Book Reviews - Autumn 2019

Spirits in the Material World

Two new books consider the past and present of Christendom

By B. D. McClay | September 3, 2019
Egans intellectual interlocutor, Saint Augustine, as portrayed by the Flemish artist Philippe de Champaigne in 1650. (Wikimedia Commons)
Egans intellectual interlocutor, Saint Augustine, as portrayed by the Flemish artist Philippe de Champaigne in 1650. (Wikimedia Commons)

A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith by Timothy Egan; Viking, 384 pp., $28

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland; Basic Books, 624 pp., $32

Timothy Egan sets out on a pilgrimage—following the Via Francigena, an ancient route that takes him from Canterbury to Rome—in part, as he tells us, “to find God in Europe before God is gone,” and perhaps also in himself, caught as he is in “the squishy middle” between belief and atheism. Raised Catholic, Egan has seen betrayals of the unfortunately usual sort: the stickler priest who treated his devout mother condescendingly, succeeded by the laid-back priest who molested his brother. His sister-in-law is dying. What else is there to do with these things but to walk them out?

If Egan’s book, A Pilgrimage to Eternity, is an experiment in seeing the “layers of time on consecrated ground,” Tom Holland’s Dominion is the sort of book he might have carried along with him. Dominion takes on the rather stupendous task of tracing the history of Christendom from its very beginnings to the modern day. Both writers are interested in pulling the past into the present, even if they have different ideas of what that might mean. Neither of them quite succeeds, but together they raise a question: what is it that we’re chasing when we’re chasing Christendom?

For Egan, a National Book Award winner for The Worst Hard Time (2006) and a New York Times columnist, the stakes are clear enough: to try to bring some internal resolution to his own religious issues. Like many American Catholics, Egan views Pope Francis as a much-needed liberalizing force but frets that he hasn’t gone far enough, particularly when it comes to Church teachings about sex. His mother, who had seven children and gave up her career, is not precisely the central figure of his book, but her memory hangs over it. She comes to stand for many faithful Catholics who did what the Church told them at great personal cost and found their trust misplaced. Although Egan’s mother stayed with the Church, when she died, she told her son, “I don’t know what to believe or what’s ahead. I don’t … know.”

All the same, when it comes to his own concerns, Egan never seems to move far from certain fairly banal points. He objects to Church teachings on birth control, divorce, homosexuality, priestly celibacy, and so on. These are all reasonable things to object to, particularly when viewed in light of his family history. But they are also familiar, and it is frustrating to read pages of ruminations on them when Egan is, at the same time, on a pilgrimage. If every happy Catholic is the same, it unfortunately does not follow that every unhappy Catholic is unhappy in his own way.

Egan’s main intellectual interlocutor is Augustine, with whom Egan takes issue on most points. He doesn’t like what Augustine has to say about sex; he finds Augustine’s understanding of evil unsatisfying. Why must his sister-in-law die of cancer? Yet when he ultimately rejects the North African saint, toward the end of his travels, it’s because Augustine has insufficient consideration for joy. So which is it, one is tempted to ask: Is the world too bad for religion, or too good? What would it mean for religion to “progress,” as Egan wishes it would? When he visits churches and looks up at the art that so many have looked at, what is it that he wants to see?

Answering that question is Holland’s concern, and while his book clarifies certain things about Egan’s, it also raises its own questions. In the first third of the book, Holland does an admirable job of laying out the shift in morality that Christianity brought forth. A senior research fellow specializing in ancient history at the University of Buckingham, he went from a youthful affection for the world of the Greek and Roman gods to disgust. “The values of Leonidas,” he writes, “whose people had practiced a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognized as my own.” Christianity’s obsession with weakness, its sexual mores, and its affection for the poor all distinguished it from its Roman surroundings.

Once Christianity began to gain a political foothold, however, its opponents found themselves forced to argue using its terms. Whereas Constantine embraced Christianity, his nephew Julian renounced it. But when Julian, who was devoted to the goddess Cybele, reproached her high priest for her cult’s slip into obscurity, he cited its lack of dedication to the poor. The cult of Cybele, which at its height had involved self-castration, was to be turned toward good works.

When Holland leaves the ancient world behind, however, his book becomes both trickier to follow and less compelling. Once the Reformation rolls around, he points out that all the arguments are taking place within Christianity’s moral world. But that everyone involved speaks a common moral language does little to stop them from killing one another.

Nevertheless, Holland does a fine job teasing out how many of the deepest divisions in today’s society stem from the same Christian framework—so much so that one is somewhat tempted to ask how much we really benefit from having a common language that can be turned to most purposes.  Certainly, the kind of questions Egan asks in his book fit into Holland’s project: they are Christian critiques of Christianity. Yet merely stating that this is the case does not seem to get us very far, or make it more likely that Egan and the pope might understand each other.

In these books, Christendom is not a dream of political power or a Christian utopia. It is rather a wish for a shared reality, one in which people use the same words, value the same things, and see the same world when they look up toward the roof of a cathedral. In Christendom we would all understand each other. But if Holland is correct that we still live in Christendom, then our collective reality doesn’t count for much. Our moral assumptions might be shared and at the same time obscured. But even the early Christians quarreled. We should not expect their latter-day successors to do much better.

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