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Journeys of the Mind:
A Life in History

by peter brown
princeton, 736 pages, $45

Peter Brown’s latest book is a quest narrative. It's a genre-defying personal account of the life, work, and intellectual development of this acclaimed historian of late antiquity. Halfway through the book, one begins to suspect that the search for the holy, the “Other World of Paradise,” might be what is really driving Brown’s “journeys.” The holy man, holy church, and the holy faith of the high and lowly loom large in Brown’s lifetime of scholarship.

The book begins in the 1950s in the Oxford history department, when the author is an undergraduate. This son of a Protestant Irish civil servant gets more than mildly miffed when his professors tell him that “real history” is driven not by ideas or—God forbid—religion, but only by wars, emperors, and economics. Fortunately, Brown is not so easily cowed by the authority of Oxford elites, but follows his hunch that history might turn on higher and holier things. Journeys of the Mind is the story of where such a hunch can lead.

During college, Brown reads C. S. Lewis, and hears him lecture and debate. He is also deeply moved by a Billy Graham crusade. Both men inspire Brown to wonder: “Did the history of the Church show that a naked wire of supernatural power somehow snaked in and out of the human past? Was Christ truly present in the flow of history as he was believed to be present in any Catholic church, where the red light glowed in the dimness of a side altar before the shrine of the Blessed Sacrament—that pure white wafer, which contained the real presence of Christ in this world?” 

After reading Karl Adam and hearing Steven Runciman lecture in 1954, Brown answers that question with “No—there was no unique golden thread woven into the rough cloth of history. There were only human protagonists.” But the story doesn't stop there—because Brown is nothing if not a restless seeker suspicious of his own strongly held views. 

Working in an academic society very different from Oxford makes Brown appreciate what Oxford gave him. In 1975, as a visiting professor at Cal Berkeley, he encounters hyper-specialized second-career hippie scholars who refuse to offer a summary of an article on Augustine’s Manichaeans because they don’t (yet) have a doctorate in that field. Brown fondly recalls his fellow Oxford undergrads—jacks of all trades, masters of none—who would just skim the article and “wing it,” boldly going (with a bit of BS) where angels and Berkeley hippies fear to tread. Brown sees the good in both. But he wonders if Oxford could do a bit more than just prepping bright young men for careers in government service, banking, and law. Could Oxford launch young people to search for even higher things? Here the book turns into something of an adventure story. 

It seems it was the discovery of a living liturgical tradition that brought Brown himself back to church after a twenty-year hiatus. He had stopped going due to his doubt about finding the “naked wire of the supernatural” running anywhere through this world. But on a harrowing visit to Iran in 1974, Brown “was touched by the chanting of the Armenian church at Julfa . . . I came to feel that there was nothing strange about the desire to worship God. On my return, after a lapse of twenty years, I resumed regular attendance at a Christian church.” Brown doesn’t identify the church, but later he casually mentions “attending the Orthodox liturgy in South Bend.” 

Brown’s heart seems to be with all those seekers—Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or “other”—who, like Prosper of Aquitaine, ground their beliefs in the liturgy rather than their liturgy in their beliefs. Recalling an Oxford Patristics conference in 1963, Brown is struck by how anti-ritual, anti-traditional, anti-liturgical these men were—many of whom were the luminaries of Vatican II. 

Brown observes that “Byzantine art and liturgy were something more than mere carriers of Christian ideology.” He evinces a lovely aversion to all forms of spiritual or intellectual coercion. Brown was originally inspired to study Augustine because of his reputation as an instigator of religious persecution (of the Donatists). But he softens the more Augustine he reads. Still, he’s not fond of those who foist their ideologies on others, especially when they’re backed by state or church power. Brown seems to prefer the outsider, the underdog, the catacomb Christian who just wants to worship God his own way. 

Most of all, Peter Brown seems entranced by the “Other World.” But not “that of modern Christian imagination, an ethereal Heaven crowded with serried ranks of human faces.” Rather, he is enchanted by “Paradise—a more ancient place of rest and primordial delight . . . a royal garden of delights which came into its own in the unexpected drama and sensuous thrill of early Christian and Byzantine liturgies—with their shimmering lights, heavy scents, and scattered flowers.” It is in those liturgies that maybe, just maybe, the naked wire of the supernatural does still run through our world. 

One of the loveliest parts of the book was Brown’s glimpses of the “Other World” on a visit to Chartres with a scholar friend and a mad abbé who took them scrambling up rotting wood ladders into the cathedral's vertiginous upper belfry (despite having “no head for heights”). Brown recalls it laconically as “a memorable climb.” On the way down, Brown remembers that pilgrims used to (and may still) sleep in the upper quarters of the cathedral. He asks the abbé if these believers were hoping to receive a healing dream. The abbé dismisses this with “Oh, no, mon professeur, they were good Christians. Only Hindus do that.” Brown is struck that, for the abbé, popular religious practices had nothing to do with “‘true’ Christianity” (scare quotes Brown's). But for Brown, such practices offer “a fascinating glimpse, beneath the thin veneer of the culture of the clerical elite, of another, older world, from the dreamtime of Europe.” Oh the places you will go with Peter Brown. 

Brown does not consider African tribes “primitive” or “neurotic” for believing in demons, devils, gods, and angels. He wonders if it isn’t moderns who are “primitive” for not holding such beliefs. He sees the end of “the Ordeal” in twelfth-century England not as the replacement of religious superstition by “enlightened” reason, but rather as government power intruding on egalitarian religious societies. Brown made me realize what a loss it is that our churches are no longer literally built on the bones of the saints. He movingly describes how “the cult of the saints not only broke the primal cosmic boundary between heavens and the earth, but also threatened to erode ancient civic boundaries.” He reminds us, winsomely, that the supernatural power of the heavens will always be seen as a great threat to those who insist government power is the only real way to “progress.” 

I intended to skim Brown’s book, but ended up taking the whole tour. Brown says, “I still like to think of myself as writing for my aunts—for average people interested in history and religion.” But he also writes for “the sophisticated, well-educated, but not necessarily academic, readers of the New York Review of Books”—like his old friend Bob Silvers (longtime editor of the NYRB). There's plenty of room on his bus for readers of First Things. For 45 bucks or so, you can go on this journey of the mind yourself. You won't regret it.

Rev. Kevin W. Martin is a pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Raleigh, North Carolina

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Image by MOSSOT licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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