When people have historically gathered to discuss the subject of “heresy” it isn’t to broaden the parameters of discussion. Think of poor Arius at the Council of Nicea in 325, banished to Illyria because he didn’t view Christ as coequal with the Father. Or think of stern Martin Luther who stood because he could do no other and was condemned as a heretic at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Or the eccentric Giordano Bruno consigned to the flames in the Campo de Florio for his heliocentric beliefs. When people gather to define “heresy” or “blasphemy” it’s to narrow the contours of argument, to define terms, to eliminate intellectual variety. As such our unusual, heterodox, and fantastic meeting in New York the summer of 2014 must count as one of the few times in history where the goal in terms of discussing heresy wasn’t to limit the conversation but rather to expand it out in every possible direction. The tired old bishops back in fourth century Constantinople wanted exact definitions of terms; at our Council of New York we were happy to add terms to the lexicon. Heresy, unbelief, disbelief, blasphemy, misotheism, atheology and so on. A veritable celebration of heterodoxy in all of its diversity. At the organization’s first general meeting founders Bernard Schweizer, Greg Erikson, Rebecca Goldstein, James Wood and many others acted as a sort of anti-Inquisition, arguing and wrestling with ideas and concepts in a spirit of inclusivity that marks the ISHS as perhaps the most tolerant organization to ever have the word “heresy” in its title. If the health and vitality of an organization can be gauged by how vibrant its initial formation was, than the ISHS hopefully promises to be one of the most idiosyncratic and exciting academic organizations to be founded in the 21st century. The ISHS is an intellectual home at the liminal space where religion, theology, literature, history, anthropology, the arts and so on combine. It is an organization where one can converse with militant atheists and pious Christians, radical artists and academics. Over my two days in Greenwich Village I got to meet engaging scholars and artists from the United States and Great Britain who take religion and heresy seriously. I was able to attend panels on an incredible variety of issues, from urban Santeria in the Bronx to early modern Faustbooks. And I was audience to an embarrassment of riches in terms of plenary sessions. James Wood’s provocative and important corrective to some of the excesses of the New Atheists, Rebecca Goldstein’s charting of Spinoza’s legacy, and Thomas J.J. Altizer’s Blakean sermon. All plenaries were excellent, but I thought Altizer’s was perfect to end with. I had read works like The Gospel of Christian Atheism by the controversial theologian years before, but I’d never heard him speak. I’d forgotten that his youth was in West Virginia, but somehow the slight drawl made his alternative-sermon extra appropriate: a kind of fire-and-brimstone preaching from the Palace of Wisdom. It in many ways embodied to me the fantastic and tremendous contradictions and paradoxes that made the meeting so exciting. I think that this is the beginning of not just a scholarly society, but a new movement. I’m proud to have been there.
Impressions of the ISHS 2014 Conference: Ed Simon
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