In Defense of Heresy

Recently, I was fortunate to be interviewed, alongside my dear friend Zac Poppen, for the Apologia: Inquisition podcast, hosted by Zachary Moore (you may listen by clicking here). Generally, Zac and I discussed our respective interest in questions of truth, orthodoxy, heresy, and the influence of particular thinkers (namely, Jacques Derrida) on our theology. While the reality of a de facto “Heretics Club” is still somewhat tongue-in-cheek—although it might possibly become an actual event or group in the near future—I do affirm that heresy, actually, is good.

I say that heresy is good not to be carelessly flippant, or cling to heresy in opposition to orthodoxy; doing so would perpetuate the very binary I wish to deconstruct. Rather, I say and affirm that heresy is good because that statement exposes the illusory rigidity of binary, “either/or” thinking, which underlies the discussion of truth for much of Western philosophy and theology. At the same time I say that heresy is good, I also say that orthodoxy is good. It is not a question of choosing between one or the other, but letting both speak as themselves, informing our experience and understanding as we continually encounter truth. Truth, just as being, is becoming.

In the podcast, I quoted David Congdon on the false dilemma of orthodoxy versus heresy.

A solution is only possible when we demythologize the binary opposition between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, between saints and deceivers, between Christians and antichrists. This dichotomizing logic forces a false decision upon the church, as if doctrine is either true or false—and self-evidently one or the other…Indeed we can say that difference is internal to the norm of the gospel; the norm generates its own diversity. It can do so because the norm is not a fixed set of propositional claims but rather an event irrupting into each new situation, calling forth new modes of thinking and speaking about God.

— The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (p. 54)

This quote succinctly captures the problem at work within any discussion of binary oppositions, which in this case, is how we speak of God. The problem is two-fold. First, all God-talk is historically situated and carries with/in itself a past. The historicity of God-talk bucks against the assumption that there is, objectively, a singularly correct manner in which to speak of God. Second, orthodoxy, or other claims to objective, universally applicable truth, only works if the system itself demands it. In other words, the church, or any other entity, demands some notion of objectivity in its speech, yet inasmuch as heresy could be “wrong,” the same is true for orthodoxy; labels of orthodoxy are in no way a guarantee of truth. A system of thought which requires the binary opposition of truth versus falsehood, or right versus wrong, will naturally exclude divergent thought, yet what is deemed “truth” could be wholly incorrect.

Thus, when I (or others) say something to the effect that “heresy is good,” we are referring to the abject lack of epistemic humility within modernist modes of theological-philosophical speech. Orthodoxy could be wrong, and heresy could be right; both must submit themselves to the radical alterity of the other/event which shatters the quest for certainty. Some, perhaps correctly, suggest that this hesitancy with certainty I advocate is mere skepticism, shrouded in philosophical language. To that charge, I simply state that skepticism is the ignored undercurrent within any quest for certainty. Fear of the unknown, fear of being wrong, fear of eternal consequences for believing differently—all of these and more create the illusion that objectively, there must be a singular way of speech or thought which determines truth. Theological or philosophical systems which demand and perpetuate the illusory binary between orthodoxy and heresy are skeptical that the ambiguity they sense in their innermost being is something to be welcomed, not feared or scapegoated.

Heresy, actually, is good. As I quipped at the end of the podcast, that statement might be on my tombstone. Yet, as I mentioned above, it is not a question of clinging to what is deemed heretical in the exclusion of orthodoxy, but allowing heresy to challenge the rigidity of our systemic mindset. I welcome what passes for heresy because in the depths of my being, I sense that in the moment I find what I believe to be certainty, something (or someone) will encounter me and shatter the illusion which I cling to. I do not denigrate those who seek certainty. It is understandable. As for me, however, too much of my certainty has crumbled under the weight of existential ambiguity and encounters with other(s) which forced me to reorient myself.

Thus, I will continue to defend heresy, in the pursuit of that jarring yet beautiful encounter with that which has no interest in my conception of certainty, but merely for the joy of the encounter in itself.


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