Home > History, Literature, Politics, Religion > Faith, Power and Dangerous Certainty: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

Faith, Power and Dangerous Certainty: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

Certain ideas are immediately suggested by the word “inquisition”. Forbidding ecclesiasticals in their ominous cowls, dank subterranean torture chambers, the banning of books and the burning of people at the stake, the censorship trials of great scientific minds. For those of a certain generation and/or comic predilection, a famous sketch about the Spanish Inquisition springs to mind. Those with even a mild Zionist bent would have widespread persecutions of Jews, some of it sanctioned by the Church and some not, in mind. Many concepts are associated with “inquisition”. None of them are good.

In God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, Cullen Murphy gives the Inquisition(s) a thorough going over. He finds that their better-known manifestations – the Medieval, the Spanish, and the Roman – were indeed restrictive, oppressive, and cruel, but that the Church authorities themselves washed their hands of the harsh physical consequences of their investigations. They left the actual dirty work of torturing and executing to the secular authorities of their eras, who had far more practical experience in the application of brutal violence than the vow-taking ecclesiastical shock troops of the Inquisition. As a point of fact, even the festival-like public burnings of the Iberian persecutions, the infamous auto-da-fés, were elaborate spectacles meant to establish the plausible deniability of the religious institutions; the key display of the ceremony was the handing over of the convicted heretics to the secular forces for their final punishment.

Murphy makes a clear analogy between this method and the underhanded practice of rendition employed by the American government’s covert arm with terror suspects in recent years, under which the captive of the formerly torture-averse democracy is “rendered” to a state with fewer such qualms for “enchanced interrogation”. Indeed, God’s Jury generally keeps one eye gazing over the past while the other is fixed firmly on the present. Murphy unearths many parallels to the secretive aims of the post-9/11 American security state, and not just the use and justification of torture either (the agents of the Spanish Inquisition waterboarded regularly, although their definition of “torture” seems to have ended where the Bush-Cheney regime’s began, at extreme pain and the threat of death).

Murphy, ever the good liberal (he’s the editor at large of Vanity Fair and former managing editor at the Atlantic Monthly), compares the Inquisition’s programs of low-tech surveillance and informing (mostly via denunciations and rumours from neighbours and family surrounding the accused) to the illegal wiretaps and high-tech electronic surveillance ushered in by the Patriot Act and other such anti-terror legislation. He finds parallels between the Roman Inquisition’s response to the endemic spread of Protestant ideas by censoring and outright banning books and that of arch-conservative American group like the Texas State Board of Education, which has often mandated a propagandistic right-wing view of history and society in school textbooks. The pogroms that accompanied the Spanish Inquisition in particular, targetting former Jewish but also former Muslim converts called conversos, are likened to Islamophobic campaigns in the U.S. seeking to limit the construction of mosques.  And more than anything, he laments the mindless bureaucracy that undergirds not only Inquisitions but also modern states like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the American security state, whose oppressive structures operate with an inertial momentum all their own.

God’s Jury is a fascinating if streamlined thesis on the history of freedom-smothering institutions, though it is not without its faults. For all of his witty erudition and meticulous research, Murphy does let his paternalistic liberal elitism creep in far too often, especially when namedropping the various grandees of Church, academy, government, and public life that he chums around with while composing his supposed opus on the malign power of crusading institutions. There also seems to be a bit of Catholic Church history left out in the initial stages. Murphy drops us right in the middle of the medieval persecution of the Cathars in Southern France without much of a prelude about the establishment of the structures and theological imperatives of the Church, especially when compared to the more detailed picture of the more modern Vatican that he later provides.

But God’s Jury keeps its scholarly focus along with its ideological one, an impressive intellectual feat indeed. Cullen Murphy draws out the dangers of the Unholy Trinity of faith, power and certainty with patience, thoughtfulness, and considerable supporting detail. For him, the modern world is not defined by the way that it has overcome the destructive tendencies of supersitious institutions, but by the expansion and transformations of those institutions themselves.

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  1. January 8, 2013 at 8:45 pm
  2. July 14, 2014 at 7:33 pm

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