Archives For Heresy

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With civil discourse in such short supply today, it may be beneficial to consider some wisdom from the past about disagreeing calmly.

If you’re a thoughtful person, and you interact with other rational people, it’s inevitable that you will sometimes disagree. These differences of opinion are not bad things, in and of themselves. They help us sharpen our thinking and occasionally result in someone (from either side) recognizing the errors in their opinions.

There are times, however, when disagreements are not handled respectfully. In such situations, they seldom result in a positive end. In cases where quarrels arise, people don’t persuade others. They do the opposite—they motivate them to entrench themselves and hide behind mental and verbal barricades that reinforce their “errors.”

You can go all the way back to the Scriptures to find the recognition that this sort of debate is destructive. Here is the counsel of the apostle Paul to his protégée Timothy, a young pastor:

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. (2 Timothy 2:14-17)

In the second century, Tertullian, a brilliant North African Christian scholar, penned one of my favorite passages in all of patristic literature.

I might be bringing forward this objection from a want of confidence, or from a wish to enter upon the case in dispute in a different manner from the heretics, were not a reason to be found at the outset in that our Faith owes obedience to the Apostle who forbids us to enter into questionings, or to lend our ears to novel sayings, or to associate with a heretic after one admonition—he does not say after discussion.

Indeed, he forbade discussion by fixing on admonition as the reason for meeting a heretic. And he mentions this one admonition, because a heretic is not a Christian, and . . . because argumentative contests about the Scriptures profit nothing, save of course to upset the stomach or the brain.

This or that heresy rejects certain of the Scriptures, and those which it receives it perverts both by additions and excisions to agree with its own teaching. For even when it receives them it does not receive them entire, and if it does in some cases receive them entire, it none the less perverts them by fabricating heterodox interpretations.

A spurious interpretation injures the Truth quite as much as a tampered text. Baseless presumptions naturally refuse to acknowledge the means of their own refutation. They rely on passages which they have fraudulently rearranged or received because of their obscurity.

What wilt thou effect, though thou art most skilled in the Scriptures, if what thou maintainest is rejected by the other side and what thou rejectest is maintained? Thou wilt indeed lose nothing—save thy voice in the dispute; and gain nothing—save indignation at the blasphemy. (On the Prescription of Heretics, 16-17)

If you would like to read a fascinating scholarly article on this passage you can download one here. In “Accusing Philosophy of Causing Headaches: Tertullian’s Use of a Comedic Topos,” J. Albert Harrill writes:

Among the most famous passages in Tertullian’s De praescriptione haereticorum (ca. 203) is what appears to be nothing more than a throwaway line. After declaring that ‘heretics’ have no right to use Christian Scripture, he writes, ‘Besides, arguments over Scripture achieve nothing but a stomachache or a headache.’

Previous scholarship has assumed the protest to epitomize Tertullian’s fideism and general anti-intellectualism. However, I argue that the line evokes a comedic stereotype within a medical topos about ‘excessive’ mental activity causing disease in the body, going back to Plato and Aristophanes.

The passage is, therefore, not a throwaway line but an important part of Tertullian’s attempt to caricature his opponents with diseased superstitio (excessive care and ‘curiosity’).

More Recent Variations of this Theme

Those who have attempted serious, rational argument with someone who is unserious or irrational know very well what Tertullian was describing. If you are earnest and calm in your advocacy, only to have your counterpart act flippant or ignorantly obstinate, it really can make one feel nauseous.

G.K. Chesterton, who was an articulate defender of Christianity during the beginning of the twentieth century, described the frustration in a predictably entertaining manner.

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment.

He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections.

Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” (Orthodoxy)

As Chesterton suggests, the madman has retained his ability to reason, but is no longer inhibited by reason itself. I would liken it to retaining the appearance of reasoning, bereft of its essence. It parallels what we read in 2 Timothy 3.

In the last days . . . people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good,  treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (Italics added.)

C.S. Lewis also addresses the inability of many who are wrong to conduct rational conversations. Whenever they meet a reasoned argument, they are disarmed.

Unfortunately, their lack of logic does not prevent them from charging into the disputation. They assume their passion or their appeal to subjectivity (i.e. that “everyone” is right) will win the day.

Lewis grew so frustrated by the phenomenon that he coined a new word to identify it. He regrets the passing of the day when you persuade someone of their error before you could legitimately explain why your own position is correct on a given issue.

The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism.

Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – `Oh you say that because you are a man.’

“At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.

“Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable able parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see early enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it.

I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.”

For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. . . . I see Bulverism at work in every political argument.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. (“‘Bulverism:’ Or the Foundation of Twentieth Century Thought”)

So, there we have it. We may derive some comfort from the fact that irrational arguing has frequently displaced civil discourse since the dawn of human communication.

As for me, I intend to avoid the Bulverites as much as possible. The last thing I need is a migraine or a serious case of indigestion.

Trivial Finale

December 16, 2015 — 9 Comments

catechicAll good things must draw to an end . . . and so it is that we wrap up our running review of interesting trivia questions from Catéchic, “the Catholic trivia game” by Tyco®.

Today we move beyond the miscellaneous historical and ecclesiastical subjects we have thus far considered. Prepare yourself for some serious literary and theological matters.

There were a fair number of questions asked about literary matters. Most related to authors (religious and secular) I have never read. However, some were of greater interest to me.

Who wrote the religious sonnet “Death Be Not Proud?”

John Donne

I hadn’t read that classic poem for years, and I’m grateful to the game for encouraging me to pause to reread it. If you are unfamiliar with this timeless verse, you can read it here.

Was the Gutenberg Bible the first book to be printed?

No. (Printing already existed in China.)

Actually, printing via woodblocks existed in various places. The great breakthrough came in the development of moveable type, and it did indeed exist in China before Gutenberg refined it in the West.

Was the first Bible printed in the New World in the English language?

No. (Algonquian, the predominant language of Northeastern Native Americans)

Now there is an edifying fact which reminds us of the importance of sharing the Good News with all people

Which alphabet is named after a saint?

The Cyrillic alphabet, developed by St. Cyril

And, ironically, used most prominently in the formerly atheistic republics of the Soviet Union.

A triad of questions about Roman Catholic periodicals.

What newspaper is generally thought of as the most liberal American Catholic weekly?

The National Catholic Reporter

Something I believe they are quite proud of. They offer online news here.

What newspaper is generally thought of as the most conservative American Catholic weekly?

The Wanderer

I had never heard of this lay publication, but you can read it online here.

How much does an issue of The Catholic Worker cost?

One cent

Amazing. I disagree with most of its political positions, but I have to admire the statement they make in continuing this practice.

The Catholic Worker newspaper is not online. Subscription or copy requests must be sent by regular mail . . . The newspaper was started by Dorothy Day herself in New York City in the 1930s. The price has been and will remain a penny a copy, excluding mailing costs. It is issued seven times per year and a year’s subscription is available for 25 cents (30 cents for foreign subscriptions) . . .

When the game addresses Roman Catholic history and dogma, it stays close to doctrinal boundaries. However, when it addresses interfaith and “Protestant” subject matter, it raises some issues which require comment.

Saint Olaf is the patron saint of which country?

Norway

I had to include this because my own heritage is half Norwegian. This despite the fact that dear Olaf was free in his use of the sword as an instrument for converting the Norse heathen. My hometown is Poulsbo, Washington, and its nickname is “Little Norway.” It is no surprise Poulsbo’s Roman Catholic parish is named in honor of Saint Olaf.

As far as we know, who erected the first Christian cross in the New World?

Christopher Columbus

Perhaps, but the first Christians setting foot in the so-called New World were likely Leif Erikson and those who accompanied him on the voyage from Greenland.

Name the politically influential American Catholic family sometimes known as “America’s Royal Family?”

The Kennedys

Although sadly some prominent Kennedys have not lived and served in a manner consistent with their religious profession.

As a Lutheran Christian, I was particularly eager to discover what sort of questions dealt with so-called “Protestant” matters. Here are a couple, with my personal observations added:

Before the Protestant Reformation, how many Christian Churches were there?

Two, Catholic and Orthodox

Sorry, only one. Both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions confess a belief that there is only “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” It’s true that there was a schism* between the two, but there remains only one Christian Church, comprised of all who “believe and are baptized.”

During the 19th century, what Protestant group played a key role in settling the American West?

Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints (The Mormons)

The LDS Church is a distinct religion in and of itself. They would not regard themselves as “Protestant,” nor would Trinitarian Protestant traditions regard the LDS religion as belonging under that admittedly stretched label.

What is a member of any of the various Protestant groups characterized by their rejection of military service called?

A Mennonite

Hmmm . . . it’s a bit more complicated than that. Various Christian denominations (e.g. Quakers) discourage military service, along with non-Christian religions (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses). They, along with other individuals from more traditional church bodies whose consciences prevent them from serving in the armed forces, are more accurately called “pacifists.”

What was condemned as heresy at The Council of Trent?

The teachings of Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther.

And then there are those who would consider the Council of Trent itself to be a fount of heresy . . .

For which institution did Johann Sebastian Bach write his magnificent cantatas?

The Lutheran Church in Leipzig.

A gracious (ecumenical) acknowledgment of a musical genius who composed his works “soli Deo gloria.”

It will surprise no regular readers of Mere Inkling to see that we are closing with another reference to our favorite Inkling.

Which British author of children’s fantasies wrote an allegory about the Devil called The Screwtape Letters?

C.S. Lewis

One of C.S. Lewis’ masterpieces. I have blogged on them in the past, as the search bar to the right will reveal. Here is one column I’m particularly proud of, since it contributes a new piece of correspondence to the Screwtape corpus.

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* Schism is one of the most mispronounced words in the English language. Although “skizuh m” has become so commonplace that it is now “accepted,” the proper pronunciation is “sizuh m.” Of course, if you say it correctly everyone will think you are wrong . . . just like when you leave the “s” off of the biblical book of Revelation or properly pronounce psalm without the “l” (“sahm” instead of “salhm”).

If you missed the first two columns dealing with Roman Catholic trivia, you can check them out here: A Trivial Windstorm and Curious Christian Trivia.