Tuesday 8 November 2022

Alfred the Great and Guthrum: On compelled Christian conversion and sincerity in the Dark Ages

After King Alfred the Great defeated the Viking King Guthrum, Guthrum underwent baptism to Christianity as a condition of surrender and treaty. 

The modern mind wonders whether such an apparently compelled conversion would have any meaning; and whether Guthrum was cynically pretending as he went through the ceremony. 

By my understanding; the mind of men of the Dark Ages did not work in that way. Modern Men cannot help but detach their actions (such as religious rituals) - from what they 'really' think. 

Modern Man divides the subjective state of mind, from the external and objective. 

But ancient Men's minds worked differently. For them, subjective and objective were not fully divisible; therefore ritual had an objective effect. 

The Christian martyrs of ancient times sometimes died rather than speak words that would deny Jesus, or burn incense to another God - this emphasizes that they could not and did not distinguish between word/ action and belief. If the martyrs had denied Christ verbally or participated in a false ritual - then they really would have been de-converted. 

Coupling of (what we now think of as) subjective with objective, dwindled through recorded history; but there was a residual linkage until the past few generations. 

For example; the speaking of an oath to tell the truth in a law court was regarded as an effective way of ensuring that truth was indeed spoken. Few would believe in the power of such an oath nowadays. 

This psychological fact-of-life was bound-up with the structure and function of churches in all the religions - and its dwindling, and now absence, is a major factor that underlies the collapse of 'institutional' Christianity - the inability of churches to compel doctrine, behaviour, allegiance, loyalty, obedience. 

It cuts both ways: 

On the one hand, modern Men cannot be converted to Christianity against their will: conversion is necessarily a choice. A modern Guthrum would need actively to want to be a Christian, to become a Christian. 

On the other hand, modern Men cannot be de-converted from Christianity by compelling them to say certain words or do certain things. A Christian would not lose his faith 'merely' by denying Christ or burning a pinch of pagan incense - for de-conversion to be real, such actions would need to be motivated by anti-Christian convictions. 

Modern Man has become immune to 'the sacred' - he cannot rely-upon 'the sacred' to induce a 'Holy' response in himself. On the other hand; the widespread and purposive, whether casual or malicious, desecrations enacted by the evil totalitarian System will surely sadden him, but they do not annihilate his capacity for faith. 

We are now personally responsible for our Christian faith - like it or not; there are neither compulsions nor excuses; the church can neither make-us nor break-us. 


Adam said...

When I lived in Saudi Arabia I had several interesting conversations with the locals. Saudi men are taught to lie from an early age, it is an integral part of their culture. Their word is very far from their bond. But actions are another thing entirely, which is why they are seemingly such a calm, placid and hospitable people. You could not forcibly convert a Saudi Muslim to Christianity by making him utter words alone; but if the actions went along with the words then that would be the real deal. For them, actions are everything.

The Jewish approach is different again. There are many stories of Jews outwardly converting to Christian faith in places such as 15th century Spain as a condition for them to remain or be expelled. But in actual fact they never converted as their religion enables them to deceive by actions as well as words.

The West used to hold both one's words and actions as a high bar to be held against. That has completely dissolved over the past few decades. The differences between the Italian, English and American legal systems are also interesting in this regard. The Italian legal system attempts to hold to the spirit of the law. The American legal system is rooted in word manipulation and legalism. The English system in the past 30 years has swung towards that of the Americans, witness the sudden rise in the "health and safety" culture.

Jesus, of course, had somewhat of a problem with the selfish legalism of the Pharisees.

Francis Berger said...

"We are now personally responsible for our Christian faith - like it or not; there are neither compulsions nor excuses; the church can neither make-us nor break-us."

Well put. Very memorable.

I can't understand why most modern people -- Christians in particular -- believe that they are fundamentally the same as ancient people were, and that externals/culture are the only things to have changed. As far as I'm concerned, the development of consciousness throughout history is as clear as day, but few seem willing to acknowledge it.

Luke said...

It's hard to really understand that in the first case, I want to think there must have been an inner disposition that was receptive to Christ that made the outer sign work at least in the case of conversion.
When you get to oaths and so on it's easier for me to understand the compulsive power.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - Thanks for that - very interesting.

@Frank - I think I understand, because I was the same way myself. It was only after brooding on Barfield's work (and, to a lesser extent, Steiner) that I became convinced.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

@FB - same observation with modern "pagans." I'm like, get real; you couldn't be a pagan with a gun to your head. Just dance around at Dragon-Con instead, same thing. And modern Christianity is dangerously close to that same "LARPing."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chent - That is not an *explanation* but just a re-description - it is providing a terminology for some observed differences.

It leaves open whether the difference derives from Men's psychology (and whether this is - for example - genetic in origin, or something else), or from culture - and where cultural such stable differences might originate.

The same general phenomenon can therefore have several explanations, at the 'scientific' level

To regard (divinely-ordained) developments in human consciousness as the primary explanation for such differences is a metaphysical decision, which then structures the understanding of all possible 'scientific' (including historical) observations.

What I am doing in this post, is to show how an assumption of the development of human consciousness; can work, in practice, to explain many striking observations.

Chent said...


"That is not an *explanation* but just a re-description - it is providing a terminology for some observed differences."

Right. It is a re-description with the terminology that has been used by the people who have studied these phenomena. I did it because I wanted to clarify Adam's observation. I wanted to shed light to the fact that distant cultures such as ancient Germanic tribes and Islam behave in the same manner.

It is not an explanation, for sure. But having a good terminology is not something useless, as you know. If Linnaeus says that dogs and bears belong to the same family (mammals), this is only terminology but this helps to see why dogs and bears have the same characteristics and to try to find the commonalities of mammals. Then you can start trying to find out if there is a common ancestor. All knowledge and thought relies on classification. All your blog posts (like all human thoughts) rely on classification and terminology (for example, "evolution of conscience").

But this was a comment, not a book and I was typing on a cell phone, which takes time and effort. To be an explanation, it should be said where the difference between cultures come from.

It is obvious that the default mechanism is shame culture. You find it everywhere: primitive tribes and the vast majority of cultures. Then, guilt cultures appear in individualistic societies, when prosperity has diluted the collectivist structures so the collectivist nature of shame societies does not work anymore. This is the meaning of the Axial Age. You find it in Ancient Israel prophets, Buddhism, Greek philosophy, and other places. Then, when the decadence is extreme and morality is discarded, you find fear culture mixed with nihilistic philosophies, which are discarded after the collapse.

This is a (very short) explanation, which explains, for example, why Hinduism rejects the nihilism of the Upanishads (which gave birth to Buddhism) and goes to the Bhagavad Gita phase. The same way, Buddhism gets mixed with paganism. This way the nihilistic phase is discarded.

Chent said...

-- Follows from before ---

Of course this is a very simplified explanation and books could be written with the details. But your explanation is simple too. You say that your alternative explanation is "evolution of conscience". I admit that I don't find this terminology compelling, because it is vague and can be applied to anything. In fact, even political correctness is described as an "evolution of conscience" . I remember a Disney guy describing some PC in the movies as the "awakening of the global conscience". I don't give details for obvious reasons.

If an explanation explains one thing and the opposite one, it is not a good explanation, in my humble opinion.

If an explanation does not meet the observed phenomena is not a good explanation either, in my humble opinion. To apply the "evolution of conscience" to shame cultures and guilt cultures, you should assume that "evolution of conscience" is a cyclical phenomena, which raises and disappears in cultures. But this is not the evolution of conscience that you have been explaining, which was a linear and universal phenomena, a sign of an universal progress (although you could modify the concept in the future).

In my humble opinion, the evolution of conscience has another problem. There is no evidence for that. You have not seen the morality of modern people to be better than that of ancient people, but the opposite. You could claim that there was a decadence of conscience, but I don't see any progress at all. You say that the evolution of conscience was thwarted. But this could apply to everything. Any X could happen but it was thwarted. Assertion is not proof.

Is it a metaphysical assumption to decide between different explanations? Of course, it is. But these explanations should be good explanations to begin with. For each phenomena, there are many good explanations and choosing one of them is a metaphysical assumption.

Look, Bruce. This seems like rudeness on my behalf. I know that we are not going to agree. Our assumptions are very different. It is not about the evolution of conscience, which is a derived thing.

It is about our epistemology, which is drastically different. Your epistemology is the logical consequence of the Reformation: you think that you have direct access to the Truth without external help, so you are an intuitive thinker. Intuition and coherence are proof that something is true and external study is not needed (a very "left-wing hemisphere" way of thought). When you analyze Guthrum or the Bible, you arrive at conclusions on your own and everything that was said before on these topics is not needed. This is your basic assumption and everything else flows from it.

I have a more vulgar epistemology, that's it, but I am passionate for the Truth, like you are. We must agree to disagree. Peace.

Chent said...

Correction: Buddhism is nihilistic. It does not belong to the Axial Age. I should stop writing after waking up. Apologies.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chent - Sure, a description may be useful - as I said in my reply. But now you have stated your primary assumption, which is that cultures evolve, or develop (ie from shame to guilt), and and that this is why Men change.

So - why do cultures change in this way? Is it neutral, or is it a Good Thing - part of God's plan? My guess is that You believe that human cultures have changed because (ultimately) God will it.

And how do cultures change when (you say) Men remain the same?

My contention is that cultures change because Men change - changes in Men drive cultural change.

This is actually widely accepted among those atheist-scientists who are convinced that average intelligence (g) changes, and so does personality (e.g. conscientiousness trait) - in response to natural selection.

But what I mean by the development/ evolution of consciousness is something I blogged about literally hundreds of times on this blog (also collected on the Owen Barfield blog) - I mean specifically that human consciousness has changed in response to God's will, the divine plan; and in a way analogous to the development from childhood through adolescence and aiming at mature adulthood (which is God-like divinity).

So you (perhaps, I guess) believe that (ultimately) cultures are changed by God but Men remain the same; I believe that Men are changed by God - and cultures follow.

No Longer Reading said...

A general comment about evolution of consciousness:

Even though evolution of consciousness appears as part of a broader framework in Steiner and Barfield, the idea itself is not intrinsically tied to their worldview or any other framework in which it appears.

At the most basic level, stripped of other associations, it arises from a natural question:

"why do individual human beings as well as societies change over time?"

The standard scholarly analysis looks at impacts from changes in technology, laws, politics, economics, philosophy, etc. In particular, this analysis restricts itself to the external, the record of material changes, the "paper trail" of books being written and cited, etc. But the question is, do things only change for external reasons, or for internal ones as well.

And by internal, I mean changes within the consciousness, i.e., the quality of experience itself, changes in thinking, feeling, understanding, etc.

These are not mutually exclusive because internal change can drive external chanage and vice versa. (Actually, I do believe that both kinds of change interact with each other).

So, that's really what it comes down to. Can external changes be caused by internal changes?

(Also, evolution of consciousness does not mean that later is always better. Some have used "evolution" in that sense, but in this case, it just means change).

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - "evolution of consciousness does not mean that later is always better"

Certainly not morally better as things have turned out - because the 'adolescent' type of spiritual consciousness (what Steiner termed 'consciousness soul') has become lifelong, due to a widespread refusal to choose to move on to the mature stage.

(Unlike physical development, which happens spontaneously unless interfered-with; spiritual development reaches a point where further development must be chosen.)

Analogously; adolescents are morally inferior to children (on average) despite being more developed; but adolescence is meant to be (and was in the past) a relatively brief phase.

This is what the dispute between Romantic and Traditional Christians hinges-upon. From my Romantic perspective, Trads recognize the inferiority of an adolescent spirituality (= mainstream modern atheism-materialism-alienation) but attempt to remedy it by reverting to the childhood phase (immersive, unconscious, externally-driven). This cannot work, say Romantics, because development cannot be reversed, and the attempt is harmful.

The only viable choice is to move forward to taking full, active, conscious personal responsibility for the needful development.

No Longer Reading said...

That's a good point about how development can happen in multiple ways.

I primarily wrote the comment for Chent and anyone else reading this who is unfamiliar with evolution of consciousness.

I think a lot of times people see the idea embedded within an extensive worldview or used with a bunch of other associations.

But the idea itself can be examined at a much more basic level and by itself, is fairly simple.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - A problem comes from using the word 'evolution' which only means *change* over time (and is agnostic to the cause of that change); but is nowadays understood to mean 'evolution by natural selection'.

Therefore I tend to use 'development' instead or as well; to evoke the more similar analogy of the unfolding changes of an organism from conception to maturity.

The idea is that the consciousness of the human race undergoes a development through history ('phylogeny'), as well as through the individual lifespan ('ontogeny') - and that such developments are both (ultimately) purposive aspects of divine creation.

So this is NOT a matter of Haeckel's 'Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny'- but instead recognizes the similarity that Haeckel noticed, but ascribes it to a common underlying (divine) cause.

No Longer Reading said...

"Therefore I tend to use 'development' instead or as well; to evoke the more similar analogy of the unfolding changes of an organism from conception to maturity."

That makes sense; I was just thinking about the words as synonyms, but you're right, the different conotations of development are helpful.