If we take Protestant to mean 'member of a group that believes in God according to a particular set of theologically, historically and culturally determined attitudes (defined in part by a set of differences to Catholic religious practice)...' then I'm not one. It has always sounded to my ears slightly mealy-mouthed to talk of being a Protestant 'culturally speaking'. I'll explain what I mean. To begin with, I'd say the chief mistake Dawkins and his supporters make is in assuming that 'religion' is reducible to a series of quasi-positivist assertions about the cosmos that can be tested and falsified -- because religion is also, and perhaps much more, a social praxis, a community, an identity, a set of rituals and ethical foundations, a personal orientation towards the universe, a particular sort of openness and attentiveness and so on; and none of that is falsifiable in the facile way Dawkins thinks. But if that's right, then there is surely a sort-of mirroring error in thinking that it's possible simply to syphon off
all the metaphysical and theological 'matter' of religion, as if they are not important. It seems to me they are crucially important, to many and perhaps most of the individuals who consider themselves 'religious'. It would be, clearly, insultingly insufficient to define faith as a tick-box list of axioms of belief; but it follows that there would be a related set of insufficiencies in thinking that 'growing up in a culture shaped by Protestantism' adds-up to anything substantive where religion is concerned. I've always liked (because I applaud its vehemence and sympathise with its sentiment) Philip Pullman's claim that he is an atheist but a Church of England
atheist, and in fact a 1662 Book of Common Prayer
atheist. Still, I must concede that this rather beautiful claim stops with its toes on the very lip of the chasm, that same chasm that Kierkegaard's Knight spurs his horse precisely to o'erleap. That chasm, or the passage beyond it, is the real heart of a religious life, I suspect.
But these caveats having been registered, of course there is a sense in which I'm a Protestant. I was reminded of this by reading an article in yesterday's TLS
[Arnold Hunt, 'Hands Together, Eyes Closed', TLS
(Feb 14 2014), 24-25], being a review of Alec Ryrie's Being Protestant in Reformation Britain
(OUP 2013). Reviewer Hunt opens by summarising an early attempt to 'distil the essence of Protestantism in a few words', from Charles and Katherine George's The Protestant Mind of the English Reformation
(1962). The Protestant mind, it seems,
was "compulsive, repetitive, insecure, aggressive". It was "extremely, sometimes unbearably, serious." It was also "arrogant and wordy", but it was marked by "moral earnestness and the duty and courage of decision". For the Georges, the archetypal Protestant was Oliver Cromwell, "whole, intense, activist, pious."
Hunt notes that Ryrie builds on this definition.
Ryrie's definition of Protestantism is not so different from that of the Georges. Protestantism, he suggests, was "intense, restless, progressive". It took religion very seriously; it craved authenticity and dreaded hypocrisy; it was marked by a "sense of endless struggle", "unceasing self-discipline" and a "pervasive intellectual tendency to anatomize and subdivide." Above all it believed in the importance of being earnest. ... He acknowledges that Protestantism could be cruelly demanding, even "frankly pathological", in the burdens it imposed on its adherents. Yet it could also be deeply passionate in its expressions of "rapture", "ravishment" and ecstatic union with God.
Bracket the 'God' part for a moment (that's some bracket, I know) and I recognise myself in much of this. I recognise my younger self in almost all of it. Two important events in my own if-you'll-excuse-my-pomposity-for-a-moment intellectual development were my discovery of Freud on the one hand (at an early age, thanks to my mother) and Postmodernism on the other (much later on in my adult life, actually). From the latter I have taken an, I think, saving suspicion of 'authenticity' and all its jargon, and a way of thinking-through the love I feel for certain modes of irony. From the former comes a deep-seated sense that 'hypocrisy' in a non-pejorative sense is actually a central part of the way human subjectivity works. Also: these two descriptions of 'The Protestant mind' (I mean, the descriptions up there by the Georges and by Ryrie) have nothing to say about humour
, something that has, for perhaps rather psychologically unhealthy reasons, always been immensely important to me. I was thinking of saying 'I'd
certainly add humour into the Protestant mix'; but then I had second thoughts. It's part of the mix of later
Protestantism, I think. It's certainly a key part -- along, I think, with a related suspicion of fundamentalist 'authenticity' and 'earnestness' -- in Matthew Arnold, whom I studied fairly intensely for a while as a PG.* Latterly I've been digging into Coleridge, from whom of course Arnold took a lot, and there's a similar quicksilver love of the funny and ironic there too. Both those Protestants are often actively hilarious in their own writing, too. I might also quote another famous Protestant, Kierkegaard. In Stages on Life’s Way
(1845) he says: ‘the more one suffers, the more, I believe, has one a sense for the comic. It is only by the deepest suffering that one acquires true authority in the use of the comic, an authority which by one word transforms as by magic the reasonable creature one calls man into a caricature.’ So in a sense what I'm saying is that the Protestant thinkers and writers I know best turn out to be 19th-century. What a surprise
! The two books quoted above are about an earlier epoch, and I daresay reflect the cultural flavour of that time perfectly well.
And, the exceptions noted in this paragraph aside, they send the shudder of recognition up my spine.
* My PhD started out as Swinburne and the Classics; then it morphed into a comparative study of Swinburne and Browning and the Classics. Eventually it became Browning and the Classics (mostly Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes). This was because, looking at the two side-by-side, it occurred to me that Browning is just a much, much better poet than Swinburne. We tell our postgrads that a completed PhD is a sort of textual iceberg: the actual submitted thesis will not contain, but will nonetheless only poke up above the waterline because of, the nine-tenths of stuff that isn't visible ... all the work on contexts and parallels and related matters, all the intellectual alleyways explored that in the event led nowhere and so on. For my own PhD Swinburne was a great chunk of that nine-tenths, and I've never gotten around to doing anything with all that. But Arnold was also a big element. I read him for his classical criticism and poetry in the first instance, and that led me onto his other stuff. Earlier this term I stepped into the lecture theatre to talk for an hour about him to second years, and as I was going through the Culture and Anarchy motions, and looking at a couple of indicative poems, I found myself thinking: wow, I'd forgotten just how much of a shaping force he has been in my own view of the world, old Laleham Matt. But I digress.
So, yes, I often feel 'Protestant'. My friend and colleague Robert Eaglestone is a Catholic, and he and I will sometimes chat about the differences in our worldview, differences that have little to do with our respective belief-statuses on the existence or non-existence of a personal God, and a great deal to do with the way Protestant and Catholic cultural identities have such deep, conflicted historical roots in British society. My maternal grandfather was a Church of England vicar. My father was, as a medical student, an Evangelical Christian. By the time they had me, both my parents had moved away from religion. For my Dad this was, I think, a more-or-less simple repudiation, quasi-Dawkinsesque (although of course avant la lettre
) and Protestant itself insofar as it manifests, to this day, in a tendency to get angry about the hypocrisies of 'religious people' in the world. For my mother it was a more complex business, I suspect. My sense is that gender played a part there. My mother was a feminist at a time (in the 50s and 60s) before it was common, and long before it became the default attitude of sensible people. I suspect a lot of her reaction against Christianity had to do with her sense that it was just so masculinist
, that it had so little of worth to say about female experience, and was indeed so prone to marginalising and demonising women. She has certainly never been a simple scientific positivist about religion; and when she's in one of her more Welsh moods will wax almost mystical about spiritual, or poetic, matters. Her Dad died when she was a teenager (years before my own birth) and I'm sure that played into it. At any rate, I was raised atheist. I mean, I was raised specifically to question and interrogate religious matters from the position of healthy skepticism, not that I was raised in a religious vacuum. Religion was earnestly discussed. Plus of course I grew up in a culture that was Protestant. At my (State Grammar) school in Kent we all had to sit through a religious C-of-E assembly every morning; we all had to take RE and attend regular services at Canterbury Cathedral. Protestant architecture, literature and culture was all around. Moving into academia, and specialising in the nineteenth-century, necessitated the work of familiarising myself with religious matters. Nobody can properly grok Victorian literature and culture without a working knowledge of the Bible, a sense of the XXXIX Articles and a good deal of social history about the religious quotidian. So there's that.
And, despite my location on the wrong side of the crevasse, there's a lot I like about the peculiarly English version of Protestantism with which I grew up. Some of this liking is a matter of distant but still significant tribal allegiance of course, like supporting England at football, or considering the English landscape the most beautiful in the world. Which is to say: I'm perfectly well aware that these are biases predicated upon the accident of being born in a certain land at a certain time. 'Being aware', though, is probably the best we can do with those. I know intellectually, and try actively to live my life in the knowledge, that there's nothing special about England in the larger sense; but it still feels special to the child-core of my brain. I like the Church's non dogmatic approach to the actual question of faith; I like its (recent, but still) hospitality to gay communicants and clergy, and to women priests. But these are happenstance ideological consonances, and as an outsider I've really no place even commenting.
Or is that right? As a product of this culture, surely I'm entitled to a view. And the 'ideology' is not marginal to this faith. One of the things I find most compelling about Christianity is precisely its radical concern with the excluded, the un-chosen people, the scums and bums. As I said somewhere else, once, there may be a tacitly self-serving aspect to this: because now that it has become the dominant religion on the planet, the key category of excluded becomes 'unbelievers', like me. So, in appropriately paradoxical mode, only an atheist can truly
be a Christian now. This may come over merely as glib; but I hope not. It is (or it seems to me) an observation both profound and important. More conventionally, I can't deny that 'Protestantism' is the structure of belief that shaped most of the literature (and art more generally) that I love; some of the greatest literature the world has ever seen. It shaped science fiction, or so I argue
; and remains in the genre's DNA and is still ubiquitous in the mode as a sort of scintillant spectral presence visible behind the manifest contents of the many texts still being produced. My own peculiar literary
predilections mean I especially like that Christianity is a faith of the book. I don't mean this in the sense that it has its Bible at the heart of it (as Islam has its Qu'ran, and Judaism its Torah), compelling though that fact is. I mean in the sense that Christianity, uniquely, is a religion structured around the arrow of historical narrative
One the one hand, in common with other major world religions, Christianity asks us to believe that God is not only coeval with the cosmos (the creation of which, though it happened a long time ago, is not lost in the backward abysm of an infinite past) but the chief cause of that creation. On the other, it says that, from the human perspective, God did not come into his own until a specific moment in history. A strict reading of Christianity as a salvational discourse, combined with a strict sense that it is only through Christ that salvation can be achieved, is tacitly a faith that dismisses billions of years, and many millions of human lives. Some iterations of Christian faith have addressed this issue straight on; the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, for instance, enact a policy of retroactive baptism, as if temporality were a sort of inconvenience, a simple obstacle to be overcome. But the notion that ‘we’ are saved, where all those who were born before us are ‘lost’ is a more profound thing than this. It reflects (as Heidegger probably says somewhere) the brute fact of our coming into an already existing world—the horrifying realisation that the world got-along perfectly well for enormous gulfs of time before we were here, and will do so again after our departure. The Christian story, in other words, puts God into the position of every human being: it articulates His belatedness. The sense that ‘we’ are special, because we have been born after Christ’s incarnation rather than before, in fact stands as a kind of photographic negative of the true state of affairs. It is that ‘we’ are precisely not special; that we are latecomers. In John 20:29, Christ himself puts a brave spin on the losses necessarily entailed by existential belatedness. ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed. How blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ This I have always assumed is an extension of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount; that the poor are more blessed than the rich, the hurt more blessed than hale and so on. It simultaneously finds consolation in loss and acknowledges that belatedness is a mode of poverty—that we can hardly not envy those who actually knew and saw Christ.
Indeed belatedness is integral to the Christian story. God for Christians is both father and son. Being a son means coming after one’s father; it is—not to be too literal-minded about it—a chronologically subsidiary relationship. It may also, of course, entail other sorts of belatedness; a desire to ‘live up to’ the achievements of the father and so on. But for this particular son, Christ, it includes within itself a transcendental folding back. For according to Christianity Christ is not merely a sort of belated temporal add-on to the divine principle, a secondary god who was budded off from the primary God just as BC swung on its invisible calendrical hinge around into AD. On the contrary, Christ is God, and God is Christ. Christ is a way of saying: God is at one and the same time prior and belated. In Islam, by way of contrast, Mohammed, peace be upon him, is only a man. As such his existential belatedness is no more and no less than that of any other human being. And although he appears relatively late in the larger narrative of the cosmos, Allah has prepared the way via a succession of increasingly important and wise prophets, a line which Mohammed fulfils and brings to a kind of climax. Christ in the Christian tradition is quite otherwise. Though the prophets are there, behind him, he is not a prophet: he is God. His belated appearance in world-history is not the culmination of a succession that serves to reinforce the motion of time in the world (as in Islam); it is a sort of contradiction of the idea of chronology at all.
I've written previously about the implication of this for (to pick one example) Milton's Paradise Lost
. Actually, the essay at the end of that link is quite long and dry, so you may have better things to do with your time than click it. More to the point is this briefer meditation on the pleasantly colourful Le baptême de Clovis painting
which makes the same argument in a much shorter space.
So, yeah, I find all that hermeneutic-knot stuff fascinating ('God tells Abraham to kill his son to guarantee his succession; but his son is
his succession!' and so on). And actually this is not a reading of 'Christianity' as such; it is (in the sense outlined at the top of this post) very much a Protestant iteration of the matter. Which brings me back to where I started. It's the shock of recognition, the realisation that these very far from flattering traits describe me, and especially describe me as a writer
: compulsive; repetitive; insecure; aggressive (maybe not that, but I'll certainly cop to passive-aggressive, and who's going to split hairs?); sometimes unbearably serious; arrogant and wordy (Jeez, wordy
hardly does my situation justice!). Why do I write so much? Why do I write at all
? Ryrie is onto something here, if only we replace the P-word with the W-word: 'Writing can be cruelly demanding, even frankly pathological, in the burdens it imposes on its adherents. Yet it can also be deeply passionate in its expressions of "rapture" and "ravishment".' There we are.