Why theology matters, even if you’re a heretic

Why theology matters, even if you’re a heretic September 26, 2019
theology matters
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Today I gave an interview for a podcast where the host asked me why some people might consider me a heretic. That’s a fun way to start a conversation about theology, isn’t it?

Not that anyone has ever called me a heretic — not to my face, at least. But I’m sure some people have wondered about me from time to time. So it’s a neat question to consider. What I’d really like to do is send a survey to all the people who have blocked, unfriended, shunned, or ghosted me over the years. Can you imagine how that email would sound?

“Hey there, it’s Josh! I really value your opinion about my theology and am sorry to see you go. In order to better serve people in the future, could you take a few minutes to tell me why you think my message poses a threat to other Christians?”

I’d love to see the responses some people would give to that question!

All kidding aside, though, I do believe there is value in understanding how people perceive me. The answer I gave for the interview was somewhat jumbled, but I’ve been reflecting on it ever since, and I think I’ve boiled it down to a satisfying elevator pitch. Based on my experience so far, I think some Christians might consider me a heretic because I tend to care less about what a person believes than why they believe it.

In other words, I like to challenge underlying assumptions that inform a person’s theology.

Yeah, but why?

This is especially the case whenever it seems to me that a person’s beliefs have potentially harmful psychological underpinnings. Not only do I consider the outcome of their belief on their personal well-being, but I also look for the effect it has on other people in their care.

For instance: Do they believe in the doctrines of eternal punishment and total depravity? If yes, and they have kids, how do they handle that theology with them?

I shake my head in bewilderment sometimes when I see Christian parents attempt to instill in their kids a healthy sense of self on one hand while indoctrinating them to believe they are fundamentally flawed and will never be good enough on the other. And then stigmatize them for seeking therapeutic help thirty years down the road because of it!

This ‘aint no game, man. Especially when it comes to kids. You might argue that you care more for your child’s eternal destiny than for stepping on their poor little feelings, but I’ve seen enough kids suffering under the torment of bad (or badly handled) theology to know that hell doesn’t just exist on the other side of the grave.

Theology matters

So yeah, theology matters. I’ve always believed that, but I believe it now for different reasons than I used to. Now, it’s not so much a matter of “Get it right, or else,” but of understanding how my perception of God bears upon the way I think, act, and relate to other people. Because believe it or not, what you think about when you think about God says a lot about your mental health and well-being.

You can dress it up with all the pious-sounding religious jargon you want, but if your picture of God makes him out to be some sort of narcissistic despot in the sky who is interested in nothing less than his own supreme glory — even to the point of threatening you with eternal torture if you fail to ascribe to him said glory — then I’m gonna be honest and tell you that your view is deeply problematic both theologically and psychologically.

Honestly, if the God you believe in shares all the same character traits as a high school bully, then why should anyone love and adore him anyway? You get the point. 

Does asking that question make me a heretic? Maybe so, depending on your value system. But that’s alright, because at the end of the day, one man’s heresy is another man’s orthodoxy. If I’m certain of anything concerning theology these days, it’s the sentiment expressed by Henry Van Dyke in his book, The Story of the Other Wise Man:

Who seeks for heaven alone to save his soul

Will reach the mark, but miss the goal;

While he who walks in love may wander far,

Yet God will bring him where the blessed are.


About Joshua Lawson
Josh Lawson is a pastor, writer, and small business owner. He lives in southern Ohio with his wife and kids and their cat Gryffin, which is short for Gryffindor. He loves strong coffee and good books. If you'd like, you can support his work at www.patreon.com/JoshuaLawson. You can read more about the author here.

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  • Alan

    You can be a heretic just for questioning the role of women in the church. Ask Rachel Held Evans (if you could).

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “Why theology matters, even if you’re a heretic”

    So believing Thor & Odin exist matters? What about believing Zeus exists? Does that also matter?

  • James McClymont

    Theology ONLY matters if you first believe in a god.

    Otherwise, it’s nothing more than people trying to justify belief in magic…

  • Ulf Turkewitsch

    The world, even the universe can be capricious. So ,I think it matters how a person views the world. Is it primarily good and welcoming and safe or is it dangerous ,evil and unconcerned. The question could be framed this way. Then it can be determined if this worldview is psychologically healthy or not.

  • Good point. As I consider my own reflections here, I realize I’m a bit more utilitarian in my outlook than I would like to believe. Outcomes do matter.

  • Maybe. I’d have to talk to the person who holds that belief to see how it affects them.

  • True. What constitutes heresy can vary from one religious group to another.

  • Much of developmental theory (e.g., Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial stage theory, or James Fowler’s picture of faith development) suggests that this very basic divide, the setting of one’s default position, if you will, between whether you see this world as a warm and welcoming place in which faith in others is justified and rewarded, or whether you see it as a cold, painful, dog eat dog sort of place in which faith in others is not justified and just sets you up to be a chump, occurs in the very earliest stage of life before one even has the use of language to think it through and reason about it. Of course, most of us come through this not one one extreme or the other of the continuum, but rather somewhere between the extremes, yet not dead center between either – we lean one way or the other in degrees. This default setting is mostly set by experience or lack thereof of dependable and loving caregivers. That, it seems to me, is the crux of theology, especially if it is true that we tend to mimic (our understanding) of God in our attitudes and ethics. Is God like a loving and dependable parent in your imagination, or a cold and self-serving parent mainly concerned with respect and obedience? My sense is that you will tend to parent as you see God as parent, and this is what passes loving kindness or pathology into the next (or 7th) generation.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    Well, I haven’t seen anyone trying to force belief in the Norse gods into public schools, or force pub;lic prayer to the Norse gods in public schools.

    Sounds like your position is in what people believe & how it affects them rather than if what they believe is true or not.

    More important, in my view, is how their beliefs make them act towards others.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    And since no religion has been able to prove their deity exists, all religions are equally valid choices.

    Scriptures: the sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based. ~Ambrose Bierce

  • Those are interesting insights, Daniel. I just received a copy of the Handbook on Attachment Theory, and I’m eager to dive in and see what I can glean from it.

  • That’s important, too. I tend to think they are often intertwined — that is, the impact on oneself and the impact on others.

  • “Man is a religious animal. He is the only religious animal. He is the only animal with the true religion — many of them. He is the only animal who will love his neighbor as himself and slit his throat if his theology isn’t straight.” – Mark Twain

  • Attachment Theory will use a little bit different terminology, seeing default adult relationship patterns in terms of secure attachment, avoidant attachment and anxious attachment (and the more recent category of disorganized attachment – which is really a sort of ‘none of the above’ category). This is different from Erikson’s and Fowler’s stage schema, but can easily be mapped onto it by looking at attachment styles as stereotypical influences within each stage. AT also suggests that, all things being equal, we will tend to reproduce as parents the attachment dynamics we experienced with our own parents.

  • That is really kind of a wooden and tone-deaf view, James. Even if we only think of theology as a kind of imaginative fiction, I would hope we can agree that the world would be a much poorer place without our great poets, philosophers, tale spinners and novelists. The magic is not in the belief but in knowing how to read it properly.

  • Ulf Turkewitsch

    To a certain extent I agree with you, Daniel. But not completely. God can change a persons deep orientation, because nothing is too difficult for Him

  • Ulf, we are talking about deeply set default tendencies. We are not saying a person is bad to the core or anything like that. But it doesn’t make much sense to me to talk about changing deeply set default tendencies, unless you want to get into science fiction theories about changing timelines, etc. My sense is not that God ‘changes’ things, but rather that through God, all things can work together for good. That, I would affirm.

  • AntithiChrist

    “…because at the end of the day, one man’s heresy is another man’s orthodoxy.”

    That is so true. All re-tellings, and re-interpretations of an original myth or fictional account, are valid. It’s basically a matter of which version resonates with each individual. Long live fan-fiction!!

    For instance some folks actually prefer the Peter Grant movie version of Lord of the Rings, and many prefer the written version of Harry Potter to the films.

    My mom re-wrote the very hellfire/damnation-based theology of her upbringing to do away with fiery H ell for the celestial-scale crime of not loving Jesus back. Doing so comforted her immensely after winding up raising a brood of hell-bound heretics. As a strong-willed woman, she also edited the woman-hating Paul out of the Christian teachings, since he was such a “misogynistic SOB.”

    We change things as we must, just to live, even the things previously touted as “inerrant.”

    So good on you.

  • John Gills

    H.L. Mencken once wrote that orthodoxy is my doxie. Heterodoxy is your doxie.

  • I like that.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Church is boring, expensive, and time consuming.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    And the Norse gods don’t get tax breaks and the heathen priests don’t get housing allowances-unlike clergy, even the “Progressive” ones.