As a fairly reformed fellow, I have an instinctive disgust for sainthood in the sense that Peter Brown uses it in Cult of the Saints. The idea of specially sanctified individuals making intercession on our behalf rubs me the wrong way – after all, isn’t Christ alone supposed to be the mediator between God and Man?
Still, Brown does a fantastic job delineating exactly how sainthood fit in the context of late antiquity: how it worked within a Roman model of patronage and both responded to Roman concepts of death and the supernatural. It does make me curious, however, how the cult of the saints has changed, particularly in since the Enlightenment and how sainthood is being used by African Christians who face a partial cultural divinization of ancestors. Does venerating saints provide a way for these cultural expressions to happen without leaving the fold of the Christian faith, or are they simply a capitulation to an unchristian culture? I don’t know, but Brown’s discussion of the cultural politics of sainthood show that these questions are very much live within the older Christian tradition itself. Late antiquity has a lot to say to the African church today (I think you lent me a book about that, right Dad?)
One of the things I found fascinating about Brown’s work methodologically here was his use of dialectic to discuss cultural patterns. The graves of the martyrs, he claimed, were places fraught with power in part because they were unclean places. The grace of God, as shown through the martyrs suffering, transformed death into victory and made places that were usually despised into sites of pilgrimage. Thus Brown connects martyrdom with the resurrection – a chief paradox of the Christian faith. That, needless to say, is cool. Dialectic has always seemed deeply helpful to me, but I was never entirely sure how. It is good to read an example of it being used with faithfulness to historical texts and as a way to illustrate rather than being used to force historical facts to fit with pre-conceived theories.
All of these good things being said, however, I still have trouble with the concept of sainthood as practiced in the cult of saints. It smacks more of magic and paganism than a true Christian practice ought. Although Brown is, I am sure, correct in saying that the cult of the saints worked against late Roman practices in helpful ways, it seems to have grown stagnant throughout the middle ages. In biblical language, the saints are the community of believers in a particular city – that is the way that Paul uses the concept to be sure. And how can we make distinctions in grace between members of the church? After all, we are all covered by Christ’s righteousness and can do nothing by our own strength. We do see differences in levels of sanctification – the older members of our churches do deserve respect, for they’ve grown more in the faith than those of us who are younger. Still, because we share the same mediator, these men and women do not have a special access to God that the younger among us lack.
But, with these caveats, Brown does some really fun work here. This book was originally a series of lectures, and his voice still comes through. As part of an increased self-education in early Christianity, Cult of the Saints was very helpful. I’m just not going to pray to St. Peter for help anytime soon.