Peter Brown
© Ainars Gulbis

A good historian is like a good translator. He brings the meaning out of the past without imposing the meaning.

Peter Brown

in conversation

At one time, dividing the history of Western civilization into periods was simple: there was the ancient world and antiquity, followed by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and so on, one after the other down the list. Just forty years ago, there was no doubt about this division, but now, even today’s most outstanding historians cannot come to an agreement on when antiquity ended and the Middle Ages began. I agree with those who believe that Peter Robert Lamont Brown (1935), the most brilliant living historian, is the reason this division of eras has lost ground. The possibility of a new era isn’t often considered in conservative historical research, but Peter Brown has come to the convincing conclusion that Late Antiquity—from about 200 to 800 ad—is sufficiently distinct from both the ancient and medieval worlds to warrant separate study as an essential (possibly crucial) era in the emergence of Western civilization. Yes, this is about dividing history into periods; it’s about classification and nomenclature, but more importantly, it’s about the ability to see that the formalization of Roman law, institutionalization of Christianity, Talmudization of Judaism and birth of Islam engendered something new, something uncharacteristic of any era before or after. This is the era when the enduring foundations of Western civilization were born, the same civilization whose demise, I too would argue, we’ve been witnessing for the last couple of centuries.

Yet Peter Brown, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, is the most brilliant living historian not only because he’s introduced a new era to research, an era that has produced a whole new field of study, but also because he knows how to fashion a story—elegant, exciting and convincing—from masses of factual and textual material. Brown has used this talent to write an unsurpassed biography of St Augustine, investigate the origin and social function of the ascetic renunciation of sexuality (in the eye- and mind-opening The Body and Society) and study the particular circumstances surrounding Christian philanthropy’s birth between 350 and 550 ad in his excellent Through the Eye of a Needle. In every book that Peter Brown has written, he accomplishes the seemingly impossible yet absolutely necessary art of writing about history: he makes the inhabitants of distant and unfamiliar eras come to life, grow flesh and admit us step by step into their strange and different world. Then, through this journey, through perceiving this difference and strangeness, we are gradually able to see and get to know ourselves.

Arnis Rītups

Why should anyone study history?

Because it’s there and it’s different from you. It has actually happened. Even the most ignorant person, taking a walk in his own town, knows that there has been a past.

That something happened before he was born.

Yes, and…I was always drawn to that element partly because I grew up in Dublin, in Ireland, in a Protestant family, not a Catholic family, so I had the sheer alienness of my own fellow countrymen to deal with. My father, as was very normal for Protestants in Ireland, got his employment from the British Empire, in the Sudan, which means that I’ve always been aware of alternative identities.

But you said that history should be studied because it’s there and it’s different. Why is that one of the reasons—that it’s different?

I think because tolerance towards the different is a primary moral need, if not tolerance, at least curiosity.

I have the impression that when Gibbon wrote his big work on the decline of the Roman Empire, he had a particular agenda, which, to put it simply, was to diminish Christianity’s authority, to basically show it was wrong from the very beginning. What sort of agenda did you have when you entered the field of late antiquity, a field that didn’t even exist at the time?

My agenda was for that field to speak with its own voice.

And not to impose your…?

Not to impose. You know, a good historian is like a good translator. He brings the meaning out of the past without imposing the meaning.

Well…if I hadn’t come across your books, I’d consider that an idealized notion of the work historians do: I’d think it’s something that hasn’t ever happened.

It’s what one does the whole time.

But, most of the earlier historians, explicitly or implicitly, had some agenda—nationalist, religious or whatever. What’s this neutral translator’s work, as you call it, based on?

It’s not neutral, as you know very well, being a translator. Translation isn’t neutral.


‘He wants the bones to live, and those bones live.’ How can the past be recaptured? I think that’s what has always concerned me. Not exactly tolerance, not exactly…certainly not detachment…but gaining a respect for something that is not you, that had an existence before you did.

How much has your upbringing in a Protestant family determined your interest in Christianity?

I think it determined that Christianity would be interesting to me. I grew up in Ireland, which is a religious country, where religious identity is very important. Much of my education was in the UK, where, in fact, religious identity really isn’t very important. So I was constantly moving between two worlds. I always thought the Irish were prejudiced, bigoted; my family and other families suffered from this intolerance. On the other hand, I found the English with their lack of interest in religion just absurdly unserious.


It did not come as a sort of liberation for me. It just came as a challenge.

If your Protestant upbringing created an interest in Christianity, would you say your personal religious views somehow influenced how you approach history? 

You know, I’ve lived a long life; I’ve changed on these issues, several times.


But of course. One is a human being, one is liable to change.

If I’m not asking something too personal…could you share the main changes in your outlook?

First of all, I’ve always thought of religion as an important force in human affairs. There are times when one simply respects religion. Then there are times when one actually… ‘Conversion’ isn’t the right term… It’s when you realize there are resources you should pursue in a relatively committed way. But the last thing I’d want, as a scholar, would be for that personal commitment to become a public one. That’s very important to me because, you know, one…one has to deal with things like…like the death of a loved one, all of these things…and being a professor just isn’t enough. 

Well, being a professor isn’t enough for anything in the human world.

I would tend to agree.

Body and Society was the first book of yours I read, and its effect on me was sort of purifying. It clarified certain ideas I had about how things came to be. What did you discover—when you were writing that particular book—about the motivations for Christian asceticism? 

What interested me most at the time were basically the modern misconceptions. That is, the ascetic movement, the whole notion of virginity, the whole notion of celibacy, was hidden under a mass of modern prejudices. And, you know, the first thing a historian does is get those things out of the way—everything from Edward Gibbon’s description of monks up to comparatively modern works—out of the way. That was the first thing. The second thing you ask is: OK, you got rid of those prejudices—that’s right—now what was it really about? And I became increasingly aware—you probably saw this as the chapters developed—that the ascetic movement was much more about freedom. What are the limits of human freedom? What are the limits in which a human being can change his or her nature? Is sexuality just a matter of common sense to be respected, and any attempt to renounce it should be regarded with suspicion? Or even with contempt? Or is there more to it?

Well, there were some Christians in the second and early third centuries who thought that sex was something like eating, which…

Yes, yes, there was a wide variety of views, and I wasn’t necessarily in favour of the extreme views, but I had to find out why they had so much appeal. What is the actual living appeal? And, the more I read the sources, you know, from Gregory of Nazianzus… I read Gregory of Nyssa even more… I got this huge sense of the potentialities the human soul can realize, which virginity, for instance, made more possible. That was a very powerful drive. This happened in America in the late 70s, early 80s, where what we called s-experiments in lifestyle were common and much talked about. 


No, experiments. That was my stammer.

I see, but it was a good… (Laughs.)

It was a good joke. But, I mean where experiments in living were extremely common. I moved to California in 1978, and this was the actual high moment of the culture wars and debates about sexuality. Harvey Milk, the supervisor, was murdered within two months of my arrival in Berkeley. That was truly a hot scene. And I was fairly struck by my colleagues and friends, how this sense of complete freedom led them to very serious choices, compared with, say, my English or Irish friends, who seemed to make many of their life choices almost on automatic pilot. These were people who had obviously thought really hard about their choices. And that impressed me. I was in Iran and Cairo back in the 70s, and I was very impressed, obviously, by what it is to live in basically sophisticated societies whose sexual codes were very different from our own. I was always comparing: If I lived in Cairo, what would I think of this? So it was always the past and how very different it is from us, and the present with its same great differences.

I’ve always felt that we’re not all living in the same time…that various human beings, we have the same calendar, but we live in different times.

That’s right, that’s good.

So, some of those historical phenomena you’re talking about, they’re still present. There are people today who practice asceticism and renounce various things that the majority considers a normal part of life.


That various ways of thinking, I’d even say various times, coexist: I think this is something crucial to understand. And the notion of ‘in our times, this and that’ is always a simplification and superficial.


Do you think the ascetic motivations you uncovered in fourth and fifth century monks are still valid in certain circles? Are they still in operation?

I’d be very surprised if they weren’t. But if you’re a historian, you’re also well aware of how the present is not like the past. That is, the present has formed itself in ways which make certain options very unlikely. Certain doors are closed, certain ones are open. I guess what people say—mutatis mutandis, you know, having changed what has to be changed… That is, the discourse today will not be exactly like it was in Gregory of Nyssa’s time, obviously, but it will have some of its basic elements, its basic shape…a constant relationship of issues—freedom, social pressure—which remain the same, though their content changes.

A fascinating question, one that developed for me in part while reading your book about late antiquity, is how these changes take place. What are the factors, what are the forces which lead to change? I’m fully aware of how general this question is, but maybe we can come to something. 

Oh no, it’s an important one. When I was writing The World of Late Antiquity, what impressed me most was that changes, to a very large extent, weren’t only imposed externally—you know, a Barbarian invasion, which caused destruction, which created a need to change—and that’s the normal way history, the end of the Roman Empire, tends to be written. External forces cause internal change. I was much more interested in how people changed their views of what was possible, that is, how they changed their mental horizons. And of course, to do a history of mental horizons the causation has to be of a very different kind. I myself found that a principal cause was the great loosening up of what had been a very stratified society in Roman times. We forget something that I think Edward Gibbon entirely forgot because he was a member of the ancien régime and took a highly stratified society totally for granted. Only ten years afterwards it would have looked very different.

Indeed, indeed.

Twenty years afterwards you would have the fall of Napoleon. Fifty years afterwards you would have young men wanting to be like Napoleon. This is the horizons of the possible, that a society, which is in considerable continuity with its own past, can, nevertheless, change. And for me the question was how to get that: What causes that subtle shift in the horizons of the possible?

So, apart from external forces, what are the factors?

I think in this particular case one shouldn’t generalize. At the time I was actually writing about this in the late 1960s, social mobility struck me as a really obvious feature of the last centuries of Rome. Social mobility was also a very useful feature for understanding how people change their notions of what they can do.

But do the changes occur because some individuals start to imagine new possibilities, or does the whole structure somehow undergo a seismic change?

I think the two are related. But you need a rather subtle theory of how cognition works. You need to know what kinds of messages and signals, coming from a wide variety of sources, lead people to think: Yes, this can be done now!

Have you developed this kind of subtle theory?

I wish that I had a permanent one; it’s a theory I’m constantly trying to have.

What’s the cognitive theory you operate with, in a nutshell?

I would say the theory deals with subliminal impressions.

Subliminal—meaning something like unconscious?



Half-conscious ideas. It’s a little like Leibniz’s ideas; they could also be half-conscious—ideas which build up in a society, and they… It’s like a traffic light. Suddenly the traffic light changes from red to orange to green.

But if we look specifically at the world of late antiquity, what were the most significant subliminal messages? What made the great change, which was slow in the making but took place, and then it was a completely different world? What crucial subliminal messages were factors of change?

They occur in certain ways that resemble each other, which gives you a feeling that a wider change has actually happened. One of the most interesting things is the way the Roman Empire finally came to conceive of itself as a truly universal empire. That is, all Roman subjects were equal—it’s like the way voting rights in a modern society change—the general perception. If all Romans are subjects, then the entirely privileged position of the Roman Senate, of the individual towns, that whole honeycomb of privileges is just gradually eroded. Now, this coincides exactly with the time Christianity rose to power, precisely as a universal religion. So, the historians’ problem is: Does any real, almost hidden homology between the general application of Roman law to all Roman citizens—independent of the privileges of towns or classes or different orders—and the rise of the Christian church exist? That is, not so much the rise of the Christian church, but does it make the religion, which claims to be universal, more cogent?

But the Stoics prepared the ground somewhat, didn’t they?

Oh, yes, but don’t forget, the Stoics wrote and worked for a very small elite; therefore, you have to deal with a mass democratization of Stoic ideas, and there you have to ask: What enabled their democratization?

You speak of homology, which is still a step before causation. Would you go so far as to say Christianity caused certain changes towards universalization?

I would say Christianity fostered… ‘Caused’ is a bad word. ‘Caused’ is not a historian’s word.


I think, fostered, brought to the fore, made possible…caused some people, like Saint Augustine or Gregory of Nazianzus to think very deeply. You know, when certain issues become problematized, when you realize the old solutions aren’t going to work, and the new solutions are only beginning to emerge—this is a wonderful time for people to think.

For me, the image I’m operating with is that the rules of the game change. The question is: Who changes the rules of the game that govern society?

I think a historian would say it’s better to describe a society in such a way that you can envision a set of multiple causes converging.

And the image of rules of the game is somehow inapplicable here…?

The rules of the game are basically half-conscious rules. You know, we don’t say, ‘what are the rules of the game?’ in a modern society.

So, someone from the far future will be able to see what our rules of the game were?

They will see that we’re living according to very strict rules. Don’t forget—talking about renunciation—when I first came to the USA, everybody smoked in public buildings, on airplanes, in private…

on TV.

On TV. There are wonderful photos of leading doctors with cigarettes…

(Laughs.) …next to patients.

Now, how are we going to explain the change? There are obviously laws to implement the change, but how are people persuaded to actually adopt or obey these laws? There are turning points, even for relatively, seemingly unambiguous changes such as the rejection of smoking. But you can’t believe that everybody wakes up one morning and says: Smoking is bad for me. And they certainly won’t say: Let me read the most up-to-date medical reports, and I will give up smoking. There’s a convergence of those small changes.

How much conscious agency is involved in making those changes?

There is a very strong element of conscious agency, obviously. But this conscious agency expresses rather than causes the changes. I mean, the conversion of Constantine is a very good example.

In the sense that it was an expression of changes that had already happened?

Yes. Here was an emperor who suddenly realized this conversion to Christianity was no longer unthinkable.

But one more question regarding your smoking example: Do I understand you correctly, that we cannot, being participants in the process, see what forces make it happen? We need historical distance?

I think we need historical distance, but, of course, we have to make decisions on these issues. I think what the historian offers the modern person is a sense of patience. Historians give a sense that if you want to understand a change, it’s often well-advised not to look at obvious causes.

Look deeper.

Look deeper.

Or, as Wittgenstein said, put your question mark deeper.

Yes, precisely.

When I read your Rise of Western Christendom, I almost felt pained that it ended without reaching the Baltic territories.

I’m very sorry about that.


Had it been up to 1200, they would’ve certainly been included… But, in fact, I was extremely aware that I knew the Scandinavian world well and I’d begun to know the Slavonic world, but the Baltic world…is a long way from Hippo. 

That’s true, that’s true. (Laughs.) But still, you covered such a wide geographical area—from Iceland to Syria and Mesopotamia. What surprised me was that people’s reasons for accepting Christianity were so mundane, so simple. It completely changed my picture of how Christianization took place.


Yes. It did. Maybe it’s because I’m ignorant and haven’t read enough, but I didn’t imagine the situations in which acceptance took place were so simple, or so different in different places. Would it still make sense to consider Christianity’s common attraction? Why was it accepted so widely in such different cultural worlds?

I would say it was accepted widely for different reasons in different worlds. But when talking about Northwestern Europe, it’s not unlike my argument for ‘the World of Late Antiquity’. You have to look at social changes within what you might call the host societies, that is, Ireland, Britain, Scandinavia, Northern Gallia. There, I think, one of the great advances was…the previous historiography had been written solely from the missionaries’ point of view. The missionaries come—St Augustine to Canterbury, Patrick to Ireland, Boniface to Germany—they preach the gospel, either they are accepted or they aren’t accepted. There’s the whole preparation for this, the whole awareness of these societies, particularly on the real fringes of Europe—Scandinavia, Ireland—that they are now—again, almost unconsciously—living in a wider world. There’s a sheer greed for new things. If you look at the goldwork, for instance, in Denmark…


The goldwork in Denmark. What you find is a society constantly reaching out, putting Roman emperors on its coins. There’s a wonderful golden coin, this big [ca. 7 cm] coin minted in the middle of Anglo-Saxon pagan England, with Romulus and Remus and the wolf. You see what I mean? That’s just an indication of a society that’s hungry, hungry for change, hungry for new things, hungry to belong to a wider world. And I think one shouldn’t underestimate that. In the modern globalised society there are many cultural movements that also reflect a certain hunger to make contact with something more universal. What else… The notion that all of human activity isn’t mere luck, good luck, is obviously important, because it gives people a more permanent agency. It gives agency to monks and nuns to live lives that are not like the normal, but it also gives agency to kings. It gives them a sense that they are now a king ex gratia, king by the grace of God. So there’s a whole set of converging opportunities, which Christianity condenses.

During the period you cover, after the year 1000, what in Christianity itself makes it so easy to accept in such diverse places?

Well, I think it is a very complex religion. Don’t forget: it’s two religions, both Judaism and Christianity, which is important because the Old Testament probably played a much bigger role in converting the Northern people than the New Testament.


Yeah! It’s about kings; it’s about war; it’s about things human beings actually have to deal with. And I think a Christianity that did not have those Jewish roots in the Old Testament would’ve been very ephemeral. It would have become like Stoicism, a high-minded story, high-minded advice, very valid proverbial wisdom. 

And that complexity made it attractive?

Oh, very much so. Because it meant you could adopt Christianity on all different levels. And don’t forget, partly because of developments I describe in Body and Society, the Christian community itself had become much more differentiated. It’s agreed that there’s actually a sort of hierarchy of values—monks and nuns are at the top, average laypersons are halfway down—so there’s room for different types of people.

I’ve often wondered about the end of Matthew’s gospel, the part about spreading the word all around the world. What borders of the world does that sentence imply? I think it never meant to include India and Japan and…

I don’t think so, not at that time. But you know, whenever people define an end of the world, Christians tend to go there. St. Patrick, for instance, would have been quite happy to stay in Britain after Roman rule ended; he had a comfortable enough existence… Instead, he went to Ireland, precisely because it was at the end of the world. There was this tremendous sense of…the end of the world, which I think is important. The Christian missions at that time were driven by an almost mythical notion of reaching the end of the world. Christianity was universal in that it was potentially geographically universal. I don’t know if these people thought Christianity was sociologically universal.


Sociologically universal. That is, did any of the early fathers, even Gregory of Nazianzus, think they would be living in a society where Christians were an overwhelming majority? I suspect not. That happened much more slowly.

But the spread of Christianity over this large region took centuries, whereas Islam spread to not as large a region but to a sizeable area in just a couple of decades. How do you understand this difference in how quickly Islam and Christianity spread?

Well, I think Islam’s great advantage was that it was up against large empires. If you defeat a large empire, like Alexander the Great, you actually own the empire. So we have to make a distinction here. There were what we call the Arab conquests—by people who were mostly sincere Muslims, but we don’t even know that—which destroyed the kingdoms, basically halved the Roman Empire, toppled the kingdom of Spain, toppled Iran… That was an astonishing but purely military and political event. Islamization was much slower, and we’ve really got to avoid confusing one with the other. By the end of the Middle Ages, certainly by the year 1000, Islam was still a minority religion in the areas it had conquered. And here the Muslims had a great advantage—if you’re a minority, you stay together, you’re more assertive.

But even if they were a minority, they were a ruling minority.

They were a ruling minority. It’s much more like Romanization: the Romans established a ruling minority in Great Britain, but, you know, Celtic languages survived in Gallia till at least 200 ad and British survived longer than the Empire. Similarly, Islam could create totally Islamic centres largely because of Islamic notions of slave concubinage and multiple wives. Muslims don’t have to convert people to maintain their population. So you have a world with very intensive Muslim towns—Kufa, Basra, Fustat, often new towns—outside the countryside where Christianity is still totally dominating. This is modern scholarly prejudice; it’s the prejudice of Arabic sources themselves, which only refer to the Muslims. But then, if you read Tacitus or any Roman historian—did they really understand, say, the Jews they were dealing with? — No. 

You wrote about notions of wealth and its distribution in Through the Eye of a Needle. I think if somebody were to write a similar book on violence and attitudes towards violence in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, it would be a real eye-opener. Actually, I can’t think of anyone who could do it better than you. I’m sure you’ve given it some thought. How would you say attitudes towards violence differ in later Christianity and Islam? What are the main differences?

Yes, I think you’re right about that… By the way, some good work has been done. Do you know Thomas Sizgorich’s book, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity?


It’s a very good book. Nowadays there’s a whole generation of young scholars working on early Christian–Islamic relations. They are coming to a much more sophisticated picture, sophisticated because they’re at the actual origins of the story. The problem is Medieval Catholicism and later the Islamic learned classes—they looked back on the past from very secure positions and imposed their values on it. In the next few years I think we will see a real re-assessment of what jihad actually meant. It’s come at totally the right time, unfortunately, because the modern meanings of jihad are profoundly, obscenely different from what they were in early Islam. 

Well, they are completely non-traditional or anti-traditional.

Precisely so, and I think any believing Muslim you talk to would agree. What I think is important on a much deeper level is how much of the human person the different religions regard as religiously significant.

How much of the…?

Of the human person. And Christianity had an ascetic bias—I mean, in theory, it could’ve gone in a different direction, and eventually it did, by the time of Thomas Aquinas, but the Christianity we know from the earlier periods, up to the rise of Islam, was basically a religion whose dominant tone was set by those who had renounced things, renounced what they had in common with other people. They had renounced property. They had renounced sex. And they had certainly a fortiori renounced warfare. Now, it was easy for them because they lived in a large empire with its own professional soldiers, so, these were actually civilian attitudes. One must compare the various regions and be aware of the contrasts between them. But the important thing is that Christianity really did think human beings reached their perfection by not sharing certain things. Judaism? — A very different picture. Every rabbi is almost per force married. That is, in the case of Judaism, religious leadership, large measures of self-sacrifice, large measures of total dedication happened among totally married people. Islam went one step further: Muslims included war as well as sex.

War and sex?

War and sex were seen as part of human nature. It’s just how you model the human person, meaning, somebody like the Muslim philosopher al-Ghazali will say: Of course war and sex are part of a human being’s perfection. This was a totally Aristotelian notion of the telos, the full-flowering. And on full-flowering Aristotle and al-Ghazali would have got on very well. They would’ve found the Christian options very strange. Then, of course, you have to ask what leads Christianity to go out and bless warfare from around the year 1000 onwards.

Have you asked Christians this question?

I’ve asked it, I’ve said: You know, for people who make such a fuss about whether you can bless gay marriages, what about blessing warfare? Is this any less repugnant? 

But do you understand why Christians started to bless warfare in the second millennium?

I think it was an act of pure hubris. That is, they really thought they were a majority religion—from being a universal religion, by this time they really come to the view that in Europe at least, everybody should be a Christian, Jews only excluded. So every human activity should have its little bit of blessing.

But don’t you think that Islam and its attitude towards war played a role, that it influenced the Christian attitude? 

I suspect it was an independent evolution. There’s no evidence… The normal Christian attitude was absolute horror—you know: These [Muslims] bring religion into war.

But the attitude was horror until a certain point when…

Ah, they were still shocked, even if they were doing it themselves. Warfare had always been a constant element in European society, particularly in Northern Europe, but there was always this feeling…how to put it…there was a certain sacredness about not being involved in warfare. And at some point, obviously, at the end of the 11th century, a lot of Christian clergy slowly abandoned that idea. I think they did it because they believed anything the Church blessed could be made holy. 

Including killing Muslims?

Oh yes. Yes. Whether this was an act of hubris or simply political good sense—that is, these people were going to do it anyway, so it was much better to kill Muslims than let themselves be killed—I think underneath you’re dealing with a much greater issue, and that is: To what extent could Christianity have remained more like Buddhism, meaning a religion dominated by the world renouncers? A religion the lay world would respect but that would have totally different activities. And, you know, that was a big option.

Including the early Middle Ages; it was still an option then, it was still there.

Precisely. I myself think it was a… I have no great love for the 11th century.

I see. (Laughs.)

If we talk of it as the birth of Europe, I think it was the birth of the wrong Europe. 

The wrong Europe?

Of the wrong Europe. 

Was it also the birth of the wrong Christianity?

Well, wrong Christianity within a wrong Europe. But…

That’s strong.

…That’s obviously an exaggeration, but people tend to forget what the achievements of the High Middle Ages left behind. For instance, the way Catholic Europe became increasingly unintelligible to the Byzantine Orthodox world… I think that was extremely tragic. Any serious modern Christian will agree with that. And one of the reasons for the difference was that, in the time of the Crusades, the Church in Western Europe was prepared to bless activities the Byzantines continued to treat as not to be blessed.

I’m going to risk a speculative question here. I have the impression—maybe I’m wrong—that over the last 250 years, Christianity has lost its power to attract. Its role, its function, has significantly changed, diminished. If you agree at least to some extent, what do you think the main reasons for this loss are?

I don’t entirely agree, partly because Christianity’s expansion in the non-European world, in Africa and Asia, has taken everyone by surprise. I grew up with people who are good students of modern religion, who thought Christianity would go the moment the colonial regimes went. This is obviously not what happened. In Europe itself… My instinct is still that the Church tries to bless more than it ought to. People talk about the rigidities of the Church, that is, what the Church condemned, but I think what it blessed was actually more dangerous. 

Today I’m meeting Jonathan Israel, whose work on the Enlightenment has made some waves in that whole world. The dominant picture, I think, is that Christianity in Europe lost its steam somewhere around the Enlightenment.

That’s the normal public narrative. But don’t forget, the people circulating that narrative are the ones who want it to have happened. It’s never objective. I can say many examples against it: there was a huge rallying of Christianity in Great Britain at the time…

Around John Wesley and…

Yes, a huge rallying…and in the USA—still a very religious country where religious identity remains important… I think people like to forget how important French Romantic Catholicism was… So basically I don’t agree. But it’s something we’re normally told. If we’re really looking for why dechristianization happens, we shouldn’t look in the wrong places.

And what are the right places?

Dissatisfaction with the churches that claim too much, claim to be like the rest of society. It’s a claim that tends to blur the border between the secular, profane and sacred much more than it should.

You mentioned the birth of the wrong Europe. Recently in conversations with people who travel all around Europe, I hear more and more that a major war is imminent and that European civilization is gone, that just a facade is left and it’s going to disappear. You have a much larger than usual temporal horizon—do you think today’s Europe is doomed?

(Thinks.) Europeans like to think they’re doomed. It makes them feel important. 


It’s actually my first thought. The Romans always thought they were on the edge of decline. I think one should be very careful about such public rhetoric, largely because it’s anti-Islamic rhetoric. The main problem is how to create a Europeanized and Americanized Islam that will act as a counter-body to this basically horrible…

That would be your advice if some European or American bureaucrats asked you?

Yes. Because I know how terrorism works. I grew up in Ireland. It’s the work of very small and ruthless minorities who are nevertheless tacitly supported by a much wider body of opinion. If you cut away that wider support, it will go. It goes very quickly. And today, to create a world where Muslims feel accepted and not constantly pushed to the margins… It’s a very risky business, but we have to do it to succeed because Muslims come. They marry. They very soon lose their ethnic identities in modern societies. Therefore, it’s important to have a society which at least knows enough about Islam not to fall victim to this xenophobia. The slogan ‘the clash of civilizations’ is an example of this xenophobia. It’s a very cultivated example but it’s a dangerous one.

So this wrong Europe could go on for a while.

I think so… It’s got the culture.

A while back, I spoke with a Sufi sheikh in Jerusalem who said that Jerusalem is still the heart of the world, and as long as it bleeds, there will be no peace on Earth. Given that Jerusalem is the only place where the three Abrahamic religions have co-existed, albeit uneasily, for some time, do you see a solution for this part of the world? Is peaceful cohabitation imaginable in Jerusalem, given the lack of tolerance there? 

Well, I’m always a bit more optimistic. I lived in an Ireland which I can assure you was very intolerant in the 1950s. There was censorship, Protestants could not get jobs, mixed marriages were regarded with absolute horror. One of my aunts was just banished from the family because she wanted to marry a Catholic. We were a nasty place, a very nasty place. Now we’re a much nicer place, and that has taken 50 years. People have to think in terms of slower action; they won’t get immediate results. They have to realize that in fact much of the issue is one of basic poverty, because poor countries often invent…how to put it…cultural riches and religious riches as a substitute, and they cling to these identities. What happened in Ireland was, quite frankly, the Pope changed his opinion at the top. If the leaders, the actual leaders of most of these religious groups were really prepared to give way, they would give way.

Give way to what?

To much more peaceful, relaxed views. In Jerusalem, there are strong opinions on all three sides, and all of them have basically failed. In Ireland’s case, the opinion-makers failed for at least 50 years, and then they changed their minds. So, I hope your Sufi talks with some of his superiors.

(Laughs.) Let’s hope so. Just two questions related to one of your latest books, Through the Eye of the Needle. Yesterday I met a person who’s a philanthropist—he supports the arts and education, and so forth. To what extent do you recognize a Christian motivation—a desire to distribute wealth to the poor and the community—in contemporary philanthropic activity, which is a pretty big business in the US, for example?

It is big business, and I don’t recognize it at all. They’re much like the Greeks and Romans; they target their own groups of significant beneficiaries just like a Roman aristocrat who would never spend money on the poor. He would spend it on his fellow citizens, never on wider society, always on his town, never on the poor. So, obviously, in America, which was largely Protestant, the basic model was proposed in the most upright way by people with sincere religious beliefs. Did you know that at Stanford University, Mrs. Stanford insisted the great mosaics in the chapel show faith, hope and love and then charity as a separate virtue? There you go. It’s a fascinating deviation from the basic Christian feeling of social obligation to the poor alone. I really believe these people thought they shared a basic Christian sense of public duty. But, unlike the early Christians, they did not think they were required to make the poor the only beneficiaries of their philanthropy. I don’t think…

it plays any role.

It plays an indirect role, obviously. The MacArthur Foundation greatly supports social workers, political activists; so, you know, the poor are helped, but only indirectly. The idea that you would walk out of your house and say: Where is the nearest poor man to whom I can give my money?…

Nothing of the sort?

No, no.

What do you think is the best interpretation of Christ’s words ‘gather your treasure in heaven’? I understand that this question is more theological rather than historical, but…you’ve encountered most of those interpretations.

I think the best one is that the true treasure is a counter-factual action.


Counter-factual action, meaning, to give money to people who cannot return it. I think it’s very much what Jesus and many Jewish rabbis who told Jewish parables in the Talmud had in mind. That is, there’s a paradoxical element: the ‘treasure in heaven’, of course, because heaven is a place where there shouldn’t be any treasure. Heaven is above treasure. But then, the great paradox is that this is treasure. And the great paradox is that in both the Jewish and the Christian world, people were expected to reach out, to offer a counter-factual gesture of giving to people who could not return it.

The point being that through that action, a change can happen in them?

Yes. Yes.

Their soul might be purified.

Yes. And we, of course, look at the facts far more than I think people did back then, and we believe poverty can be…abolished. We really, in the back of our minds, think that we are in a society in which, if we did a little bit more, there would be considerably less poverty, or maybe no poverty at all. And you know, there are European nations with very, very low rates of poverty. This is not an ancient world thought. In the ancient world, the poor would always be there; therefore the gesture had meaning for both the poor and the rich, and this paradoxical notion of placing the right money in the wrong hands so that your ‘money’ would go up to the right place… I think that was it. That was the sort of emotional…how to put it…emotional charge—bonding with a distant heaven and with the equally distant poor. One gesture of ‘outreach’ echoed the other.

One last question: What have you learned, personally, about the correct attitude towards death, from reading Christian texts?

I’ve just completed a book on this subject, called The Ransom of the Soul, which is very much about the afterlife. I think what I learned through comparing Jewish and Islamic and Christian attitudes to death is that… (Thinks.) They are all based on the belief that the representation is ultimately far beneath the reality. That is, there is a real chasm between representation and reality. And, despite the huge pressure put on the churches to reassure people that what they imagine is what will happen, the real excitement is that it’s unimaginable. Augustine…one of Augustine’s earliest letters—he wrote to somebody who actually died a few years after the letter was written—says: You know, when we were growing up, we could imagine the Mediterranean because we could see a glass of water and we could make that imagination bigger and bigger and bigger, and that’s how we could imagine the sea. But until we reached Italy, we could not imagine the taste of strawberries.

(Laughs.) That’s lovely.

That is my basic view on the issue.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned or come to understand in life?

(Thinks.) Well, as a scholar one really learns patience.


Patience. And I’m a very impatient person. But it is what one learns.

But you aren’t only a scholar.

Yes, but scholarship is a very good exercise…

in patience.

In patience.

Questions by Arnis Rītups

From Summer 2017 issue

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