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Heresy: Arius to Rushdie–MLA 2014 Panel abstracts

1. LAUGHTER AS HERESY: THE CHURCH FATHERS AND THE GNOSTIC LAUGHTER PASSAGES

 Una Stroda, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

Laughter in the Christian church is interpreted within a spectrum between being simply inappropriate or trivial to being at least a blasphemy if not a heresy. The denial and suspicion of laughter in the Christian church began with the early church fathers.  John Chrysostom is known as the first to point out that Jesus never laughed. One of the reasons for their condemnation of laughter was its association with the Gnostic groups. The Gnostics frequently used irony, paradox and comedy in their writings. In Gnosticism, the salvation of the soul was dependent on gnosis. Gnostics believed that the process of effectuating spiritual awakening and acquiring salvific knowledge is similar to solving a riddle or seeing a point of a joke. Laughter at the moment of ‘getting it’ represented a passage from the hidden to the revealed, from ignorance to truth. Apocalypse of Peter, The Gospel of Judas, and Apocryphon of John contain passages with Jesus laughing, and there are also a lot of elements of laughter in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth as well as Hypostasis of the Archons.

Clement of Alexandria in Paidagogos, John Chrysostom in Homilies of Hebrews XV and XX, Basil in Epitemia, Jerome in his Letters, Ambrose in Concerning Virgins, all argued against laughter. Their influence on what became the dogmatic teachings of the early church deemed laughter a heretic deviation from the orthodox praxis of the church. Such an attitude can be explained by the church fathers associating laughter with heretic teachings of the Gnostics, or even with the extensive influence of the Greek philosophical thought on the early Christian theology: its rationality did not appreciate the unruliness of laughter. Because of the Greek influence, the church fathers tended to interpret salvation as a matter of soul that temporally dwells inside the physical body. Laughter was and is associated with the body which the church fathers believed must be controlled for a variety of reasons.

 

It is not clear, however, why associating laughter with heresy was so widespread. Gregory of Nazianzen who was so influential in shaping the Trinitarian theology of the early church seems not to have been taken into consideration in discussions on laughter, although his concept of stasis would have affected the theology of laughter. Stasis, reasons Gregory of Nazianzen in regard to the Trinity, means that “the one is always in uproar against itself” or, in other words, within the whole there are always the opposites at work: there is the possibility of non-being in being itself, brokenness in triumph, tragedy in comedy, and laughter in lament. My paper will explore how Gregory of Nazianzen can be put in dialogue with the passages of laughter in the Gnostic literature, as well as passages of the church fathers condemning laughter.  The purpose of these comparisons is to challenge the dogmatic theological stance that continues to affect the praxis of the church today in its generally negative attitude towards laughter.

2. Chesterton, Eliot, and Modernist Heresy

Alan Blackstock, Utah State Univ.

     G. K. Chesterton and T. S. Eliot both employed the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy to evaluate the work and influence of some of the most prominent writers of their day. One of Chesterton’s best-known and most frequently -reprinted books is titled Orthodoxy, and one of his earliest works of literary criticism is a collection of articles first written for the Daily News and later published under the title Heretics (1905).  In these articles Chesterton takes on a number of prominent writers and artists, including some he greatly admired (and who were close personal friends, such as G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells)  along with some whose beliefs or influence he deplored, such as Kipling (for his jingoism) and Whistler (for his aestheticism).   As Chesterton writes in his introduction,

I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic— that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic—that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong. (46).

T. S. Eliot delivered a series of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1933 that were later collected and published as After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy. In these lectures, Eliot, like Chesterton in his newspaper columns, is  “concerned with illustrating the limiting and crippling effect of a separation from tradition and orthodoxy upon certain writers whom I nevertheless hold up for admiration for what they have attempted against great obstacles” (56).

Among these writers are the poets Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats; the novelists George Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy; and the critic (and Eliot’s teacher) Irving Babbitt.   Eliot’s principal purpose, also like Chesterton’s,  is to warn against the deleterious cultural effect such writers of prominence may exert when divorced from any coherent tradition:

It is characteristic of the more interesting heretics… that they have an exceptionally acute perception, or profound insight, of some part of the truth…So far as we are able to redress the balance, effect the compensation ourselves, we may find such authors of the greatest value. If we value them as they value themselves we shall go astray. And in the present state of affairs, with the low degree of education to be expected of public and of reviewers, we are more likely to go wrong than right  (24-25).

The proposed presentation will examine the cultural and literary climate that engendered Chesterton’s and Eliot’s pronouncements against heresy and defenses of orthodoxy, along with their legacy—both writers and their works continue to be invoked by current writers and critics  who call for, as in the title of a recent book on Chesterton and Eliot,  A Return to Christian Humanism, as well as vilified as rearguard reactionaries (as in another recent book titled The Poetics of Fascism in which Eliot is included with Pound and Paul De Man as fascist writers).

 

3. Islam’s Sacred Heresies: Salman Rushdie and Sara Suleri on Secular Devotion

Kathryn Van Wert, University of Minnesota Duluth

In her response to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) and the defenses it received following the fatwa imposed by Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Sara Suleri argues that Rushdie’s “blasphemy” cannot be unproblematically aligned with Western liberalism’s crusade against the threat to free expression it believes Islam embodies.  Rather, Suleri argues, The Satanic Verses “perversely demands to be read as a gesture of wrenching loyalty, suggesting that blasphemy can be expressed only within the compass of belief.  Given such a paradox, Rushdie performs a curious act of faith: he chooses disloyalty in order to dramatize his continuing obsession with the metaphors that Islam makes available to a post-colonial sensibility.”[1]

By highlighting the self-consciousness of Rushdie’s blasphemy, Suleri identifies a paradox at the heart of heresy: it has the unexpected power of revealing nostalgia for that which it desecrates.  If we theorize blasphemy as an essentially self-conscious practice, then every sacrilege is by nature directed at both the object of worship and at the latent, worshipful self – an ambivalence that characterizes Rushdie’s work as a whole.  My paper explores the devoutly heretical energy of Rushdie’s Islam as well as Suleri’s, particularly the “secular Islam” she invokes in Meatless Days (1991), her memoir of childhood in Pakistan.  These writers offer a warning to anyone who, tempted by the rhetoric of free expression, would assimilate The Satanic Verses into a cannon of Western political virtues without recognizing what a “deeply Islamic” (Suleri 222) text it is.  Ultimately, liberal defenses of Rushdie’s heresy do not go far enough; The Satanic Verses is radical precisely because it explores the appeal of an obsolete narrative of devotion for contemporary Islamic secular culture, refusing to give up either the structures of devotion or the (necessarily profane, multiple) body as it interacts with those structures.  Rushdie, Suleri, and others working in the secular Islamic tradition give us heresy as a generative cultural and narrative form: one that affirms the heretic’s longing for the sacred in an ineluctably desacralized world.


[1] Sara Suleri, “Contraband Histories: Salman Rushdie and the Embodiment of Blasphemy,” in Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie, ed. D. M. Fletcher (Rodopi, 1994), p. 223.