Heresy as a Way of Life

The difference between heresy and prophecy is often one of sequence. Heresy often turns out to have been prophecy—when properly aged.
—Hubert H. Humphrey

There is no heresy or no philosophy which is so
abhorrent to the church as a human being.
—James Joyce

Orthodoxy is highly overrated.

Fear not; I value informed, precise belief and have not yet found a compelling reason to abandon the ancient creeds. My theology, as far as I can tell, is profoundly Biblical and would find a welcome among the stalwarts of conservative Christian thinkers. As far as my religious constitution goes, I’m pretty boring. If you want theological innovation you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Still, I often find the company line stultifying. Rather than spark passionate engagement, our orthodoxy seems to lull us to stupor with its comforting categorical truth formulas, rendering us metaphysically limp and incurious. The closed canon of revelation has given us a solid foundation for faith, but it sometimes seems also to have contracted the spiritual event horizon, to have shrunk our capacity—and even tolerance—for spiritual exploration.

One reason, I think, is that creed comes to dominate our religious experience. Our spiritual life is less an existential journey than a reiteration of propositions, as though our experiences must conform to creedal assumptions before they count as legitimate. We hold God in thrall to our axioms, confining his field of play within narrowly prescribed boundaries. Of course, he is not confined to them, but they make it difficult for us to process, let alone embrace, what might fall outside of our precisely defined metaphysic. But this is not only a malady of the confessionally rigid; it can also be true of those who float within the airy, doctrineless church of the vibe—which is merely an orthodoxy of another kind. The very fuzziness of that spiritual vista is no less rigid a proposition and is, perhaps, even more galvanized because it cannot, by nature, allow for spiritual singularities. Vibers don’t insist that God stay inside the ropes; they insist he stay out.

Heretics—the good kind anyway—are suspicious of algorithms. Rarely do they reject either the constants or variables of orthodox conviction. They do, however, take issue with determinative formulas for reducing the divine enigma into finite units of meaning. For orthodoxy to be orthodoxy, it must do just that. The good heretic finds the very idea of solving God problematic (the bad one simply offers a different solution). This puts the heretic at a decided disadvantage; he cannot answer orthodoxy with one of his own. His only recourse is to appeal to ignorance, though an ignorance of conviction. This does not play well in the courts of religious conventionality and the heretic most often is dismissed as … well, as a heretic.

But the way of heresy—and by this I mean spiritual latitude—is a way that best approximates God as creative presence within human experience, as opposed to God as mere fact. Heresy is not its own end. It is, to reference the poet Robert Frost, the road less traveled by, a path open to new paths. The good heretic is not a reactionary, but an explorer whose passion is for the uncharted territory which surrounds the cartography of creed. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is by definition limitation. At its best, heresy is a suggestive breach in the wall. Those who go through it do indeed risk stumbling, but, as history can attest, sometimes the view from outside the wall can reshape the entire map.

I’m a child of the Enlightenment and I appreciate the rhetorical certainty of orthodoxy as well as the next guy. Yet I’m thinking that those formulations aren’t everything there is out there in Godland. An orthodox boundary is not a fault-line but a survey mark upon an extensive landscape. The marks may help us negotiate our way through that wilderness, but they can also give us the illusion of a tamed land. The good heretic knows the land is not conquered. Yes, the survey marks of orthodoxy are a great blessing, but there is much, still very much yet to see.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

Fred Allen heads up Burning Bush Ministries, teaches literature, draws cartoons, and writes a lot. He is the author of Our Daily Fred, an alternative online devotional, found at He and his family live in Salem, Ore.


1 Comment

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One response to “Heresy as a Way of Life

  1. Good stuff. I like what you’re saying!

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