Monica’s Garden: Notes Towards “A People’s History of Theology”

Ed Simon argues for the necessity of a theoretical “People’s History of Theology.”

By Ed SimonJuly 12, 2023

Monica’s Garden: Notes Towards “A People’s History of Theology”

THOUGH HE WAS alone when it happened, Augustine makes clear that his conversion happened because of the continual intercession of his mother, Monica. The famed conversion, whereby Augustine turned to the Bible and “there was infused in [his] heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” His theological interlocutors (both in agreement and disagreement) are figures like St. Ambrose and Pelagius, adversaries like the Donatists and the Arians. But any full accounting of Augustine’s thought has to widen to the most personal of his correspondences. Monica is bedeviled by silence and anonymity. That so much of Augustine’s writing survives, that his influence is so palpable, that his debates still seem so fresh may speak to what’s invigorating (and infuriating) about his ideas, but that his influential mother only speaks to us through filtered memories betrays a lacuna.


Augustine gives Monica full credit for his soul’s turning, such as the passage in the fourth-century Confessions whereby the bishop recalls conversations that by “some small degree […] [effected a] total concentration of the heart.” Monica’s son would become, after St. Paul, the second most important thinker in Western Christendom (Jesus Christ, I would claim, is a distant third).


Diarmaid MacCulloch writes in The Reformation: A History (2003) that “a century or more of turmoil in the Western Church from 1517 was a debate in the mind of long-dead Augustine.” In works like Confessions and The City of God, Augustine revolutionized Christianity (for good and ill). Monica, as far as can be ascertained, produced no writing. Monica is a metonymy for most believers—all those who fashioned the lived theology of ritual, devotion, and faith—while history only records the names of a handful of Augustines. Yet considering the profound influence she had on her son, it might be fair to ask if the history of Western Christianity is less an argument in Augustine’s head than the intense discussion he had with Monica at Ostia.


Whether one is a believer or not, sectarian or not, there is a broadly conventional perspective on the history of theology. Frequently, accounts will begin with the patristic era, examining the major church councils that defined early Christianity, as well as the creedal confessions from Nicaea to Chalcedon, leaning heavily on figures like Tertullian, Athanasius, Origen, Augustin, or the Cappadocian Fathers. For the Middle Ages, consideration is given to debates between realists and nominalists, the appearance of canonical figures like St. Anselm, William of Ockham, and Peter Abelard. No doubt any thorough course on theology would give substantial attention to the scholastics, particularly St. Thomas Aquinas, with maybe some detours into St. Bonaventure, and perhaps a consideration of Jewish and Islamic sources like Maimonides and Averroes. Were the instructor particularly iconoclastic, she might include some mystical or heretical thinkers, a Joachim of Fiore or a John Wycliffe.


The early modern period, with its reformations and convulsions, would be a locus for my theoretical class. All the predictable names would be sprinkled throughout the syllabus—Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, Jacobus Arminius, maybe a Thomas Müntzer if the professor is cheeky. Luminaries of the Catholic Reformation would be included as well. The periods of revival that punctuated into the Enlightenment and the 19th century would no doubt be covered, figures like the Methodist John Wesley or the Quaker George Fox could be discussed. Contemporary theology would be a rich font in any class, including sessions devoted to figures as diverse as Søren Kierkegaard, Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr. Events like Vatican II would be examined. And so would liberation theology or the “Death of God” movement, including readings from Thomas J. J. Altizer, Gabriel Vahanian, and John Caputo. Figures from Radical Orthodoxy, including John Milbank, David Bentley Hart, and Joseph Ratzinger could be engaged. Throughout this imagined seminar, there would be a cursory overview of the fundamental issues of theology—questions of faith and salvation, God’s definition and humanity’s nature. What would be missing would be the vast majority of regular believers whose lived experience of religion constitutes the wellspring of all genuine theology.


Peter Manseau observes in One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History (2015) that “[w]e have learned history from the middle rather than the margins, though it is the latter from which so much of our culture has been formed.” In contrast, he argues that we must foreground the actual experience of belief as constituted by the bulk of women and men throughout history as the only way to really comprehend belief. I should make clear that I’m not necessarily referring to historiographical methods—social history and microhistory, anthropological or sociological approaches. The last three generations of scholarship have admirably returned to an examination of the historical conditions that defined life for the bulk of people, moving beyond the “great man” delusions of Whig history. Material historians, social historians, and scholars of cultural studies have all done exactly what Manseau has rightly called for.


Religious studies as an interdisciplinary field may be comfortable with examining how belief is manifested in material culture, what a crucifix or set of rosary beads tell us about how people worship; cultural studies can look at the ways in which economic and material considerations have effected everything from the rise of Pentecostalism in the Global South to the syncretism of Catholic and Indigenous beliefs; sociologists can chart and define secularism in relation to socio-economic status; and so on. I make these obvious points only to deflect any misunderstanding about what I’m proposing, since I fully acknowledge that a panoply of disciplines is willing to examine the ways in which religion is expressed and experienced at the margins. What I’m advocating for is something different: an accounting of theology as separate from ritual, liturgy, and worship, one which foregrounds the common, the regular, and the folkloric.


I propose, in other words, to rewrite the history of theology from the ground up, to ask how those common names from the previously imagined syllabus are just nodes for the zeitgeist, conduits for beliefs that evolve within culture itself. A project like this is less concerned with Aquinas than with the Neapolitan peasant women, more interested in the enslaved man than with George Whitefield, less focused on Karl Barth than on the person who cleaned his office. Its terms of study would be theological, the vocabulary of soteriology and eschatology, Christology and hermeneutics, but the cast of characters would be immeasurably larger: the entirety of the ecclesia. Manseau, on a pilgrimage site in the American Southwest sacred to both Catholics and the Indigenous, writes that “we have too often focused only on the church standing above the hole and not on the hole itself, nor on the people lining up to make the soil within a part of their blood, their bones.” Let’s plumb the hole.


A theoretical volume entitled A People’s History of Theology is in conscious imitation of historian Howard Zinn’s radical classic A People’s History of the United States (1980), which offered a well-researched contrarian account, one that rejected the patriotic platitudes of conventional education in favor of a new narrative built from the ground up. Gone was the hagiography of Columbus and George Washington. Now students would read about the Taino whom the former killed, and the enslaved whom the latter brutalized. With a vaguely Marxian sensibility, Zinn’s book influenced a generation of students who benefited from its honest accounting. What A People’s History of Theology would share with Zinn’s book is a conviction that no history is the sole purview of exemplary individuals. It would acknowledge that ideas, like material conditions, are bigger than any one person, and that theologians are representatives of those trends, shifts, and developments, albeit well-reasoned and well-spoken representatives.


Benjamin J. Kaplan writes in Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe (2007) that “elites are not all-powerful and that other sorts of people—peasants and craftsmen, women and minorities—played an active role, too, in shaping the past.” What seems an obvious observation hasn’t trickled down into accounts of theological history—or not enough. A variety of theoretical and ideological formulations have altered how the humanities have, to varying degrees, reconsidered their disciplines from the bottom up. Historical scholarship is an obvious example. Starting with the French Annales school of a century ago, scholars like Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch began to turn away from the traditional fetishizing of dates and individuals, and towards inclusive social history. Variations of this ethos are common, from the poststructuralist critiques of Michel Foucault to the Marx-inspired writing of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, as well as the political writing of Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson, and the detailed “microhistories” of Carlo Ginzburg and Clifford Geertz.


John Burrow explains in A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century (2007) that historiography’s “affinities are with anthropology, from which it has derived ideas about the life of small-scale societies, but also with the novel and with biography—though the biography of the obscure and even inarticulate.” Such research retreats from the (illusory) center and foregrounds the margins. By finding insight in the abandoned, the marginalized, and the seemingly insignificant, it promises to illuminate wider trends. While readers of popular history still thrill to the biographical exploits of individuals whom world events are supposed to hinge upon, as in books from David McCullough and Jon Meacham, historical scholarship has long abandoned such reductionist platitudes.


Nor is history the only discipline to have reconstructed itself in such a way. Literary scholarship is arguably even more extreme in reducing the idolization of the individual. British cultural studies, the writings of the Frankfurt School, and the influence of French poststructuralism and deconstructionist philosophy have all unseated the privileged position of the “Author” as a locus of special insight and genius, preferring to understand how social, material, and cultural conditions influence literary movements. Such is the point made by Roland Barthes in his seminal 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” whereby he claims that literature is “that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.” How much more so, then, of things that are divine?


That’s why I desire A People’s History of Theology that minimizes the persons with whom certain concepts are identified, preferring rather to trace the tendrils, and branches, and trunk of those concepts as they grow through the soil of the church. Consider those men who gathered in Nicaea in 325 to pen the foundational creed of Christianity: Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria, or Eustathius of Antioch. Scores of volumes have been written about the First Council of Nicaea; a historian can place the event in the context of Roman politics, parsing the relationship between the attendees and the emperor Constantine; a theologian can enumerate the implications of the resultant creed, how it defined Christianity’s understanding of the relationship between humanity and divinity, or the Father and the Son within the Trinity. What I’m interested in is something different: What were the conversations that Eusebius had with congregants before he left for Nicaea? How did Eustathius consider the consubstantiality of the Son in relationship to the Father when he worshiped next to a fishmonger? How did residual folk beliefs filter into Trinitarian language, as those men at Nicaea, like all of us, abhorred a cultural vacuum?


What I’m curious to see is all that information which may or may not exist to be reframed, recontextualized, reinterpreted—to take what we have and to remix it. What interests me is not the historical question per se, but its theological implications—what would theology look like if it wasn’t indebted to Eusebius, Athanasius, and Eustathius, but to all of those unknown women and men who molded the theological edifice that we’ve come to know, and how would an awareness of that process alter how we speak about theology?


My argument is that theology itself, traditionally touted as the queen of the humanities, must consider what it means when we reorient ourselves away from the idea that certain exemplary intellects expressed fundamental insights about divinity, and we interpret them, rather, as particularly well-spoken representatives of something hidden, seething, widespread, and organic. This argument is made for explicitly theological reasons. An embrace of the margins that would define such a project need not rely on a metaphysics that is either materialist or idealist, for A People’s History of Theology could just as easily speak to somebody whose own orientation is more than comfortable with the transcendent. Easy for somebody to see the spirit of theology as operating through individual, anonymous members of the church as much as the enshrined figures whose names populate monographs and dissertation titles.


Garry Wills writes that the era of revivals was “a time for do-it-yourself religion.” Our current age be again—for if we’re post-Christian, post-denominational, post-sectarian, post-secular, and most of all post-theological, then it’s by listening to the cacophony of whispers on the margins, as much as by reading arguments in journals, books, and seminars, that we might completely be able to hear God’s muted voice.


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Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine and a staff writer at The Millions.


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Featured image: William Henry Holmes. Autumn Tangle, 1920. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Florence Deakins Becker. si.edu, CC0. Accessed July 7, 2023.

LARB Contributor

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine, a staff writer for Lit Hub, and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Jacobin, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Killing the Buddha, Salon, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. He is also the author of several books, including Devil’s Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, which will be released in July 2024. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.

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