Daily Archives: December 23, 2007

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Splitting hairs

Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Splitting Christianity by splitting hairs – such has ever been the way of theology. (p.54)

Really? Which divisions ave been the result of hair-splitting? I can think of a couple of alternative hypotheses that we might need to try out on any apparent example before concluding that it matched this description. We might ask whether the hair-splitting distinction was purely epiphenomenal – an inherently irrelevant difference chosen as a shibboleth to mark the distinction between groups whose differences were deeper and greater than that. And we might ask whether the seemingly irrelevant distinction was in fact a real intellectual difference, and a telling one, only because it was one visible rubbing point of a larger tectonic collision.

So, for instance, Dawkins has just been talking about Christological controversies in the fourth century, and specifically about the condemnation of Arius at Nicaea. That’s a good case in point: most decent histories of the conflict will show you that a good deal really was at stake – intellectually, politically, socially, involving everything from individual personalities to imperial politics, via some pretty central theological and philosophical ideas. You could start with Rowan Williams book on Arius if you want a fairly rich example of such an analysis.

You could even look at the most famous case: the debate later in the same century between those who insisted on the formula ‘homoousios’ and those who insisted on a formula that differed only by one iota: ‘homoiousios’ – a difference about which I seem to remember Gibbon had rather scathing things to say. Once again, look at any decent history of the conflict, and you’ll be able to find out what the people involved thought was at stake, and why. You could start with R.P.C. Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God.

Or you could stick with the breezy platitude. It’s up to you.