Negotiating Conversion

I was just looking at one of my favorite articles on St Oswald this morning. Tolley’s “Oswald’s Tree” is a unique article that sets Oswald’s actions and the development of his veneration within the semi-pagan times that he lived. So few people consider the pre-Christian context and what that means for conversion. Today, the word conversion is often used for switching from one Christian denomination, from one Abrahamic religion to another, or from no religion at all to a faith. While all of these conversions are major life changes, they don’t really compare well to the conversion from Germanic or Celtic belief systems to Christianity. Perhaps the best comparison in today’s would be Hindu to Christian. Of the major world religions today, only Hindu has the multiplicity of gods and the well developed belief system tied to the land and customs that can compare with Germanic and Celtic pre-Christian belief systems. Although Christian missionaries have been in India since the time of the apostles (reputedly St Thomas), Christianity is practiced by less than 5% of the people of India.

I wish I could remember where I read a great quote about conversion being the ability to translate symbols from one system to another. Although every belief system certainly has unique attributes and beliefs, all religious belief systems must be able to answer some of the same questions to the satisfaction of the conversion generation, particularly on questions on creation and an afterlife. Various cultures imagined creation and the afterlife differently -Hebrew, Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Norse and German all imagined differently. Some saw creation as a well-watered garden, others as the products of fire and ice.

As the secondary title title of this blog shows: “Caelestis campus, a name which it certainly received in the days of old…signified that a heavenly sign was to be erected there” shows, Oswald’s first association with a tree was at a place that was already known as a holy site. It was at Heavenfield (hefenfelth) that Oswald chose a tree and had a cross made from it on the site and used it to lead his retinue in prayer before the battle of Denisesburna the next day. Trees held a central role in Germanic belief systems. The World Tree stood at the center of a beautiful meadow with its roots reaching into the underworld and its branches reaching the heavens. The well of wisdom was located at its base and supernatural birds rested in its branches. This is a landscape that will be associated with Oswald’s death at Maserfelth/CrosOswald/Oswestry/Oswald’s Tree in the western midlands as well.  The beginning of his career and evangelistic efforts is at Heavenfield, so the cross at Heavenfield, perhaps envisioned as standing in an open plain, evokes some of the same imagery — the cross linking heaven and earth. Over the 1400 years since King Oswald erected the cross at Heavenfield, its exact location has been lost; the church and meadow there now do not go back to the seventh century. Yet, placenames reflecting the holy place spread wider to include the what was once possibly one continuous highlands meadow or estate. It surely helps that this part of Northumbria is fairly mountainous so there are wide vistas.


C. Tolley (1995) “Oswald’s Tree”, p. 149-173 in Pagans and Christians: The Interplay between Christian Latin and Traditional Germanic Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. Edited by T. Hofstra, LAJR Houwen, & AA MacDonald. Groningen: Egbert Frosten.

Christianity in India, Wikipedia.

3 thoughts on “Negotiating Conversion

  1. I may be wrong here but I believe that St Thomas of Kerala and St Thomas the disciple are not the same saint; the former is indeed the Apostle of Kerala, but not ‘The Apostle’ if you see what I mean. Which explains the centuries of separation… You maybe knew this, I couldn’t tell from your post. Michael Wood, when I saw him talking about India, reported that Christianity in Kerala is very syncretised with existing cults of Shiva and various other dancing gods, and I’ve heard similar things about Christianity elsewhere in India too. whether this says something about the system change or whether it’s about where power resides, though, is another question. Here Christianity in al-Andalus makes some kind of comparison; they wound up with Arabic Gospels pretty quickly…

  2. There seems to be some controversy over which St Thomas, but that is not the point. The point is that Christianity has been in India for over 1000 years and still not made much headway. Part of that is certainly politics, but not all. Monotheism is less than 20% of the population. According to wikipedia, Islam is only about 14%.

    Missionaries on frontiers used to be able to make (or more likely ignore) compromises that would outrage people in communities were Christianity is dominant. Modern communications makes this much harder. Unlike barbarian Europe, religion in India didn’t have the instability of the imposition of Roman religions shaking things up. Although Ireland was outside of Rome and still converted relatively quickly. In Ireland that conversion also occurred as far as we know without political pressure.

    1. Islam may only be 14% but it’s heavily regionalised. That means that before Partition in 1947 and the separation of Pakistan and Bangladesh (96% and 89.7% Islamic according to Wikipedia) the figures were a lot closer to balance, though obviously not all the way there. Of course, India itself is heavily regionalised and was even more so before Partition and the erection of a single government for almost all the subpeninsula. I think the pairing of these regionalisations means that we do have to look at a political context below the national to understand why some areas are Islamic and some are not; it’s not enough to deal with the whole modern country, but not its ‘dismembers’, as if the culture either stopped at the current borders or was uniform within them. In Kerala, for example, Christianity and Islam together (says Wikipedia) are 43% of the census population (19% and 24% respectively). OK, 56% are Hindus, but it’s clear that something different happened there. Did the existing monotheism make Islam’s ingress easier? And so on. The Delhi capital territory is where Hinduism has perhaps been the ruling religion more consistently and powerfully than anywhere else in the country (though I’m open to correction on that): there, Hinduism 82%, Islam 14%, Christianity, not even 1%. Given that, is Kerala a success for Christianity, or not?

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