Todd Berzon’s Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity is a great book—sophisticated in its approach, challenging in the intricacy of its arguments, creative in its interdisciplinarity, and surprising in the ways in which it takes a genre that is easy to dismiss as trite and clichéd—that is, heresiology—and offers us a new lens with which to view it. Indeed, in the face of a scholarly tradition that has tended to view the increasing dominance of seemingly recycled heresiological lists and epitomes as a history of decline, “a once-vibrant genre . . . become flat and unsophisticated,” Berzon compellingly shows that “It is as epitomes that heresiology reveals its sophistication and the heresiologists their skill as armchair ethnographers” (145). Or, as he puts it towards the close of the book, “I contend that the list as a form perfectly captures the paradox of heresiological exactitude and the rhetoric of containment” (224). Berzon makes various versions of this argument throughout the book, but their cumulative force added up to a real eye-opening moment for me—the best kind when reading any scholarly monograph—and for that I want to thank him for giving me a new way to think about an aspect of early Christianity that I thought I already knew.
By way of response, I have four questions for Berzon. None of these are really critiques per se (though I sometimes find my way into a larger question by way of a quibble over some detail or another). But my hope is that all of these questions are a form of constructive engagement, picking up possible to ways to move forward out of this fascinating and challenging book.
I begin, in responding to this book that is so much about others and the work of othering, with a question about the self. Berzon puts forward a notion of the ethnographic disposition, one that I find immensely helpful for thinking about the work of classification and taxonomy in Christian late antiquity. At stake here is the desire to open up the category of ethnography so that we might be able to see its operations at work in the ancient world within a broader body of texts than those traditionally associated with the genre—that is, texts whose stated theme and purpose is the investigation of foreign peoples and lands. So he argues,
we ought to treat ethnography as a dispositional orientation that intersects with and shapes writings about history, geography, theology, and literature even as these thematic interests mold the very techniques of ethnographic writing . . . Ethnography was a discursive activity in which people were reified into textual units, assigned essential dispositions and distinctive practices and beliefs. It reflected an impulse for classifying peoples on the basis of how they behaved, where they came from, and how they came into existence . . . If ethnography is a multifaceted process in which information about a particular people is collected and then theorized, the ethnographic disposition represents the underlying rationale for such methodological and theoretical decisions. (36-37, emphasis original)
In this way, Berzon maintains, insofar as the ethnographic disposition designates a kind of generative orientation towards the world, the other, and the self—and it is out of this structure of desire that ancient ethnographies narrowly construed were produced—we can also see the effects of this disposition in a variety of other genres and across the full spectrum of ancient textual evidence; and here, of course, the genre that Classifying Christians is most concerned with is early Christian heresiology.
Within the parameters of the book, Berzon’s use of the ethnographic disposition as a tool of analysis is persuasive. My question, however, is about the degree to which this disposition works in antiquity to present (or create?) the other as a kind of found object, simply already there in its difference, its stark foreignness; and furthermore, what aspects of the complex dialectic between Christian self and other might be harder to see as a result? As Berzon argues, “Christian ethnography, like all ethnography, is a study in contrasts” (96). Or similarly, heresiological anxiety “is built upon an ethnographic logic of exchange. It is not just a fear of abstract doctrine but one of lived and continuous contact with the heretics” (47). Here the language of contrast, encounter, and exchange implies, I think, a difference that already exists. On the one hand, this is unremarkable. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick famously remarks in the seemingly simple first axiom of Epistemology of the Closet, “People are different from each other.” Fair enough. Sedgwick goes on to note, “It is astonishing how few respectable conceptual tools we have for dealing with this self-evident fact.” Now I think Berzon has shown compellingly how the early Christian ethnographic disposition was a conceptual tool for dealing with this fact as it played out in late antiquity (whether it is a respectable one or not is another matter). But on the other hand, different tools position difference differently—and thus I find myself interested in how an ethnographic disposition works to shore up its bearer as already different from the unruly diversity that the disposition’s classificatory schemas will subsequently seek to tame.
Put another way: Berzon positions heresiology as a shared project of Christians “writing about and explaining their own internal differences,” one that utilized ethnography “in order to classify and ultimately defeat the Christian plurality around them” (48). My own work on early Christians as resident-aliens has focused on another aspect of this project—the rhetorical strategies whereby certain Christians sought to create internal differences in very specific ways, to conjure plurality into being by way of scriptural narrative, theological self-positioning, and a variety of other rhetorical devices. To repurpose analogically a claim from the historian of American religion R. Laurence Moore, there are some ways in which early Christians “were different because they said they were different and because their claims . . . prompted others to agree and to treat them as such.” So my question: how might we think this aspect of early Christian self-articulation together with the ethnographic disposition that Berzon so deftly analyzes? Are these simply two separate projects—and/or doing different work at different times when they both occur in a single author or text? Is the work of producing Christian difference (that is, shoring up the orthodox Christian self as distinctive, particular, and unique in ways that might not be immediately obvious or even plausible to an outside observer in antiquity) necessarily anterior to the turning outward of that self’s ethnographic gaze in order to diagnose and subdue the heretical other? Or does the ethnographic disposition entail ongoing processes of self-formation that its basic structural orientation works to cover over but that necessarily call for interrogation and analysis all the same?
For my second question, I want to turn briefly to a concrete example. Classifying Christians uses a distinction between microscopic and macroscopic ethnography and designates an “ethnographic microcosm” as a description of “heretical customs and habits, including dietary practices, dress, rituals, and textual traditions” (24). In the second chapter—but really throughout the book as a whole—Berzon convincingly shows how “microscopic facets of Christian ethnography” are a fundamental part of heresiology broadly conceived. However, this raises some questions for me about other early Christian modes of condemning deviance that we probably would not consider heresiology, strictly speaking. The example that comes to mind most immediately is the treatment of the κίναιδος—that elusive figure of gender and/or sexual deviance—in Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus. It seems clear that Clement is immensely interested in mapping out a set of “microscopic facets” that typify this despised character. Indeed, the Alexandrian has a relentless eye for details related to gait, posture, gestures, skin texture, hair length, clothes, as well as practices of adornment, hair plucking, and, of course, sexual interaction. In Book 3, chapter 3, Clement even situates his polemic by way of comparisons that I think we could uncontroversially characterize as ethnographic (in the way that the term functions in Berzon’s book), insofar as he contrasts details of the way of life associated with the κίναιδοι to details of custom, habit, and practice among the Celts, the Scythians, the Germans, and the Arabs. Thus my question: does it make sense to extend Berzon’s notion of an ethnographic disposition to other registers of deviancy in early Christianity? Even if the κίναιδοι are not an ἔθνος for Clement in the most technical sense, is there some slippage between the ethnographic techniques of heresiology and what we see in the Paedagogus or similar texts concerned with questions of gender and sexuality? What might be illuminating about such a move—and, conversely, what are the limitations?
My third question turns to method and historiography. Here I want to raise a specific query about Foucault and then pivot to pose a broader question. In the book’s sixth chapter, Berzon begins with Foucault’s assertion in The Order of Things that, in Berzon’s paraphrase, “the structuring of living beings in taxonomic tables assumes or requires (or both) an underlying continuity within the natural order” (186). Or, to quote Foucault directly (as cited in Classifying Christians—but here I quote a longer excerpt from the relevant passage):
[A]bove the ordinary, everyday words (and by means of them, since it is of course necessary to use them for the initial descriptions) there is raised the edifice of a language in the second degree in which the exact Names of things finally rule . . . But this essential nomination—this transition from the visible structure to the taxonomic character—leads back to a costly requirement. In order to fulfil and enclose the figure that proceeds from the monotonous function of the verb to be to derivation and traversal of rhetorical space, spontaneous language had no need of anything but the play of imagination: that is, of immediate resemblances. For taxonomy to be possible, on the other hand, nature must be truly continuous, and in all its plenitude. Where language required the similarity of impressions, classification requires the principle of the smallest possible difference between things.
For Berzon, at least as I read him here, Foucault is helpful on this point primarily by way of historical analogue: “To describe nature as ordered is to be able to characterize it, define its scope, and fix its operational laws. Systems of continuity likewise enabled the naturalists of the classical age [i.e., the seventeenth century] to move from the specific to the general, to comprehend and organize the whole via the part. The late antique heresiologists, as ethnographers of the Christian world, attempted a similar task” (186, emphasis added).
This is an illuminating point. At the same time, however, I want to flag that in Foucault’s account in The Order of Things, the taxonomic project in question is part of a very specific historical narrative. To summarize this all too briefly, here Foucault situates premodernity (and specifically the Renaissance world) as being about the search for similitudes or resemblances in a world “saturated with analogies,” as put together by the divine author, God. Everything in the cosmos, on heaven and earth, is a sign—and one discerns the order of things by reading those signs in terms of their analogical relations to one another. In this way, interpreting the world is about making signs speak—discerning their divinely ordained connections, rendering visible the connection of one resemblance to another resemblance in the great chain of being. But with the transition to the Classical age of the seventeenth century, Foucault argues, this particular order of things falls apart. The figure he looks to, as a kind of transitional paradigm on the cusp of a new order, is Don Quixote. Don Quixote’s journey is “a quest for similitudes,” for a world ordered metaphysically by resemblances. Yet that world is ceasing to exist as “resemblances and signs have dissolved their former alliance.” Thus, while people still see resemblances, those resemblances are now revealed as illusions, even idols. And so resemblances are, in turn, replaced with two alternative forms of comparison: measurement and order. These are the hallmarks of the Classical period, what Foucault sees as the age of the great table—and of representation—using language to represent (i.e., map and organize) the world and reality within “[t]he project of a general science of order . . . the arrangement of identities and differences into ordered tables.” Whereas in Foucault’s rendition of the pre-modern period, language is just one more part of the chain of similitudes/resemblances, he argues that in the Classical period, language was singled out in its representative function in order to do a new kind of work: that of taxonomy or classification.
Now Berzon shows in Classifying Christians that he is aware of this larger Foucaultian narrative, though it is not an issue that he takes up in any depth. Rather, he uses Foucault’s historicization of taxonomy in the seventeenth century to think analogically about the work Christians did to order and classify the world in late antiquity. I want to be clear that I have no issue with this sort of methodological move, so this is not a critique. But I am noting that in terms of taxonomy’s longue durée, Berzon’s work at the very least implies a different historical account than the one proffered by Foucault in The Order of Things. So my question to him is as follows: given the evidence and analysis presented in Classifying Christians, how would he locate late ancient Christianity within a larger genealogy of anthropological classification variably conceived through time?
One final question: some of the most intriguing and powerful moments in Berzon’s book are to be found in his discussions of heresiology as “a meditation on the nature and limitations of Christian knowledge” (25)—and with these limitations, the necessary failure of heresiological discourse to ever achieve the closure that it seeks and promises. This is a promise, I would argue, that continues nonetheless to animate even those meditations such as Augustine’s that are aware of the problem and reflect on it explicitly (see the illuminating analysis in Chapter Seven of Classifying Christians). Berzon sums up this dynamic succinctly as “one of the fundamental paradoxes of heresiological inquiry: the structures for classifying knowledge themselves broke down to reveal the impossibility of the heresiologists’ endeavor itself” (47). With respect to Augustine specifically, Berzon notes what he terms “the paradox of intimacy”: “Augustine is aware, as Talal Asad has put it, that ‘the anthropologist’s translation is not merely a matter of matching sentences in the abstract, but of learning to live another form of life and to speak another kind of language.’ Augustine is aware that he does not and cannot live ‘another form of life’ without himself becoming a heretic” (221).
Berzon is relatively modest in his claims about the potential implications of this point as it relates to any broader register; and he avoids wading into the weeds of normative concerns or constructive engagement with Christian theology. All of this I respect. But I work in a Department of Theology, and thus I would like to wade into those weeds all the same. In a review of one of my own books, I once received the comment (a hybrid of compliment and critique) that scholarly modesty and nuance might be working to obscure a more central achievement—that is, a demonstration that a philosophical position I was critiquing in the book (a position that presented itself as confident, coherent, and entirely viable as a self-sufficient system) was, in fact, in some constitutive sense fundamentally impossible. So turning a similar point back on Berzon, I want to ask whether the analysis in this book might show us in concrete, historical terms something crucial about Christianity in general (rather than just heresiological lists specifically)—an insight that cuts to the bone more than he ever quite claims. As the book draws to a close, Berzon suggests that “Insofar as Christianity could never fully map, and by extension unite the world it studied, the world given to Adam by God was perhaps not so easily governed, named, and ordered as Genesis had promised” (245). I would lean hard on that “perhaps” and ask if what Berzon has shown in this book necessitates that those of us interested in constructive questions of Christian theology go further here—or, at least, decidedly less tentative—in proposing that the late-antique Christian ethnographic disposition provides a historically grounded window onto something more fundamental: a constitutive impossibility at the heart of any iteration of the Christian project that grounds the relation between truth and knowledge in the drive to mastery, naturalized order, coherence, and closure.
 Thanks are due to the Ph.D. and masters students in my Fall 2017 graduate seminar at Fordham University, “The Self in Early Christianity.” We had the privilege of reading and discussing Classifying Christians with the author in person, and my thoughts here are undoubtedly formed by that conversation and the students’ excellent insights. Thanks also to C. Michael Chin, Moulie Vidas, and Heidi Wendt for the initial invitation to participate in the panel.
 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 22.
 See Benjamin H. Dunning, Aliens and Sojourners: Self as Other in Early Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).
 R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 31.
 Here I am indebted to the work of Alexander Perkins, a Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University, and his dissertation in progress, entitled “Claiming Masculinity: Roman Ideologies of the Body and the Image of the Christian Man in Second and Third Century Christian Apologists.”
 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House, 1970), 159, emphasis original to translation. See also Berzon, 186.
 Foucault, Order of Things, 22.
 Foucault, Order of Things, 47.
 Foucault, Order of Things, 71-72.
 Citing Talal Asad, “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology,” in James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), 149, emphasis original.
Benjamin H. Dunning is Professor of Theology, Comparative Literature, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Fordham University.