Last night as we were driving home from Boston, JMD and I listened in the car to the twelfth lecture ("Britain and Ireland") in Prof. Paul Freedman's excellent, well-paced course on The Early Middle Ages, 284-1000. My ears perked up when Freedman related a passage from the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People earned him the title of "Father of English History." Here's a slightly abridged version of the relevant part of that lecture transcript:
NB: A little later in the lecture, Freedman observes:
[C]onversion represents a change in orientation, a change in orientation towards a larger world. Instead of a tribal and fragmented identity -- I'm not making a statement about the truth or non-truth of Christianity but about the sense of belonging to a larger world whose purposes encompass not only your group, but a larger group of people out there.
And I think we can get a feeling for this from a famous passage of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, written in 731. And he is describing events of about a century earlier, when King Edwin of Northumbria summoned a council to decide whether or not to accept the Christian God. And the chief of the pagan priests speaks in favor of embracing Christianity. Even though you would think that he would be the defender of the old faith, he in fact speaks to this assembly, according to Bede, in favor of Christianity on the grounds that it tells us what went before us and what will come after us.
And the passage goes like this, "And one of the King's chief men presently said, 'Thus seems it to me, oh King. The present life of man on earth, against that time which is unknown to us, is as if you were sitting at a feast with your chief men and your thanes in winter time. The fire burns, and the hall is warm. And outside, it rains and snows and storms. There comes a sparrow and swiftly flies through the house. It comes through one door, and it goes out another. Lo, in the time in which he is within, he is not touched by the winter storm. But that time is the flash of an eye and the least of times. And he soon passes from winter out to winter again. So is the life of man revealed for a brief space, but what went before, and what follows after, we do not know. Therefore, if this teaching can reveal any more certain knowledge, it seems only right we should follow it."
Now this is not why people necessarily converted because not everybody's really bothered by that. Most people figure, "Wow, I'm in the hall. It's warm. It's great. I'm having such a good time. And when I have to leave, brief though it will be, I'll deal with that." But it does explain some of the appeal of Christianity and why the invaders who were quote "pagan" converted. And indeed why people tend to convert to world religions like Christianity and Islam to this day.(Emphasis mine.) I see here three reasons given for conversion to Christianity:
- It supplied a sense of place in history and the cosmos ("it tells us what went before us and what will come after us")
- It afforded material and social comforts ("The fire burns, and the hall is warm. And outside, it rains and snows and storms."; It's warm. It's great. I'm having such a good time."). Importantly, according to Bede/Freedman, these comforts are presented in the here and now, leaving aside the offer of benefits in the afterlife: "And when I have to leave, brief though it will be, I'll deal with that."
- It offered knowledge to those seeking knowledge ("if this teaching can reveal any more certain knowledge, it seems only right we should follow it.")
[. . .] The drinking hall is important, as you know from Beowulf. It is the manifestation of civilization. It is that protection from outside that Bede describes in the little sparrow anecdote. But it is also the center of government.I think this fact deserves serious attention: that once upon a time, the place that supplied truth and warmth and comity, was not a holy airy spired church but the rough-hewn proto-pub where you got drunk with your buddies.