Monday, January 17, 2005

Heresy is Fun

That is, it is fun to study. Preparing for my class, I have found that the most interesting materials come from the latter part of the course — the often misaligned, seldom fully covered Late Antiquity and the numerous religions that vied for the minds and bodies of the people in the good ole' Mediterranean World.

There is something exciting about heresies. They are an underground, a subversive counterculture that speaks to the possibility that canonical texts can have wide and varied interpretation. It poses the question of whether or not the West might have turned out completely different.

Fantasy writer Matthew Rossi intends to write a series of posts for Fantastic Metropolis dealing with heresy. His first post looks at Procopius' Secret History. Procopius was a serious historian in Emperor Justinian's court; the Secret History was a hit piece on the emperor. He accused Justinian and his wife Theodora of performing black magic rites, using the persecution of non- Christians to cover their activities. Furthermore, they covered Belisarius, the general who had successes in the reconquest of the Western Empire, in scandals, making him less effective in the field.

[Added: I forgot that Natalie at Philobiblion wrote about Theodora. Go see her post for a necessary corrective to Procopius' portrait.]

Rossi decides to take Procopius' charges at face value and asks what might have happened if Belisarius had decided directly to oppose Justinian. Rossi speculates that Belisarius would be in a better position to retake the Western Empire. The larger empire would include more non- Christians, forcing Belisarius to abandon the persecution of heretics. He would accommodate heterodoxy, allowing non-Christians to integrate. The resulting empire would be less vulnerable to outside invasions, potentially changing how Islam expanded, favoring missionaries over warfare. (Rossi devolves into deeper speculation about King Arthur and retaking Rome ... .)

Heresies also reveal how mainstream faiths, in their formative period, defined themselves and how they borrowed from religions they tried to undermine. It is a means of tracking the development of orthodoxy.

Manichaeanism is interesting for several reasons. It has been described as Christianity's main competitor, which may be an exaggeration. Nonetheless, it spread throughout Mediterranean and as far as China, and it survived in Central Asia as an important religion for more than a millennium. Christ was central to its theology, although it was a form of Gnosticism. And Augustine was once a member: many of his writings are refutations of Manichaean beliefs and practices.

Manichaeanism was a religion that came out of Persia. The prophet Mani (216-277) taught that all creation was characterized by light and dark elements, good and evil. The materiality of creation (the darkness) buried the light within it. Christ came to give knowledge of the dual nature of creation, teaching them how to redeem themselves and the world by separating light from darkness. Manichaeans were known for their extensive disciplinary regimens that were designed to purify their bodies. The main texts are here.

Good information about Manichaeanism is difficult to come by. One interesting book is Jason David BeDuhn's The Manichaean Body: In Discipline and Ritual, which looks at how the body one arena wherein the redemption of the world was played out. As he describes it:
Manichaean gnosis, therefore, is a practical knowledge that permits the reconstitution of the defective body by the separation of its antagonistic components ... Thus, in Manichaean interpretation, Jesus came in the body so that ‘he might ransom those enslaved from the powers and set free their limbs from the subjection of the rebels and from the authority of those who kept guard, and through it he might disclose the truth of its knowledge, and in it open wide the door to those confined within.

Manichaeans restrained their behaviors as a means of purification. Baptism was insufficient because it could not penetrate below the surface of objects and persons. Discipline was a continual process of controlling what went into the body so that the innermost essence -- the Living Self -- is gradually revealed.

Discipline for the Elect, who were the most involved 1/100th of the religious community, was characterized by the Three Seals, which reflected the areas of bodily discipline that they must cultivate. In the Western Tradition, these were the mouth, the hand, and the breast. The Mouth: abstaining from foods that were not ‘G-d-filled': meat, milk, wine. Also, the Elect fasted periodically. The Hand: reflection of avarice and gluttony; must have others gather food for them in exchange for blessing. The Breast: abstinence. The Three Seals were areas that the Elect had to guard against the intrusion of impurity. The Auditors, the other 99%, performed less rigorous regimens, using modest gains over their lifetimes in order to seek improvement through reincarnation.

BeDuhn notes that bodily discipline, in particular with regard to diet, was at a perpetual impasse. All nourishment was composed of both light and darkness, so it was impossible to prevent impurity from entering the body. Mani claimed that there was no way of completely purifying food:
This body is defiled and molded from a mold of defilement. You can see how, whenever someone cleanses his food and partakes of that which has just been washed, it appears to us that from it still come blood and bile and gases and shameful excrements and bodily defilement. But if someone were to keep his mouth away from this food for a few days, immediately all these excretions of shame and loathsomeness will be found to be lacking and wanting [in the] body. But if [one] were to partake [again] of [food], in the same way they would again abound in the body, so that it is manifest that they flow out from the food itself.


At 2:55 AM, Blogger Matthew_Rossi said...

It's interesting to compare the Manicheans, especially the Katharoi to the later Cathar movement, especially as one can speculate on the whole influence of the Bogomils. I find a lot of interesting parallels between the Manicheans and the Gnostic influences in Catharism, especially the 'perfects'... not just the influences, of course, which were clearly there, but also in how they developed after those influences were incorporated. The Orphic 'matter is foul' aspect of Manichean dualism always surprises me when compared to early Zoroastrian thought, with all things material and spirit being part of the 'good creation' of Ahura Mazhda.

Thanks for the mention, by the way. The next essay is more of a 'heresy by proposal' than an actual discussion of a heretical movement, but I promise the Cathars will show up sooner or later.


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