Monday 4 September 2023

What happened when the pagan Roman-Britons converted to Christianity?

A favourite theme of the late, great Geoffrey Ashe was that the transition between paganism and Christianity went smoothly and peacefully in Britain. 

Unlike on the European continent; the British pagans (whether Druidic or Roman in their religion) did not seem to persecute the new Christian religion; and later-on the Christians did not persecute the pagans when they got the upper hand. 

What seems to have happened is that the Christians took-over the sacred pagan sites, and 'repurposed' or rebuilt them as churches; while the pagan Gods were replaced with Jesus, Mary, and the Saints on the basis of analogous religious functions.

(Most famously; the pagan British goddess Brigid, was replaced by the Irish Saint Brigid.) 

As well as its socio-political significance; this is theologically interesting; because it suggests that there is no fundamental conflict between paganism and Christianity; that - somehow or another - people could move from pagan to Christian without major spiritual or societal upheaval. 

I think this gives us a clue to the essence of Christianity; or, more exactly, what distinguishes it from paganism. 

What the smooth-transition tells us on the one side, is that (despite what so many people have said, and what is still asserted) there was not much to distinguish paganism and Christianity in terms of morality and lifestyle

The everyday and societal practice of paganism and Christianity don't seem to have been very different. 

What is very different between paganism and Christianity, is what happens after death! 

It seems to me that the Big Message of Christian missionaries; the "unique selling point' that Christians had to offer over and above anything the pagans said; was the prospect of resurrected eternal life in Heaven

Whereas the pagan religions could point at either some kind of afterlife life as depersonalized spirits - in an underworld or maybe as ghosts lurking in this world; or else some kind of reincarnation into the same kind of life all-over-again but as a different person...

Christians came along with their account of Jesus Christ who died and rose again and ascended to Heaven; and who offered the same possibility to those who would follow him

And this prospect apparently appealed greatly as a possibility superior to anything in paganism

I think it would have been obvious to ancient Britons, as it was later to the Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen; that what Christians offered was superior if it was true

But how could people know it was true - above and beyond trusting the historical stories of the missionaries?

One form of validation was miracles: when the missionaries were Saints who could perform miracles, then this validated their claims, because it proved they had a link to the divine.

But a second, and probably more widespread, form of experiential proof was by participation in the Mass, the Eucharist, Holy Communion.  

Following-up an insight from Philip K Dick; I think we can imagine that Men, at that earlier stage in the development of consciousness, would spontaneously, passively, overwhelmingly experience participation in the Mass as a literal re-living of Jesus's death and resurrection

In the Mass; Jesus died and came to life, and was actually-present here-and-now to those participating. 

This (or something spiritually analogous) would surely have been a compelling validation of the actuality of what Jesus offered. 

In sum; I think the conversion from Paganism to Christianity as it was actually experienced by people in the early centuries AD (people, it should be noted, whose consciousness was significantly different from you and me) was essentially very simple, which was why it could be very quick - and why mass-conversions, and even mandatory conversion, made sense at the time

It was an expression of the desire for resurrection after death, as preferable-to/ better-than anything paganism could offer. 

And the method of achieving this desired goal, was to be admitted to the community who ritually re-enacted Jesus's death and resurrection, such that he became actually present to the believer.


Note added: This post comes after a whole bunch of earlier posts in which - as a result of reading the Fourth Gospel as the primary and most authoritative source about Jesus's teaching - I became increasingly convinced that the core message of Christianity (i.e. the offer of resurrected eternal life in Heaven) had become de-emphasized and somewhat buried throughout the history of the Christian churches. In my opinion; the advent of Mormonism from 1830 was, to a significant extent, made possible by Joseph Smith's "re-discovery" of resurrection as the core promise of Christianity. Mormonism also brought a completely new and fundamentally different set of fundamental metaphysical theological assumptions concerning reality as pluralistic, developmental etc. But I believe that the main appeal of the new type of Christianity in its early decades was its clarity-about, and focus-upon, post-mortal life - treated very 'realistically' and as something that could (with certain conditions) confidently be anticipated - and with potential for continuation of loving mortal relationships.  


Crosbie said...

Dr. Charlton - do you have a view on the importance of communion to present day Christians? Some of your writing suggests organized Christianity is not essential to the present day Christian. In practice, receiving communion seems to require accepting organized Christianity. Which also involves some kind of 'picking sides'

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crosbie - My personal understanding follows:

The first thing to say is that communion does not 'work' now as it once did - that has been evident for centuries. Men have changed. (see Owen Barfield, evolution of consciousness - in Saving the Appearances)

Secondly, I think it has also become clear that it does make a difference exactly who conducts communion, how it is done - the priest, the words, the actions, the attitude of those who receive it - etc.

Thirdly - Given the above, communion is like any other aspect of church: according to specifics it may be helpful, neutral-useless, or harmful.

Given proper persons and conditions; I am always very pleased to receive communion. Lacking these, I do without.


I suppose it also ought to be said that God (as he must be, as we know him) does not, and never has, *required* holy communion from people. There are so many exceptions for so many reasons, that I am 100 percent convinced that God only ever intended it to be helpful: and for many centuries, in many places, it was very helpful.

It must surely be a simple fact that God never intended that participation in a particular church's communion should be essential to salvation. I find it absolutely inconceivable that God (wholly Good, the creator, our Father) would have set up the world as it actually is and has been, if communion was to be essential to salvation.

Crosbie said...

Thank you again Dr. Charlton.

Tenz said...

This is an interesting hypothesis but also extremely puzzling. Can you explain what you mean in saying that these people would "experience participation in the Mass as a literal re-living of Jesus's death and resurrection"? I think you're saying that it *seemed* to them that Jesus was living, dying and being resurrected during Mass. In other words, they entered into the ritual in some completely immersive and compelling fashion such that, from their point of view, there was no conscious distinction between the Christian story represented by the ritual and the real, present-tense occurence of those events.

Is that what you mean? In that case I'm puzzled because it seems hard to believe that these people in the not-so-distant past were *that* different psychologically from you and I. They believed that the real ("literal") life, death, and resurrection was happening during the ritual of Mass? I guess I'm unable myself to imagine how anyone could believe that, or even what it would be to have such a belief. (And, apart from that problem, I wonder how you take yourself to know that they had this kind of belief or experience.)

But this part is even more startling:

"In the Mass; Jesus died and came to life, and was actually-present here-and-now to those participating."

Is this just a report on how things seemed (you believe) to these long-ago people? Or are you claiming that, in the objective world, it happened that Jesus was "actually-present here-and-now to those participating"? If you're saying that this was something that happened in the objective world, I'm curious about what you mean. For example, are you saying that a flesh-and-blood man, Jesus, materialized during the Mass, died and then came back to life -- all during the ritual?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Tenz - To answer your questions, you just need to read the links.

Tenz said...

Dr. Charlton,
The only one link relevant to my question is the one about Dick's "insight". But it seems just as mysterious as your post above.

Dick says that for these earlier Christians it was "as if" "suddenly he [Christ] would "be there" in "his Transformed state". You say it would have been an "overwhelmingly powerful reliving of the events being reenacted".

These remarks are meant, I assume, to describe what it was like for these people to experience Mass. In that case my question is about the content of that experience.

Are you saying that these people were *imagining* that a human person, Jesus Christ, was suddenly present in the room--living and dying and resurrecting right in front of them? Imagining this so intensely and vividly that what they imagined seemed to be objectively real to them?

If that's what you mean, or what Dick means, does it not seem hard to believe that people not so long ago had such an alien psychology? How did they manage to have these experiences so wildly incompatible with their objective circumstances?

At other times though you might be saying that it wasn't simply a very intense experience of something purely imaginary: if Jesus "became actually present" to them, that means he really was there. Saying that Mass was a *literal* reliving of Christ's life and death also seems to imply that it wasn't just imaginary. (It wasn't *as if* they were reliving these events; they *were reliving* them. Is that not what "literal" means here?)

In that case, it's easier to understand their psychology. They were just using their five senses to recognize an objective fact. Is that what you mean?

Bruce Charlton said...

@T - I am writing from the basis of a different set of metaphysical assumptions (i.e. concerning the fundamental nature of reality). It's not something that I can cover in a blog comment - that's what this whole blog has been about developing, since it began - but particularly since about 2014, when I began to assimilate Owen Barfield's work.

dearieme said...

When the first Portuguese navigators went ashore in India they visited a building that they readily persuaded themselves was a Christian Church though it was almost certainly a Hindu temple.

I've always said that, at least to Protestants and atheists, the distinction between Paganism and Roman Catholicism can seem rather weak.

Consider how, after the Reformation, the Roman Catholicism in the Highlands tumbled down into paganism until finally the Kirk had enough Gaelic-speaking ministers to convert the people.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Long time no hear.

When I lived in Glasgow, there was a character called Pastor Jack Glass who was famous for his (ahem) negative attitude towards the RCC: apparently there existed a photo of him wearing a sandwich board that said "The Pope does not belong here", which, on closer examination, revealed he was standing in St Peter's Square...