[NB: This document was prepared for a team-taught Survey of British Literature (hence the use of the plural "we" and the references to texts other than Dante). As a bare-bones outline of some of the major tenets of Christianity intended for those whose familiarity with such concepts is rusty, it may still be of value to some of you in a Dante course.]
Every writer whose work we are reading this semester was Christian. Despite doctrinal differences, some fundamental, some subtle, writers such as Jonathon Swift, John Milton, and the Gawain-Poet all held shared attitudes about the world, about history, about human nature. The major concepts of traditional Christianity come from a variety of sources. The most important is the Bible, believed to have been the revealed word of God. The Jewish Bible has always been accepted by Christians, but reinterpreted as the so-called "Old Testament," a term which implies that its proper understanding derives from the "New Testament," the works of Christian Scripture. In addition to Holy Scripture, the revealed word of God, there is a long tradition of learned commentary upon Scripture, the most important portion of which, by the so-called Fathers of the Church and hence called the "Patristic" tradition, itself gained a quasi-sacred status. Alongside this intellectual tradition of Scriptural interpretation, a more popular, folkloristic tradition expanded upon the Bible.
In the pages that follow, we have outlined some of the major concepts of traditional Christianity, concepts which make their way, directly or more often by implication, into works which we will be reading this semester. Because the authors and their original readers shared a common world view, they often felt no need to explain all of these notions; many could be taken for granted in their original contexts, but need to be explained for the modern reader. What follows is an attempt to clarify some of these concepts and terms so that you can, on the one hand, understand them when you encounter them in your reading and, on the other, use them with some precision when you explain your reading.
The main source for details of creation is the beginning of the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Chapter 1 presents a portrait of God as all-powerful, bringing order from chaos, according to one subsequent tradition creating out of nothing and establishing simultaneously the beginnings of the material universe and of time. God creates parts of the universe in sequence, day by day, concluding with humanity, created "in God's image and likeness" to serve as his viceroy on earth. Chapter 2 of Genesis presents, by contrast, a more "human" portrait of God, who creates Adam first and then the Garden of Eden for him. If the left side of God's brain dominates in Chapter 1, the right side dominates in 2: God creates Adam from dust, personally breathes life into him (hence the immortality of the soul) and then seems to create spontaneously and in response to Adam's apparently unforeseen needs, culminating in the creation of Eve, shaped from one of Adam's ribs as he slept. Two aspects of God are presented: in Chapter 1, he is omnipotent, radically other, ultimately unknowable in his distance from humanity; in Chapter 2, he is available to his beloved humans walking in the garden with Adam in the cool of the day and making available a similarly intimate relationship with believers throughout history.
Some subsequent Christian traditions postulated as an addition to the Biblical account that, prior to creating humans, God also created angels, spirit-creatures who offered him reverence and served in effect as his courtiers. One of the angels, Lucifer, led a court revolt against God--in Milton's version 1/3 of his fellow angels joined him--and were subsequently defeated by the loyalist forces led by the angel Michael. Lucifer, subsequently called Satan, and his followers are expelled from heaven to hell, a place of spiritual torment, where they commit themselves to seek vengeance against God by tempting humans to rebel against him.
God gave Adam and Eve total freedom within the Garden of Eden with the single exception that they were not allowed to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the myth presented in Genesis 3, the serpent persuades Eve to eat this fruit (identified as an apple in later tradition), and Eve persuades Adam to do likewise. God's punishment of the principals ensued: for humans, suffering, mortality, patriarchy (Eve must subsequently be subservient to Adam), alienation from nature (humans must earn their bread with the sweat of their brows), and exile from the Garden.
In the standard Patristic interpretation of this myth that became the norm for Christians, the serpent was really Satan in disguise, carrying out his planned revenge by getting the first human, and through him all of his offspring, to fall from the state of primal innocence. Adam's eating the fruit was the "original sin." Original in this context means not only "first," but also "model" or "pattern." St. Augustine of Hippo, the most important Father of the Church for Western European Christians, was primarily responsible for advancing a quasi-allegorical reading of the Fall whereby the serpent represents the temptations of this world; Eve represents the human instinct that is attracted by the things of this world, Adam represents the Will or Reason, which ought to control the lower human instinct. In yielding to Eve's temptation, Adam inverted this proper hierarchy: Reason yielded to Appetite, an interpretation recalled by Milton himself in his evaluation of the fall in its immediate aftermath, (Par. Lost. IX 1126-1131), though his presentation of Eve in that book considerably complicates--and may call into question--this traditional reading.
Because all of us, as children of Adam, are born with original sin, a congenital and irresistible tendency toward evil, we can no longer securely know good from evil, nor can we feel secure in our attempts to choose good over evil. All humans, therefore, "deserve" damnation--they will inevitably choose evil--and after death Satan claims his prize: their souls go with him to hell.
As all humans fell with Adam, all are saved, at least potentially, through the actions of the "second Adam," Christ. Because of the fall, no human can mend what has been broken; all are fatally flawed and incapable of offering justification. Traditionally, Christianity insisted that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin, miraculously impregnated by the spirit of God, as a result of which Jesus did not inherit the stain of Adam's sin, passed on through the chain of normal human conception. However Jesus, as God-become-human, lacked original sin and so could offer restitution on behalf of humanity. Jesus subsequently lived a "normal" human life, spent three years or so as an itinerant preacher and healer, and was executed by officials of the Roman Empire. He was crucified on a Friday, and he rose from the dead on the following Sunday, the first Easter. This "resurrection" overcame the bodily mortality which was one of the main results of the fall of Adam; through belief in the resurrection, Christians can overcome the death of the soul, can go to heaven instead of hell. The term usually applied to this doctrine is the "redemption," a word which means etymologically, a "buying back": believers are bought out of slavery to sin and death.
Different Christian sects place various emphasis on exactly how an individual comes to salvation, whether by faith or by works, whether salvation is offered freely in response to belief in Jesus-as-Savior or earned by one's good works, either social actions on behalf of others or acts of piety on one's own behalf. Most Christians would propose some version of a doctrine of "grace," the notion that no human action can compel divine response, so that salvation must be a freely given gift of God, something gratuitous. (Grace comes from the same Latin word that is the root of the word gratuity, as in the free-will offering one might leave as a tip for services provided.) Most would also wish to preserve some sense that humans are free to choose the right path in our postlapsarian exile, what medieval Christians saw as our pilgrimage in this world back to our proper celestial homeland. The notion that heaven and hell stand as eternal rewards for human behavior implies that such freedom to choose is not entirely a form of human self-deception. What is clear for most Christian sects is that the individual can "convert," a word which has traditionally referred not to changing from one religion to another, but from a sinful life to a life of spiritual commitment. At any moment, the believer may respond to the call of grace and live a life of Christian witness and commitment.
Christians have traditionally believed that Christ will come to earth again, for a second time, not as in the Incarnation as a helpless baby, but as a triumphant King, come to judge the living and the dead. A final battle will occur between the forces of good and evil at Armageddon, the earth will be destroyed, and all humans throughout history will be summoned to final judgment and assigned to heaven or to hell. Just as the universe had a beginning, so it will have an end: human history runs from the creation to the Last Judgment, an event whose scriptural basis may be found in the Book of Revelation, the final book of scripture (though much elaborated upon in later Christian tradition).