Are You A Heretic?
By: J. G. Rufford M.A.
Heresy is something that happened a long time ago isn’t it? No-one bothers about heresy today, do they? Well, that’s true – up to a point. But heresy is due for a comeback, all the signs are there, believe me – the, ‘be reasonable, do it our way, or else’ voices are being raised on all sides. Even the ‘H’ word itself is being bandied about within such a staid old lady as the Church of England.
Well, that’s true – up to a point. But heresy is due for a comeback, all the signs are there, believe me – the, ‘be reasonable, do it our way, or else’ voices are being raised on all sides. Even the ‘H’ word itself is being bandied about within such a staid old lady as the Church of England.
Oh yes, heresy is warming up, alright. Apathy no longer stalks the religious landscape, the religious zealots are out and about determined stop the secular slide and get things back to what they think they should be. When dithering old Christianity gets strident, or ever-tolerant Hinduism turns to violence and militant Islam organises, then everybody, religious or not, needs to be on the look-out.
Of course some say that heresy never really went away and has been alive and well and living quietly under the watchful eye of those who police the various religions. In the Vatican, for instance, you will find something called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and it’s their job to keep an eye on the orthodoxy of the world’s billion plus Catholics. Now the name Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith doesn’t sound too threatening does it? But hold on, not very long ago wasn’t that Congregation’s name ‘The Holy Office’? Yes, it was. And before that wasn’t the Holy Office called something else? Yes, you’ve guessed it –
The Inquisition has been at work continually, only pausing to change its name every so often, for around 800 years.
And when was the last time the CDF, as it gets called today, officially and very publicly silenced a heretic? Hundreds of years ago? Try 1997 – Fr. Tissa Ballasuryia, a Sri Lankan theologian whose writings they condemned, but I’m glad to say, he got better.
So, when the accusations of unorthodoxy start to fly in earnest how do you think you would you fare if you ever got into the firing line? Whether you are religious or not, would you expect such virtues as honesty, reason and common sense to see you through to safety? Let’s see shall we? I will put a few simple questions to you, questions which will explore the interpretation of the central tenets of the Christian faith and, if you know little or nothing about Christianity, you can see for yourself if using only reason and common sense, your honest answers would qualify you for the Calendar of Saints or a place by the stake on top of the wood-pile? If you happen to be a Christian or have knowledge of Christian beliefs it might be interesting to see whether what you know or believe improves or damages your case. Are you interested? Do you care? Dare you risk it? Who are the heretics now? If you want to see where you would stand, read on, but beware –
Heresy Can Seriously Damage Your Health!
Many of the great Christian heresies were the result of arguments which took place almost 2000 years ago in the early Christian Church. These arguments were about what should and what should not be the correct and agreed beliefs about Jesus, his message and the Church he founded. The correct formulation of those central beliefs took a long time but, by the fourth century, the Christian Church had two great Creeds or statements of belief; the Apostles’ Creed, handed down to the new Church by the twelve closest followers of Jesus, his Apostles. This Creed stated the essential beliefs of the new faith. This was followed by the Nicene Creed, a more expanded version of the Apostles’ Creed, which was agreed by the Church’s bishops in Council at Nicæa in 325AD. However, many great heresies arose after Nicæa and heresy would remain a problem for Christianity for a long time with different Christian Churches often accusing each other of heresy. In fact heresy remained as a vital part of Christianity for most of its life but it began what many see as its terminal decline about three hundred years ago with the beginning of the Age of Reason. So, the prospects should look good. If Reason effectively put the skids under heresy as a major force in the Christian world Reason may very well see you through, especially if turns out that common sense counts for something as well.
I should mention at this point, however, that just because most ordinary Christian don’t worry too much about heresy today that doesn’t mean that the false beliefs of the Great Heresies have gone away or ceased to be false, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t Christians today who, perhaps without even realising it, have taken up some of those heretical beliefs. Nobody seems to bother very much about asking the ordinary Christians what they actually believe so perhaps no-one really knows. Maybe all that the Age of Reason actually achieved was taking heresy out religious conversation. Maybe heresy’s cleverest trick, like that of the Devil, was to make people believe it no longer existed!
That being the case, whatever your religion, if you have no religion, whether you’re a Christian or not, this is your chance to ask yourself a simple question. ‘How would the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith class my interpretation of core Christian beliefs?’ Or, putting it more simply…
Am I a heretic?
It’s not too hard to become a heretic, but if you’ve never had a go at it before I think you’d better put in a little practice before you make a start on the real thing. You can’t just wade into deep theological issues with no previous experience and expect to come up with a coconut or cigar at your first attempt can you? So, let’s start with a simple practice exercise and look at three statements: God is an onion. The Roman Catholic Church is the only true Church. A Church which allows its leaders to acquire wealth has ceased to be the Church of Jesus who is shown in the Gospels to have rejected worldly wealth.
OK so far? Understand the statements? Right, let’s get on.
Statement #1 God is an onion.
This statement is clearly ridiculous but, then, people have been known to say many things which seem ridiculous to everyone else, especially where religion is concerned. So what would you say if someone asked you if you believed that God was an onion and what would be the consequences of your answer?
Do you believe God is an onion?
Please choose one of the following: Yes. No.
If you said YES. Then the Church would shake its head sadly and, if it saw you meant it, might offer to help you get a place with all the other nice people who think they’re Napoleon or Catherine the Great or Elvis. It would certainly not regard you as a heretic nor, indeed, as posing any danger to the faith of the people of God. It would regard you as needing help and, in this matter, even without sin. If, however, the Church saw that you meant it in such a way as to be proposing that all or most of the beliefs or propositions of the Church are unbelievable and even silly, it would condemn you. But you would not be condemned for heresy, you would be condemned for blasphemy. It is not that the Church has any problem in dealing with opposition, argument or debate, it is quite capable of defending itself, but the debate must be carried in a proper way, that is, it must not gratuitously give offence. Saying there is no God doesn’t give offence, it is a widely held view and the view of many honourable, intelligent and respected people. In the Church’s eyes they’re wrong, but they don’t give offence. But to blaspheme is to offend against the second of the ten Commandments given by God to Moses and it requires that God’s name be kept holy. To blaspheme has no place in argument or study. It’s wrong, it’s bad, but it’s not heresy.
If you said NO. Then the Church would still sadly shake its head at you. This time it would shake its head at you for bothering with such a silly question. You do not try to debate with people who, for the time being, have left their rationality in their other suit. You get them help if you can but you don’t indulge in argument. You may even have committed a very small sin by wasting your time. You should not waste your time, either, by arguing with people who hold belief in God in so little regard they are prepared to use blasphemy as argument.
Get the idea? Being wrong isn’t going to be enough. You’ve got to be wrong in the right way. There can be no such thing as a trivial or silly heresy. Some heresies are less widespread and enduring than others. Some heresies more easily refuted. But, if the matter is trivial, irrelevant or downright silly it doesn’t get the dignity of the title ‘heresy’. It may be that some of the past heresies seem trivial, irrelevant or even silly nowadays but, in their day, they were important and they posed a real threat. But what would happen if you were a Christian and came up with something new and different and wrong and could get enough people interested in listening to you? You would be referred for investigation, initially to your local Bishop or, if a member of a religious order, to your Religious Superior and, if he or she felt it necessary, your case would go to the CDF. If their investigation decided you were wrong and dangerous you would be warned and your teaching condemned. And if you insisted and refused to agree you would be condemned for heresy, you would have become a heretic, or more accurately, a heresiarch, the originator of a new heresy. You would have become a member of a very select club, although whether you would consider that a good thing is up to you.