Sunday, July 04, 2010

Perpetua invents the Secular

In the North African city of Carthage in the year 203, Vibia Perpetua, a young mother who was a member of a respectable local family, was detained and tried because of her Christian faith.

Among those who attempted to persuade Perpetua to avoid death by the apparently simple and innocuous ritual of scattering incense was her father. Her own account of her trial and imprisonment records their interaction:

“Father”, said I, “Do you see for example the vase lying here, a pitcher or whatever it is?” And he said, “I see it”. And I said to him, “So then, can it be called by any name other than what it is?” And he answered, “No”. “So neither can I call something other than what I am, a Christian” (Pass. Perp. 3.1-2).

Perpetua’s use and repetition of the phrase “I am a Christian” probably evokes in the modern ear an implied choice among religious commitments or beliefs such as “I am Muslim” or “I am Agnostic”. This is a mistake; devotees of Jupiter had no equivalent designation, and no exclusive allegiance.

Christians were accused not of being a new religion, because there was no concept of such a thing, but rather of being a “third race” (Ad Nat.  1.8), sitting outside the expected dichotomy of civilized Romans or Greeks on the one hand, and multifarious disordered Barbarians (or Jews) on the other, with no place in the existing mental map of human society.

Perpetua’s plea is a remarkable foreshadowing of how religious identity might emerge as something distinct from civic, and how a group with no ethnic claim to unique religious practice might claim the space and freedom to act on this identity. This space and freedom deserves, I think, consideration as the basis of the “secular”.

Perpetua in her blunt and costly affirmation, and Tertullian in his more discursive way, were both contributing to the invention of religion as we now speak of it, and by implication to the invention of the secular also. Of course to make this claim means accepting the instability of these concepts, and hence their limitations in conveying how a particular society or group constructs the relationship between belief and social practice.


[An extract from a plenary address to the Melbourne College of Divinity's Centenary Conference at Trinity College, July 5 2010]