Islam in Late Antiquity

15883We don’t think of it this way today, but in terms of ancient geopolitics, Islam was as much the heir of the Roman Empire as was Byzantium or the barbarian kingdoms of the West. Consider: within about a century of the fall of Rome, Islam had conquered the key Roman province of Egypt and all of North Africa. What had been a crucial part of the Roman world, the home of Tertullian and Augustine, very quickly became a crucial part of a new imperial state.

A new book from the University of Pennsylvania Press, The Apocalypse of Empire: Imperial Eschatology in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, by Stephen J. Shoemaker (University of Oregon) situates the Islamic conquest in terms of broader imperial politics and ideology–Roman, but also Persian. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

In The Apocalypse of Empire, Stephen J. Shoemaker argues that earliest Islam was a movement driven by urgent eschatological belief that focused on the conquest, or liberation, of the biblical Holy Land and situates this belief within a broader cultural environment of apocalyptic anticipation. Shoemaker looks to the Qur’an’s fervent representation of the imminent end of the world and the importance Muhammad and his earliest followers placed on imperial expansion. Offering important contemporary context for the imperial eschatology that seems to have fueled the rise of Islam, he surveys the political eschatologies of early Byzantine Christianity, Judaism, and Sasanian Zoroastrianism at the advent of Islam and argues that they often relate imperial ambition to beliefs about the end of the world. Moreover, he contends, formative Islam’s embrace of this broader religious trend of Mediterranean late antiquity provides invaluable evidence for understanding the beginnings of the religion at a time when sources are generally scarce and often highly problematic.

Scholarship on apocalyptic literature in early Judaism and Christianity frequently maintains that the genre is decidedly anti-imperial in its very nature. While it may be that early Jewish apocalyptic literature frequently displays this tendency, Shoemaker demonstrates that this quality is not characteristic of apocalypticism at all times and in all places. In the late antique Mediterranean as in the European Middle Ages, apocalypticism was regularly associated with ideas of imperial expansion and triumph, which expected the culmination of history to arrive through the universal dominion of a divinely chosen world empire. This imperial apocalypticism not only affords an invaluable backdrop for understanding the rise of Islam but also reveals an important transition within the history of Western doctrine during late antiquity.

How Belief Came to Transcend Religion

9780691174747_0The last sentence of the announcement of this new book from Princeton University Press–The Birth of Modern Belief: Faith and Judgment from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, by Berkeley historian Ethan Shagan–caught my attention. It confirms an essential, conservative critique of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment didn’t put an end to “belief” as a basis for one’s deepest commitments; it merely changed the objects of belief from traditional Christian concepts to new ones. I’m not sure what Shagan’s position is on all that, but the book looks very interesting indeed. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

This landmark book traces the history of belief in the Christian West from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, revealing for the first time how a distinctively modern category of belief came into being. Ethan Shagan focuses not on what people believed, which is the normal concern of Reformation history, but on the more fundamental question of what people took belief to be.

Shagan shows how religious belief enjoyed a special prestige in medieval Europe, one that set it apart from judgment, opinion, and the evidence of the senses. But with the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the question of just what kind of knowledge religious belief was—and how it related to more mundane ways of knowing—was forced into the open. As the warring churches fought over the answer, each claimed belief as their exclusive possession, insisting that their rivals were unbelievers. Shagan challenges the common notion that modern belief was a gift of the Reformation, showing how it was as much a reaction against Luther and Calvin as it was against the Council of Trent. He describes how dissidents on both sides came to regard religious belief as something that needed to be justified by individual judgment, evidence, and argument.

Brilliantly illuminating, The Birth of Modern Belief demonstrates how belief came to occupy such an ambivalent place in the modern world, becoming the essential category by which we express our judgments about science, society, and the sacred, but at the expense of the unique status religion once enjoyed.

McHugo on Sunni and Shia Islam

9781626165861We’re a little late getting to this one, but earlier this year, Georgetown University Press published an interesting looking book on a religious divide that gets insufficient attention from Americans: A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is by John McHugo (University of St. Andrews). The Sunni/Shia divide forms the background for many contemporary conflicts in the Mideast, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran. An understanding of the conflict is thus essential to appreciating the politics of the region. Here’s the description of the new book from the Georgetown website:

The 1,400-year-old schism between Sunnis and Shi’is is currently reflected in the destructive struggle for hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran—with no apparent end in sight. But how did this conflict begin, and why is it now the focus of so much attention?

Charting the history of Islam from the death of the Prophet Muhammad to the present day, John McHugo describes the conflicts that raged over the succession to the Prophet, how Sunnism and Shi’ism evolved as different sects during the Abbasid caliphate, and how the rivalry between the Sunni Ottomans and Shi’i Safavids ensured that the split would continue into the modern age. In recent decades, this centuries-old divide has acquired a new toxicity that has resulted in violence across the Arab world and other Muslim countries.

Definitive, insightful, and accessible, A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is is an essential guide to understanding the genesis, development, and manipulation of the schism that for far too many people has come to define Islam and the Muslim world

A New Book on Eusebius

9781108474078Lately, law-and-religion scholars have been turning their attention to the Patristic period, during which Christians first began to think in earnest about the relation between church and state. To give just two examples, there’s Steve Smith’s new book on pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, and Robert Louis Wilken’s forthcoming book on early Christian concepts of religious liberty, which he presented at our Center’s colloquium this past fall. And so it might be a good time for us to reconsider Eusebius, that chronicler of Christianity in its formative centuries. A forthcoming book from Cambridge, Eusebius and Empire: Constructing Church and Rome in the Ecclesiastical History, does just that. The author is historian James Corke-Webster (King’s College London). Cambridge presents the book as a “radical” new treatment, which makes a traditionalist like me a little skeptical, but readers will be able to judge for themselves. Here’s the description from Cambridge’s website:

Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, written in the early fourth century, continues to serve as our primary gateway to a crucial three hundred year period: the rise of early Christianity under the Roman Empire. In this volume, James Corke-Webster undertakes the first systematic study considering the History in the light of its fourth-century circumstances as well as its author’s personal history, intellectual commitments, and literary abilities. He argues that the Ecclesiastical History is not simply an attempt to record the past history of Christianity, but a sophisticated mission statement that uses events and individuals from that past to mould a new vision of Christianity tailored to Eusebius’ fourth-century context. He presents elite Graeco-Roman Christians with a picture of their faith that smooths off its rough edges and misrepresents its size, extent, nature, and relationship to Rome. Ultimately, Eusebius suggests that Christianity was – and always had been – the Empire’s natural heir.

Bebbington, “Baptists through the Centuries” (2d ed.)

6286For students of church-and-state in America, the Baptists loom very large. Together with Enlightenment figures like Madison and Jefferson, the Baptists had a profound influence in the early Republic as strong advocates of separationism. Next month, Baylor University Press will release a new edition of a history of the Baptist movement, Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People, by historian David Bebbington (Baylor). The new edition discusses the spread of Baptist churches in the global south. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Baptists through the Centuries provides a clear introduction to the history and theology of this influential and international people. David Bebbington, a leading Baptist historian, surveys the main developments in Baptist life and thought from the seventeenth century to the present.

The Baptist movement took root and grew well beyond its British and American origins. Bebbington persuasively demonstrates how Baptists continually adapted to the cultures and societies in which they lived, generating ever more diversity within an already multifaceted group. Bebbington’s survey also examines the challenging social, political, and intellectual issues in Baptist history―attitudes on race, women’s roles in the church, religious liberty, missions, and theological commitments.

The second edition of this proven textbook extends the scope with chapters on three parts of the world where Baptists have become particularly numerous: Latin America (where Brazilian Baptists number over 2 million), Nigeria (where Baptists are at their strongest outside North America, numbering roughly 5 million), and the Naga Hills in India (where Baptists form over 80 percent of the population). Each chapter also highlights regional issues that have presented new challenges and opportunities to Baptists: holistic mission in Latin America, the experience of charismatic renewal and the encounter with Islam in Nigeria, and the demands of peacemaking in the Naga Hills.

Through this new edition, Bebbington orients readers and expands their knowledge of the Baptist community as it continues to flourish around the world.

Tuininga, “Calvin’s Political Theology”

9781107171435Christian political theology is always characterized by a dualism between church and state–a dualism which, of course, is found in the Gospels themselves. In late antiquity, Pope Gelasius famously wrote of “two powers,” church and state (somehow, the reference is always to “two swords,” though Gelasius didn’t actually use that phrase); much later, the classical Reformers spoke of “two kingdoms.” A new book from Cambridge, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms, explores the Calvinist version of the two-kingdoms doctrine which, obviously, had a huge influence in colonial New England and, through colonial New England, America itself. The author is Matthew J. Tuininga of Calvin Theological Seminary. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

In Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Matthew J. Tuininga explores a little appreciated dimension of John Calvin’s political thought, his two kingdoms theology, as a model for constructive Christian participation in liberal society. Widely misunderstood as a proto-political culture warrior, due in part to his often misinterpreted role in controversies over predestination and the heretic Servetus, Calvin articulated a thoughtful approach to public life rooted in his understanding of the gospel and its teaching concerning the kingdom of God. He staked his ministry in Geneva on his commitment to keeping the church distinct from the state, abandoning simplistic approaches that placed one above the other, while rejecting the temptations of sectarianism or separatism. This revealing analysis of Calvin’s vision offers timely guidance for Christians seeking a mode of faithful, respectful public engagement in democratic, pluralistic communities today.

Stanley, “The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism”

3890Global Evangelicalism did not begin after the Second World War. The First Great Awakening in colonial America was a transatlantic phenomenon–George Whitefield was English, after all–and people whom we would today call Evangelical missionaries worked diligently in Asia in the 19th century. But it’s fair to say that global Evangelicalism increased in the second half of the 20th century, if only because globalization generally became a more important phenomenon in so many aspects of life. A new book from InterVarsity Press, The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott, by University of Edinburgh professor Brian Stanley, explores the recent history. Here’s a description from the publisher’s website:

Evangelical Christianity underwent extraordinary expansion—geographically, culturally and theologically—in the second half of the twentieth century. How and why did it spread and change so much? How did its strategic responses to a rapidly changing world affect its diffusion, for better or for worse?

This volume in the History of Evangelicalism series offers an authoritative survey of worldwide evangelicalism following the Second World War. It discusses the globalization of movements of mission, evangelism and revival, paying particular attention to the charismatic and neo-Pentecostal movements. The trends in evangelical biblical scholarship, preaching and apologetics were no less significant, including the discipline of hermeneutics in key issues. Extended treatment is given to the part played by southern-hemisphere Christianity in broadening evangelical understandings of mission.

While the role of familiar leaders such as Billy Graham, John Stott, Carl Henry, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Festo Kivengere receives full coverage, space is also given to lesser-known figures, such as Edward Carnell, Agnes Sanford, Orlando Costas, John Gatu and John Laird. The final chapter considers whether evangelical expansion has been at the price of theological coherence and stability, and discusses the phenomenon of “postevangelicalism.”

Painting a comprehensive picture of evangelicalism’s development as well as narrating stories of influential individuals, events and organizations, The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism is a stimulating and informative contribution to a valuable series.

“The Dangerous God” (Erdozain, ed.)

7706Lately, religious freedom has become a matter of intense debate in the United States. The easy assumption that has existed throughout most of American history, that religion is a good thing that benefits society as a whole, is no longer so widely accepted. And so believers increasingly must justify the protection of religious associations to skeptical fellow citizens.

One key argument is that religious associations provide a necessary check on totalitarianism. Religious associations offer competing sources of loyalty and identity that prevent the state from arrogating too much power, and that allow citizens, through joint action, to resist tyranny. We tend to forget how much religion, and particularly Christianity, figured in the downfall of Communism. That was certainly true in places like Poland, but it was also true, though to a lesser extent, in the Soviet Union itself. A recent book from the Northern Illinois University Press, The Dangerous God: Christianity and the Soviet Experimentdescribes the role of Christianity in the culture of dissidents in the Soviet Union. The editor is Dominic Erdozain (King’s College London). Here is the publisher’s description:

At the heart of the Soviet experiment was a belief in the impermanence of the human spirit: souls could be engineered; conscience could be destroyed. The project was, in many ways, chillingly successful. But the ultimate failure of a totalitarian regime to fulfill its ambitions for social and spiritual mastery had roots deeper than the deficiencies of the Soviet leadership or the chaos of a “command” economy. Beneath the rhetoric of scientific communism was a culture of intellectual and cultural dissidence, which may be regarded as the “prehistory of perestroika.” This volume explores the contribution of Christian thought and belief to this culture of dissent and survival, showing how religious and secular streams of resistance joined in an unexpected and powerful partnership.

The essays in The Dangerous God seek to shed light on the dynamic and subversive capacities of religious faith in a context of brutal oppression, while acknowledging the often-collusive relationship between clerical elites and the Soviet authorities. Against the Marxist notion of the “ideological” function of religion, the authors set the example of people for whom faith was more than an opiate; against an enduring mythology of secularization, they propose the centrality of religious faith in the intellectual, political, and cultural life of the late modern era. This volume will appeal to specialists on religion in Soviet history as well as those interested in the history of religion under totalitarian regimes.

Levy-Rubin, “Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire”

9781108449618Classical Islam allows certain non-Muslim communities to maintain a permanent residence within the umma, subject to restrictions meant to keep the communities in a state of dependence and submission. Conventionally, the restrictions were thought to derive from the so-called Pact of Umar, a notional treaty an early caliph made with the Christians of Syria. Most scholars dismiss this pact as spurious, however, and some argue that the restrictions were actually modeled on pre-existing Byzantine and Persian rules. An interesting-looking new book from Cambridge, Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire: From Surrender to Co-existence, by Hebrew University historian Milka Levy-Rubin, takes this latter view. Here’s the description from the Cambridge website:

The Muslim conquest of the East in the seventh century entailed the subjugation of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and others. Although much has been written about the status of non-Muslims in the Islamic empire, no previous works have examined how the rules applying to minorities were formulated. Milka Levy-Rubin’s remarkable book traces the emergence of these regulations from the first surrender agreements in the immediate aftermath of conquest to the formation of the canonic document called the Pact of ‘Umar, which was formalized under the early ‘Abbasids, in the first half of the ninth century. What the study reveals is that the conquered peoples themselves played a major role in the creation of these policies, and that these were based on long-standing traditions, customs, and institutions from earlier pre-Islamic cultures that originated in the worlds of both the conquerors and the conquered. In its connections to Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian traditions, the book will appeal to historians of Europe as well as Arabia and Persia.

O’Malley, “Vatican I”

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As an Orthodox Christian who directs a law and religion center at a Catholic University, I often feel like I am on the inside, looking in. That is certainly how I have felt over the past few weeks, as Catholic commentators have argued emotionally over a recent First Things piece defending Pope Pius IX’s actions in the nineteenth-century Edgardo Mortara case, in the which the Papal States seized and raised a Jewish boy who had been baptized without his parents’ knowledge, on the ground that baptism had rendered the child a Catholic and the Church had an obligation to give him a Catholic upbringing.

The First Things piece has sparked a debate on the proper relationship of church and state in Catholicism. To my mind, that debate is quite beside the point. The Mortara case has little to do with a proper theory of church-state relations. One could be an integralist (there’s a word I didn’t know until a few weeks ago) and argue for a close connection between church and state, even for a subordination of state to church, and still not endorse what happened in the Mortara case. Put differently, one need not be an Americanist (another word I didn’t know until fairly recently) to see the seizure of the child and Pius’s refusal to return him to his parents–“Non Possumus”–as an abuse. It’s not the relationship of church and state in nineteenth-century Bologna that offends; it’s the use of a surreptitious baptism to justify removing a child from his family. It’s bewildering that someone would revive the controversy and seek to defend that action today.

I say all this as preface to a forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, by Georgetown Professor John W. O’Malley. The book addresses the context of the council, which Pius himself summoned and which made maximal claims about papal authority, precisely as the pope’s temporal authority was coming to an end. Here’s a description of the book from the publisher’s website:

The enduring influence of the Catholic Church has many sources—its spiritual and intellectual appeal, missionary achievements, wealth, diplomatic effectiveness, and stable hierarchy. But in the first half of the nineteenth century, the foundations upon which the church had rested for centuries were shaken. In the eyes of many thoughtful people, liberalism in the guise of liberty, equality, and fraternity was the quintessence of the evils that shook those foundations. At the Vatican Council of 1869–1870, the church made a dramatic effort to set things right by defining the doctrine of papal infallibility.

In Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, John W. O’Malley draws us into the bitter controversies over papal infallibility that at one point seemed destined to rend the church in two. Archbishop Henry Manning was the principal driving force for the definition, and Lord Acton was his brilliant counterpart on the other side. But they shrink in significance alongside Pope Pius IX, whose zeal for the definition was so notable that it raised questions about the very legitimacy of the council. Entering the fray were politicians such as Gladstone and Bismarck. The growing tension in the council played out within the larger drama of the seizure of the Papal States by Italian forces and its seemingly inevitable consequence, the conquest of Rome itself.

Largely as a result of the council and its aftermath, the Catholic Church became more pope-centered than ever before. In the terminology of the period, it became ultramontane.

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