Faith convictions

I was asked a perplexing question recently. I had just spoken at a postgraduate seminar in Trinity College Dublin, delivering a paper called ‘”The allegory of so lamentable history”: The Old Testament influence on Bede’s understanding of apocalypse’ (see last abstract here for a similar, earlier paper). In it, I basically argued that Bede, an Anglo-Saxon historian in the eighth century, used the Bible to understand how the end would come for his people, and particularly that he used the book of Amos as a model for criticising corrupt elites.

Many medieval writers used the Bible in some sense to comment on or understand their own day, but some, likeGildas and to an extent Bede, saw in it actual prophecies of what was to come in their people’s history. All of which is pretty heavy going, I admit, but that is the world I am trying to decipher and analyse for my doctorate. The paper went well and there were good questions (and people had paid attention to our papers, which is a bonus). At the end the chairperson, a theology graduate, asked about the difference between theology and ideology in Bede’s work. In all honesty, I said that Bede would not necessarily have drawn a distinction: as far as he was concerned, a perfectly Christian kingdom was the ideal that the Anglo-Saxons should aspire to, and his work was partially designed to encourage the development of such a kingdom.

The chairperson felt that the use of the Bible to advocate national agendas was a travesty, a view I can fully understand although it does not apply to early medieval writing. As far as Bede was concerned, what he was doing was using the Bible to show how the English were part of a united Christianity: if the Bible and its messages could be shown to apply to the English, then that meant they were definitively part of the wider Christian world and were as important a part of it as somewhere like Rome. I appreciate that this is difficult to get across; I have spent more than a year working on this so it seems second nature to me. However, the chairperson came from a theological perspective, and a modern one at that, so it seemed like a travesty to use the Bible in this way. As I said, I understood where he was coming from.

After the meeting had broken up, he asked my colleague and I about our faith convictions. I wasn’t enormously pleased about this, as I believe such things are personal and you shouldn’t be put on the spot about them, although I know he did not mean anything by it really. But I had to think quickly to try and sum up some ambivalent and unarticulated thoughts that have bubbled away in my brain. It reminded me of the immigration forms for Abu Dhabi, which ask you to specify religion and sect: these signifiers of identity can mean a great deal while also meaning one must step outside old familiar zones. I gave a probably wholly unsatisfying answer referring to nominality, acceptance, etc, summed up with “I’m neutral but friendly”.

In history, we always strive for (or at least are supposed to strive for) objectivity, removing ourselves from the subject and analysing it critically. Naturally, this can only ever be an aspiration: everybody has some interpretation or reading of the text that is affected by their experience to date. And there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, although it should be recognised at least.

I tend to approach things from a literary criticism point of view, although that is usually over-ruled by historical analysis. I think what the chairperson was really wondering was if our faith convictions had determined or influenced our papers, or our interpretation of how the writers used their sources (my colleague gave a paper on early modern uses of the Bible in apocalyptic scenarios). It did not: we merely examined how medieval historians had used the Bible as a source. But his question did make me think, and I am not sure I could ever give a proper answer.

[Cross-posted at Tiny Planet]

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4 thoughts on “Faith convictions

  1. First good luck with the new blog. Can I ask what area your doctoral research is on? Medieval studies are a hobby for me; I’m an amateur so no competition. 🙂

    We may try for neutrality but I don’t think we can ever achieve it. Neutrality is an allusion. I think our philosophy (and theology) effects how we interpret what we read. That is what makes theology still a very active area of research; each generation brings a new philosophy and context to their study.

    Michelle of Heavenfield

  2. I’m working on the eschatology of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. My argument is that the miracles, visions, and general structural eclecticism of book 5 (which most historians avoid) are central to the overall text and show how apocalyptic concerns shaped how Bede wrote history. People’s eyes tend to glaze over when I tell them that!

    I agree that neutrality can never be fully achieved, although we can get close. But then again if everybody was truly neutral scholarship might get a bit boring: new perspectives keep things interesting.

  3. Sounds interesting to me. Most people don’t want to hear about how Bede’s exegesis is related to or informs how we read the History. Afterall, it was his exegesis that convinced the powers that be that he was the man to write the History. We often overlook how well Bede was sponsored, with sending researchers off to Rome for him and all. Bede’s last chapter is often overlooked, almost as much as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s last chapter.

    So does Bede think that the English church must mature before the apocalypse? I guess the seemly benign miracles are the key to the last book?

  4. Yes, the History tends to be read separately, or at least not fully in the context of, Bede’s exegesis, which moulded how he thought and read his sources. This will be a big part of my work as I will use analysis of his exegetical methodology to examine his history; I suppose I’m studying Bede the historian as much as Bede’s History.

    What I argued in my MA was that Bede believed the English were in need of a second conversion, an internal one rather than the superficial one he saw around him and depicted in the Letter to Egbert. What I touched on then, and am expanding on now, is that he believed the English had fallen into the same condition as the Britons before they were conquered by the Anglo-Saxons (a view taken from Gildas), down to describing both as living in “spiritual death”. So part of my argument is that he includes the miracles and visions as wake-up calls.

    It’s still early days though, but this is the core of part one of the thesis (for now at least).

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