Saturday, April 13, 2013

Heresy and Minority Opinions

Consider the following quotations:

“. . . Higher math deals with ideas, asks questions which may not have single answers.”

“If we begin with certainties, we will end in doubt. But if we begin with doubts and bear them patiently, we may end in certainty.”

“By love God may be gotten and holden, but by thought or understanding, never.”

Each of these represents a possible heresy. The idea that mathematics could provide something other than precise and unquestioned answers? Oh, please. Tell that to my eighth grade math teacher. Certainties leading to doubt? Never! Our doctrines are certain, our interpretations are accurate, and if we stand firm, we will never doubt.

And God is not to be grasped by pure understanding? But what about the A’s you got in all your apologetics courses?

I read these three quotations in Madeleine L’Engle’s wonderful book, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (pp. 134-5). It’s a book about writing, and is becoming an incredibly valuable addition to my small collection of resources about being a writer.

The first quotation is from Madeline herself, as she reflects on what she was thinking about when she wrote A Wrinkle in Time.

The second is from Francis Bacon’s work, De Augmentis (1623).

And the third is from the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing (late 14th century).

The book was first published in 1980. I don’t recall if anyone organized a heresy hunt to chase Madeleine down when these words were made public, since they were lauded by reviews from several Christian periodicals.

I know a man who wrote a book about God and the Bible, encouraging his fellow Christians to consider that their faith is not a concrete building constructed of propositions extracted from the Bible, but rather an embrace of the deep mystery that is God’s love expressed in and through the person of Jesus Christ. It was not a dismissal or denigration of scripture—I know this man, and his love of the Bible. Nevertheless, after the book’s publication a major Christian bookstore chain banned all of his books from their stores. I haven’t shopped there since.

Have we entered a new age of inquisition? Not inquiry—that would suggest curiosity and openness to new, unexplored possibilities—but the kind of inquisition that used to burn people at stakes or exile them to distant shores. Instead of incinerating their bodies, we now incinerate their characters and their careers. We push them out of the fellowship of believers and declare them unclean because asking hard questions seems to be the flashing warning light that signals heresy must be looming ahead.

Someone posted a thoughtful comment the other day about this blog series, wondering out loud if we sometimes label something as heresy when in fact it is merely a minority opinion. I think he might be on to something.

Certain models of practical theology insist that theory and practice, when it comes to Christian ministry, cannot be separated. We come to our theological reflections with some sense of meaningful practice already embedded in our thoughts and actions. Engaging prayerfully and thoughtfully with specific theological issues (which relate to real life and human interaction) results in the emergence of a new practice that is infused with new meaning and purpose.

Before we immediately label something as a heresy, we should allow it to be a minority opinion (unless it has already taken the world by storm), or at least a view that is “other” than the traditional one. If we let these opinions stew around only as theories and then argue them as such, then we never really know if they are valid or not. We have to ask how our theologies play out in real ministry and step out of the safety zone of theoretical insistence.

So let’s argue about same-sex marriage. Then let’s pray together and ask God to show us what ministry looks like in this new world, and how our thinking is informing our participation in what God is doing in the world.

Let’s argue about divorce and remarriage. Then let’s sit down with remarried couples and ask them where they have experienced the presence of the Spirit of Christ in their lives.

Let’s argue about the nature of Hell and the reach of God’s love and see if we can stop stabbing each other in the eyes with our heresy sticks. There might be some minority opinions that we need to consider.

Keep in mind: Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 5 (part of the Sermon on the Mount) are filled with minority opinions. Think about it: Six times he says, “You have heard that it is said” (majority opinion); six times he counters with, “But I say to you” (minority opinion).

When we take on the role of being heresy hunters, we may become the assassins of minority opinions. We might be wrong. And we should tremble at the possibility.

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