Saint Bertha and the Birth of Belief

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Saint Bertha of Kent is not a household name, even in Kent, England. Bertha was born in 565 of the Common Era. She was a Frankish princess; her grandfather was the King of Paris.

Why she is important in the history of religion is that she converted to Christianity as a young girl and then got married. Again, we’re talking the five-hundreds here.

Aethelbert, the Anglo Saxon King of Kent, was what we nowadays call a pagan. Most people in the British Isles were pagan. Christianity had appeared in the British Isles briefly during the Roman occupation, but when the Roman legions retreated back to the continent, so did Christianity for the most part. The old ways had returned.

King Aethelbert the pagan asked for Princess Bertha’s hand in marriage. She agreed, on the condition that she be allowed to practice her religion after the marriage. This set the stage for Christian missionaries to enter England.

Also, for reasons lost to history, King Aethelbert converted to Christianity. King Aethelbert’s seat of government was in Canterbury, nowadays site of one of the world’s great cathedrals.

This story is old news, not fake news. And I mention this history because King Aethelbert and Queen Bertha followed a very common pattern in the Christianization of Europe: they themselves converted, then they declared their lands and their subjects Christian. The people had no choice in the matter, and often, after the fact, the people had little or no contact with Christianity.

The Christianization of Europe was a top-down affair. The term “pagan” is Latin for “villager.” And “heathen” is based on the word “heath,” an open, uncultivated area, where such things as “heather” grow. Pagans and heathens are, in other words, folks who live in the outback. People far from the aristocratic courts that had declared the whole place Christian.

I mention all this to underline something that many people have never really thought about — the fact that in so-called Christian Europe, Christianity was broad but not deep. In the days before leaders could Tweet and churches could broadcast on TV, much of the population who lived in what came to be known as “Christendom” only vaguely knew what Christianity was all about.

Scholars argue that this is one reason that, later, the Protestant Reformation spread like wildfire through Europe. Roman Catholicism had never really made sense to many people, and the Church had failed to win European hearts and minds because the structure focused on the courts of power and the cities, where most people did not live.

Protestantism, on the other hand, was a local, grass-roots phenomenon. Protestantism appealed to the bakers and the candlestick makers and the farmer’s wives. Plus, Protestantism offered a way of escaping the very burdensome financial requirements of keeping a top-down hierarchical structure such as Roman Catholicism operating.

In Medieval Catholic Europe, it didn’t matter what you believed. Everybody was Catholic. If you didn’t rock the boat, nobody noticed. In a land with a state church, you are the religion that the state says you are unless you blatantly declare you aren’t. For example, to this day, everyone born in England is C of E, Church of England, unless they’re blatantly not. No one asks if you believe it. And as it happens, almost no one in England does believe it.

Yet the more radical forms of Protestantism introduced a very new concept to the European mind — Protestants preached and thought that it matters what you believe. It matters what is actually in your head.

Which, let’s be honest, most of us believe to this day. We are all children of Queen Bertha . . . and Martin Luther.

Queen Bertha’s religion didn’t stick all that long in the United Kingdom, but many of the most adamant Protestants left the British Isles and moved to America.

The rise of Protestantism created the idea that people could (and should) gather where they actually belong — in places where they actually believe in what is being said.

This focus on belief is a peculiarity of European culture that was spread by European colonialism. In theology, this is called orthodoxy — right thinking — and is contrasted with orthopraxis — right doing. Notice that the word “orthodoxy” is a common English word. “Orthopraxis” isn’t. That’s telling. We are taught to value what people think first, and what they do secondarily.

When the early Protestants introduced the idea that belief — true belief — is essential for faith, they by default created the conditions that would spawn Humanism. Because belief is something that can’t be forced. We can pretend to believe. We can wish we believed. But if true and deep and actual belief is essential . . . some of us are never going to get there.

No one can force belief.

Written by

Poet, Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a Humanist congregation. Amazon author's page

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