Chapter 1: Heresy
Heresy: now there’s a word we don’t see very often anymore. Of course, I encountered it when I was in the seminary, studying the history of the Christian Church. Even when I was studying the matter, heresies were little more than strange Greek-sounding names that we had to memorize in order to pass our exams: Adoptionism, Arianism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism, etc. ad infinitum.
It’s such an anachronistic word, and such a foreign concept now. It originated in centuries long past, when academic clerics wrote long letters to one another arguing about arcane details of belief. At that time, the details were important because espousing or disagreeing with some of those details could get you jailed, tortured, or even killed.
What does heresy mean? It can be defined as “the denial of revealed truth as defined by the Church” and its effects could be described as “that which preserved the appearance of Christianity, and yet contradicted its essence.”
The long list of heresies was useful only in helping the church hierarchy point fingers at individuals and groups to let them know that they were wrong and why they were wrong (and, often, what the consequences would be). It didn’t matter much that the “heretics” were, at the same time, pointing condemning fingers at them, in return. That brings up an important feature of heresy: loose, informal organizations have a great deal of trouble determining what heresy is for them. You need a central doctrinal authority to define a heresy – something that hierarchical ecclesial communities have but that the “heretics” generally lack.
All this discussion is theoretically interesting, but it leaves unanswered the question of why anyone would care about it now, in the twenty-first century. Who, but an ecclesial academic would care about these arcane arguments? That’s what I would have thought . . . until recently. Two observations have caused me to change my mind and to reconsider the potentially harmful effects of heresy left unchecked. In short, it has come home to me that beliefs have practical consequences in real life.
The first observation (that has unsettled me for years) comes from something I have experienced for a very long time in formal and informal spiritual discussion groups. I have met literally thousands of people and heard the stories of men and women willing to share their experience, strength and hope at a very deep, personal level, exposing their lives to others in order to build and maintain their spiritual and emotional health. Many of these people have had – and are willing to talk about – significant life-altering spiritual experiences. At the same time, many of the same people have abandoned the Christian churches in which they were raised. They have chosen to live their highly moral and deeply spiritual lives while avoiding and, often, despising what they call “organized religion”. It seems a curious stance.
From the perspective of a trained theologian, their understanding of and appreciation for their religion of origin (or for any religion) often seems rather rudimentary and superficial . At the same time, the personal experience of religion (or religions) that they are willing to share has been so negative – often times spiritually, emotionally, and even physically damaging – that I presently see those members who continue to embrace religion to be the outliers. My experience suggests that those who have had deep, life-altering spiritual (perhaps even mystical) experiences generally flee religion like a plague. Not only do they most often not find support and solace in Christianity, they generally find it to be an obstacle to living an authentically spiritual life. I would like to know why.
The second observation that has puzzled me comes from the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Everyone knows and accepts that there exists a sick and suffering underbelly in every society. We can accept that it can include a sinister element. We even understand that, from time to time, in some societies, socio-economic pressures can allow that element to take control for a time, but almost always with self-destructive and even devastating consequences. Yet, indications are that over half of our voting population (most of whom are at least nominally Christian) and many “Christian” organizations enthusiastically supported a person who embodies the antithesis of Christian spirituality and moral values.
It seems incomprehensible that self-identified Christian religious individuals and organizations could publicly throw the weight of their dogmatic and moral authority behind a political movement which is so evidently inimical to Christian values. Not all Christian churches did this, but at least two of the most influential did: Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. They supported a demonstrably un-Christian campaign based arguably on their strongly-held religious beliefs. Here I see a real cognitive dissonance.
I surmise that these two observations may be connected. On one hand, we have many thousands of genuinely spiritual people rejecting Christianity based on the teachings of the Christian churches; while, on the other hand, we have Christian individuals and churches supporting politicians who espouse distinctly anti-Christian values. Indeed, these two experiences show me two sides of the same coin: the simultaneous espousal of anti-Christian values by some churches and the rejection of those churches by genuinely spiritual people. These facts lead me then to ask, is this a flaw in Christianity itself, or a flaw in the churches? To me, a follower of Jesus – steeped in the entire Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition – the answer is obvious: there’s something wrong with the way Christianity is being taught and lived.
Remember how heresy was described: “that which preserved the appearance of Christianity, and yet contradicted its essence”? This is no longer merely an academic discourse on some obscure point of doctrine. This is apparently a spiritual and social degeneration within Christian communities themselves; a degeneration that is being actively fostered by major Christian denominations. As I mentioned earlier, I can clearly see that heresy has consequences. What goes to make up this heresy, what the consequences of it will be, and what, if anything can be done about it are all questions that remain to be answered.
I have chosen to focus my investigation on two Christian groups, Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, who, on the surface, seem to be as different as two denominations could be. Yet, I have found similar vehemence against “organized religion” among ex-Evangelicals and ex-Catholics, and both denominations seem equally involved in promoting the same political agenda. They both seem to be deeply infected by the same heresy that I hope to define here. So far, this heresy has been given no official name by any ecclesial authority so, in honor of two of its major proponents, I have christened it. The Evangelical-Catholic Heresy. My hope is that by exposing it for what it is – and its premises – I can perhaps influence some other Christian thinkers to take a deeper look at their own Christian traditions and perhaps address the decay this heresy brings with it before their denominations succumb to it.
I want to go more deeply into the belief systems that underlie this heresy and expose its fundamentally anti-Christian roots. I invite you to examine our Judaic and early Christian origins. Bear with me. I want to show how certain attitudes and beliefs have slowly infected the Christian culture over time. I also want to contrast that heretical belief system with the Gospel. Finally, I hope to make some positive suggestions regarding what a post-heretical Christian church might look like, were any current denominations to adopt such a radically Christian approach.
Cross, F.L.; Livingstone, E.A. eds. (1974). “Heresy”. The Oxford Dictionary of
the Christian Church (2 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MacGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology Blackwell: 2001, p. 153