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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

The Alternative Christianity

Glastonbury Tor

When I defended my dissertation several years ago, one of my committee members asked me why I chose to examine the lives and writing of some of the subjects of my study, figures deemed “fringe” by academia and the positivist hegemony from which we all (unconsciously for the most part) suffer. The subjects of my project (since then published as Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England) included Elizabethan magus and polymath John Dee, the Catholic/Anglican poet and divine John Donne, the Catholic alchemist and swashbuckler Sir Kenelm Digby, the Metaphysical poet and physician Henry Vaughan and his identical twin the alchemist and Anglican priest Thomas, as well as the Protestant mystic and religious leader Jane Lead. I told my interlocutor that these individuals were by no means “fringe” during their own cultural moment, but had only been rendered so by what the Marxist critic E.P. Thompson has called “the enormous condescension of posterity.”[1] Because that is exactly what happened. They weren’t weird to their contemporaries: they’re weird to us. Maybe we’re the weird ones.

In his generous forward to my book The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics, the Radical Orthodox political scientist Adrian Pabst locates the genealogy I present of sophiology as illustrative of an “alternative modernity” that runs parallel (but counter) to the modernity we have all come to know and accept (if not love). Like his colleague John Milbank, Pabst has reservations about “the modern shift toward the individual knowing subject and the primacy of epistemology… [which] was neither necessary nor normative,” further observing “how the underlying theology of nominalism and voluntarism has ended up de-naturalizing humanity and de-humanizing culture.”[2] Milbank, at least a decade ago, spoke of an “alternative Protestantism,” and his work in Radical Orthodoxy—placing participation at the center of religious life instead of hermeneutics and confessionalism—clearly anticipates a move forward into an unbuffered (in the sense proposed by Charles Taylor) and reinvigorated Christianity. Considering the current turmoil that has visited the Roman Catholic Church, that moment may have arrived, but now articulated, more concretely, as an “alternative Christianity.”

Party-pooping Puritans putting a stop to this papistical maypole nonsense.

In truth, the alternative Christianity has accompanied the alternative modernity along the centuries from the seventeenth century when totalizing cultural dominance of Descartes along with Newton and their confreres began to slouch towards Bethlehem. As Thomas Vaughan wrote in his introduction to The Fame and Confession of the Fraternity R.C, “the School-men have got the Day, not by Weight but by Number.”[3] This alternative Christianity is also found in the thought of the Martin Heidegger of mysticism, Jacob Boehme, as well as in countless other figures, among whom we can number William Blake, Joséphin Péladan, Rudolf Steiner, and the Catholic hermeticist Valentin Tomberg, author of Meditations on the Tarot. Although posterity has tried its best to inflict its condescension upon them, they nevertheless have persisted and continue to persist, if under the cultural radar, if occasionally dismissed as eccentrics.

Sophiology, as Pabst and Milbank (in his essay "Sophiology and Theurgy: the New Theological Horizon") have noted, is a part of this alternative Christianity. I would even dare to suggest that Wicca and neo-paganism, at their core, have kept alive many of the folk customs of an alternative Christianity, even though their practitioners would probably disavow such a claim (not to mention the responses of mainstream positivist Christians!). Nevertheless, even a casual read through the Anglican priest Robert Herrick’s massive (and massively delightful) collection Hesperides (1648) is enough to make the case that what we now think of “pagan” and “Christian”—even in the reason-fetishizing West—were not always as distanced from one another as we would like to think.

Certainly, Radical Orthodoxy, as imagined by Milbank, Pabst, and others, speaks to such an alternative Christianity, but so does the thought of Eastern Orthodox theologian and writer David Bentley Hart to a degree. All argue on behalf of a more cosmologically-configured Christianity, a Christianity no longer condescending to folk belief and the possibilities of invisible worlds—the influence of the planets, relics, and prayers; the existence of faerie, angels, and demons—as opposed to the sterile gifts of (post)modernity.

So, as the Catholic Church reels from its self-imposed dissolution and as Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism likewise shed adherents at an alarming rate (while foolishly thinking flock-poaching counts as “growth”), perhaps the time for alternative Christianity has become imperative. Indeed, scientific research announcing the startling and precipitous decline in sperm rates (and fertility) functions as a fit metaphor and parallel for the decline in Christianity’s vitality. The time for Christianity as the ally of the Enlightenment and positivism is over: it was a dead proposition in the first place, and the wager was not worth the cost.

Peter Gabriel's A Different Drum would make a great Eucharistic hymn.

[1] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963; reprt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), 12.

[2] Adrian Pabst, “Foreword,” The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics by Michael Martin (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015), iii.

[3] Thomas Vaughan, Preface to The Fame and Confession of the Fraternity of R.C (1652) in The Works of Thomas Vaughan, edited by A. Rudrum with the assistance of Jennifer Drake-Brockman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 483.

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