History, Faith, and “Brotherhood”


I had a discussion with a colleague recently, in which we had a chance to catch up and share some thoughts.  While our initial discussion was on some immediate issues about student attainment, and misconceptions that students often have about understanding the place of faith in lives of people in bygone eras; it soon turned to our own backgrounds and beliefs.

He is a Medievalist, and I am an ecclesiastical historian and theologian.  The Medievalists and religious historians are in many ways inseparable. It is difficult, if not impossible to understand the mind set of  Europeans in the Middle Ages without understanding their belief in God, the church, and of the real presence of evil. I specialise in religious history generally, but in Early Modern/ Reformation history in particular.  The Bible is essential reading to understand this era as well.  Allusions, quotations, and paraphrases from scripture abound in the literature, letters, and even the news and political pamphlets of the day.

While this level of religious fervour (Medieval) and biblical literacy (Early Modern) is in many ways to be celebrated, it is also not without its historical woes.  The Crusades, The Inquisition,  The Thirty Years War, and even to a lesser degree The English Civil War, all are in part the results of the same fervour and literacy.

So what is my point?  It is that our religious devotion must be tempered by a focus on God, not on “religion.” Our biblical literacy needs to be in our hearts and not just in our heads.  We need to search the scriptures and devour them – yes; but more importantly we need to understand them and live them. If not, we face the same failings as the past.

This is the true challenge to the ecclesiastical historian and the theologian: to study and teach the truth, as well as the history and the philosophy.  To encourage understanding of what is beneath.  It was this that made that conversation rewarding to me – we moved beyond academic discipline to a discussion of a shared faith – we were brothers not just colleagues. Christians and not just historians.

It reminds me of an event when I was at university.  We had a professor who insisted on being addressed as “Doctor” explaining he had worked hard to earn the title.  One day the chancellor of the university visited the class and addressed the professor as “brother.” Before “the doctor” could object, the chancellor interjected: “It is a higher title, Christ died to give it to you.”




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