Sunday, 27 April 2014

In Defence of Heresy

I have for some time had an interest in heretics, as I suspect any readers I have might have noticed already. You may not have noticed that I nonetheless have little interest in heresy itself, at least not insofar as it is heresy. The position or condition of being a heretic is interesting irrespective of the heresy any given heretic believes—though of course a certain heresy might be more interesting than any given heretic who believes it, but that would vary from person to person and belief to belief. But this does not mean I am uninterested in heresy; it’s just that I would say that heresy is far more ubiquitous than heretics are, and so it is hardly worth spending many words on.

But I am here equivocating, because in order for heresy to be more ubiquitous than heretics, I would have to be understanding them rather differently. And, indeed, I observe two different meanings to the word heretic and to the word heresy; indeed, I think there are two entirely different dynamics caught by the heresy/orthodoxy dichotomy, however much they tend to be conflated. The purpose of this post is to outline these two different meanings.

1. We’re All Heretics Here

God, being unconditional, cannot be contained by any description or symbol. Thus no doctrine is accurate about the nature of God. Every statement of God’s nature, every symbol for God, and indeed any attempt to address God, is false. Each and every one of them is an idol of a reduced image of God. But they are all we have; the way of via negative is not going to work for most of us, and I think we should feel no shame about that fact. We must simply acknowledge that our attempts to understand God are always faulty and will ultimately be in need of correction.

Thus, in one meaningful sense, we are all heretics: we all believe things that are not true. Or, I should say, we all have the choice between heresy and agnosticism; those who choose heresy have a further choice between heresies. The second part is important, because there are better and worse heresies. But the first part is also important to consider, too. Most of us probably cannot sustain agnosticism, or at least cannot do it in enough areas for very long. (Indeed, no one can sustain agnosticism about moral or political beliefs without giving up on any moral or political action.) And those of us who do not choose agnosticism choose heresy. Many people do not know that they are choosing heresy, since they believe they are choosing truth. But what they believe is incomplete, and does not do justice to the whole of the world, and so it is heresy that they choose.

Now, before anyone accuses me of some radical relativism, I’m going to point out that David Deutsch agrees with me, at least as far as scientific matters are concerned. In The Beginning of Infinity Deutsch defines fallibalism as “The recognition that there are no authoritative sources of knowledge, nor any reliable means of justifying knowledge as true or probable,” and argues that scientific theories are good or bad based on how well they explain phenomena, and how many phenomena they explain. The interesting consequence is that all scientific knowledge is at least a little bit wrong or potentially wrong. This does not end up in relativism simply because a positive statement can still be made that a given theory might be wrong, but it is the best we have. Similarly, I am not saying that all theological claims are equal; all theology might be heresy, but that does not let us off the hook of figuring out what might be the best heresy we have.

Why care about any of this? Well, that’s simple: whenever I want to write someone off as a heretic, I am best served if I remember that I am a heretic, too. We’re all heretics, here. If I want to say someone is doing something blame-worthy, I better look elsewhere.

2. The Outcast Who Wasn’t

The first definition of heresy is not what most interests me, though it is probably most relevant to my life. The heretics who interest me are the outcasts who refuse to be cast out.

Heresy, as generally used, does not refer so much to the fact that all beliefs contain error but, rather, to beliefs that contradict those endorsed by the community which is using the word heresy. Or, to put it more pointedly, a heresy is a belief which gives a community sufficient warrant to exclude anyone who happens to hold it. Of course the community frames the definition in terms of truth and error, but practically speaking heresy in this sense—the sense of excommunication—is not about truth but is instead about boundary-marking.

A heretic, then, is a person who holds such a belief. But a heretic is not an apostate. An apostate, because of differences of belief, repudiates the whole community. Heretics do not repudiate the community. Rather, heretics maintain that they are still part of the community even while the community gate-keepers deny that they are. Heretics insist (perhaps implicitly) that their own beliefs do not contradict those beliefs which define the community; they maybe argue that a different set of beliefs define the community than the gate-keepers think. Whichever it is, heretics have been shown the door, but refuse to leave.

I find the heretic’s faithfulness and commitment to be quite touching, rather than (just) their status as underdog or outcast. That commitment might strike the orthodox as tremendously annoying, but, hey, lots of people are annoyed when they try to severe a relationship with someone and that someone refuses to let the relationship end. Of course, many heretics have acknowledged have had to give up on the community, due to some threat or another. Eventually you cannot fulfill your commitment to the community except by stepping out of the door (or fleeing the country) and trying to build a new community in the name of the one from which you were driven. So it is in this sense that I am charmed by heretics. Whether or not the heretic is in error is not at all relevant to the description, and I think over history heretics have probably broken even on whether or not their beliefs were better or worse than those of the community with which they argued.

Of course there are some disagreements which would warrant exclusion; if a community is defined by belief, a total repudiation of all of those beliefs probably does warrant exclusion. My sympathies tend to be for those fringe cases, and of course for those whose expulsion is especially hostile or violent, or indeed whose expulsion from a certain name (ie. “Christian”) results in expulsion from a community and its events and spaces (ie. a church). Surely communities can manage to acknowledge that someone is no longer a member in one sense but allow them to be a member in another. At the very least the heretic is far more likely to become orthodox again if they are allowed to remain in the church!

Note: I am not signing off on everything in The Beginning of Infinity—of what I've read so far, I find Deutsch’s argument mixed, both in terms of his overall position and his presentation of it—but I do wholeheartedly agree with his fallibilism (though I disagree with his characterization of justificationism, which I don’t think is actually at odds with fallibilism if construed in a particular legitimate way).
Note: I am aware of Kathleen Mulhern’s “What Makes a Heretic?” (link), and this post was written with her post—and the whole series from which it comes—in the back of my mind.

(EDIT: Rachel Held Evans has an interview about heresy on her blog which discusses the overuse of the word. The distinctions between kinds of deviation from orthodoxy is probably more helpful than my discussion here, which is probably worth my thought.)

No comments:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin