Peter Brown's Christianity

A sociologist looks at a great historian.

That extraordinary scholar Peter Brown’s latest book “Through the Eye of a Needle” is a magisterial account of the social, economic and theological structure of the late Roman Empire. His guiding thesis as he states it in his introduction is that as a result of that great outpouring of theological genius in the later part of the Fourth Century the Church came from regarding wealth as a sin, which it was in the Gospels, to regarding contributions to the Church as justifying great wealth. Wealth was good when it went to the Church, and that explains the prevalence of the Church in the Middle Ages. I think this thesis basically wrong, first of all, because, as Brown himself shows in an early chapter, contributions of mosaics and other church naming occasions were already part of Church life right after Constantine converted to Christianity and, indeed, I might add, are part of every religion known to mankind, whether that means putting up a cathedral or getting a seat in a synagogue named after a deceased family member.

More important, the thesis is wrong because Brown imposes his thesis upon a description of social life where economic motivation is taken for granted as the reason for doing things, while the idea that people can earn favor with God by making contributions provides a motivation of the sort envisioned by Max Weber when he spoke of the decisive importance of the Protestant Ethic in liberating Europe to become capitalist, while Brown imagines that religious motivation for the accumulation of wealth results in the economic stagnation of medieval times, when it ought, by his logic, have led to capitalism in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries.

Most of all, why is it necessary to reconcile the remark about the camel and the needle with the practices of rich members of the Church? People join and support churches for a variety of reasons. They like the liturgy or they like feeling part of the community of respectable people. They can take theology or leave it. The New Testament has a great many passages that are in spirit contradictory. You are supposed to welcome the prodigal son, which is supposedly a tribute to the idea and feelings of family as well as an allegory for dealing with believers who stray, and yet Jesus also came to separate sisters from brothers. Which is it? A believer can live with the admonition about rich people because what he likes about Christianity is that it offers salvation to everyone, even including rich people, and maybe in a particular believer’s case, a depth of conviction must surely make up for the fact that the person is rich. Moreover, maybe the remark about rich people came from the looney or radical fringe of the movement-- though that is an insight that would come to a modern mind, one less trusting to texts than the great Fathers of the Church. At any rate, there is no need to pose this as a crucial matter, as Brown does, unless there is reason to think a doctrinal point is not only central but fraught with consequences, which is what Weber did when he said that a belief in good works was key to Protestant Christianity even if predestination ruled out those good works being the cause of salvation. Practice rather than meaning has consequences.

A Seventh Century capitalism did not happen. What did happen, according to Brown’s brilliant interpretation, The Church had accumulated wealth and that made it powerful with a soft power that could counter the power of the state, which was the power of the various kingdoms that had arisen after the fall of Rome. It invoked this power in the name of the poor, which is to be taken to mean not only those in poverty but all those well into the middle class who were not part of the aristocracy or the wealthy. So the Church had a constituency to be looked after and its wealth made that possible, and that is what made it the dominant institution of the Middle Ages. That is very different from saying that the Church was the progenitor of a kind of capitalism, though this claim could indeed be made in that monasticism, which depended on generous contributions from the wealthy, did see the origins of a countryside based capitalism that did not survive for more than a few centuries before efficient economic activity was eventually moved from the countryside to the city in part due to the efforts of Pope Innocent III in the early Thirteenth Century.

There are structural consequences when the clergy become the repositories of wealth. They have to become part of what Brown calls “the otherness” of the clergy, as was symbolized by their adoption of the tonsure and of celibacy, something Brown thinks was something desired by the laity and only then enforced by the clergy. Celibacy was necessary because the priests were the people who handled the Holy Eucharist, and so had to remain pure. (Brown does not deal with the prior question of why sexual chastity is more pure than an occasional romp in the hay.) In these and in other ways, Christianity was transformed less by its organizational skills and its growing monopoly of learning than by the responsibilities imposed on it by its wealth. Other religions also create liturgy and a heightened sense of the holiness of their clergy, but the Catholic Church did all of this so well that it dominated the Europe until the Reformation.  To Brown offers up a panorama of late Antiquity, something about which he seems to know everything. The reader is rewarded with a rich feel for the Late Roman Church. Brown explains how St. Augustine went down to meet the crowds that attended his sermons; he explains how barbarian armies were merely mercenaries recruited to deal with civil wars breaking out within the empire and these armies set up courts which local aristocrats found they could deal with as well as when Rome was in charge.

The original thesis about religious ideology changing the Church so that it is in favor of wealth is, therefore, not Brown’s true thesis. The true thesis is one that he never overtly identifies, perhaps because he thinks that it is too obvious. That thesis, which makes much more sense and is far more significant, is that structural considerations are enough to explain the evolution of spiritual experience of the Church, an experience which would stretch to the end of the Middle Ages. This is a profound insight into the way Christianity and all other religions operate: that they are subject to the give and take of economic and political forces and it takes no ghost come from the grave, whether that be religious ideology or religious emotion, to call it into being. Religion operates as do all other institutions.

As a sociologist, I have certain quibbles with Brown about his use of historical evidence. Early on, in his presentation of the economic and social situation in the early Fourth Century Roman Empire, he uses a farmer who eventually earned himself a position on the city council as illustrating the fact that power explained wealth rather than the other way around, though that is not what the instance he cites would support. You can’t be that loose. Moreover, as with most historians, Brown engages in anecdotal proof, however wide ranging and how many histories of particular communities he may draw upon. What is the basis for his generalizations other than that there are some places, even a great many, where what he says holds true? Now that may be the best evidence available, but it is not conclusive. But be that as it may, there is no gainsaying Brown’s mastery of and his deep insight into his material. This book stands as a worthy rejoinder to those, like me, who take the role of ideas as very important in expressing, creating and propagating new versions of old or eternal religious emotions, and who also think that the Protestant Ethic had always been there, latent in Christianity, and waiting upon events to bring it forward.