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Secret Places and Hidden Practices: Polemic, Imagination and Deindivualisation in Early Christianity
Secret Places and Hidden Practices: Polemic, Imagination and Deindivualisation in Early Christianity

This project takes up the direction of the Individualisierung Forschung Gruppe by exploring space, deindividualisation, and entangled history. It develops what I have been working on in the last year, but with a new focus, namely on social identity and the creation of heresy as a mode of deindividualisation. I want to investigate entanglement by exploring how deindividualisation of opponents helps to form and is functions, in emerging Christian tradition, as requisite for sanctioned constructions of self and community. This helps to contest a simplistic orthodoxy vs heresy model of Christian origins and shows how both together are implicated in the creation of social identity and practice.


The private household meetings of early Christians occasioned detractors to deploy a host of charges against an emerging new religious movement that ranged from cannibalism to sexual perversity. As Christianity emerged through the second century such charges were in turn deployed against its (now heretical) opponents. We can see this process already unfolding in the New Testament, in the vilification of "the Jews" by Jewish and non-Jewish Christ followers. The Gospel of John, for example, both deindividualises Jewish opponents by casting them as offspring of the devil, or even as subjects of Caesar (rather than Yahweh); Matthew creates a typology of Pharisees for the same outcome; and Paul turns his opponents into circumcizing "dogs" who preach a "false Gospel" with infernal origins. Nowhere is this kind of polemic sharper than in John's Apocalypse where cosmic dualism, Hebrew Bible narratives that pit Israelites against Canaanites, and ideals of purity and impurity create enemies and deindividualise them as perverse monsters.  As these polemical traditions developed they also drew on Greco-Roman ideas associated with illigitimate religious practices and religions. This we can see especially in creation of "heretics" in the second century and accusations, by those laying claim to a normative Christianity, of secret and depraved ritual. The legislation of Constantine and his successors proscribing heresy developed this tradition in a new way, now outlawing the meetings of non-sanctioned groups and describing them with a series of terms (cosmic, medical, civic) to describe their identity. 


Social geography furnishes useful tools for exploring how imagination creates spaces and populates them with various types of individuals. This project draws on its insights to consider how polemic functioned both to sanction and condemn spaces and promoted modes of orthodox individualisation even as it deployed imagination and vivid narrative to create counter sites for the erasure of legitimate religious identity, or deindividualisation. Consideration of space as source for the individual and its erasure shows how individualisation and deindividualisation work together in the creation in the social identity, normative institutions of belief and leadership, and orthodox practice.

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