The Apostate Temptation

Print More

Peter Alfonsi.jpgOn June 29, 1106, a Jewish intellectual named Moses Sephardi had himself baptized into the Catholic church in Huesca, Spain. Taking the name Peter Alfonsi, he went on to achieve fame throughout Christian Europe as an astronomer and author. In his Dialogues against the Jews, he presents his present self arguing against his former self in the most important anti-Jewish polemic of its era.

Just as Peter Abelard (at just the same time) established the Western model of the Parisian celebrity philosopher, so Peter Alfonsi established the model of the celebrity apostate. It’s a good gig because your new community treasures the special insights you have, or claim to have, into the (false) world of your old community. Moreover, you represent in your own distinguished person the triumph of the new community over the old.

The communities in question can be secular as well as, strictly speaking, religious. At the height of the Cold War, America’s great apostate from Communism (aka the God the Failed) was Whittaker Chambers. These days, those hostile to Israel embrace anti-Zionist Jewish writers like Norman Finkelstein. Those hostile to Islam have a range of picks.

For example, the secularist intelligentsia have Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch activist now ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute. And the evangelicals have Ergun Caner, Dean of the Baptist School of Theology at Liberty Baptist University. Or at least they thought they did.

Caner’s problem, however, is that he may be a faux apostate–not the ex-jihadi from Turkey he claims to have been but a kid born in Sweden and raised in Ohio who chose the religion of his Christian mother rather than his Turkish father. Later this month, Liberty will release a report determining whether he really is the apostate he claims to be.

In the meantime, it might be a good idea for the rest of us think about dialing back on apostates of all sorts. The trouble with apostasy is that it’s too good a gig. The passion of the convert, real or faux, connects with audiences only too eager to hear the worst. That’s not a healthy connection.

Update: Well, Caner’s gone as president of the seminary–but is staying on as a member of the faculty. 

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Agreed! Some people who change faiths make it into a “good gig” making their change of faith seem to be cases of insincere exploitation.
    However, lets look at the positive side and not just the negative. There have been many very sincere converts to the Catholic Church that the Church would be very impoverished without. This starts with St. Paul, leading to St. Augustine, on through John Henry Newman, and to St. Edith Stein.
    In fact, in reading writings of converts to the Catholic Church (including many modern testimonies on the internet) I have found their positive witness sometimes highlights aspects of the Faith not appreciated by “born” Catholics making these testimonies valuable for some of my sermons. I have also found that Catholic congregations enjoy hearing the witness given in such testimonies as long as they are positive about the Catholic Faith and not attacks on other faiths.

  • Mark Silk

    Fair enough, John. I don’t mean to call into question the sincerity of converts, nor the special insights they may be able to provide their new co-religionists. In some cases–one thinks of the late archbishop of Paris–they actually provide a kind of bridge between the two communities. But when they make a profession of attacking what they left, when they turn into professional apostates, I say beware. P.S. It’s not easy to sort out St. Paul’s post-conversion views of Judaism–obviously a complicated question. One can imagine how the Manichees felt about St. Augustine.

  • There’s a pretty substantial sociological literature on the problems of apostate testimony. Stuart Wright’s Social Forces paper is probably the best work discussing the problems and issues. Most of that literature is directed towards new religious movements, so it is interesting to see this play out among major traditions. Of course, the death of the anti-cult movement was sealed by lawsuits against Jews for Jesus…Noboday cared when people were kidnapping and “deprogramming” Krishnas, but Christians, that’s another matter!