Posts Tagged ‘Orthodoxy’

Heresiology As a Zero Sum Game

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Thomas Whitley

Marcus Borg’s recent death has spurred many to speak out about his contributions to scholarship and to Christianity. Many celebrated Borg; some celebrated his passing. One reflection that caught my attention, though, was by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In speaking of Borg’s “progressive Christianity,”Mohler says that “when you’re looking at liberal Christianity and biblical Christianity, you’re not looking at two variants of one religion, but two very different religions.” Mohler’s understanding of “Christianity” does not—cannot—include Borg’s understanding of “Christianity.”

Al Mohler

Reading these comments from Mohler reminded me of a paper I’ve been working on for an upcoming presentation on the use of authority and authority claims in ancient heresiology. In it I suggest that while the heresy/orthodoxy dichotomy does not actually function as a zero sum game, it is approached as such by its participants. Bruce Lincoln has shown that one’s authority can corrode by a multitude of means. “[G]ossip, rumor, jokes, invective; curses, catcalls, nicknames, taunts; caricatures, graffiti, lampoon, satire; sarcasm, mockery, rude noises, [and] obscene gestures” are all sorts of speech that eat away at authority.”[i] The group that I study —the Carpocratians —are called “heretics,” rumors are spread about their sexual improprieties, and they are often mocked (Clement of Alexandria speaks of the “high-born Carpocratians”). Clement certainly hoped that as Carpocrates’authority eroded, his own authority and that of his “orthodoxy” would be built up. This is not necessarily the case, though. Rick Perry’s famous “oops” moment where he could not name the third agency that he would dissolve were he president during a November 2011 Republican Presidential Primary Debate was quite successful in corroding his authority but it did not necessarily increase the authority of any of the other Republican hopefuls.

That this is the case, though, does not mean that the Carpocratians, Clement of Alexandria, and others viewed it this way. In fact, I think that it was perceived as a zero sum game by the players. Indeed, Al Mohler works tirelessly to wrench authority from “heretical”groups and give it to the “orthodox.” As he said of Borg, he may not have been an atheist, “but he was also in no sense an orthodox Christian.” Clement needs for Carpocrates and the hordes of other “heretics” to be delegitimated so that his project can be successful. Many are adamant about who can and cannot be called “Muslims” as the recent popularity of the hashtag #ISIS_are_NOT_Muslims shows.

If Pierre Bourdieu is right that “the fate of groups is bound up with the words that designate them,” then we can see this struggle over who should bear certain labels —“heretic,”“orthodox Christian,”“Muslim,”“killer”— as a struggle for a group’s very existence.[ii] The juxtaposition of “heresy” and “orthodoxy” as binary oppositions means that for those engaged in this authority struggle, their social hierarchy can only be “recoded,” to use Bruce Lincoln’s term, in a way they see fit by the expansion of their own authority as a direct result of the diminution of their opponent’s. In other words, “orthodoxy” only wins if “heresy” loses.

Thomas J. Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.

[i] Bruce Lincoln, Authority: Construction and Corrosion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 78.

[ii] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 481.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Traditions Lost…And Found

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

by Andrew Stern

Few people consider November 30th, the Feast of St. Andrew, to be a highpoint of the holiday season. Since the Middle Ages, however, the feast has had particular significance for people who share the saint’s name. In fact, for centuries every traditional name in Europe had a particular “nameday” corresponding to the feast day of the saint of that name (similar celebrations, known as “onomásticas” take place in many Latin American countries). Thus, on November 30th, “Andrews” would celebrate the feast of St. Andrew, while their friends and families would offer them good wishes and even gifts. Particularly in predominantly Catholic or Orthodox countries, namedays often became more important than birthdays, since everyone knew the feast day of an individual’s patron saint (in fact, in many European countries one can still purchase calendars with lists of namedays), while relatively few people knew the date of his/her birth.

The celebration of namedays has declined in prominence in recent decades, especially in Western Europe, yet it was an important practice at the peak of European immigration to the United States in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. Therefore, it is surprising that there is so little evidence of nameday celebrations among immigrant communities in the U.S. Studies of immigrant religions in the U.S. chronicle the many traditions that survived the process of transplantation, but of course there are others that did not, and namedays seem to be a prime example. Why is it that this tradition failed to take root in the U.S.? Given the zeal with which American capitalism seizes on any religious tradition that can be commodified and marketed (witness the Our Lady of Guadalupe candles for sale in the Hispanic aisle of virtually every supermarket), why is there virtually no trace of nameday calendars, cards, or other merchandise produced in the U.S.? Feast day celebrations of saints important to entire nations survived, so were nameday celebrations too individualistic? Answers to these questions, and similar questions regarding other religious practices that vanished in the US, may provide valuable insights on the immigrant experience.

Nameday celebrations never really caught on in the U.S., but technology may provide a way to revive the tradition. The website, for example, allows one to view the namedays celebrated on any given day in eighteen different European countries. There is also a distinctly American nameday calendar, published since 1982 and available online at This calendar blends the religious roots of namedays with American civil religion. Thus, people named Paul can celebrate their nameday on the feast of St. Paul or on the anniversary of the birth of Paul Revere. Similarly, the calendar assigns the name “Irving” to May 11th, since that was the birthday of Irving Berlin, whom the calendar honors as the author of “God Bless America.” Although namedays are becoming more secular events even in those European countries where they are still widely celebrated, the addition of new “saints” to the calendar seems to be an American phenomenon. Perhaps in a few years the calendar will include namedays for “Barack” (August 4), “Beyoncé” (September 4), and “LeBron” (December 30).

Immigrant religions in the U.S. are nothing if not resourceful. The internet may provide a way to maintain traditional practices, but there are also low-tech solutions. This year on November 30th I will receive, as I have each year for as far back as I can remember, a Happy Birthday card from my Hungarian relatives with “Birthday” meticulously scratched out and “Nameday” written in its place.