Inventing Heresies

Derek Ouellette —  December 9, 2013

how_to_invent_somethingAs a teenage I knew everything. Now I’m in my thirties and I know nothing. Well actually I know a lot more than I knew then. But “nothing” in relation to what I thought I knew. I remember as a child learning to read and write. I’d sit down at the kitchen table with a paper and pencil and randomly bunch letters together, then I’d turn the paper toward my mom and pepper her which question after question like those shrinks do with black blobs on card stock. ‘Mom, what does “hasekt” mean?’

By the time I reached my late teens I went from inventing words to inventing heresies. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That’s a fitting description of “heresy.” And so of course nobody seeks to invent a heresy. But when someone succeeds at doing so, they’ve not invented a heresy as much as an orthodoxy. Because it’s like when you go to China. You don’t eat Chinese food in China. You only eat food. And when you go to Italy. You’re not eating Italian food, you’re just eating food. And when you invent your own heresy, you’ve not invented a heresy, but an orthodoxy.

I think everyone’s out more or less just to find the truth. One persons heresy is another persons orthodoxy just as one persons garbage is another persons treasure. But it’s not that simple. It’s not that equal. We might say it like this: the garbage of the community might be the lonely bum’s treasure. Yes. That captures it better. Because Orthodoxy is whatever the community says it is. And Heresy is whatever the community deems to be garbage.

Take Pelagius. In the Western Church, most vehemently among Protestants, he is the archetypical heretic. The man whose ideologies oppose the very core of Protestant conviction: the doctrine of Grace. That’s from the Protestant perspective anyways. Augustine, hero to the leaders of the Reformation, chased the poor man out of Rome where in was condemned as a heretic. But old Pelagius did not die a heretic. He only died a heretic to the Western Church. In the East, in the Orthodoxy Church, he was embraced and given safe haven.

Then of course sometimes, while seeking to be original, which is the key ingredient to heresy, someone may discover that they’ve simply created a mucked up version of the truth which already existed. In archaic fashion this seems to be precisely how Gilbert Chesterton described his own juvenile attempt to be “ten minutes in advance” of his age:

“If this book is a joke, it is a joke against me. I am the man who, with the utmost daring, discovered what had been discovered before. If there is an element of farce in what follows, the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains how I fancied that I was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found I was the last. It recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious. No one can think my case more ludicrous than I think it myself; no reader can accuse me here of trying to make a fool of him: I am the fool of this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne. I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of my age. Like them, I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of it. I did strain my voice with painfully juvenile exaggeration in uttering truths. And I was punished in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my truths. But I have discovered not that they were not truths but simply that they were not mine. When I fancied that I stood alone, I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. It may be, heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion.” (In his book Orthodoxy.)

What Chesterton calls “idiotic ambitions” is really merely the ambitions of all thoughtful people of all times and all backgrounds. Because thoughtful people always try and improve upon ideas constructed by the giants before them. This sometimes leads to heresy. Sometimes to a better understanding of orthodoxy. But nobody knows where they are going to land when they first take up the task.

Sometimes the road to orthodoxy is through heresy, while simultaneously the road to heresy is through orthodoxy. Before Augustine and Pelagius tangled, Pelagius was clearly on the side of orthodoxy. Before the bombarding Augustine pushed Pelagius into indefensible positions, he was in line with the Church Fathers. That’s why the Orthodox Church had no problem taking him in. While Augustine – that sharp, clever, relentless and brutal bishop – his ideas (particularly those of Predestination) found more kinship with the Gnostics than the Church Fathers (and the Gnostics have always been considered heretics, except by Gnostics). But who could match the wits of Augustine? All it took was the sharpest mind resorting to the cleverest rhetoric to convince the community. In the end a new heresy had been born, as well as a new orthodoxy.

And then there’s this in-between word. Heterodoxy. Not right, but not wrong. Not conforming to tradition. But not officially condemned either. Not a bad word, but not really a good word either. In modern times you’ll find ideas like “Open Theism.” But modern times are changing quickly. Soon Open Theism won’t be heterodox. Soon it’ll be orthodox. At what point nobody knows. When the community who accept it grows large enough I suppose. Maybe it’s already orthodox in the same way that Simple Foreknowledge is considered “orthodox” by Arminians in the same way that a so-called “Eternal Now” is “orthodox” among Calvinists. And in that sense each would consider the other to be “heretical.” And this is a part of my problem with these words.

“Heresy” and “orthodoxy” are words that slide around like bald tires on black ice. It’s not that they’re entirely not useful. It’s that if and when we use them we better be sure we have the traction under our wheels to let those words be properly nuanced if we want them to have any meaning at all. Only then do they become useful. Only then do they mean anything. So, in the end, spare us your routine use of them, tossing them about as if you’ve invented them.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.