than willing to discuss this history with them, none seem interested.  There is a reason for their disinterest.

Before I get to that, I want to examine Butler’s explanation for Christians’ general lack of interest in (or ignorance of) the history of their faith:

At the present juncture of history, Western Christianity is suffering from a bad case of spiritual amnesia. Even those who claim to be devout or conservative often know little about the history of their faith traditions. Our loss of memory began more than two centuries ago, at the high tide of the Enlightenment. As modern society developed, the condition of broken memory — being disconnected from the past — became more widespread. Indeed, in the words of one French Catholic thinker, the primary spiritual dilemma of contemporary religion is the “loss and reconstruction” of memory.

In some ways, understanding the loss is easy. Many modern thinkers wanted to forget. To them, European Christianity was a trash heap of magic, superstition, and repressive tradition, a faith needing to be enlightened by Reason and Science. The medieval world was like a stained-glass window in one of Christendom’s ancient cathedrals — pretty, perhaps, but you cannot see through it. As the Middle Ages ended, rationalists and revolutionaries smashed the cathedral windows to let in the clear light of human progress.

While it is true that the light thrown on religion by Enlightenment “Reason and Science” often revealed ugliness and untruth, these revelations were largely the indirect result of new ways of thinking.  It was the subsequent historicizing of Christianity that truly challenged the faithful.

In 1870, F. Max Muller established a new discipline — the history of religions — in four lectures later published as Introduction to the Science of Religion.  As explained by Hans Kippenberg in Discovering Religious History in the Modern Age, Muller’s approach to religious history was largely linguistic or philological:

In his first series of lectures in London in 1870, Muller presented the hypothesis that only a linguistic classification of religions guaranteed a reliable basis for scientific inquiry.  Muller concentrated on the linguistics of religion to achieve an insight into their early history.

Muller’s hypothesis bore its greatest fruit in Germany, where large numbers of scholars began intensively studying the earliest Christian writings and the process through which the Bible was constructed.  What these scholars — nearly all of whom were Christians — discovered made it difficult for them to accept that the Bible was literally “God’s word” or “divinely inspired” word.  Instead, they found there was a large body of early Christian writings, and that the process by which some were chosen for inclusion (“canonization”) in the Bible and others were excluded was quite human — driven as much by personal and political interests as by doctrinal ones.

The acerbic and lengthy contest over canonization aside, these scholars also found that the writings which were ultimately included in the Bible were often inconsistent with one another and had changed over time as various scribes not merely copied the writings, but also amended them.  One of these philologists was Friedrich Nietzsche, a brilliant linguist (fluent in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin) and later a philosopher, who found it odd that the earliest Christian writings contained so many spelling and grammar errors.  This prompted him to quip: “I find it strange that when God decided to write, he used such poor grammar and was a bad speller.”

As this philological approach to religion progressed, it became apparent that history — more than science — challenged faith and exposed religions as human pursuits, arising in particular times and places for particular reasons.  This historicizing of religions prompted some believers, such as Mircea Eliade, to claim that religions were a category apart and could not be studied using historical or scientific methods.

In previous posts, I have noted that religions of more recent vintage face greater difficulties than older religions.  Why?  Older religions (such as Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) can remain shrouded in faith-enhancing mystery, whereas newer religions are often birthed in places where the historical record is detailed and damning.  Mormons, in particular, suffer from this problem.  This accounts for the many “histories” that are generated by the Mormon Church — they need to sanitize the past rather than “forget it.”  Whenever a non-Mormon scholar produces a history of the faith, Mormon “scholars” inevitably generate disputations and assert that “outsiders” cannot write Mormon history.  Mormons are not alone in claiming that secular scholars cannot write religious histories.

Commenting on this, one historian of religion has noted:

Religion is too important to be left in the hands of people who believe in it. Finally, historians are coming to grips with this simple truth.

The careful and sustained study of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism has been carried out primarily by scholars who profess some version of the faith they study. This has produced some wonderful work, and I am not suggesting that belief is a barrier to successful scholarship.

But this religious demography of scholarship does narrow the inventory of perspectives brought to the field, and once in place it is self-reinforcing: it can create the impression that religious history belongs mostly to the religious, and that historians of a more secular orientation will compromise their secularity by getting involved at all.

The current increase of interest in religion on the part of scholars in this field follows in large part from the breaking of the connection between belief and the object of study.

Given this history of the history of religious scholarship, it is hard to agree with Butler’s claim that “we inhabit a post-traditional world — a world of broken memory — in which some tell [religious] history badly, others do not know it at all, and still others use history to manipulate people to their own ends. All contemporary faiths struggle with lost memory.”

There are good reasons for fabricating religious histories or not knowing the history of one’s faith: such histories humanize religion and corrode faith.  This is not amnesia — it is a deliberate forgetting or not wanting to know.


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6 thoughts on “Historical “Amnesia” Supports Religious Faith

  1. Diana Butler Bass

    Actually, that’s not what I asked. I asked if it was suffering from “spiritual” amnesia–an entirely different question. It would help to get the quote right.

  2. admin Post author

    Thanks for noting that mistake — I’ll correct the title misquote. The issue remains, however, not “spiritual” amnesia but a lack of historical knowledge surrounding one’s faith.

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