The sign of the cross
I couldn’t quite believe my ears when I was listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury head to head with John Humphrys on his new radio programme. I had to check it out on the script posted on the web.
For those of you who don’t follow the highlights of BBC Radio 4, Humphrys – the rottweiler of the Today programme and a religious sceptic – has a new series in which he interviews faith leaders to see if they can provide some convincing reasons to believe. Part of the appeal of this is to see whether he gives these venerable gentlemen the kind of treatment he usually metes out to some hapless junior minister. “Let me be quite clear. You’re claiming that God does not have a beard.”
First up was Rowan Williams. He’s a very clever man, who held a lectureship in Cambridge and a Chair in Oxford before moving onto higher things. (You can find an excellent introduction to his theology by the religion editor of the TLS, Rupert Shortt.) The interview in fact had more of the feeling of a Cambridge supervision than a Today programme grilling. But Williams got into severe difficulties at various points.
After coming close to denying that serious violence had ever been committed in the name of Christianity, he eventually admitted the Crusades had been “a bad episode” – which is a classic example of being economical with the truth. And he really didn’t seem to have the bottle to tell Humphrys, who was pressing him on this issue, that unless he mended his religious ways he was liable –- according to the rule book -- to end up in a rather fiery place after death..
But this wasn’t why I checked out the script. It was because of what Williams had to say about the relations between pagans and Christians in the Roman empire – a subject which is close to my own academic patch.
It was in the context of whether Christians have a track record of forcing their views on others, either now or then. Williams seemed to feel on safer ground with the early church than with the modern world. To quote him (punctuation and spelling corrected by me from the, almost incomprehensible, BBC version):
It's what happened at the very beginning of the church’s life. The church didn't simply blaze out into the Greco-Roman world saying “Here's the truth. You must believe it”. They said, “Look -- this is what you say, and that's very interesting as it echoes with what we say; and, if we talk this through, you might find that what you're saying has a much fuller expression in what we're saying.”
If this is Williams’s view of relations between Christians and pagans (or, should we less prejudicially say “polytheists”?), then he’s been reading a different selection of early Christians texts from me. There may be some parts of high-minded Christian philosophy that see things in these terms. And St Augustine certainly had a soft spot from classical Roman learning (especially Cicero). But most of the surviving tracts purvey a mixture of horrified outrage (at such ideas of animal sacrifice to the Roman emperor) and knockabout ridicule (of, for example, the goings-on of the various immoral gods and goddesses).
He must have read them – so has he simply forgotten the writings of that hard-line Chriistian ideologue Tertullian, who certainly had no truck with any part of traditional paganism? And has he forgotten the rather more appealing Minucius Felix, who tells a whole series of jokes about just how stupid is the idea of a multitude of gods in human form? And what about the pagan reaction to all this. Even if it wasn’t as continuous a persecution as we often imagine, some Christians really did end up with the lions.
The touchy-feely view of Greco-Roman ecumenism has, I am afraid, more to do with the generous, academic tolerance of the Archbishop himself, than with anything thought or practised by the motley crew of fundamentalist early Christians and what some Romans saw as an ancient Jihad.