Heretics, The Creation of Christianity, from the Gnostics to the Modern Church

Jonathan Wright tells a story that is well known in academia: that heretics are the counter point to true faith: that true faith needs heretics to define itself.

That said: he tells the story brilliantly for a more general audience, with details that most readers will be unfamiliar with. From Arius to Martin Luther and John Calvin. From Gnostics to Constantine and president Obama.

From the start he makes it clear that the myth of a unified church made it necessary for church fathers to define who belonged to early Christianity and who didn’t. Early Christianity was, of course, no unified whole. It consisted of small pockets of believers in a sea of paganism after all. And it took people like Paul and other apostles to knit it all together.

That story is interesting, but perhaps even more interesting – because to me unexpected – is the view of heresy in the reformation. Luther and Calvin were heretics according to the Church, however, both soon started prosecuting heretics in their own ranks as violently as the Roman Church did in theirs. Dutch churches, are still testimony to the iconoclasm that followed: no statue of Mary was allowed to stand, church walls needed to be white washed. In recent years as much of the original decoration of these churches has of course been restored to as much of their former glory as possible, but the violence of the destruction was immense. This iconoclasm happened all through protestant Europe.

The story ends with the development of a new concept: tolerance. And while of course philosophers wrote about this, Wright describes it as mostly a getting tired of fighting over theology with ones neighbours. After all, it was much easier to simply by the bread the baker made, and not mind what he believed…

The question we do need to ask ourselves is: is this tolerance a permanent thing, or is it a cultural veneer over a basic social need of each group to define itself? After all, there’s no chance at present that a US president could NOT be (or profess to be) religious in some way or other. In the West people are no longer stoned to death over their religious convictions, but they can still loose their job, or be ineligible for a promotion, over them.

And with China on the rise in terms of world power, can ‘human rights’ (a 20th century invention) continue to stand as a beacon for human and government behavior?

Recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa make me somewhat positive on this score, but while the majority of mankind still lives without these (to us) basic freedoms, we can’t take them for granted. This book is the history of such freedoms and as such not only fascinating as a historical account, but also relevant to our world today.