Thursday, November 20, 2008


While browsing at the Stanford bookstore I came across this book about Christian heresies and how to avoid them. Various mistaken beliefs are outlined, such as theopaschitism (a belief that God can suffer, I think), and Eutychianism (a form of monophysitism):

The tenet "one nature" was common to all Monophysites and Eutychians, and they affected to call Catholics Diphysites or Dyophysites. The error took its rise in a reaction against Nestorianism, which taught that in Christ there is a human hypostasis or person as well as a Divine. This was interpreted to imply a want of reality in the union of the Word with the assumed Humanity, and even to result in two Christs, two Sons, though this was far from the intention of Nestorius himself in giving his incorrect explanation of the union. He was ready to admit one prosopon, but not one hypostasis, a "prosopic" union, though not a "hypostatic" union, which is the Catholic expression.
I wonder if the people who were into this stuff were the obsessional geeks of their day. Rather then spending long tedious hours arguing about which programming language is best or who would win if Spiderman fought Batman, they argue over obscure points of theology that nobody sensible could care about. And like today's geeks, their Asperger's-like focus on meaningless formalism had real-world conseqeuences.

And today I see that our president-elect is being accused of heresy for an awkwardly-phrased response he gave in a 2004 interview. This is not happening in the fever-swamps of the batshit-insane right, but in the pages of respectable journals of opinion, including The Atlantic.

All I can say is, this sort of thing makes the baby Jesus cry. Did he really go through the trouble of incarnating and getting crucified so nerds could squabble over whether he is two natures in one person or vice versa? That some people would appoint themselves arbiters of who is a "real Christian"? I'm no kind of Christian at all and that kind of thing pisses me off.

Meanwhile for contrast here is a very good post about how to think about religious ritual and the sacred without having to adopt ridiculous metaphysical beliefs.

[[Update: Here's an accompanying soundtrack courtesy of Slim Gaillard]]


Michael said...

Obama's religion is to get elected. If it is expedient for a young black politician on the make in Chicago to join Rev'd Wright's church, he does it. When it becomes inconvenient to maintain that association, he severs it. It is foolish to suppose such a person has anything approaching a coherent system of theological ideas.

This is not something to be held particularly against Sen. Obama. If anything it demonstrates how much he has in common with his fellow Americans.

It used to be the case that each Christian denomination spent a great deal of effort setting out its particular theological position in sermons, in tracts, and in Sunday school instruction. Mainstream Protestantism has largely given up on this pursuit in our lifetimes. I doubt you could easily find a Presbyterian church today in which the pastor preaches doctrinally pure Calvinism, or an Episcopal church that adheres strictly to the Thirty-nine Articles. Roman Catholicism, I think, continues to expound its theology more insistently to its flock, but still the level of understanding of it amongst the latter is often muddled. I remember listening in amazement some years ago to a friend, a pious Catholic layman, when he expressed his belief that the future of the world was planned by God from the beginning - a deterministic view that is of course entirely contrary to the concept of free will, which is a doctrinal cornerstone of Catholicism! Either my friend has heard some very unorthodox exegesis in his church, or he is very confused about what his church professes.

In the past, when denominations were clearer about their respective theologies, people stuck with the denomination into which they were born. If one was a Methodist, and moved house, he found and subsequently attended the nearest Methodist church. Now, the blurring of theological positions has been abetted by the phenomenon of "church-shopping." How many people do you suppose belong to a church, not because it represents the 'faith of their fathers,' but because it has a social tone that suits them? or they like the pastor? or they like the music? or it is conveniently near where they live? If the local Methodist church doesn't appeal, one tries the Presbyterians - or Lutherans, or the Baptists, or United Church of Christ.

Someone long ago said that American religious belief is like the Mississippi river - broad but shallow. I think that summarizes matters aptly.

mtraven said...

I mostly agree with you, except that I don't see this as a degeneration. It's the insane devotion to theological doctrine that seems like a degenerate form of "real" religion to me. Which is to say, the ritual, emotive, aesthetic, moral, and community building aspects of religion make at least a little bit sense to me. But when religions put themselves in the business of asserting definite propositions, they make themselves ridiculous. That's what we have science for.

Michael said...

I didn't say it was a degeneration - just that it was a change from longstanding historic patterns. Whether or not you think it is a degeneration is up to you.

Science is not the only venue within which definite propositions are asserted. Mathematics and logic - the à priori analytic - are not the same as natural science, which is à posteriori synthetic. Yet they certainly advance and refute definite propositions. So do ethics and aesthetics, which represent the à priori synthetic. Surely you do not dismiss these disciplines as unworthy of critical thought or discussion.

mtraven said...

I didn't say it was a degeneration - just that it was a change from longstanding historic patterns.

OK, I was misreading you then, sorry. But the longstanding pattern I think is more as I described it. This kind of silly rigid theology, and the idea of heresy (implying there is a single true answer to theological questions) seems peculiar to Western civ since the days of early Christianity (well, and Islam, which shares sources). India and China had pretty complex systems of religious philosophy but as far as I know did not try to enforce a rigid single interpretation. Western theology seems to have been synthesized as a toxic brew of the Semitic legalism, Greek rationality, and Roman authoritarianism. (And yes, this brew also led to other, more desireable results).

Science is not the only venue within which definite propositions are asserted.

Well, yes, I was being short. There are many kinds of human discourse, which have their own internal kind of sense. Mathematics for sure. Ethics and aesthetics are certainly worthy pursuits, but they are not in the business of making objective assertions about the real world. Same with theology -- where it purports to make objective statements about the real world, it trespasses on the magisterium of science and makes itself foolish.

But maybe there is something besides mathematical truth (analytical) and scientific truth (synthetic/empirical) and mere opinion (everything else). The idea of the à priori synthetic never made the slightest sense to me, but maybe my own naive speculations in this area (see here and here, for instance) are just reinventing Kant or Plotinus. The benefits of my poor education in the humanties means I get to figure this stuff out for myself.

AMcGuinn said...

Catholic theology is indeed the product of the most intelligent men the western world could produce over a period of something like a thousand years. It's actually fascinating to dive into what they achieved in terms of shaping the ramblings of a handful of uneducated nutters into something an intelligent medieval man could pretend to believe with a straight face.

goatchowder said...

"I wonder if the people who were into this stuff were the obsessional geeks of their day."

Ding ding ding ding! Exactly!

The sort of stereotypical joke about Catholic medieval theologians is that they'd argue for years about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Catholic theology-- like any theology-- is a perfectly hermetically-sealed, completely made-up system of fantasy, just like the Star Wars or Star Trek universes. Of course it was a natural place for geeks then, and still today I'm sure.

Only difference is, back then they would BURN YOU AT THE STAKE for asserting that it was Kirk, not Sulu, who fired the photon torpedoes. Gives "flame wars" a whole new meaning.