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Book Review: The Great Heresies
(Hilaire Belloc)

For no reason that is fully clear to me, I have always been fascinated by heresies.  It matters to me what the difference between a Monothelite and a Monophysite is.  Hence, I thought this book (from 1938, by the famous Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc) would survey various heresies and would explain, as its title says, the “Great Heresies.”  But that is not what this book is.

Instead, it is a survey of five exemplars of heresies, from earliest Christian times to the modern age, and a two-pronged argument.  The five heresies are the Arian, Islam, the Albigensian, Protestantism, and the Modern.  The two arguments are, first, that that these five encompass all possible basic material variations from true Christian belief.  And second, that three of the five have been defeated by Catholicism, the only two remaining being Islam (which Belloc presciently predicted would regain its ancient strength) and the “Modern” heresy, which Belloc saw as the main threat to Christianity and the world, and in fact as probably the harbinger of Anti-Christ.

Belloc, of course, was a wholly orthodox Roman Catholic who believed that the entirety of what the Church taught is true.  As he points out, though, this is essentially irrelevant for his book, which is not a book of apologetics, it is a book of analytical history.  Belloc sees Roman Catholicism as coterminous with Christianity; he explicitly rejects that there can be varieties of Christian belief.  There is one Christian belief; the rest are heresies.  He characterizes the Orthodox as schismatic, not heretical, and therefore not relevant to his book (although his aside on this matter is not wholly convincing).

Belloc begins, naturally enough, by precisely defining “heresy,” noting that in modern usage it merely connotes some vague angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin theological disagreement, of no current import or relevance.  Belloc believes that not only is heresy a very specific thing, but that the fact that no heresy conquered the Roman Catholic Church was essential to the creation and maintenance of Western civilization.  In essence, this is the frame through which he views each heresy.

“Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein.”  Thus, a heresy is not necessarily a religious dislocation.  Moreover, “The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy, and has not the creative power of a heresy.  It is of the essence of heresy that it leaves standing a great part of the structure it attacks.  On this account it can appeal to believers and continues to affect their lives through deflecting them from their original characters.”  It is that deflection that makes the heresies with which Belloc is concerned important, for his thesis is that the entire society is thereby modified, or distorted.

First up is Arianism—in essence, the denial of the divinity of Christ.  Belloc attributes the appeal of Arianism to the universal appeal of rationality as opposed to mystery.  “It sprang from the desire to visualize clearly and simply something which is beyond the vision of human vision and comprehension [i.e., the hypostatic union].”  The impact of Arianism, according to Belloc, is to “produce a gradual social degradation following on the loss of that direct link between human nature and God which is provided by the Incarnation.  Human dignity is lessened.  The authority of Our Lord is weakened.  He appears more and more as a man—perhaps a myth.  The substance of Christian life is diluted.  It wanes.  What began as Unitarianism ends as Paganism.”  Therefore, an Arian Europe would have been a very different place.  “The point is that the doctrine (and its denial) were formative of the nature of men, and the nature so formed determined the future of the society made up of those men.”

Not that Arianism was like a modern system of rationality—that would have not had any appeal in 300 A.D.  But a rationalized form of the core Christian doctrine appealed as both simpler and as better suited to the governing classes, and especially to the military, who saw themselves as less credulous than the teeming masses.  This was particularly true since at the time Christianity was in no way dominant in the Roman Empire, although the time of persecutions was ending.  For the elite considering converting from paganism, Arianism was attractive, since it made them less needful of accepting something that was bizarre on its face, and allowed more connection to the high old pagan culture.  Belloc follows how certain emperors and the army accepted Arianism, and attempted to mandate theological compromises.  These were rejected by the Church Fathers such as St. Athanasius, on the grounds even such compromises would “endanger the vital principle by which the Church exists.”  This was criticized as uncooperative fanaticism, but in part due to a combination of historical accidents (e.g., the death of Julian the Apostate and, later, the rise to power of the Franks) and in part due to the vigor of the proponents of the traditional view, Arianism slowly declined to nothingness (although various other heresies in the East, such as Monophysites and Nestorians, were similar attempts to rationalize a key, but mysterious, doctrine of Christianity, and their existence contributed to the rise of Islam).

Next is “the great and enduring heresy of Mohammed.”  Belloc reviews the inception and rapid spread of Islam, hard upon the heels of the ultimate decay of Arianism.  In particular, he reviews the once-commonplace, and commonsense, view that Islam is a Christian heresy, with the difference that, unlike most heresies, “it did not arise within the bounds of the Christian Church,” but that Mohammed “taught was in the main Catholic doctrine, oversimplified. . . . [H]e, like so many other lesser heresiarchs, founded his heresy on simplification.”  He went well beyond Arianism and denied the Trinity altogether, along with the sacramental structure of Christianity, together with adding various ancillary beliefs mostly directly or indirectly derived from Christianity and Christian writings.  (Belloc does not note that much of Mohammed’s doctrine was also derived from a distorted retelling of parts of the Talmud.)

This simplified religion was attractive for much the same reason as Arianism, and when combined with the existing slavery, imperial taxation and corruption rampant in the East, and the presence of other Arian-type heresies, as well as the zeal of its first converts, Islam spread rapidly.  It became fabulously wealthy and cultured, although actual conversion of conquered territories was slow and not directly encouraged.  And having largely destroyed Christianity in the East, it threatened the entire West—which would, if the threat had been made good, have certainly resulted in a very different West.

Belloc clearly has great respect, if a fearful respect, for Islam.  He notes that unlike other heresies, its physical, temporal power has declined, but unlike other heresies, its adherents have not diminished in numbers or zeal, and they have proven to be unconvertible.  (In fact, he notes that Europeans who convert tend to convert to Islam, not the reverse.  See, e.g., Muhammad Asad’s conversion memoir, The Road To Mecca).  Belloc ascribes Islam’s long-standing (but now-ended, or suspended) temporal ascendancy to the continued ability of Islam to convert new, militarily-centered groups (the Mongols, etc.) and to the (unfortunate, to both Belloc and me) failure of the Crusades.  The issue was even in doubt relatively recently; as Belloc says, “It is interesting to notice, for instance, that the Mohammedan call to prayer [of Algerian pirates] was heard on the coasts of Southern Ireland within the lifetime of Oliver Cromwell.”  He does not know what to ascribe the spiritual vitality of Islam to, which is an interesting admission—I’m sure Muslims would be happy to supply reasons to him, and encourage his conversion!  It’s a bit too late for Belloc, though, one way or the other.

Belloc rejects the common Western idea that Islam declined in temporal power due to fatalism—pointing out that the same doctrine, or set of related doctrines, characterized Islam just as much when it was at its temporal apogee.  He makes the same argument about Islam’s well known tendency toward fissiparous political succession.  Therefore, he concludes that the quiescence of Islam as a temporal force in the early 20th Century was destined to end, and that it is likely that Islam would rise as a modern military machine.  “It has always seemed to me possible, and even probable, that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent. . . . Since religion is at the root of all political movements and changes and since we have here a very great religion physically paralyzed but morally intensely alive, we are in the presence of an unstable equilibrium which cannot remain permanently unstable.”  In fact, unlike the West, “the whole spiritual strength of Islam is still present. . . . . The final fruit of this tenacity, the second period of Islamic power, may be delayed—but I doubt whether it can be permanently postponed.”

He took for granted that Islam would desire to continue to conquer and dominate, which is logical, considering it is an essential part of the theology of Islam.  He notes that until recently, Europeans “thought of Mohammedanism as we think of Bolshevism or as white men in Asia think of Japanese power today”—and that day, he predicted, would return soon again, since there was no reason why the temporary comparative disadvantage in military technology should continue.  But since 1938, such a thing has not happened—the Muslim world, or part of it, has become fabulously wealthy, but no Muslim group has arisen as the new Mamluks or Ottoman Turks.  Sure, the House of Saud exports Wahhabism all over the world, and that is pernicious, but it is not a global military challenge, and shows no sign of it, all the talk of ISIS’s goals not to the contrary.  Moreover, the Muslim world is split along their own doctrinal lines, and spends much of its warlike energy fighting other Muslims.  So Belloc’s prediction has not come true.  Islam is more relevant to the West now than in 1938, largely because of oil wealth, but the new siege of Vienna is not on the horizon (whether the same effect is achieved by Europe inviting an alien body to conquer it from within is a different question, and not one Belloc could have foreseen).

Third up is Albigensianism.  Belloc notes that the dualist, anti-matter doctrines of the Albigensians have “always been latent among men in various forms, not only in the civilization of Christendom but wherever and whenever men have had to consider the fundamental problems of life, that is, in every time and place.”  Albigensians were only one example; others included the earlier Manicheans, Puritanism (which seems a stretch) and Jansenism.  Dualism is in essence a response to the problem of theodicy, the so-called “problem of evil.”  Why does an all-powerful, all-good God permit evil and suffering?  Other possible responses include Stoicism (“grin-and-bear-it”); ignoring the problem; and Buddhism and other “Eastern” philosophies, that de-focus on the individual and thereby diminish the seeming importance of the problem.  If Albigensianism had conquered, Western society would have been radically transformed.  But they were put down, and good thing, too.

Fourth is Protestantism.  Belloc defines this as not one heresy, but a “crop of heresies.”  And while many decayed quickly, their core principle, “reaction against a united spiritual authority,” continued strongly long enough to “break up our European civilization in the West and to launch at last a general doubt, spreading more and more widely.”  Belloc, in a fairly lengthy historical review, claims that this split was not immediate at the inception of the Reformation (and he reviews the causes of the Reformation, as well, from undoubted extensive corruption in the Church, to the Great Schism, to the Black Death).  For quite some time, both Catholics and Protestants viewed Christianity not as split, but as having a vigorous debate about what should be the universal faith.  But after a long enough time and enough wars, the current view of Christianity as split into two took hold, which Belloc holds had extremely pernicious consequences for both the thinking and the organization of Western civilization.  And while Belloc sees Protestantism as basically dead as a belief system, he thinks this split has had profound consequences, the chief of which is the weakening of the primacy of religious belief in the mind of Western man, and its “subordination to worldly motives.”  (The fact that most modern Christians often see this as a feature, not a bug, merely proves Belloc’s point.)

Of course, Belloc was wrong in his conclusion that Protestantism is dead.  Certainly the Protestantism he knew, of the Church of England and a variety of other what are now called “mainstream” Protestant churches, centered in Europe was dying then and is wholly and embarrassingly dead now, at least as institutions.  But the global rise of vigorous evangelicals, Pentecostals, and for that matter Mormons (to the extent they can be considered Christian) shows that a wide range of non-Catholic Christian movements is very much temporally and spiritually alive.

Finally, Belloc covers the “Modern Phase”—“a wholesale assault upon the fundamentals of the Faith—upon the very existence of the Faith.”  This is a battle for survival or destruction, and there can be only one victor.  The assailant is not one modern philosophy or another, such as Communism (which Belloc presciently identifies as “only one manifestation, and probably a passing one”).  It is atheistical, not interested in reason, and opposed to the “indissoluble Trinity of Truth, Beauty and Goodness”—that is, once Christianity is wholly denied, soon thereafter “there is coming not only a contempt for beauty but a hatred of it; and immediately upon the heels of this there appears a contempt and hatred for virtue.”  This is certainly prophetic—we can see this in the treatment of art and culture over the 20th Century, and even more so in the utter contempt and hatred for virtue, other than the “virtue” of limitless autonomy, that exists today as the dominant ethic.

Such open assaults are merely part of it, though.  Perhaps an even greater part is what Rod Dreher calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” but which Belloc identified 80 years ago.  “It is essentially atheist, even when the atheism is not overtly predicted.  It regards man as sufficient to himself [and], prayer as mere self-suggestion.”  Talk of “assault” and “anti-Christ” perhaps casts into shade a bigger problem—the total loss of the spiritual inheritance of the West, not mostly to open subscription to a virulent opposite, but to acedia, spiritual apathy.

Belloc also correctly predicted that the impact of the Modern heresy would not be most profound in the expected areas.  For example, “Those who would point to the modern breakdown of sexual morals as the chief effect of the Modern Attack on the Catholic Church are probably in error; for it will not have the most permanent results . . . . [Rather,] cruelty will be the chief fruit in the moral field of the Modern Attack . . . .”  Belloc notes that it is not that Christians cannot be cruel, but it is an exception to their core beliefs, whereas cruelty is part and parcel of the Modern, “because there is no longer in force the conception that man as man is something sacred.”

The 20th Century pretty much bore this conclusion out in ways I need not explain.  Similarly, the unbelievable cruelty of abortion is now unexceptional.  We see ourselves as not cruel, and perhaps for now the camps are empty, but that does not mean that the modern tendency toward cruelty is ended—more likely, it is merely in abeyance, literally hidden as in abortion, or hidden under the guise of pseudo-mercy, such as in the groundswell of ever-less-voluntary euthanasia in parts of Europe (benighted parts, like Belgium and Holland, not enlightened ones like Poland and Hungary).  If man is not sacred, and human dignity is nothing, necessarily the Peter Singers of this world are always hungering to begin the killing again, and nothing but force can stop them.

Belloc ends by predicting that one of two things must happen.  Either the Catholic Church will be reduced to an insignificant rump, condemned to silence (but not to disappearance, since that is by definition impossible); or it will “recover and extend her authority, and rise once more to the leadership of the civilization which she made.”  Neither has happened, of course, but “leadership of civilization” is certainly not what Pope Francis is giving us—more like desperate seeking of approbation from all the wrong people and hurtling headlong down the path of dead mainstream Protestantism.  Belloc also name-checks Robert Hugh Benson, who wrote both Lord of the World, about the triumph of the Modern and the resulting Apocalypse (oddly perhaps, a favorite book of Pope Francis and therefore re-arisen to public view) and another book, today wholly obscure, The Dawn of All, wherein the Church resurgent triumphs.  But he ends modestly optimistically, noting that a minority of men can decide a contest. “The future is not decided for men by a public vote; it is decided by the growth of ideas.”  Belloc sees Catholic ideas as likely to rise, which they have not, at least since he wrote the book.  But like the swordfight between Inigo Montoya and the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride, where advantage shifts unexpectedly from side to side, as previously hidden skills are revealed, the resolution is still very much in doubt.

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