paleo Ideofact

Friday, November 08, 2002
Well, not exactly -- for the last few weeks, I've had to do actual work (i.e. -- the kind I get paid for) well into the night. Hopefully the worst is over, and 5 screen posts that take too long to read will resume over the the meantime, my apologies to quite a few readers and quite a few bloggers -- I'll get back to you soon.

Thursday, November 07, 2002
Heresy 2
For those with better things to do than read the previous, lengthy post in this series, in which I traced two different reactions to gnostics (one of them a minor figure in Acts, who was transformed into the grand heresiarch Simon Magus in the second century A.D., the other a mythical character, Hermes Trismegistus -- a name applied to clearly gnostic writings but who was co-opted as an orthodox gentile prophet in the third century A.D. and in the Renaissance), let me reiterate the point I meant to make:
What is of interest to me is how religious belief changes -- how, over the passage of generations, believers whose understanding of their religion -- of the metaphysical nature of the universe -- is based on a few early texts and theological interpretations thereof, will radically shift their interpretation of their religion under the guise of orthodoxy.
I find this a fascinating topic. Except for the addition of various markings to indicate vowels, the text of the Qur'an hasn't changed since the Archangel Gabriel revealed it to Mohammad. (As always, I prefer to be respectful of religious beliefs, even if, as Aziz Poonawalla correctly notes, I'm an unbeliever.) So how is it that Averroes, the medieval Islamic interpreter of Aristotle (dubbed "THE commentator" by his Latin Christian enthusiasts) could consider himself and his work consistent with Islam, while Sayyid Qutb, the 20th century intellectual author of bin Ladenism, could simultaneously reject all Averroes stood for and consider himself and his own work consistent with Islam? (Some excellent, shorter works by Averroes, which have little to do with Aristotle and everything to do with the Qur'an, have been translated and collected in the slim volume Faith and Reason in Islam. I should add that Qutb seems to lack both -- something I'm going to get to this weekend with my comments on the 8th -- and most interesting -- chapter of Social Justice in Islam.)

Or consider this post from Aziz, in which he notes
The Sunni regard the Shi'a insistence on a religious hierarchy (and the esoteric interpretations of the Qur'an) as blasphemy, insisting on the literal Qur'an. Speaking straight from my bias, I find this critique to be hypocritical, since most invariably place Bukhari-Muslim on a higher pedestal, even when hadiths from these "sahih" collections contradict the Qur'an. If you think about what hadith actually are (ie. purported sayings of the Prophet SAW), then this also becomes ironic, since Bukhari and Muslim have thus created a kind of cult of personality around the Prophet SAW, which is the same accusation leveled at Shia regarding Ali AS (and the Imams after him).

Turning the analogy backwards, no Shia that I know of would find the Sunni insistence on the primacy Qur'an to be an "anathema" the way Catholics regarded Protestants' view of the Bible. But the concept of what the Qur'an is trancends just the literal book. The Prophet SAW has said (in a hadith accepted uncritically by both Shi'a and Sunni observers, and whose isnad is traced back through Ali AS himself) that there is the Qur'an-e-Natiq (speaking Qur'an) and Qur'an-e-Samit (silent Qur'an). These refer to Ali AS and the physical book, respectively. In fact the "an" suffix of Qur'an itself implies a duality. Therefore Shia also believe in the primacy of the Qur'an, but find the view that the Qur'an is only a collection of literal words in Arabic to be overly simplistic (especially considering its divine source).

So, Shia and Sunnis are united in their regard for the Qur'an. However, understanding what the Qur'an actually is is another matter. But these are not incompatible positions and are actually complementary.
I think these are fairly profound observations, but they echoed something I'd read before, in a very different context, in connection with a very different set of religious texts. In the first essay collected in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, by Gershom Scholem, he notes
In his commentary on the psalms, Origen quotes a 'Hebrew' scholar, presumably a member of the Rabbinic Academy in Caesarea, as saying that the Holy Scriptures are like a large house with many, many rooms, and that outside each door lies a key -- but it is not the right one. To find the right keys that will open the doors -- that is the great and arduous task. This story, dating from the height of the Talmudic era, may give an idea of Kafka's deep roots in the tradition of Jewish mysticism. The rabbi whose metaphor so impressed Origen still possessed the Revelation, but he knew that he no longer had the right key and was engaged in looking for it. Another formulation of the same idea is frequent in the books of the Lurianic Kabbalah: every word of the Torah has six hundred thousand 'faces,' that is, layers of meaning or entrances, one for each of the children of Isreal who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. Each face is turned toward only one of them; he alone can see and decipher it. Each man has his own unique access to Revelation. Authority no longer resides in a single unmistakable 'meaning' of the divine communication, but in its infinite capacity for taking on new forms.
As an image, a metaphor for understanding the phenomenon I am trying to illustrate, the six hundred thousand faces of each word of the Torah strikes me as particularly apt. There can certainly be no confusion of meaning in the divine mind, but among us poor humans -- well, perhaps six hundred thousand faces is a low estimate of our ability to interpret or misintrepret. But this is a subject for another post...

Tuesday, November 05, 2002
I added a link to the left to Bin Gregory Productions, a site I've been enjoying of late (thanks to Aziz Poonawalla for pointing it out -- needless to say, I've been enjoying his site as well).

Suddenly, I'm way behind on email (a real rarity for Ideofact, which averages .02 emails from readers per week) -- if you've written and I haven't responded, I'm working on it...

Monday, November 04, 2002
Heresy I
Note: Originally, I had intended to write a short piece on this subject, but the more I thought about it, and the longer I procrastinated, the more I thought it worthy of longer treatment. The title was chosen with care, but it is nevertheless inaccurate for the present post: A good Buddhist cannot be a Christian heretic, for example, any more than a football team can have play a baseball team for the championship. Finally, I should add that I am something of a rationalist (as far as reason can be rational) venturing into the territory of mysticism, and may very well become lost and muddled, a risk I am willing to run for reasons that may or may not become obvious in subsequent posts.

What is of interest to me is how religious belief changes -- how, over the passage of generations, believers whose understanding of their religion -- of the metaphysical nature of the universe -- is based on a few early texts and theological interpretations thereof, will radically shift their interpretation of their religion under the guise of orthodoxy. I fully confess that I am not up to answering this question in any satisfactory way -- I think we are beyond the realm of science with its predictive powers and instead have entered the terrain of history with all its accidents, our poor human nature, aesthetics and morality. I propose only to trace a few chapters on this theme, to revisit some books worth reading, and perhaps to discover a few new ones along the way.

In Acts, chapter 8, verses 5-24, we read the following:
[5] Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them.
[6] And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.
[7] For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed.
[8] And there was great joy in that city.
[9] But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one:
[10] To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God.
[11] And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries.
[12] But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
[13] Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.
[14] Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John:
[15] Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost:
[16] (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.)
[17] Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
[18] And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money,
[19] Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.
[20] But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.
[21] Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.
[22] Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.
[23] For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.
[24] Then answered Simon, and said, Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me.
The Simon in this passage is generally identified with Simon Magus, a figure who became somewhat legendary among the Christian fathers of the second century. Simon is not identified as Simon Magus in the New Testament, and the verses suggest that Simon the sorcerer, who misunderstood the gravity of the message of the apostles, repented as soon as it was made clear to him that the apostles weren't performing parlor tricks.

In the second century, however, Simon became something of a bete noir for the Church fathers -- he was placed among the gnostics, who in various incarnations rejected the corporeal reality of Christ, or the identification of Jehovah as God the Father, or something else entirely -- the varieties of gnostic thought are too complex to summarize in a few words, and there were non-Christian variants (including Jewish gnostics) in the mix. But the Christian gnostics represented, judging from the works of the the early Church fathers, a fairly serious threat to orthodoxy. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes
Simon plays an important part in the "Pseudo-Clementines". He appears here as the chief antagonist of the apostle Peter, by whom he is everywhere followed and opposed. The alleged magical arts of the magician and Peter's efforts against him are described in a way that is absolutely imaginary. The entire account lacks all historical basis. In the "Philosophumena" of Hippolytus of Rome (vi, vii-xx), the doctrine of Simon and his followers is treated in detail. The work also relates circumstantially how Simon labored at Rome and won many by his magic arts, and how he attacked the Apostles Peter and Paul who opposed him. According to this account the reputation of the magician was greatly injured by the efforts of the two Apostles and the number of his followers became constantly smaller. He consequently left Rome and returned to his home at Gitta. In order to give his scholars there a proof of his higher nature and divine mission and thus regain his authority, he had a grave dug and permitted himself to be buried in it, after previously prophesying that after three days he would rise alive from it. But the promised resurrection did not take place; Simon died in the grave. The apocryphal Acts of St. Peter give an entirely different account of Simon's conduct at Rome and of his death (Lipsius, "Die apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und Apostellegenden", II, Pt. I (Brunswick, 1887). In this work also great stress is laid upon the struggle between Simon and the two Apostles Peter and Paul at Rome. By his magic arts Simon had also sought to win the Emperor Nero for himself, an attempt in which he had been thwarted by the Apostles. As proof of the truth of his doctrines Simon offered to ascend into the heavens before the eyes of Nero and the Roman populace; by magic he did rise in the air in the Roman Forum, but the prayers of the Apostles Peter and Paul caused him to fall, so that he was severely injured and shortly afterwards died miserably. Arnobius reports this alleged attempt to fly and the death of Simon with still other particulars ("Adv. nationes" ii, xii; cf. "Constit. Apost.", vi, ix).
(In the collection The Encyclopedia of the Dead, the Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis evokes both versions of these legends wonderfully in a short story: even in death, Simon Magus proves his gnostic point.)

But the account of the early Church fathers is almost surely unreliable, as the Enclyclopedia points out:
The account in the Acts of the Apostles is the sole authoritative report that we have about him. The statements of the writers of the second century concerning him are largely legendary, and it is difficult or rather impossible to extract from them any historical fact the details of which are established with certainty. ...The later anti-heretical writers who report Simon's residence at Rome, take Justin and the apocryphal Acts of Peter as their authority, so that their testimony is of no value.
Perhaps the conflation of Simon, a rather minor figure in Acts, with gnostic heretics was inevitable. To trace the heresies of gnostics like Basilides, Carpocrates and Cerinthus back to the first years of the spreading of the Gospels, to suggest that the apostles themselves did battle with their intellectual or spiritual forefather, to portray this battle as an unequivocal victory for orthodoxy (Kis' idiosyncratic reading notwithstanding), to show that the "rock of the Church" himself was instrumental in the destruction of the heresiarch was no doubt powerful propaganda.

Among the various Biblical images depicted on the mosaic pavement of the Siena Cathedral, one stands out as something of an oddity. The stone depicts Hermes Trismegistus, who was neither an Old Testament prophet nor a New Testament disciple. (There is a too-small reproduction here, about halfway down the page.) Hermes Trismegistus was believed by some of the early Church fathers to be only a few generations removed from Moses, an Egyptian scholar, philosopher and prophet who, like some of the Old Testament prophets, seems to predict the coming of Christ. The Corpus Hermetica, the collection of ancient texts that supposedly survived the millennia to the second century A.D., and beyond, speak of God the father and the son, of God creating a second God through the power of the word, and so on. Augustine rejected Hermes Trismegistus, arguing that his insights were provided by demons rather than God, but Lactantius, writing in the fourth century, a few generations before Augustine, regarded Hermes as worthy of study because of his great antiquity and because, in the Hermetic writings, there are what appear to be predictions of the coming of Christ, and language that foreshadows the Gospel of John. It is perhaps understandable why Lactantius considered Hermes Trismegistus as a gentile prophet. The Christian apologists of the fourth century strove to show that the great philosophers of the past were in accord with the Gospels.

The Corpus Hermeticum, as the works of Hermes Trismegistus were known, were -- like countless other works of the classical and Roman period (including Plato) -- lost to Latin Christendom after the fall of Rome. While references to it and fragments of it survived in various medieval libraries, it wasn't until the 15th century that the most of the work was rediscovered by the West, as I noted in an earlier post, drawing on Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances A. Yates:
About 1460, a Greek manuscript was brought to Florence from Macedonia by a monk, one of those many agents employed by Cosimo de' Medici to collect manuscripts for him. It contained a copy of the Corpus Hermeticium, not quite a complete copy, for it included fourteen only of the fifteen treatises of the collection, the last one being missing. Though the Plato manuscripts were already assembled, awating translation, Cosimo ordered Ficino to put these aside and to translate the work of Hermes Trismegistus at once, before embarking on the Greek philosophers. ...Ficino made the translation in a few months, whilst old Cosimo, who died in 1464, was still alive. Then he began on the Plato.
Ficino's efforts were a success; by 1480, Hermes Trismegistus was thought worthy of inclusion among the prophets and apostles on the pavement of the Siena Cathedral. Yet the veneration of Hermes Trismegistus, the deference shown to his writings, the avidity with which they were studied, would have shocked Christians of the second century A.D. -- which is about the time to which these gnostic texts date (in fairness to the Corpus, it should be noted that the works are not, strictly speaking, Christian heresies, though they are gnostic in character, and may have borrowed some formulations from Christian or Jewish sources). The authors of the Corpus (there were most likely more than one -- the works vary in their view of the nature of matter, the place of man in the cosmic scheme, and much else) were dressing up the latest spiritual fashions -- I previously described them as a "mishmash of Greek philosophy, Christian, Jewish and Gnostic thought, all overlain with an Egyptian motif" -- in ancient garb, claiming great antiquity for their new revelations. Like Lactantius, like Augustine, Renaissance scholars bought all this, and went a step further claiming the work was a prisca theologica, or ancient theology -- authoritative because it's old (or pretends to be).

In the second century, the Church hierarchy, such as it was, created something of a fictional character out of Simon Magus to stand in as the symbol of their contemporary theological opponents. In the 15th century, the Church hierarchy, such as it was, put a fictional character who was a champion of the gnostics in a prominent spot among the Orthodox symbols of the age.