Sunday, March 10, 2013

Aesthetic Irresponsibility in a Broad and Gentle Land (Part III)

     I finished reading W. E. D. Allen's A History of the Georgian People a few weeks back.  I found the work to be an altogether satisfying read.  Historians rarely write in this manner these days--he was talented, enthusiastic, and a bit idiosyncratic.  Allen could present the sweeping overview, as well as the detailed specificity of an event, and do so in an engaging manner.  He was not afraid to launch off into entertaining tangents. 

     His last sentence in the book is typical:

But the Georgians could always laugh, and laughter, where high principle goes down, can survive terror and it can outlive Empires.

      In places, however, the author tells us more about himself, his own prejudices and conceits, than he does his subject matter.  One such area concerns religion in Georgia.  A native of Northern Ireland, Allen (1901-1973) was very much a product of his times.  He prefaces the chapter on the Georgian church with about three pages of pontifications on Christianity in general.  In short, he finds it mostly to be superstitious nonsense, which hindered the advance of knowledge--"progress," if you will.  And perhaps reflecting his Ulster roots, Allen displays a militant antagonism towards the priesthood--any priesthood.  In its place, he offered up his own tortured modern nonsense.  A few selections illustrute his sentiments pretty clearly.

The vastness of the influence enjoyed by the Churches during the Middle a monument to the credulity [and] ...the intellectual laziness...of the human mind.

The teaching of Christ--that lean and gentle Cynic, that humanistic Lover of men and of nature, than outspoken Paladin of the deceived, that Hater of the mean and hypocritical, bears as little relation to the body of the Church, as an oak tree, gleaming in the sun and freshened for ever by the winds, bears to an oak coffin, covered with homilies inscribed in silver and having inside the emptiness of death.

The Church--organized religion--is, like any other corporate institution, a product of the human mind....And long before the Christian era, the human mind, a credulous mind, had already created the wherewithal to satisfy its credulity--priesthoods which at once lived upon and satisfied "the believer."  For the human mind in its pathetic aching for finality, for an attainable perfection, always sets up fetishes, the idealization of hopes and the contrary embodiment of fears--religions and social systems--that encumber it.  And this will go on, in religion and in politics, until men realized, as they have been taught by experience, that there is no foreseeable finality; that all with change and that change is the salt of life; that faith rests in themselves; that divinity, untouchable and not to be imagined, rests here around ourselves and lies forward in the spaceless spaces of eternity.

The Georgian Church went the way of all other churches.  The bleak strong spirits built it--and passed into a memory revered and neglected by their sanctimonious successors.   The priest-mind took the rough clean spirit of the Founder and the rugged sacrifices of these old and dim-remembered men who found in it a divine message for humanity; and violent and abortive, cunning and obsequious, the priest-mind turned it into the sour wine of the Mediaeval church. 

It is difficult to appreciate the extent to which the Church checked the development of human knowledge during the Middle Ages. 

     You get the picture.  I believe Allen's modern British sensibilities blinded him to an essential element of the Georgian character.  He encountered Georgia during the Soviet era, and did not live long enough to witness the latter's passing.  Perhaps he would be incredulous by the resiliancy and vibrancy of their faith today.  Laughter is not the only thing that survives.

1 comment:

James the Thickheaded said...

Interesting note on the pretenses of the English author. Thanks!

The temptation of the moment is to see Allen's writing as indicative of a British type in which faith simply fails to seed, and proceed to characterize the nation unfairly as inherently hostile ("and always has been") to faith... even saying British reformation was inherently political and focused on power than it was fundamental and focused on faith, or "of course English individuality would be more involved in liturgical style than ecclesial understanding and so prove the spawn of disunion rather than concord..." or similar blather. But then there's the possibility that in 100 or 200 years, a resurgence might ratify a different view that in Britain's harsh soil, true faith has always been much more commonly a matter of outposts Iona, where it may be hard to seed, but once seeded it is equally hardy and like English Ivy itself, almost impossible to remove.