I recently finished my series on the Bible, “The Pretty Good Book” (I may put addenda in later, but by and large it’s completed). “Legends of the Fall” is requiring a lot more time and thought than I’d originally anticipated, and I’ve let it go for now. It’s often the case that when I put something on the mental back burner, later when I come back to it I can think about it in a fresh way. “Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy” is ongoing–unlike the other two, which were conceived of as heading toward a particular goal, TAGO is open-ended. Anyway, I’ve had periodic discussions on other blogs about the right to religious liberty (too much to go into now, but I’ll return to that at a later point, perhaps on a later post) and the concept of heretics and heresy in general. Moreover, Gnosticism is traditionally considered heretical, and I’ve been writing about it a lot. Thus, for those reasons it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to start a series about heresy as a concept. This series will be somewhat between the others–in other words, I do see it as going in a certain direction, so it’s not as open-ended as TAGO; but I’m doing it in a looser way with out as clear a direction as LOTF or TPGB. Anyway, we’ll see how it goes.
The first step of discussion of any issue is to determine what exactly the topic of discussion is. To start, here is Merriam-Webster’s definition of heresy:
1 a: adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma
b: denial of a revealed truth by a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church
c: an opinion or doctrine contrary to church dogma
2 a: dissent or deviation from a dominant theory, opinion, or practice
b: an opinion, doctrine, or practice contrary to the truth or to generally accepted beliefs or standards
That’s a good starting place, but I think we can refine it.
I’m going to be discussing heresy mainly in the religious context, so the definitions under heading two above are of less interest to me. However, in both cases, particularly in the religious context, I think there are two factors that must be present for heresy to exist.
First, there has to be a dogma, dominant theory, or generally accepted belief or standard to begin with. If heresy is deviation, there has to be something for it to deviate from. Thus, in a non-dogmatic religion heresy is impossible. One can hardly imagine a heresy from Unitarian-Universalism! Well, one can imagine, perhaps–but you get the picture. Likewise, in a situation where there is no prevailing opinion or standard, heresy cannot exist. It might be “heretical” in the non-religious sense to say that the Earth is flat, for obvious reasons; but it would not be so to imagine, say, silicon-based life elsewhere. We just don’t have enough information on such a thing for there to be a general, accepted opinion on it. No standard, no heresy.
Second, you have to have authority with the ability to enforce its views. Just having an unusual, minority, or non-standard view in and of itself just makes you eccentric, or an individualist, or an outlier–not necessarily a heretic. For example, Hinduism, Taoism, and Shinto have no central authority of any sort. Thus, though Hinduism, at least, does have a concept somewhat like the Western concept of heresy, holding an unorthodox opinion doesn’t get one ostracized or “excommunicated” or shunned from Hinduism. Likewise with Taosim and Shinto. Similarly in secular affairs: one is not going to get a research grant to study hollow-Earth theory from any geological association or other scientific body.
I think these are two very important points that are often not appreciated enough in discussions of orthodoxy and heresy. They will be in the background of everything in this series, though. Meanwhile, I want to refine the definition of heresy in the next post.