Saturday, July 18, 2009

Whatever Became of Heresy?

Fourteen years ago, Thomas C. Oden published an essay in The Christian Century entitled "Can We Talk About Heresy?" Oden's basic concerns are perhaps more relevant now than they were in 1995. Given the association of the very idea of "heresy" with intolerance, for instance, I think he's right to suggest that, among mainliners, the only real heresy left is believing in heresy at all.

Here's an excerpt from Oden's essay:

An interloper who steals property must be caught and charged. Thinly disguised atheism and neopaganism are interlopers in “liberated” church circles. They have engaged in the theft of church property. The stolen property must be reclaimed and the thieves brought to justice.

To point this out means raising the issue of heresy. But in the "liberated" church circles of oldline denominations heresy simply does not exist. After centuries of struggle against recurrent heresies, Christians have found a quick way of overcoming heresy: they have banished the concept altogether. With absolute relativism holding sway, there is not only no concept of heresy, but no way even to raise the question of where the boundaries of legitimate Christian belief lie.

This is like trying to have a baseball game with no rules, no umpire, and no connection with historic baseball. Only we continue to insist on calling it baseball because a game by the name of baseball is what most people still want to see played.

By "liberated" church circles I refer to the sexual experimenters, the compulsive planners of others' lives, the canonical text disfigurers, and ultrafeminists (as distinguished from the great company of godly Christian women who are found at many different points along the scale of feminist reflection). The liberated characteristically understand themselves to be free from oppressive, traditional constraints of all sorts and shapes. "Liberated" is not a term applied from outside, but a term they frequently apply to themselves. By liberated they usually imply: doctrinally imaginative, liturgically experimental, disciplinarily nonjudgmental, politically correct, muticulturally tolerant, morally broad-minded, ethically situationist, and above all sexually permissive.

I am not speaking merely of liberation theology in its more thoughtful manifestations as argued by Gustavo Gutierrez or Jurgen Moltmann or Mary Stewart van Leuwwen. I am referring rather to an engulfing attitude that proclaims: we have been liberated from our classic Christian past, from the patriarchalism of Christian scriptures, from benighted Jewish and Christian traditions, and from their oppressive social systems. As a former full-time liberator, I know from experience how mesmerizing this stance can be. The intellectual ethos I am describing is not liberal in the classic sense of that word, but intolerant and uncharitable when it comes to traditionalists of any sort, all of whom are capriciously bundled under the dismissive label of "fundamentalists."

I have the dubious honor of having recently been categorized in someone's computer bulletin board as a heresy-hunter. This gives me the comic occasion to embrace the misapplied description in a specific ironic sense: I am earnestly looking for some church milieu wherein the sober issue of heresy can at least be examined. I am looking, like Diogenes with his sputtering lamp, for a church or seminary in which some heresy at least conjecturally might exist. I have sought for some years to find a theological dialogue where a serious methodological discussion is taking place about how to draw some line between faith and unfaith, between orthodoxy and heresy. But almost everywhere that I have asked about the subject I have found that the very thought of inquiring about the possibility of heresy has itself become marked off as the prevailing archheresy. The archheresiarch is the one who hints that some distinction might be needed between truth and falsehood, right and wrong.

Just at this point, however, we can glimpse a faint sign of hope: a growing recognition among laity of the need for criteria to recognize orthodoxy, which therefore require some reference to heterodoxy. Just as the impatient adolescent is searching for boundaries, so liberated church leaders are unwittingly pressing their constituency for boundaries. This search for boundaries is essentially what was despairingly attempted at the 1993 "Re-Imagining" conference in Minneapolis. The most anxiety-creating fantasy is that there are no boundaries whatever and never have been.

The rediscovery of boundaries in theology will be the preoccupation of the 21st century of Christian theology. Some within the church-a party I call postmodern paleo-orthodoxy--are increasingly gaining the courage to inquire: Is pantheism heresy? Is reductive naturalism as reliable as any other assumption? Can Christianity make friends with absolute relativism? What would the church look like if it were apostate?

The word "heresy" derives from the Greek term hairesis, which has as its root the word meaning "choice" or "assertive self-will." It implies choosing one's own personal will over against the truth. It is a term that was early applied to interpretations of Christianity that differed markedly from apostolic testimony. It was a term that became important during persecution of Christians who were willing to die for the truth of the apostolic testimony. Under conditions of severe persecution under state tyranny, Christians found it necessary carefully to distinguish the apostolic recollection of salvation from counterapostolic accounts.

But what kind of assertion qualifies as "self-willing against the truth" Since the truth is worth dying for, this is not a negligible question, even if it has been largely neglected since the Enlightenment. Anyone attempting to answer this question since then has had first to fend off hysterical assertions that the question itself is unraisable because of the sordid history of abuses committed since the Counter-Reformation Inquisition. The calm defense of the truth, which is embodied in Jesus Christ, truly God, truly human, requires intellectual patience.

Heresy is less the assertion of statements directly hostile to classic Christian faith than it is the assertion of fragments of apostolic teaching, an assertion of segments that lack the cohesion and wholeness of classic Christian faith. Heresy occurs when some legitimate dimension of faith is elevated so unsymmetrically and so out of equilibrium as to become a decisive principle of interpretation for all other aspects of faith. To do so denies the unity and equilibrium of the ancient ecumenical consensus. Every hairesis against apostolic testimony gives the church a new opportunity to clarify the equilibrium of faith of the ancient Christian apostolic consensus.

Read it all.


BillyD said...

Whatever became of heresy? Well, in ECUSA, what happened to it was the Bishop Pike affair.

Joe Rawls said...

Billy, you took the very words right out of my mouth. I guess you can pigeonhole me as "postmodern paleo-orthodox", although my postmodern credentials are mostly derived from reading things like "Postmodernism for Dummies" in various coffeehouses and most postmodernism comes off to me as intellectual nihilism.

Witnessing to what we think is authentic Christianity in our beloved TEC is going to get a lot more interesting. Hold on for a rough ride.

Bill Carroll said...

I agree with Oden about some of this. His IRD connection is well known, which makes his own orthodoxy suspect in my book. This is an organization that was founded to make war on the poor.

plsdeacon said...

My Systematic Professor said that the problem with heresy is that it is true - it is just not true enough. Unfortunately, we have too many people in leadership that use the same words as Christians, but don't believe the Christian faith. For example, I have talked to many people (and not a few clergy!) who believe that the Holy Trinity can be described as "Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer" because that removes the patriarchal title "Father." It also removes the personhood from the three persons and turns them into three functions - classic modalism. Others will say that Jesus was not any more divine that you or I, but they still believe that Jesus is the best way to God.

A Church that does not discipline heretics, turns disipline into little but a show of force against those who are "out of power." A church that will not discipline its heretics, will soon be nothing but a social club with pretty (or not so pretty) liturgy.

Phil Snyder