A couple of years ago, I was talking in our living room about my affinity for heretics.
(Incidentally, that sentence originally was, “A couple of years ago, I was talking about my affinity for heretics in our living room.” While we most certainly have had a pleasant abundance of heretics in our living room, it wasn’t my immediate point.)
Daughter Else, apparently, had been in earshot and overheard me speaking.
Some time later, out of the blue, Elsegirl said this: “Mama, I like bad guys.”
Great pause, great gulp, great anticipatory anxiety for impending teenage years.
“Why, baby?” I breathed out.
“For the same reason that you said you like heretics,” she said. “They’re interesting.”
The word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairesis, meaning “a taking or choosing, a choice.”
Even that’s interesting, let alone the heretics making the takings.
The notion of a heretic being one who, then, chooses a belief contrary to the orthodox (ortho-, straight, true; doxa-, opinion, praise) teaching, showed up in the late 4th century.
I tend to be skeptical of “orthodox” teaching, for the same reason that I’m innately skeptical of established rules, mores, and tradition.
People in power tend to be the ones who get to make the choice about what is to be the “true opinion.”
If nothing else, heretics challenge the system’s choices.
They might not be right.
Neither may the system, though, for that matter.
Sometimes it takes a heretic to point that out.
The other night, Else and Karl asked me to sing a morning song from our hymnal. So I found (in the good old Green Book, for you Lutherans) “God of our Life, All Glorious Lord.”
The second verse goes like this: “Make clear our path that we may see/where we must walk to be with Thee/And ever listen for Thy voice/ That we may make Thy way our choice.”
The operative word, it seems to me, is “Thy.”
“Thy way our choice.”
“Thy” is not “my,” you see, or tradition’s, or the powers-that-be’s.
That’s the challenge of a heretic.
What motivates our theological choices, our takings? Do we make them according to what we’ve always been taught is right and true? Or could it be that there are other choices that might coincide even more with God’s way, as opposed to the established tradition’s way? To orthodoxy’s way?
I’m feeling me some heretical thinking….
Let me take another run at it:
I stumbled on this article in Christianity Today, called “You have heard it said.” It’s a review of John Caputo’s book What Would Jesus Deconstruct?
The article has a number of juicy tidbits. The most heretical one might be this one, though:
“Deconstruction questions assumed interpretations and the presumption of institutions to be the rightful arbiters of meaning.”
(As an aside, I like that the first instance of any variation on the word “arbiter” is the feminine form “arbitress,” namely “a woman who settles disputes.” Deconstruct that.)
The point being, heretics might be ambassadors of new vision, modern day announcers that “You have heard it said, but now I say unto you.”
Jesus’ tendency to say just that didn’t earn him many points with the establishment.
To hearken back to Egirl, Jesus was perceived by some as a bad guy.
By some as interesting.
But one could argue that he was, in point of fact, a first-class heretic.
One of the most interesting thing about heretics, is their ability to make converts to their way of thinking. Though I’d like to credit charisma to the Holy Spirit, either some of those historical and present day heretics were more right than wrong in God’s sight, or personal charisma rivals the Spirit’s power to influence. This especially fascinates me, when you examine how geographically limited the spread of some heresies were. There is the teacher, the disciples, and those who heard them and maybe one layer or two more, in most cases, but then you have folks like Joseph Smith, (whose teachings may not exactly qualify as heresy,) but certainly broke through the geographical restriction.
Yes, charisma helps, and can also be very, very dangerous.
It is also interesting to note how heretics have helped the Church identify some of its core principles. Both the establishment of the Canon (though, it is key to note, Scripture has never been approved for any council, and as such is still “open”) and the creation of the Nicene Creed came thanks to the questions that heretics raised.
That is, they influenced both inside and outside the Church.
Again, I am fascinated by the role of power as one considers heretics.
Power can trump truth.
(I am refraining from making any political commentary right now, and will end my response to your comment prematurely to keep myself in check).
now you’ve got me thinking that every tradition has its own orthodoxies and things which ought not be questioned.
Yes, I do believe that that is true.
And there is a tendency to be somewhat heavy-handed about it. Take, for example, the 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which the Pope asserted that, “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
A question can be raised, however: at what point should something be considered “off-limits” for questioning? That is, those of us who are in favor of women’s ordination are very uncomfortable with the above statement. Would we, however, be less anxious if a document were published, “…the Church does indeed have authority to confer priestly ordination on women, and…this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful?”
What is the litmus test, that is, for the things that are beyond question?
Simply elegant and radically rational, Anna. How I adore your pondering because it ultimately allows me to wander back to the heart of my soul-every time.
Thank you. That makes me glad.
You talk about heretics in general: Do you have any specific favorites?
Well, R- (aka husband), why yes, yes I do.
Galileo, the Beguines, Margery Kempe, Jan Hus, Martin Luther, Liberation Theology, Elizabeth Johnson, Hans Küng, and you.
(This site even lists Joe DiMaggio and Sinead O’Connor!).
Generally, however, I think that heretics present sometimes uncomfortable questions that if nothing else, force Christians to figure out what they believe and why, and/or clarify those convictions better or more. If a bona fide heresy takes hold (and again, what would that be and judged by whose standards?) then who is more at fault: the heretics or the Church which can’t defend against them?
Mostly, they intrigue me, challenge me, and make me think in new creative and hopefully more articulate manners about what I believe and am called to do than I would otherwise.
Hmmm…sometimes heretics become orthodox, i.e. Martin Luther. Makes me wonder if when this happens their abrasive edge is removed and their heretical musings lose their vitality. Maybe Lutheranism needs a good heretic about now, one that might even suggest following that Great Heretic, Jesus…just a thought.
You volunteering, Joe?
I appreciate the etymological unpacking again! In my final year of seminary, I found a number of my colleagues thinking quite differently than I was–their perspective, after spending a year in ministry, was as I deemed it, an “orthodoxy-heresy worldview.” I found myself a lot more open to the unorthodox and wacky, while well grounded. It leaves me wondering, for the sake of the church, what, during that internship year, cemented the heresy/orthodoxy worldview in my colleagues, whether in regards to worship, or theology, or confessionalism, or other matters?