Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Plurodoxy, Polydoxy, Polypraxy...

April DeConick, on Forbidden Gospels, has opened up an issue of how to refer to primarily 2nd and 3rd century Christianity, saying that we need a new term. She writes, and I quote at length:

"Orthodoxy did not exist as a totalitarian entity, although each type of Christianity may have thought of itself as orthodox while everyone else were heretics. So the discussion of heresiology is important to maintain, as long as one understands that the heretic is so only from the point of view of one party. An orthodox Christianity doesn't emerge until the fourth century. Even then, it struggles through council after council, swinging from Arian to anti-Arian for over fifty years. Not until the fifth century are the major lines put into place that will determine the shape of "orthodox" Christianity for the centuries to come.

"Heterodoxy is not any better because it describes religions that deviate from the orthodox. Since we don't have orthodoxy yet, we can't have heterodoxy either.

"Sectarian and cult language don't work either, because sectarian requires that there is some parental tradition that is being deviated from. Cult also suggests deviance along with innovation.

"So what do we have? Multiple forms of Christianity, although this isn't quite right either, because many of these forms are competing with each other and some forms of Christianity are stronger and more dominant in certain geographical locales. So what we have is plurodoxy. That is multiple forms of Christianity that are competing for the orthodox position and/or that consider themselves to be the orthodox position. From this vantage point I think we can better narrative Christian origins and the standardization of Christianity that eventually comes to dominate as orthodoxy in the fourth and fifth centuries."

Basically, as DeConick points out, 2nd and 3rd century Christianity is very messy. To study it, one has to navigate a variety of beliefs, practices, and groups who combine them and interpret them in ever-changing ways. And, as she also points out, the groups are of different size, strength, and shift across the geography and time. She offers the term "plurodoxy," although right now, on her blog, "polydoxy" is winning out, it seems, since plurodoxy combines the Latin (plural) and Greek (doxa), whereas polydoxy is all Greek. I tentatively suggested the inclusion of "polypraxy" alongside of this term, since "polydoxy" tends to privilege doctrine and beliefs, even if it does not necessarily exclude practice. But I fear that the focus on "doxy" and "praxy" imposes a false division between them that did not exist in antiquity, since, for example, our earliest Christian creeds derive from the ritual of Baptism, and DeConick notes that the Christological debates are as much about the Eucharist as anything.

Although she claims that "multiple forms" is not quite right (and I do not see why "multiple forms" cannot capture issues that she refers to, such as different power bases and geographical dispersions), I prefer the term "polymorphic." It does not have the specific religious reference that "doxy" and "praxy" has, but it does get across the "many forms" that Christianity takes in this period, and what is more, since "morph" has accrued a sense of change, it potentially connotes the fluidity of groups as they interact, change through their interactions, as they write their polemics, and jostle against one another, some emerging stronger in some areas and others coming out on top in others, but it is a process.

Moreover, the generic aspect of "polymorphic" has the benefit of being applicable not only to polymorphic Christianity, but also can capture the interactive developments within 2nd temple Judaism and beyond. If, indeed, one can speak of a Mediterranean religiosity or perhaps some larger patterns that find various expressions in Christian, Jewish, Egyptian, Syrian, Greek, and Roman religious "forms" as they interact, imprint themselves on one another, jostle, and reformulate each other (which is how I have been increasingly seeing things as of late), it could be more beneficial that doxy and praxy.

But that is just my two cents.

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