Why Can The Dead Do Such Great Things? By Robert Bartlett: Book review

The jury is out on the cult of saints and martyrs in this magisterial work

The great thing about this magisterial work of scholarship is that it will supply evidence for both the prosecution and the defence of the cult of the saints in Catholic Christianity. It is written in a tone of such sympathetic neutrality that it is hard to figure out the author's own views on the subject; but as I read on I was reminded of the words of the Roman dramatist Terence, who said that since he was a man nothing human was alien to him – and whatever else may be said of the cult of the saints, it is human, all-too human.

Bartlett describes it as "the invocation of powerful invisible beings, human in form" – who happen to be dead. The title of his book comes from a question asked by Augustine of Hippo as he pondered the miracles wrought by the saints and martyrs of the early Church. The idea of living holy men and women with extraordinary powers derived from their closeness to God is common to many religions; what is distinctive about Christianity is that it took this idea beyond death and cherished what was left of the corpses of the saints as continuing sources of supernatural power – and it's the word supernatural that's the key to the issue here.

Since they emerged on Earth, humans have been wondering if they were alone in the universe or whether they came from another world to which they would return after death and with which, even now, they could have commerce. You can define the world's religions by the way they respond to these questions; and of them all, Catholicism is the most certain that there is indeed another world that interpenetrates and interfuses this one – and the best way to make contact with it is through the mediation of the holy dead. Their proven heroism gives the saints clout in the courts of heaven, so they are worth petitioning for favours.

What comes through Bartlett's encyclopaedic study of every aspect of this ancient phenomenon is a sympathetic understanding of the human need that prompted it: "…the cult of the saints met needs, in particular the need for the hope of a cure in a sick and suffering world." You can still see that need being expressed in Catholic churches throughout the world, where the poor and downtrodden get comfort from lighting candles and praying before the shrines of their favourite saints; and even if we think the whole set-up is a fraud on the gullible and needy, the generous-minded among us will acknowledge the comfort it brings to them.

At the Reformation, Protestant Europe threw this whole colourful and corruptible system overboard, claiming it was based on bad theology: Christians already had a mediator in heaven, Jesus Christ, so no others were needed. And so vehemently opposed were the Scottish reformers to the cult of the saints and the imagery that expressed it that hardly a trace of pre-reformation ecclesiastical art survived north of the border.

To experience the desolation that resulted, make a pilgrimage to St Andrews – where Bartlett is himself a professor – and stand amidst the bare ruined choirs of the ancient abbey and think about what was lost. It was here that John Knox preached against the cult of the saints, and we are told that "…the sermon was scarcely done when they fell to work to purge the kirk and break down the altars and images and all kinds of idolatry... before the sun was down there was never an inch standing but bare walls..." We saw that same brutal iconoclasm at work in 2001 when the Afghani Taliban destroyed the great statues of the Buddhas in Bamiyan, proving that Puritanism never dies, it just assumes new forms.

Well, I don't believe praying to the holy dead will help any of us solve our problems, but next time I am in church I will light a candle to Our Lady to show whose side I am on in the endless struggle against the spiritual fascists who arrogate to themselves the right to tell the rest of us what we should or should not believe.

Richard Holloway is the former Bishop of Edinburgh. His latest book, 'Leaving Alexandria', is published by Canongate