The materiality of faith

Working in a Cathedral, I think, does push one to examine Christianity and its various forms more often than the average person. Probably I am the sort of person who thinks about Christianity on a level above average for the general population, especially for a non-religious person.

For context, I grew up in Orkney where the majority religion is Church of Scotland, although I didn’t really think of it as anything other than “going to the kirk” at the time. As a young child, you don’t have much of a sense that there are other forms of religion, apart from perhaps there was that church in Dounby we didn’t go to (United Free Church).  In mid-late primary school, I was invited to Christian Endeavour camps run by the church my neighbours went to. Apart from the activities and much more lively music, this seemed to be a much more activist, sincere sort of religion, which appealed to me more at the time versus the general morality of Sunday school. The leaders were willing to answer any questions, no matter how daft, and they usually had a coherent answer. This kind of Christianity seemed more real, not some elaborate metaphor or ur-parable. The problem was, I realised I didn’t like what it was saying about the majority of people being damned by default and that there was one quick fix to be un-damned, and then everything was fine. At that point, I just gave up on the whole thing because I don’t want to live in a world where that’s the case.

In retaliation, mostly against myself for being drawn in by it all, I got into the New Atheists in my early teenage years. From a young age, I could sense that most of the Old Testament stuff was untrue, but there was something about pitting the fundamentalists at their most fundamental against the rationalists at their most rational that was both exhilarating and affirmative.

Only in my mid-late teens did I start to think about Calvinism as a distinct flavour of Christianity. Before it had been the default setting. Barely detectable in a contemporary church service. My first encounter with it was in the world of literary criticism. Scottish literature was about Calvinism. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Calvinism.

This meant nothing to me. I didn’t know what Calvinism was and the essays didn’t seem to explain it satisfactorily either. It seemed like an inside joke. How could this be the key to understanding these bizarre stories? To me, it failed to make them any clearer.

One aspect did seem to transfer from what I’d previously learnt about Christianity – the division of people into the saved and the damned. Here, however, the saved were not called that – they were the Elect or as Muriel Spark has it, the crème de la crème. The novel element was that the Elect were chosen – they did not choose; and no one could remove them from that office, no matter how they behaved. Not nearly as hopeful, but at least intellectually consistent.

When I went to uni, I parked thinking about Calvinism philosophically for the most part and thought about it more politically and geo-politically in terms of the wars of religion in Europe and later the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in Britain. I was studying history and literature, not theology, and I’d decided I was an atheist anyway.

New forms of religion started entering my life in any case. My former first-year flatmate and friend, Charles, had gone from an abandonment of his childhood faith of an evangelical persuasion to an embrace of Anglican forms of worship. He was also inspired by Orthodox ideas about Christianity through his Russian studies. Charles talked about the materiality of faith in a way I had not considered before.

To me, the material spoke against faith. Hard facts against belief. Geology against creation. No definitive, real evidence of the truth of the scriptures. He had a different view. Communion as a physical manifestation of faith, the idea of doing Christianity as in some ways more important than belief, and the power of art and architecture not as folly and vanity compared with God, but living expressions of the faith of generations, embodying the argumentative power of thousands of souls.

These are medieval ideas, but they appear to have survived the Reformation. I started getting seriously into the medieval era after doing a semester of history, learning how to read Middle High German poetry in Leipzig and from there dipping my toe into Old Norse on my return to Edinburgh. After graduation, I seriously considered doing a masters in Viking and Medieval Studies at the University of Aberdeen. My feelings then were that the Reformers had essentially been right but that pre-Reformation Europe, or “Christendom” as it was, possessed a cohesion of Weltanschauung that will never be replicated, such that travel within its bounds was psychologically unproblematic.

Travel as an act of faith was something that was thrown out by the Reformation. The temporal and spiritual journeys were separated. Intellectual distances were the only ones to be travelled.

I don’t reject this logic and I would say that on balance it is far preferable to travel intellectual distance than betaking yourself endlessly without developing the mind. To militate against the temporal-spiritual journey, however, is a mistake. There is no guarantee that making one’s way from one place to another will result in psycho-intellectual progress, but the least we can say is that it works for some people and to attack the idea that it lends itself to being given meaning is counterproductive.

And so, this, I suppose is the “catholic” side of my spiritual nature. My belief in attempting to connect with the material pathways Christians have trod throughout the centuries. Not necessarily to share their worldview but to breathe the same air and see the same sights as they did in the places and (perhaps more importantly) in-betweens that were most significant to them.


About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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