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Jonathan Wright on Heretics, History & Historicism

A fascinating Amazon Q&A with Jonathan Wright, author of Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church.  As a former history grad student and professor I really appreciated this section*:

Q: Or perhaps we can be a little bolder and suggest that the process of enforcing orthodoxy was ill judged? Why was it necessary to stamp out alternatives? Couldn’t the different parties simply learn to get along?

A: I’m delighted you asked this question, because it leads me to one of the other lodestones of my book. I agree that it is very hard for us citizens of the twenty-first century to swallow the history of heresy. It can be a bitter pill, and we tend to grow annoyed at the persecution of all those people whose only crime was to think differently. The trouble is, this is a modern perspective. Today we have a firm commitment to notions like pluralism, human rights, and free enquiry. I can’t tell you how much I cherish such ideals, but I also realize that I’m a creature of my time. The stark fact is that such notions (at least as currently articulated) are inventions of the modern age. They did not exist in the fourth or the eleventh or the fifteenth century. Back then, the idea of an intellectual or religious free-for-all would have seemed absurd. We might not like this but we have to accept it, and ultimately, who are we to sit in judgement? To do so would involve an awful lot of arrogance: evolved us versus silly old them. As a historian whose job it is to treat the past on its own terms, this really won’t do. The other reason behind writing Heretics was a sense of frustration. The history of heresy is often thought of as a battle between heroes and villains: the plucky, freethinking heretics versus the nasty old Church. Heretics are recruited as forerunners of modern ethical and philosophical assumptions. This drives me mad. If you’d asked Arius, or a Cathar, or Martin Luther to support your modern beliefs in pluralism and cozy ecumenism, he would have looked at you as if you were insane.

Q: But surely this robs us of the opportunity to judge the past.

A: Absolutely! And long may such a disability reign supreme. Don’t get me wrong—if someone tried to jail a person for his beliefs today, I’d lead the charge to denounce such antics. I’m quite a fan of rights and liberties, but when it comes to being a historian, I simply have to bite my tongue. That’s one of the undercurrents of this book. I cheer neither for heresy nor for orthodoxy. I simply tell the stories and accept that the past was different. It is far more rewarding to explain that difference than to sit in Olympian judgment. Some might consider this as craven or wishy- washy. I prefer to think of it as striving, however feebly, for objectivity. That’s an impossible goal, of course, but it remains something for which we should strive. That’s the funny thing about the story of heresy: it raises incredibly important questions about how we write history. I’ve tried not to hammer the reader over the head (the book is intended as an instructive entertainment), but I hope I’ve done enough to provoke some musing.

Q:Moving on, you mentioned the fact that you saw the Christian muddle as wonderful. Is this a reflection of your own beliefs?

A: I want to make it clear that I hope the reader is unable to discern my affiliations or lack thereof from these pages. That would be a triumph. I know it’s fashionable to nail one’s colors to the mast when writing trade books about Christianity. For me, this is a lamentable trend—something of a pollutant, in fact. It really shouldn’t matter. Since you’ve asked, however, I would probably define myself as an agnostic who respects sensible theists and atheists. More than that, I cherish them and would love to possess their certainty. I was not granted this gift, however, which makes my chosen profession (writing, reading, and reviewing books about Christian history) rather curious. Though no one ever complains that the historian of the medieval fabric trade does not own a loom! I realize, of course, that my book does not exist in a vacuum. I’m all too aware of the absurd God Debate that gobbles up so many column inches these days. It drives me to distraction. First because it is usually more of a cultural cat fight than a serious debate, and second because the antagonists (on both sides of the aisle) seem to think they are saying something new. I’ll admit that I had a gentle polemical purpose in writing this book. Instead of making glib, crowd-pleasing statements about a two-thousand- year-old tradition (either pro or con), it might be better to admit to the complexity and step down from the pulpit. Dawkins, Hitchens, and their more bullish theistic rivals are addicted to simplification, historical and theological illiteracy, and drum-banging. I don’t suppose for a moment that a modest history book will calm the hysteria, but it might be a good place to start.

 

Very refreshing from my perspective. I added the book to my wish list.

 

*Yes, I realize this isn’t really historicism but the three H’s worked, OK?

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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