"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Culture of "Heresy"

It has been fashionable in academic circles for decades to sneer at the concept of heresy and to always put that term and its cognates in scare quotes, seeing heresy merely as some crude will-to-power over political enemies. When confronted with this, I always think of a 1932 essay by the great English writer Evelyn Waugh denouncing the fashion for refusing to condemn anything: "there are still things worth fighting against."

Equally fashionable, however, particularly in so-called traditionalist circles, is the condemnation of anyone and everyone as "heretical" who does not hew to your own sanctimonious ideology masquerading as theology, Church history, "holy Tradition," etc. These people are constantly cherry-picking what they like, ignoring what they don't, and turning everything into "confessional propaganda" (Taft) and "soteriological exclusivism" (Hryniewicz) with which to bludgeon everyone else.

And then there is the third group which I often find among my students, who know nothing about Dogmengeschichte and who therefore assume that doctrine and creeds are not terribly important, and certainly not worth fighting over (they are utterly baffled, and not a little disdainful, when reading about conflict at and after ecumenical councils, especially Chalcedon). Creeds, they assume, must merely have "fallen from heaven one year during Good Friday luncheon" (to use another Waugh line from his uproarious historical novel Helena).

All three groups err--the first by neglect, the second by excess, the third by ignorance. The first group ignores the very real danger, as Richard Weaver famously put it, that Ideas Have Consequences. To have erred in defining the nature of Christ or some other matter could potentially have been fatal to the whole Christian enterprise. But fatal for human relations, and certainly for Christian unity, is the impulse to damn people whose positions you scarcely understand, whom you tendentiously and self-righteously caricature and anathematize in hysterical-polemical modes that may prove, upon sober reconsideration, to have been grossly misleading. That, surely, is what many Eastern Christians have done with Chalcedon. We have spent hundreds of years condemning each other in our hymnody and hagiography when careful examination by competent scholars today has revealed that much of the split was based on linguistic misapprehension and misunderstanding, as Kenneth Yossa's indispensable book Common Heritage, Divided Communion: The Declines and Advances of Inter-Orthodox Relations from Chalcedon to Chambésy makes clear (as I noted here).

These thoughts were brought to mind in two ways: first in reading the newly translated  Icons and the Name of God by Sergius Bulgakov (whom some, of course, infamously rushed to condemn as heretic early in the 20th century). I'm giving a lecture next year with a colleague (a specialist in Western Renaissance religious art, especially in Italy) on iconoclasms East and West and thus was led to read Bulgakov, who carefully lays out the arguments of the iconoclasts and rightly notes that they were a lot more intellectually sophisticated and theologically compelling than we often give them credit for. The same can and has been said about the so-called Arians in the Nicene period, whose arguments, as Khaled Anatolios's splendid book makes clear, were far from the hoary stereotypes Byzantine hymnody conjures up--even if they were, indeed, still wrong. (To be clear: I do believe, in fact, that heresy exists, and needs to be condemned, but the nature of the condemnation must proceed very carefully and usually only after a long period of very careful and painstaking consideration once passions have cooled so that we do not end up boxing ourselves in with condemnations that we later realize were based not on what someone actually said but on what their enemies (or, worse, their so-called friends!) tendentiously and maliciously claimed they said. As Evagrius, Origen, Augustine, and Bulgakov, inter alia, can tell you, that's a sure-fire way to slander someone and in so doing, no glory is brought to the Truth Himself. Such "condemnations," moreover, are not the province of individual apologists or bloggers, but of the Church herself only through her conciliar organs. Such condemnations, finally, must always be presented graciously in merciful and medicinal terms with a view to bringing the wayward back, not to shunning them forever. Why people who gleefully engage in such shunning and shrill condemnations think theirs a productive strategy is a great mystery to me. Such antics only serve to poison relations, drive people in the opposite direction, and ensure that no reconciliation takes place. Surely 1600 years after Chalcedon, the breech still not completely healed, we realize that?)

I was, in the second instance, put in mind of these thoughts upon receipt of a new book published at the end of September: Andrew P. Roach and James R. Simpson, eds., Heresy and the Making of European Culture: Medieval and Modern Perspectives (Ashgate, 2013), 440pp.

About this book we are told:
Scholars and analysts seeking to illuminate the extraordinary creativity and innovation evident in European medieval cultures and their afterlives have thus far neglected the important role of religious heresy. The papers collected here - reflecting the disciplines of history, literature, theology, philosophy, economics and law - examine the intellectual and social investments characteristic of both deliberate religious dissent such as the Cathars of Languedoc, the Balkan Bogomils, the Hussites of Bohemia and those who knowingly or unknowingly bent or broke the rules, creating their own 'unofficial orthodoxies'. Attempts to understand, police and eradicate all these, through methods such as the Inquisition, required no less ingenuity. The ambivalent dynamic evident in the tensions between coercion and dissent is still recognisable and productive in the world today. 
We are given the table of contents and note that the first article is by one of Orthodoxy's leading theologians in the anglophone world and the rest of the volume does not ignore Orthodoxy either:
Introduction, Andrew P. Roach and James R. Simpson; Part I The Wheat and The Tares: The rebaptism of heretics in the Orthodox canonical tradition, Kallistos Ware; Heresy and political legitimacy in Al-Andalus, Maribel Fierro; The burning of heretical books, Alexander Murray; Lombard religiosities reconsidered: ‘Arianism’, syncretism and the transition to Catholic Christianity, Marilyn Dunn. Part II Inventing Heresies: Perceptions of heresy in historiographical and hagiographical sources of Aquitaine and the Loire Valley during the high Middle Ages, Julien Bellabre; The Bogomils’ folk heritage: false friend or neglected source?, Maja Angelovska-Panova and Andrew P. Roach. Part III Approaching Literary and Narrative Sources: Why God keeps sending his angels: domestic disturbance and Joseph’s doubts about Mary in Chester and York, Judith R. Anderson; Vernacular poetry and the spiritual Franciscans of the Languedoc: the poems of Ramon de Cornet, Catherine Léglu; Heretic Hussites: Oswald von Wolkenstein’s ‘Song of Hell’ (‘Durch Toren Weis’), Sieglinde Hartmann; Dogging Cornwall’s ‘secret freaks’: Béroul on the limits of European orthodoxy, James R. Simpson. Part IV Law and the Inquisition: ‘Heresy’ in Quercy in the 1240s: authorities and audiences, Claire Taylor; Heresy, orthodoxy and the interaction between canon and civil law in Theodore Balsamon’s commentaries, Peter Petkoff; Fighting clergy, church councils and the contexts of law: the cutting edge of orthodoxy or the ambiguous limits of legitimacy?, Daniel Gerrard; ‘Famosus est et satis publicum’: factionalism and the limits of doctrine in the case against Meister Eckhart, Alessandra Beccarisi; The Inquisition in medieval Bohemia: national and international contexts, Eva Doležalová; Clerical illegitimacy in the diocese of Sodor: exception or rule in the late medieval Church?, Sarah Thomas. Part V Heresy, Place and Community: Learning by doing: coping with Inquisitors in medieval Languedoc, James Given; Travels and studies of Stephen of Siwnik (c. 685-735): re-defining Armenian orthodoxy under Islamic rule, Igor Dorfmann-Lazarev; Catharism and heresy in Milan, Faye Taylor; Church reform and witch-hunting in the diocese of Lausanne: the example of Bishop George of Saluzzo, Georg Modestin. Part VI Distant Mirrors: Heresies, Orthodoxies and Modernities: Between medieval and modern beholding: Heidegger, Deleuze and the Duns Scotus affair, Philip Tonner; Heresy and its afterlives in Communist-era Poland, John M. Bates; Not just price: scholastic economic theology and fair trade, Robert I. Mochrie; Index.

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