Friday, July 23, 2010
Ungodly Words: Toward a Political Philosophy of Heresy (Part I)
A cardinal principle of liberal society is that there is no such thing as heresy or heretics; that the notion of a thought crime is a contradiction in terms. That being said the issue of heresy remains a potent one even in the West, though its implications may be somewhat different then in earlier epochs. In the past when people spoke about heretics they generally were referring to one whose beliefs lie outside of a given framework and as such is brought into opposition with those whose beliefs lie within that framework. In the modern day situation more and more we see that people can come under fire not just for their lack of belief, but merely because they are open to an idea and take it seriously enough to raise it as a legitimate question. The sin here is not that they do not believe in a doctrine but that they choose to view it as a doctrine in the first place instead of as a necessary truth.
This conception of heresy is useful to explain the unfortunate fate of Lawrence Summers, the President of Harvard. He was attacked not for his belief that there are intrinsic genetic differences between men and women, but because he raised the issue as a question. In the eyes of the feminists who attacked Summers, his sin was not his lack of belief in the doctrine of the non-existence of intrinsic differences between men and woman. His sin was that he failed to see this doctrine as an obvious and necessary truth in the first place.
At the same time this was going on, half a world away, there was the parallel story of Rabbi Natan Slifkin, who was attacked by the Heredi rabbinical establishment for being pro-evolution and for reading rabbinic texts allegorically. What was interesting about the whole Slifkin affair was that the main thrust of his opponents' attacks was not against the truth of evolution, though they definitely viewed it as a falsehood. Rabbi Slifkin was not trying to convince anyone to accept the theory of evolution, who was not already persuaded by the scientific evidence. All he was doing was suggesting a method with which to deal with evolution within an orthodox framework. The real issue was whether or not there existed, as Rabbi Slifkin claimed, legitimate trends within rabbinic tradition that can be seen as being friendly to evolution. In essence the issue was whether one could, in the first place, take the notion that the theory of evolution is true seriously.
One is reminded of the Catholic Church's prosecution of Galileo in the seventeenth century. Contrary to common perception Galileo was put on trial less for his beliefs in heliocentrism than for his attempt to justify heliocentrism on biblical grounds (as well as some remarkably poor political judgment on his part). The Counter-Reformation Church was not particularly concerned with science; it was, though, at war with Protestantism. Holding beliefs about the natural world that went against Church teaching was a venial sin; attempting to support a belief contrary to Church teaching through an unorthodox interpretation of scripture was Protestantism. I might go so far as to suggest that Galileo's trial was not a remnant of medieval thinking, but the Catholic Church leading the way for a modern understanding of heresy.
I do not raise these issues in order to engage in pious liberal proclamations against the ever existing threats to the cause of free thought; though I personally would rather deal with heathens, who openly proclaim themselves as enemies of free thought as opposed to apostates, who have betrayed the tradition. I raise this issue because I believe that the notion of heresy is and will continue to be an important part of our political discourse. As long as groups are going to be formed around ideas then the paradigm of Us, who believe, versus that Other, who does not believe, will exist to some extent and as such there will be Believers and Heretics. As such I believe that it is prudent to come to an understanding as to the nature of heresy and its role in society. I am not interesting in defining heresy; rather I would like to engage in an exploration of the underlying rational that allows one to go from saying, on a theoretical level, that if a text were to advocate ideas that contradicted dogma then that text would be heretical to saying, on a practical level, that such and such a text actually does contradict statements of dogma and is therefore heretical. While in doing this I will be dealing with this issue within a Jewish context, though what I say should, in theory, apply to any system of thought.
(To be continued …)