The Unexpected Value of Heresy
Heresy has, as a rule, received a bad reputation over the last two-thousand years (give or take a century). This is really quite unfortunate. See, the problem is that most people hear the word today and think what my Apple electronic dictionary tells me it means:
heresy |ˈherəsē|noun ( pl. heresies ) belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious (esp. Christian) doctrine: Huss was burned for heresy | the doctrine was denounced as a heresy by the pope.• opinion profoundly at odds with what is generally accepted: cutting capital gains taxes is heresy | the politician’s heresies became the conventional wisdom of the day.
But the problem is that these definitions and uses of the term are technically inaccurate. An opinion that is “contrary to orthodox religious doctrine,” whether Christian or not, is really a heterodox perspective, or one that is “not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs,” as the Apple dictionary rightly puts it.
Heresy is much more complicated.
One of the best ways that I’ve heard heresy explained is as “a partial truth mistaken for the whole truth.” The very definition here does not, in any way, suggest a view “contrary to orthodox religious doctrine,” but one that is mistakingly incomplete or in need of further explication.
Think of the early Christological heresies that were declared such after the first Ecumenical Councils. Take the belief that Jesus was only human (or, more technically, a creature, because even Arius didn’t claim that Jesus was simply an ordinary dude, but just not what would eventually be called homoousious with God the Father). In a sense, what is being advocated here by Arius and those who would follow him is in part correct: Jesus is, according to the orthodox decrees, absolutely human! However, that’s just part of the truth. The other part is that Jesus of Nazareth, as the Incarnate Logos, is also fully divine (as will again be affirmed in more detail at the Council of Chalcedon).
Today the term heresy gets tossed around without due regard for the fact that there is actually some truth to be found in such a position. It is not that anyone should be simply resigned to maintain that view or accept it as complete, but to call someone a “heretic” is to implicitly recognize the unexpected value in his or her view. What we do in response is the important thing.
Burning people at the stake, whether literally or figuratively (and boy, are there lots of ways to do it figuratively on the internet! Just look at some blogs, such as those maintained by priests that go by singular alphabetical monikers), is not the answer. I hope that we’ve learned that centuries ago.
So what do we do in the meantime? There is a tradition in the church of dialogue and debate that has, it seems to me, long been lost. I think it needs to return.
While the views of many are not always orthodox, they may not necessarily be heterodox. Instead, they’re probably heretical which, as I hope you’ve picked up at this point, isn’t so bad. Perhaps the dialogue needs to begin with a community’s recognition of what truth is truly present in the initial view and then have a theologically and scripturally informed discussion — without lighting torches and screaming at the top of one’s lungs — about what additional dimensions of the truth are needed, what’s doctrinally at stake in the broader argument, and how it fits in (or doesn’t) with the teaching of the community of faith.
Being a heretic isn’t such a bad thing. Being intolerant and impatient is.
Coming to understand one another is the key and working to move from partial truths to fuller ones is the answer.