Heresy: Systems of Control

We’ve looked at various ways of defining heresy here, here, and here; and we looked at orthodoxy and heresy in terms of conformity and non-conformity over here.  In this post, I want to look at the issue in a more sociological context.

The tendency in writing about heresy–definitely in traditional histories of Christianity, where orthodoxy is the Good Guy trying to fight off the heretical Bad Guys that keep popping up, but also in a lot of revisionist narratives, too–is to make it about the intellect, on the one hand, or Good vs. Evil, on the other.

The first mode is sort of theology as mathematics.  That is, the emphasis is on minute analysis of data (in this case, Scripture, Tradition, statements by Councils, and so on), discussion, and debate, all geared towards discovering what the real teaching of the Church actually is.  In other words, it’s a lot like trying to prove whether or not Fermat’s Last Theorem is correct or not–it might take a lot of work, but it can be done with enough intellectual elbow grease.  This point of view is especially appealing to the Scholastic and Thomist temperament; but unfortunately, it’s a really bad model of what’s going on.

First of all, mathematical postulates and axioms are clear in a way that theological propositions are not.  For example, anyone who knows what “two”, “four”, “plus”, and “equals” mean, inevitably knows–not just understands, or believes, but clearly and unambiguously knows–that two plus two equals four.  If one understands what “prime number” means, it is self-evident that 26 is not a prime number.  On the other hand, propositions such as “God exists”, “humans have souls”, “the Bible is the Word of God”, and so on, are not at all self-evident.

For some, though, they’re too self-evident.  A passionately devoted Christian and Muslim would see it as self-evident that the Bible and Qur’ān (Koran), respectively, are the true and final Word of God.  The problem is that this is contradictory.  True believers are absolutely sure that lots of things are self-evident; but these things are incompatible and contradictory.  By contrast, no school of math exists that holds two plus two to equal five!  Thus, with all due respect to believers (and I am one myself), one can’t do theology the way one does math or science.

Another issue is difference of method.  The Eastern Orthodox Church uses a very different method of doing theology than either the Catholic or various Protestant churches; and because of this, even when they start from common premises, they often reach very different results.  Once more, this doesn’t happen in math.  I always tell my math students that many problems can be worked in several different ways.  For example, a quadratic equation might be solved by inspection, by grouping, by completing the square, or by using the quadratic formula.  However, as I always note, no matter how you work it, you should always get the same answer!  That difference of method in theology yields difference of result shows, once more, that it doesn’t work like math, despite the belief of some that it should.

Finally, religion engages people in deep ways that math (for non-mathematicians, at least) doesn’t.  Whether the Bible or the Koran is the Word of God is a deeper and more practical question for a believer than whether or not Fermat’s Last Theorem can be proved, or whether the Continuum Hypothesis is correct.

The second way of viewing orthodoxy and heresy, mentioned above, is Good vs. Evil.  This isn’t much better than the mathematical model.  The obvious problem is that this is in the eye of the beholder–if you have Irenaeus and a Gnostic, each will have different opinions as to who is the Good Guy and who is the Bad Guy.  If it remained at an abstract level–“You’re on the wrong side, but I’ll leave you be and we’ll agree to disagree”–that would be OK.  Of course, when it comes to good and evil, “agreeing to disagree” doesn’t usually work.  If I honestly, truly, and sincerely believe that your doctrine is morally wrong–that it will result in the destruction of society, the loss of souls, or both–then it’s really hard to have a “live and let live” attitude.  The history of crusades and jihads is a bloody witness to this.

I think the best way to look at things is sociologically.  Believers often dislike this, because they assert that this method reduces religion to a merely human phenomenon.  However, barring a mathematical sort of religion that can prove itself true–and as I’ve asserted, no such religion, including my own, exists–we have to say that religion is a human phenomenon (the part of it we can see, anyway), and that even the One True Faith (whatever one holds that to be) is going to be manifested in sociological ways.

If one looks at hunter-gatherer and simple agrarian societies, there isn’t much of a concept of “orthodoxy” and thus none of “heresy”.  The people may have beliefs, and may be relatively consistent about them, and may take them seriously.  However, there will be many things on which people will differ, and there will be a rather pragmatic attitude.  If the medicine man can cure your child, then it doesn’t really matter that much if he actually projected his spirit to the Realm of the Spirits and found the cure from the Elk Spirit.  If it works, it works, end of story.  When a society begins to be urbanized, things change, though.

There is research indicating that the largest number of people with whom one can have relationships–friend, foe, superior, inferior–is about one hundred fifty.  The exact number is debated, but the point is the same.  As a society becomes increasingly larger, it goes beyond the biological capacity of the human mind to keep track of all the necessary modes of interaction with others in its society.  In a small town–or tribe–we say that “everybody knows everybody”.  Because of this, social controls are informal.  We all know that Bob Smith has a bad temper, and someone will call him on it if it gets too bad.  We all go to the Fourth of July picnic.  We all know what to expect from each other.  In a large city, though, we know only a small number of people.  Most are strangers to us and we don’t know how to interact with them.  Thus, with the increase in the size of the social unit, personal relationships and informality give way to formal institutions and impersonal rules.

For this to work, there need to be formal rules that are enforced impartially.  In a small town, it’s enough that “everyone knows” that you don’t graze your cattle on the village common.  Anyone who did so would be ostracized, along with his family, and would soon quit the undesirable behavior.  In a large, formalized society, the man who breaks the rules is fined by the police, or taken to court.  This is where the concept of “nothing personal” come into existence.  In John Mellencamp’s song “Rain on the Scarecrow”, there are these lyrics describing a foreclosed farm:  “Called my old friend Schepman up to auction off the land/He said John it’s just my job and I hope you understand/Hey calling it your job ol’ hoss sure don’t make it right/But if you want me to I’ll say a prayer for your soul tonight.”  We all end up in a situation in which we have to do things “because it’s my job” and we “hope you’ll understand”.  If anyone protests, we point out that if everyone gave breaks because of personal ties, society would break down.  Unfortunately, this is true.  This is what’s at the heart of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents–the idea that in order to function, civilization forces us to make compromises with what we’d rather do, in terms of our personal preferences and our personal relationships.

Religion is no different.  Religion is a strong force in motivating human behavior.  Thus, it can be a powerful motivator of unity and a strong enforcer of conformity.  It is no coincidence that as the Stone Age moves into the Bronze Age and large-scale urbanized societies first come into existence that in most such societies the king is seen as a god or the representative of the gods.  The chief of a small tribe is no different from me–maybe I played with him as a kid.  If he tells me to do something stupid, I’ll tell him so to his face and go about my business.  However, if I’m an Egyptian and the Pharaoh is a god, someone I see (if ever) only at a distance on great festivals, surrounded by guards, everything is different.  I might not like the order to join the corvée to build the latest pyramid or temple; but even if I could get an audience to tell the Pharaoh to his face that it’s a stupid idea, I would obviously be very hesitant to do so.  You don’t dis a god to his face!

Thus, in most urbanized societies, religion serves as one among many methods of control.  Military might can go only so far, and is expensive.  If everyone can be brought together under a common religious ideology, it’s much easier to keep everyone in line with much less use  of outright force.  Now I need to be clear at this point.  I’m not saying that religion is just the “opiate of the masses” or a scam used to manipulate the masses by the elite.  Abusus non tollit usum–“The abuse [of something] doesn’t destroy its [legitimate] use.”  That religion has been used as a means of control is undeniable.  It is–or should be–equally undeniable that this abuse has no implications for the truth or validity of religion as such.  Heck, even atheism has been abused–look at Stalinism.  Thus, I’m not rejecting religion by pointing out the problems it has caused and the abuses of it that have occurred through the ages.

This brings us back to heresy.  For a state religion to work as a means of national unity and social control, there needs to be a certain uniformity.  If I don’t believe the Pharaoh to be a god, I’m going to be difficult to control.  Thus, there needs to be a certain agreement–an orthodoxy, if you will.  In polytheist societies, this uniformity is relatively minimal.  As long as you believe that Pharaoh is divine, or venerate the Roman Emperor’s genius, or worship the Greek pantheon, your exact beliefs about Ra or Horus or Minerva or Zeus aren’t relevant.  However, even such a loose “orthodoxy” as this is enforced with draconian means if it is breached:  consider the execution of Socrates for introducing “strange gods”, or the execution of Christians for refusing to burn incense to the Emperor’s genius.  The lines were broad, but you’d better not step outside them.

In the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, these lines were narrowed.  In polytheistic religions, belief is generally separate from rites of worship and from morality.  As long as you acknowledge the Emperor or the Pharaoh, it doesn’t really matter whom you worship or what rites you follow or what your personal morality is, as long as you’re not hurting anyone. These factors–sometimes referred to as the “3 C’s” of Creed, Cult, and Conduct–were united in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Since God is one, He is the source of moral norms, and the only recipient of worship.  Therefore non-standard worship, membership in non-approved religions, or aberrant moral behavior were considered to be as much a breach of orthodoxy as wrong belief.  In short, unlike in the polytheistic religions, in the monotheistic religions, orthodoxy came to encompass almost every area of life.

This is where the sociological account of heresy comes in.  In a society in which religious beliefs permeate all aspects of life and in which adherence to a standard of orthodoxy is expected, political or social nonconformism will tend to be manifested as heresy; and opposition to this nonconformism will be expressed as crusading for orthodox belief. An excellent example of this is the Cathar or Albigensian heresy of the 12th to 14th Centuries.

The Cathars were a dualist sect of obscure origin that grew to encompass a large percent (in some areas, a majority) of the population of southern France (the region known as Languedoc) and parts of northern Italy.  In brief, they believed, in much the fashion of the Gnostics of earlier times, that the true God was purely spirit, the material world having been created by a lesser, evil entity, whom they usually identified with the Devil.  People would be reincarnated again and again until they could renounce the material world, thereby breaking their imprisonment in the material world and returning to God after death.  The majority lacked the strength to do this in their current life.  The minority–known as Perfecti (“the perfected ones”) or as Bonhommes (“good men”)–lived a life of rigorous asceticism, renouncing marriage, dressing simply in black, eating no meat, and wandering to spread the faith and support the ordinary believers.

Obviously, there are many beliefs here at variance with orthodox Catholic belief.  However, most people would have lacked a sophisticated understanding of theology, so we must look to other factors in the Cathars’ success.  At this point, feudal society had hardened into place in the centuries since the fall of Rome, and everyone–peasant, cleric, and noble–lived in a highly circumscribed role to which he was bound for life.  Even as trade increased prosperity and some common people became wealthy, everyone was restricted to the class of his birth, for the most part.  Meanwhile, the monastics and clergy–the very people who should have been examples of humility and piety–became decadent and worldly, with abbots and bishops eating rich food, living in plush quarters, and having elaborate entourages when they traveled.  The people began to chafe under such unjust conditions.

By contrast, the Cathars rejected wealth and worldly pomp.  The Perfecti, who were the quasi-clerical caste, could come from any level of society–all a believer had to do was accept the rigorous lifestyle and hold to it.  Even many orthodox writers, while opposing the Cathars, admitted that their leaders lived a life of far greater asceticism and piety than the orthodox clergy, who were put to shame by them.  The Cathari were much more egalitarian than Medieval society at large.  The Perfecti had very little hierarchy, showing by example their faith and commanding the respect of the laity by example, as opposed to the Catholic clergy who enforced obedience by their intertwining with civil authority, while living lives far removed from those of the commoners.  The lay Cathars had much fewer restrictions than the Perfecti, their hope being rebirth into a later life in which they could make the renunciations expected of the Perfecti.  Meanwhile, they were banned from taking oaths on the grounds that their allegiance was to God, not to humans.

It is clear that there is a strong anti-feudal agenda  in Cathar beliefs.  The exclusive religious authority of a clerical caste that didn’t play by the rules it enforced on others is rejected, as were the bonds at the base of feudal society.  Feudal society depended on clear demarcations of class and on the oaths that bound serf to liege.  Both these were roundly rejected by the Cathars.  This was rightly seen as a rejection of the whole system; and naturally, those who benefited from the system–the lords and the institutional Church–rapidly developed a burning hatred of the heresy which they correctly perceived as striking at the very root of their authority.  The fury of the tragic Albigensian Crusade is thus hardly surprising.  Through all of this, the politics is understood in religious terms–the Cathars are condemned explicitly for their beliefs, with the societal implications remaining a usually unspoken subtext.

As with the Cathars, so more generally.  The passions aroused and the measures taken in disputes over orthodox and heretical religious beliefs usually have ties to societal and political issues.  A modern example is the ongoing controversy over so-called Intelligent Design (ID).  The advocates of ID argue that they ought to be allowed to present their views in public schools and that the teaching of evolution deprives them of the right to their side of the story.  In actuality, it has been documented that Intelligent Design is part of a strategy, outlined in the Wedge Document, to use anti-evolution teaching as the first phase of a strategy to bring the US back to being a “Christian nation”–that is, to implement conservative Evangelical values and viewpoints as the dominant worldview, and to erode separation of Church and State.  Once more, the religious is a cloak for the political, and is viewed as a means of control.

Now I have no doubt that the Cathari were absolutely sincere in their beliefs.  I also do not doubt that the promoters of the Wedge Strategy, much as I oppose them, are totally sincere in their religious beliefs and really, truly think their agenda to be good for the country.  Sincerity of belief can co-exist with political and societal agendas–while there are always cynical opportunists, it is the true believers that are the most dangerous.  The point is that when religious controversy rears its head, we have to look for the underlying factors.

As a firm believer in religious freedom, I strongly oppose suppression of religious beliefs of any kind, even those with which I disagree.  At the same time, I think it sometimes necessary, while supporting diversity of belief, to oppose the political dimension.  I completely support the right of those who reject evolution on religious grounds to continue to hold their beliefs, incorrect as they may be.  When they try to implement those beliefs over everyone else by attempting to control public education, I vehemently oppose such attempts.  It’s a delicate and difficult balance–don’t persecute or oppress; certainly don’t have crusades; but keep the arena as free from the imposition of any particular doctrine over others as far as possible.  It’s a hard balance to achieve, but it’s also the glory of a pluralistic society.

Posted on 19/08/2014, in Catholicism, Gnosticism, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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