The Concept of Heresy


Writing my new novel, whose title has now been changed from Refuge to The Order Master (with Refuge becoming the title of the series it begins), gave me a chance to explore certain ideas in the context of a deadly religious dispute. Chief among those is the idea of heresy and accompanying it, the question of narrow versus broad scope, and the twisting of spirituality by an us versus them approach.

The Scourge of God, of which the main protagonist, Michael Cambridge, is the Order Master of the title, is a Christian religious order founded in the 14th century in England. It’s unusual (and fictional) in that it exists for the purpose of committing murder, but more typical of many Christian groups and denominations in its narrow conception of what constitutes acceptable belief, and in defining its spirituality in terms of belief to start with. At one point in the story, Mike is trying to persuade the Scourge of God to change its direction, ally with the Andol, and generally come out of the Middle Ages and into the 21st century. His principle opponent in the debate, whose name is James Anderson, asks him whether, in his opinion, the Andol are Christian. Mike replies:

“Brother James, I think you might get a different answer to that question from me than you would from one of the Andol, say from Amanda Johnson. She would reply that she is not a Christian, I think. But I would say that she is one. . . .[A] Christian should be defined as a follower of Jesus’ teachings. . . . [T]he Andol are the most godly and Christian people I have ever known. They are full of charity and forgiveness and compassion. There is no malevolence in them at all. If they occasionally become angry at injustice and cruelty, well, so did our Lord. In that sense, I would say that the Andol are Christian.”

James responds to this at a later point in this way:

“He [Michael] says that the Andol should be considered Christian even though they themselves would deny it. If we agree with him on this, brothers, then Christianity becomes some nebulous, ill-defined faith with no principles except to behave well and kindly. A Muslim, a Hindu, a Jew, or an atheist could be called a Christian so long as we judge them to be good people. Brothers, I don’t believe that is true doctrine. . . .For many centuries the basics of Christian doctrine have been stated in the Nicene Creed. I ask myself how many points of this doctrine would find agreement among the Andol. I can only think it would be very few of them. I suspect that Brother Michael agrees with me on that, and does not care.”

Indeed he does not. Michael says in response to James’ charge that he himself has become apostate from Christianity and unfit to serve as Order Master:

“I honestly don’t know whether to consider myself a Christian or not. If I am, it’s in the same sense as Amanda Johnson is a Christian. I have to confess I’m not so confident in my own goodness of heart as I am in hers, so maybe I am, and maybe I’m not. If I’m not, perhaps some day I will be, with God’s help. But when you define Christianity as narrowly as you have just done, by adherence to a creed centuries out of date and poorly understood even in its own time — no. I am not that sort of Christian, and I’m not the least bit ashamed to say it.”

Now let’s step outside the framework of The Order Master and consider these questions more generally. What is this concept of heresy, of which Michael Cambridge was accused by members of his own order? Heresy is defined as an opinion or belief which is at variance with orthodox or accepted doctrine. For example, if a person who calls himself a Muslim believes that there are multiple gods, he is a heretic, because it is central to Muslim doctrine that there is only one God.

Implied in the concept of heresy is that the orthodox belief is not just true, but not to be questioned or challenged. Further implied in this are several more ideas: that the religious tradition is to be defined in terms of stated belief, rather than some other criterion such as actions or attitude or mind-set; and that the orthodox belief has a source that is absolutely incontestable so that it cannot be wrong.

A further observation may be made here. All of these beliefs which are presented as incontestable and not to be challenged, were first presented (usually with meanings rather different from what the orthodox understand them to be today) by people who adopted a very different attitude towards the orthodoxies of their own day, and were accused of heresy for it. The concept of heresy, therefore, enjoins the believer not to try to imitate the prophet or messiah or enlightened teacher who founded the faith. “You are unworthy to do as he did,” is the implicit message. “He was great. You are small. He was divine. You are sinful and corrupt.” The believer is called upon to bow his head in humility — and to obey.

And there, I believe, is the key to the whole concept. It is intended to encourage obedience. A religious tradition becomes a mix of the spiritual and the political. Part of it attempts to explain and channel spiritual experience, but part of it seeks to control human behavior and to aggrandize the importance, power, and wealth of the religion’s leaders or of the religious organization itself. The idea of heresy flows entirely from the latter motivation. The former would encourage everyone to become a prophet or enlightened one, and so to become a heretic, because that is what all prophets are. The latter seeks to prevent this, because prophets and enlightened ones cannot easily be ruled.




Filed under Fantasy Storytelling, Spirituality

4 responses to “The Concept of Heresy

  1. Heresy is the child of the doctrine of “The One True Faith”. Orthodoxy requires a belief and acceptance that there is only one right way to believe, and that for your belief to be right, all others must be wrong. Any deviation from that ideal is then not simply wrong, but a violation of some sacred trust. This is called heresy. While crusades against unbelievers can be brutal, no more savage attack can there be than on the heretic, because by their heresy they cast doubt upon your belief. By believing something different with sincerity, they make you doubt yours, not theirs, is the one true version of the truth. In this they are a far greater threat than a non-believer. Who cares if the person down the street worships a cow, the person next door crosses them self left to right, whereas god himself told the true believers to cross themselves right to left. They are clearly leading people into heresy! Burn/stone/shoot/blow them up!

    Before the Abrahamatic faiths, this was not common. Different tribes and cities held different gods, or similar gods celebrated differently and that was accepted. It didn’t matter to Athens what Corinth felt was the feast day of Zeus. Rhodes didn’t care when Crete thought Poseidon preferred as offering. To kneel facing the wrong direction, or offer mass in the wrong language, or differ on depicting your sacrifice on the cross or off, and you get war. The question of whether Jesus owned his own robe set off one famous squabble between religious orders. Once you accept there can be only one right answer, no deviation is too small not to question Divine truth, and trivia becomes worth killing over. The “One True Faith” concept is one of the greatest evils known to man.

  2. I agree with you about “heresy” being a matter of encouraging obedience. However, I think the issue is a bit more nuanced.

    Although Christianity places its origin story in CE 30 and uses documents dating back to CE 50 (Paul’s seven letters) and CE 100 (the earliest of the many Gospels), what we call Christianity actually started in CE 325 with the Council of Nicea, as authorized by Emperor Constantine I of Rome. Prior to this Council, Christianity was extremely heterodox — obnoxiously so. The purpose of the Council was to unify the theology of Christianity and settle on its official document, what we call The Bible (literally, The Book).

    There are a lot of suppositions as to why Constantine did this. One obvious idea is that it was in response to the so-called Crisis of the Third Century, at which point Rome nearly collapsed, but then pulled it together under Emperor Diocletian, Constantine’s predecessor. There was a great consolidation of power in the person of the Emperor under Diocletian, which power Constantine inherited. The supposition is that Constantine wanted a unified religion for a unified Rome to facilitate that power, and for whatever reason, chose Christianity — possibly because he saw a new faith that was more malleable than the old, diverse, and stubborn Pagan religions.

    Whatever his reasons, Christianity was from that point forward inextricably mingled with imperial power and its associated politics. A number of the theologians who participated in the Councils of the fourth century made it clear that they thought they’d cut a Devil’s Deal with the Emperor, selling out the soul of their religion in exchange for power.

    As mainer74 says, prior to (not the Abrahamic faiths, but) Roman Christianity, religion was primarily a matter of praxis, not credo, practice rather than belief. No one cared whether you “believed” in Apollo, so long as you performed the public rites. It was certainly true of Temple Judaism, since “empty practice” was one of the pet peeves of the Jewish prophetic tradition, and is in full evidence in the preaching of Jesus.

    Before that, religion was primarily a matter of tribal or regional identity, where you inherited your gods from your tribe/region, simply by being born. “Conversion” was certainly possible: it was both normal and expedited in the case of inter-tribal marriage, for instance, typically (though not always) with the woman taking the religion of her husband’s tribe. But religion was always tightly tied to community identity, not something you chose from a smorgasbord because it “resonated with your soul.”

    The mass conversions of the Romans to Christianity in the late fourth century and early fifth were backed by the power of the Emperor, and they were traumatic: they included physical destruction of the old Pagan temples, altars, statuary, and documents, as well as mob action and personal intimidation and even murder. It was in this context that the idea of “Christian heresy” was born.

    Initially, Christian heresy was in matters of doctrine, literally “teaching.” It applied to the conclusions of the theologians and, more importantly, the teachings of the bishops and priests within the hierarchy of imperial control. What the masses believed (so long as they obeyed the authorities) wasn’t of nearly as much concern as what the Church authorities taught.

    What the church could not tolerate was any lack of unity within the settled teachings of the Catholic (“universal”) Church. You see this in the history of the original five Sees, of which Rome was “first among equals.” The Alexandrian See was the first to be thrown out of the club for “heresy,” specifically the Arian Heresy, and became the Coptic Church. The Roman See split from the remaining three Sees in the 1000’s over a single word in the Creed, the so-called Filioque Controversy: in this case, Rome was heretic, and the remaining Sees became the Orthodox Church. The pettiness of the details involved in these “heresies,” the splitting of fine theological hairs and shades of meanings in words, merely underlines the obsessive nature of “unity” that the Church demanded.

    It wasn’t until the 1000’s that heretics among the laity changed from being viewed as sinners in a world of temptation, into subverters of the Church’s “grand program of sanctifying the world.” Pope Innocent III declared them “traitors” and started the first Papal Inquisition against the Albigensian Heresy in 1208, which exploded into what we would now call an ethnic cleansing: it was horrific enough that it spurred the Church to develop a comprehensive legal structure for handling heresy.

    It was the Protestant Heresy in the early 1500’s that moved the locus of heresy from the external world to the inner world of the mind. The Catholic tradition always focused on externals: did you disturb the power of the Church, did you teach heterodox ideas, did you commit “vile practices” such as Jewish rites or witchcraft, did you live an openly licentious or immoral life? These were the things that made you a heretic, and thus, a criminal.

    The Protestant Heresy was a response to blatant hypocrisy of the Catholic Church of the late Middle Ages, and tried to get back to an authentic inner experience of God, using The Book as a foundation and the individual conscience — not the authority of the Church — as interpreter. Luther translated The Book from Latin into his own German, so that the local priests and even the (literate) laity could see for themselves what Christianity was about. Protestants were all openly heretic in the Catholic sense of the word, and damned proud of it. But in the new Protestant sense of the word, heresy occurred within the mind and heart by falsely interpreting the Word of God.

    The Protestant movement also led, predictably, to Christian heterodoxy on a grand scale.

    The result in our time is quite the pathological Devil’s Brew. The original idea of a unified, universal theology is still very much with us — it’s just that every twenty-member sect in every farming town throughout the American Midwest is the sole inheritor of that universal theology, as personally divined by the preacher-man carefully reading the Plain Word of God and interpreting it with his own conscience. To consider any other idea, or any other way of looking at the Bible, is heresy. To question the Word of God (as interpreted by the preacher-man) is heresy. The “grand program to sanctify the world” is also still with us, as you know if you’ve ever opened the door to two smiling ladies handing out Watchtower literature. Also with us is the idea that it is the job of the faithful to “do something” about all those heretics out there who have rejected the Word of God — which leads to such sickness as Fred Phelps’ infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.

    This is already far too long a reply, but to close, I’d like to summarize that I think Christianity as it exists today is a fragmented, pathological, and degenerate form of a religion that is nearly eighteen hoary centuries old, and while it informs most of our ideas about what “religion” is about — most people don’t know any alternatives, and few have encountered anything that hasn’t been at least partly-contaminated by the Roman model, from Islam to the Mormons to modern neo-Pagan faiths — Christianity isn’t really representative of the role that religion has played throughout most of human history. Nor does the idea of “heresy” have much meaning for religions outside those touched by the Roman model, which has from the beginning been about control and the politics of empire.

  3. Correction: “nearly seventeen hoary centuries.” Apparently I cannot do simple arithmetic at 2:00 am. 🙂

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