Have you ever had your writings burned? Probably not, but many have been silenced, ignored or patronized by those in power positions. I have seen seven of my articles and three chapters for books published, and am presently working on my first book on the Church of the East. I can’t imagine the pain of seeing a life’s work reduced to ashes like Nestorius and many others in history have experienced. (if you haven’t read my last post, Who is a Heretic?, you may want to do that as this is a continuation.)
But I have experienced the pain of being ignored, silenced or put up with. Not being able to find someone who would listen or seriously engage with my concerns or different opinions from the norm. I suspect many reading this have also been there in some way. In my last post, I started with a definition of heresy that one reader commented seemed “secular”. It did indeed not mention issues of religious truth, and there is so much more to write on when does there need to be a stand taken on a variance of truth that is deemed harmful to the community?
In my last post I mentioned an excellent book by Philip Jenkins titled Jesus Wars. I would highly recommend it as a “one-stop” document for the Christological battles of the 5th century. It is written in an engaging style and is a very good introduction to the issues involved, including related to Nestorius and his condemnation as a heretic and exile in 428 A.D. Jenkins shares in a more sympathetic re-evaluation of Nestorius’ thought that has happened in the last 130 years since his magnum opus, the Bazaar of Hercleides, was discovered intact in the modern area of Kurdistan. (For readers interested, you can download an English translation from the internet and read it for yourself).
I write this while in Geneva, Switzerland, no stranger to religious controversy of the type between the 16th century Reformer John Calvin and Michael Servatus, the Spanish intellectual who was condemned and burned at the stake on the outskirts of Geneva in 1553. Servatus was burned on a pile of his writings, deemed heretical for his unorthodox views on the Trinity as well as his stand against infant baptism. More on that in a later post. But it is difficult today to understand the kind of worldview that drove people to not only burn writings but the authors as well.
Jenkins writes of this on page 127, bringing out a very important point related to the different point of view from then to now. (he is writing related to the 5th century, but it also applies to 16th century Geneva, 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony, and even some places today). “The largest single mental marker separating the premodern or medieval world from our own was the belief that earthly error had cosmic implications. For a modern audience, the obvious question is why a church could not have tolerated a wide variety of beliefs and doctrines, allowing different schools of thought to contend, so that ultimately the truth could prevail. This liberal doctrine, after all, had scriptural warrant in the book of Acts. The Jewish sage Gamaliel reportedly warned against persecuting Christians, on the grounds that if their ideas were false, they would fail, but if they were true, they should not be opposed. But once in power, the church had a rather different answer to the question of ‘What harm could it do?’. If, as they believed, errors arose from sinful pride or diabolical subversion, then tolerating them attracted God’s anger, as expressed through different forms of worldly catastrophe: famine, drought, plague, floods, and earthquakes., or defeat in war. In the ancient world, it was not difficult to point to some event of this kind taking place somewhere,and in the fifth century, catastrophes erupted with a frequency guaranteed to give ammunition to the most moderate-minded preacher.” (bold emphasis mine)
Did you catch the words, “But once the Church was in power”? As I said in the last post, power dynamics are at work in many of these situations, throughout history and today. (of course this does not just happen in the church but in every realm of life). A concern for truth can be a veil for a real concern about our own hold on power, our own beliefs held in a vise-like grip. Who decides who is a heretic? Is our concern for this person moving out of the accepted norms and beliefs truly motivated by a love for truth? For love of God, nation or community? Or are there other unexamined motives at work?
One of the most frightening nights of my life happened at a mission base I was teaching at in a part of Asia, many years ago. I received a frantic call from a base in another city in the same nation. It was from a good friend, and he with tears described how just a few moments before he was at a public meeting and they were in the process of excommunicating him and his wife. He pleaded for my help in contacting the overall mission leader in that nation, and fortunately that leader’s wife was in the room when I received the call. There were no writings to be burned that night, but the very deep pain in being shunned for contrary beliefs from the norm (and actually for having challenged the authority of the leaders) would last a very long time.
We do indeed live in a different age than when Pelagius and Nestorius had their writings burned in bruising battles with their theological enemies. Or when Servetus lost not only his writings but his life to the flames in Geneva. But we still see people judged and condemned for contrary views, sometimes when they haven’t even been given a fair hearing. The flames today are often the media, when people can be tried, judged and convicted in two minute soundbites. Much more to say on this.
So have you ever had your writings burned? Probably not. But today can be the start of a new day when we stop using our words to destroy, and the gift of whatever power we possess used to include and listen rather than to shun and sideline. I have still more to write on Pelagius! Stay tuned!