»  National Review Online

August 12th, 2003

  The Eternal Heresy


Heresy? What's that all about? Oh, boy, old Derb has really gone off the deep end now!

Not really. I understand of course that "heresy" is not a word bandied about much in the public square nowadays. It's not one I have much use for myself. Scanning my shelves, I see only one book on the topic: Hilaire Belloc's The Great Heresies, which a militant-atheist friend gave to me some years ago in a jokey spirit (I guess) after I had praised Belloc's poetry, and which I have never actually got around to reading. Looking into it now, I think I may have missed some fun and instruction. At any rate, there is not much arguing with the following, from Belloc's prologue:

Today [the book's date is 1938], with most people, the word 'Heresy' connotes bygone and forgotten quarrels, an old prejudice against rational examination. Heresy is therefore thought to be of no contemporary interest. Interest in it is dead, because it deals with matter no one now takes seriously. It is understood that a man may interest himself in a heresy from archeological curiosity, but if he affirm that it has been of great effect on history and still is, to-day, of living contemporary moment, he will be hardly understood.

Put that indisputable truth together with my Anglican aversion to theology of any kind, and you will understand with what reluctance I delved into some research on heresy over the weekend. The delving was shallow as well as unenthusiastic, so I am by no means willing to guarantee the scholarly accuracy of what follows. As my mother used to say when some relative gave me a seriously lame birthday present (tie, pencil-box), "it's the thought that counts." So here are my thoughts on a certain heresy, and of its relevance to our own times, and in particular to the pickle my church, the Episcopal Church of the USA, got itself into at last week's General Convention.

I was fortunate enough to have the services of my own personal spy at the Convention. I will not imperil his career by giving his name, or quoting him in any way that might identify him; I only want to take one of his remarks as a starting point for some general ruminations about the state of the world and of my church.

The remark occurred in reply to an e-mail I sent in which I said I thought that Gene Robinson, the "gay bishop" (though he will not actually be a bishop till consecrated, sometime later this year) had shown great selfishness in allowing his election to go ahead, knowing the damage it would cause in our church. My spy agreed, and added: "He espouses the heresy of Joachim of Flora." He then went on to sketch the outlines of that heresy for me. I was interested, and my interest led me to those cursory researches over the weekend.

Joachim of Flora (often written written "… of Fiore") died just about 800 years ago. He was a holy man, a monk and an ascetic, who in 1189 founded a monastic order, the Florians. This order became extinct in A.D. 1570. Joachim himself does not seem to have been considered a heretic in his own time, and the Florians never were, either. He was, however, an intellectual who wrote books. The theories he laid out in his books were taken up by others in the 13th century, and were stirred into the general stew of heresies that flourished at that time. "The heresy of Joachim" therefore is not strictly an accurate term; it should be "the heresy of those who claimed to be Joachim's intellectual disciples." Leaving that aside, what was this heresy, and why should anyone care about it 800 years later?

The argument of Joachim's three books elaborated the idea of the "Eternal Gospel" mentioned in Revelation 14.vi. As best I can understand it, he believed in an evolution of human consciousness through history. This evolution had three great phases, corresponding to the three persons of the Trinity.

The "Eternal Gospel" was the deep teaching, the one that underlies both Old and New Testaments, and even goes beyond both, supersedes both. It lies behind Scripture and needs to be teased out, gradually brought to light by the diligent researches of a tireless intellectual inquirer like Joachim. Once it has been teased out and propagated, of course, mankind will be ready for the Third Age.

Now you see why my friend thought of Bishop Robinson in this context. Away with all that fusty old scripture stuff! No more need for that! This is a new age, Joachim's Third Age, when we have attained sufficient wisdom that we can throw out all those stupid old prohibitions and sanctions. Our long spiritual apprenticeship is over. Our own hearts can guide us now; and whatever they guide us to, will be right! Fay ce que voudres!

An even more obvious parallel — Paul Johnson notes it in the passage on Joachim in his History of Christianity — is with the historical theories of Karl Marx, though of course for Marx it was to be the state, not the Church, that would "wither away" in a property-free reign of universal earthly bliss.

You may say that Joachim was hopelessly ignorant, knowing nothing about science, archeology, psychology, sociology, economics, or modern political theory, and therefore that his crackpot theories are not worth bothering with. Perhaps; but nobody has ever been able to stop intellectuals from thinking about life and history in the large, and cooking up all-encompassing theories about them, theories like Joachim's "Eternal Gospel." The thinkers who have done this in each age have written down their conclusions in the idiom of that age. The idiom of Joachim's age was medieval Catholic Christianity. If you peer through the veil of idiom to the actual ideas, they are really timeless — and therefore, amongst other things, modern.

Yet there is one respect in which Joachim actually was behind us in understanding: we have a bigger historical database to work from than he had. Specifically, we have had 800 more years of experience with Brethren of the Free Spirit, Cities of the Sun, Reason Enthroned, Heavenly Kingdoms of PerfectPeace, and Dictatorships of the Proletariat. We know, by now — or at any rate, we have no excuse for not knowing — what happens when people get it into their heads that all the accumulated teachings, customs, and traditions of centuries can be swept away, mankind having now advanced to a stage where we are wise enough to do without them. We know where the heresy of Joachim leads. It does not lead to Heaven on earth.

Yet still it persists; still there are those who tell us that history has ended, that religion has no more need of scripture, society no more need of customary morals, humanity no more need of guidance, behavior no more need of restraints. Still it persists — the Eternal Heresy!

[Note: During my researches I turned up a recent imprint from the Oxford University Press: Joachim of Fiore and the Myth of the Eternal Evangel in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries by Warwick Gould and Marjorie Reeves. I have not read this book and so cannot pass an opinion on it, but the synopsis on Amazon.com looks very intriguing.]