Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Religio Medici

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My dear husband is a literary man to his core. As such he thinks it great fun to take on reading programs. He recently finished the 10 Essential Penguin Classics series as a reading group on his blog. Concurrently with this he has also dedicated himself to "Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf", now more commonly known as the Harvard Classics. Dr. Eliot was known for claiming that anyone could have the equivalent of a Harvard education by spending fifteen minutes a day reading from a five foot shelf of books. Publisher P.F. Collier and Son thought they smelled a profit and challenged the man to select the books. And so, one hundred years later, my dear Paul, upon learning of this collection, and finding it all five feet of it available for free rent in our local library, decided it was time he got a no-cost Harvard education.

I should mention here that my husband has a keen intellect and is a quick reader. He absorbs these writings and then wants to talk about them. Thus, being his partner in life, I find myself on the receiving end of a lot of book talk. I feel rich! My only complaint is that I cannot keep up. My mind is capable but not as nimble as his. It takes me longer to wrap my head around ideas and many more readings to retain them. But wanting to contribute to the conversation, which is what he really wants most from me as his wife, and to be on the same proverbial page from time to time, means I need to read at least some of what he does. And so, sometimes I do. Which is what I'm getting to with all this chatter.

What usually ends up happening is that I end up reading the books Paul talks about the most, or the occasional book that he actually tells me he wants me to read. Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor), by Sir Thomas Browne, is both of those books. Paul just kept talking about it, and said I should read it. So I did. Every so often I find a work that so resonates with my own experiences and a writer so simpatico I just can't stop reading. This is one of those books. The fact that it was written over 350 years ago and yet feels so timely just adds to the wonder of it.  So, desiring to interact further with Browne (read that, "wanting to write in the margins and dog-ear the corners") I requested a copy of my own for my Christmas stocking, (did you know sometimes Santa gets behind schedule  and when he does he uses the U.S. Postal Service?) and now I'm reading it again. 

And all these words serve as explanation and excuse for the fact that I want to share and discuss bits of Religio Medici here, in hopes that you'll be as delighted, encouraged, and challenged as I have been, perhaps even so much so that you'll trot off and purchase a copy of your own.

Thomas Browne, an Anglican (yes, although un-premeditated, I do seem to be on a bit of an Anglican kick of late), a scholar and a doctor, published Religio Medici in 1643. Though published during the tumultuous period of the English Civil War and that odd period of English governance known as the Long Parliament  Browne manages to be both the very voice of reason, temperance, tolerance, and civility and uncompromising in his particular reformed version of the Anglican faith. (Truth be told, if you didn't know at what time he was living you would barely guess he was surrounded by conflict at all.) Although nearly forgotten these days, his book was wildly popular throughout Europe at the time of its release, and highly influential. It was considered by Virginia Woolf, for instance, to be the precursor to the modern personal memoir and confessional. It is, though, hardly a diary so much as it is the personal confession of faith and values of a man steadied by deep Christian conviction and solid reason.

My struggle in writing, to be perfectly honest, is first in not knowing where to begin and then in not knowing where to stop. So I suppose dear prudence would dictate that I begin with the beginning, take a look around and see what comes of it.



Browne begins by declaring himself, in spite of what his contemporaries (and our own) might assume based upon his profession as a scholar and doctor,  a Christian. And not just a nominal Christian, but a truly convinced one (but, he is quick to add, one that does not forget his debt of love to those who are not believers). He goes on to narrow himself down to a Protestant Christian, and yet one who is not contentious against the Catholic church left behind:
"We have reformed  from them, not against them....there is between us one common name and appellation, one faith and necessary body of principles common to us both; and therefore I am not scrupulous to converse and live with them, to enter their churches in defect of our, and either pray with them or for them."
He does not mock their practices or wish to see their images of saints and martyrs defaced. He views what he considers their errors charitably, as he does the Pope:
"I confess there is a cause of passion between us - by his sentence I stand excommunicated: heretic is the best language he affords me: yet can no ear witness I ever returned to him the name of antichrist, man of sin, or whore of Babylon. It is the method of charity to suffer without reaction: those usual satired and invectives of the pulpit may perchance produce a good effect on the vulgar, whose ears are opener to rhetoric than logic; yet do they, in no wise, confirm the faith of wiser believers, who know that a good cause needs not be pardoned by passion, but can sustain itself upon a temperate dispute."
All this spoken in a time and place when great animosity between the factions remained, a fact that he alludes to only obliquely. He sums up the Reformation circumspectly and succinctly, clearly with the ideal of Christian unity in the forefront of his mind:

"As there were many reformers, so likewise many reformations; every country proceeding in a particular way and method, according as their national interest, together with their constitution and clime, inclined them: some angrily and with extremity; others calmly and with mediocrity, not rending, but easily dividing, the community, and leaving an honest possibility of a reconciliation; - which, though peaceable spirits do desire, and may conceive that revolution of time and the mercies of God may effect, yet that judgment that shall consider the present antipathies between the two extremes, - their contrarieties in condition, affection, and opinion, - may, with the same hopes, expect a union in the poles of heaven."

And then he brings a finer point to his position: He is an Anglican, a devout one, not by external compulsion, but by free and deep agreement with her articles of faith. Beyond these articles of the Church of England he depends upon his reason:

"...whatsoever is beyond, as points indifferent, I observe, according to the rules of my private reason, or the humour and fashion of my devotion; neither believing this because Luther affirmed it, nor disproving that because Calvin had disavouched it. I condemn not all things in the council of Trent, nor approve all in the synod of Dort. In brief, where the Scripture is silent, the church is my text; where that speaks, 'tis but my comment; where there is a joint silence of both, I borrow not the rules of my religion from Rome or Geneva, but from the dictates of my own reason."
 And so he goes on, determining not to divide from anyone over a difference of opinion because wisdom has taught him that opinions are prone to change. He has also learned it best not to involve himself in "disputes in religion" particularly when he feels himself not up to doing the subject justice, or when his understanding is still unsteady, having not yet withstood the test of time.
"Every man is not a proper champion for truth, nor fit to take up the gauntlet in the cause of verity; many, from the ignorance of these maxims, and an inconsiderate zeal unto truth, have too rashly charged the troops of error and remain as trophies unto the enemies of truth. A man may be in as just possession of truth as of a city, and yet be forced to surrender; 'tis therefore far better to enjoy her with peace than to hazard her on a battle. If, therefore, there rise any doubts in my way, I do forget them, or at least defer them, till my better settled judgment and more manly reason be able to resolve them...."
In other words, is not wise to allow oneself to be blown about too wildly with questions and ideas. Let them be for a while and see what comes of them, if they will still remain after several storms and tides have come and gone. All the meanwhile rest upon the steady ship Scripture and the orthodox and historic truths of the Christian faith to keep oneself from shipwreck. Browne's practice is one I can heartily recommend, having been through some storms of my own of late. What has kept me from being dashed on the rocks has been the anchor of Scripture and the ancient and orthodox understandings encapsulated in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds.

So perhaps this is enough Browne to chew on for one day.  I hope you've enjoyed this little taste. I've little doubt I'll have more to share in the future. In the meantime I highly recommend you acquire yourself a copy of this nearly forgotten historical little treasure of literature, wisdom, gentle humor, and sincere devotion.

7 comments:

Hydriotaphia said...

All of this is fine theological appreciation for sure and Browne would doubtless blushed to hear he is so greatly admired 350 years later in the New World.

Don't forget his humour either, an important component in his sanity and tolerance.

I am trying to get funding for an essay competition with a big cash prize about Browne to be open to the English-speaking world at present. Will let you know if i succeed.

Disjecta Membra said...

I can't tell you how happy this post has made me! One of the rare instances when words fail me.

1st-Time Mommy said...

It's amazing how lines of thought hundreds of years old can resonate so beautifully today.

I really want to find and read that book now.

Hydriotaphia said...

I just love this contemporary review of R.M. by Gui de Patin whom Edward Browne met years later in Paris-

'A new little volume has arrived from Holland entitled Religio Medici written by an Englishman and translated into Latin by some Dutchman. It is a strange and pleasant book, but very delicate and wholly mystical; the author is not lacking in wit and you will see in him quaint and delightful thoughts. There are hardly any books of this sort. If scholars were permitted to write freely we would learn many novel things, never has there been a newspaper to this; in this way the subtlety of the human spirit could be revealed'.

Tuirgin said...

Finally the R.M. post -- you got to it before me and did a better job than I ever would have done. And besides... I'm finding myself horribly distracted from my reading and writing by work and trying to figure out how to balance it all. There aren't enough hours...

Laurie M. said...

Well, Kevin, to be perfectly honest, I didn't pick up on his humor the first time through. We Americans tend to be suckers for the obvious and a bit lacking in subtlety in the humor department (or perhaps I should speak for myself here). But I read a comment somewhere that Browne was quite known by his contemporaries for his humor and then the light came on and I was able to see it. I needed for someone to wink at me to recognize that some play was going on. As I've stated elsewhere, literalism is my default mode.

An essay contest sounds like fun.

Laurie M. said...

Christopher,

First, thanks.

Second, Paul and I feel your pain. The day-job has a way of cutting into reading and writing time. But, I must say, paying the mortgage and putting food on the table have their own rewards.