Heresy, as we know it in the 21st Century, is departure from the established doctrine of a religious group. So, one group’s orthodoxy might be another group’s heresy. In our modern age, the penalty for heresy tends to be far less than in former centuries. Even arch-conservatives would only expel you from their list of benefits, some supposedly eternal, for advocating heresy. Thus expelled, you would probably be welcome into another group.
Nevertheless, I would like to propose that for every authentic extensive Christian denomination there are at least FIVE HERESIES most of us could agree are unacceptable.
First, a theology is heretical that uses theological rationale to justify leaders who are con-artists, charlatans, or demagogues. In fact, there are other types of leaders who might also be included on the list of those who ought to be excluded from leadership and the theological justification for them exposed as heretical. Impossible as it might seem to disagree with this, in Christianity and every other world-wide religion such leaders have emerged. Theology has always been cited to validate those rogues.
The leader of this type who comes most readily to mind is Jim Jones, who, in the summer of 1977 led about a thousand members of his San Francisco Peoples Temple to build a commune in Guyana. Many studies and investigations conclude that Jones became a demagogue, which enabled him to execute a plan a year later that led to 918 of his commune being murdered or committing suicide by poison. The teaching and prescribed doctrine that Jones used would surely be branded as heresy by all religions.
Second, a theology is heretical that employs selective literalism in interpreting holy literature. Here, the situation is nearly the reverse of the first type of heresy. Almost every religion in the world has some collection of holy literature that is used to identify the doctrinal position of the religion, and in all cases the use of scripture is selective. Since most “holy literature” is centuries old and is a collection of writings that must be interpreted to apply to present circumstances, the interpretive method is key. In some religions there are interpreters (councils, gurus, etc.) who have authority, whereas in other religions some interpretive framework has been established. Arguments, of course, are to be expected. It is when a group has declared that all of its scripture is equally true, infallible, literally accurate, and wholly to be believed that trouble comes when the group is forced to select some perspectives and exclude others. Heresy happens when a group affirms that scripture is 100% true but some of it must be ignored. Selective literalism is the heresy.
Third, a theology is heretical that contradicts the principle that love is the motive for action in behalf of the endangered, oppressed, victimized, and powerless in the world. A theological position which does that is completely exposed and undeniably heretical when the operating principle is privilege, vengeance, wealth, or glory.
It’s not that such heresy rarely happens. It happens frequently, but is rarely called heretical. Prosperity theologies are widespread and diverse. The groups that espouse them tend to be both those who need them to justify their opulent wealth and those who need them to hope for relief through obedience. Theologies that justify revenge are roundly denounced but stubbornly persistent. Murder of adulterers, or of girls who are raped to defend a clan’s honor are appalling. But theological permission to undertake vengeance is facile. For example, it is disguised as pursuing purity, insisting on morality, or defending the faith, but always against others (unless it is used confessionally to avoid being declared one of the others).
Fourth, a theology is heretical that asserts a fixed and final knowledge of the will of God, a limited and exclusive number of those who can know that will, and an egocentric (we/us) declaration of who alone can fulfill God’s will.
The most pervasive heresy is this: that we alone know and do what God wants. We are exceptional in that regard. We are the exclusive owners of the truth. We are right, but more importantly, others are wrong. None get to God but by and due to us.
Here I feel called to defend Christianity. It is one thing for Christians to insist that Jesus declared himself to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life and that none get to the Father God but by me, and it is quite another thing to insist we followers of Jesus also possess such far-reaching prerogatives. Heresy is on the way when religious people become content with their status, and also when they become convinced of their exclusive claim on the truth. It is not only polite to listen to others; it is inevitably productive of expanded wisdom. I believe the distinction between conservative Christians and heretical conservative Christians is clear. To put it simply, Jesus Christ may be the way to God but that does not mean we are.
Fifth, a theology is heretical that refuses to acknowledge the possibility and consequences of heresy.
Christ Hedges put it this way, “The greatest moral failing of the liberal Christian church was its refusal, justified in the name of tolerance and dialogue, to denounce … heretics.”*
It is nice to just be kind to everyone, but failure to oppose those who are dangerous and destructive does not solve any of the world’s threats. Rising fascism and militant nationalism are potentially lethal, beginning with the marginalized and those targeted for destruction. That is why a theology that validates such ideas is heretical. When a political power declares its intent to demonize those who are helpless, no matter how they are helpless or who they are, religious spokespersons and advocates are heretics. Their heresy should be exposed and their religious pretences opposed. It will not likely cause them to change their minds, but it will rally those who are not yet impotent and feckless to oppose them.
The largest reason why people see religion as useless is because the heretics are so destructive and others are so passive.
*Chris Hedges, “Onward, Christian Fascists” in truthdig, Dec. 30, 2019.
[A previous essay in this short series was “Wrong Theology” posted November 8, 2019, http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/wrong-theology ]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.