White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
Robert Wexelblatt
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal. His novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction. His most recent book is the story collection, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing. His short story "Crazy About Her" appeared in Issue 1.3 of White Whale Review, while his Fein essay series have appeared in issues 2.1, 2.3, 3.1, 4.1, 4.2, and 5.1

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FEIN ON Heresy

Robert Wexelblatt


Heresy never starts off as heresy; on the contrary, it begins as somebody’s idea of orthodoxy.  Conversely, orthodoxy itself might be perversely taken as a series of triumphant heresies.

In its first centuries, the Christian Church was preoccupied with fixing what people were supposed to believe and not to believe. Many ecumenical councils were convened and their rulings established right thinking which they called orthodoxy, but also wrong thinking, which they called heresy.  Council after council convened to proclaim creeds and denounce error. These creeds were matters of life and death, tickets to salvation, but also loyalty tests.  This continuous, intense process of inclusion and exclusion consumed enormous intellectual and spiritual energy counted in the sum of which must also be the work of the so-called heresiarchs who were no less zealous or diligent than their opponents. 

In a story set during this period, “The

Theologians,” Jorge Luis Borges interpolates a shrewd and chilling remark: “The heresies we should fear are those which can be confused with orthodoxy.”  That Borges puts parentheses around this sentence only makes it the more eye-catching; it sounds like a motto for the most fanatical heretic-hunters.

As the Church insisted that salvation depended on accepting Christianity, it was obliged to define what Christianity meant—and so began the process of ruling in and ruling out.  Evidently, there was something about the new faith that provoked all kinds of sects—Apollinarists, Arians, Docetians, Macedonians, Monophysites, Ophites, Antinomians, Christianized Manicheans, and so on and on up to last week.  Christianity could even breed a kind of religious immorality, such as that of those libertines who held that divine predestination made moral restrictions superfluous and so lived in a kind of perpetual orgy.  Other sectarians, believing in the linearity of time and so the uniqueness of every action, devoutly perpetrated every conceivable crime in the present as a way of purifying the future.  A distinction is needed, though.  While the Christian faith inspired this

astonishing efflorescence of strange ideas, the Christian religion—that is, the institutional version—required both more and less than faith.  A student once asked me to explain the difference between a cult and a religion.  I answered him too glibly:  “About five hundred years.”  But part of what goes on in those centuries is the establishment of orthodoxy. 

The word heresy derives from the Greek hairesis, whose meaning floats a little; it includes the act of taking, a school or sect, the ability to choose.  Organized Christianity narrowed its meaning to something worse than a mistake, something that needed to be consumed by flames both here and hereafter.  The theological disputes of the single-numbered centuries were mortal struggles.  As every question was of eternal significance, no disagreement was trivial, such as whether Jesus had two natures or only one, if he was the genetic offspring of God or adopted after birth.  As the Empire slowly collapsed around them, to the theologians nothing was more urgent than the effort to define and defend the true faith. Pagan philosophy had become a sort of broken vending-machine: fifty cents of virtue in, the candy bar of

happiness out.  Conditions had changed.  Epicureans needed a functioning society to pick up the Garden’s trash; Stoics required a stable polity to live the life of duty.  Augustine called the hope of happiness in this world vain.  Christianity promised that it lay beyond this vale of tears and Huns and Goths.  The new religion’s pledge of salvation must have been extraordinarily attractive.  Christianity’s plasticity was part of its appeal, the obverse of its sponge-like capacity for absorbing pagan feasts and philosophies.  Still, one might have thought that Constantine’s elevation of it to official status and sponsoring the Council of Nicaea to lay down its orthodoxy might at least have slowed the hectic theologizing.  It didn’t.  Like mushrooms after three days of rain, heresies continued to erupt everywhere, in the sophisticated cities and the hermits’ forests.

What has made me think of these dusty matters is an article written by his brother-in-law after the death of the German heresiologist Rudolf Schattinger last year.  Schattinger was forty-six when his BMW collided with a bridge abutment and a controversial figure in his field.  He was famous, or notorious, for his claim to have discovered in the

archives of the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) the previously unknown Probatian heresy about which he published a book. Quite a few of his colleagues, led by the French expert Guillaume Charconne, accused Schattinger of perpetrating a hoax.  Schattinger hardly dispelled the imputation when he published what he claimed was a transcription of the original texts but declined to make the originals available for inspection.  His explanation was that he had promised anonymity to the eccentric Turkish bibliophile who owned the Chalcedonian archives and had graciously granted him sole access to them.  To Charconne, this excuse was ludicrous; in fact, he published a short, funny piece mocking Schattinger—cet hérétique fabricant des heresies—comically describing his imaginary Turk as obèses mais invisible.

It is not easy to distinguish a real heresy from an imaginary one, no easier than those heresies that resemble orthodoxy.  All heresies are acts of imagination; they begin in speculation, what-if deductions.  What if we have no free will?  What if everyone were damned or saved long before being born?  What if Jesus were just an exceptional human being?  What if evil were, somehow, good?  If

heresies should be feared because they lead away from the path to salvation, then the imagined heresy is no less dangerous than the real.  In fact, the only difference between an imagined heresy and a real one is how many people believe in it.

Heresies are usually named for their founders, but not always.  Rudolf Schattinger called the heresy he discovered Probatian, even though there was no Probatius.  The archives, he wrote, only described and proscribed the false doctrine but assigned it no designation.  He adopted the name from the Latin probitas—uprightness, goodness.

According to Schattinger, the Probatians took the position that Christ’s redemption of humankind was comprehensive.  They accepted Augustine’s distinction between the perfection of God and the goodness of all created things:  the perfect is immune to corruption while the good is not.  They accepted Christ’s divine and perfect nature.  However, they taught that when Jesus became “consubstantial with humanity” all men, by virtue of his redemptive sacrifice, were sanctified.  For the Probatians, this wiping of the slate, this new and pristine goodness was granted not only to

Christians but Jews, polytheists, Epicureans, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, neo-Platonists, animists, Skeptics; it was true of every person and in every new generation. The glory of Christ’s sacrifice was like sunlight striking impure water. It filled the world and purified every being.  The Probatians rejected Augustine’s doctrine that we begin life burdened with the sin of Adam and Eve.  In fact, they said it was to cancel that original sin that the crucifixion was contrived endured.  Every life begins innocent and good.  We are free of sin at birth, although not, as the libertines perversely claimed, free to sin.  On the contrary.  We all begin with an A+, so to speak.  The tragedy of our condition is that as we live all of us—or nearly all—fall further and further away from God’s gift of original goodness, losing points one by one.  So, having been endowed by God with the gift of free will along with that of an spotless start, our degradation is entirely owing to our own choices.  The Probatians taught that without free will humans could have remained as innocent as the lion or the barnacle, but also as soulless.  The Probatians rejected the idea that the Church mediated between God and individuals because they did not accept

the goodness of the Church.  In fact, the politically lethal logic of the Probatians led them to conclude that, once incarnated into an earthly institution with a hierarchy and grand basilicas, the Church itself (“the body of Christ”) itself fell into sin.

One of the more memorable passages in Schattinger’s book begins with this question:  “Can God be separated from judgment?”  He admits that such a disjunction would be all but unthinkable for any Christian—any monotheist, in fact.  He acknowledges that judging seems to be one of the essential attributes of what he calls “this singular Deity, the sky-god, the desert-god.”  Nevertheless, Schattinger claims the Probatians proposed that, having both sanctified us and gifted us with freedom, God refrains from judging us.  Our bad grades are, so to speak, recorded automatically.  In the same way, they say, His divine omniscience does not imply predestination as a corollary. Schattinger attempts to explain his understanding of the Probatians’ singular view of God’s relation to us with a metaphor.

They seem to have imagined that God observes the activities of

human beings as if He were attending a performance of a tragic drama. The audience at such a play knows things are going to turn out badly; after all, it says The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark right on the marquee.  But does the audience leave?  Is the audience bored?  Are they not entertained, edified, moved to admiration and pity?  The Prince’s story is familiar; they read it in high school or college.  There is no suspense because everything is happening again, yet also for the first time.  (The Probatians entertained the possibilities of a time both linear and circular.)  Would the audience applaud a bowdlerized version, Ophelia and her wits restored, Claudius spared, a repentant Gertrude entering a convent, a final wedding and the royal line preserved?

On the appearance of his book, Schattinger granted one interview, apparently at the insistence of his publisher.

The man from the Tübingen Tagblatt, whose tone hovers between indifference and hostility, began by informing Schattinger that he himself was an atheist.  “I thought you ought to know from the outset,” the journalist said.

“That’s fine with me,” said Schattinger.  “By the way, which God is it you don’t believe in?”

The interviewer does not bother to record his reply to this question.  But he does include this exchange.

“Tell me, Professor Schattinger—Rudolf, if I may—why is a theologian like a used-car salesman?”

“Some might consider that an offensive riddle, you know.  I suppose the answer you have in mind is that ignorance hinders the eloquence of neither.”

“More or less.”

“Well, I’m not offended.  I’m not a theologian.”

“I’m surprised.  After all, you hold a

professorship in theology.  Do you mean to say you have no faith?”

“Let’s just say the suspension of disbelief is not the same thing as faith.  I am not a theologian but a historian of theology—again, a different thing.”

“Yet you’ve written a good deal about faith.”

“Think of it as a job requirement.”

“You wrote, for instance, that faith can coexist with doubt.”

“I wrote that for most believers faith is the opposite of doubt but for a few they are coextensive. I was not writing about myself.”

“I see.  But would I be wrong to think you prefer the few?”

“It does not concern me.”

“Then let’s turn to your special subject, which I think is called heresiology, yes?  Why did you call the propounders of heresies, the…heresiarchs, playful? It seems an odd word to choose.”

“They do seem to me playful, seriously so, like

children solemnly arranging blocks or like a composer working out a set of variations on a theme of Paganini.”

“You mean to say these heresiarchs weren’t sincere?”

“Impossible to say.  One cannot expect objective knowledge about the subjectivity even of the other people on the tram, much less those who lived a couple millennia ago.  Anyway, what I meant had nothing to do with the sincerity of men like Messalia, Marcion, or Mani.  I only tried to characterize the way they approached the theological issues of the early Church, when things were still rough, up for grabs, mushy.  They rang their changes, borrowed wholesale from polytheists and philosophers, appropriated immemorial myths, and declared war to the death over distinctions that make modern people laugh.  It was a time when religion mattered infinitely more than physics or mathematics.  And truth was determined, like the identity of the pope, by voting.  Yes, I do find the heresiarchs playful, but playful in dead earnest.  A council could turn their notions into orthodoxy or order them bound to a

stake.  Think of it:  a devout man could be burnt alive simply because on one afternoon a rival came up with a more eloquent argument.”

“Rudolf, Professor Schattinger, I hope you’ll pardon me for bringing up this matter but it is of some interest to our readers.  As you know, your critics are not satisfied by your claim that the documents on which you based your book are inaccessible to everyone excepting yourself.  They think that your book is a hoax.  What do you say to the charge that you invented the Probatian heresy?”

“What can I say except that the Probatian heresy was indeed made up.  All such beliefs have to be invented.”

“That is a rather ambiguous answer.”

“Haven’t you found ambiguity is sometimes a very good thing?”

“Let’s move on.  Do you believe that heresy was and still is destructive to the Church?”

“The Church certainly thought so.  It worried about its worldly sway and its supremacy.  It was

anxious about its unity and power; I suspect the theological questions were, while serious matters to some, only secondary to others.  One must always remember that the so-called heretics were no less Christian than the Bishop of Rome.  Indeed, most of them were ordained.”

“So it was a case of eliminating the competition?”

“Heresy is not to be confused with schism.  These heresies were not competing religions, only the blooming of a hundred flowers and the Church wielded sharp secateurs.  It needed to control the definition of what it meant to be Christian.  One must try to imagine the many questions provoked by this new religion to appreciate the variety of answers.  What did it mean that Christ was the son of God?  Was evil a force in itself or merely the absence of good?  Was Satan tolerated by God or were they in a battle to win souls?  How were God’s infinite love, omnipotence, and omniscience to be reconciled with the slaughter of innocents?  Was sin immanent or contingent?  Where did upright pagans while away the after-life?”

“So, playful or not, these answers counted?”

“More than anything, as I said.  And they continued to matter so long as people accepted that the wrong answers opened the road to eternal damnation and the rights ones to everlasting felicity.  I realize that this is hardly imaginable for you, but I’m fairly sure it was the case with your ancestors.”

“May I ask, Professor, what drew you to the study of heresies?”

“I found myself in graduate school but at a loss as to what work to do.  One morning my advisor, Professor Rheinach, asked if my Latin were passable and when I said it was he made the suggestion that I study the records of the early ecumenical councils.  The notion was practically offhand.  I assure you, I felt no a vocation.  It was also Professor Rheinach who in his last months generously arranged with his Turkish friend to give me access to the archives of the Council of Chalcedon.  He himself had not seen them.  So I went to Istanbul to look over those dusty documents.  Among them I found references to two previously unknown heresies.  Apparently

the Council considered them too insignificant to include in their official documents.  They had bigger fish to fry, if you’ll pardon the pun.”

Two heresies?  You mean you found another beside the Probatian?”

“Oh, yes.  And a most interesting one it is, too.”

At the time of his death, Rudolf Schattinger had yet to publish anything at all about this most interesting, second heresy.  His enemies were quick to suggest that this was because he had not had sufficient time to dream it up. It was for the sake of the late scholar’s reputation that Schattinger’s brother-in-law published, a few months ago, a lengthy article in Die Bremen Zeitschrift für Theologische Studien.  It begins with this paragraph:

At his death, Professor Rudolf Schattinger was at work on a book that would be a companion piece to his volume on the Probatian. heresy Like the first, it was a heresy which was condemned by

the Council of Chalcedon but not mentioned in its official communiqué. The Council, as is well known, was convened to condemn the popular and widespread doctrine of Monophysitism which held that Christ’s nature was wholly divine and not human. The Council was preoccupied with combating the doctrine of Eutyches and asserting what it called “the hypostatic union” of Christ’s two natures by promulgating the Chalcedonian Creed—that Christ was “truly God and truly man.” With respect to the two minor and localized heresies, the Council took the decision simply to order the relevant religious and secular officials to extirpate these doctrines and/or eliminate those who taught them. As Professor Schattinger has explained, it was in the archives of the Council, to which he was

Goethe Prize. Scarcely any of his ideas are not expressed via myth, personification, or metaphor. “Sing, goddess, the mind of Achilles, Peleus’ son

granted exclusive access, that he came across the Council’s deliberations on the Probatian heresy, the subject of the book which has provoked some controversy, and also another. This he called the Docilian.

Working from Schattinger’s notes, the brother-in-law, who I believe is an attorney, provides an account of the Docilian heresy which—whether genuine or fabricated by Schattinger—certainly is interesting.

According to Schattinger, Paulinus Docilis was the young abbot of a monastery near Naissus in the Diocese of Dacia, a mountainous backwater of the Prefecture of Illyricum.  Paulinus was said to have been an exceptionally apt student (presumably the source of the cognomen “Docilis”), also notably charitable and humane. Schattinger was evidently

taken with Paulinus, The article quotes this note:  “Had this man not been condemned as a heretic, he would likely have become a saint. Perhaps he really was a saint.”

The Docilian heresy is a paradox in that it opposes the concept of heresy itself, and therefore it is against that of orthodoxy as well.  Paulinus set himself against nothing less than the Church’s aim of doctrinal conformity.  “All purity is partial except for God’s,” he is said to have preached.  In the face of a Church more than willing to annihilate the unorthodox, he argued that it is orthodoxy that creates heresy—rather as Rousseau would later hold that it is law that creates crime.

I can see why the young abbot appealed so much to Schattinger.  He cherished the variety and wealth of opinions, refusing to see them as destructively schismatic, deploring the very use of the words schism and heresy.  Paulinus predicted that the Church’s endless proscriptions and anathemas had led it to “take up the sword of Caesar just as the bishops replaced the procurators of Rome.” Paulinus’ daring is breathtaking:  “In our time Pilate would be an archbishop.  The Empire

gave us the cross; the Church, the stake.” The abbot contrasts the broad-mindedness of the Roman Empire to the narrowness of the Roman Church.  The former he praises for having “the immense idea of extending citizenship to Celts, Goths, Teutons, Britons, Syrians, Salians, and Jews.  They tolerated any cult or mystery so long as it did not disrupt the business, politics, or peace of their Empire.”  The Romans’ persecution of Christians, he went so far as to argue, was out of character, a huge error.  Almost facetiously, (according to Schattinger’s gloss), Paulinus taught that this terrible miscalculation must have been part of God’s plan, “for hasn’t the great Bishop of Hippo assured us that God invariably contrives to summon good from evil?”

When Constantine convened the first Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. the attending bishops, perhaps still giddy about the Emperor’s miraculous conversion, would have perceived the advantages of political legitimacy.  They would have been eager to satisfy the Emperor’s wish that they fix orthodoxy.  I doubt if any considered the drawbacks. The Council at Nicaea consolidated the faith, resolved (apparently) certain Christological

and calendar issues, and issued the eponymous Creed that is still recited.  But Nicea also encouraged self-righteousness and persecution. Certainty is exclusive.  “For some believers faith is co-extensive with doubt.” Paulinus Docilis, as Schattinger sees him, was the only theologian of his era to point out the terrible consequences of certainty in anathematizing and burning, to understand the inhumane hostility to imagination and variety, to worry about the marriage of Church and State. 

Paulinus, says Schattinger, went far.  He denied that salvation was at stake in theological disputes.  He condemned as absurd the idea that God would commit to hellfire any man who believed His son possessed one nature rather than two or be angry with any who diligently sought to follow His son’s teachings but could not accept that he was divine.  No, said Paulinus in the face of all the councils, bulls, creeds and the piles of ashes for which they were responsible, orthodoxy is a public affair and has nothing to do with salvation which is a strictly private matter.  Orthodoxy had become a weapon wielded, often viciously, by prideful and privileged

men claiming to have inherited the keys to the Kingdom.

Paulinus upbraided the bishops by recalling a time when pagans, Jews, and Christians mingled freely and even attended one another’s rites. This was before the Church became officially sanctioned and thereby set in motion its own degradation. Of course, in its triumph the Church wanted an official doctrine and to make inadmissible any other. All monopolies are much the same. Once labeled “heretical” no idea could safely be regarded as an amusing variation, a possibility worth considering, a mere difference of opinion or taste; it was simply evil. (Nietzsche ascribed the invention of the word evil to the “little bigots” well-organized Christianity bred in the millions.) The true believers, a “communion” nestled into the warmth of like-minded flocks and obedient to their shepherds, defined themselves as members of a group and saw others in the same way. They were licensed, even obliged, to hate and, at times, and even exterminate those groups outside their group. The saved versus the infidels. According to his brother-in-law, Schattinger tells us Paulinus Docilis boldly declared

to his superiors that “those you revile as heretics are all Christians” and predicted that the wrong, bloody, and Procrustean task of compelling unity of belief would exhaust itself only when people finally recoiled from it in disgust and so lost their faith.

The article concludes by quoting the last of Schattinger’s notes. “So far as I have been able to determine, Paulinus Docilis, like the Probatians, entirely vanished after the Council adjourned on 1 November, 451 A.D.”


Editor’s Note

I found this unexpected—not to say bizarre—essay in Fein’s file for 1980.  The manuscript is typed and headed with the single word Heresy.

It is difficult to know why Fein should have dreamed up a scholar who dreams up heresies.  That it is all imaginary I am certain.  There was no Rudolf Schattinger, with or without a brother-in-law, no Guillaume Charconne, Tübingen Tagblatt or

Bremen Zeitschrift für Theologische Studien.  The heresiarchs may or may not have been playful, but Fein surely was.

During the autumn of 1979, when he was teaching at Brandeis University, Fein devoted a week to discussing Saint Augustine with his students.  Perhaps this is what inspired him to write about heresy, but there are other possibilities and none need be excluded.  For example, the theme of the pernicious effects of orthodoxy might suggest Fein intended a metaphorical attack on the intellectual constraints of the Academy into and out of which he drifted.  Or the piece might be a Jew’s mordant commentary on early Christianity, a theory supported by Fein’s allusion to Nietzsche’s phrase “little bigots” as the originators of the term evil.  He was acutely aware of having been born in the year of the Wannsee Conference, itself a kind of council aimed at lethal exclusion—aimed, if he been born in the wrong hemisphere, at him. Fein’s allusion to Borges’ story “The Theologians” points to another kind of inspiration; that is, an urge to write an homage or even to imitate Borges.  “Borges’ stories are like pistachio nuts,” he wrote elsewhere.  “None is more than twenty pages long.

You have to work hard to get at the delicious meat. But however small the nut it’s always worth the effort. And then, right away, you want another one.”  Fein’s essay might be regarded as a retort to that “shrewd and chilling” parenthetical remark in Borges’ “The Theologians” as it meant to say, “The orthodoxy we should fear is that which incinerates heretics.”

Was Fein sympathetic to the heresiarchs?  He must have known that, had their views had been accepted as orthodox, they would have been as keen as any council to persecute dissenters.  I do not think Fein is expressing sympathy for heresy generally but that sometime in 1980 he imagined himself into the 5th century.  Once there, he invented a pair of heresies of which he could approve and, in the person of the anti-heresy heresiarch Paulinus, a man he could admire.

Paulinus Docilis may be another of those personae Fein “tried on” from time to time, like Philippe Leconte Duparc or Alexander Fernlicht.  To the extent that these imaginary thinkers resemble Fein, they are autobiographical, but, as they are also different from their creator, each may

be seen as an alternative self, “another I.”  To Cicero, who invented the phrase, alter ego referred to one’s dearest friend.  In the last century it became a psychiatric term.  Fein attached these personae to ideas rather than to plots and so wrote essays rather than stories; it was the ideas that gave birth to the characters rather than vice versa.

“On Heresy” has many themes but no resolution.  Like many of Fein’s unpublished manuscripts it feels like a kind of riffing.  He is writing about early Christianity, also faith, the lack and loss of it, about intolerance and the hatred that leads some human beings to burn others.  In Rudolf Schattinger Fein imagined a maker of intricate yet edifying hoaxes, perhaps even a “good German”. Schattinger comes rather off well in his interview with the atheistic journalist—elusive but humane.  The two heresies he devises would then be emblems of a decency the Church was gradually losing (graded down, year by year) as it hardened in strength and waxed in power.  One heresy opposes original sin, the other narrowness and hatred.  The first grants each human a clean start; the second embraces freedom of conscience and the variety of opinion it affords. 

Fein seems to have regarded the early centuries of the new, still malleable religion as dominated by a kind of faith madness, a wind that blew into the vacuum of dying Antiquity, sweeping up much of it.  Faith, he implies, is like nitroglycerine, dangerously explosive and to be handled gingerly.  It is a passion.  Another author revered by Fein, Søren Kierkegaard, says it is the highest passion.   But in Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard insists faith is an entirely individual undertaking, that “partnership in these areas is unthinkable.” It is not surprising that, in defending his view of faith, Kierkegaard became an enemy of the established Danish Lutheran Church, and Fein’s favorite theologian.  Faith can lead an Abraham to rise above the morality that lawfully constrains us, above the interests and norms of the community; but congealed into political and bureaucratic power the irrationality of faith can cause people to sink far beneath the standard of ethics—and often has.

Fein is careful to keep the question of faith—his, Schattinger’s, even Paulinus’—at arm’s length, as if it were something too private to bring into the light.  So Schattinger distinguishes himself as a “historian of theology,” one who is intrigued by

religious disputes but who watches from the sidelines.  When I asked his daughter about Fein’s attitude toward religion, she told me she had once been present when a rabbi asked if him if were observant.  She said her father replied rather sheepishly, “Only from a safe distance.”











Copyright© Robert Wexelblatt. White Whale Review, issue 6.1

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