Not long ago I got one of those amazon.co.uk recommendations for a book called, Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters What Christians Believe (SPCK 2007). How did amazon deduce my sympathy for heresy?, I wondered, before realising that the small fortune I’d spent on books by Stanley Hauerwas had probably tipped them off. Hauerwas wrote the introduction to this short but entertaining volume, edited by Ben Quash and Michael Ward.
I hadn’t really thought much about heresy before becoming aware of the Belfast-based emerging church collective Ikon a few years back. Rather than adhering to a doctrinal statement or a set of beliefs, Ikon describes itself in five words, which they call ‘coordinates’.
In the past, I’ve attended some churches that devoted fair amounts of time to rooting out what they thought were incorrect beliefs. They might not have referred to those beliefs as heresy, but that’s essentially what they thought those ‘incorrect’ beliefs were.
So Ikon’s bold claim to be openly heretical intrigued me. Why would a group that seemed to me to be trying to lead Christian lives – Christian in the sense of looking out for the poor, challenging stifling religious institutions, and seeking to transcend denominational and gender divisions – openly proclaim itself heretical?
Would this not unnecessarily annoy the institutional churches that they critiqued through their very existence as an alternative Christian collective?
But maybe annoying the institutional churches, the ones that claimed that they had right belief, was actually the point?
I can testify that Ikon’s existence and its ideas truly do annoy and frighten some people, as I’ve learned when presenting analyses of the group in various venues. What concerns me about the relationship between ‘emerging church’ groups like Ikon (in Northern Ireland and further afield) and the institutional churches is that it will not be a fruitful one.
For example, I’m concerned that the emerging churches will caricature the institutional churches. Indeed, that’s often what evangelical Christians say when I explain Ikon’s critique of evangelical churches in Northern Ireland – they say they don’t recognise the mean, bullying evangelical churches that Ikon seems to set itself against. Similarly, the accusation of caricature has been levelled against American Brian McLaren when he describes the ‘old’ kind of Christianity that he sees himself escaping from.
But I’m more concerned that the institutional churches will not really listen, and therefore will not hear, the more compelling questions and issues that are being raised by those involved with emerging churches.
So to get back to Heresies and How to Avoid Them, the most important and heartening nugget of wisdom that I took away from reading it was about how Christians should engage with each other.
Although defining a heretic as ‘a baptized person who obstinately denies or doubts a truth which the Church teaches must be believed because it is part of the one, divinely revealed, and catholic (that is, universally valid) Christian faith’ (p. 1), the spirit of the book is one of engaging and dialoguing with so-called ‘heretics’, not avoiding them.
‘Dialogue with the heretic, avoid the heresy’ would be an apt catchphrase for the book, albeit disturbingly similar to the oft abused phrase, ‘love the sinner, hate the sin,’ that is bandied about in Christian circles.
In the prologue, Quash, an Anglican priest, academic, and Canon theologian at Coventry Cathedral, argues that heretics were key movers and shakers in an ancient ‘intense drama’ that played itself out as the wider church constructed its ‘orthodox’ creeds. He sees the heretics as helping to engender healthy debate during this process.
So the heresies examined in the book all have an ancient flavour – Arianism, Docetism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, Gnosticism, etc. Most Christians today would struggle even to know what the exact heresies were that today’s authors are explaining and ‘correcting.’
Each chapter, written by authors from the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic traditions, were originally part of a series of sermons in Peterhouse Chapel, Cambridge. All of them are written with a surprisingly light and lively touch; who knew that learning what Marcionism is (the idea that Christians can dispense with the God of the Old Testament), explored in Angela Tilby’s chapter, could be so riveting?
But the more contemporary lesson from the book is that the enemy of a lively, life-giving Christian faith is not the heretics themselves, but rather the danger is in suppressing their difficult questions and doubts. As Quash writes,
‘The generous contention of most authors of this book is that the Church, and orthodox believers, have reason to be grateful to heresies because they have forced us to think our belief out more deeply and thoroughly – whether by their misguided attempts to clarify it, or by challenging it. They have been provocative stimuli, catalysts for energetic thought. (p. 7-8)
Another contemporary lesson – which I don’t think the editors and the authors of the chapters fully recognise – is that so-called heretics and their heresies should make the churches question whether they can really have confidence in all their so-called orthodox beliefs and doctrines.
That’s not saying that Christianity isn’t ‘true’. Rather it’s raising the question of whether we, as humans, can actually discern truth and then hold it unblemished in a creed or a form of words for all time – or whether truth might be something that we work out ourselves together by continuing to ask hard questions and perhaps, as some might say, being open to new revelations?