Heresy Always Simplifies


I recently finished Ross Douthat’s masterful tome Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Whether one is Christian or not, it is worth a read. His thesis: one of America’s great present maladies is not too much religion, nor too little, but (ahem) bad religion. Specifically, psuedo-Christian heresies like prosperity preaching, “God within” faux spirituality, and uncritical nationalism.  But he begins by stating a positive case: once Christian communions that were ascendent in the US had a strong, orthodox consensus around central dogmas such as the Trinity and incarnation of Christ – dogmas which defy an easy rationalism.

“What defines this consensus, above all – what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta – is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God surpasses all our understanding.” (10)

Throughout its long history, the Church constantly chose the side of mystery and paradox. Jesus? He was fully human and fully divine, not one or the other.  Did Jesus suffer on the cross, or is God truly impassible? Yes – to both.  Should we harmonize the gospels to make one, clear-cut narrative that smooths all the rough edges between them? In this and all other cases, the Church decided that the more complicated path was also the true path.

“The great Christian heresies vary wildly in their theological substance, but almost all have in common a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith. Heretics are often stereotyped as wild mystics, but they’re just as likely to be problem solvers and logic choppers, well-intentioned seekers after a more reasonable version of Christian faith than orthodoxy supplies. They tend to see themselves, not irrationally, as rescuers rather than enemies of Christianity – saving the faith from self-contradiction and cultural irrelevance.” (11-12)

So it may be understandable that we want a faith, want a deity, that is easy to comprehend, reducible to bumper-stickers and theo-nuggets. There could be some appeal to “updating” Christian doctrine so it is more relevant, more pedagogically palatable or accessible to the faculties of reason. But the end result would be something other than “the faith that was once  for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)  Such dogma would be simple, but it would be simply heresy.

19 thoughts on “Heresy Always Simplifies”

    1. It certainly does, especially in his willingness to even use a word that has become quite passe’ in the Mainline world. He uses it in an ecumenical way though, saying that for all of the debates between Protestants and Catholics in earlier eras, there was still a basic consensus around certain core dogmas. In the popular heresies of today, this is not so.

  1. It is for these reasons that I love preaching the lectionary, and following a consistent stream therein. Forces a pastor and a church to tackle the hard stuff – or at least to hear it!

    1. Jarrod,
      I think you are spot on with that positive aspect of the lectionary. Who would preach the Transfiguration without the lectionary and church calendar?? Thanks for stopping by.

    1. Michael,
      That’s a half-truth at best. Jesus remained a faithful Jew who insisted he had no come to abolish the law but fulfill it. Luther saw his work, initially, as reforming the Church, not going against it. Luther never had issues with the major dogmas like the Trinity and Incarnation, and remained quite orthodox in these and other matters.

  2. One of my seminary profs loved saying that good theology embraces the simplicity that resides on the other side of complexity. Simplicity alone is dangerous, but simplicity that has gone through the hard stuff is wonderful.

    1. I appreciate the blog post, and I appreciate Pastor Willie’s comment. For me, there is simplicity in knowing that this is too complex for me to ever completely understand on this side of heaven. And to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if we followed a religion that was simple to understand, then we would know it was written by men and women and not by God.

    2. Simply brilliant willie. I would say heresy in the worlds eye is a good thing. Jesus may have been that, but never in God’s eyes. I’m only concerned with God’s eyes. nice blog

    1. Cathy, Jesus had a funny way of making the Jewish laws simpler, but infinitely more difficult! I am not often tempted to murder, but anger? That’s a whole different story. Thank you for your thoughts.

  3. Jesus reminds us that a child is the example of one who receives the kingdom of God. He tells us to become like children in our faith. Children grasp mystery but they do not do so from an intellectual perspective. They are more intuitive than deductive. No seminary education is needed to be a disciple. We need to become careful that we do not glory in sophisticated theology that alienates the poor and uneducated from the inner-circle of those who are great in the kingdom of heaven. This is why most great revivals do not start with reformulations of classical theological axioms. Rather, they begin with new encounters with the Holy. Additionally, mostly they begin with the type of people this article would not endorse.

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