Wednesday, 20 July 2016

On Having Nothing

As no doubt many who read this blog know, my undergraduate degree is in Anthropology. Religious Studies was my minor, and what I chose to pursue in grad school. The reason that I opted to go in that direction had largely to do with my own ethical misgivings. I was profoundly interested in First Nations culture and history ("First Nations" is a Canadianism used to refer to our indigenous persons), but found the ethical issues of being a white person studying those traditions too intractable. Many people that I greatly respect have successfully negotiated those areas, and that's great, but myself, I just couldn't. Instead, I decided to study something that I find equally fascinating, namely early Christianity. There is ethically something quite different about studying a tradition in which you were raised and which generations of your family practiced, compared to studying traditions that your own people nearly destroyed by various forms of genocide. But I digress.

Aside from ethical difficulties in studying First Nations culture and history there are profound empirical ones. My primary interest was in pre-contact religion: what was First Nations religious life like before Europeans? But how do you study that without written texts, of which there are virtually none from Canada's First Nations prior to contact? How do you determine what in the archaeological record reflects religious practice and what does not? How do you understand the cosmologies of such groups? You can turn to oral tradition, but the oral tradition is talking about events and situations that haven't pertained for centuries, sometimes up to a millennium (such as the traditions around the founding of the Iroquois League). You can look at what early European settlers had to say, and to that end I was greatly interested in such texts as the Jesuit writings about their early experiences in what is now mid-western Ontario. But even by the time these written, starting in the mid-16th century, First Nations peoples were already finding their lifeways profoundly disrupted, and in addition there is the reality that the Jesuit themselves didn't really understand themselves what they were observing and were hardly neutral observers. Empirically, one must face the difficulty that precisely the sort of data that a historian of religion most needs is what is most lacking when looking at pre-contact First Nations religion.

As such, the study of early Christianity seemed like an empirical breath of fresh air. I could read what the early Christians thought about themselves and what they were doing. I could hear them narrate their own history, from a time not long after the events they were purporting to narrate. What wouldn't a historian of the First Nations people give for that? Imagine if scholar of the Iroquois League somehow discovered a narrative account of the founding of that league by Hiawatha and Deganawida from within a generation or two of their lives? How incredible! It would revolutionize the historiography of that time and place (namely, what is now upstate New York, in probably the twelfth Christian century). Alas, there is no such account.

This is perhaps why I get a little tetchy when I encounter programmatic skepticism regarding the texts related to early Christianity. When you have studied a time and place for which there are no written texts you come to greatly appreciate that even a little bit of writing makes a huge difference. Imagine if we had no writings from the ancient Mediterranean world. We wouldn't know that there was a distinct group known as the Jews. We wouldn't know that from that group emerged two movements, the Rabbinic and the Christian, that developed into two of the world's most prominent religious traditions. We might be able to have some sense that there existed some sort of state that controlled much of the circum-Mediterranean area at one point, but we wouldn't know that there was a Roman Republic that transformed into a Roman Empire. We probably would have a hard time determining that this state emerged from Rome at all. We wouldn't know what language(s) they spoke. We wouldn't know about the Julio-Claudians or that there were persons like Jesus or Paul. We would be quite literally clueless, as this is all the product of written texts.

The reality is that historians of Mediterranean antiquity, including historians of early Christianity, suffer from an embarrassment of riches. And like many rich folk, we tend to forget how good we have it.

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