Magazine article The Christian Century

Can We Talk about Heresy?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Can We Talk about Heresy?

Article excerpt

AN INTERLOPER who steals property must be caught and charged. Thinly disguised atheism and neopaganism are interlopers in liberated" church circles. They have engaged in the theft of church property. The stolen property must be reclaimed and the thieves brought to justice.

To point this out means raising the issue of heresy. But in the "liberated" church circles of oldline denominations heresy simply does not exist. After centuries of struggle against recurrent heresies, Christians have found a quick way of overcoming heresy: they have banished the concept altogether. With absolute relativism holding sway, there is not only no concept of heresy, but no way even to raise the question of where the boundaries of legitimate Christian belief lie.

This is like trying to have a baseball game with no rules, no umpire, and no connection with historic baseball. Only we continue to insist on calling it baseball because a game by the name of baseball is what most people still want to see played.

By "liberated" church circles I refer to the sexual experimenters, the compulsive planners of others' lives, the canonical text disfigurers, and ultrafeminists (as distinguished from the great company of godly Christian women who are found at many different points along the scale of feminist reflection). The liberated characteristically understand themselves to be free from oppressive, traditional constraints of all sorts and shapes. "Liberated" is not a term applied from outside, but a term they frequently apply to themselves. By liberated they usually imply: doctrinally imaginative, liturgically experimental, disciplinarily nonjudgmental, politically correct, muticulturally tolerant, morally broad-minded, ethically situationist, and above all sexually permissive.

I am not speaking merely of liberation theology in its more thoughtful manifestations as argued by Gustavo Gutierrez or Jurgen Moltmann or Mary Stewart van Leuwwen. I am referring rather to an engulfing attitude that proclaims: we have been liberated from our classic Christian past, from the patriarchalism of Christian scriptures, from benighted Jewish and Christian traditions, and from their oppressive social systems. As a former full-time liberator, I know from experience how mesmerizing this stance can be. The intellectual ethos I am describing is not liberal in the classic sense of that word, but intolerant and uncharitable when it comes to traditionalists of any sort, all of whom are capriciously bundled under the dismissive label of "fundamentalists."

I have the dubious honor of having recently been categorized in someone's computer bulletin board as a heresy-hunter. This gives me the comic occasion to embrace the misapplied description in a specific ironic sense: I am earnestly looking for some church milieu wherein the sober issue of heresy can at least be examined. I am looking, like Diogenes with his sputtering lamp, for a church or seminary in which some heresy at least conjecturally might exist. I have sought for some years to find a theological dialogue where a serious methodological discussion is taking place about how to draw some line between faith and unfaith, between orthodoxy and heresy. But almost everywhere that I have asked about the subject I have found that the very thought of inquiring about the possibility of heresy has itself become marked off as the prevailing archheresy. The archheresiarch is the one who hints that some distinction might be needed between truth and falsehood, right and wrong.

Just at this point, however, we can glimpse a faint sign of hope: a growing recognition among laity of the need for criteria to recognize orthodoxy, which therefore require some reference to heterodoxy. Just as the impatient adolescent is searching for boundaries, so liberated church leaders are unwittingly pressing their constituency for boundaries. This search for boundaries is essentially what was despairingly attempted at the 1993 "Re-Imagining" conference in Minneapolis. …

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