In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Edward Casaubon laboured fruitlessly for many years over The Key To All Mythologies. Richard Holloway knocks it off in just 237 pages. The comparison isn’t quite fair, even if the preference for the real-life former cleric rather than the fictional minister definitely is.
Casaubon’s search for a syncretism that would reveal the common root of all religions is often seen as an exaggerated satire on dusty scholasticism, even if Eliot didn’t quite intend it that way. Her point was that Casaubon’s lack of German, of which he was guiltily and privately aware, denied him access to the very latest thinking on the subject, which Eliot admired.
The ambition was less at fault than the methodology. There have been serious attempts to provide a functional explanation or aetiology of religion, varying according to whether metaphysical belief and ritualised practice are regarded as naturalistic or pathological. Nietzsche and C. G. Jung probably thought the latter. Joseph Campbell, author of The Masks of God and the unfinished Atlas of Historical Mythology, secret author of the Star Wars universe, took a more sanguine and aesthetic line, asking us to ‘Follow your bliss’. The Canadian scholar Northrop Frye – who has some claim to having been the most important literary critic of modern times – spent many years searching for a key to all mythology, or monomyth, which he nicknamed ‘the Great Doodle’. The indefinite article and singular form ought to be noted.
It’s probably fair to say that Holloway’s book should be called A Little History of Religions, since his narrative deals with all the major traditions, one by one, in something like chronological order, right up to Scientology and the Unification Church, which also means engaging with the personalities who founded them, right up to Lafayette Ron Hubbard and the Rev Moon. There’s no quibble about the indefinite article. Holloway is a natural ecumenical as well as a natural humanist. He knows the narrative could go many ways, privileging one tradition as dominant and others as heretical; he himself chooses to proceed even-handedly and with gentle tolerance. There is no whiff of sarcasm when he describes the Golden Tablets of Mormonism or the genealogy of Scientological thetans, both of which could make a cat laugh.
There’s no whiff of false modesty either. I automatically distrust authors who talk about their current or forthcoming ‘little book’. They’re a bit like women who say ‘This dress? Oh, it’s just something I threw on before coming out’. Usually, ‘little’ books mask a large ambition and often a dogmatic spirit. Holloway has none of that. Nor does he have a ‘Great Doodle’ to offer. His introductory remarks on what constitutes religion, a religion or a religious sensibility might seem scamped, until one realises that his deeper thoughts on these matters are dotted throughout the book, brought up wherever the narrative seems to call for an excursus on natural and (or vs.) revealed religion, what means heaven and what means hell, is a church a belief, an institution or a building, or so on.
His personal encounter with faith, which has been both embracing and bracing or confrontational, is well documented in the twenty-odd books he has published since 1972, most obviously his moving memoir Leaving Alexandria, which appeared in 2012. That this should be his next publication in line is interesting and significant, since having told his own life story he now seems able to return to the wider question of faith without much in the way of first-person intervention (though there are references to old church history lecturers in Aberdeen and to meeting pairs of Mormons on Edinburgh streets), and having described his own childhood and adolescence with such openness he is able to offer an account aimed primarily (I’d say) but not exclusively at younger readers.
The tabloid version of Holloway, which has never survived the test of encounter with the man or the work, is that he was once a high-flying cleric, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal communion, who lost his faith and then turned against it. This is as slanderous as it is silly. Holloway’s conscious uncoupling (to pinch the movie-star phrase) with his church doesn’t even fall into the same category as Bishop David Jenkins’ alleged ‘conjuring trick with bones’ remark about the Resurrection (he actually said the opposite, but was already noted for heterodoxy; anyway, God had the last word by setting fire to York Minster roof three days after his enthroning as Bishop of Durham). It was less about loss of faith, or a nineteenth-century German dismantling of faith into mythological components, as it was about a grown-up understanding of faith in the light of changing times, public literacy, scientific understanding and emotional maturity. Arguably, the two men share a certain appetite for the media spotlight, but with an ability to use that platform to make very serious points about what and how we believe. This is why Holloway’s book certainly doesn’t belong on the same shelf, and sits in a higher intellectual league, than Christopher Hitchens’ much-overpraised God Isn’t Great, which is great in a knockabout, good-old-Hitch way, but doesn’t actually hit many of its targets, or indeed Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion which misses the point with such headlong self-confidence it’s easy to be taken in, only to realize chapters later that his premises are flawed.
As Holloway insists, religion is an art, not a science, and therefore cannot be ranged against science as if it offered a competing version of the same reality. His markedly gentle treatment of Hinduism and Jainism, his more robust and inflected account of Islam in its evolving and sometimes combative forms, never lose sight of this essential point. Religions are human constructs, made with the materials at hand and shaped in ways that appeal to eye, ear and heart, all in the interests of bringing us closer to some reality beyond available explanation and in hope of making us behave better in this world in full understanding that our time on it is limited. His attitude seems to be close to that of the American poet Wallace Stevens, who he doesn’t quote but who said that to believe in a fiction while knowing it to be a fiction was the supreme freedom.
My 12-year-old son (who has been raised as Roman Catholic) is reading A Little History of Religion now. I don’t have any sense that it will alter his observance or pour doubt on it. But it does mean that he is growing up with a fuller and more inflected understanding of religion in general and ours in particular than I did. Where we were asked to regard ‘the Bible’ – which is a historical complect, a library rather than a single book – as a slabby monolith of truth, he’s already aware that the Books of Daniel and Job, the former a very subtle piece of historical mythologizing, the latter a brilliant harnessing of folklore, are the key to the Old Testament or the Judaic project, rather than the first few beautiful pages of Genesis. He knows that the Gospels were retrospective accounts, written by men who were not witnesses, all the more moving and significant for that. And he understands that the Book of Revelation, with all its trippy strangeness, was a coded revolutionary text written during a time of savage repression when it was essential to speak and write elliptically. He can also tell you the difference between a Sunni and a Shia Muslim, a frankly important distinction which still hasn’t fully penetrated the US State Department or CIA.
Holloway writes beautifully, with a homiletic simplicity that makes difficult points come alive. He shows how a prophet does not so much foretell, as forth-tell, and he makes clear why all ages of philosophy come to an end: because it is inconvenient for an established religion to have to keep accommodating new text and add-ons when the printers are waiting. But how about this? ‘ . . . religions always look back to their early years with both longing and regret. Like a couple who get bored living together once the passion of their early love has faded they look back with longing to the days when it flowed effortlessly. That is why all religions spend a lot of time looking back to their early years in an attempt to rekindle that original burning love. But it’s hard going, because the voice of the divine lover has fallen silent and all they have left are his letters’. Beautiful. Or, this, more playfully, but again at random from more than two dozen that I copied out: ‘Confucianism may be easy to understand, but it’s a serious business. It’s not much fun. With Taoism, another Chinese tradition, it’s the other way round. Taoism is hard to get your head round but, once you get the hang of it, it can be fun’. Looking forward to The Fun of Tao, Holloway, R. (2017).
Quibbles are few and most are functions of restricted space. It seems a little strange that in describing the emergence of monotheism, he makes no mention of Akhenaten, particularly when there is the intriguing theory, promulgated by Ahmed Osman, that Akhenaten and Moses were one and the same person. And the discussion of Darwin and his impact on nineteenth-century religion is too conventional and broad-brush to stand up with the rest. Fundamentalism and religious violence are a running theme but the short chapter on the current situation feels a bit scamped.
Armageddon notwithstanding, does he see a future for religion? In a word, yes. He deals affectionately with the twentieth century’s often overlooked ecumenism, pointing to 345 separate Christian communities in the World Council of Churches, but nowadays a marked willingness to work together rather than to spat, or to ignore one another. Religion, he says, is an anvil that has worn out many hammers and therefore might even outlive secular humanism, which is a relative neophyte. The difference is that we are no longer in a command economy when it comes to faith. It’s a ticketed event now, and therefore a matter of individual choice, but ‘still the biggest show on earth’.