I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to Mira Balberg, Ben Dunning, and Ellen Muehlberger for their exceedingly thoughtful observations, critiques, and questions. My thanks also to Moulie Vidas and Heidi Wendt for organizing this as a panel for the Religious World of Late Antiquity Unit of SBL, and to Ancient Jew Review for publishing this discussion.
In writing Classifying Christians, I tried to expound the idea of the ethnographic disposition, the precarious and sometimes polemical process of writing and classifying people, in the hope that it might be useful for others pursuing research about related ideas and their entanglements. I’m excited that the panelists have done just that; they have poked and prodded some of its methodological, theoretical, historical, and theological implications both to raise important questions and criticisms and to identify sites of fruitful comparison. Before I turn to some of the specific issues they have raised, I’d like to take a brief step back.
In an interview at the Chicago Humanities Festival a few years ago, Marshall Sahlins was asked to reflect on the disciplinary aims of anthropology. The question posed to him was deceptively simple: “what is anthropology and why do we need it?” Sahlins began his answer not by talking about anthropology per se but rather with a discussion of physics. Physics, he explained, effectively disarranges and confuses the objects and things that surround us. As the physicist studies the composition of an object—say, a table—that object actually becomes less familiar or recognizable. You probably know that a table is a collection of molecules separated by space, but once you subject the table to the rules of quantum mechanics, such that its electrons are in two places at once, you have elaborated an ontological model that is totally foreign to human experience. By contrast, the anthropologist works to render foreign people and their customs increasingly intelligible and accessible. The more the anthropologist immerses herself in the world of her subjects—the deeper she delves into their culture—the more transparent and legible their behaviors become. In short, Sahlins concluded, the power of the anthropologist is that she can “reproduce in her own mind the way the world is put together for other people.” And while Sahlins is talking about contemporary anthropological practice and speaking in admittedly general terms, his distinction between these two disciplinary outlooks is enormously suggestive for thinking about heresiology as a type of equivocal and equivocating ethnography.
Throughout Classifying Christians, I proposed that Christian polemical ethnographers were operating both like physicists and anthropologists. In getting closer to the heretics—whether through personal or textual experience—the heresiologists actually made the terms of Christian culture both more and less clear. Their texts uncomfortably oscillated between lucidity, confidence, and accessibility, on the one hand, and incoherence, uncertainty, and confusion, on the other. As the heresiologists worked tirelessly to piece together the world of the heretics, they simultaneously lamented the effects and consequences of this ethnographic undertaking. Not only did they express misgivings about making the heretics seem comprehensible, they also confessed their inability to understand the full scope and depth of heretical culture. For heresy itself had become an impossibly capacious genus—one that stretched the purported solidity of orthodoxy. To that end, the heresiologists textualized knowledge about the heretics that was obfuscatory, contradictory, and partial. That is why they regularly propagated a taxonomic logic of incoherent coherence. I would submit that heresiologies can be productively described as works of ordered chaos. They exhibit not totalizing aspirations of authority but a far less secure epistemological and textual timidity: knowing and classifying were fraught with conceptual incertitude.
It is from that vantage point that I would like to dwell on Ben’s first question about the ethnographic disposition—which is very much related to Mira’s observation about “what we can know about others…and what we expect or fear will happen to us in the process”—because, to me, these difficulties get to the heart of the matter. Ben asks to what degree the ethnographic disposition works to present the “other” as a kind of found object and what aspects of the complex dialectic between Christian self and other might be harder to see as a result? One of the fundamental tensions in ethnographic writing concerns just this proposition: whether the anthropologist simply finds and describes people or whether she creates a tendentious or idealized image built on her own desires and presuppositions. We might rephrase Ben’s question by asking how the ethnographer conceptualizes or depicts herself in her text? One answer gestures at types or registers of anthropological authorship. Over the course of the last decades of the twentieth century, the anthropologist went from presenting herself as a simple purveyor of facts—an author whose first-person voice was virtually absent from her text—to a self-conscious actor and author in her own right. It is the production of ethnography as a self-reflective and often uncomfortable literary activity—a shift nicely described by Clifford Geertz in his Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988) and in the voluminous oeuvre of James Clifford—that has come to define the work of the contemporary cultural anthropologist.
The heresiologists were always quite transparent about their work as authors and compilers—as both generators and relayers of existing cultural content. When Augustine explained the compositional process of De haeresibus in the text itself, he drew attention to his activity as a chronicler of previously known information. And yet, even as he produced the shortest and least rhetorically adorned of the late ancient heresiologies, he also crafted the most self-reflective and skeptical ethnographic text. His hesitations about writing heresy, however, were ultimately overcome by a commitment to the orthodox project of naturalizing certain truths and knowledge about the world and its peoples. It was the orthodoxy of the heresiologists—and the need to impose it on the world “out there”—that compelled them to write and legitimate their texts. In the case of Epiphanius and Augustine, however, their orthodoxy and expertise were attested for them. In the letter that begins the Panarion, the presbyters Acacius and Paul beseech Epiphanius’s assistance by proclaiming him a new apostle: “For not we alone, but all who hear of you, confess that the Savior has raised you up in this generation as a new apostle and herald, a new John, to proclaim things that ought to be observed by those who have undertaken this way of life” (Letter 1.6).
In these cases, heresiology as a genre is not only prior to the heresiologist, it actually presumes or even assumes a certain sense of the heresiological self. The Christian ethnographers are designated experts—fonts of knowledge and literary skill who are sought out by others. They exhaustively investigate the beliefs and practices of the heretics for the benefit of their fellow Christians. This dialectical relationship is the unwieldy magnification of Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 11.19 that “there have to be factions among you, for only then will it be clear who among you are genuine.” Just as the heretics must exist on the landscape of the Christian world, so too must the heresiologists. But the heretic is logically anterior to and constructive of the heresiologist. The latter exists by fiat—because scripture needs someone to act as the identifier. And while the heresiologist does not lose sight of his calling—his role as a hunter of heretics—his ability to fulfill or realize that role becomes increasingly elusive. The scope of the heretics’ diversity makes them far more dangerous and destructive than the heresiologists had anticipated. I fully agree with Ben, then, that certain Christians, including the heresiologists, sought to create internal differences in very specific ways. What is so intriguing about the heresiologists is that they are crafting heretics in such a way that they themselves lose control over their own polemical and representational efforts. The heresiologists have a certain amount of compositional agency even as their texts overwhelm or overtake them. In other words, the heresiologist knows what he is even if he also knows or comes to learn that he cannot actually accomplish what he has set out to do. He persists even if his text does not; he endures precisely because the heretics do. His function is a utilitarian one—it is a subjectivity that is fleeting, contingent, and forever unfulfilled. And insofar as the heresiologist was bound to his text, his sense of self was tied to a genre that was fundamentally impossible. So yes, I’d happily dispense with my demurrals and fully embrace the proposition that any iteration of the Christian project that grounds the relation between truth and knowledge in the drive to naturalize and control the order of things is a conceptual impossibility. This is precisely why Augustine resists the deacon of Carthage’s request to write a succinct summary of the opinions of each heresy. Augustine desperately wants to avoid being bound to or trapped by this ethnographic endeavor—he wants to avoid being a heresiologist altogether.
In contemplating Mira’s comments about the parallels between the rabbinic category min and the Christian notion of heresy—the way in which theology is conjoined with genealogy to bring a binitarian order to bear on the world—I was struck by her emphasis on the primordial facts and metaphysical propositions that constitute the unity of human diversity. In the same way that the rabbis constructed the idea of a pre-existing Israel within a unified humanity—an Israel waiting to be realized in history—the heresiologists molded Adam into an orthodox proto-Christian. Knowledge of Christian dogma was present in the very first human. Christianity and Judaism were, in admittedly different ways, written onto the fabric of the world in ways that, we might say, (pre)-determined the trajectory of human history. Christians conceived of this as a “recovery” of something lost—a consequence of the introduction of different opinions, beliefs, languages, and practices. To know this was to treat, in Mira’s words, genealogy as the organizing principle of theology. To render certain dogmatic truths about the world’s people into epistemological paradigms was to make the world irrevocably theological.
But this was hardly an unproblematic undertaking. The rabbis, like the Christian heresiologists, worried incessantly about the perilous effects of knowledge about the world around them. As Mira notes, in reference to the story of Rabbi Eliezer in Avodah Zarah, “the rabbis were not unworried about the ways in which knowledge can alter the one who obtains it.” Taking this rhetoric seriously compels us to reconsider the axiomatic proposition that knowledge equals power. I fear, however, that I may have gone too far in pushing against this claim. Mira rightly calls attention to the pervasive refrain both about and within rabbinic culture—one also found in the heresiologies—that treats the acquisition and production of knowledge as unequivocally beneficial and a sign of epistemological mastery. If we put these two discursive strands together, it becomes obvious that the rabbis and their heresiologist contemporaries equated knowledge with both dominance and danger. These authors expounded epistemologies that were comprehensive and self-assured at one moment and fragmentary and vacillating at another. It was not a question of either/or.
In retrospect, I wish I had used this bifurcated epistemology as an opportunity, at least with respect to the heresiological material, to push the notion of orthodoxies. Orthodoxies would have gestured at the adaptive, evolving, and unstable management and comprehension of Christian difference as a literary and polemical orientation. In preserving multiple rhetorics of classification, heresiologies accentuate a taxonomic polyvocality that complicates our persistent image of a singular orthodoxy. In the simplest terms, the diversity of the heretics engendered an expansive and divergent constellation of orthodoxies—technologies and strategies both within and across Christian polemical texts that evidence the fluctuations of a regulatory and taxonomic regime. The heresiologists differed as to how Christians were to think about heresy, interact with the heretics, and ultimately subdue them. To the extent that the ideology about the heretics was marked by logical dissonance about the means for describing and classifying heresy, it reveals gradations of ecclesiastical, theological, ethnographic, and epistemological control. These gradations depict the mechanics of orthodoxy in motion—as a system of regulations and knowledge obtainment, the conceptual extent and literary scope of which was never at rest.
Part of the reason I did not push the concept of orthodoxies in the book—and this goes to Ellen’s quite valid criticism—is that I did not write or attempt to write a history of heresiology. To have advanced the case for orthodoxies would have required serious and sustained attention to the political, social, and ecclesiastical circumstances that gave rise to particular heresiological technologies, strategies, and policies. And to be blunt, I really don’t know why in the year 374 CE, poison, disease, naturalism, and Song of Songs came together to form the master narrative of Epiphanius’s Panarion. Nicander’s poetic Theriaca, which was in some sense Epiphanius’s inspiration, had been written five centuries earlier and was also known to Tertullian—and perhaps also to Hippolytus, Irenaeus, and Theodoret. To have gone down this road would have been to focus on literary influence and adaptation rather than literary structure, style, or function. I wanted, instead, to emphasize something different: to focus on the performative construction or internal logic of the heresiologies; that is, to identify the metaphors and discourses that oriented these texts and to describe the authorial angst that concurrently plagued them. I raised questions that centered on the genre as a theo-ethnographic form. To use the vernacular of Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy in ways she certainly did not intend: I wanted to know how one should describe stonelore that one reviles? Should one actually preserve stonelore that is known to be dangerous? How should one arrange stonelore in a text? Can one in point of fact organize stonelore in a textual format? Can one understand the people who produced stonelore? Are people reducible to their stonelore?
As a partial answer to Ellen’s observations about history, I would actually suggest that heresiologies have in fact been over-historicized. By that I mean, they have been mined for historical data in such a way that they have been treated as a series of disjointed parts rather than as textual or literary wholes. The underlying function or structure of these monumental texts has either been totally ignored or described derisively as vapid polemic or, as Ellen says, repetitive and boring. More than anything else, I tried to think about the heresiologists as brilliant builders of worlds. I wanted to develop a portrait of the Christian landscape, however fictitious or warped it might be, as imagined through the worldview of the heresiologists. And although it is enormously hard to separate the truth and fiction of that world, it is a world nonetheless worth studying as a theological implement and literary artifact. That is the reason I discussed Borges’s “The Theologians” in the epilogue to the book. It is a story that has an almost generic ancient Mediterranean context—the sort of context that I find enormously appealing—but also gestures at the confusion and disorientation that attends the heresiological subject. As the fictional Aurelian, the protagonist of Borges’s story, discovers in heaven, he and his heretical nemesis were actually the same person. I can see now, in ways I did not several years ago, that I could have proposed or at least speculated about the conditions that led to the creation of these particular heresiological worlds—because, as Ellen rightly notes, these texts are not, despite their myriad similarities, all the same. It would have been interesting to have started rather than ended with Borges’s short story—to have established at the outset of the project that I was trying to understand the imaginative world of the heresiologists.
I should conclude by stressing that in concentrating on the ethnographic proclamations, hesitations, and techniques of heresiologies, I do not think I have somehow devised the definitive model for understanding this genre. What I attempted to do was offer a plausible hypothesis about Christian efforts to textualize the heretics that, in some sense, was not actually about heresy. I fully admit that it is futile to insist that a book that is all about heresy really isn’t about heresy at all. But heresy was for me a means to an end: it was the data set around which an idea of Christian ethnography could be usefully discussed and developed. My abiding interest was in how ancient Christians developed, sustained, and modified conceptual categories and the genres that produced and housed them. From my perspective, the heretics offered a provocative test case in which to consider the various ways in which the accumulation of knowledge was neither a routine nor a necessarily constructive endeavor; rather, I suggested that attempts to classify the heretics in texts raised as many questions and problems as they did answers and solutions. I wished, then, I had gestured at other ethnographic styles and context of early Christian discourse. Ben’s discussion of Clement is a perfect case in point. Originally, I had intended for the book to contain two halves, the first about polemical ethnography, focusing on the heretics, and the second about didactic ethnography, focusing on the late antique monks (and holy figures and communities more broadly). It would have been interesting to observe if those who wrote and idealized the monks—notably John Cassian and the Ecclesiastical Historians— expressed similar sorts of hesitations about and acknowledged conceptual fissures in their descriptions of ascetical peoples. Perhaps I’ll get to the second part one day. But for now, I want to reiterate my gratitude to Ben, Mira, and Ellen for their engaging and suggestive comments.
Dr. Todd S. Berzon is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Bowdoin College.