Conspiracy Theories

Eamon Duffy

  • Flesh Made Word: Saints’ Stories and the Western Imagination by Aviad Kleinberg, translated by Jane Marie Todd
    Harvard, 340 pp, £19.95, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 674 02647 6

Aviad Kleinberg’s clever, wide-ranging and tendentious book begins by recounting an experience which he cannot quite decide whether to classify as a moment of blinding insight or one of personal weakness. He was watching a television interview with Mother Teresa, in which she told of her first encounter with a dying leper. The leper had asked her why she was caring for him, and she had answered: ‘Because I love you.’ To his own bewilderment, Kleinberg, ‘a sceptic by nature, and when it comes to religious phenomena . . . even more sceptical’, found that he accepted Mother Teresa’s claim unquestioningly. ‘For an instant, at least, I believed that those words were the pure truth,’ and that this absolute love for the leper dying in her arms ‘transformed the scene from a banal act of Christian charity into something heroic, sublime even’.

Doubts followed hard on that moment of surrender. Hadn’t Freud discredited the very idea of the sublime, shown us that ‘when saintliness is not a con, it is self-deception’? Kleinberg, temperamentally inclined to such reductionism, is nevertheless unsatisfied by it, and his book is an extended exploration of the larger implications of his own conflict. What account can we give of charisma, the appeal of extraordinary people in ordinary life? Why did the stories of the saints exercise such power in human society for more than a millennium? Sanctity is a concept which both comforts and alienates. Saints held up a moral ideal to society and were a guarantee that that ideal could actually be lived, if only by the few. They also acted as advocates with God, and transmitted back to earth his healing and forgiving grace. They were an assurance that God existed and cared about suffering and sinful humanity. But the heroically holy were also a reproach to the morally mediocre. These spiritual alpinists climbed high above the humdrum, and the very difference which made them a beacon made them also a reproach to the rest of muddling humanity, caught in the cycle of getting and begetting. ‘Society needed them and resented their holy selfishness.’

The first Christian saints were martyrs, and from the start, martyrs were a problem both for pagan society and for the Church. Problematic for pagan society, because they refused to follow the script written for them by the Roman state. Condemned to humiliating and atrocious deaths as antisocial deviants, their dignity, heroism and even joy in dying challenged (and ultimately defeated) the values of the society which killed them. How could guilty men and women seem so morally superior, so certain of the justice of their cause? Problematic for the Church, because their fortitude established an impossibly high benchmark of discipleship, and because the prestige of the martyr threatened to undermine the authority of the bishop – the saint versus the system. ‘The confrontation takes place between those who hold authority but have no charisma, and those who have charisma but no authority.’ As popular devotion to the saints blossomed round their relics, it became clear that the cult could divide the community, unless the hierarchy could tame it. Saints appealed to many constituencies, served many needs, focused many loyalties, not all of them compatible. But ‘the Catholic Church was often willing to experiment with highly volatile social materials.’ So the bishops became, in Peter Brown’s striking phrase, impresarios of the sacred. They took the bodies of the saints from their shrines outside the cities, and placed them under the altars of their cathedrals. Rather than a trigger for conflicting pieties, the saint became a centre of unity, an episcopal asset. Nevertheless, the popularity of these dead charismatic figures, whose historical reality was often swallowed up in increasingly lurid and fabulous stories, eluded total control, and continually threatened to draw devotees away from what the leaders of the Church considered mainstream Christianity.

According to Kleinberg, resourceful Church leaders responded to this dangerously centrifugal aspect of the cult of the saints by making a pragmatic distinction between official and popular religion. The clerical elite became custodians of the highest standards of doctrine and morality, official guardians of orthodoxy and of the Church’s creeds and commandments. Increasingly, the laity were neither encouraged nor expected to trouble their minds with doctrinal subtleties. It was enough that they obeyed. And popular piety, centred first on the shrines and then on the legends of the saints, was allowed a certain latitude. As St Augustine wrote, ‘What we teach is one thing, what we tolerate another.’ The leaders of the Church, Kleinberg argues, ‘were ready to make many compromises with the “masses”, so long as these masses were not seeking to undermine the leaders’ authority’, and ‘all things considered’, the cult of the saints ‘was perceived as more useful than harmful’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in