Thursday 18 November 2010

Afterlife Again

Reading John Williams's novel Stoner (of which more later), I came across this passage, describing his hero William Stoner's reading as a student:
'He spent much of the summer rereading the classical and medieval Latin poets, and especially their poems upon death. He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the Roman lyricists accepted the fact of death, as if the nothingness they faced were a tribute to the richness of the years they had enjoyed; and he marvelled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when they looked to that death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living.'
Doesn't this perfectly express what's right about the 'pagan' attitude to death and what's wrong about the Christian attitude - the one that leads all the way to Dylan's 'poor immigrant' who 'passionately hates his life and likewise fears his death'? The pagan's relaxed equanimity in the face of personal extinction seems attractive and humane. In fact, the more I learn about evolved late classical paganism, the more attractive it seems, and the more mystifying the takeover of Christianity becomes. The religion of late classical times seems to have been such an easygoing matter, to do with asserting cultural identity rather than searching one's conscience, observing the cult rituals rather than wrestling with the knotty business of belief. With due observance made, a person was free to go about the business of enjoying life, untroubled by thoughts of death and judgment. The supernatural world seemed very present but largely non-threatening and taken for granted, the gods very much like ourselves, apart from their special powers. The afterlife, in as much as there was one, seems to have been a hazy affair that was most unlikely to involve an ordinary person in eternal torments - there was nothing to be feared. Compare this with the ever-present horrors of Christian eschatology and the demands imposed by the Christian belief system on the individual conscience. How did such a joyless and painful world view make headway against the pleasures of pagansim? Perhaps it didn't - perhaps the reason for the phenomenal success of early Christianity was simply the power and beauty of Jesus's actual teachings, before they were distorted into the ugly forms of Christendom as The Church arose. Also, of course, Christendom was very clever at adopting and adapting the externals of paganism (and no doubt brutal in its suppression). I don't know - I'm no historian - but that the comfortable, civilised late pagan world embraced Christianity so quickly and completely (apart from Julian the Apostate's attempted fightback) has long seemed to me a great mystery. It surely can't all be explained by the conversion of Constantine - can it?


  1. The Christian attitude to death?

    Hmmm. What about e.g. Prudentius (translation by Helen Waddell), as sublimely set to music by Herbert Howells??

    Take him, earth, for cherishing,
    to thy tender breast receive him.
    Body of a man I bring thee,
    noble even in its ruin.

    Once was this a spirit's dwelling,
    by the breath of God created.
    High the heart that here was beating,
    Christ the prince of all its living.

    Guard him well, the dead I give thee,
    not unmindful of his creature
    shall he ask it: he who made it
    symbol of his mystery.

    Comes the hour God hath appointed
    to fulfil the hope of men,
    then must thou, in very fashion,
    what I give, return again.

    Not though ancient time decaying
    wear away these bones to sand,
    ashes that a man might measure
    in the hollow of his hand:

    Not though wandering winds and idle,
    drifting through the empty sky,
    scatter dust was nerve and sinew,
    is it given to man to die.

    Once again the shining road
    leads to ample Paradise;
    open are the woods again,
    that the serpent lost for men

    Take, O take him, mighty leader,
    take again thy servant's soul.
    Grave his name, and pour the fragrant
    balm upon the icy stone.

  2. It is indeed very beautiful Sir Watkin (as is the Howells) and you're right, there is no one Xtian attitude to death...

  3. Your post draws very much the lines I've followed. I was in the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead expo at the BM this afternoon, and what quickly became clear - apart from the awful overcrowding - is that the Egyptian religion was so completely rooted in a place and culture that unless you were born into it, the Egyptian way might easily have seemed just as opaque and baffling two and a half thousand years ago as it does today. Maybe some religions are so rooted in a particular culture that when the world changes their meaning fades away and they're left as empty shells. Perhaps this happened to paganism in the classical world. Christianity is eminently portable because it's an inside job, a personal meeting with god outside of time and place.

    Oh well, whatever the truth of it I have no idea. Perhaps a place to start is the notion that there is no personal god, no saviour is going to descend from the sky to sort out my problems, and heaven and hell aren't there to guide me either. What happens next is up to the individual and to the fates. At least this evades all that embittered blaming and excuses which engulf some sects. For some this may be a place to start, for others it will never be. We are all different.

  4. Well, I'm certainly no expert, but it always seemed to me that one of the reasons Christianity succeeded was because it spoke less of death and more about the importance of human life, at a time when life seemed to have little value. I haven't read it in a long time, but I remember Quo Vadis capturing the idea quite well.

  5. I doubt that there are any simple explanations for the eclipse of paganism by Christianity.

    Having said that, some commentators think that the provision of social welfare made a great impact. This was an integral part of Christianity from the very start (see the Acts of the Apostles, and cf. Madfolly's point about the importance of human life to the Christians). Paganism had nothing to compete with it, as witness the fact that Julian the Apostate attempted to create a wholly new pagan philanthropic system as a response to the Church's.

    A great problem in asessing this period is a tendency to read early Christianity anachronistically in the light of protestantism, with its characteristic individualism, agonised consciences, lack of joy, etc. (It doesn't help either that the form of Catholicism with which most English speakers are familiar is the Irish, which was heavily influenced by Jansenism (a sort of Calvinism for Catholics and just as grim).)

    At the same time paganism is often read with the rose-tinted spectacles of the Romantic Movement, which itself was (in part) a reaction against the said protestantism.

    In reality paganism had its tiresome aspects. The frequent rituals that had to be performed, the omens one had to watch out for, above all the sense of being constantly at the mercy of competing and capricious supernatural powers, no one of whom was ultimately more powerful than the others: paganism had no Saviour.

    Christians lived in the same intensely supernatural world (a world it is hard for us even to begin to imagine), but they knew that whatever the assaults of spells, curses, evil spirits, etc. there was One who was greater than them all, and not merely greater, but good, kind, just and merciful.

  6. This is great stuff - and even educational. Thanks everyone, and keep them coming!

  7. This has inspired so much interesting discussion.
    To go back to Niges original post - I have often felt that we create God in our own image to reflect and amplify the emotions that most distract us, and the ideas and images within the culture we identify with. We also choose our God, to grow or be diminished by. The Christian God has many faces,all fragments of truth that tell us much about human nature, but do nothing to illuminate the essential mystery of existence.

  8. Bruce Charlton in his blog posting "Could politically correct atheists only become Christian via paganism?" says:

    "The reason that pagans were so readily converted to Christianity relates to the bleakness of the pagan world view, on reflection.

    "Once the feasting and festivals are over; the thoughtful pagan recognizes life as (at its best) merely 'a sparrow's flight' through a brightly lit mead hall: coming from darkness then after a moment plunging back into darkness.

    "Pagan life does not really have any meaning.


    "Pagans find implanted within them a natural law, and the best pagans will follow that law; they will be brave and loyal, will support and protect their family and clan, will love and create beauty, will be truthful - but they do not really know why they do so, nor do they expect this to make any difference to themselves or the world in the long term.

    "The world is headed either for annihilation (Ragnarok) or equally meaningless cycles of repetition (Hinduism).

    "So paganism is meaningless in the big picture, and purposeless.

    "And this is why pagans are so readily converted to Christianity: as Pascal saw so clearly, Christianity is much preferable to paganism, we would much prefer it to be true; and since (for pagans) there is very good evidence of the truth of Christianity - many or most pagans will become Christian - given the chance.


    "The main problem with paganism is that it does not share the Christian conception of pride as the worst sin - therefore paganism (like materialist secularism) tends to encourage pride.

    "Pagan religious experience therefore tends to cause a lot more harm than good: to be a source of reinforcing pride rather than virtue.

    "The great virtue of paganism is not humility but stoicism, or uncomplaining suffering.

    "The 'good pagan' practices proper behaviour without cause or reason or hope: and, while noble, is therefore a dry, sad and futile figure:"

  9. Just to add something to the last comment: surely one of the most shocking lines in The Odyssey is what the dead Achilles has to say to Odysseus in Hades:

    'Say not a word,' [Achilles] answered, 'in death's favour; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man's house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.'

    If this is the opinion of the late greatest hero ever then there's little comfort to be had for more ordinary mortals - despite rumours of Elysian Fields.

  10. Well thank you everybody - this has been most illuminating. I think I can see more clearly the attractions of early Xtainity (tho I suspect they wore off as The Church took over) and the downside of paganism. I image things were far from clear-cut at the time - they only ever get that way in hindsight - and that there were many crossovers and blurred edges between paganism and Xtianity. A curious sidelight on Bruce Charlton's characterisation of the pagan stance - 'proper behaviour without cause or reason or hope' - is pretty much where Schweitzer. with his 'tragic Christianity', found himself. Does Xtianity finally evolve back into something more like paganisn? Hmmm....

  11. This is a terrific account of how it happened. It's all very complex and difficult for modern minds to grasp, but when I read it, I was struck by how easy the conversion process often was in the Dark Ages (as opposed to colonial missionaries), which I think backs Dave's excellent comment about hope and purpose in the face of meaningless despair.

    Plus I think we have to recall that the unavoidable terrors of Hell was a Protestant specialty, and they were for the most part converting Catholics, not pagans. The appeal of predestination and grace came as a reaction to the corruption within Catholicism of good works, tithes, parasitic clergy, etc. I could be wrong but, even if the Catholics didn't completely fudge the doctrine of Hell during the conversion process (I'll bet they didn't emphasize it), wouldn't the pagan have been assured he had some control over his eternal destiny?

  12. Thanks for the link, Peter - looks fascinating. To judge by the doom paintings and sculptures that survive on medieval churches, those pre-protestants seem to have had a pretty vivid idea of the torments of hell!

  13. Good point, but Nige, it's not as if the pagans were into individual dignity and high self-esteem. We moderns find the ideal of eternal torment unbearable, but then we don't get as much training in the here and now as they did.

  14. Pagans and Christians by Robin Lane Fox? I read it many years ago and this thread suggests I should do so again. Topical, at least, as he was on BBC Four a week ago with an excellent programme on the origins of Greek myths.

    The wonderful mosaics at Ravenna and elsewhere show a Pantocrator who is more appealing than the god presented by some of the uncompromising characters who came later, the grizzled warriors and conquerors who all seemed to operate under the same banner: "Kill them all, God will know his own." Perhaps, somewhere at the start of the second millennium, it just all went horribly wrong.

  15. Oh yes - Pagans and Christians is a wonderful book, the first that got me thinking along these lines. Well worth rereading...

  16. To judge by the doom paintings and sculptures that survive on medieval churches, those pre-protestants seem to have had a pretty vivid idea of the torments of hell!

    Yes, that's where the protestants got it from (and then developed it further).

    But the point is that this unbalanced view is a late mediaeval distortion. As indeed were various other things that protestantism took over (e.g. individualism, philosophical nominalism, etc.).

    The great irony is that whilst the reformers had a commendable desire to restore Christianity to an earlier purity, much of what they preserved (and emphasised) was in fact recent, and much of what they rejected was genuinely primitive.

  17. Hello Nige,
    I'm not so sure the Pagan view of death was as sanguine as Williams suggests. See this review of mine.
    I do, however, agree that the traditional Christian view of the afterlife leaves much to be desired, especially in the way of Christian charity. I think it has something to do with a bad metaphorical basis to begin with. I think it is better to think of God as a great cosmic composer and of ourselves as themes undergoing continuous variation, a process in which we play no small part.

  18. Dave Lull tells me this link works, while the other doesn't:
    this review of mine

  19. Thanks Frank - an interesting review. And I very much like yr image of God as a composer - much truer, I'm sure, than that of the implacable Judge sorting the human sheep from the goats.

  20. I remember a doc on Discovery that hypothesised that the reason the Romans invaded Britain was to destroy the Druids who were secretly spreading throughout mainland Europe.

    Once the Romans arrived they set about stamping out as much of Britain's religion and culture as possible and introduced them to Roman Gods. Unfortunately Britain was an oral culture then so we have virtually no record of what Druidism was like or barely anything about what Britain was like, although archaeological evidence suggest we were a much more advanced people than has been thought (i.e that we were mindless barabarians)