The Heretical Imperative

"Job Rebuked by His Friends" by William Blake, 1805-6.

"Job Rebuked by His Friends" by William Blake, 1805-6.

“Church Going,” a 1955 poem by Philip Larkin, describes the mix of awkwardness and reverence many of us feel when faced with the monuments of our religious past. The narrator, having removed his cycle clips to visit an old church, asks himself why he continues these debased pilgrimages, which “always end at a loss like this, wondering what to look for.” Larkin’s tourist is unwilling to embrace the rigidities of strict atheism or strict orthodoxy, and lives somewhere in the murky space between the two.

A majority of Americans are in a similar situation: over ninety percent believe in God, while less than one fourth believe that their faith is the only true one. The sterile and increasingly hysterical debate between the self-appointed representatives of “science” and “religion” has very little to do with the experience of religion in modern society, and many of us are, at least in secret, at one with Larkin’s shuffling visitor: “Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground.”

Perhaps the problem is the one diagnosed by Hannah Arendt: the collapse of orthodox religion has not caused us to turn towards the world with the piety and love once accorded God. Benjamin Lazier, in his inspiring and beautifully-written God, Interrupted: Heresy and the European Imagination Between the World Wars (Princeton, 2009), suggests that there can be no simple path between these two forms of reverence. A detour through the long tradition of heresy might be required in order to overcome religion without losing our faith. Through a study of the surprising influence of heretical thought on Hans Jonas, Leo Strauss, and Gershom Scholem—three of the most influential Jewish intellectuals of the twentieth century—Lazier attempts to resuscitate the lost art of heresy, with all its possibilities and danger.

From the second century onwards, the prototypical heretic was the Gnostic: a catch-all term applied to anyone who believed that God was radically distinct from the created world, and that the creator God of scripture was, in fact, the devil. This sounds almost unimaginably exotic to us now, but Gnosticism was, for centuries, seen as a real threat to early Christian and Jewish faith. The other model heretic was the pantheist. If the Gnostic sought to rigorously distinguish god and world, the pantheist sought to equate the two. Although somewhat more charming than its predecessor, pantheism was, orthodox believers pointed out, perilously close to atheism; this explains the endless controversy, some of which is tracked by Lazier, swirling around Spinoza, philosophy’s most famous pantheist.

Although European societies were obsessed for centuries with the identification and persecution of heretics, Gnosticism and pantheism refused to die (however many actual heretics were forced to). The most recent resurgence of Jewish heresy occurred in the wake of liberal theology’s implosion after World War I. Rationalist theologians, from Moses Mendelssohn onwards, had argued that Judaism needed to modernize, shedding the outdated trappings of Jewish tradition and replacing them with rational ethics; likewise, the Jewish people had to transform from an insular religious community into “German citizens of the Mosaic persuasion,” as the slogan had it. In Hermann Cohen’s “religion of reason,” the God of Job—thundering in impenetrable clouds—is replaced by a sweetly reasonable deity, and the age-old struggle between Athens and Jerusalem is concluded with a peace treaty and handshakes all around. After the blatant irrationality of World War I, this theology became literally incredible. Leo Strauss liked to tell a story about a pious Jew who asked Cohen, perhaps the most prominent rationalist theologian, about the fate of God in his Kantian system. Instead of providing an answer, Cohen wept prescient tears.

In the tumult of interwar Europe, many attempted to reclaim this absent God through heresy: both Gnosticism and pantheism, the twin rivals of a discredited orthodoxy, reappeared and flourished. Jonas, Strauss, and Scholem, all of whom came to maturity in this postwar period, were indelibly marked by this revival. They all felt, like the heretics, that we lived in a world from which the orthodox God had absented himself. They also, however, argued that God’s vanishing act was not the end of the story. The creation of a modern form of faith—beyond both religion and materialism—required a final overcoming of heresy. This time, the critique would not send us back into the welcoming embrace of orthodoxy, but rather propel us forward, into the world.

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Both Jonas and Strauss argued that the horrors of modernity stemmed from God’s disappearance. Against the Gnostics and pantheists, whom they relentlessly attacked, the two German Jews held that the world left behind could be reinvested with the transcendent value that used to be God’s alone. Modernity, in other words, could only be redeemed by filling the God-shaped hole in our society with nature. In Aristotelian terms, they see physis as an antidote to nomos. We need, that is, to understand nature differently: not merely as “that which surrounds us,” but as a metaphysical and ethical order that sets limits to human activity—limits that we are manifestly incapable of setting for ourselves.

For Jonas, the modern worldview was tainted with Gnosticism: we treat the earth, and one another, with such consummate lack of care because, in the absence of God, living things appear to us as mere matter to be used and abused at our convenience. Once we stop seeing nature as a stage for God’s creation, and God’s order, everything is permitted (to quote another famous heretic). From this insight he developed a robust philosophical biology and environmental ethics, premised on the final overcoming of the Gnostic heresy. Similarly, Leo Strauss felt that the violence of his century was rooted in a disenchantment of the world. In classical times, he argued, nature was seen as a source of ethical and political truths. We have now forgotten this, and the consequences of our relativism are not hard to find. As an antidote to modern nihilism he sought to revive the old philosophical approach to nature, which saw the world not as—again—mere matter, but as a repository of meaning and, in Strauss’s special sense of the term, natural right.

Gershom Scholem, Lazier’s third and most enigmatic subject, also travels through heresy to ground a modern, pious relationship between man and nature. He does not so much reject certain orthodoxies as embrace all heresies. For Scholem, God’s absence from the world creates the space of nothingness from which we can hear His voice. Nature is neither identified with nor distinct from God: these two heresies result, Scholem thought, in either “absolute homelessness” or “absolute Godlessness.” When we encounter the world, Scholem suggests, we are not faced with the bare nothing of the Gnostics or the flaccid everything of the pantheists; instead, we are faced with a unique something that is autonomous from God yet shot through with traces of its divine origin. Only a gap between God and world allows us the space to develop autonomously as ethical subjects, but this gap is not absolute: from our all-too-human standpoint, we can still sense God, and we can still glimpse redemption.

Although neither Lazier nor his subjects, presumably, have been threatened with a burning at the stake, this remains heresy that counts, not the anemic “heresy” that is simply a masked form of indifference. G.K. Chesterton describes the man who “says, with a conscious laugh, ‘I suppose I am very heretical,’ and looks round for applause.” Heresy in this sense, of simply having opinions that do not happen to be orthodox, is perhaps the default religious option for many of us today, as it was for Larkin’s cyclist. This is not the heresy of Lazier’s book, and that is its great merit: it shows us an alternative to strict orthodoxy that does not take the form of shrugging ecumenism. Lazier, it should be clear, is not attempting to found a new orthodoxy. Instead he is unearthing a style of thought and reasoning, which, following Peter Berger, he calls “the heretical imperative.” This mode of engagement with the religious past replaces confused half-belief with exacting analysis, shaping the shards of exploded traditions into something new instead of leaving them in a mess on the floor. If the God of orthodoxy has lost his plausibility for many of us—for two-thirds of us, apparently—heretical reasoning allows us a path to piety that does not circle back to a bankrupted past.

To adopt Lazier’s title, the modern predicament is one in which God’s call is “interrupted.” The orthodox solution to this dilemma is to act as though she can still hear the word of God with complete clarity, while the atheist’s solution is to clap her ears against the ever-quieter echoes of past revelation. The Jewish intellectuals discussed by Lazier present us with a third option: to open our ears to nature, and to one another. The skeptic would argue that a circuitous route through heresy is hardly necessary to arrive at such a banal conclusion; in response, Lazier’s modern heretics would wonder why such a simple resolution was ignored in the tragedies of the twentieth century. As Scholem put it in a devastating formulation, whose simplicity belies the heretical complexity required to truly defend it: “Develop peacefully, and don’t destroy the world.”

James Chappel is a graduate student in modern European history at Columbia University. He is currently writing a dissertation on twentieth-century Catholic intellectuals, many of whom would have been very happy to revive the Inquisition.