Are you a heretic?
Forgive me for startling with such a personal question. I hardly know you. In fact, we have almost certainly never met, and if we have, I cannot at the moment remember the circumstances.
Still, I would guess that you are – a heretic – or heretick, if I may spell it in the more fulsome, abundant, and obsolete way. Perhaps not the vilest heretick in all Christendom, for that would take a lot of energy; but among the representative “freethinkers.”
Perhaps you are just a mediocre heretic.
I know that I am.
A skilled, formally practicing heretic in the past might be an Arian, a Gnostic, a Montanist, or a Docetist, Adoptionist, Nestorian, Monophysite, Monothelitist. . .et cetera. But it is getting wickedly hard to be one of these, with any conviction. The most hardened heretic may put a foot wrong, and expose himself as a heretic from his heresy.
This will introduce the kind of complication that is discouraging to heresy-hunters, who must stay on their toes.
Example: I, together with Hilaire Belloc and some others, consider Islam to be a Christian heresy. We have been making this point since the seventh century, although these moderns still have difficulty understanding it.
But Mr. Salman Rushdie has been identified, by the religious authority in Persia, as a heretic (and apostate and blasphemer) against Islam.
It gets more complicated, on closer inspection. For the Ayatollahs are Shia Muslims, and without trying to explain this, I note that Sunni Muslims consider all the Shia to be heretics. Indeed, they have massacred whole mosques full of them, in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Well, we Christians used to massacre Cathars, a clever heretic might rejoin. And frankly, there were other shady groups to whom we were violently unsympathetic, through the unhappy centuries.
This anti-Christian victimhood is the feature of heresy that is most commonly celebrated among proud heretics, of various descriptions. Heresy has been popular as an excuse for judicial executions – or murders, as one might say. The same goes for related crimes, in moments when “orthodoxy” has taken on a revolutionary (or counter-revolutionary) aspect.
Be assured, gentle reader, I will not turn you in.
If I were even to try, I would most likely be confuted, in the situation of modern life, by the chaos of the modern West. I can’t think of anyone who would take me seriously. The most traditional Catholics – who, in some cases, accuse even the pope of heresies – would not think of preferring charges.
Even in Scotland, there has not been a heretical trial for three centuries (1697, I believe it was), and you will guess that wasn’t Catholic.
Actually, the charge was Blasphemy, and the accused was a University of Edinburgh student. If you read the indictment, you will find that a certain Thomas Aikenhead had views that a typical fashionable atheist would advance today: He thought God was bunk, and all theology at best a form of poetry.
The Reformation, and the Religious Wars, spoiled our taste for these trials, so that now we are surprised when “foreign people” lethally attack persons they have accused of heresy. All of our sympathy tends to go with the heretic.
So it will require an immense effort of the imagination to revisit past moments when heresy was taken seriously, whether with or without an ulterior motive. I mention this because the history of heresy, in Christian and other realms, is hopelessly mixed with the history of political power.
We must remember the history of Communism. This is the closest we have come to what is called “theocracy” by modern heretics. Strict socialist materialism left more than one hundred million bodies in its successive hysterical outbursts. Wokeism is its budding successor, but just starting up.
The satanic, fanatic inspiration of Communism is what we now associate with the taste of satanic, fanatic religion. On a much more modest scale, we can detect it in vaguely comparable religious hysterias, through time, and yet it is misleading – for it supposes that heresy is the opposite of faith.
Rather, faith does not cultivate opposites. At the simplest level, it is characterized by the confidence that “this is so.” You may not understand every detail of your religious faith, but you are not “bothered” by it. You know it is true at a level far above ordinary, passing events, or the latest scientific “study.” And you are confident that this highest truth will be resolved in the fullness of time.
It does not bother you that others do not subscribe to your “belief system,” or any of its small details. How could they? They aren’t you.
For only one such “system” can be true. There are not multiple, contradicting truths any more than there are multiple universes. What can I say? This is so.
Pure theological heresy is, to the patient observer, ultimately self-defeating. What does not make sense in it must eventually be revealed. But it is not heresy; it is instead a mistake, with possibly debilitating consequences, which in the end don’t touch on the religious questions.
This was established by those who unnecessarily tried Galileo, “the first bewildered victims of the scientific age,” who mistook someone mischievously anti-clerical, for a subversive anti-Catholic. Read the history and see how easily Galileo could have got off, were he not himself riding for a fall.
But one is sick of that case, and the Spanish Inquisition, which has been similarly libeled and misrepresented. They are a propaganda theater, curiously reversed from their original intention; their message now turned against the Church that was defending itself.
We are all heretics today, including me, and you, my faithful reader. Contemporary science fills our heads with distractions, like biting insects. Yet one thing we have learned is that truth isn’t protected by swatting flies, or by mounting elaborate heresy trials.
It works on Faith, and respectful, free discussion. It looks to Christ, not away.
*Image: Tartini’s Dream by Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1824 [Philadelphia Museum of Art]. Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) was a violinist and composer. Legend has it that Tartini was inspired to write his “Devil’s Trill” sonata by a dream in which the Devil appeared at the foot of his bed playing the violin.
You may also enjoy:
David G. Bonagura Jr.’s Why Catholicism is the True Religion
Hilaire Belloc’s The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed