Hope to meet some of my readers and fellow Metho-nerds at this great conference coming up soon, hosted by the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy. Register while there are still spots remaining!
The short version: sometimes they are the same person.
Growing up, especially in middle school, I was bullied quite a bit. Bullying is a serious thing. I still remember the names I was called and the faces who said them. I recall vividly having to restrain myself from retaliation. The kind of overt bullying I experienced is all-too-common for young people in America, and this was before social media. Now, home is not necessarily a haven, as bullying can continue on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms. Young people are bullied for a variety of reasons: for looking different, for being attracted to someone of the same gender, for their poverty, or for a disability. 24/7 bullying culture is a serious matter. Victims of bullying are at an increased likelihood of mental and emotional problems, including temptations to suicide.
Victims deserve our sincere support and empathy. Christians in particular are called to love the marginalized, outcast, and oppressed. Psalm 34:18 reminds us that God is committed to the cause of all those who are victimized: “The Lord is near the brokenhearted, and saved those crushed in spirit.” Christians and other citizens who wish to care for the “least of these” simply cannot avoid concern for victims of physical, verbal, or other forms of violence. Many decent people are quick to come to the defense of victims.
For that reason, some unhealthy personalities will always seek to take advantage of others’ good nature and feign victim status in order to garner attention or gain power. KickBully.com offers excellent resources for addresses bullying. On a page dedicated to bullies who claim to be victims, they describe the behavior under three headings:
A bully exaggerates the impact
of your actions on him
– He exaggerates his pain and suffering
– He makes you feel guilty for causing his pain
– He claims you don’t appreciate him
A bully focuses on past
and future victimization
– He frequently reminds you of your past actions that hurt him
– He replays his pain whenever he wants to manipulate you
– He brings up his pain long after the event occurred
– He doesn’t seem to get over things
– He says you will hurt him again if you don’t do what he wants
A bully uses his victimization
to avoid changing his behavior
– He says you must earn back his trust, good will, friendship, support
– He claims his belligerence results from his being treated unfairly
– He becomes angry and indignant when you try to reason with him
– He says he is tired of doing all the compromising
– He says he isn’t going to be so polite in the future
– He suggests that others are ganging up on him
They sum up this phenomenon by describing the behavior simply, “A bully pretends to be a victim in order to manipulate others. Because most people are good and compassionate, this is bullying at its worst. ”
Tim Field of BullyOnline.org attributes this behavior to a “manipulator,” one of a variety of attention-seeking pathological personality types who
“…[m]ay exploit family, workplace or social club relationships, manipulating others with guilt and distorting perceptions. While there may be no physical harm involved, people are affected with emotional injury…A common attention-seeking ploy is to claim he or she is being persecuted, victimized, excluded, isolated or ignored by another family member or group, perhaps insisting she is the target of a campaign of exclusion or harassment.”
We live at a moment in the modern West where we may begin to see more of this kind of behavior; an insightful new Atlantic piece names a subtle shift starting to take place in our culture that will profoundly impact how we relate to one another. Pre-modern cultures were largely honor cultures, where disputes would often be settled physically (a fight, or a duel), and requesting aid from third parties would be anathema in the case of an offense. The 19th and 20th century, particularly in the West, has seen a shift to a “dignity culture,” where insults were seen as less of an affront to personal honor and people are more likely to handle conflicts directly or simply ignore them. In a dignity culture, people are not totally averse to third party aid, but it is seen as a last resort to be avoided if possible. But now we are transitioning to a new kind of culture, described by sociologists thus:
The culture on display on many college and university campuses, by way of contrast, is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”
It is, they say, “a victimhood culture.”
This victimhood culture clashes with the older dignity culture; slights that would be dismissed or handled reasonably in a dignity culture become fodder for great offense and shame campaigns by those influenced by the culture of victimhood. This is one aspect of the “suicide of thought” which we’ve examined previously. The sociologists quoted by The Atlantic piece elaborate:
“People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood … the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”
This helps to explain why we might see a rise in bullies playing the victim. As the culture shifts – and we are already seeing this in places like college campuses – there is more and more incentive to claim victim status, whether based on legitimate experiences or not. A good example of this kind of dynamic is the #CancelColbert faux controversy, in which a failed attempt was made to silence a comedian (who hadn’t made the offending tweet) for satirizing racism – which is a form of critique! Sound inane? It was, and the inanity was nicely summed up in this hilarious interview (not to mention Colbert’s mic-drop-worthy response).
The question The Atlantic does not answer, and that I find vexing, is the obvious one: what to do? The nature of claiming victimhood status is that it demands immediate deference; to question it is to risk nebulous but severe charges like insensitivity, harm, and blaming the victim. Moreover, bullying manipulators can easily turn any criticism or question to further the pretense of victimhood (as the chart above indicates).
The best option may just be to ignore them altogether; by challenging them directly you will likely feed their delusion and simply get roped into their histrionics. As with other kinds of toxic people, the only way to win with faux victims-turned-bullies is to minimize your exposure to them. Henry Cloud has some excellent thoughts along these lines in this lecture.
In a world that is far from the promised Kingdom, there will be victims and, sadly, those who pretend victimhood to further their own selfish ends. We must care deeply for the former while being wary of the latter. Or, as Jesus put it, we are called to be “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16b, NRSV)
Have you experienced what sociologists are calling “victimhood culture?” Are there positive aspects to this culture? Are there other helpful ways to deal with it? Leave a comment below!
Would you be comfortable with a celebrating savior?
The Jesus Christians often portray is not someone who would be considered enjoyable to be around.
We portray Jesus in many ways: the wise teacher, the comforting healer, the zealous prophet, the suffering servant.
But do we preach, pray, and share Jesus as someone we would actually enjoy being around?
Dallas Willard notes,
“…the currently accepted image of Jesus all but makes it impossible to find him interesting and attractive, lovable. The responses of common people to him throughout the pages of the gospel show how false that image is. He was such an attractive person and such a powerful speaker that, from the human point of view, the leaders of the day killed him out of envy of his popularity (Matt. 27:18). He was a master of humor and often used it to drive home the truths he imparted, as any good speaker does. But few today would put him on their guest list for a party – if it were really going to be a party. Just as we don’t think of Jesus as intelligent, so we don’t think of him as pleasant company, someone to enjoy being around. Is it any wonder that someone would rather not be his student?” (The Divine Conspiracy, 239)
This doesn’t mean going the Cal Naughton, Jr. route and picturing Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt (“I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party!“- see below). But, following Dallas Willard’s observation, it suggests we should take seriously just how Jesus attracted so many followers (and detractors).
Jesus ate and drank with sinners; he comforted those in distress, he fit in with outcasts, and was a physician for the sick of body and spirit. In fact, the only folks that weren’t that comfortable around Jesus – the only people who wouldn’t invite Jesus to party – were the religious.
Can you worship a Jesus who would go to a party?
What would you say to Jesus at a party? Are our churches full of people who would talk to Jesus at a party, or would they condemn him for being under the same roof as a keg? Leave a comment below!
I am convinced that we take the wonder and peculiarity of the Christian story for granted. Our ancient forebears, not weighed down with sappy sentimentality or rationalistic reductionism, knew better. I came across the following quote by St. Cyril of Jerusalem while researching a sermon and I thought it was too good not to share. This is from his catechetical lectures on the sacraments:
“O strange and inconceivable thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised again; but our imitation was in a figure, and our salvation in reality. Christ was actually crucified, and actually buried, and truly rose again; and all these things He has freely bestowed upon us, that we, sharing His sufferings by imitation, might gain salvation in reality. O surpassing loving-kindness! Christ received nails in His undefiled hands and feet, and suffered anguish; while on me without pain or toil by the fellowship of His suffering He freely bestows salvation.”
St. Cyril contrasts the visceral reality of the cross and resurrection experienced by Christ with that which is symbolized and beautifully enacted in baptism. What is inconceivable – if you’ll pardon the Princess Bride reference – is that all that Christ won in his conquest of death by death is ours without the torment he willingly embraced. Through the confession of the true faith and baptism in the Triune name, we come to know “the fellowship of His suffering” and salvation is bestowed as a free gift.
Let us never lose sight of the strangeness of the gospel, and how – inconceivably – God has condescended to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit for our redemption.
What does it look like to share in “the fellowship” of Christ’s suffering? How does your baptism inform your daily walk with God? Leave a comment or question below!
Political ads. Music blaring. Advertisements. Phones dinging and ringing with texts, tweets, and emails, and notifications from a hundred different apps.
How do we cut the noise?
The Psalms encourage us to meet God in silence: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
But stillness and silence are in short supply these days, This is important because the noise, the wordiness, the verbosity and constant buzz of our world directly impact our ability to live in peace with God, each other, and ourselves. St. Philotheos of Sinai reflected many centuries ago:
“Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together. What is more disastrous than this ‘uncontrollable evil’ (Jas. 3:8)? The tongue has to be restrained, checked by force and muzzled, so to speak, and made to serve only what is needful. Who can describe all the damage that the tongue does to the soul?” (“Forty Texts on Watchfulness,” Philokalia: Volume III London: Faber & Faber], 17)
On the recommendation of my friend Isaac Hopper, I recently read a great little book for creatives called Manage Your Day-To-Day. One of the chapters dealt with silence, and encouraged creative people (and I would think it beneficial for anyone) to intentionally cultivate silence each day. The benefits in mental and emotional health, creativity, engagement, and clarity – if this chapter is to be believed – are manifold.
We live in an over-connected world, with messages constantly bombarding us. The urgent always demands to be addressed immediately, which puts the critical and the important off to the side. But without silence, we cannot differentiate between them and hear the voice of our own priorities and values.
What if you took 10 minutes to just unplug each morning before the day’s demands come at you? That might be prayer, or meditation, or thinking through the day. Or, perhaps, you could cut five minutes from lunch and just find a quiet corner in which to reset? Increasingly, if we are ever going to experience silence, we will have to intentionally seek it out.
Silence truly is golden, but we spend most of our days courting the din of tin.
But silence is a gift that is free; you don’t have to buy it or earn it, you only have to unplug.
How does your day-to-day routine benefit from silence? Do you find silence difficult or uncomfortable? How can we cultivate more silence in our lives and our childrens’ lives? Leave a comment below!
In our postmodern culture, talk of “mystery” is all the rage among religious folk. Can’t explain something? Mystery. Don’t like historic Christian teaching but still want to sound like you’re in continuity with the Tradition? Mystery it is.
The problem is that this is an abuse, a mischaracterization of the apophatic way (sometimes called “negative theology”) on that which which twists a valued mystical tradition into a cover for all kinds of bullshit.
Friends, please hear me out: stop using the apophatic as a cop-out.
Don’t believe me that this is a problem? I could cite my own personal experience, but we are all aware (I hope) that individual experience is just about the worst possible resource for knowledge in the Christian life. To be sure, I’ve been in numerous conversations where my interlocutor attempted to dodge the particularities of Christian teaching by giving a nod to mystery and to the apophatic way. Let’s look instead two examples, in which I have added the emphases to highlight today’s topic.
A piece by Gene Marshall over at ProgressiveChristianity.org mentions mystery several times. He goes so far as to reduce God to capital-M ‘Mystery,’ like so:
At the same time, “God,” as used in the Bible, points to an actual experience, an actual encounter with, how shall we say it, the Ground of our Being; the Mystery, Depth, and Greatness of our lives; Final Reality; Reality as a Whole; the Mystery that will not go away.
Drawing on the existentialism of Tillich and others, Marshall avoids anything particular about God by the apophatic turn.
I generally try to avoid quoting comments, but in this instance it just fits too perfectly (I also mean nothing personal by this, as I have no idea who this particular commenter is). Once again, in a discussion about Christian doctrine, the commenter uses the apophatic turn to stay in the realm of generic, personal-experience deity:
If you believe that God exist as three distinct persons and one of those persons incarnated as a human being in first century Palestine, good for you. It maybe right. Seems like you are 100% sure that Nicene Creed is the true doctrine about God and I am glad to hear that. Personally I cannot bring myself to believe that. I am agnostic about it. I am not an atheist. I believe that being similar to understanding of God most likely exist, more similar to understanding in Advaita Vedanta, Stoicism, Peripateticism and Process theology. But I maybe wrong. I am more of fan of apophatic theology.
Note here that “apophatic” has little content save being against the Nicene Creed and similar to a variety of non-Christian faiths and Process theology. Further note how similar the above comments sound to that of Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada pastor fighting to keep her credentials because everyone else knows she’s an atheist while she maintains she’s evolved into a higher, non-theistic conception of the divine. Read: poppycock.
The Truth: The End of the Apophatic is the Holy Trinity
What’s truly sad is that apophatic theology is a valued part of Christian teaching, particularly in the East. While the vast majority of Christians today have domesticated the transcendent, attempting to pull God down to our level and make the Divine only a friend, or a healer, a get-out-of-jail-free card or a cosmic soup of affirmation, the apophatic tradition at its best reminds us to keep silent before the incomprehensibility of our Maker.
Oh, Mystery there is: the One whom we love is too holy for words and, as Israel attests, the ‘I AM’ whose name is too holy to pronounce and too grand to scribble, this God, our God cannot be named by our limited imaginations, tamed by our feeble intellect, claimed for our puny projects.
But Christians, you see, revel not just in mystery but also in paradox. This unutterable God has made Godself known to us in a particular way. The goal of the apophatic, the Mystery that we claim as Christians, is named not by our own fatuous grasping but by God’s gracious condescension His creatures. The great Russian Orthodox scholar-priest Vladimir Lossky thus reflects,
“This is the end of the endless way; the limit of the limitless ascent; Incomprehensibility reveals Himself in the very fact of His being incomprehensible, for his incomprehensibility is rooted in the fact that God is not only Nature but also Three Persons; the incomprehensible Nature is incomprehensible inasmuch as it is the Nature of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; God, incomprehensible because Trinity yet manifesting Himself as Trinity. Here apophaticism finds its fulfillment in the revelation of the Holy Trinity as primordial fact, ultimate reality, first datum which cannot be deduced, explained or discovered by way of any other truth; for there is nothing which is prior to it. Apophatic thought, renouncing every support, finds its support in God, whose incomprehensibility appears as Trinity. Here thought gains a stability which cannot be shaken; theology finds its foundation; ignorance passes into knowledge.”
In God’s nature or substance, that “stuff” (if you’ll forgive the vulgar imprecision) of which God is, God is utterly unknowable because God is outside and above and beyond us. But in God’s hypostases, the Tri-Personal God has made himself known to us. The Mystery has given us a glimpse; not a full view everything, of course, for that would be like asking to stare at the sun when it is one block away.
But what we can know about this God, what God has revealed to us in Scripture, through the teaching of Apostles, Saints, and Doctors of the Church, and most especially through life of Jesus, we gladly and happily confess as the Most Blessed Trinity.
Ignorance passes into knowledge, and theology has its foundation.
To misappropriate the apophatic as an excuse to feign ignorance of God is not only wrong according to every possible standard of Christian truth, it is tragic. The Mystery at the heart of all reality has opened a door, as it were, and given us a glimpse inside.
John Cassian, who had a profound impact on monasticism thanks to his influence on Benedict, comments on the universality of the orthodox consensus:
“The consensus of all ought of itself to be enough to refute heresy; for the authority of all shows indubitable truth, and a perfect reason results where no one disputes it. Therefore if a [person] seeks to hold opinions contrary to these, we should, at the very outset, condemn his perversity rather than listen to his assertions. For someone who impugns the judgment of all announces his [or her] own condemnation beforehand, and a [person] who disturbs what had been determined by all is not even given a hearing. For when the truth has been established by all [people] once and for all, whatever arises contrary to it is by this very fact to be recognized at once as a falsehood, because it differs from the truth.”
Cassian’s insight is similar to what would later be called the Vincentian Canon, named after its progenitor St. Vincent of Lerins. He argued, “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”
The early church, led by the apostles and their successors, saw themselves as in continuity with the teaching of Jesus handed on by the disciples. They determined to hold “the authority of all,” led by the Holy Spirit, above any individual or regional variations.
In an age where atheist preachers are fighting to keep their pulpits, this insight is more important than ever. The Christian movement is not subject to my personal whims but is, in Jude’s language, the “faith once delivered,” and the health of the Body is not possible unless we hold fast to that deposit of faith and practice held authoritative everywhere, by everyone, and for all time.
Source: Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: Volume 1, 338-339.
A recent Reconciling Ministries blog, in which a UM pastor tells her side of the decision to conduct a same-gender wedding contrary to the Book of Discipline, was shared on Facebook with the following tagline:
“Rev. Pam Hawkins shares what led her to officiate Doug and Frank’s marriage ceremony. She will be suspended for 90 days without pay after a complaint was filed because she fulfilled her clergy vows to be in ministry with all people. #BiblicalObedience“
It is neither a secret nor a surprise that the recent Supreme Court decision has added heat to an already-boiling debate. In truth, both progressive Christians, who celebrated it as a victory, and conservative Christians, who decried it as a loss, were wrong. Allan Bevere clarifies this helpfully:
“There is a difference between the way the state views marriage from the church. According to the state, marriage is a right not to be denied, which is now extended across the U.S. to gay and lesbian couples. The church has never viewed marriage as a right, and those Christians who believe it should be so understood by the church need an introductory course in the theology of marriage. For Christianity marriage is a gift from God given to two people. No pastor is required to officiate at any particular marriage ceremony. I have the authority, which I have exercised more than a few times over the years, not to officiate at a wedding. I do not even have to have a reason why I might refuse to perform a particular marriage (though I always have). The point is that Christian marriage is not a right owed; it is a gift received.”
In a Christian grammar, marriage is a gift (some say a sacrament), not a right. It is chiefly a spiritual, covenantal reality and not a legally binding contract (as it is for the state).
For better or for worse, the UMC has had a consistent position about same-gender sexuality (I would argue, not identity) for over forty years. United Methodists pastors have been forbidden from conducting same-gender weddings specifically since 1996, for nearly twenty years. (Thanks to my friend and RMN board member Dave Nuckols for correcting me here). Anyone who has been ordained within that time frame, like yours truly, has had hands laid upon them and pledged to serve within a church with these particular rules on the books.**
But RMN and other progressive caucuses in the UMC have taken an interesting tack in recent years, arguing that church teaching is contradictory, that, as the tagline above implies, pastors must disobey some rules in the BOD to fulfill their calling. Notice how individualistic the logic is:
“But I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that God prepared the way for me, as an ordained United Methodist minister, to be present in ministry with them, and that with the help of God I was able to stay focused on the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – and not be distracted by a few gospel-less rules of The United Methodist Church that call us, the ordained, to choose harm and discrimination above love.”
A couple of things stick out here:
The relationship is “me and God,” reminiscent (as so many poor Protestant decisions are) of Luther’s “Here I am, I can do no other.” But UM Clergy are ordained as members of bodies called Orders and Conferences. We are never on our own. It is always “Here we are,” not “Here I am.” Draw the circle wider and realize that UM clergy represent not only themselves, but one another, and indeed the whole church.
There’s that overused word again: “harm.” The author ignores the community that ordained her, we are told, because she is choosing “love” over “harm and discrimination.” But she admits that the couple could have gotten married elsewhere. Moreover, many clergy have been present at and even participated in same-gender weddings without doing the full ceremony themselves. (Even many of our bishops have clarified that this ministry is not against the BOD.) The word ‘harm’ in UMC circles no longer has any identifiable definition, it is instead used to shut down conversation and justify anything controversial. If your intent is to prevent ‘harm’ (notice the utilitarian logic), anything is permissible.
Clear church teaching for decades is dismissed as “a few gospel-less rules.” Now, I am not necessarily a fan of our current language. It is inelegant and imprecise, especially by 2015 standards. But the BOD is the voice of the whole church, and these particular “rules” have been the most hotly debated – and affirmed – for years. To decide individually what rules represent the will of God and which can be flagrantly ignored represents a sad capitulation to the individualist spirit of our age and a direct insult to Methodists around the world, the majority of whom wish to see church teaching as it is currently constituted. I don’t have to agree with church teaching to abide by it, especially since the clergy covenant is always entered into willingly (and can be exited willingly).
One last point. I am troubled by the faux self-sacrifice of this piece, in which the author identifies with Noah and Jesus, and goes on to say,
“I will find my way through an imposed season of ministerial drought. I expect to face temptations of a hardened heart and dark nights of my soul. I anticipate discouragement and doubt from time to time while suspended from the work that I love.”
The greatest irony is that contemporary progressive UM advocates play the martyr while intentionally violating the clergy covenant, knowing full well they will likely face few consequences from their superiors (and in some cases, outright support, like Bishop “Grow Up” Carcano wearing a Love Prevails pin to Connectional Table meetings) and will be lauded by their peers. Frank Shaefer and Mel Talbert are conference-circuit heroes now. The author – whose church has on its web page information on how to support her financially despite the suspension – will no doubt be welcomed into that Rogue’s Gallery now, as well.
So there you have it. Today’s progressive Methodists can enjoy the benefits of the clergy covenant without accountability, pick and choose which aspects of the Book of Discipline to follow, and simultaneously build their personal brands by playing both martyr and hero, all for the price of a slap on the wrist. (See note at bottom for more.)
To conclude, a word about the title. “Covenantal Individualism” sounds like nonsense because it is. I believe Jesus-loving United Methodists disagree on how to move forward, and I am open to finding ways to honor those disagreements within the covenant. But we must find that way together. It’s not up to me or you. It’s up to the whole body. Continued covenantal individualism (which makes as much sense as “biblical obedience”) will only make the house of cards fall faster.
*Note: I actually do respect the decision by Nashville Area Bishop Bill McAllilly; in calling for significantly more consequences than most of his Council of Bishop peers have, he has gone against a troubling current and deserves praise for actually doing his job, however distasteful and unfortunate I’m sure it has been.
The lies of heresy are not just false, they are false in the extreme.
We’ve examined before in this space how heresy flattens the mysteries of the gospel. The great doctrines of the church, the Incarnation and Trinity, are in a real sense names for mysteries. These mysteries the church, we believe, has been led to confess by the Holy Spirit. In so confessing, we preserve and celebrate the mystery of God and God’s mighty saving work. Heresy always simplifies that mystery to something more palatable and less gospel.
But heresy can also be understood as a form of extremism. Jaroslav Pelikan, near the end of Volume 1 of The Christian Tradition, notes, “It was characteristic of heretics that they erred in one extreme or the other, denying either the One or the Three, either despising marriage or denigrating virginity.” It is worth mentioning that Pelikan, the now-deceased don of church history at Yale, writes this after multiple chapters spent painstakingly quoting and examining what the heretics themselves wrote. He then quotes Gregory the Great:
“But the church, by contrast, proceeds with ordered composure midway between the quarrels on both sides. It knows how to accept the higher good in such a way as simultaneously to venerate the lower, because it neither puts the highest on the same level with the lowest nor on the other hand despises the lowest when it venerates the highest.” (334-335)
If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle, you know that just a little ways this or that and you will take a tumble. So it is with orthodoxy. Precision in thought, as in machinery, only tolerates so much wiggle room. Chesterton noted that many are shocked at the vitriolic arguments about small points of doctrine, but they do so because they fail to recognize that there are no small points about the Divine:
“…it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.”
Heresy, even in the lightest of touches or turns, always perverts Christian truth into something “blasphemous or ferocious,” something extreme. The Arians, sincere though they were, turned Christians into creature-worshippers. The gnostic-influenced Christians, who’ve strangely enjoyed a kind of foolish re-appropriation of their literature in the last couple of decades, denied the good not only of God’s creation but the truth of the Incarnation as an affirmation of the physical order (modern Darbyism does something similar with its false doctrine of the rapture).
An inch is everything when you are balancing.
This not only inveighs against those who wish to deconstruct orthodoxy as some kind of conservative fantasy, it also points us to why pious rhetoric that pits “the middle way” against “the narrow way” is ultimately false. In terms of doctrine, the middle way – the balancing of heretical extremes in order to discover the one way to stand tall amid a thousand ways to totter over – is the narrow way.
Thus we can conceive of heresy, like Pelikan, as extremism. Examples might include: emphasizing the transcendence of God to the detriment of the immanence of God; emphasizing works of piety so as to leave aside works of mercy; dogmatically adhering to classical Christian teaching in one area of sexuality while completely ignoring others; a simplistic biblicism that ignores experience and tradition (or, on the other hand, a Romantic attachment to experience which runs amok over scripture and tradition); or finally, as Bonhoeffer famously noted, grace divorced from the cross.
An inch is everything when you are balancing, which is why the narrow way of Christian truth is also the middle way. I’ll let Chesterton have the last word:
“It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic. it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.”