“Authentic Religion”: Meta-Narratives of Orthodoxy at the AAR/SBL Meeting

By Philip L. Tite

This year’s annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) was a fun experience. I went through the typical routine of attending a smattering of sessions, connecting up with friends and colleagues, meeting new people, meandering through the book exhibit looking for interesting titles and good deals, and finally exploring a new city (I had never been to San Francisco before).

Attending the AAR/SBL meeting also offers me a good opportunity to pick up on emerging or enduring trends in the field. In one session I attended, for example, the theme of wealth or economy in early Christianity was explored. This was a fascinating session, with some wonderful papers that addressed a range of texts, social dynamics, and economic influences on those dynamics (e.g., exploring the intersection of trade routes with the emergence of communication networks). However, in this same session I noticed that nearly every speaker invoked the terms “orthodox”, “proto-orthodox”, or “mainstream” in their selection and explanatory treatment of their sources. Several speakers openly indicated their need to delimit their source base to a manageable level (which makes perfect sense as each paper is allotted only 20 minutes), with that delimitation excluding heterodox works or groups.

This model for selection evokes an enduring meta-narrative that continues to dominate religious studies, especially in biblical and patristic studies. This meta-narrative is that of orthodoxy and heresy/heterodoxy – i.e., “authentic” and “inauthentic” religion. We’ve inherited this model, in early Christian studies at least, from the Church Fathers, at least since Irenaeus (late second century), likely also Justin Martyr (mid-second century), and this model certainly is the ideological framework for Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History in the fourth century. The Greek term hairesis simply means “choice” or “path” (such as choosing to follow a particular career or adhere to a particular philosophical school of thought), but by the time we reach Justin, the term had taken on inherently negative connotations (“bad choice”). Those groups or individuals who were labeled “heretics” were seen as innovators of novel ideas (rather than adhering to established truths; i.e., those set down by the apostles as understood by the Church Fathers), as parasitical entities that preyed upon the true church. For Eusebius in particular the history of the church falls into two major trajectories: a lineage of apostolic truth, and another lineage of heretical teachers.

At the level of redescription, this meta-narrative certainly was an important rhetorical tool for various writers in antiquity. Even in the Nag Hammadi codices – so-called “heretical” writings typically attached to the category “Gnosticism” – we find the polemical use of the term “heresy” applied to outsiders. Such rhetorical moves function to create and maintain group identity by means of constructing “the other” (the outsider) as a contrasting point of reference for the “insiders”. To put this in the context of modern studies of group behavior, we can look at the work of Francis J. Flynn and Jennifer A. Chatman (“‘What’s the Norm Here?’ Social Categorization as a Basis for Group Norm Development,” in Identity Issues in Groups, Research on Managing Groups and Teams, 5; edited by J. T. Polzer [Oxford: JAI Press, 2003], 135-160).

The importance of conflict for building group identity, especially with the emergence of norms for group behavior, is explored by Flynn and Chatman, with a specific focus on modern work environments. They observe:

“Social identity theory suggests that expectations of other work group members may be driven by an in-group/out-group bias, which is a tendency to enhance one’s evaluations of fellow in-group members and degrade one’s evaluations of out-group members in order to maintain high levels of self-esteem … Thus, in-group members are more likely to enhance their impressions of, and cooperate with, one another while forming negative impressions of, and distinguishing themselves from, out-group members.” (142)

Evoking the meta-narrative of orthodoxy-heresy/heterodoxy, with or without specific terminology (e.g., Irenaeus, in attacking the Marcosian Christians in Against Heresies 1.13.4, uses the trope of the charlatan to undermine Marcus’s teaching, describes Marcosian meetings as cult society rather than a school, while setting these discursive moves in contrast to Irenaeus’s in-group as “the church”), was an important identity forming strategy – one that we see not only in diverse cultural contexts, but even within academic debates where in-group/out-group discursive moves continually, and usually implicitly, validates or invalidates scholarly work.

Although such a meta-narrative is important as a datum to be theorized, it becomes problematic when used as an explanatory mechanism (i.e., as a meta-narrative) for theorization of a data set. Several classic historical fallacies emerge when rhetorical strategies are rendered into an explanatory meta-narrative that the scholar of religion (as historian) buys into as factual and true. Let me highlight a few of these.

First, there is a conflation and thus confusion of prescriptive and descriptive language. When Eusebius, for example, presents historical lines of development of emerging orthodoxy and a legacy of heresy, he is not engaged in a simple descriptive exercise of what constitutes historical events and groups. Rather, he constructs a narrative story of how his reader should perceive those historical events and groups that are sprinkled throughout his work. The same is true of Josephus’s presentation of “normative” Judaism, despite the fact that Judaism in the first century was far more diverse than three or four sects or schools. When we talk about studying the “mainstream” or the “(proto-)orthodox” – be that discussion centered on early Christianity, Second Temple Judaism, Islamic reactions to modern geopolitical conflicts, differing Buddhist traditions, etc – we run the risk of treating such “stories” as description while overlooking the prescriptive, normative rhetoric at play. Consequently, our scholarship gives way to re-presenting, and thus representing, the insider truth claims that we are studying.

Second, by embracing the normative meta-narratives, rather than theorizing those narratives, we obscure our data by setting certain data (groups, texts, individuals, etc) on the fringe of what constitutes the larger, more worthy of study “normative” tradition(s). That which is placed on the fringe becomes unimportant for critical study, except for in how the fringe illuminates our understanding of the privileged data sets. This demarcation of the fringe and the mainstream fails to appreciate social interactions, contestations, and intersections of the past cultures being studied. For instance, in that SBL session I attended, the implications of studying Marcion for understanding wealth and patronage in second-century Roman Christian communities (as well as the implications resulting from not including Marcion in such a study) are conveniently overlooked – for the Marcionite data is put in isolation and thus has no historical bearing upon the study. Thus, the study results in a linear, coherent picture, while the normative picture underlying the study is reaffirmed by avoiding any “messiness” that such other, fringe data may impart.

Discursive constructions of the fringe and mainstream, such as what I saw in various papers given at SBL (and, furthermore, continue to read in published form in my field of study), falls into what David Fischer insightfully called “the fallacy of tunnel history” (David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought [New York: Harper, 1970], 142-144). Here complex social processes give way to “long ribbons of change” that direct data components to lead toward particular interpretative conclusions. In early Christian studies, this fallacy could be called the “fallacy of trajectories” (to evoke James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester’s Trajectories Through Early Christianity [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971], which had a very positive impact in stressing diversity in early Christian texts, but runs the risk of encouraging the building of tunnel histories). Fischer correctly indicates that such historical work necessarily results in a discussion of essences (143), where we talk not in metaphysical terms of essences, such as Otto or Eliade do, but in ontologically reductive claims (e.g., “essentially dualistic”, “essentially political”, “essentially economic”, etc). The essence (whatever it is), within circular reasoning, becomes both the interpretative end point and the thematic thread leading to that end point.

In my own work on early Christianity, I have attempted to move passed such bipartite historical divisions by emphasizing that second-century Christianity in particular was comprised of a series of heterodoxies that competed in the ideological marketplace for normative status. Orthodoxy (and orthopraxy), like heresy, is in the eye of the beholder. Such an analytical move relocates the prescriptive language back to the level of data redescription, rather than conflating it with second-order data theorization/explanation.

Thirdly, and finally, historical work that is infused with such meta-narratives slips into anachronism, imposing later, normative categories onto the data being studied (on anachronism as fallacy, see Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies, 131-135). Often when scholarship engages in prescriptive historical work, it reveals more about the modern concerns and values of the scholar rather than about any historical subject. In a sense, of course, all scholarship is anachronistic – even when that anachronism is simply the heuristic analytical questions being applied to a data set. However, with normative meta-narratives, the anachronism becomes an apologetic rather than analytic use of the data set; i.e., it serves to justify the position of the interpreter’s cultural biases or concerns, including his or her (anti-)religious truth claims.

When I attended this particular SBL session, I raised my concerns over this meta-narrative model. One presenter in particular correctly noted the problem and even mentioned Marcion as important for understanding the second-century church (or churches) at Rome from an economic standpoint. Later, while wandering the book exhibit, I came across one of his articles on his paper topic, an article that did engage such “fringe” figures as Marcion and Valentinus, yet the terminology of proto-orthodoxy was still present. Beyond that session, I continually encounter the same terminology and models throughout scholarship, sometimes explicitly and often as an ideological subtext.

In writing this blog, it is not my intention to negatively characterize the papers in that session, let alone the entire AAR/SBL meeting. The presenters were bright scholars with excellent insights into their topics, but their work was, in my opinion at least, marred by the meta-narrative invoked as a means of source delimitation. I’ve seen this same type of meta-narrative applied in other scholarly contexts, especially in modern geopolitical discussions of religion. As Annette Kolodny (in her classic essay, “Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism”) insightfully notes, our selection of literary canons (i.e., our “in” and “out” texts) has more to do with our reconstructions of the past from the standpoint of our present as we attempt to shape our futures, than it does with understanding the ideological processes at work for our subject of study. The same is true when “authentic religion” serves as a scholarly meta-narrative.

As a scholar of religion, it is my hope that when dealing with rhetorical language of “authenticity” (be that in application to Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, NRMs, or of past and current cultures), we will treat such language of valuable data in need of theorization, rather than engaging in such rhetorical discourse as if such meta-narratives serve as explanatory tools. In other words, we need to avoid using drywall to drive nails into our hammers. Let’s not confuse our tools with our objects of study.

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2 Responses to “Authentic Religion”: Meta-Narratives of Orthodoxy at the AAR/SBL Meeting

  1. Steven Ramey says:

    Thanks for this post, which raises an important issue concerning the “meta-narrative of orthodoxy-heresy/heterodoxy.” I appreciate the recognition that these issues extend beyond the subfield of Early Christianity, but the critique of the orthodox meta-narrative can extend even farther.

    The labels for discreet religions, e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, etc., which developed over time in the context of largely European encounters with others, contain an implied homogeneous orthodoxy that cloaks the contested nature of the religions. When we apply such labels to communities, material objects, convictions, or practices, we often reinforce the assumption that each label represents a small range of orthodox elements. During my fieldwork in India, several people who identified themselves as Hindus from the region of Sindh labeled one teacher a “Hindu Sufi.” Sindhi Hindus have also asserted to me that the Adi Granth (or Guru Granth Sahib) is a Hindu text. Their conceptions of the boundaries of Hinduism, Sufism and Sikhism generally do not fit with the connotations of the labels and their implied orthodoxy. The organization of publication lists, textbooks, and AAR sessions generally privilege particular conceptions of these boundaries that reinforce orthodoxies and exclude many conceptions. Sufism seldom appears under the Hinduism category (or Hindus within the section on Sufism, for that matter), and the Adi Granth generally is identified as the Sikh sacred text without any question, despite the scholarship on the contested nature of these identifications.

    To avoid generalizing assertions may be impossible, as the language of our field is inadequate to reflect the complex contestation surrounding religious labels and the assumptions of orthodoxy. The more we recognize these limitations, the more we can be precise in our references and recognize the limits of what we analyze and thus of our analysis.

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