If the past is another country, the study of its thought-forms, its insights and its foibles has all the complexities of foreign travel. Some intellectual historians write travelogues – guidebooks for the relentless time-traveller who likes to collect funny foreign experiences but cannot stay longer than a bargain-break holiday allows. The inhabitants of the past, for them, are curiosities to be treasured chiefly because they show us how far we have come. Others return from the past full of evangelistic zeal, eager to show their readers how the ancients have been misunderstood, and to restore respect for our ancestors, who were less strange than the superficial tourist would think. In a culture which moves restlessly on and discards the past as it goes, scholars who can recapture a sense of kinship with past intellectual giants are ever more necessary. Tourists need constant reminders that they and the people they are observing share the same humanity; empathy needs to replace curiosity. Yet the greatest historical scholars are those who can restrain both tendencies – the laudable desire to see the relevance of past to present, as well as the cruder antiquarianism that sees only its alien character. Such historians remember that shared humanity consists, precisely, in irreducible individuality: by living long in a past culture, they have come to see that human beings are always aliens, even in their own country.
Three recent studies of past attitudes towards human entanglement in the physical world can stand as examples of these three styles of intellectual history – each in its way a valid exercise. Heaven: A History offers a whistle-stop tour, thoroughly researched and engagingly written, of the extraordinary things Christians and others have believed about life after death. Thumbnail sketches of major figures lead into potted accounts of their hopes and fears of heaven: ‘As is well-known, Augustine (354-430) did not start his life as a saint’; ‘Newton wrote extensively on alchemy, theology and sacred chronology, though he published very little in this area’; St Paul was ‘an indefatigable traveller and missionary’. There is wide learning here, some of it hard to come by anywhere else: for example, the importance of Swedenborg in ‘the emergence of a modern heaven’ cannot be widely appreciated. McDannell and Lang remind us how alien to our ways of thought are many conceptions of heaven that we thought were just like ours. Thus early Christian hopes make sense against an entire system of eschatology which has passed away; the fact that the New Testament can be translated into modern English does not make it a modern book. There is also much good material on Victorian ideas of heaven, and a good analysis of possible reasons why the mainstream Christian Churches nowadays speak so little of heaven, and even less of hell.
Heaven: A History is a compendium of fascinating finds from the past, even if its authors are old-fashioned antiquarians or collectors rather than modern archaeologists of human culture. One of the major differences which they identify between ancient and modern ideas of heaven, however, is related to the theme of two more weighty studies, Elaine Pagels’s Adam, Eve and the Serpent and Peter Brown’s The Body and Society. This theme is human sexuality. Until very recently, almost all Christians assumed without question that this would have no place in the world to come, where ‘they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven’ (Matthew 22:30). In the notion of sexuality as a curse to be transcended lies an apparently unbridgeable chasm between the Christian past and the world of most modern readers. Pagels sets about the difficult task of building a bridge, with conspicuous success. Her study is focused through early Christian interpretations of Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve, into which various Christian groups read their own ideas about sexuality.
Until Augustine, according to Pagels, Christian negativity about sexual relationships was far less alien to modern sensibility than modern Protestant (or non-Christian) bafflement with the ideal of celibacy would lead one to expect. Freedom from sexuality was one part – not necessarily the largest part – of the Christian claim to have conquered sin and death, and thus to have cheated mortality. What was wrong with sexuality was not desire for sexual pleasure, as moderns tend to imagine, but its link with procreation and hence with involvement in the continuing life of the state – the earthly patria that needed progeny for its survival. Christians had freed themselves (or, as they would have said, had been freed by the risen Christ) from the toils of mundane existence. Fertility for them meant facilitating the birth of new souls into the kingdom of God, not propping up the decaying order of late antique society by providing new citizens. ‘These outsiders apparently rejected the view that human value depends upon one’s contribution to the state and originated instead the idea that developed much later in the West as the “absolute value of the individual”.’ So far from marking early Christians off as utterly remote from us, therefore, the ideal of virginity spells the dawn of much that the modern world takes for granted. ‘Our secularised Western idea of democratic society owes much to that early Christian vision of a new society – a society no longer formed by the natural bonds of family, tribe or nation but by the voluntary choice of its members. From the Classical point of view, however, those Christians who “renounced the world” ... effectively declared themselves “idiots”.’
Thus in the very process of showing how different early Christians’ perceptions of virginity were from what a mere cultural tourist would suppose, Pagels makes us feel our own continuity with them. For her, Augustine is a turning-point. From Augustine onwards, the Western Church lost the association of virginity with freedom and came to see it as an attempt to reverse, through bodily intactness, the damage done by lust to the human personality. Augustine’s attitude to sexuality goes hand in hand with his denial of the very possibility of human freedom; and the repressed personalities Augustinianism can produce are mirrored in the oppressive forms of government (seen as the sole available remedy against innate human wickedness) to which it gives succour. Augustine agreed with older Christian tradition, classically expressed by a Greek Father such as John Chrysostom, that sexual continence was the essential ideal for all Christians: yet he arrived at this conclusion from very different premises. Pagels believes that Christians would do well to go back behind Augustine and to reaffirm that commitment to human freedom for which virginity was originally so potent a symbol. Above all, however, she commends the kind of detailed study of early Christian writers of which her book is a model as a way of regaining a respect for, and sense of solidarity with, these apparently alien figures. ‘More important ... than taking sides on such specific issues ... is the recognition of a spiritual dimension in human experience. This recognition, after all, is what all participants in Christian tradition, however they disagree, share in common.’
Compare (and contrast) the concluding words of Peter Brown’s compelling and humane study of the depths and heights of sexual renunciation: ‘By studying their precise social and religious context, the scholar can give back to these ideas a little of the human weight they once carried in their own time. When such an offering is made, the chill shades may speak to us again, and perhaps more gently than we had thought they might, in the strange tongue of a long-lost Christianity. Whether they will say anything of help or comfort for our own times the readers of this book must decide for themselves.’ Brown’s detached yet compassionate sympathy re-creates the subtle and complex world of late-antique sexuality and renunciation with a skill which is uniquely his. This is not a history of the idea of virginity, but a sharply-focused series of pictures of its practice.
Sexual renunciation is seen, first, against its pagan background. We meet a world infinitely remote from our own, a world in which marriage was a solemn duty yet also one in which ‘castration was a routine operation’: where the right either to indulge or to deny sexual desire was tightly related to social class, with aristocrats assumed to be above sexual shame and slaves obliged to be beneath it; where to be virile was a social obligation, yet where it was taken for granted that over-indulgence in heterosexual intercourse could make men ‘effeminate’. This is the world into which the early Christians came, with their very rigid restrictions on the uses of sex, and increasingly with an urgent sense that Christian perfection, and even salvation itself, depended on absolute chastity. This they understood to mean total renunciation of sexual activity and even, in time, of sexual desire. Brown agrees with Pagels that many Christians saw continence as an expression of freedom from the structures and demands of pagan society: ‘the continent body stood for a principle of reversibility; the flow of life itself could be halted’; ‘to abandon marriage was to face down death ... in the heart of the continent person, the heavy tick of the clock of fallen time had fallen silent.’ But the apparently uniform ideal of virginity or post-marital continence proves on analysis to be almost infinitely variegated, and the quest for spiritual freedom is only the lowest common denominator of its various forms. Brown’s encyclopedic knowledge of the world of late antiquity leads him to see fine shades of distinction even between contemporary Christian thinkers. Jerome and Augustine, for example, or Clement and Origen, are seen to have been worlds apart in all but the simple fact that they taught and practised ‘continence’.
I have never read a book on early Christianity which made so lucid the geographical differences of emphasis. The image of the desert, certainly, haunts all who have encountered the Desert Fathers, though few studies make the sheer physical realities of life in the Egyptian cells, often less than a day’s journey from city life but in conditions of utter deprivation, so vivid for a modern reader. But to do justice to the massive differences between these desert ascetics and the asceticism of such as John Chrysostom, the favourite preacher in Antioch – at a time when that was a city as large as Nottingham is now – needs a social historian, not merely a historian of ideas. This is where Brown excels. He makes us feel how and why it was different to practise sexual renunciation in Milan, at Rome, in Bethlehem, in Alexandria. He also takes us behind assumptions about virginity not only in the modern but also in the Medieval world, to cultures such as that of the Syrian Church, where male virginity was the norm and female only its paler imitation, and where perpetual continence had not yet come to be connected in any pronounced way with theories about the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Above all, Brown reminds us that for many centuries it was simply taken for granted by all thoughtful Christians that full commitment to Christ entailed painful sexual renunication. The idea common now in almost all Christian Churches, that sexual pleasure is a positive good and that God’s blessing on marriage is to be construed as an affirmation of it, meets hardly an echo in the writers Brown discusses. The reasons for what seems to us a negative judgment on sexuality are many and various, far more so than an unthinking modern dismissal of ‘medieval’ attitudes could ever lead one to guess. But the shared conviction that sexuality is meant to be transcended once united far more Christians than most credal formulas have ever embraced in one communion. It may be possible for an ordinary 20th-century Western reader to enter imaginatively into the world of thought where this was so, but I suspect that well-informed bewilderment is the best that most of us can achieve. This was not ‘their way of saying’ something that modern Christians want to go on affirming: it was something very different indeed. Brown’s own renunciation, his refusal to pretend that these men and women are somehow just like us, but in disguise, is surely the most fitting response. And in making it he succeeds, far better than anyone with a facile desire to make them ‘relevant’ could ever do, in making us see them as real men and women after all. ‘The texts bring us up against pains and sadnesses that lie as close to us as our own flesh ... The book will have failed in its deepest purpose if the elaborate, and strictly necessary, strategies involved in the recovery of a distant age were considered to have explained away, to have diminished or, worse still, to have stared through the brutal cost of commitment in any age, that of the Early Church included.’ But it has not failed.