April 27, 2011

Review: Jonathan Wright: "Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church"

Title: Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church
Author: Jonathan Wright
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Genre: Christian History
Year: 2011
Pages: 352
ISBN13: 9780151013876
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $28.00

Jonathan Wright believes the majority of modern folks in the western world are less likely than ever to believe "religious heresy" exists as something worthy of pursuing. Belief in heresy, he says, is today's heresy; a theological no-no in a pluralistic society. Without lamenting the lack of literal witch hunts, Wright fears we might forget "the creative role that heresy has played" in the history of Christianity. "Oddly, heresy was one of the best things that ever happened to orthodox Christianity" (8). To keep the (metaphorical) flame of heresy alive, Wright "utilize[s] the history of heresy as an extraordinary prism. It shows us what happens when a fledgling, persecuted faith turns into a politically sanctioned, world-girdling religion; it takes us deep inside the engine rooms of Christian power; and, above all else, it reveals just how fascinating, supple, and boisterous Christianity has been" (12).

Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church is a "primer" on the subject of religious-dynamism-through-heresy. Wright has a doctorate in history from Oxford University but wrote this book for a popular audience. Here he forgoes meticulous source-grinding in favor of an entertaining, sweeping narrative containing stories of various heretics and their followers from the time of the early Christian Church up until (approximately) Vatican II in the 1960s.

At the same time Wright hopes to dispatch some popular (though historically useful) myths. Above all he counters those who "construct a narrative of heresy populated by heroes and villains: the nasty, ingenuity-smiting church versus the plucky, freethinking heretics" (9). A closer look at the records, he says, cautions us against this simple vision of brave freethinkers who stood courageously against tyrannical ecclesiastical authorities. It prevents us from passing "Olympian judgments" on the past (296). By showing the historical situatedness of various heresies we might be more cautious with our own accusations.

Beginning with the growth of Gnosticism in the early Church the book follows various individuals and movements deemed heretical by the emerging consensus of Christian authority.

Early Heretics:
Wright bypasses the eminently contestable origins of the Christian movement and begins his tale of heresy in the time of Ignatius, who was martyred about 107 C.E. Ignatius's letters to the disparate Christian communities shortly before his martyrdom consistently call for unity amongst believers, "that you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same concerning the same thing...Use Christian nourishment only, and abstain from herbage of a different ind: I mean heresy" (15). But the idea that one unified Christianity arose with a single, self-evident Xtian message is a distortion. "The period of the early Church was actually one of the most befuddled and contested in Christianity's history" (17). Two "heretical" groups, the Gnostics and Marcionites, call into question the smooth unity.

Marcion posited an evil creator god who created the fallen world and a good god who sought to save it (23). This was similar to the varying views of so-called Gnostics, a group which Wright qualifies as non-distinct  (29). The views they promulgated and the responses they received demonstrate the power of imagination and syncretism in constructing or defining heresy. Wright sees heresy in this context as more a convenient construct since believers were still working through beliefs.

As is common throughout the book, Wright follows these and other stories with a historiological meta-discussion of sorts, discussing how various historians have viewed these developments. Different views emerged, from the "imposition" of orthodoxy by the emerging Church, to the view that a "nascent orthodoxy" emerged as truth kept winning out over error over time (45). 

Church and State:
This story became more complicated once Christianity merged with Rome under Constantine and heresy took on a whole new potency: it became a political as well as religious crime (49). Laws were being constructed, such as the Theodosian Code, whereby heretics might be beaten, fined, or judged insane (56). Unsolved mysteries, like the identity of Christ (human or divine?) were hashed out in councils where compromises were reached and outliers were labeled as heretics. A "political mechanism for responding to heresy, for imposing religious conformity" was developed, and this was "bad news for heresy" (67).

Several questions emerge which Wright hears echoing down the years of Christian history. 

First, was it right to coerce faith? In the wake of complaints by Donatists who did not appreciate the church/state merger and objected to the use of force to compel orthodoxy, Augustine responded that the rules and enforcement were proper because "The rules which seemed to be opposed to them are in reality their truest friends" (75). Wright fails to hone in on the debate between proper belief and proper action (doxy/praxis) but he points to the question that bothered many of the faithful: What of the good heretic? "God intentionally allowed such men to lapse into heresy in order to test the resolve of the faithful" (79). 

The second recurring theme is the way believers hedged about the blind spots: beware the weaknesses of human understanding versus the incomprehensible majesty of God. Pride would be the sin of the heretic. 

The third thorny issue became even more vital when it was tied to state power and social cohesion: what beliefs make one a Christian? (5) "There were those who sought to limit the number of essential Christian doctrines and practices," and Wright even reminds us of the handy term for this move: adiaphora (10). 

Throughout these tumultuous times Wright sees heretics as crucial to Christianity. Heretics "proposed alternative ideas about the nature of God, Christ, mankind, and the church. The articulation of such alternatives was what made heresy seem so dangerous" but it "compelled the leaders of the earliest Christianity to clarify and enforce their vision...Christianity needed its heretics every bit as much as it needed its saints and martyrs" (80). He also reminds readers that oftentimes the ecclesiastical establishment would rather reclaim the heretic than lose them: "From the perspective of the ecclesiastical establishment, to kill a heretic was to fail" (2). 

The Balance:
Wright follows this pattern through the rest of the book, introducing readers to colorful heretics from medieval times through the emergence of Protestantism, to Enlightenment philosophy and the emergence of the idea that humans have an individual right to believe what they believe (which he sees as the result of long-standing pragmatism as opposed to emerging as a virtue in and of itself). Oftentimes the heretics would turn the same charges on others just as happily (as is the case with Luther and Calvin). He also underscores the idea that being labeled orthodox or heterodox sometimes depended on the historical circumstances and chance, as when Francis of Assisi received ecclesiastical approval for ideas very similar to his near-contemporary Peter Waldo, consigned to the category of heretic (294). 

Wright also points out the constructive, if inaccurate, use believers have made of history, especially during the so-called Reformation when Protestant thinkers pointed to heretics of bygone ages as the keepers of the true Christian flame, their birthright as opposed to the fallen official Church. In the face of such self-supporting histories along comes Wright, who invokes that hated opponent of ideological history warriors: nuance. That same tool is used in discussing our great Pilgrim forefathers who sought, not universal religious freedom, but their own freedom of religion even to exclude heretics. John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, Jefferson, Madison, Quakers, and Baptists, Mormons and Catholics, Emerson and Thomas Parker, Catholic modernists and Vatican II all play a part in the concluding narrative of "American Heresy" and "The Polite Centuries" in Wright's concluding chapters. In these latter years heresy still exists, but now it warrants "harsh words, the arched eyebrow aimed at a theological adversary, perhaps the loss of academic tenure" (289).  Largely gone in many parts of the world are the mass book-burnings and capital punishments. Eventually, what Wright calls "ecumenicism of everyday relations," helped prompt more rigorous philosophical defenses of toleration (225). 

Modern Times:
Today we're more ready to remember the "cruelties and crusades" depicting the worst excesses of religion in the face of heresy Wright notes, but we ought not forget the "cathedrals and cantatas" produced by heresy as well (294). While other better narratives on individual heretics may be available compared to his book, Wright indicates the motive behind his construction: "The history of Christian heresy should make us think long and hard about how human beings construct their belief systems and how they react to those with whom they disagree. It should make us interrogate our ways of analyzing that process. It should be a battlefield and no one should emerge unscathed, and that includes me" (295, emphasis Wright's). The excess, he notes, is not the whole story. "Confronting the past on its own terms is much more difficult, but a little humility goes a long way" (296).

Thus, because heresy is dynamic and can ultimately be constructive, Wright concludes the book with a call to embrace its existence: "We should have a few heretics and purveyors of orthodoxy in our lives, and we should relish the possibility of being a heretical or orthodox thorn in someone else's side...in the places that really matter" (302). "So yes, please, send in the heretics. Don't bother. They're here" (302). In this brave call I think Wright overlooks some of the real heartache felt by some of today's perceived heretics, as when a family breaks apart or a friend is lost. He also overlooks still-existent extremism that results in real violence in the world (although his story demonstrates how heresy and social/political considerations often go hand in hand—a welcome but unexplicated corrective to those who don't understand why a derogatory cartoon can spark violence). Wright calls for further comparative studies looking at Islam, Judaism, and an even deeper look at various Christianities (293). I would add that another study could explore how "heresy" has shifted to the university, workplace, and even the political sphere. His limited use of Mormonism—to juxtapose the American ideals of religious liberty with the reality of on-the-ground persecutions—shows the sometimes-problematic nature of such a sweeping, popular overview. After describing the Missouri extermination order he ends on an unfootnoted ominous phrase: "more tragic still, the Mormons themselves proved more than capable of inflicting violent outrages on their opponents" (275).  

Above all, Wright's book of poignant tales, rafts of caveats, and confusing and difficult theological disagreements is a polemic against quiet conformity and authoritarian squashing. "What we should avoid [in thinking of heresy] is any concept of an ethically nourishing, millennia-long moral conflict in which individual freedom was pitted against authoritarian repression. The terms of such a narrative (and the outrage it provokes) are our own. If we adopt it, we run the risk of promoting an unhelpfully triumphalist perspective in which our moral assumptions (every bit as contingent and historically determined as those of our forebears) are mistaken for superior inevitabilities: stupid old them, we might say, and wonderfully evolved new us. This really won't do" (11-12).

If you're looking for an easy story of heroes and villains or good versus evil, you won't find it in Wright's book. You might find a little bit of both in yourself as you read, though. That's what really makes this book worth reading.


WVS said...

Thanks, Blair. The missing footnote on p. 275 was to Krakauer (hehe).

BHodges said...

hehe, yup!

(His bibliography refers to Bushman's JS & Beginnings, incidentally, though. The footnotes on the Missouri persecutions are to Bushman, also to Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, Van Wagenen, The Texas Republic and the Mormon Kingdom of God and Johnson, Mormon Redress Petitions from the BYU Relig. Studies Center.)

Komal Pari said...

Get the latest inforamtioan about RRB Result
and RRBResult2016 at our site.

Mushtaq ahmed said...

activate axis bank mobile banking
activate andhra bank mobile baking
activate canara bank mobile banking
activate corporation bank mobile banking
activate syndicate bank mobile banking
activate central bank mobile banking
activate dena bank mobile banking
activate union bank mobile banking
activate yes bank mobile banking
activate uco bank mobile banking
activate obc mobile banking
activate vijaya bank mobile banking
activate idbi mobile banking
activate citi bank mobile banking
activate kotak mobile banking
hdfc net banking
icici net banking
axis net banking
andhra net banking
canara net banking
corporation net banking
syndicate net banking
central bank net banking
dena bank net banking
union bank net banking
yes bank net banking
uco bank net banking
obc net banking
vijaya bank net banking
idbi bank net banking
citi bank net banking
bob net banking
kotak net banking

Mushtaq ahmed said...

change email id hdfc net banking

Mushtaq ahmed said...

reset bob net banking password

Post a Comment

All views are welcome when shared respectfully. Use a name or consistent pseudonym rather than "anonymous." Deletions of inflammatory posts will be noted. Thanks for joining the conversation.