Religious people must remember that history can’t be bypassed

The 'absurd' billboard in America

Did you know that Giuseppe Verdi was an atheist? I was told this by Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society, and it did surprise me. I knew of course that Verdi was an anti-clerical, like a lot of his contemporaries, but had always assumed that he was a believer. After all, he wrote some of the most beautiful religious music ever written. I do not mean the Four Sacred Pieces of his old age, or the Manzoni Requiem, but rather La Vergine degli Angeli which occurs in La Forza del Destino, which for me captures the sublime essence of Catholicism. (You can listen to it here sung by the best soprano of the twentieth century.)

The evidence of Verdi’s atheism is provided by his own Catholic wife, and so it is quite credible. Arturo Toscanini also considered Verdi to be an atheist. So, it is not really worth disputing. And it all goes to show that you can like and live with the appearances of Catholic culture, without holding to its substance. On the whole this historical fact (Verdi’s atheism) is something I can live with. Which is just as well: because historical facts are just that – facts. You really do not have a choice: you have to accept them. I certainly do not go along with the post-modern idea that there is no such thing as historical fact, merely historical interpretations, and that facts are illusory.

Some religious people would clearly not be happy with this approach. Consider this bunch of Muslims in America, who are claiming that “Jesus is Muslim”. That assertion, which is backed by no evidence, is absurd. Jesus of Nazareth lived many centuries before the emergence of Islam. Jesus the Risen and Ascended Lord, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, is in no sense whatever Muslim as the world is generally intended. The assertion “Jesus is Muslim” flies in the faces of reason and must be a profound embarrassment to many Muslims.

There are many other Muslim beliefs that deny historical reality. The best known is the claim that “Jesus did not die on the cross” or that the Christian Scriptures are somehow “corrupted”. Neither of these claims is historically sustainable, and I won’t waste time trying to refute them.

But just in case you think that I am being anti-Muslim here, it is also the case that many Christians hold beliefs that are plainly anti-historical. The Protestant reformers claimed that the Catholic Church had become corrupt at some unidentified point in its history: one would like to ask when and how this happened? English people like to justify the dissolution of the monasteries claiming that their “corruption” made this necessary. Again, one would like a little more scrutiny of this sweeping and historically worthless claim. Objectors to Papal supremacy make numerous unsubstantiated suppositions about the history of the Petrine Primacy in the early centuries, and so on. And then there are everyone’s favourite targets, the Creationists of America. But many sensible English people believe equally unfounded things, so perhaps we should not throw stones so easily.

Moreover, this denial of history has spread into politics, and the internet gives it a platform through which the misinformation and the lies are spread. On numerous occasions I have seen commentators on articles about Russia make the claim that Russia alone won the Second World War. This is absolutely false. Indeed the whole narrative of “the Great Patriotic War” represents a twisting of history. Never mind Hampstead intellectuals like the late Eric Hobsbawm who are in denial about Stalin; in modern Russia we seem to have thousands upon thousands of people who have conveniently forgotten that Stalin was Hitler’s ally, at least for a time. This is very dangerous. It should remind us of what happened in Germany in the 1930s, which was only possible because a nation lost sight of reason and embraced lies.

Christian revelation takes place in history. It doesn’t bypass history, ever. Nothing does. It is time for all religious people, and some non-religious ones too, to remember that.