“We Are All Heretics Now”

The Greek word from which we derive our word “heresy” is hairesis, which in simplistic terms means a distinctive, personally chosen opinion. The word is used a few times in the New Testament, and it is typically translated as either “sect” or “faction.” See Acts 5:17; 1 Corinthians 11:19. Nowadays, the word is used to denote a view or belief that is beyond the pale of orthodoxy or outside the mainstream of thought. As a general rule, it is a pejorative, used to identify thoughts or ideas that are perceived to be illegitimate or pernicious.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I am sitting in an undergraduate seminar featuring sociologist Peter Berger for a discussion about his work in sociology of religion, and he declares unequivocally that “We are all heretics now.” Berger was alluding to his landmark work The Heretical Imperative, in which he explores how modernity has plunged religiosity into a crisis of choice. In the pluralistic age in which we live, there are few, if any, “givens” left to default to as axioms or first principles, at least when it comes to matters of faith. Thus, religion becomes an exercise in choice – that is, religion is, of necessity, a “heretical imperative.”

Of course, Berger was right. We all do have to choose what we will believe in this pluralistic time. And, despite my initial surprise to hear this, it made sense at the time. After all, having grown up as something of an over-analytical evangelical, I was quite familiar with Protestant icon and heretic extraordinaire Martin Luther. In fact, I adored Martin Luther, the way most kids might idolize a movie star or sports icon (as proof of this, I still somewhere possess a book report I did in the fifth or sixth grade on Roland Bainton’s renowned Luther biography Here I Stand). For me, Luther modeled a willingness to follow the dictates of conscience wherever that might lead, even though doing so meant rejecting the prevailing orthodoxies of his day (and suffering the consequences accordingly). His famous “Here I Stand” speech still resonates after all these years:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason — for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves — I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.

This paean to intellectual and spiritual freedom made Luther a heretic in his day. And to want to emulate him meant being willing to be a heretic as well. Over time, I came to accept this, drifting from Reformed Christianity to variants of progressive Christianity to agnosticism to atheism as I followed my intellectual convictions where they led me. I thus found myself well beyond the pale of orthodoxy, despite receiving my undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies with intentions of going to seminary to prepare for Christian ministry. C’est la vie, as they say.

The funny thing is, once a heretic, always a heretic. With age, experience, and hopefully some wisdom mixed in, I found myself drifting back up the path I had previously come down, abandoning dogmatic atheism for a more open-handed agnosticism before becoming a “seeker” once more.

And, at some point, the thought dawned on me that Jesus of Nazareth himself was a heretic:

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. . . . the high priest said to him, ‘I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”‘ Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy.’

Evidently it is not bad company to keep, then. Besides, at my age, one learns to be comfortable in one’s own skin, warts and all. If Justice Scalia once considered himself a faint-hearted originalist, I suppose I could consider myself a faint-hearted skeptic. Might as well own it.

Which is where this blog comes in. After a few conversations about faith with a pastor-friend of mine recently, he encouraged me to spend time contemplating questions regarding faith in the way I found most suitable for “Deep Work.” It took me no time to realize that meant taking the time to write out my thoughts, as it happens to be the manner in which I process things best. And to do so in blog form seemed obvious, not only because this isn’t my first rodeo, but also because I like to think out loud and to think alongside others. After all, “Without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed.” 

Besides, I know I am not alone, because Berger was right: We are all heretics now. And, if God exists — particularly if he became man in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, who “in every respect has been tested as we are” — I don’t think that’s too much for him to handle.

So, here in these (digital) pages, I intend to think out loud on faith, doubt, and whatever comes between. If that is something you might be interested in, I look forward to doing so together. At the very least, wherever you find yourself on this journey, I hope my aggressive transparency might give you some company along the way. Cheers.

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