Heresy Therapy

Heresy Therapy April 26, 2019

Richard Beck wrote:

People don’t just wake up one day to suddenly and brazenly espouse a heresy. In my experience, you end up a heretic because there’s a gnawing theological issue that’s keeping you up at night. The burden and size of this issue often grows and grows until a lack of progress in its resolution becomes intellectually and emotionally intolerable. The biggest culprit here is theodicy. But it can also be a particular view of God or the “texts of terror” in the Old Testament. And often all the problems are linked.

For whatever reason, as the crisis mounts, the orthodox answers just aren’t working. And they often make the situation worse. Orthodox responses to these theological crises tend to, to borrow from Bonhoeffer’s criticism of Barth in his letters from prison, take on a lump it or leave it attitude. You just have to take your theological medicine and swallow the creedal castor oil, no matter how bad it tastes.

A lot of people just can’t do that. And many people at this point do something very heroic and commendable. They become heretics.

It’s heroic and commendable because faith isn’t being jettisoned. A herculean effort is made to keep and secure faith. Sure, the price is believing in some rather contested, controversial stuff, but the win is keeping you in the orbit of God, the Bible, and the church.

All that to say, heresy might be wrong, but it can be awfully therapeutic. The mind settles and the heart calms and you can get on with the real business of following Jesus in your day to day life. Some people just need to believe in weird, quirky stuff to make the puzzle fit together.

Visit his blog to read the entire post. I think the same appreciative point can be made without embracing so much of the framing of “orthodoxy.” After all, I cannot think of a single instance in which something came to be defined as a group’s “orthodoxy” that didn’t start out as someone else’s “heresy.” Scientific progress often occurs by much the same process as the one Beck describes, although rarely with the same level of existential impact or investment. Around the edges of current explanation, anomalous data nips at its heels and nibbles its toes, until eventually it has to move.

Heresy is simply innovation, creativity, that moves in a direction those in authority frown upon. That doesn’t make it right or its claims correct, and that is the pitfall of heresy, whether in theology, science, history, or some other domain. Heresy, like all human phenomena, there is a plus side and a minus side. The heretic rejects the dominant view for something they think is better. Without those who have the courage to be labeled heretics, there would never be progress. But not all heresies represent improvements.

It is in the tension between old consensus and creative innovation that the path of positive progress lies. Embracing either pole without appreciating the importance of the other represents the real danger.

What are your thoughts about heresy? If it is theologically therapeutic for the heretic, the social stress that comes with the label may offset any benefits along those lines! But I think that heresy is simply a biased label for the blunt basic truth that ideas, ideologies, worldviews, communities, and comprehensions all evolve and change over time, and human beings are the ones driving those processes.

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  • John MacDonald

    The great heresy impact in my intellectual life, which I first encountered in my graduate year, is the work of Martin Heidegger. He challenged us to rethink everything, from the meaning of Kant’s Philosophy, to the work of Plato, the Pre-Socratics, and beyond. It’s really been a wonderful, cleansing, and upbuilding experience. And since his Gesamtausgabe numbers around 100 book length monographs, there is more than enough material to let him guide me down paths for a lifetime!

    • John MacDonald

      My big takeaway is that Heidegger emphasized that the Philosophers were great geniuses who thought about these things their entire lives, so if easy objections come to mind, or if their points seem trivial, perhaps what is warranted is re-reading,

      • Nick G

        Yes indeed. If Heidegger joined the Nazi party, profited greatly from doing so, enthusiastically supported their policies, and portrayed himself as a victim after their fall, he must have had good philosophical reasons for it!

        • John MacDonald

          As you usually do, you here attack Heidegger based on some secondary literature book you have read without showing you have actually read the primary material regarding Heidegger’s interpretation of Kant, Plato, the Pre Socratics, etc. Please, for instance, give a brief summary of a component of Heidegger’s interpretation of Kant, and critique it if you can…

          • Nick G

            I couldn’t care less about the Nazi’s interpretation of Kant, Plato or the pre-Socratics. When a philosopher is of the kind that wants to tell us how we should live, as Heidegger is, their work cannot be considered in isolation from their own life and specifically, their moral decisions.

          • John MacDonald

            So, your position is basically that if a thinker has significant moral/political shortcomings for a period of her life, such as being pro slavery, we should summarily dismiss any other potential intellectual contribution she might have had?

            Such a black/white, all/nothing approach is clearly on the academic fringe, which is why there are prestigious groups such as “The Heidegger Circle” that is composed of some of the top continental Philosophers in the world that has been meeting since 1967, who understand Heidegger had ethical/political failings, but who still recognize his contributions to the study of, for instance, Parmenides.

  • Illithid

    The primary thing that always struck me about historical heresies is how trivial they seem. Was Jesus fully human, fully divine, half-and-half? Coequal with the Father, proceding from him, created by him? I can’t even imagine caring, yet people have killed over this.

  • Nick G

    Some people just need to believe in weird, quirky stuff to make the puzzle fit together.

    From the outsider’s viewpoint, just about all Christians believe in “weird, quirky stuff”!