Ronald Knox and Dysfunctional Religion

Ronald Knox’s description of Jansenism, in his acclaimed history of Christian sectarianism, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion, describes a type of spiritual presumption and zealotry that has resurfaced time and again, from the Montanists of the second century to the Feeneyites of the twentieth.

It is not so much the severity of false spirituality—after all, one thinks of the intense austerities of orthodox men like Simon Stylites and Francis of Assisi—as the fact that sectarians mistake personal taste and temperament for objective truth. At the root of Jansenist error was intense pride. Its advocates were forever bent on rancor and controversy as if their belief could only be defined negatively. According to Knox, “to be a Jansenist you must always be writing against somebody.” The Jansenist propagandist Antoine Arnauld “spent thirty out of the last fifty years of his life either in hiding or in exile, arguing all the time; that did not matter, he could bear anything except to be silenced.”

Another frequent aspect of sectarianism is rigorism. While boasting of the efficacy of their good works Jansenists urged the utmost severity towards others. It reinforced their sense of religious superiority. One is reminded of the bullying Mr. Murdstone and his malevolent sister in David Copperfield: “what such people miscall their religion, is a vent for their bad-humours and arrogance.” As a result they are much disliked and so “they are very free in consigning everybody who dislikes them to perdition.”

Perhaps in this same spirit the Jansenists harped on the difficulty of salvation. According to Knox it was based on the “the feeling that you form a very small nucleus within the Church, coupled with the firm belief that only a very small nucleus within the Church is destined to heaven.” This in turn leads to the “assumption that the two ‘remnants’ are one in the same.” The Jansenists viewed themselves as an elect group. Knox explains that with all sectarian views of Christianity

The enthusiast wants to see results; he is not content to let the wheat and tares grow side by side until the harvest. It must be made possible somehow, even in this world, to draw a line between the sheep and the goats. Thus a little group of devout souls isolates itself from the rest of society, to form a nucleus for the New Jerusalem….

Knox’s book is a remarkable treatment of Christian movements throughout history which display a set of shared errors. It is a religious study in the manner of Cardinal Newman, which is not only carefully thought out but written in timeless prose. It is a convincing work of religious forensics devoid of rancorous polemics. In conclusion, by understanding the motives behind religious sectarianism described in Enthusiasm we can learn a great deal about cultish activities on a social and political level as well. It is a profound work of human psychology.

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