Monday, February 9th, 2015
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.”
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.