Straight Track of Knives

Henderson’s The Construction of Orthodoxy and Heresy

Henderson’s The Construction of Orthodoxy and Heresy (1998) is such a valuable cross-cultural study of the rhetoric of ideocratic Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Neo-Confucianism; I’m just going to summarise key points & strategies below, and anyone who likes to do so can apply them more generally. He backs everything up of course.

Orthodoxies claim to be fixed since the foundation of a tradition but are not. They develop later but try to disguise their newness, usually successfully.

Social conflict is bitterer if ideocratic. The signs are: a) The total personality is engaged in the belief system (Balu’s “religion”, cf. modern pseudoskepticism) which makes a person the ‘bearer of a group mission’ so sectarian identity trumps all others; and b) The danger is perceived to be within the state and not without. The Byzantine regimes were more afraid of heresy than of armed insurrection.

There was no heresiology or ideocracy on record prior to Christianity, which was also the first Western belief system to state that choice (heresy = Greek hairesis, “choice”) was neither necessary for freedom, which it was in Hellenism, nor even legitimate, which it still was in Judaism.

Ideocracy is established as against heresy. Heresy gives it its reason to exist. It is by characterising heresy that orthodoxy comes into being.

Early Christian heretics outnumbered the orthodox. The later Monophysite heresy alone covered more ground than the orthodox creed and would probably have become the mainstream itself if Islam hadn’t come to its territories. “Orthodoxy” may in fact simply = winners. Early centuries of Christianity were polyparadigmatic. Zhu Xi, the major Neo-Confucian founder, was a heretic himself until pardoned posthumously.

Mysticism both attracts and repels the orthodox. It is always too various to blanket-condemn, and results in healing which brings the faithful in, but it just never hunkers down to tow the line either and often outright contradicts restrictive dogma.

Narrowness of an orthodoxy always increases over time.

Orthodoxies attribute pristineness to themselves. Other ways are sullied, overbalanced in a particular direction, and/or have “fallen off the main way” to be of interest only to some “minority”.

All Orthodoxies mischaracterise the heresies that mother them. They reliably lie on details of the opposing beliefs, and this distortion increases with time. They also lump together multiple heresies that they feel they have already dealt with — “This is just… [x-and-so], they’re all one in the end,” a view erasing not only the distinctness of beliefs but also their history. In fact heresies can be entirely invented by heresiographers — Henderson gives the Cainites as an example, “a product of the imagination of early Christian authors,” says more than one scholar he quotes.

Note finally:

Henderson characterises the Neo-Confucian as a major Chinese orthodoxy (which it was) but points out that Confucius himself cared neither for sects nor for debate, that is, he did not believe in arriving at views by means of argument. He also valued aporia.


Orthodoxy claims to hold the relationship to a tradition which the inner voice of strength, leading into transcendence, holds for individual human beings — the central way, equivalent to the central channel/middle pillar/vagus nerve. And yes, wisdom traditions at a stretch could be seen as living beings. (After all they need to eat, and can provide means of eating for some of their members. They are subject to the same ecological realities faced by all human groupings.)

But neither the internal harmonising nor the passing-through-death experience are visibly in operation on a group level on anything like the scale that can occur with individuals. Kundalini does not exist on a societal level. The consensus voice in a group as I have shown is very far from transcendence and in fact blocks it as often as not, being equivalent to groupthink. I suspect the rhetoric of orthodoxy exploits the individual’s psychological need for centredness — at some level it may be believed that being at the centre of group opinion is equivalent to a centredness of the Self. Cults certainly work off that principle, acceptance in the group being sold as a self-acceptance — that acceptance can then be withheld in order to manipulate.

Why do people not know this voice in themselves? Clearly belonging to a society which usually denies an overarching personal truth doesn’t help. But equally, having brought in the question of free will before, I’d have to admit many don’t like the idea of the sheer work that can be involved in course correction to harmony with the best self. This intransigence shows itself outwardly of course, in our societies, but change on the inward level is possible at exactly the transcendent scale that 2012 sufferers mistakenly believe they will see on the societal.


Of gorgeous silk,
Is cosmos’ soul
Yet ever whole.


4 responses to “Straight Track of Knives

  • miramirorum

    It just strikes me that while neither the development of an orthodoxy nor the formation of a group can further one’s aims, one need not develop in isolation either, as we have much to gain from contact—a sort of contagion, initiation-by-osmosis, vague atmospheric darshan occurs, at least for me, when I read the genuine sharings of others who are conscious of themselves. I don’t mean ‘spiritual’ sharing on the ordinary level—that’s where head games breed and so many people who talk about spiritual things really love games. But then again, there it is, group-think coming together. This loose blogosphere neighborhood where we only come together two at a time to express concerns of a self-chosen subtle nature is nearly ideal for such sharing, isn’t it? I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Thanks for conversing with me.

    • Jason Wingate

      No prob!

      I would not try to damn all spiritual groupings! The question I really was looking at was how ideocracies form — and/or how some grouping of a religious nature acquires the numbers, desire and cultural position to marginalise other such groupings without the desire to know them as fellow humans. In other words to manufacture heresy is to manufacture the Other, the Wrong.

      Head games of spiritual sharing are unsalutary enough, but the word ‘ill’ is the only one for some of the places you can get in a couple of clicks. I simply wonder how that form of speaking becomes possible, why it comes into existence.

      The fact that the net is full of that particular speaking (I think Robert Fisk was the one who correctly called it a ‘big hate machine’) is one of the reasons I am probably not as happy with it as a medium as I might be…

  • Valissa

    Hey Jason, great post and very timely for me! Right now I am reading both MacMullen’s book “Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eight Centuries,” and the book by Richard Fletcher “The Barbarian Conversion From Paganism to Christianity” which covers the 4th to 14th centuries. Have been contemplating how long term changes in religious/spiritual beliefs occur in large groups/societies, esp. since I feel-think major changes are coming in as the old religious structures dissolve.

    btw, I thought I had turned off comments at my blog since it’s long been in limbo, so I was pleasantly surprised to see your comment awaiting moderation. Since I’m not ready for comments yet, I’m not going to approve it… instead I’ll reply here (hopefully you don’t mind that). Shortly after I signed up for that blog, my life got very intense and then I shifted my research interests away from magical and spiritual studies… I became a spiritual hermit and stopped attending my local shamanism group and stopped participating in any online spiritual networking, and plunged into studying history, politics, geopolitics, war, finance & economics… basically trying to understand the nature of money and power games in the real world through time in order to try and make sense of the Changing Times were are living in.

    In recent months I have been feeling like my hermit phase is coming to an end and that it’s finally time to reconnect with spiritual folks again, but in a new way. When I commented on your blog a while back that was the first time I’d commented on a spiritual blog in a long time, and probably the most stimulating spiritual conversation I’ve had in a long time (with a human being). As I emerge from my chrysalis and attempt to start writing about what I have learned I am finding it challenging to find a focal point from which to begin (a bit overwhelming, actually). I like the way you think. Would you mind if I emailed you privately to talk further?

    • Jason Wingate

      I loved that MacMullen book and reviewed it here if interested.

      No I certainly don’t mind if you mail me — just use the “contact me” button above. I have quite a few such conversations going and what I like is that no two are the same. Most of what I post here is just as much the product of gradually lifting bewliderment as anything else…

      It was cheeky of me to comment. I thought you had no blog but found one in the reader, so I looked on the off-chance you had started it recently.

      I became a spiritual hermit and stopped attending my local shamanism group and stopped participating in any online spiritual networking, and plunged into studying history, politics, geopolitics, war, finance & economics… basically trying to understand the nature of money and power games in the real world through time in order to try and make sense of the Changing Times were are living in.

      That sounds rather familiar. :) I shall be very interested to hear what conclusions you came to and what puzzles still interest you etc. It’s nice to think this was amongst your first major communiqués. Let’s talk further…

%d bloggers like this: