Impressions of the ISHS 2014 Conference: Bernard Schweizer » ISHS: International Society for Heresy Studies



Impressions of the ISHS 2014 Conference: Bernard Schweizer

Conference Reflections:

A General Membership meeting with standing-room only is surely the dream of every initiator of a new Society. It was at that moment that the ISHS became a reality for me, and I was thrilled to look around the crowded seminar room on the 4th floor of the Gallatin School. Shortly after the start of proceedings, I realized that this was no rubber-stamping, yes-nodding assembly, but an inquisitive (though not inquisitorial!), lively, smartly disputatious gathering, and I thoroughly enjoyed discussing the bylaws and probing the key terms and principles that inform our Society’s mission. It is a rarity nowadays to have a group of people who deliberately eschew both the culture of reflexive affirmation (the “positive thinking” school of corporate America where critical deviation is considered “bad” for company morale) and the knee-jerk partisan bickering that characterizes our political discourse. Here is a group, I thought, composed of people from different viewpoints—especially differing religious and non-religious viewpoints—who nevertheless manage to have a civilized, informed, constructive dialogue about matters of real import such as whether blasphemy is a “victimless crime.”

The most important moment in the discussion of our bylaws came for me when the question was raised whether we, as the Society for Heresy Studies, should even insist on prescribing a normative definition of key terms like “heresy.” Wouldn’t that constitute an orthodoxy in its own right? Still, without a general shared understanding of what basic concepts mean, how can we have a meaningful conversation about controversial topics involving heterodoxy? The point is this: while we should build a consensus on the guiding principles and foundational concepts that animate our thinking about the matter, we should also keep a space for disruption and disagreement even within our foundational terminology. Hence, we decided to work toward a consensus while keeping the option of updating and revising the key conceptual definitions on an ongoing basis. In other words, the task of building a consensus about key terms should be a process in which all members of the ISHS are welcome to participate. Moreover, even when we have reached a certain (provisional) consensus, we could still leave room for dissenting voices, notably, by reserving space for alternative views about the same topic or term. This proceeding is experimental, for sure, and it remains to be seen how practical and productive this approach is in the long run. I, for one, believe that such a flexible, responsive, and nuanced approach showcases exactly the kind of inclusive, open-minded, and yet principled values that inform our society.

At the end of this lively first membership meeting, the entire slate of officers was elected. Congratulations to our first president, Gregory Erickson and to all the other officers and board members! I look forward to a fruitful and engaging collaboration.

I am bringing away many fine memories and a basket full of learning from this conference. The panels I attended were throughout of high quality, startling in their revelations, and engaging in the discussions that usually went on past the allotted time, with clusters of discussants continuing the conversation in the hallway and during coffee breaks. The Roundtable on Friday evening sparkled with intellectual brio and wit, as James Morrow, Rebecca Goldstein, Gregory Erickson, Ed Simon, and Robert Royalty considered the question “why heresy now?” All three keynote addresses approached the topic from radically different perspectives (James Wood on the novel as a privileged vehicle for conveying religious doubt, apostasy, and misotheism; Rebecca Goldstein expanding on Spinoza’s pivotal role in forging a modern world view based on heresy and apostasy; and Thomas Altizer tracing the roots of death-of-God theology to Hegel, Blake, and Milton). The conference was concluded in a festive spirit, with a beautiful concert by our own Society member Tasha Golden, performing with her husband Justin as “Ellery.” Tasha’s songs were in turn edgy, comforting, sad, and rebellious, with her providing great narrative bridges between individual songs. The remaining conference attendees who still had some time to spare went to a fusion restaurant in the vicinity of the Gallatin School to continue animated debates, and to toast to the success of the first conference of the ISHS.


Additional Thoughts:

At this point, I would like to share a few more conceptual thoughts about the conference. One of my observations was that we are not falling into the trap set up by Alister McGrath.

Let me explain: McGrath, a prominent theologian at Oxford University, has taken heterodoxy to task in his book Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth. He claims that responses to the existence of heresy fall into two categories: on the one hand there are the cheer-leaders for heresy, which he identifies as proponents of the “postmodern template of heresy”; these people are given to rather mindless celebrations of all things heretical, just for the sake of being provocative and “relativist.” On the other hand, there are the “defenders of truth” like McGrath himself, holding on to the traditional meaning of heresy as “bad choice,” as deliberate corruption of truth, and as error.

I cannot help but reject this framework as too narrow and ultimately, unhelpful. Indeed, most, if not all talks at this conference cannot be classified as falling into either side of McGrath’s dichotomy. And certainly, our Society’s definition of heresy in the bylaws explicitly sidesteps that scheme: “We use the term ‘heresy’ in a value-neutral way, neither celebrating nor condemning it, but simply making it a central object of critical inquiry.”

There is another thinker at Oxford, who offers a more useful paradigm, certainly one more in tune with the aims and objectives of the Society for Heresy Studies. I am referring to Valentine Cunningham (an Advisory Board member of the ISHS). In his brilliant introduction to the volume Figures of Heresy (2006), Cunningham writes that “heresy and orthodoxy exist… as doubles of each other. Heresies and orthodoxies are often utterly parasitical the one upon the other” (7). This is true. Further, addressing the role of literature, Cunningham insists that literary “authors are in great numbers Christians who are unorthodox in their Christianity, who are actual religious heretics. Our writers illustrate heresy in their texts, propagandize for it in their fictions” (13). Finally, concerning the act of reading, Cunningham makes the hermeneutic argument that “our reading is manifestly a case of heresy. . . . The texts in contention are not just continuously reread, but read perpetually against the grain of previous readings” (15).

The reason why Cunningham’s approach is more productive for our endeavors lies in his hermeneutic emphasis and dialectical rationale. This leaves room for approaches to heresy from within and without a faith context, and it also specifically accommodates the literary and artistic manifestations of heresy and orthodoxy. By contrast, McGrath’s approach to heresy is strictly faith-based and theologically apologist. But apologetics can take him only so far. Indeed, what happens when one steps out of the faith context and considers heresy from a secular perspective? The whole category of heresy-as-error, as false choice, crumbles to the ground. It certainly cannot be the case that only believers can adjudicate heresy and that only they are legitimate students of heresy. Our conference has formulated a resounding rejection of that exclusionary position. At the same time, our organization does not exclude the faith perspective either, just as it does not disqualify the secular context, both being considered valid bases from which to start meaningful inquiries into heresy, blasphemy, and unbelief.

Our Society is not only well positioned to start a lively dialogue regarding heresy across the faith gap, but it also encourages stimulating new perspectives by emphasizing the vital nexus between literature and religion. Let me quote another Founding Member of the Society, David Dickinson:

“Unlike confessional theology which tends towards rationalisation and systematisation, literature (including the Christian Bible!) is much more hospitable to alternative concepts held in paradox, flux and tension.  Literature has, therefore, often informed creative and innovative theology forged on the anvil of experience.  Whether intentionally or not, writers – those with religious belief, those without belief, those who are heretical, those who are blasphemous and those, like many of us, who simply don’t know – assist the theological quest, which some prefer to call an atheological quest.  The (a)theological and literary quests go on hand in hand.  This collaborative search, where nothing is sacred but all is respected, is what I hope this Society will reverently assist.”

It is this quality of inclusiveness and dialogue, welcoming to both believers and non-believers, as well as our focus on literature that make our Society unique, and uniquely positioned to become a major player in the endeavor to shed light on the endlessly fascinating interplay between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

[Webmaster’s note: This post is part of a series offering impressions of, and reflections on, the 2014 ISHS Conference by participating Society members.]

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