Heresy and Dissent from Antiquity to the Present: Report from the 2016 Conference of the International Society for Heresy Studies

By Gabriel McKee

Last week, ISAW's Librarian for Collections and Services, Gabriel Mckee, attended the Second Conference of the International Society for Heresy Studies, hosted by NYU's Gallatin School. The three-day conference featured a wide range of papers, panels, discussions, and performances related to issues of heresy, ideological dissent, religion, secularism, and rebellion from multiple historical periods and disciplines.

Gabriel presented a paper on Priscillian of Avila, a late-antique Spanish ascetic who was condemned as a heretic and executed by the usurping emperor Magnus Maximus in the late 4th century. Priscillian's death at the hands of officials of the Roman state (recounted primarily in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus) sparked a schism in the western church that lasted for nearly two decades: Priscillian's supporters held that his beliefs were orthodox, and even some of his opponents objected to the fact that a bishop had faced trial in a secular court. Priscillian stands at the fuzzy border between heresy and orthodoxy, church and state, layperson and clergy.

The ISHS works with a broad definition of the concept "heresy," extrapolating from its traditional and historical sense (religious dissent) to a larger intellectual concept that incorporates all manner of rebellion. Thus the papers presented at the conference covered an astonishingly wide array of topics. Highlights included Zachary Domach's discussion of the Sentences of Sextus and its use in medieval schismatic discourse to Geremy Carnes' exploration of scientific positivism and the gothic in Doctor Who. Papers of particular interest from the standpoint of antiquity include Clement Grene's discussion of the relationship between the early Christian movement and the followers of John the Baptist; Alexander D'Alisera's close reading of heretical Christologies in the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood (ca. 8th-10th centuries), Mark Huggins' discussion of John Chrysostom's use of the term αἵρεσις (hairesis, "choice" or "heresy"); Mark Hama's discussion of Manichaean material used by the 20th-century novelist Rebecca West.

Intriguing resonances arose in discussions on more modern topics as well, including Megan Goodwin's exploration of the role of minority religious movements like the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints in the television show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Joseph Laycock's discussion of a modern movement called the Satanic Temple in light of scholarly conceptualizations of "invented religions." (We wrote last fall about another conference presentation by Laycock on the Necronomicon and the modern-day appropriation of ancient religious texts). The conference's keynote event, a conversation between novelists Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and James Morrow, also held some interest for scholars of antiquity: Goldstein's recent book Plato at the Googleplex makes a strong case for the continued relevance of ancient philosophy, while Morrow is currently at work on a satirical novel set at the Council of Nicaea.

The second ISHS conference was a well-organized and invigorating event, highlighting fascinating facets of research in religious studies, philosophy, and literature both ancient and modern.

Novelists Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and James Morrow in conversation at the Second Conference of the ISHS.