Just when you think E.P. Thompson, one of the major British historians of the last generation and a solid Marxist to boot, has written off religion (see my earlier discussion of Thompson and Methodism), he comes up with this beauty on justification by faith:
for much of the eighteenth century, the doctrine of justification by faith was – and was seen to be – the more ‘dangerous’ heresy [than the doctrine of works]. And this was because it could – although it need not – challenge very radically the authority of the ruling ideology and the cultural hegemony of Church, Schools, Law and even of ‘common-sense’ Morality. In its essence it was exactly that: anti-hegemonic. It displaced the authority of institutions and of received worldly wisdom with that of the individual’s inner light – faith, conscience, personal understanding of the scriptures or (for Blake) ‘the Poetic genius’ – and allowed to the individual a stubborn scepticism in the face of the established culture, a fortitude in the face of its seductions or persecutions sufficient to support Christian in the face of the State or of polite learning. This fortitude need not necessarily be accompanied by evangelistic zeal or affirmative social action; it might equally well be defensive, and protect the quietism of a private faith, or the introverted spiritual pride of a petty sect. But it could also nourish (and protect) a more active faith which rested upon a confidence in spiritual ‘freedom’, liberated from the ‘bondage’ of Morality and Legality.
The quotation comes from Thompson’s book on Blake, Witness Against the Beast, where Thompson comes a full circle to discover the political ambivalence of Christian theology, especially in terms of the revolutionary credentials of a very Reformed doctrine. From here it’s a short step to Thompson’s little known Infant and Emperor, his radical poems for Christmas.