In the matter of religion, as indeed in other areas of human life and thought . . . the modern individual is faced not just with the opportunity but with the necessity to make choices as to his beliefs. This fact constitutes the heretical imperative in the contemporary situation. —Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative
The English word ‘heresy’ comes from a Greek verb, hairein, which meant ‘to choose.’ Hairesis, then, simply meant ‘to make a choice.’
To be a heretic is to be a person who makes choices.
Within the Christian tradition, however, it holds a much more negative meaning. The apostle Paul warns in Galatians 5:20 against those who engage in a ‘party spirit’ (hairesis)—akin to partisan politics, but not to be confused with a keg-draining frat party. Those with a party spirit divide and fracture the community. In the theological and legal history of the early Christian church heretics were identified as those who promoted deviant views over against the authority and teachings of the Church. To be tagged with the term meant to carry a target on one’s back, to suffer denunciation, a quick trial, and sometimes a grisly death. In his The Heretical Imperative , sociologist of religion Peter Berger writes of heresy with straight-faced understatement: “Its etymology remains sharply illuminating.”
One of the major themes that Berger explored throughout his long career as a sociologist of religion who was also a practicing Christian, was the impact that modernity has had on religion and people of faith—not just in Christianity, but in all major religions.
In a premodern society religion had the quality of objective certainty for most people. The society supported this certainty and enforced it, to a degree, by making it difficult to question the social structures that undergirded its reality. Modern society, in contrast, undermines that certainty by collapsing the assumptions that allow us to take our social reality for granted. It relativizes knowledge and subjectivizes religion.
“If the typical condition of premodern man is one of religious certainty,” says Berger, “it follows that that of modern man is one of religious doubt.” If the background of premodern people was this religious consensus, then that authoritative consensus for modern society has vanished. Heresy—choosing a different religious path—was a rarity in societies in which the questions were settled, the religious and political authority was secure, and the penalties for deviance were dire. Yet, it’s very difficult to follow a consensus that is no longer available. “In other words,” says Berger, “individuals now must pick and choose. Having done so, it is very difficult to forget the fact.”
Berger makes the point that the orthodox person defines him or herself as living within a tradition. Traditions, by their very nature, are taken for granted, but this state of taken-for-grantedness is no longer possible in today’s society. “Every tradition consists of frozen memories,” says Berger, “And every questioning of tradition is likely to lead to an effort at unfreezing the memories.” The unfreezing of memories means that every generation questions why the tradition exists and where it came from. On the principle, however vaguely sensed in one’s life, that we cannot inherit our grandparent’s religion, we question in order to understand. It’s a natural and essential process. Through the asking of questions and the testing of traditions we may come full circle back to our starting point, but now we know what we believe and who we put our trust in.
Where the social and religious consensus breaks down, pluralism rises. Modernity opens up choices and narrows down what was considered destiny. In any given city across America, the religious traveler has a choice to attend the services of not only most of the major world religions but also scores of Christian denominations and sects. American religion is a buffet of choices.
But beyond the choices to be made between religions, there are choices to be made within a religion. It’s interesting how ‘heresy’ transmogrified from ‘choice’ to anathema—as if the true disciple would never ask questions, never see differences, never compare, and never step over the lines drawn by authority. In fact, faith requires choice, otherwise, it would not be faith but a cramped and reluctant obedience to authority. When the integrity of religious authority collapses, the inward turning to reflection on one’s religious experience is both inevitable and necessary for one’s faith. That is, after all, where the exhortation to develop a “personal relationship with Christ” will lead.
Christ asks for our free choice in faith. The rich young ruler is dismayed because he must choose between identifying with his wealth or following Jesus. The man born blind chooses Jesus over his rigid tradition—and risks the sullen plotting of the religious authorities in retaliation.
What we call heresy may be viewed as making a choice out of what was previously thought to be closed, over and done with. Faith, then, is the continual act of choosing the way we should go. There is less certainty here. But while modernity alienates and isolates us from each other, we are saying that community can be found with others who also choose. Because we are social beings and because we make our ethical and moral decisions to a great extent according to what is affirmed by our communities, we need each other. Because our worship is both solitary and communal our fellowship of faith is a fellowship of heretics, people who continue to make their choices every day about Jesus as they live within the world. To be faithful is to exercise choice and thus to be a heretic.
Berger gives us three ways that people live within their religions. The first is what he calls the deductive approach, familiar to orthodoxy, in which we go on believing as if nothing had changed in the world. The behaviors are prescribed according to law, the rewards are contractually-based, and knowledge of traditions and rules is paramount. Certainty is high because our unquestioning trust is in religious authorities.
At the other extreme is the reductionist approach, typical of liberal theology, in which accommodation to the secularizing force of society is almost total. Religion is reduced to a political agenda and there is little sense of a personal religious experience. Jesus is seen as the great ethicist and the New Testament a compendium of motifs of justice and responses to the oppression of others. What makes religion palatable to a secular person, then, is its emphasis on psychological, political, and ethical analyses of our current unjust society.
Berger’s choice is the third option, the inductive approach, in which we turn from external authorities, both religious and political, and from tradition, to our own experience of God. This is the heretical imperative in which our faith is constantly making choices and our trust in Christ is the experience that lifts us daily. It is not an easy path and uncertainty is high because we are not following well-worn paths of tradition nor are we simply swept along with the crowd. We reason, we “test the spirits,” we recall that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” we revel in Scripture and in the many avenues to the Spirit that we find. We pray and we decide; we seek in order to realize our foundness.
There is much that is good in tradition and the assurance it bears. Tradition gives us stability and it reminds us of the mountains and valleys in the experiences of our forebears; it can be a bright line of consistency when everything else is murky and chaotic. But it may too easily slide from authority into authoritarianism and from guidance into coercion. It substitutes response to God with reaction to religious power.
We must be clear that other people’s experience of God, crystallized into tradition and dogma, will never be enough for those of us on the road to Emmaus. We need to see Christ’s hands for ourselves.
The heresy that is faithfulness relies on thinking for oneself, praying for guidance, looking to counsel from those we trust, and finally, choosing our path. It is a path of humility; there is no glory to be gained in side-stepping religious authority that is exercised just to keep one in line.
In the original sense of the word, we may all aspire to be heretics, people who choose daily, with eyes wide open, to follow Christ.
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