Over the past decade, we have all been reminded of the importance of religion to culture and of its capacity to guide human action. This point was reiterated by Terry Eagleton in a lecture which I attended a few months back.
At the moment I am in the middle of drafting an article that deals with an aspect of religion in early modern Britain and Ireland. It is, of course, worthwhile for me to reflect on what I am doing and on the factors which might be shaping my interpretation. On the other hand, it may not be worthwhile for you to suffer exposure to my reflections. However, rather than risk losing my focus on the task at hand by writing about something else, I would like to do some thinking out loud, so to speak. Read on if you will.
It is several decades since Sean Connolly called Patrick Corish to task for his statement that ‘the Christian message can normally give to any society only a little more than what that society is prepared to receive’. (Patrick Corish, The Catholic community. Dublin, 1981) What, Connolly asked, was the ‘little more’ to which Corish, a Catholic priest, referred? (Sean Connolly, ‘Religion and society’ Irish Economic and Social History, x, 1983, pp. 66-80) More recently, Alan Ford pointed out that Corish’s statement ‘alerts the reader to the author’s belief that a gracious God is actively involved in the world’. (Alan Ford, “Standing one’s ground’: religion polemic and Irish history since the reformation, in Ford et al., eds., As by law established: the church of Ireland since the reformation. Dublin, 1995, pp. 12-13) Although, as Ford suggested, such a belief can be helpful in exploring religious history, it also inevitably introduces a certain bias. However, this is by no means fatal to efforts at a worthwhile analysis.
I presume that, in their work on religious history, most scholars proceed from the basis that whatever they may believe, it shouldn’t affect their analysis. It will be for others to decide whether or not I succeed in achieving this aim; that is if I ever get my article finished.
Another problem to be faced is the task of understanding and empathising with the religious outlook of historical figures. It is easy to criticise various aspects of early modern government policies on religion. It is more difficult to comprehend the part which the originators of those polices believed that their God played in the world. For example, the success of campaigns of conversion may have been seen as dependent on whether or not they were compatible with the will of God. In this context, how are we to assess the supposed shortcomings of such campaigns? If priests, ministers, and government officials believed that God would ultimately dictate the success or failure of their efforts, to what extent did this affect their decision making and their use of the material resources available to them in their task?
This is just one of the many, many issues worth grappling with in approaching the writing of the history of religion. The task is, I think, nonetheless rewarding.