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The serpent of heresy.

THERE IS AN ANCIENT STORY, apparently of Indian vintage, with which I am sure you are all quite familiar, having no doubt heard it at some point or other in a sermon or in Sunday School. It seems there were six blind men, each of whom was presented with an elephant and asked to describe what the elephant looked like based upon how it felt. According to one version of this story,
 Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, "Sire,
 an elephant is like a pot." And the men who had observed the ear
 replied, "An elephant is like a winnowing basket." Those who had
 been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who
 knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was
 a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a
 pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush. (1)

And so on. Despite its Eastern origin, this quaint little parable is often invoked--perhaps with a dash or two of boutique Buddhism thrown in for good measure--in defense of a very Western idea, namely, that truth depends entirely upon your perspective of things; and because this is so, it is ultimately a question of your truth against mine. In other words, "You call an elephant a pillar, fine--you are entitled to your opinion. I, for my part, rather like to think of an elephant as a megaphone." Of course, so the story goes, we must both be right, since there is no one to provide us with the right answer to what an elephant really is. Put another way, truth, because it is nothing, cannot be the object of real knowledge, so the best we are left with is the endless exchange of mere opinion. Witness, for example, probably the most famous version of this tale, from the very minor American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-87). (2) After rehearsing the familiar confusion of the elephant with a snake, a rope, and suchlike, Saxe goes a little farther than the original: in case we didn't get the point, he adds two further stanzas. In the first, we read:
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong!

And finally, the kicker, and just for the faint of mind (and apparently for the faint of vision as well), he has kindly added, in big capital letters, "MORAL."
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen! (3)

Of course Saxe was writing and moralizing in the late nineteenth century, in a time when there was still such a thing as a "theologic war," when there was still something to be contested. Now, by contrast, even that vaunted abstraction of the nineteenth century--religion--is identified (even, perhaps most often, by "religious" people) with all that is superstitious, prejudicial, and irrational. Hence talk of "people of faith" as opposed to "followers of a religion," and the widely heard comment that one is "spiritual but not religious."

Not all this is such a bad thing. Perhaps it is better not to use the word "religion" at all than to use it in the nineteenth-century sense. But in another sense it is indicative of a state of affairs in which there is general unease about religious belief and its claims to truthfulness and the apparent policing of various voices of dissent. We take it for granted that we are indeed the blind men in the tale, but somehow we do not seem to recognize blindness as a lack of one kind of vision.

The heartwarming moral of this parable disguises a certain conceit: this story--call it a joke, if you like--only works because we are told from the beginning that the six blind men are each trying to name the same thing, an elephant. You and I, the hearers of the parable, only think it's funny and morally instructive because we've been told from the outset that there is a totality that each of the six blind men only describes partially. In other words, it is because we presume that there is such a thing as an "elephant"--a mammal with recognizable and distinct features, the totality of which, taken together, constitute (in part) that accidental feature of that reality we name "elephant." But the story is often told (or even preached) in the service of another gospel, that is, there is no real thing called truth--no reality or totality greater than the sum of our particular perspectives; the good news, on this version of the telling, is that it's all a matter of our point of view. (4)

At some point in relatively recent history we decided that because truth depends upon our perspective, it is identical with our perspective. It is a function of the way we choose to view things, not the way reality, in its transcendence of us and of our perspective, chooses to disclose itself to us, you might say. So we become selective in what we choose to believe. We accept that there is no whole to speak of, we cannot fully know the truth, so we must be content with our own opinion.

The Fathers of the Church had a common way of speaking of such a posture. They gave a name to partial and therefore--paradoxically--exaggerated angles on the truth. They called it "heresy," and one would be hard-pressed to find a better illustration of it than the story of the blind men and the elephant. For by definition, all heresy is the refusal of the totality of truth in favor of some portion of it. A classic statement is found in Isidore of Seville's Etymologies: "Heresy (haeresis) is so called in Greek from 'choice' (electio, cf. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'choose'), doubtless because each person chooses (eligere) for himself that which seems best to him ... Hence, therefore, 'heresy,' named with a Greek word, takes its meaning from 'choice,' by which each person, according to his own judgment, chooses for himself whatever he pleases to institute and adopt." (5)

Or take the illustration provided by the treatise Against Heresies written by St. Irenaeus, in which he describes Christian dogma as like a mosaic, composed of hundreds of tesserae, any of which taken on its own and abstracted from the whole would be quite useless and insignificant. The individual pieces, however, receive their significance from the whole; they are given their beauty from a composition which transcends them, as much as they offer themselves to the whole as indispensable elements. Christian truth, then, is a matter of keeping the whole--call it the catholica--together. As he writes,
 It is as if someone destroyed the figure of a man in the authentic
 portrait of a king, carefully created by a skillful artist out of
 precious stones, and rearranged the stones to make the image of a
 dog or a fox, declaring that this badly composed image of the king
 is that good image of the king made by the skillful artist. He
 shows the stones arranged by the later one into the image of a dog,
 and by the appearance of the stones deceives the simple, that is,
 those ignorant of the king's image, and persuades them that
 this ugly image of a fox is the good image of a king. In the
 same way these people compile old wives' tales and then,
 transferring sayings and words and parables, want to
 accommodate the words of God to their fables. (6)

So heresy is analogous to taking one portion of the truth, and proclaiming it as the whole. Or to use a more recent analogy, if truth is symphonic, heresy is like someone attempting to play a solo on the triangle: it is, ultimately, quite meaningless and silly. This is not to deny the incontrovertible fact that there is always a grain of truth in every heresy. But this is precisely the problem. The heretic is content with a grain; the orthodox Christian is content only with living bread. Hence, St. Augustine distinguishes the heretics and schismatics (who attach themselves to some portion of truth) from orthodox Christians, "that is, keepers of the whole tradition and followers of the right path" (Christiani catholici, vel orthodoxi nominantur, id est integritatis custodes, et recta sectantes). (7)

Now here the questions inevitably arise: Can we ever know the whole truth? Isn't heresy at least a latent admission of the fact that we cannot know everything, because the whole truth is greater than we can even imagine or possess? To the first question we should of course readily answer no, we cannot know "the truth" entirely, not until, that is, Deo volente, we see God face to face. To the second, that heresy is necessary to the full disclosure of divine truth, we must also object, since, as Aquinas says, "The profit that ensues from heresy is beside the intention of heretics. ... What they really intend is the corruption of the faith, which is to inflict very great harm indeed." (8) Or as Karl Rahner put the matter more recently:
 Historically effective and powerful heresies are not simply
 assertions deriving from stupidity, obstinacy and inadequate
 information. Rather are they rooted in an authentic and original
 experience moulded by some reality and truth. It is quite possible,
 and it is probably so in most cases, that that reality and the
 truth it contains was not yet seen and experienced in
 orthodox Christianity with the same explicitness and intensity,
 depth and power (though, of course, it was not denied and was
 always perceived and expressed in some way), as it was given to and
 demanded of that person to see it at his moment in history. Just
 as evil lives by the power of good and can only be willed in virtue
 of the will to the residual good which persists in the evil, and
 without which it could not even be evil, but simply nothing, which
 cannot be the object of the will, so it is too in the relation
 between the truth affirmed and experienced and the error actually
 brought to expression. Even this error lives by the truth. (9)

So while heresy depends upon the fullness of truth--the katholikon--the reverse is not true. The fullness of truth does not need heresy, even if its appearance might occasion the further elaboration or clarification of a point of doctrine previously ambiguous or confusing. Heresy, because it is selective, is also privative. It is, as Augustine might say, a privatio veritatis. Here, then, is the deceit of all heresies: they offer truth as a possession, which, because only a portion, can be had in its totality here and now. Christian orthodoxy, by contrast, refuses the idolatry of truth as a possession because God is truth, and God cannot be possessed. Rather, it puts the matter the other way around: it is not a question of us holding the truth, but, as Augustine says, of being held by it. Allow me to put the matter even more strongly: heresy is equivalent to dogmatism. Dogma, by contrast, is the precise opposite of dogmatism. And this brings me to the main point that I want to suggest: without the Christian dogma, apart from the confession of faith as we have received it from the Church, there is nothing but the violence of dogmatism.

Why We No Longer Care About Heresy

Heresy, these days, is big business. Witness the phenomenal success of books like The Da Vinci Code, whose premise is more or less that Christianity in the fourth century, beholden to pretensions of imperial privilege and power, felt the need to suppress the "real" truth--that Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene who bore his child and begat a "Jesus bloodline" and so on, the upshot being that the real truth of Jesus--his humanity--was suppressed and condemned to a fugitive existence on the fringes of respectable society and so on. The spate of books that followed the Code betray an ongoing fascination with that ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism--which in one current popular reading was cruelly suppressed because it con-tained the real secret of Jesus's life. To be sure, Gnosticism seems to have captured attention long before Dan Brown's juggernaut, as is evidenced in the continuing cultural fascination with Christianity's secret "other." Take, for instance, the recent hubbub over the gospel of Judas, or the ceaseless stream of books about the "lost" gospels of Thomas, Peter, and Mary Magdalene, among others.

I need not go into the historical problems involved in the popular account, which are many. And they are not really even the issue that concerns me here. As Tom Hibbs pointed out a while back in a review of The Da Vinci Code, the principal problem with the book and the Gnostic obsession is not the myriad historical inaccuracies, but "that little problem of what we might mean by truth." (10) It is rather, as Hibbs notes, citing the British philosopher Bernard Williams, that there seems to be within our culture "'an equally pervasive suspicion about truth itself: whether there is such a thing; if there is, whether it can be more than relative or subjective' and 'whether we should bother about it.'"

In our culture it is not entirely clear that we should bother about it at all. Of course, there is no shortage of self-appointed truth merchants out there, but such efforts to tell the truth often play upon a basic underlying theme of conspiracy: truth is always the thing that people--the government, our parents, the Church--are trying to hide from us, the secret they don't want us to find out. Truthfulness in our age is almost synonymous with antipropaganda. So, for example, the term "truth" represents the--laudable--efforts of those victims of years of fraud on the part of big tobacco companies to receive compensation for medical bills due to the well-known, but then secret, dangers of smoking cigarettes. Truth was handed over to the victims.

This is not at all to challenge the legitimacy of those lawsuits, for in my view they were quite just; rather, the point here is the way in which truth is often used these days. Truth, in this context, usually means the opposite of propaganda, since it is assumed that truth cannot be received from another but must emerge from within myself. (The most recent example of this is in Phillip Pullman's remarkable His Dark Materials trilogy.) In the case of the Gnostic obsession, the heresy is really the truth, which is basically the religious version of the tobacco suits: Big Religion has been hiding the real story from us because the denizens of that industry realize that if we knew the truth we would stop using their product.

It is a depressing state of affairs, to be sure. But I wonder if it isn't the case that at least some of our indifference to heresy is a symptom of an indifference to truth, indeed, maybe even an indifference to life. The term "heresy" is used vaguely these days, wrote Hillaire Belloc some years ago, "because the modern mind is as averse to precision in ideas as it is enamoured of precision in measurement." Interest in heresy, he said, "is dead, because it deals with matter no one now takes seriously." (11)

But Christian faith is surely a good deal more than just precision in matters of doctrine; in fact when it comes to talk about God, precision seems to be precisely the thing that most eludes us. Nonetheless, Belloc is quite right to point out that, in a sense, wars and jokes have this in common: they are both made about things that one takes seriously. An old Baptist preacher friend of mine used to point out that this is why you no longer hear jokes about preachers. One of my teachers in graduate school used to say, tongue firmly in cheek, and with a sense of regret, that you can't even get shot for ideas any more.

Belloc's friend G. K. Chesterton once remarked that
 in former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. ...
 But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it. He says, with a
 conscious laugh, "I suppose I am very heretical," and looks round
 for applause. The word "heresy" not only means no longer being
 wrong; it practically means being right. The word "orthodoxy" not
 only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong.
 All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that
 people care less for whether they are philosophically right. (12)

Further, as Henri de Lubac put it,
 If heretics no longer horrify us today, as they once did our
 forefathers, is it certain that it is because there is more charity
 in our hearts? Or would it not too often be, perhaps, without our
 daring to say so, because the bone of contention, that is to say,
 the very substance of our faith, no longer interests us? Men of too
 familiar and too passive a faith, perhaps for us dogmas are no
 longer the Mystery on which we live, the Mystery which is to be
 accomplished in us. Consequently then, heresy no longer shocks us;
 at least, it no longer convulses us like something trying to tear
 the soul of our souls away from us. ... And that is why we have no
 trouble in being kind to heretics, and no repugnance in rubbing
 shoulders with them.
 In reality, bias against "heretics" is felt today just as it used
 to be. Many give way to it as much as their forefathers used to do.
 Only, they have turned it against political adversaries. Those are
 the only ones with whom they refuse to mix. Sectarianism has only
 changed its object and taken other forms, because the vital
 interest has shifted. Should we dare to say that this shifting is
 It is not always charity, alas, which has grown greater, or which
 has become more enlightened: it is often faith, the taste for the
 things of eternity, which has grown less. Injustice and violence
 are still reigning; but they are now in the service of degraded
 passions. (13)

The fact that we no longer burn heretics at the stake is not necessarily a sign of progress; it is a good thing that we don't, but it would be false to think that our world was any less violent or more human now because of it. However, the reason that the Church saw fit to hand over heretics to the secular powers to be put to death was because it regarded heresy as altogether more serious a matter than murder, adultery, or theft. If our reticence toward heresy tells us anything, it might demonstrate that it is we, not the ancients or medievals, who have matters backwards. Even so sober a mind as Rahner's--one not typically given to expressions of rhetorical excess--was able to conclude that "an objective and historically just and discerning (not approving) attitude to the history of the Christian outlook on heresy can only be attained by those who recognize and share the permanent, essentially Christian and fundamentally indispensable sentiment: The untruth of heresy is much more of an absolute threat to human life than all other occurrences in face of which people still feel the use of force to be justified." (14)

The mere invocation of the names of the great heresies of the past--Arianism, Nestorianism, Eunomianism, Docetism, Eutychianism, to name a few--may tempt us to believe that heresy is now a matter for the historians, and the degrees of remotion from our own setting these names indicate might imply that the whole thing is a dead issue (has anyone called you a "Donatist" recently?). But as Rahner argued, the problem today is not with the official strategy against heresy that dominated in the past and of which the act of naming was an important part. Heresy today, Rahner argued in the 1960s, is more implicit and latent than explicit and manifest.
 The implicit, undeclared state of heresy in a member of the Church
 finds a strange ally in men of the present time, through their
 distaste for conceptual precision in religious matters. The man of
 today is more willing freely to discuss the most embarrassing
 details of his sexual life with a psychiatrist than to hold a
 purely theoretical conversation on religion. ... Our contemporaries
 find religious and theological reflection difficult, and precise
 formulation in matters of belief easily strikes them as being
 irreverent, glib and typically clerical. (15)

He develops this notion further adding: "We find among educated people nowadays almost a feeling of taboo that avoids discussing even the most childish formulations of belief. This attitude then becomes a reason why someone's heretical attitude does not become a heresy theoretically expressed and exactly formulated as in former times. People live heresy but are averse to expressing it as a doctrinal system and to opposing this in open debate to the Church's teaching." (16) Rahner concludes by asking, "Who could deny that even at the present time the form of heresy exists in which lifeless orthodoxy is only the effect and expression of an inner indifference to truth, by which something is left alone because it is at bottom so much a matter of indifference that people even shrink from the trouble of clearing it out of the way or contesting it?" (17)

The Heresy of Lucifer

In the Borghese Chapel in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, there, high above the altar, is a frescoed lunette depicting, on the left side, the appearance of the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist to Gregory Thaumaturgus, and on the right, a group of people succumbing to the venomous serpent of heresy. This is an ancient motif, going back to the work of St. Epiphanius of Salamis in the fourth century. His earliest work, the Ancoratus, catalogued a number of pernicious and pestilential heresies; a later work, the Panarion, or "medicine chest," expanded the list to eighty, and included remedies for various heresies, each of which he likens to a snake whose venomous bite is poisonous to the soul.

So also Augustine, in his first Commentary on Genesis (he wrote three and never finished any of them), interprets the passage from chapter 3 wherein the serpent tempts Eve into eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as the original and archetypal act of heresy. Indeed, for Augustine, the serpent represents heresy--or more specifically the heresy of the Manichees whom there are none "more boastful and talkative than they are in promising knowledge of good and evil, and presumptuously assuming that they are going to demonstrate this distinction in the human person, as in the tree which was planted in the middle of the garden." (18) Augustine, following Epiphanius, reads the serpent as the first heretic; he is the very type of heresy. His sin is one, as it were, of telling a truth, but only a partial truth. Or a partial lie, which is basically the same thing. The Manichees especially love to quote Genesis 3:5: "You shall be like gods," "striving with their proud nonsense to lead others into the same kind of pride, and affirming that the soul is by nature what God is." Hence, Augustine says, "All heretics in general lead people astray with the promise of knowledge and severely criticize those they find to be simple believers; and because the wares they are hawking are altogether the values of the world and the flesh, it's as if they are striving to bring people to the opening of the eyes of the flesh, in order to blind the inner eye of the heart." (19)

The heretic, writes Rahner, "is not merely someone who has not yet arrived. He abandons the end and claims that he alone attains it." (20)

According to Aquinas, the sin of Lucifer consisted in desiring to be God in a perverse way. He argues,
 To desire to be as God according to likeness can happen in two
 ways. In one way, as to that likeness whereby everything is made to
 be likened unto God. And so, if anyone desire in this way to be
 Godlike, he commits no sin; provided that he desires such likeness
 in proper order, that is to say, that he may obtain it of God.
 But he would sin were he to desire to be like unto God even in
 the right way, as of his own, and not of God's power. In
 another way one may desire to be like unto God in some respect
 which is not natural to one; as if one were to desire to create
 heaven and earth, which is proper to God; in which desire there
 would be sin. It was in this way that the devil desired to be
 as God. ... But he desired resemblance with God in this
 respect--by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which
 he could attain by the virtue of his own nature, turning his
 appetite away from supernatural beatitude, which is attained by
 God's grace. (21)

Now the heresy of Lucifer consists in precisely this: he proclaims a truth, but he proclaims it in a partial way; he desires a likeness, but he desires it in a perverse manner. First of all, the promise of likeness to God is not his to offer. Second, he construes likeness as equality, and herein, Aquinas says, "imagination plays us false"; it is this tendency that Lucifer exploits with respect to Adam and Eve. (22) He tempts them to think that their likeness to God can be one of equality, as if they were just two different kinds of being, just unequal in status. Thus the heresy is in thinking of humans and God as both beings within a common genus, and so thinking of eating the forbidden fruit as elevating the human to the divine.

Here is the old conspiracy theory again: "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, knowing good and evil." (23) Knowledge of good and evil is the Big Secret, and it is true liberation to know that you are being fed a big fat lie by the Man. But here's the problem, and it is the problem with all heresy: it contains a germ of truth. If heresy may be likened to theft, or to poaching, it is the act of poaching something good. As Chesterton reminds us, "The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner." (24) The heretic likewise compliments the truths he steals, but dishonors their author. Take a famous example: the notorious Arians of the fourth century argued strongly in favor of the humanity of Christ, but denied his divinity. They affirmed a portion of the truth, but took it from the whole of which it is a part. By contrast, the orthodox position affirms both the humanity and the divinity of Christ as an incomprehensible mystery, the depths of which must nevertheless be plumbed continually.

But of course there is a sense in which the serpent's claim is true, and hence heretical. The Fathers interpreted the true sense of this claim to be Christological. Given classic expression by Athanasius, it is a sentiment shared by all of the great patristic and medieval writers: "God became man in order that man might become God." Of course what they do not mean by this is that man might become another god, alongside the Trinity, or some such thing. They meant that the motive of the Incarnation is to unite humanity to God.

Hence every heresy is in a sense an act of poaching or hoarding, that is, in the etymological sense of hairesis, taking for oneself. Heresy then is merely a repetition of the sin of Adam in Eden (and a participation in the deceit of the serpent), whereby the first parents claim something for themselves that is not properly theirs.

This gesture is recapitulated in the first "heresy"--which is political in nature--to emerge in the Christian church. After Pentecost, Ananias and Sapphira decided to withhold portions of the proceeds of the sale of their property; their sin was a violence against the Eucharistic unity of the church. Moreover, their sin was not simply political in any conventional sense; it was metaphysical in the sense that it was a refusal of the gift of the Church, an attempt to fashion for oneself what can only be gift. And like all sin, it was ultimately idolatrous insofar as it attempted to give itself what can only be given by another. That is, it attempted to render the self as both giver and recipient in an economy that can recognize no reception.

One can see why heresies of a more directly conceptual order such as Arianism partake of an analogous theoretical hoarding. For instance, the way in which the Nicene Creed came to formulate the relation of Christ to the Father was the result of a pained effort to resist any circumscription, any delimitation of the superabundant, infinite self-gift of the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father. Every Trinitarian heresy therefore mimics the gesture of Ananias, insofar as it refuses God's boundless generosity and complete donation and return. In other words, for every heresy of this kind there is an indissoluble remainder, something left over, something that does not communicate itself fully. Hence the notion that Christ is not the full expression of God the Father amounts to making God an ontological Ananias, who holds something of himself back and does not give himself fully.

The teaching of the Church, as Aquinas would say centuries after Augustine, is wisdom above all human wisdom. (25) And for Augustine it is not a wisdom that we could ever hope to possess or manipulate; rather, as he says to Honoratus, it is a wisdom for which we must be made fit. To the student of such wisdom the aim then is "to become capable of being wise, that is, able to be held by the truth." (26)

A common heresy one encounters these days within the Church--which is where all heresies are born--is the notion that we must somehow make Christianity relevant again, make it new, make it living. The notion of Christian dogma as I have been describing it, as it is given to us principally in the form of the Creed, assures us that we need not pretend that it is our egoistic burden to think up Christianity all over again every morning, but that in what he have received there is already an illimitable, inexhaustible newness. The Creed says so much because it appears to say so little. As de Lubac notes, "In the letter of the Creed which [the Christian] recites with his brothers, following so many others, there is infinitely more depth in reserve and timeliness in potential than in all the explanations and critical reductions that would affect to 'go beyond' it." (27)

Augustine noted that
 all the enemies of the Church, however blinded by error or depraved
 by malice, train the Church in patience if they are given the power
 of inflicting bodily harm; whereas, if they oppose her only by
 their wicked beliefs, they train her in wisdom. Moreover,
 they train her in benevolence, or even beneficence, so that
 she may show love even to her enemies by persuading them
 either through teaching or by stern discipline. Thus, even
 the devil, prince of that ungodly city, when he stirs up
 his own vessels against the City of God on pilgrimage in this
 world, is not permitted to do it any injury. (28)

The Serpent and the Elephant

In the Physiologus, an ancient text written in Greek in Alexandria near the end of the second century, the author describes some fifty or so creatures of land, sea, and air, along with their allegorical significance. The text, which was hugely popular throughout the Middle Ages, was the source for later medieval bestiaries in its treatment of the moral and symbolic significance of creatures, both real and fabulous. To the Physiologus we owe, for instance, the account of the now horribly disenfranchised unicorn--then a figure of the Incarnation, now a symbol for everything fictitious, illusory, and sentimental--as well as the theological readings of the pelican and the phoenix, both ancient typological figures of Christ. But in section XX of the Physiologus, we read of the elephant, the male and female of which species represent Adam and Eve. Physiologus goes on, curiously, to offer a narration of salvation history chiefly through the involvement of the great pachyderm:
 And David said, "Save me, for I have entered the water up to my
 soul" (Ps 69:1). Immediately, the dragon overthrows them and makes
 them strangers to virtue (that is, by not pleasing God). And they
 cry out, calling on God and a great elephant comes (that is, the
 Law) and does not lift them. Indeed, even as the priest did not
 lift up the one fallen among thieves (cf. Lk 10:30). Nor did the
 twelve elephants (that is, the chorus of prophets) raise him up,
 even as the Levite failed to raise up the one wounded by thieves
 (cf. Lk 10:32). But the holy intelligible elephant (that is, the
 Lord Jesus Christ) did so. Although he is greater than all the
 rest, he was made small in comparison to them. "For he humbled
 himself and became obedient unto death" (Phil 2:8), in order
 to raise up man. He is the intelligible Samaritan who raises
 us up onto his breast (that is, the body). "For he himself has
 borne our infirmities and carried our weaknesses" (Is 53:4).
 In Hebrew Samaritan means guardian and David said of him in
 Psalm 114, "The lord is guardian over the little ones" (Ps
 113.7). Where my Lord is present, neither the dragon nor any
 other evils can approach. Physiologus spoke wisely, therefore,
 of the elephant. (29)

If the holy intelligible elephant, that is, Christ, represents the fullness of divine truth, then the fundamental characteristic of heresy is, like the blind men in the parable, choosing to isolate one aspect of the biblical story from the whole; taking one portion of the truth and calling it truth entire. To use Aristotelian language, it would be to circumscribe one "accident" of reality, and to identify it with its "substance."

Physiologus also tells us, interestingly, that the elephant has a particular nemesis, and his name is "serpent." Isidore reminds us that "vision in snakes generally is feeble--they rarely look directly forward, with good reason, since they have eyes not in the front of their face but in their temples, so that they hear more quickly than they see. No other animal darts its tongue as quickly as the snake, so that it appears to have three tongues when in fact it has one." (30) To see with the eyes of faith is to see differently; we require not simply our own eyes, but the eyes of the whole communion of saints--which is to say nevertheless that we still see through a glass darkly.

Hence the claim of Maurice Wiles has it quite backwards, that "the concept of heresy implies a finality of judgment on the part of the church which is hard to justify." (31) It is heresy that is final, dogmatic. Heresy is also, one might say, a form of theological opinion that would render the Christian Gospel bad news. The battles against heresy in the fourth and fifth centuries, for instance, are an extended effort to preserve the sense in which the Christian evangel is indeed good news. Christian dogma, as Chesterton so elegantly argued, is a romance, an adventure, a quest, and we are never promised a final arrival, at least not short of death. We do not have to reinvent the faith which we have received. Nonetheless, Jesus says, "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." (32) He also says in Matthew 16:18, "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." And that is genuinely good news.


(1.) Udana, 68-69.

(2.) A piece in The New York Times, marking the centenary of Saxe's birth, tells us that
 a graduate of Middlebury College, one of those sound, ancient
 little colleges at the mere name of which you hear elms rustle and
 almost possesses the Latin accidence, he read law, edited a paper,
 amused himself by running twice as the Democratic candidate for
 Governor, a test of humor in a state whose Democratic Party could
 be assembled in George Stearns's back garden. From i860 till his
 death, in 1887, he resided in Albany. He was a brilliant and
 distinguished figure, a man of the world, of great social charm, a
 successful reader and lecturer. (Editorial, June 4, 1916)

(3.) Saxe's poem, titled "The Blind Men and the Elephant," was first published in William James Linton, Poetry of America: Selections from One Hundred American Poets from 1776 to 1876 (G. Bell, 1878) 150-52.

(4.) G. K. Chesterton, Robert Browning (New York: Macmillan, 1905). G. K. Chesterton once invoked this old fable in his book on Robert Browning. He writes (175-6):
 Browning s conception of the Universe can hardly be better
 expressed than in the old and pregnant fable about the five blind
 men who went to visit an elephant. One of them seized its trunk,
 and asserted that an elephant was a kind of serpent; another
 embraced its leg, and was ready to die for the belief that an
 elephant was a kind of tree. In the same way to the man who leaned
 against its side it was a wall; to the man who had hold of its tail
 a rope, and to the man who ran upon its tusk a particularly
 unpleasant kind of spear. This, as I have said, is the whole
 theology and philosophy of Browning. But he differs from the
 psychological decadents and impressionists in this important
 point, that he thinks that although the blind men found out very
 little about the elephant, the elephant was an elephant, and was
 there all the time. The blind men formed mistaken theories because
 an elephant is a thing with a very curious shape. And Browning
 firmly believed that the Universe was a thing with a very curious
 shape indeed. No blind poet could even imagine an elephant without
 experience, and no man, however great and wise, could dream of God
 and not die. But there is a vital distinction between the mystical
 view of Browning, that the blind men are misled because there is
 so much for them to learn, and the purely impressionist and
 agnostic view of the modern poet, that the blind men were misled
 because there was nothing for them to learn. To the impressionist
 artist of our time we are not blind men groping after an elephant
 and naming it a tree or a serpent. We are maniacs, isolated in
 separate cells, and dreaming of trees and serpents without reason
 and without result.

(5.) Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), VIII.iii.1-3, 174.

(6.) Irenaeus, Against Heresies I.8.1, 66.

(7.) Augustine, True Religion, [section] 9, trans. Edmund Hill, OP, in On Christian Belief, ed. Boniface Ramsey [The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century; I/8] (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press 2005), 36.

(8.) Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II.11.3, ad 2.

(9.) Karl Rahner, On Heresy, trans. W. J. O'Hara (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964), 38. He continues:
 But the reverse is also possible. The error may be the really
 central, fundamental act for the heretic and the really
 systematizing principle of his whole intellectual structure. The
 Christian truths which are still present (nomen christianum) only
 survive as peripheral opinions, perpetually threatened with being
 recognized as contradictions to the fundamental intent whether
 abstract or concrete and of being in consequence "revised" and
 excluded. Despite the truths of Christianity still held as
 "opinions," the reality they signify is lost completely without
 grace, supplanted by the heretical error which has been radically
 accepted in the concrete into the centre of the personal life.

(10.) Thomas S. Hibbs, "The Da Vinci Crisis: Dan Brown's Book Reveals a Crisis of Truth in Society," in National Review Online, May 16, 2006.

(11.) Hillaire Belloc, The Great Heresies (London: The Catholic Book Club), 3.

(12.) G. K. Chesterton, Heretics [The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton; 1] (San Francisco: Ignatius 1986), 39.

(13.) Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 226-27.

(14.) Rahner, On Heresy, 18.

(15.) Ibid., 55.

(16.) Ibid., 56.

(17.) Ibid., 61.

(18.) Augustine, On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees II.25 (38), 98.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Rahner, On Heresy, 38.

(21.) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia.63.3, resp.

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) Genesis 3:5.

(24.) G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in Heretics, Orthodoxy, the Blatchford Controversies [The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, vol. 1] (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 276.

(25.) Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.1.6, res.

(26.) Augustine, The Advantage of Believing, 16.34,144.

(27.) Henri de Lubac, The Christian Faith: An Essay on the Structure of the Apostles' Creed, trans. Br. Richard Arnandez, FSC (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986).

(28.) Augustine, City of God, XVIII.

(29.) Physiologus, trans. Michael J. Curley (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979), xx, 31-32.

(30.) Isidore, Etymologies XII.iv.44, 258.

(31.) Maurice Wiles, "Heresy", in Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper, ed. (The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought: Intellectual, Spiritual, and Moral Horizons of Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 295.

(32.) Matthew 10:16.
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Author:Candler, Peter M.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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