Monday, 30 October 2017

Of Saints and Savages in Early Christianity

In the Introduction to his 2008 monograph, Champlain's Dream, David Hackett Fischer (of Historians' Fallacies fame) writes that he
seeks a path of understanding between hagiographers on the one side and iconoclasts on the other....Two generations ago, historians wrote of European saints and Indian savages. In the last generation, too many scholars have been writing about Indian saints and European savages. The opportunity for our generation is to go beyond that calculus of saints and savages altogether, and write about both American Indians and Europeans with maturity, empathy, and understanding.
The struggle between hagiography and iconoclasm is quite acute in early Christian studies, with a remarkably parallel development: where we once spoke about (literal) saints in the form of apostles and orthodox leaders on the one hand and sinners in the form of Gnostic, Marcionite, Arian, and other heterodox figures on the other, a shift occurred where we came to speak about orthodox sinners and heterodox saints. The Great Church went from being one of the great achievements in human history and its opponents shiftless malcontents, to a great coercive force that compelled obedience and quelled push-back from valiant heterodox dissenters. Even those who in principle defied the saint v. sinner--or orthodox v. heterodox--calculus tended to replicate it, with a perhaps-unconscious tendency to give preference to non-canonical or heterodox works. For instance, for much of the late twentieth-century one would be hard-pressed to find John's Gospel very much cited in historical Jesus studies--despite being the only likely first-century narrative that in any explicit fashion claims to eyewitness status--but one could readily find in the same literature prolific references to the Gospel of Thomas; rather than repudiating the orthodox v. heterodox divide, the heterodox had simply been granted the normativity taken from the orthodox. In truth, this shift was probably necessary: only by thinking about both orthodox and heterodox material through both a hermeneutic of goodwill and a hermeneutic of suspicion could we reach the point that we could write about each with maturity, empathy, and understanding. The trick, I would suggest, is now to ask how we can integrate what has been learned into a single, synthetic understanding of early Christianity.

As I think about what is necessary for writing the history of early Christianity at the level of our own time, I cannot but be reminded of Lonergan's famous argument in Collection that over and against a "solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists," and "a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development," that "what will count is a perhaps not numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait." The temptation to err to either right or left is very much before us. On the one hand, we have those who would limit the material to which they attend to the works of the New Testament and the orthodox fathers, pretending that we have not learned that early Christianity was much greater than this. On the other hand, we have those who would ignore the New Testament and the orthodox fathers, dismissing them as ideologically-driven or hopelessly biased. Neither inclination strikes me as particularly fruitful. Each such move is fully a refusal to undertake the pain-staking work of genuine historigraphy.

Concretely, probably no actor in early Christianity was wholly saint or wholly sinner. Paul appears to have been a remarkably successful leader and administrative genius, yet also given to anger--even rage--when his authority was challenged and necessarily given to compromise when he believed himself to be in the right. The emerging Great Church had legitimate reasons to define a normative tradition, but this same normativity also became the grounds for exclusions and schisms that persisted for centuries, even in some cases up until today. Marcion did demand of Christian thought a level of systematization that was relatively rare if not entirely unknown before his time, and such demand probably did help move forward Christian discourse; yet, his particular effort at systematization had legitimate intellectual difficulties that required reasoned repudiation. Valentinus might have been as much the victim of ecclesial politics as anything else, and I suspect that he himself aimed at nothing more than to help elevate the intellectual level of Christian thought. Each of these actors operated at the level of their time, advancing the concrete realities of Christian existence in demonstrable ways even as their imperfections and limitations generated a variety of difficulties (some much more than others, in respect to both advance and difficulty).

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