Why is it popular to be a heretic?

“I’m a heretic and proud of it!”

That’s a popular thought these days. Many are proud to align themselves with ideas and beliefs rejected by the church as heresy. Why is that? What motivates us to self-identify with those once condemned?

I’m sure that everyone has their own complicated reasons for making such a statement, but in Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth Alister McGrath offers several interesting reasons for the ongoing popularity of heresy.

1. Heresy is creative and innovative. McGrath quotes Will Herberg: “Today, people eagerly vaunt themselves as heretics, hoping that they will thereby prove interesting; for what does a heretic mean today but an original mind, a man who thinks for himself and spurns creeds and dogmas.” Heresy is novel. By contrast, orthodoxy seems stale, moribund, even boring.

2. Heresy is the underdog. With our pervasive tendency to suspect that some kind of power play is at work in nearly every situation, it is all too easy to believe the various narratives suggesting that what we call “orthodoxy” is really just the version of Christianity that gained power and succeeded in crushing its competitors. So Walter Bauer, Bart Ehrman, and even Dan Brown come along with their stories of an oppressive orthodoxy, and many are quick to believe, because it fits our own narrative of oppressive power. Consequently, we see the heretic as the oppressed underdog. And, we love the underdog. Just consider all the movies that involves some oppressed individual standing on his/her own against the system. We revel in the uprising of the individual who fights against the odds and overthrows the oppressor. So, placing the heretic in that role, is it any surprise that many relish the thought of being a heretic, the hero in their own movie?

3. Heresy challenges authority. This one is similar to the last. But, here the emphasis isn’t so much on the underdog resisting the oppressor, but just the challenge to any kind of authority. And, as with the previous one, this resonates in a culture that praises those who challenge authority.  We resonate with the image of the heretic who refuses to bow before orthodoxy and instead stands up and shouts even more loudly. Orthodoxy is “the man,” and heresy refuses to give in to the man. We love that.

4. Heresy is free. The term “heresy” itself has strong associations with “choosing” or “choice.” And, as we all know, we like our choices, our freedom. So, the heretic is the one who freely explores all the various options, refusing to be bound by old ideas, and boldly striking out in new directions. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is trapped, locked behind the walls of its own convictions. And, who wants to be stuck in orthodox when you can be the free heretic? That’s not a terribly difficult choice.

So, according to McGrath, heresy’s popularity derives largely from the fact that we picture it in ways that resonate with powerful ideas in contemporary culture. The heretic is the innovative underdog who challenges authority and freely chooses for himself what he will believe. The orthodox person is the oppressor who refuses both to see other possibilities and to allow others to explores those possibilities for themselves. Which would you rather be?

What do you think? Is this an accurate picture of how people view heresy? Do you agree that these are the reasons so many people like the idea of being a “heretic” today? Or, do you have a different explanation for why it seems to be so popular these days to call yourself a “heretic”?

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on September 26, 2011, in Church History, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 42 Comments.

  1. Nice post Marc, McGrath and his book: Heresy, etc. is a pastoral and theological must read! Indeed it is the postmodern culture that really presses and seeks to run the Church today! And we should note too, the definition and reality of the Church Catholic & Reformed is in constant need! One of the past areas of the place of Roman Catholicism in its depth and hold, was Authority! This is a real lack in the Church today in my opinion.

  2. Or you could look at the possibility that christanity and the world view it espouses is not really very relevant to societies in which there is a higher level of education, which means people are going to ask more questions and look for answers that are more logical. Also, in a society that values equality a religion that appears to encourages a hierarchical, sexist, oppressive system of values (and I have read my scripture, believe me) is just not very appealing. The idea that people hold with what christians consider heretical ideas because they are trendy and make them appear more interesting suggests that christians are the only ones capable of depth and profound, meaningful thought, and that non-christians are a frivolous, easily swayed lot, which is a very small-minded, dismissive way to see non-christians. In my opinion:)

    • Outside of Mr. Cortez’ clarification, I still disagree with at least one of your premises. It was orthodox Christians who installed our system of higher education throughout much of the Western world. Orthodoxy and education are not at odds.

  3. Reading Scripture itself/alone, verses standing under it and believing its authority, are obviously not the same! As Jesus said: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” (Mk. 16:16)

  4. @alaisfairlight – I should probably clarify first that “heretic” as I’m using the term, only applies properly to people who view themselves as Christians but hold to some belief(s) that have been deemed unorthodox by some official church body (often an ecumenical council). So, I really wasn’t directing this at non-Christians in any way. You are right that it would be insulting at the very least to suggest that people only reject Christianity because it is trendy to do so. I fully recognize that people have much more complex reasons for holding (and rejecting) the beliefs they do.

    I’m not even trying to suggest that “heretics” (as I’m using the term) only hold heretical beliefs because it’s trendy. Once again, that would be overly simplistic, though I’ll confess that I think in some cases these issues contribute to the attractiveness of heresy. But, my question is really more about the popular trend of calling oneself a heretic, which is a slightly different question.

  5. your post makes more sense to me now, and is more interesting put into its proper context. thanks for the clarification:D

  6. I had a conversation with a friend about this topic and his belief was that each of us should have a small dose of heresy in their faith, not in order to challenge authority but in recognition of the imperfection of all our knowledge. If human knowledge is inherently imperfect that means no single Christian denomination or tradition or whatever has it exactly right. This is of course a slightly different discussion because it’s not using heresy in the same way as you are (e.g. denial of the Trinity, divinity and humanity of Jesus, etc.) but in smaller things that means one does not line up perfectly with one’s denomination or tradition. Nevertheless, the rationale of imperfect knowledge could well be a motivating factor in all views that are different than the established norms, and this needn’t necessarily be motivated by a challenge to authority per se. Anyway, that’s my initial thought.

    • That’s a good though, but I wonder if it’s actually a good example of what I’m talking about. Why use the word “heresy” for this? Every orthodox tradition has this idea built into its theology. Granted, this often doesn’t get played out very well in practice, but the recognition of our epistemological limitations and the corresponding shortcomings of our theology is part of orthodoxy, not heresy. So, why embrace the term “heresy” to describe this? I still suspect that there is something unusually attractive about that term in our culture, though I’m sure these aren’t all the reasons for that attractiveness.

      • I’m not sure I can speak in general, but the reason for the use of the term ‘heresy’ in this conversation was half poking fun at the idea of dogmatism, which is something inherently unattractive to many in our postmodern environment. But my point was that the reason for our discussion (the recognition of the imperfection of human knowledge) could well be applied to those who truly hold historic heretical ideas and may contribute to some of the sexiness of heresy in our postmodern climate.

  7. @Ben – Your comment made me realize that there’s another one we should probably add to this list: “Heresy is humble.” We view the heretic as the one who is epistemologically humble enough to explore new ideas, wile the orthodox person arrogantly believes that they know all truth.

  8. Two comments came in through Twitter yesterday that I thought were also worth posting. They’re from the same person:

    For some of us, it is because we’ve been bludgeoned by orthodoxy, and are claiming as a compliment what was meant as an insult.

    That is, for me anyway, you get called a heretic enough you just say, “You’re damned right I’m a heretic!”

  9. I think we get away form the real issue of Orthodoxy verses Heresy, when we somewhat press the idea of 2 Peter 1: 20-21, which some seem to be saying here? In context this must be seen from 2 Peter 1:16 thru 21. This is really never a subjective subject, but one that must be seen in the historical context of the Church. Of course pressing “private interpretation” can become just that… Heresy! But then I am an Anglican, and a Churchman. The ‘One, Holy, Catholic & Apostolic’ nature of the Church gets lost sometimes in Protestant ideas, at least when pressed by themselves.

    • I can see here that my point about the Visible Church, gets little traction about the issue of both authority and heresy, again as seen from the historical or Church Catholic. Protestants & Evangelicals, save perhaps some Anglicans and Lutherans, just don’t factor this in much. But Marc has noted the Ecumenical Councils, but without much notation so far. I’m not going to press this here, but how can we really look at this great subject of truth and heresy… without the historical Church? We really can’t!

      *Btw, we should note that the Ecumenical Councils really come from off of the Eastern Church ground! Yeah, this subject can get massive!

  10. As a variant to point 3, I think rather than just challenging authority it simply ignores authority. Ignoring authority is a challenge to authority, but deliberately challenging authority is not necessarily to ignore authority. Ignorance is blissful and a lot of people prefer bliss over truth and even more over authority.

  11. Interesting post and great questions, Marc. I was directed to this particular post by a friend who no doubt considers me a “heretic” (probably because I read too much Karl Barth) 🙂

    I think there is an important reason people embrace the term heretic (I don’t, btw) which is not mentioned by McGrath. It has less to do with belief and more to do with practice. People happily embrace the moniker heretic if it separates them from what they perceive to be unjust and unloving ways in which many so-called orthodox folk employ their beliefs – to demean, judge, control and lord over others. Given that story, heretic sounds like a good option.

    But heretic also implies a rigidity in another direction, one in which I don’t think many of my friends (nor myself) wish to go. Questioning the virgin birth, for example (something I played with on my blog last week to the chagrin of many), does not mean i DENY it but that I am open to the possibility of being wrong. THere is a line in your post under point #3 that reads: “We resonate with the image of the heretic who refuses to bow before orthodoxy”

    …that makes me nervous. No one, orthodox or not, should be “bowing” before anything or anyone but the Christ, who transcends orthodoxy. I’ve written about the Idolatry of Belief in the past, and think the trend of “heretics” today are pushing against this post-Enlightenment virtue that makes mental assent the trump card in all things.

    To quote Barth quoting Paul, “Let God be true and all men be liars.”

  12. Interesting post and topic. Thank you Chad for posting it on FB.

    I’m not sure I agree with the base premise here.. That more and more people are embracing the term Heretic. Is there any research on this?

    The reason I say this is because I think ther term “Heretic” is a label imposed on someone by the Authoirty or Orthodoxy institution. It’s a label that denotes a decision that those in power have made about you, or your views – rather than a self imposed title or identifier.

    Martin Luther was trying to be a good Catholic, not a heretic. Same is true for many with that label: Bishop Carlton Pearson, Bishop John Shelby Spong, Matthew Fox… And on and on… These folks considered themselves reformers. But a reformer is not a heretic unless the reforms are rejected and denied by the authorities.

    Back to the point of the blog, the increased use of the term. I would argue that this is a demonstration of the evolution of consciousness. As other comments have pointed out, as education rises, so does questioning and exploring. It is natural for consciousness to expand it’s awareness and redefine (re-form) it’s world as it does. In fact it must do so. If this were not so, none of us would be able to learn to walk, read or write.

    So yes, I think there is a rising number of people who are questioning, exploring, challenging the orthodoxy. But I don’t think this is because it is becoming more popular to be a heretic, rather I think it is because it is the natural order of consciousness to expand and re-form. We are evolving. And perhaps that is the most faithful thing we can do.

  13. @Chad – Great comment. And, I think you’re right that a lot of this has to do with a perceived set of negative characteristics on the side of orthodoxy that people are trying to avoid by embracing a term that they think differentiates them from those characteristics. I’d say the same about your reflection on “bowing” before orthodoxy. I completely agree that no one should be doing this. But, I think the perception of many is that this is exactly what orthodoxy requires. So, they think they have to reject orthodoxy and embrace the heretic label.

  14. @David – Thanks for the comment. And, you’re right that this is completely anecdotal, so I don’t have anything to back up my claim that this is more popular than it used to be. I just know that I run across it more than I used to. And, what you point out is what I find interesting about this. Historically, “heretic” was a label given by someone else. Now, many are adopting it for themselves. That’s intriguing.

    The latter part of your comment goes to the question of what it actually means to be a heretic. This post only talks about why people would self-identify with the label. I’ve actually started a separate series that explores the question of what heresy is and what it means to be a heretic. If you’re interested, here’s the introduction and the first post in the series.

  15. Wow! So many Protestants and Evangelicals (so-called), seem to just miss the mark here! I mean who really wants and thinks “Heresy”, and or wants to be a “Heretic”? Perhaps we should use the word “heterodox” here – akin to mere opinion, and departing from or opposed to the norms or established doctrines. I think this is the real press or issue with McGrath’s book! But our postmodernity has or is subducing and subducting us!

    Note for us “Churchman”, this subject strikes a different ring, and presses into the pastoral!

  16. I’m not a real heretic, but I play one on the Internet!

    But seriously, even though I’m a fairly liberal Christian, I don’t think I totally fall into the “heretic” category. I believe in the Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the Atonement, etc. However, there are certain discernment bloggers who love to call anyone who doesn’t agree with them a heretic, so when that happens I embrace the word just to tick them off!

  17. heresy is popular, because (sometimes) orthodoxy is wrong.

    • That’s actually a slightly different issue. You’re talking why someone might choose to embrace an idea that has been labeled heretical. People have always done that for various reasons. But, usually they didn’t refer to themselves as heretics in the process. Actually, they often turned the tables and argued that the orthodox were the real heretics. What I find so interesting is the popularity today of actually embracing the label itself.

    • That sounds like a logical fallacy, of course “orthodoxy” by its very definition is that which is approved and conventional, and this is always biblical and theologial. The great problem today of course, is that many don’t want to be really biblical, theological nor orthodox! 😉

  18. @Lance, your reply strikes a chord with ‘what appears to be’ other than orthodox thinking ex. versus that found in the revisited Nicene Creed (381 A.D.). It seems to me that “ignorance,” be it from unintentionally uninformed, lazy, and/or sloppy thinking constitutes another category or reason that could be added to McGrath’s list.

  19. To say that christianity and higher education are not at odds because higher education was originally established by christians is to assume that higher learning has been stagnant since its origins. With the exception of the universities that are religious in orientation, most of them do teach values that are at odds with the world view that christianity espouses, depending on the courses you are taking. But what I really meant by my previous comment was that the more educated a person, usually, the more reason and logic is valued. My experience of christianity is that questioning the bible or values is seen as lacking in faith. Having an inquisitive mind is not encouraged when it comes to the precepts of the faith, you are simply expected to accept what you are taught. In university one is taught to do the oposite, to question everything and believe what can be proven and understood, so religion and education are at odds.

    • I was raised Irish Roman Catholic, got my first degree in a Irish Catholic school (BA in philosophy), and I was a conservative (still am), but I was never told to lock step at all! In fact, if I was told to lock step, it was in the CoE, and I would not! And yet, I love the conservative and biblical history of the best of the Anglican Communion, but sadly that is not in the main body of Anglicanism any longer.

    • Up through the but; I agree. Ish. Higher education has not remained stagnant, but I don’t think that means it has evolved beyond orthodoxy per se. It is worth considering that the orthodox faith considers anything true to be inherently compatible with Christianity. Disagreement often comes into play when something is taught that is believed to be, but not necessarily true.

      For that reason, the best minds in orthodoxy may not agree with all of higher education, but neither do they fear it. Higher education for that matter often doesn’t agree amongst itself. Take any legitimate geology class, and you will hear many modern ecological assumptions about global warming challenged if not outright disagreed with.

      To be frank, your experience with Christianity sounds similar to what I often hear, but not what I often experience. I’m not saying that is not what happened in your experience. I’m saying it isn’t true across the board, or even true in general. It is true in specific pockets of Christianity, and perceived as true in the opinion of most outsiders.

      Regarding your last statement, religion and education aren’t at odds any more than the various disciplines of study ever are. Even in university, your area of focus directs your understanding of how things can be proven and understood, and there is often a level of arrogance found in students of the empirical sciences which explains why physicists assume they are qualified to write books about metaphysics, and philosophers recognize that they (the physicists) are not.

  20. I appreciated this article from the context of being a youth speaker. National Geographic just did an excellent piece on the teen brain. The conclusion? Millenials are wired to value the reward over the consequence. Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers are just the opposite. I think this is why we see many young people getting involved in revolutions, movements, and often, illogical behaviors. Being a heretic would be a natural draw for them. They want to accomplish mighty things, and they just don’t see it happening in the “old ways” of doing things. Perhaps this should spur us on to not only reevaluate our thinking, but also our methods of doing things. According to Tim Elmore, youth these days fully want to change the world . . . as long as they can do it by Friday.

  21. Whether X’er’s or Baby Boomers (like myself), or whatever we are? We all must come to the same place of mental and supernatural faith (God’s gift), before the Revelation and Word of God! And this really is both the place of “catholic” and “reformed” theology.

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