Thursday, April 11, 2013

Mainstream Heresy

It’s funny how something considered to be heresy at one time can become acceptable and commonplace at another.

I was raised up in a denomination that had the word “Pentecostal” in its name when it was formed well over a hundred years ago. It dropped that word because the people didn’t want to have any connection whatsoever with the new, emerging Pentecostal movement that was clearly heretical.

Years later I joined up with a new Christian movement that worshipped (in song) for a long time before any preaching or teaching took place—hands in the air, eyes closed, people acting like they loved God and God was loving them back. There were a lot of claims back then that we were all just “worshipping worship” (whatever that means) and were all heretics.

A friend of mine was sure that one of the more prominent spokespersons for the movement known as Emergent was a heretic because the person apparently didn’t believe that penal substitution and propitiation were the only possible ways to talk about what God had done in and through the person of Jesus Christ. I had to tell my friend that I didn’t believe that way either. He realized that he was having breakfast with a heretic.

Pentecostals, of course, are now a worldwide movement of Christians and are accepted and respected as vital members of the body of Christ. People in mainline and sacramental churches often raise their hands in worship, closing their eyes in focused adoration of God. Respected biblical scholars and theologians increasingly recognize that the atonement is more like a multi-faceted gem than a single metaphor hardened into concrete.

There are still people out there who blog, tweet, and Facebook their convictions that certain people are heretics. So when N. T. Wright claims that Paul was saying something more expansive in Romans than we’d thought before, some said he was a heretic. When Rob Bell asked questions regarding our uncritical acceptance about who is in and who is out with God, suggesting that God’s love is more generous than we’ve allowed, he was branded a heretic. Years ago, when Clark Pinnock jumped into the conversation that challenged the traditional view of God’s impassability and entertained the idea of open theism, he was brought up on heresy charges and threatened with dismissal from a major evangelical scholars’ group.

There is a theory about how human beings process new information called cognitive dissonance. I think it goes this way: When a new idea is presented that challenges a person’s long-standing belief, tension is created between the old idea and the possibility of the new idea that the person seeks to resolve. Resolution can happen in at least three ways:

1. The old idea is re-embraced and the old idea is immediately discarded, simply on the basis of it being new.
2. The new idea is analyzed, but only for the purpose of creating a defense that will validate the superiority of the old idea.
3. The new idea is analyzed and given consideration, and allowed to inform and possibly modify the old idea.

It seems to me that much of our labeling of ideas as heretical is a result of numbers one and two. It’s not always heresy that we’re dealing with—it’s our own cognitive dissonance. It’s our attempt to relieve the tension created when a new idea collides with our old ideas. There’s a big difference between considering multiple biblical metaphors that seek to describe the atonement, and the claim that Jesus didn’t really suffer and die on the cross.

I wonder if the constant heresy claims, given platforms through various forms of social media and providing to some vocal public figures the basis for their mission in the world, are a reflection of the deep polarization that characterizes the US today. Our politicians speak of each other as though they are all axe murderers; our political parties seal themselves off in their fortresses and refuse to work together for the good of the nation; Christian leaders run to the microphone too quickly to condemn others, claiming to clearly know that they are always in the right.

We need to work on this. Are we a people who can learn to embrace civility, to have listening ears before we have accusing mouths, to love before and after we debate? Is it possible that we could become a people that would be a light to the world, the salt of the earth?

That’s an idea I heard from a heretic.

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