You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

In middle age, after a youth of unreflective atheism, I began to have a serious interest in the role of religion in human affairs, and in the doctrine and philosophy of the great religions. I determined to educate myself, with a particular focus on the history and teachings of Christianity and Islam. I’m still an unbeliever, but my fascination with this topic continues to grow, and my view of the importance of religion is very different now.

In my early life I had two tremendous resources, right at home, that I would give almost anything to be able to draw upon now. Sadly, they are both gone.

When my parents moved to Princeton in 1956, two years after emigrating to Canada from the U.K., they became very close friends with two families, the Montgomerys and the Davies. Throughout my childhood, they were my extended family, particularly since we had no relatives living in America.

The partiarch of the Montgomery clan was Robert P. Montgomery, a tall and distinguished-looking man who was Princeton’s most prominent Presbyterian. He had done graduate studies at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate from the seminary at Princeton; he went on to become the chaplain of Princeton University. He also joined the department of philosophy at John Jay College in New York, and was for many years the department chair. To me, however, he was just “Uncle Bob”. He died, too young — he was only 68 or so — in 1987.

I’ll confess that it was not until just recently that I realized the depth of the other great resource I managed so completely to ignore. This was “Uncle Horton” Davies, a soft-spoken, balding Englishman with a kind and serious face. I knew that he taught at Princeton, but what I didn’t know was that Uncle Horton was in fact one of the greatest living scholars of the history of Christianity. He died in 2005. You can read the obituary of this truly remarkable man here.

What I might have learned from these men!


  1. I notice your omission of focus on the first of the three Abrahamic religions. I think your general interest would benefit greatly from Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews. I recommend it highly.

    “Johnson’s 600-page history is probably the best we’ve got by a living gentile–which is no small accomplishment at all. — Michael Joseph Gross”

    Posted October 14, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  2. Wy, hay-yul, Malcolm. Yuh still got me tuh ask if yuh got yuh some of thim-thar questions!

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted October 14, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Only a partial omission, Henry: one cannot study the history of Christianity without studying the history of the Jews.

    One of the best books I’ve read has been Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch. The title makes clear that Christianity must be understood as an outgrowth of Jewish history.

    That said, it’s true that my focus regarding events since the time of Christ has been more on Islam and Christianity than Judaism, and I have certainly spent much more time understanding their doctrine and philosophy than that of the Jews. It’s because my own cultural embedding is Christian, and because so much of my interest has been on the struggle between East and West — which has been, since the seventh century, much more of a conflict between Christendom and the Ummah than anything else.

    Posted October 14, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Jeffery! Careful what you wish for…

    Posted October 14, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  5. I specifically mentioned Paul Johnson’s book beause his own cultural embedding is Christian (not sure if you noticed my own emphasis in the comment).

    Posted October 14, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Rhys says

    For some ‘light’ scholarly reading on the rise of Islam, Chapter 50 in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is very entertaining.

    Here’s just a fragment from what Gibbon has to say about how the Koran was written:

    The word of God, and of the apostle, was diligently recorded by his disciples on palm-leaves and the shoulder-bones of mutton; and the pages, without order or connection, were cast into a domestic chest, in the custody of one of his wives.

    Posted October 15, 2014 at 2:02 am | Permalink
  7. Mike in Boston says

    > the struggle between East and West… has been, since the seventh century, … a conflict between Christendom and the Ummah

    If you are ever in the mood for primary sources, let me suggest Saint John of Damascus. He was a Christian and yet a high official in the court of an eighth-century caliph. His critiques of Islam have the advantage that they were written within a century or so of Mohammed’s death, and can get closer to its origins.

    Moreover reading an Eastern Father can help inoculate the reader against the tendency to think of the Church as coterminous with the “West”: there are differences between Christianity and Islam, and between East and West– but the two sets of differences are not the same.

    Perhaps best of all, after your study of St. John you may feel justified in cruising up to Route 128 to reward yourself with a glass of raki and some good homemade baklava at his bazaar. :)

    Posted October 16, 2014 at 1:16 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says


    Henry, I have got myself a copy of Johnson’s book, and I look forward to reading it. (The stack is deep right now, but it’s been added.)

    Mike, I am always in the mood for primary sources. I know of St John, of course, but have never read him. Thanks for noodging me in his direction.

    Posted October 17, 2014 at 12:06 am | Permalink

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