I went to a lecture yesterday on the ins and outs of the Arian heresy. Obscure though the Arians may sound today, when John Henry Newman studied them and their sympathizers around 1830 the situation reminded him of nothing so much as the Anglican church, lots of politicos and time-servers with no bottom line making a virtue of things by calling a mess the “via media.” To me the whole thing seems more like the Church in recent decades:
- Intellectual entrepreneurs make careers for themselves based on novel interpretations that are flashy and hard to get rid of based on current ways of thinking even though they’re clearly wrong from a normal perspective.
- The entrepreneurs pick up powerful support outside the Church, from emperors or whatever, because entrepreneurs like to maneuver and the politically powerful like rationalizing interpretations that (i) do away with mysteries that by their nature suggest human limitations, and (ii) cut traditional authorities they don’t control down to size. (It occurs to me that the politically powerful also like irrationalizing heresies, Frank Griswold’s “pluriform truths” for example, that deprive religion of all content and so make it harmless. An historical precedent would be the reliance by Legalist thinkers in ancient China on Taoist concepts that debunk all rational thought and so make it conceptually impossible to criticize or even comment on anything the authorities do. Multiculturalism and deconstruction serve the same function in our own day.)
- Ordinary believers don’t like what’s going on and reject it, sometimes in mindless or even violent ways, but in the long run they get drawn in to some extent if only because of the appeal of factionalism and the fact that everything seems up in the air.
- A few principled types take a stand and get abused for it. They eventually win, magna est veritas et praevalebit (“truth is mighty and will prevail, a bit”*) but it takes a very long time and involves a lot of reverses because (i) it’s easier to present snappy sophisms than persuasive descriptions of truths we can’t altogether grasp in any event, (ii) intellectual entrepreneurs don’t care that much about what they say so long as they get somewhere, so they’re always shifting ground in response to shifting advantages, and (iii) entrepreneurs are better organizers, and secular authorities basically don’t like any religious authority they have to respect and can’t play around with.
The lecture, by the way, was one of a multi-year series of lectures John Rao gives on Church history in New York City, in Greenwich Village of all places. They’re very good, and if you’re in the area and vaguely interested in the subject you should attend.
* [That’s a joke.]