Why I Care Very Little that my Minister is a Heretic

Well, he is. There’s no denying it if you heard his sermon on Pentecost Sunday. He’s a confirmed Modalist, and I have very little doubt that most everyone reading this blog is as well. And I don’t care at all about your heresy either.

Trigger Warning: there is more than a little philosophy in this post, if you find this sort of thing traumatic, you may want to look elsewhere.

The Fundamentalist Myth includes a cosmology, a particular picture of the cosmos that is deceptively simple. It includes the familiar threefold distinction between heaven, earth and hell – though the spatial representations of heaven as up and hell as down should not be taken literally unless we are to banish all Australians to hell, what with the world being round and all. Heaven is truth, hell is error and earth, the realm of humanity, teeters between the two in persistent limbo, constantly tempted by both. The Fundamentalist Myth also includes a narrative about how humanity once had full access to the truth (Eden) but lost it (The Fall). Post-Fall, humanity lives in a world that cannot be trusted to yield truth, for sin has given us a fallen humanity and a fallen world. Luckily, however, the supernatural Incarnation of Jesus and the revelation found The Holy Bible (KJV only please!) transcend the natural world and allow us, even in our fallen and error-ridden condition, privileged access to truth. Fundamentalists and traditionalists as diverse as Jerry Fallwell and Karl Barth accepted this basic myth and cosmology, even as they disagreed about its details. If this picture is true, then heresy (the misconstrual of supernatural revelation) is truly a crime that should solicit the worst punishments imaginable. But the LiberalEvangelical fundamentally disagrees with both this myth and this cosmology, and consequently looks at heresy in a very different light.

I’ll begin with cosmology. I’m a philosophical naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist. One very simple way of restating my cosmology is to assert that I hold onto a single-tiered cosmos. There is no perfect realm over and above the natural one, no absolute evil hell boiling just below the surface. There is only nature/creation with all of its sublime beauties and hellish tragedies. Our world is diverse enough that it incorporates plenty of horrors and blessings. We don’t need to abstract from the natural world in order to create a perfect reflection of it in the sky or a fiendish distortion of it deep down in the planet’s bowels.

Naturalist cosmology aside, I’m more interested in the myths that accompany our religious cosmologies. If we tell an “all or nothing” story about ourselves (heaven or hell) then absolute truth is one and only one thing and all else is damnable error, in which case all those who don’t have the truth should be exterminated and cut off from the community of saints so as not to spread their infectious errors. This was exactly the kind of language the medieval church used to describe heresy. Cut it off like an infected limb, so that it will not poison the rest of the body. But we know that this is not how wisdom and knowledge are actually gained. What is missing from the Fundamentalist Myth is the reality of human trial and error, the kind of education through experimentation that we call learning. The important distinction to make at this point is between Supernaturalist assumptions about how we come to the truth and Naturalist claims about how we arrive at working truth. I’ll attempt to clarify:

The Supernaturalist contends that truth is only had through transcending nature and passively receiving divine revelation.

The Naturalist argues that truth is a goal that is constantly sought through experimental interactions with nature but never finally attained.

With Supernaturalism, truth is an all or nothing prospect, you have it or you don’t.

Naturalism understands humanity to be involved in a constant process of learning and evolving that involves frequent error and revision.

The Supernaturalist tells us to memorize the textbook, never mind if we understand it or not, it is ultimate mystery after all.

The Naturalist works to write and interpret the book, recognizing full well that it will always bear further revision and correction.

The reflections above are absurdly simple and are more poetry than serious philosophical prose, but they convey something of the different worldviews and philosophical assumptions that govern Fundamentalist Conservatives and LiberalEvangelicals. Rather than belabor the issue, I’ll jump to my point of emphasis. For the Fundamentalist, heresy is pure evil, a rejection of truth in favor of a lie and, given their cosmology, this is a coherent position. But for LiberalEvangelicals who tend toward naturalist worldviews, heresy is a “necessary evil” though I hesitate to use the word “evil” at all. It’s better to say that heresy is simply an experimental formulation, a hypothesis that needs to be tested, a theological formulation that has yet to prove itself worthy of being taken up by the tradition and may in fact show itself worthy only of rejection. But in many contexts heresy works! More clarification:

Young children quickly and intuitively learn and internalize the language of the sun setting and rising and moving across the sky, only to have their own little Copernican revolutions in first or second grade science class when they learn that the earth goes round the sun and not vice versa. The Sun holds still while the earth revolves and rotates! But then we learn that the sun also rotates and though it is practically stationary relative to the solar system, the entire solar system is spinning its way around the Milky Way. And then, if that weren’t vertigo-inducing enough for you, we learn that our galaxy is only one in a cluster of galaxies that is flying away from billions of others. A good Hubble photo can do a real number on the ego. If we think of the Hubble vision as “the truth” and the geocentric or even the heliocentric models as heresy, then most of us are heretics in our daily lives as we routinely talk about adjusting awnings and umbrellas to block the “moving sun” or tell our children to “hold still” as we try to get them dressed or fed. There is no holding still! My clarifying point is simple, our language of “sunrise and sunset” works to accomplish the task before us and allows us to get along in the world with minimal difficulty, despite the fact that it is not true to the largest picture of the universe that we have. Additionally, we should expect that someday, even our best present pictures of the universe will themselves seem outmoded and quaint.

I don’t care about my pastor’s heresy for the same reason that I don’t get all bent out of shape every time I hear someone talk about orienting their gardens or houses relative to the movements of the sun. The model of a stationary planet and moving sun works intuitively to help us orient our houses and gardens. Context matters. When my pastor went full-bore Modalist in his sermon on the Holy Spirit this past Pentecost, my wife and I were probably the only people in the pews that recognized his heresy relative to Nicea and Chalcedon. For everyone else, his heretical sermon worked to orient them to the ministry of the Holy Spirit and helped tie it in with the entire Lent/Easter/Ascension cycle that we had just completed. In that context, for those folks, in that moment heresy was exactly what the doctor ordered. Now, if we think about pushing the Modalist formulation even further and trying to make it work in all contexts, then we see why the early Church found the notion so problematic, we end up with a vision of an infinite God in a finite body and the scandal of particularity overwhelms the majesty of the transcendent creator.

We’re lucky to have a pastor that really understands how to navigate gracefully the plurality of contexts that any pastor encounters. What is correct in Sunday school is different from what is correct in Youth Group, which is different from what is correct beside someone’s deathbed, which is different from what is correct during an Advent sermon. This variability or relativity is a function of human speakers and hearers and the diverse contexts we inhabit, and need not be taken as a capitulation to metaphysical relativism. Hersey, or at least a gentle tolerance for experimental and evolving theological formulations, is what allows our finite religious ideas and symbols to be about God. We need flexible symbols and words and we need them to be wielded by graceful and sensitive people, people who understand that the right word at the right time is more important than the final or single word for all time.

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