Tag Archives: History of Religion

The Merchants of Venice

unde origo inde salus

Photo Courtesy of Gianmario Guidarelli

I’ve enjoyed Nate’s posts this month on the importance and benevolence of the market as a human institution. The market can indeed promote tolerance, cooperation, and peace, to say nothing of wealth. And its importance in our culture only increases. The market continues to expand its reach, governing many aspects of life we once thought beyond it. A few decades ago, prenuptial agreements were void as against public policy. Courts would not enforce agreements in contemplation of divorce. Now, prenups are routine. There are many other examples.

As the market expands, it seems inevitable that competing commitments will shrink, at least as a matter of public life. Religion may be among these commitments. In fact, as Nate explains, reducing religion’s hold on people may have been the point all along. Voltaire, for example, anticipated that the expansion of commerce would cause religious commitment to atrophy. People would come to see the market, not the church, as important, and identify as buyers and sellers rather than believers. After all, in the marketplace, it doesn’t matter whether one is a good Christian, Jew, Muslim or pagan. All that matters is whether one can pay.

In the passage Nate quotes, Voltaire offers eighteenth-century London as the model of a benevolent, religiously indifferent, commercial society. (Voltaire overstated things. In 1780, two years after he died, London was convulsed by the vicious, anti-Catholic Gordon Riots, in which mobs terrorized the city for days while Londoners huddled inside their homes, afraid to face them. “Such,” Johnson observed, “is the cowardice of a commercial place.”) When one thinks of the prototype of a mercantile society, though, one usually thinks of another city a thousand miles away. It’s Venice, more than any other place, which conventionally epitomizes the commercial society.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Venice, lately, ever since I visited last month to participate in an international law and religion moot court competition. In its glory, Venice was a city devoted to commerce. Just as in today’s New York, you could find anything for sale. The city pioneered credit-financed capitalism and grew fabulously wealthy on trade with Byzantium and the Levant. And, as Voltaire’s theory would suggest, the Venetian Republic was quite tolerant of religious difference, especially for the time. The city had significant colonies of Eastern Christians like Greeks and Armenians; Lutheran Germans; Muslim Turks; and of course Jews. All made fortunes trading peaceably in Venice.

And yet, as I learned, Venice had a compensating commitment to tradition. The city balanced devotion to the fluid world of commerce with an equal devotion to the static world of custom. As Peter Ackroyd explains in his marvelous book, Venice, Pure City (2009), Venice was “the most conservative of societies.” In law and government, ancient usage had preeminent authority, more than positive legislation. Social interactions followed patterns that did not change. For example, strict rules limited what different classes could wear. Patricians wore stiff black gowns, which highlighted gravity and authority, not flexibility and cosmopolitanism. In architecture, generation after generation followed old models. When buildings collapsed, Venetians would reconstruct them exactly as they had been, often using the same materials. Come era, dove era.

And Venice was exceptionally religious. The city’s enthusiastic participation in the Crusades is well known, and was always a matter of great pride. One could dismiss Crusading as a search for more loot, but for Venetians it was more than that. Venetians were genuinely devout, perhaps excessively so. Hundreds of churches shared a very small space; religious processions were numerous and frequent.  Reports of miracles were common; only Rome had more. This is not to say that Venetians were saints. They never lost sight of the main chance. But Catholicism was a centerpiece of their identity. Ackroyd sums it up best: “Machiavelli wrote that ‘we Italians are corrupt and irreligious beyond all others.’ That was not true of the Venetians. They were corrupt and religious.”

The commitment to tradition was brought home to me when I was visited the famous basilica of Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal. The basilica was built in the seventeenth century to commemorate the Virgin’s help in ending one of the periodic plagues that struck Venice. As architectural historian Gianmario Guidarelli explained to me, at the very center of this church, there is an inscription (above) that captures the Venetian understanding of life: Unde Origo Inde Salus, “Where is the Origin, There is Salvation.” The inscription refers to the legendary founding of Venice on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation to the Virgin in the Western calendar. But I think the inscription must allude more generally to the saving power of the past. Salvation doesn’t come from novelty or change. To preserve the city, one must return to history, to ancient customs, to the origins. You can’t get more traditional than that.

With their dual commitment to markets and tradition, the merchants of Venice held the gorgeous East in fee. The state they created, the Venetian Republic, lasted for more than a thousand years. In the West today, we have kept and expanded markets, but seem ever more eager to jettison tradition. I wonder how long we’ll last.

Rosemont, “Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion”

In March, Rowman & Littlefield released “Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion” by Henry Rosemont Jr. (Brown University). The publisher’s description follows:

The first part of Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion is devoted to showing how and why the vision of human beings as free, independent and autonomous individuals is and always was a mirage that has served liberatory functions in the past, but has now become pernicious for even thinking clearly about, much less achieving social and economic justice, maintaining democracy, or addressing the manifold environmental and other problems facing the world today.

In the second and larger part of the book Rosemont proffers a different vision of being human gleaned from the texts of classical Confucianism, namely, that we are first and foremost interrelated and thus interdependent persons whose uniqueness lies in the multiplicity of roles we each live throughout our lives. This leads to an ethics based on those mutual roles in sharp contrast to individualist moralities, but which nevertheless reflect the facts of our everyday lives very well. The book concludes by exploring briefly a number of implications of this vision for thinking differently about politics, family life, justice, and the development of a human-centered authentic religiousness. This book will be of value to all students and scholars of philosophy, political theory, and Religious, Chinese, and Family Studies, as well as everyone interested in the intersection of morality with their everyday and public lives.

Papademetriou, “Render unto the Sultan”

This April, Oxford University Press will release “Render unto the Sultan: Power, Authority, and the Greek Orthodox Church in the Early Ottoman Centuries” by Tom Papademetriou (Richard Stockton College, New Jersey).  The publisher’s description follows:

Render Unto the SultanThe received wisdom about the nature of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Ottoman Empire is that Sultan Mehmed II reestablished the Patriarchate of Constantinople as both a political and a religious authority to govern the post-Byzantine Greek community. However, relations between the Church hierarchy and Turkish masters extend further back in history, and closer scrutiny of these relations reveals that the Church hierarchy in Anatolia had long experience dealing with Turkish emirs by focusing on economic arrangements. Decried as scandalous, these arrangements became the modus vivendi for bishops in the Turkish emirates.

Primarily concerned with the economic arrangements between the Ottoman state and the institution of the Greek Orthodox Church from the mid-fifteenth to the sixteenth century,Render Unto the Sultan argues that the Ottoman state considered the Greek Orthodox ecclesiastical hierarchy primarily as tax farmers (multezim) for cash income derived from the church’s widespread holdings. The Ottoman state granted individuals the right to take their positions as hierarchs in return for yearly payments to the state. Relying on members of the Greek economic elite (archons) to purchase the ecclesiastical tax farm (iltizam), hierarchical positions became subject to the same forces of competition that other Ottoman administrative offices faced. This led to colorful episodes and multiple challenges to ecclesiastical authority throughout Ottoman lands.

Tom Papademetriou demonstrates that minority communities and institutions in the Ottoman Empire, up to now, have been considered either from within the community, or from outside, from the Ottoman perspective. This new approach allows us to consider internal Greek Orthodox communal concerns, but from within the larger Ottoman social and economic context.

Render Unto the Sultan challenges the long established concept of the ‘Millet System’, the historical model in which the religious leader served both a civil as well as a religious authority. From the Ottoman state’s perspective, the hierarchy was there to serve the religious and economic function rather than the political one.

Sacks, “Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence”

In June, Mulholland Books will release “Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth). The publisher’s description follows:

Despite predictions of continuing secularization, the twenty-first century has witnessed a surge of religious extremism and violence in the name of God. In this powerful and timely book, Jonathan Sacks explores the roots of violence and its relationship to religion, focusing on the historic tensions between the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Drawing on arguments from evolutionary psychology, game theory, history, philosophy, ethics and theology, Sacks shows how a tendency to violence can subvert even the most compassionate of religions.

Whilst dismissing the claim that religion is intrinsically a cause of violence, Sacks argues that theology must become part of the solution if it is not to remain at the heart of the problem. Through a close reading of key Biblical texts at the heart of the Abrahamic faiths, Sacks challenges those who kill in the name of the God of life, wage war in the name of the God of peace, hate in the name of the God of love, and practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.

Kidd & Hankins, “Baptists in America”

This May, Oxford University Press will release “Baptists in America” by Thomas S. Kidd (Baylor University) and Barry Hankins (Baylor University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Baptists in AmericaThe Puritans called Baptists “the troublers of churches in all places” and hounded them out of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Four hundred years later, Baptists are the second-largest religious group in America, and their influence matches their numbers. They have built strong institutions, from megachurches to publishing houses to charities to mission organizations, and have firmly established themselves in the mainstream of American culture. Yet the historical legacy of outsider status lingers, and the inherently fractured nature of their faith makes Baptists ever wary of threats from within as well as without.

In Baptists in America, Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins explore the long-running tensions between church, state, and culture that Baptists have shaped and navigated. Despite the moment of unity that their early persecution provided, their history has been marked by internal battles and schisms that were microcosms of national events, from the conflict over slavery that divided North from South to the conservative revolution of the 1970s and 80s. Baptists have made an indelible impact on American religious and cultural history, from their early insistence that America should have no established church to their place in the modern-day culture wars, where they frequently advocate greater religious involvement in politics. Yet the more mainstream they have become, the more they have been pressured to conform to the mainstream, a paradox that defines–and is essential to understanding–the Baptist experience in America.

Kidd and Hankins, both practicing Baptists, weave the threads of Baptist history alongside those of American history. Baptists in America is a remarkable story of how one religious denomination was transformed from persecuted minority into a leading actor on the national stage, with profound implications for American society and culture.

Thomas More, Villain

Anton Lesser Thomas More

Anton Lesser as Thomas More in Wolf Hall (BBC)

When it comes to up-market historical fiction, nobody delivers like the Tudors. There’s so much entertainment value in that Renaissance dynasty: royalty; costumes; cool accents; lust and murder; political and religious intrigue; the works—plus enough history to make you feel virtuous for watching. In the 1930s, studios turned out films like The Private Life of Henry VIII and Fire over England, which, for my money, still has the best portrayal of Elizabeth on film, by the great British actress Flora Robson. In the 1960s, there was Anne of the Thousand Days. Forty years ago, PBS broadcast Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. More recently, there was Showtime’s The Tudors. And now on PBS’s Masterpiece there is Wolf Hall, a BBC dramatization of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel.

All historical fiction involves anachronism, of course, and depictions of the Tudors often reveal more about contemporary issues than they do about the past. Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons portrayed Thomas More as a liberal dissenter from state ideology, a man committed to individual conscience and the rule of law. (In the 1960s, liberals identified with such people). Glenda Jackson’s 1971 portrayal made Elizabeth an icon for the rising feminist movement.

I was able to catch an episode of Wolf Hall on Sunday, and it seems to me the new series likewise reflects our current cultural moment. Maybe I spend too much time thinking about these things, but to me it is impossible to miss the allusions to current debates about rational government and religious belief. The message, for religious liberty, is not a congenial one.

Wolf Hall—which, incidentally, has great production values and wonderful performances, especially by Damian Lewis as Henry VIII—inverts the conventional portrayal of the Henrician Reformation. Most past film and television versions, even those sympathetic to Henry, show More as a kind of hero, a noble, if misguided, martyr for freedom of conscience. In Mantel’s version, by contrast, it’s Cromwell, the supporter of state orthodoxy and More’s tormentor, who is the hero. And More, the man who resisted the state from religious conviction, is the unalloyed villain.

Now, More was a more complicated figure than widely understood. Even saints have failings. He may have been, as Swift famously wrote, “a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced,” but, as chancellor, he persecuted Protestants and approved burning heretics at the stake. Mantel’s portrayal goes beyond offering a helpful corrective to the conventional wisdom, though. Her More is not deeper or truer to the historical record. He is simply evil, a nasty piece of work—cold, fanatical, and sadistic.

Mantel’s Cromwell, by contrast, is warm, self-effacing, and pragmatic, even wistful—a family man, though with a ruthless edge. As between him and More, he is easily the more reasonable. Religious enthusiasm is not for him; he is far too insightful and levelheaded. He is also more compassionate. When More tells him that torture is for the victim’s own good—the real More forcefully denied that he ever tortured anyone—Cromwell is aghast. Cromwell is far too tender-hearted to believe something like that. He cannot bear to see someone burned at the stake for heresy. More, we gather, would be delighted.

I know nothing about Mantel’s politics. Perhaps her choices in Wolf Hall are purely aesthetic. Maybe she set herself the artistic challenge of portraying Cromwell, one of British history’s great villains, in a favorable light. But I’m guessing she has an agenda. Increasingly, secular liberals are losing patience with claims for religious liberty, particularly from traditionalists who dissent from progressive orthodoxy. Only fanatics could object to progressive goals like the Contraception Mandate and same-sex marriage, they believe, and it’s wrong to accommodate such people. Accommodation encourages backward and malevolent attitudes that cause innocent people grave harm.

In its biased portrayal of More, British history’s great example of religious resistance to state orthodoxy, Wolf Hall is sending its audience a message: Don’t think this man was at all admirable. He was a dangerous head case. And, by extension, be careful of his analogues today, who continue to oppose religious fanaticism to tolerance, reason, and progress. Cromwell, and pragmatic people like him who protect us from the forces of reaction, are the real heroes.

It’s a powerful message, and one with increasing influence. Perhaps this explains why PBS is advertising Wolf Hall as “a historical drama for a modern audience.” The fact that this hatchet job on Thomas More appears in an impeccably well-done BBC production—surely the gold standard in upper middle class entertainment—shows how fast our culture is changing, and how much work defenders of religious liberty have before them.

“Methodism in Australia: A History” (O’Brien & Carey, eds.)

In May, Ashgate will release “Methodism in Australia: A History” edited by Glen O’Brien (Sydney College of Divinity) and Hilary M. Carey (University of Bristol). The publisher’s description follows:

Methodism has played a major role in all areas of public life in Australia but has been particularly significant for its influence on education, social welfare, missions to Aboriginal people and the Pacific Islands and the role of women. Drawing together a team of historical experts, Methodism in Australia presents a critical introduction to one of the most important religious movements in Australia’s settlement history and beyond. Offering ground-breaking regional studies of the development of Methodism, this book considers a broad range of issues including Australian Methodist religious experience, worship and music, Methodist intellectuals, and missions to Australia and the Pacific.

Alavi, “Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire”

This month, Harvard University Press releases “Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire” by Seema Alavi (University of Delhi). The publisher’s description follows:

Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire recovers the stories of five Indian Muslim scholars who, in the aftermath of the uprising of 1857, were hunted by British authorities, fled their homes in India for such destinations as Cairo, Mecca, and Istanbul, and became active participants in a flourishing pan-Islamic intellectual network at the cusp of the British and Ottoman empires. Seema Alavi traces this network, born in the age of empire, which became the basis of a global Muslim sensibility—a form of political and cultural affiliation that competes with ideas of nationhood today as it did in the previous century.

By demonstrating that these Muslim networks depended on European empires and that their sensibility was shaped by the West in many subtle ways, Alavi challenges the idea that all pan-Islamic configurations are anti-Western or pro-Caliphate. Indeed, Western imperial hegemony empowered the very inter-Asian Muslim connections that went on to outlive European empires. Diverging from the medieval idea of the umma, this new cosmopolitan community stressed consensus in matters of belief, ritual, and devotion and found inspiration in the liberal reforms then gaining traction in the Ottoman world. Alavi breaks new ground in the writing of nineteenth-century history by engaging equally with the South Asian and Ottoman worlds, and by telling a non-Eurocentric story of global modernity without overlooking the importance of the British Empire.

“The Prophet and the Reformer” (Grow & Walker, eds.)

This June, Oxford University Press will release “The Prophet and the Reformer: The Letters of Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane” edited by Matthew J. Grow and Ronald W. Walker (Professor Emeritus, Brigham Young University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The Prophet and the ReformerUntil his death in 1877, Brigham Young guided the religious, economic, and political life of the Mormon community, whose settlements spread throughout the West and provoked a profound political, legal, and even military confrontation with the American nation. Young first met Thomas L. Kane on the plains of western Iowa in 1846. Young came to rely on Kane, 21 years his junior, as his most trusted outside adviser, making Kane the most important non-Mormon in the history of the Church. In return, no one influenced the direction of Kane’s life more than Young. The letters exchanged by the two offer crucial insights into Young’s personal life and views as well as his actions as a political and religious leader. The Prophet and the Reformer offers a complete reproduction of the surviving letters between the Mormon prophet and the Philadelphia reformer. The correspondence reveals the strategies of the Latter-day Saints in relating to American culture and government during these crucial years when the “Mormon Question” was a major political, cultural, and legal issue. The letters also shed important light on the largely forgotten “Utah War” of 1857-58, triggered when President James Buchanan dispatched a military expedition to ensure federal supremacy in Utah and replace Young with a non-Mormon governor.

This annotated collection of their correspondence reveals a great deal about these two remarkable men, while also providing crucial insight into nineteenth-century Mormonism and the historical moment in which the movement developed.

Tuna, “Imperial Russia’s Muslims”

This May, Cambridge University Press will release “Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Islam, Empire and European Modernity, 1788–1914” by Mustafa Tuna (Duke University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Imperial Russia's MuslimsImperial Russia’s Muslims offers an exploration of social and cultural change among the Muslim communities of Central Eurasia from the late eighteenth century through to the outbreak of the First World War. Drawing from a wealth of Russian and Turkic sources, Mustafa Tuna surveys the roles of Islam, social networks, state interventions, infrastructural changes and the globalization of European modernity in transforming imperial Russia’s oldest Muslim community: the Volga-Ural Muslims. Shifting between local, imperial and transregional frameworks, Tuna reveals how the Russian state sought to manage Muslim communities, the ways in which both the state and Muslim society were transformed by European modernity, and the extent to which the long nineteenth century either fused Russia’s Muslims and the tsarist state or drew them apart. The book raises questions about imperial governance, diversity, minorities, and Islamic reform, and in doing so proposes a new theoretical model for the study of imperial situations.