When they lose their sense of awe,
People turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves,
They begin to depend upon authority.
Therefore the Master steps back
So that people won’t be confused.
He teaches without a teaching,
So that people will have nothing to learn.
– Tao Te Ching
Once upon a time there was a man named Jesus. He was a teacher and a healer and did many wonderful things. But many of the things he taught contradicted the teachings of the religious and political leaders of the day. He died the terrible death of a criminal at the hands of those who were in authority and those who were afraid to oppose it. But that was not the end of the story because this Jesus was raised into new life and is said to be living with us still even to this day.
In the aftermath of this story of death and resurrection, there were many different understandings and ways that people came to interpret Jesus’ teachings and the Christ event. Some believed Jesus was fully and only human. Some thought he fully and only divine. Some believed he was physically resurrected, others that he was resurrected in the lives of his followers. A vast array of Christ centered faiths emerged with radically different teachings – the likes of which make the differences between Catholics, Lutherans and Baptists pale by comparison.
And in the Greco Roman world that might not have been too much of a problem. All but the Jews were pretty much free to practice the religion and worship the gods of their choosing. But in the case of Christianity, the idea of faith got all mixed up with the idea of correct belief. As soon as Jesus’ followers began to believe that Jesus was somehow the only way to be right with God, Christians became by their very nature exclusivists. They were right in a way that everyone else had to be wrong. And since Christians required right belief, there had to be something concrete to believe in – not some kind of vague, abstract mystical faith, but faith with clear content and documented truth. As soon as it mattered what a person believed in, the debates began.
In his book The Lost Christianities, Bart Ehrman traces all forms of Christianity today back to a single expression that emerged victorious from those debates in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This one form won the prize of declaring what was the “correct” Christian perspective, who could exercise authority over Christian belief and practice, what forms of Christianity would be marginalized and destroyed, and which books to accept as scripture.
This one form of Christianity gained the sense that it was and had always been “right”. It developed a Creed that affirms the right beliefs, and a theology that includes the view that Christ was both human and divine, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Sacraments, the hierarchy of church leaders and the canon we know as the Holy Bible. That which supports this on form of Christianity is considered orthodox or “right teaching”. Anything that contradicts it is heresy.
Here’s a test I found on an online blog although I couldn’t find an author’s name anywhere. The question is this: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers? Or in the words of our text, are there things you keep silent for fear of being put out of the synagogue?
If the answer is no, then it may be that your peers really rock or you may have finally achieved enlightenment and no longer are concerned with opinions or consequences in this earthly existence. But the other possibility is that you agree with everything you are supposed to agree with and disagree with everything you are supposed to disagree with. If so, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn’t. Odds are you just believe it not because of your own experience and investigation but because you’ve been told to.
Now I could be wrong. You may have independently considered every question and came up with the exact same answers that are considered right and appropriate now. Of course that means you are also making the same mistakes – and that usually doesn’t happen by accident. My son Alex and his friend both got the same answer wrong on a test a month ago. That wouldn’t have been a big deal, but they both gave the same bizarre answer. Did they really do their own work and come to the same exceptionally wrong conclusion? Not very likely.
The Necessity of Heresy
If on the other hand you do have opinions that you only share with certain people and in certain places, you probably are a bona fide heretic – and a genuine blessing to the Christian faith.
Because in every time and in every place there is something the orthodoxy has gotten wrong. Mistakes are made. Heretics are necessary for the sake of vision and correction. Our own Lutheran tradition is built upon the teachings of one of the most famous heretics of all time – Martin Luther – proof that today’s heresies are tomorrow’s orthodoxies. More recent heresies include the promotion of racial equality and the ordination of women. Currently the desire for full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church is its own form of heresy.
I for one am proud to be a heretic. Now I’m not going to stand up here with a list of my heresies, if you keep reading my blog you’ll discover then as you go. And I am aware that heresy does risk individualism run amuck with no consideration for the sensibilities of the community.
Nevertheless, I firmly believe that without heresy the church would become stagnant and dead. And I believe that without our own heretical insights and impulses our faith becomes stagnant and dead. If we don’t question a single thing we’ve been taught can we authentically claim to believe it – or have we just learned to recite it?
If we are truly caught up in the mystery of God then we have to discover at some point that we have not been given the answers, for the answers are not there to be grasped. Truth can be pointed to, God can be suggested, but we cannot for all of our attempts ever fully comprehend the great mystery of our existence. And that means the church can’t do it either. Jesus himself spoke in parable and metaphor, not in doctrinal certainties.
Shortly after I started my work in ministry I was invited to be part of a monthly gathering with people who called themselves “The Dick Rhem Society of Heretics and Believers.” It was the most amazing experience! People were actually saying out loud things that I had thought – and never dared articulate. I have worked hard and will continue to work to make sure whereever I am engaged in ministry I am helping to create a place where people can bring and share their heresies – not in order to convince everybody that they are the sole holder of truth, but so that we can all admit that the questions are still open and that mystery still remains.
A Theology of Hostility
Dr. Paul Rajashekar, a Theology Professor from Philadelphia, was one of the main speakers at a conference I attended a few years ago. He used the term “Theology of Hostility” to describe the way Christians have traditionally approached other faiths. The term also aptly applies to the Christian approach to heretics.
Joan of Arc, for instance, was condemned as a heretic and a witch for reporting visions and voices she believed to be from God. She was burned at the stake, clutching a cross.
Martin Luther was excommunicated after failing to recant his teachings. He lived out his life in hiding to avoid imprisonment and death.
Galileo, the “father of modern physics” stood trial for promoting the idea the Earth revolves around the sun. Rome required him to recant, sentenced him to prison (later reduced to house arrest) and banned his publications.
Meister Eckhart, the great Christian mystic, died before his trial and remains an official heretic of the church.
And of course many names are lost to us of those who were tortured and killed – a practice of the Orthodox Church that effectively ended not only their lives but also the heresies they dared to express.
Dr. Paul contends that as we live in the midst of many religious traditions, a theology of hostility will no longer work as a means of preserving the church. Instead of explaining our faith in contrast to the faith of others, we must begin articulating our faith in a way that makes sense to the other. We must begin to approach people of other faiths with genuine humility, eager to share not what we have been taught but what we have experienced to be true. And we must be willing to be changed by the witness they bring to us.
The same can be said about heresy. Of course, heretics can be much more frightening because they are so much more like us and so much more likely to challenge our traditionally held beliefs. Indeed, in today’s world every one of our beliefs and every theological claim is a contested claim. Some of those claims have been contested as long as there have been followers of Jesus. Others have become contested as our culture and context has changed. That should not surprise us – for we are the people of a living God and we should expect that faith that is alive is also faith open to change.
All of us need to come to our own faith and that should include some heretical notions. Indeed, we need heresy in order to further evolve as a people of faith. Whatever we know now is NOT all there is to know. Our image of God now is NOT the true image of God. Heresy is a necessary catalyst to be about the reformation we are grounded in.
But heresy does have a shadow side. It does tend to want to establish its own orthodoxy – declaring itself right and above reproach. When we end up thinking WE’RE right and everybody else is WRONG, we only perpetuate a theology of hostility, pitting one set of human beliefs against another.
Faith, in the end, is not the practice of mindlessly repeating everything we have been taught. Faith is also not the practice of disagreeing with everything for the sake of disagreement. But to spend time in heartfelt meditation and prayer, opening ourselves up to receive truth that no human being can adequately explain but that will call us continually to a place of reformation and transformation. Until finally we can move beyond this silly state of orthodoxy vs. heresy and our human construction of dualities that require barriers, boxes and boundaries.
Indeed our call is to be a society of heretics and believers, that we might finally embrace a God who is truly one with all and in all and of all and a Christ that transcends even our most carefully crafted doctrine.
Invitation for Reflection
1) Why has the church responded so violently against heretics?
2) When did you begin to question things you had been taught?
3) What are your own heresies and where do you feel safe giving voice to them?