Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Ungodly Words: Toward a Political Philosophy of Heresy (Part IV)
(Part I, II, III)
The Historical Model would have us ignore the question of what the author did or did not intend and instead have us look at how a text has historically been interpreted. The advantage this model possesses over the previous two models is that it forces us to evaluate texts within the context of the real world, not just the imagination of individuals. The Historical Model becomes problematic though once we consider the issue of whose opinions exactly are we supposed to view as relevant. If we were serious about following this model we would have to declare parts of the bible to be heretical because there are numerous passages in the bible that Christians have interpreted as being in support of their beliefs. Take the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 53 for example. Christians have claimed since the Book of Acts that Isaiah was prophesying that the Messiah was going to allow himself to be murdered in an excruciating fashion and thereby atone for the sins of all mankind. If we are to take the Historical Model for evaluating heresy then it should be irrelevant that Christians have grossly misinterpreted this passage. The fact that they have understood this passage in the manner that they do and that they so greatly outnumber us should force us to admit that, no matter what Isaiah may have meant, today, in the twenty-first century, Isaiah's suffering servant refers to Jesus and must be removed from our Bibles. I alluded, earlier in this essay, to Strauss' view that Maimonides held secret beliefs that most Orthodox Jews would classify as heretical. If we were to follow the Historical Model we would have to at the very least suspect that maybe, in the fifty years since Strauss made this claim, enough Jewish Studies Professors have bought into Strauss' claim to form a critical mass, making the Guide forbidden to read. It does not stop there because Strauss also claimed that Maimonides wrote the Mishnah Torah as part of his cover so we would also potentially have to throw out the Mishnah Torah as well.
As I mentioned there is something going in favor of the Historical Model in that it makes as its primary issue a text's functioning in the real world. I would only modify the Historical Model to limit who has a say in what a text means. I would say that first of all, for the purposes of a given community, this conversation is limited to what members of that community have been saying about a text
and even furthermore that the power to define texts as heretical resides not within individuals but within in the body of the formal community itself. In this Community Model, the community, or the people who lead the community, come to the understanding that allowing a certain text to be freely circulated through the community would be detrimental to the community's ongoing health or that to allow an idea to take a legitimate place within the public discourse would prove harmful. The community therefore takes action and physically rids itself of the offending text making it impossible for certain ideas to enter the public discourse.
For practical purposes it is not possible for the Jewish community to allow Zayd to wake up one morning and think to himself: "Maybe Jesus is my Lord and Savior. Let me read this book the gentiles call 'the New Testament' to help me come to some conclusions." The problem is not just that Zayd might actually come to conclusions that the community would not approve of, but even if the proper conclusions were to be reached the mere fact that such an issue could be put on the table undermines the community by making it possible to challenge it foundations. (I am not saying that such an attitude is necessarily wrong per se or bad for the individual. I am simply saying that such an attitude works against the interests of the community and it is in the interests of the community itself to guard against such attitudes.) If community spokesperson, Umar, makes a statement of dogma then ideally it would be in the best interests of the community for Zayd to accept that dogma out of the belief that since a statement of dogma is in accordance with the absolute rules of the community and the community cannot be wrong therefore a statement of dogma itself cannot be wrong. More than that, it is important that Zayd not even seriously ask the question: "could it be otherwise?" Once we have Zayd choosing to follow a statement of dogma because he understands that the statement of dogma is in accordance with the rules of the community which he, at present, is choosing to accept as an absolute then both the dogma and the rules of the community cease to be absolutes. The reason for this is that, even though Zayd in either case may end up doing the same action, the reasoning in the latter case, unlike the former, has Zayd following the dictates of the community because it is in keeping with the dictates of his own beliefs. In this situation the de facto decider of any issue is not the community, but Zayd.