Diarmaid MacCulloch is a Fellow of St. Cross College, Oxford, a Fellow of the British Academy and professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University. A leading church historian, he won the 2010 Cundill Prize in History for his book, A History of Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years. Prof. MacCulloch, who was recently knighted in recognition of his services to scholarship, will deliver a lecture titled: Christianity and Islam: Way-Stations on a Journey on Monday, Feb. 13 at 4 p.m. at the McGill Faculty Club.
What did you learn about Christianity that was most surprising to you and that you did not know before you began writing your book “A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years”?
It was not so much a case of learning something new but taking a new perspective on what the story is and has been. What is a Christian? Catholic; Protestant; Orthodox: these are the identities which steal the headlines among Christian Churches. The Roman Catholic Church is currently the largest Christian Church in the world, with Protestants collectively not far behind, in all their glorious or grumpy variety, from Anglicans to Baptists to Pentecostals. Orthodoxy too is familiar to most people who know anything about Christianity, with its icons, bearded clergy, age-old chant.
But we need to realise that all these modern Christian identities are an unexpected end-result of a very complicated two thousand years of history. We should think of them all as Western Churches – that is, west of Jerusalem. Christianity was in origin, an oriental religion which travelled west to create Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodoxy. An oriental religion might have been expected to travel east – and that is what indeed it did. It created Churches in Asia and Africa, many of which spoke a language, Syriac, which Jesus Christ would recognise as something like his own – unlike the languages of Western Christians.
And yet they are still there. There are still their descendants in Baghdad – but no thanks to the West. I have been the guests of those Christians from Baghdad, refugees in Damascus, knowing that their fellow-worshippers have been killed in their homeland, helplessly caught up in geopolitics beyond their control, most recently in the Second Gulf War. A Patriarch of the East has forcefully and fiercely urged me to remind Christians of the West of what their neglect has done to Christians of the East. The Republic of Syria, which is now so torn by violence and state repression, has until now been an island of religious tolerance and pluralism in the Middle East – another story ignored in the West. But now throughout the Middle East, there is a real danger that Christianity will become extinct in the land of its birth. There is a tragedy in misunderstanding the history of Christianity; and there is folly in not hearing the voices of descendants of Eastern Christians.
Your book talks about how Christianity has morphed. How do you see this continuing?
It’s quite clear that Pentecostalism is a huge part of the expansion of Christianity. There are many reasons for that (apart from faith-based reasons): in some places an admiration for US culture, in some places an assertion of local culture, in some a rebellion against the excessively text-based nature of Evangelical Protestantism. At present Pentecostalism does frequently echo what conservative Evangelicals say about morality. But its early relations with conservative Evangelicalism were extremely hostile, even though even they sounded rather similar on many issues. In the 1940s, there was a reconciliation with many Pentecostals and Evangelicals, and in particular on theological education. So the similarities increased. I do not think that this is necessarily the future. Pentecostalism is based on the wordless, the spontaneous action of the Spirit. Not necessarily on the text of the Bible. We have been here before, with the Quakers in the seventeenth century. The same pattern may develop, and much Pentecostalism may develop in its own very different way.
You were recently published in the Guardian about compulsory celibacy and the clergy. What lead you to publish this and why now?
The simple answer is that they asked me to. But the fact is that all Western Churches, not just in the UK, are painfully having to face up to questions of sex and sexuality, and the more we talk about aspects of these issues, and look at their history, the better. Both conservative Catholics and fundamentalists find the issue very difficult, and there are probably ways of accounting for that. What strikes me about ultra-conservatives in every faith (probably best to confine the word ‘fundamentalism’ to Christianity and not transfer it) is just how angry it is. Such anger can’t just come from an intellectual reaction; it is a cry of rage at an attack at a very deep level on one’s identity. Tentatively I would explain it as a howl of rage by heterosexual men who feel that their traditional place at the top of the human pecking order has been threatened, especially by the new roles which women are claiming for themselves. Much of the anger is diverted into anger about the new place in ordinary mainstream life which homosexual men and lesbians are finding for themselves, but the real issue is the loss of power and prestige by traditional male elites and those men who expected to succeed to that power and prestige. So the issue is about maleness. The issues raised by clerical celibacy imposed on Roman Catholic clergy and on gay Anglican clergy are part of that wider angst.
Tell us how Islam and Christianity borrow from another?
I think that I’ll duck that question as it will steal the thunder of my lecture. But I will give you one hint about one angle: where do minarets come from? They’re not in the Qur’an.