Monday, June 08, 2009

Religion at Bath

I have been travelling over much of Scotland and England--from Inverness (where we looked for the Loch Ness monster) and the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides to Bath in England. Now, we're in Oxford. In a few days, we'll be flying to Barcelona.

I have found myself thinking a lot about the religious history of Great Britain as illustrating the universal desire for religious understanding diversely expressed in human history.

No place shows this more clearly than Bath. Here are the only thermal springs in Great Britain. Over the past two hundred years, the elaborate Roman baths from the first century A.D. have been excavated and reconstructed.

There is some limited archaeological evidence that hunter-gatherers camped around these mineral springs and perhaps invested them with religious meaning. When the Romans arrived, this part of Britain was ruled by an Iron Age tribe called the Dobunni, who saw the hot spring as a sacred place for the Goddess Sulis, who might have been thought to possess some curative powers.

Following their general practice, the Romans incorporated this native religious tradition into their own as they built a temple here to Sulis Minerva.

Later, Christians destroyed the Roman baths and temple and built their own city on top of the ancient Roman ruins. It was not until late in the 18th century that the newly emerging scientific culture of Britain led British scientists to uncover the ancient ruins. The cathedral of Bath Abbey was built on the site. Originally, it was Roman Catholic. But then the Reformation brought the conversion of the cathedral into an Anglican church.

So here we see a tradition of religious belief in Bath that stretches over thousands of years, perhaps even back to the earliest settlement of Britain by foragers. This to me shows the evolutionary history of a natural human desire for religious understanding. But the scientific study of the archaelogical history of this site also shows a natural desire for scientific understanding that drives our modern disposition to want to understand this human history.

Some people would say that this scientific understanding could eventually satisfy human beings so fully that they would not need religious belief. But, as I have often argued on this blog, I cannot see how that scientific understanding could ever completely answer those questions of ultimate explanation and existential concern that drive the longings of religious life.

Some of our travels in Scotland included visits to ancient prehistoric burial sites. And of course many of the lovely parish churches across Britain have old cemeteries. The burial of the dead is one of those distinctive human practices that shows a human symbolic capacity that raises questions about the meaning of life and death and conceptions of an afterlife.

It is not clear to me that a science of deep history can satisfy that human yearning to find some eternal meaning to our lives that elevates us above the contingencies of natural history in which all living things come into being and pass away.

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