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.