Posts Tagged ‘heresy’

Richard Fletcher: The Cross and the Crescent

December 16, 2020

     This is a short, well-written and very readable account of the interactions between Christianity and Islam in their early days. Various pieces of a complex jigsaw are laid out clearly, and contrasts, connections and overlaps between the two faiths and their world-views explained lucidly.

There were a number of reasons why Islam tolerated both Judaism and Christianity in the lands it rapidly overran in the seventh and eighth centuries: partly the injunctions in the Qur’an about respecting the other ‘peoples of the book’ and partly Muslims were often in the minority, and needed the remnants of the old Roman Empire to continue functioning, which meant using its learned men and its bureaucrats.

What had never occurred to me was that the only possible framework within which Christianity could explain and view Islam was that of heresy: there were plenty of heresies that the orthodox church was trying to suppress in those days, and the such an idea was reinforced by the evident overlaps between the Christian and Muslim holy writings. Certainly there was no concept at all of a ‘new religion’. Equally, there was a tendency among in Islam to ignore Christianity, given the belief that Muhammad was the last of the prophets, with the final and perfected message from God, which necessarily superseded that of the Old Testament and Jesus… Christianity was passé, if you like.

Nor did the Christian lands seem to have very much to offer the Islamic world and its rulers; society in Christian lands was backward, primitive, agrarian. Although they were not very interested in each other as belief systems, there was much interest in the spread and sharing of knowledge, and eventually in trade. The gradual diffusion of the learning of the ancients was a lengthy process involving translations through multiple languages. Here was the greatest and most fruitful area of co-operation: curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge knows no boundaries. Yet, once the Christian West had gained the knowledge it wanted from its Eastern rivals, the two worlds gradually drifted apart, and Islam became more aloof and self-isolating.

And while Christians threw themselves with great energy and violence into Crusades to recapture the holy places from the ‘infidels’, the Muslim world was largely indifferent to what were merely pinpricks, and was far more concerned with serious dynastic rivalries and other more weighty issues. On the other hand, the Crusaders were having their eyes opened to a much wider world than the one they had known…

So Fletcher offers us a good number of refreshing new perspectives, which certainly helped me deepen my understanding of what went on in that era, from the seventh century to the Renaissance. He also explores, as far as the available evidence allows – and recognises where it is lacking or incomplete – how the Christian world eventually came to gain the edge over the Islamic world. He is clear that it was a complex spread of factors involving trade, Mongol invasions, dynastic rivalries in the Muslim nations and others… and others have also highlighted that the rapid adoption of printing technology in the West but not in the East, had much to do with this.

In Fletcher’s judgement, through the Middle Ages there was a persistent failure by both sides to try and understand each other – and I feel he is more than hinting at a message for contemporary readers here – which he recognises was probably inevitable. Certainly the rise of the West took the Islamic world by surprise, and it has probably never recovered from this. Here is a really interesting and useful read.

James Blish: A Case of Conscience

July 15, 2017

51pvowfQhAL._AC_US218_ (1)Occasionally a senior moment – or too many books – leads me to buy a book I already have in my library. Something recently prompted me to read this, so it duly went onto my list of books to look for. But a nagging thought sent me to my database, and, lo and behold, I already had a copy, last read over thirty years ago…

It’s an interesting novel from almost sixty years ago. Contact has been made, and humans have visited, intelligent life on another planet. As always, the scientific details of how FTL flight works have to be vaguely explained, the reader has to be blinded with science; what our world is like in the year 2049 has to be guessed at, and the longer that elapses since the novel was written, the more outlandish it seems: humans still recording messages and data on tape?

The moral dilemma at the centre of the novel is faced by a Jesuit priest, who is a biologist and one of the first four humans to visit the planet Lithia with a remit from the UN to recommend what the nature of human interaction with the inhabitants should be. Unfortunately, the technologically advanced Lithians are incapable of anti-social acts and behaviour; they are good because it is logical and natural to them to behave thus. And they have no religion or concept of God. From our Jesuit’s perspective therefore, they must be a creation of the evil one (because it removes the necessity of God from the picture) – Satan – to test the human race; by making such a judgement he falls into the Manichaean heresy, allowing creative power to the forces of evil, and must face the consequences of this. His recommendation, that the planet be quarantined forever from contact with humans, seems logical to us nowadays, but he is out-manoeuvred by those who would exploit its resources, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

All sorts of complex issues are raised in this novel, including that of whether the hero’s moral judgements are inevitably flawed because limited by his own earthly perspective. Sadly, I feel Blish loses focus in the later parts of the novel, where a Lithian is raised on Earth and causes chaos and mayhem through the contradictions between his Lithian heritage and its interaction with flawed (fallen?) humanity: it’s harder to see what the writer intends us to focus on, unless it is the complexity of any interaction with an alien species. Where are the possible points of contact and understanding? For me, the theological strand was the only really interesting one, the moral, cultural and social questions being rather more run-of-the-mill.

Well worth a read: I’m not aware of much good quality, thought-provoking SF from the fifties, but this one certainly woke me up.

G R Evans: A Brief History of Heresy

August 20, 2015

9780631235262I found this a very useful little book, of the kind I’ve been looking for for ages; it pulled a lot of disparate details into place in my understanding and offered a clear taxonomy of heresies. I’m interested in the way various belief systems have developed and evolved, and the way changes to a system can either be accepted and authorised, or regarded as evils to be extirpated. Such approaches are visible in other religions such as Islam, and also in the various so-called communist creeds of the last century. The Orthodox Church, for example, regards itself as unchanged since apostolic times, and the Roman Catholic Church as the one that’s changed…

Initially, unity is important: how is consensus to be achieved and maintained as an organisation or church grows in size? Is the Pope to be head of the entire church, or should there be autocephalous patriarchs of various provinces? As I read further, it became clearer how it took a long time for certain aspects of dogma to be formalised and codified, often in response to new thinking and questioning; such beliefs we nowadays imagine have always been truths. Thus it was only from the eleventh century that the popes began to claim to be the heads of all Christianity, only from the nineteenth that they claimed to be infallible in matters of doctrine. Scripture was only regarded as the prime source of everything by the precursors of the sixteenth century reformers; it took several centuries to define the nature of Christ (!) and clarify what the Trinity was, and transubstantiation… to my mind, all huge changes and developments of the original events of two millennia ago, whatever they actually may have been.

Unity was definitively lost at the Reformation: although Rome may have regarded them as heretics, the reformers created new churches, and now there are thousands of them.

Once beliefs are codified and become part of the state apparatus, then there develops repression to enforce compliance, and we are in the territory of the various inquisitions, because so-called heresies (and power can decide anything is a heresy) are social challenges and attacks on authority. And because the victors write history, many heresies – the Cathar one in particular – lack any clear account of their belief system and ritual practices.

And then, at least in the West, as we like to think, eventually there develops a spirit of toleration, the idea that anyone shall be free to believe what they like or not, although in fact such tolerance only develops because it becomes impossible to enforce conformity any longer…

And I was also glad that this book sent me back to one of my heroes, Isidore of Seville, who wrote a whole chapter on heresies in his Etymologies in the seventh century. He’s the patron saint of the internet, by the way, and author of what’s generally believed to be the first encyclopaedia…

Zoe Oldenbourg: Massacre at Montsegur

January 21, 2015

41A3RSS50DL._AA160_A serious tome on mediaeval history, specifically the Albigensian Crusade. For a long time, I’ve been interested in the Cathars and their castles in the Languedoc, but it’s taken me a while to get round to reading this book.

In the late twelfth/ early thirteenth centuries the established Church was widely viewed as corrupt, and worldly, and a serious rival developed, the Cathar church, which came to command the loyalty of the entire region. Unfortunately, relatively little is known about its beliefs, practices and organisation, as it was ruthlessly and totally destroyed, and the subsequent accounts were written by the victors.

The broader context was the development and enlargement of the kingdom of France, which meant the annexation of the Languedoc by whatever means. There were also petty rivalries between local lords and barons, and the thrones of England and Spain, and the Empire as well as the Papacy all wanting to advance their power and influence.

The Church realised it needed to extirpate its rival; at first it used its power and influence over the temporal authorities, with great brutality; then it invented the independent Inquisition with powers to seek out and destroy heresy, arranging for it basically to have carte blanche from the local powers to do what it liked, an arrangement that suited both sides.

I think what I found most shocking was what I can only describe as the Stalinist methods of the Church and the Inquisition to deal with heresy and heretics. A climate of insecurity and terror was created throughout the entire region, and this led people to denounce themselves and friends and neighbours in a bid to avoid more serious consequences; the idea that the Inquisition would keep to its side of any bargain was unlikely. Heretics – men and women, young and old were often collectively burned in dozens and sometimes hundreds because they refused to abjure their Cathar faith, and eventually the old religion disappeared.

Oldenbourg’s account is masterly; some apparently think she was too sympathetic to the Cathars, but when you read her account, the established Church clearly loses any moral or spiritual authority from the very outset; although the Cathars were a rival church, all they sought was to be allowed to worship as they wished. There is an enormous amount of detail, distilled from available Inquisition documents and other sources; all is referenced. She explains in full and clear detail, as far as is possible, the beliefs and attitudes of the time so that her whole history is fully contextualised. She is open about the difficulty of coming at the truth; she is clear that in the end the issue was the independence or not of the Languedoc, and that the Church would have seen itself as having no other route than to try and destroy what was a serious alternative religion across a large area and therefore a major threat to its temporal authority. All in all, I found this an excellent work.

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