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.