Saturday, October 25, 2008

Why Heresy Matters.

A few weeks back, as I reflected on the comments for my entry on Hunting Heresy in the Fathers, I realized that I was opening myself up to the criticism that I was denigrating the importance of heresy by critisizing those who were trying to identify heresy where they find it. I don't think I was, but I wondered if I needed to do a companion piece on why it was important that we identify and, if necessary, confront heresy.

Heresy hunting has, of course, a bit of a bad name. Many people tend to remember heresy trials throughout history and the frequently grim executions which resulted from these proceedings. This kind of thing is exactly the kind of thing that anti-religious people like to mention when they're trying to argue why religion has been the author of oppression and violence over the ages. Nor are they entirely wrong because I honestly think that these trials were un-Christian, although I really wish that these critics would remember that the executions were the state's job and, while the Church can and should be critisized for colluding in the trials and for endorsing the use of violence, the state bears a responsibility in this oppression and violence which is only rarely acknowledged.

What is more, there has been something of a linguistic shift in the last few decades in the use of the word heresy. There was a time, not so long ago, that calling someone a heretic was fightin' words. It was, at any rate, an insult. Yet, these days, a lot of people call themselves heretics because they see this as evidence of the independence of their minds. Orthodoxy is seen as too narrow and oppressive, so heresy is fresh and pleasantly unique. In that sense, heresy is an exciting eccentricity, nothing more.

So, all this begs the question of why we should bother with heresy in this day and age. Either we risk being seen as a cold-hearted oppressor or as a narrow-minded kill-joy. So, why should we as Christians care about heresy? Surely, this isn't about keeping a clipboard with all the things we need to believe to check off as we listen to each other?

At the end of the day, dealing with heresy is about how our beliefs affect how we relate to God. This is something that the Fathers themselves realized. We all know that St. Athanasius critisized Arianism based on its soteriological implications: the effect of making the Word/Son a creature is that it removes our mediator with God and the benefits of the resurrection (especially with the doctrine of recapitulation which is so characteristic of eastern theology of the period). St. Augustine critisized Pelagianism because of its tendency towards perfectionism. St. Irenaeus critisized Gnosticism because of its spiritual elitism and dualism. The Fathers didn't stand around with a clipboard to tick off the spiritual faux pas of their followers, but they were ardently concerned with the spiritual health of those under their spiritual care. If heresy is a distortion, a disease affecting our perception of God, surely we should diagnose the problem and try to treat it.

Heresy distorts our image of God and that is the source of this problem which heresy engenders. I know, in my own life, that my affinity to Deism- the 18th century heresy that God created the world, but no longer directly intervenes in His Creation- was a stumbling block for a very long. At the root of my sympathy to this heresy was a tendency to see God as remote to my life and a willingness that this remoteness continue. By God's grace, I learned about a God who was involved in the world and was actively redeeming it from the mess that we've made of it. I learned about a God who cares about me and who actively redeems my life from the various mistakes that I've made in my life. From this perspective, Deism strikes me as being a barrier to a stronger relationship with God.

That is, of course, a very personal example, but I think it is no less valid because of that. Part of the Christian life is to seek closeness to God, so anything which prevents that is something we need to deal with- lovingly and gently, but firmly. Ignoring it would be spiritually harmful which would be inimical to Christian discipleship.



Peace,
Phil

9 comments:

Jim said...

Well, if heresy is both personal and self-diagnosed, that is one thing is it not? Having it diagnosed for a person is another thing entire. That is I think one of the problems of our age.

I am entirely aware of my own ability to forget that God is both imminent and active. I do not fall into Deism as much as I do pharisee--ism: that is reducing faith to ritual, belief to law.

Neither Athanaseus nor Augustine were dispassionate in the sense of not caring. Nor were they unwilling to be definitive in their conclusions. But they began by looking at the ideas, comparing them to both the methodology and confessions of the church and concluding that some were in error.

Perhaps we need to ask how we can set up some methodology of investigation that holds ideas and those who profess them accountable without the smug judgementalism so common in our day. We both have seen that in operation on other sites. (cf Kelly v Robin)

I suspect that if we face a mirror, we all find some sort of heretic. Or at least we should. Asking ourselves what separates us from God is a painful discipline. Taking the next step and asking what ideas potentially separate many is a difficult and perilous journey.


FWIW
jimB

Phil Snider said...

One of the things about committing to historic orthodoxy is that one realises quite quickly how much of a balancing act orthodoxy is. It is all too easy to get muddled and confused in trying to understand God. This is why, I think, true orthodoxy has the humility to say that it doesn't really understand God, even if it can say things about Him.

You're right about the balance between legalism and accountability. This is a very hard balance inside oneself, much less when applied to others. Yet, it should be hard because the task itself is hard.

The key here is humility and love of neighbour. If we have that, we may have a chance for discerning God where He is found in the world.

Peace,
Phil

Jim said...

In last Sunday's Gospel reading we heard Jesus confounding the pharisees and enunciating the two key points of the law. Over and over again, we hear Jesus tell us what to do or not do. He preaches against legal tricks designed to take property from widowed women, require us to offer hospitality to the stranger, make life possible for the sick and poor, and give of ourselves.

I wont argue that we earn heaven. But I will suggest that as James wrote, what we do is how we believe. We Anglican sorts often say that how we pray defines how we believe. I think that an error -- how we live does.

So, I would argue that I don't much care how orthodox one's professed beliefs are unless they are there for the poor and empowered in the society. A person is what she/he does. That is what I hear Jesus say to the consternation of His hearers.

I think that orthodox teaching leads to orthodox actions. And so what we profess does matter. But at the end of the day, when Jesus described the judgment He spoke of actions not beliefs.

FWIW
jimB

Phil Snider said...

Jim;

I agree that orthodox belief must lead to orthodox practice and, certainly, there is a tendency especially among younger Christians (in the emergent movement) to emphasize orthopraxy over orthodoxy. And I think that is a good thing.

Yet, I hestitate because I think this opposition (not that I'm saying you're doing this) is artificial. I can't see how to separate these because our image of God will help determine how we decide to act in the world. Similarly, I think there is a danger of a kind of Pelagianism in think that we can act our way to God only. Contemplation and worship must be part of this picture. I also think theology should be as well. That is why we have so many gifts in the Church. All of this is orthodoxy.

Peace,
Phil

Kevin - CourtingTheMystery.com said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin - CourtingTheMystery.com said...

Phil,

Thank you for a very interesting post. It seems to me that one underlying question here is that of authority. In your post you seemed to make reference to the rather 'post modern' perspective that generally condemns criticising other perspectives. With this philosophy has come a general loss of authority. However, to diagnose our own heresies, and especially that of others, we must have some clear standards by which to judge our perspectives. For myself, and I suspect many who visit your blog, the Scriptures, creeds, councils, controversies, and Fathers of the church are all important authorities to compare ourselves to. However, at what point do we draw the line historically or conceptually? Some of us may draw it at the New Testament, others the first 7 ecumenical councils, others may say the church continues to be inspired, but what church?
So, on the one hand I think we can only diagnose heresy in others, especially, if they respect an authority that would condemn them of that particular heresy.

On the other hand, as I think out loud, I think there must be room for an appeal to reason as well.

I suppose most discussions on heresy require both of these. E.g. Irenaeus pointed to the traditions of the church (especially the Scriptures), but he also attempted to reason with the Gnostics by offering what he believed was a superior theological perspective rationally as well.

Thanks for an interesting post. You're absolutely right that, at the end of the day, heresy is dangerous because it does hinder our relationship with God.

All the best,

Kevin

Jim said...

Phil,

One of the items I want for Christmas is a tee shirt with the slogan, "Pelagius was framed!" ;-)

I dunno. We say, "Lex orendi, lex credendi" "don't we? I recall that my spiritual director when I was a postulant used to say that the reason to pray is, 'to become more of a person who prays.' He is an Orthodox priest now -- no modernist he. And I recall Jesus said to accept anyone doing good in His name.

So where do we draw the line? If we accept the idea that inaction is non-faith (very orthodox and scriptural I think) what of those who act and believe something a bit different than our set of assumptions?

FWIW
jimB

Phil Snider said...

Kevin;

Welcome to uperekperissou and thanks for your post. You are right. I think we can only work out what is and is not heresy using some kind of standard like the Bible or tradition. Or both. Preferably, both as tradition only really makes sense when we keep going back to its source: Scripture.

Jim;

Well, I don't think Pelagius was all wrong, but I think he left too heavy a burden, if we don't give more room for grace to work. Free will is very important, but we do have to remember who is charge.

Peace,
Phil

Christopher Easley said...

Thank you for your insight and grace, Phil. It is encouraging. A struggle of mine is how to communicate the importance of orthodoxy to my friends who are very sensitive to fundamentalism and legalism. I especially enjoyed the following quote: "The Fathers didn't stand around with a clipboard to tick off the spiritual faux pas of their followers, but they were ardently concerned with the spiritual health of those under their spiritual care."

In Christ,

Christopher