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Past and present

Humanity’s journey beyond set sermons
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Sukanta Chaudhuri   |   Published 04.10.21, 01:14 AM

Students of an esoteric line of English literature know of the great sermon writers of the seventeenth century: John Donne, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor. There are hardly any matching names from the sixteenth century. For much of that period, clergymen were actually barred from delivering sermons.

Church services without sermons? Not quite. Sermons were essential spiritual fare; but they were served out of tins, as it were. There were books of approved, ready-made sermons that the priest read out in church. Adding their own words could invite retribution. Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury, went so far as to encourage inspirational preaching. He was sequestered, somewhat as civil servants today are suspended. He was not, after all, the head of the Church: that role was reserved for the monarch.


This is among the many sinister features of the golden Elizabethan Age. Like most States at all times, it was a police and surveillance regime. Christopher Marlowe was both dramatist and spy, and met with a messy end in the latter pursuit. Philip Sidney, the flower of Renaissance court culture, married the daughter of Elizabeth’s chief spymaster and torturer. But Sidney himself attacked the Queen’s foreign policy and was banished from court. Ben Jonson was jailed for a ‘mutinous’ play. Shakespeare narrowly escaped the same fate when an old political drama of his was staged on the eve of an abortive uprising. 

Across Europe, politics was steeped in religion. Everyone was Christian except for a sprinkling of Jews (none in England, which had expelled them 300 years earlier). But the precise shade of Christianity could spell life or death. Thousands died for not chanting a particular religious formula, or disputing the exact composition of the holy bread of the Eucharist. The Catholic Church sent undercover priests to England — to preach their faith, they said; to spread sedition, said the State, which therefore imprisoned, tortured and killed them. Home-grown Catholics were fined and their movements watched. They were barred from universities and government jobs.

The Church of England was formed when Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, quarrelled with the pope for disallowing his divorce from the first of his six wives. This unedifying claim to Protestantism did not impress more committed Protestants, or Puritans, whose radicalism appeared in both politics and direct action. Their more extreme and disorganized groups found favour among the poor. There were a lot of poor people around, ousted from traditional farmlands now enclosed for sheep-rearing to serve the growing wool trade and industry. Bands of dispossessed peasants roamed the countryside. Forests were destroyed, their dwellers and wildlife dislodged, for mining and iron smelting. The poet, Michael Drayton, has a harrowing account of the ecological disaster.

So what’s new in all this? Nothing, of course. Such evil and disorder are as old as humankind. One could write a similar, entirely factual account of what we call the golden age of Greece, some 2,500 years ago. For self-protection, let me steer clear of India’s past. But Europe and England’s past bristles with parallels to India’s present. Some are piquant and vaguely endearing, as between Elizabethan London and today’s Calcutta. Others are disorienting, like the long series implicit in my account above.

But why should they disturb us, as they seem universal and inevitable? Because two profound changes have occurred in between. One is the scientific revolution. We now understand the material universe as never before: what it contains (and does not contain), how it works, how we can employ its forces — for evil, certainly, but also for good. The other revolution is profounder still: a sense of the value and dignity of the core human condition irrespective of gender, race, class, faith or any other add-on. It teaches us (what would have seemed an absurd notion as late as the European Renaissance) that all individuals have equal right and equal ability to live freely and fully in body and mind. It introduces such novel ideas as welfare, progress, and a diversity bonded by mutual respect.

The two revolutions are linked: intellectually by their foundation in rational thought; historically by their concurrence in the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That is the source of their impact on the modern world, though many elements, especially logical and mathematical thinking, had glorious multiple origins long before, abundantly and memorably in our own land among others.

 Hence, we cannot take heart that Homer’s or Shakespeare’s age was no better than ours. We can no longer accept on mythological ‘evidence’ that ancient India had television and plastic surgery; that the cow exhales oxygen and the peacock impregnates the peahen with its tears; or — an easy jump in illogic — that people of one caste, gender or faith are genetically, thus ‘scientifically’ superior. Nor can we humanly justify such ideas. There is too much evidence of the human potential released if we break such barriers of the mind. Or to phrase it the right way, there is too much joy and reward in viewing all fellow humans as we view ourselves, wishing for them what we wish for ourselves.

Once that happens, we will not, as we now do, drag those holding such liberating views to jail without trial or reprieve. We will not consign ‘those not like us’ to systemic deprivation in body and mind: in our schools, our economy, our whole process of rule. We will not sit unmoved while a million uprooted humans tramp the nation’s highways, or congregations of tense women across India keep vigil to assert their claim to their motherland. We will not kill a man for calling god, who understands all tongues, by a name other than ours.

Once that happens, we will have passed beyond set sermons to a living faith as diverse as there are people. As diverse as India.

This piece is offered to the memory of Swapan Chakravorty. Over 49 years, he taught me many lessons in exploring past texts and cultures, and bringing them to bear on the lived reality of our times.

Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University

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