Monday, February 15, 2010

Irish Humor and Ancient Steriotypes

Been doing alot of comparative study during my time at Harvard Divinity of Celtic religion and history in relation to Rome and early Christianity in parallel to my studies of Native American missionary experiences/injustices. Its been an interesting/eye-opening experience in many ways, but no means a simple story but one which has shown me some of the underlying tensions of civilized/barbarian and ethnic tensions in Europe well before modern of ideas of racism came about. I'd long known that, in America at least it took a while for the Irish to truly become "white people," * and of longstanding English racism to the Irish, but some of the older stories and accounts show a much longer story.

The Romans and the Greeks enjoyed calling anyone outside of their culture "barbaros," (greek originally coming from the "babbling" speech of foreigners), and by the time of the Roman Empire this idea of superiority had evolved into an ideal of cultural superiority which matched their military superiority in encouraging the conquered peoples to assimilate into Roman culture. Unlike US and Canadian conquests of the their First Nations, the elites of the Gaulish and Briton Celts, and many other peoples were encouraged to keep their gods and even some aspects of their culture -- but still pressed to adapt them into Roman molds.

Early Christianity was an odd paradox, a Jewish Messianic movement seeking to convert the greek, roman celtic and other "barbaric" people's (from their own ethnocentric perspective), and many of these peoples seem to have been interested, as they were already seeking out Jewish "exotic"religion as eagerly as our own culture seems to pursue various eastern or indigenous spiritualties today. By Constantine, however Christianity had split thoroughly from its Jewish roots, and became the new state-sanctioned religion. Christianity was the civilizing religion, the new carrier of Roman civilization and ideas.

What we know of Ireland is messy, carried in folklore and eventually the somewhat biased writings of Irish Christian monks (though folks who preserved a surprising number of "pagan" traditions and stories). St. Patrick, a Celtic Briton was quite Romanized and saw the Irish as barbaros-- but also found a irresistible love for them in his time as a slave and a desire to go back, live and even die among them. The early Irish Church, one of the few Christian missions adopted to a local culture with a great deal of home-control and indigenization long showed distinctly "barbarian" traits, writing in Latin but working within political, cultural and religious frameworks that still carry their uniqueness to this day. We see tensions with Rome at numerous points, and powerful Abbots/Monastery-founding Saints and their followers challenging the Pope's own agendas with a sense of equality that reminds one of the Eastern Patriarchs. Ireland remained a center of learning as Europe fell into the dark ages, and founded schools in Italy itself, an ironic twist as "barbarians" became the sole teachers of the greek and Roman writings in Europe.

One of these teachers, John Scotus Eriugena lived in the 9th Century, and was asked to lead a French university due to his great knowledge of Greek Christian writers. Seems he carried an ongoing interest in Eastern Orthodoxy's critique of Original Sin, even helping the Catholic Church, at its own request to carefully critique a monk who denied human beings free will completely. He, like Origin and other Neo-Platonist figures worked ideas of a radical wideness to God's salvation-- the hope that all might eventually find redemption eventually got criticized for some of his ideas-- though not completely until after his death.**

Scotus is an interesting chap, and one I hope to learn more about, but the point of my thread comes in a snide comment to a French king, according to William of Malmsbury, on a topic are long used to being steriotyped for:

The king asked "What separates a drunkard from an Irishman?"

Scotus was said to wryly reply, "Only a table."

After all my studies, I can't ignore the hints of racism/steriotyping in the king's words, though Scotus decided to have fun with him on it. An amusing anecdote, and one I'm sure would humor leading Emerging-Church troublemaker and philosopher Peter Rollins when he's in town this April 7th for a national Pub-Tour.

If anyone's around Boston, drop me a line as our Emergent Cohort is helping to organize it. Peter's a great speaker, and actually leads a church that meets IN a pub in Belfast. Should be a fun time--- and I'm pretty sure we'll have at least one table. :P

*Ironic, since we're about the whitest people out there, next to some Scandinavians, and cook in approximately 3 minutes in the sun. :P

**He's an interesting bridge between some of the earlier Palegian-Agustine battles over original sin/free will, and later fierce Reformation arguments about predestination vs. grace/free will. Hoping to do a little digging on him to add to an interesting conversation hosted by a constructive, thoughtful critic of the Emerging Christian movement:

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