Back to article index


Three characteristics of traditional Christianity, then, rejected by the Reformation:

1. Monasticism, with its implication that the Christian society is a single body with interdependent parts. Salvation is not a purely individual affair and Christians are not all equal before God. There is a hierarchy of saintliness, not identical with the hierarchy of the administrative structure of the church. It is in the nature of hierarchy that the very existence of the higher parts can help the lower parts: 'He who receives a prophet as a prophet has a prophet's reward, and he who receives a righteous man as a righteous man has a righteous man's reward.' (Matt 10:41).

2. This unified body is not confined to those still living on earth. It goes beyond the grave, hence the efficacy of prayers for the dead and of prayers addressed to the (dead) prophets and saints ('that the dead are raised, even Moses showed in the passage about the bush where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead but of the living; for all live in him.' - Luke 20:37-8). Heaven is present on earth. The saints are still with us and still capable of rendering assistance and hence their humanity, which is continuous with our own humanity, goes beyond the supposed laws of nature and the limitations of space and time.

3. This capacity to go beyond the laws of nature and the limitations of space and time embraces material reality, hence the continued efficacy and power of the bits of matter associated with the Saints. If Heaven is present on earth it is not alien to it. The 'magical' character of the relic is a revelation of the real, eternal nature of matter.

I have singled out these three characteristics of traditional Christianity because I think they were universally accepted. They did not form part of the great debates which divided early Christianity. Also they would have seemed strange and 'unscientific' to the society that first encountered them. They could be contested on the basis of our everyday experience without having to wait for science to prove the great age of the Earth or the great size of the Universe. And they imply an underlying 'philosophical' sense of the reality of things that is different from our own but which could have given birth to other possibilities.