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The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Hywel Williams

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This is the year’s midnight. There’s a hush to the dark, short days between Christmas and the New Year. Some still see it as a sacred time, a period of meditation. Others - now the great majority - see the time in cyclical terms. At the time of greatest darkness, they share the primitivist itch to celebrate life roots and slowly returning light.

Between the sacred history of the one tendency and the natural history of the other, there is a gulf of taste and temperament. It’s the difference between the Stravinsky of the Symphony of Psalms and the Stravinsky of The Firebird. But when they wonder at the meaning of these days, both the Christian and the pagan use metaphors of dark and light, rebirth and renewal. And in using those metaphors of natural order to draw out symbols and significance, the two systems reveal their orthodoxy.
Christianity has fused with the worship of commodities, and shopping has become a religious part of life.
Paganism is now the cultural consensus of our time - as unthinking in its premises as any of the religious systems it displaced. Instead of the gods of the altar, it offers the gods of the marketplace and celebrity. It has its own theology enshrined in the jargon of modern government. Perhaps the greenery of environmentalism is the holiest of new paganism’s holies, since it finds in nature something of the constancy that Christians once saw in their God. And like the Christians, they wish to protect their deity against sacrilege.

Systems of belief, once the chilly hand of establishment wisdom descends upon them, lose the power of dissidence. Having once been heresies, they acquire offices, secretaries and expense accounts. Christianity started as a Jewish heresy and was then rescued from marginality by St Paul, who gave Christianity a universal scope. But what was lost was the sheer marginality of Christ’s life - and the paradox that what was in origin no more than a Jesus movement could one day make rulers and countries.

The history of religions, like the history of politics, is best seen from the bottom up. And what one sees down there is the power and the obviousness of what orthodoxy calls heresy, because it’s the heretics who point out that the course of subsequent history is not actually what the founders and the original principles intended it to be.

Heresies tend to become popular because they tend to be true. The Donatist Church in the north Africa of the early Christian centuries, the Cathars and the Albigensians in 12th-century France and Italy, the lost English tradition of republicanism from Milton to Blake: all said that the world was not as it should be, that there was a sickness in the governing order that enforced accommodation with establishment and power, and that recovery involved going back to root principles. And all those movements were eventually defeated by the forces that said that it was the way of the world to be corrupt.

Over and over again it’s the same arguments that are used against the heretics: that they are elitist, pursuing a counsel of perfection and sometimes practising a lot of free sex; that they are harsh and intolerant. These are the abuses offered by those who know themselves to be judged correctly and are therefore frightened. Sometimes what starts as a heresy acquires its own rival orthodoxy - as has happened with Shia Muslims. But more often heretics are simply killed off.

Heresy is spirit-led and incorrigibly populist. It is the highest point of religion and politics since it undermines all external codes of authority and finds the only real authority in individuals who make the truth their possession.

If heresy did not exist, then orthodoxy would have had to invent it. Heretical thoughts are a kind of standard by which orthodoxy can measure itself and exclude the outsiders. But our period is one of the least heretical in western history. The victory of orthodoxy in liberal capitalist form is so profound that it no longer needs to convince that there are heretics under the beds. It preaches a war against terror. But terror is the enemy without. The point about heresy was that it was a danger within the system.

As the old year dies, residual orthodox Christians and new orthodox pagans can rest content. Both are complacent about the world that gives them their meaning. Whether it’s the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who is worshipped or the god of forest and Kyoto, order and sanity involves going with the flow of a natural order. But heresy always said that spirit was always on the move, breaking up the false foundations and forcing adulthood on humankind. We could do with more of it.


Published Wednesday, December 31st, 2003 - 05:51pm GMT

Article courtesy of The Guardian

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