However, most of the time I find the consequences for being a heretic aren't so harsh. Usually, I just receive stern words. I am told to 'believe more…', 'try harder…', 'it's because you're doing something wrong…' Sometimes this makes me feel like I'm not good enough. It hurts a bit.
The thing is I'm not hugely heretical. Just a bit of pushing and shoving of the boundaries of orthodoxy. And periods of disbelief. Small heresies. But I have noticed people hoarding bigger heresies (as defined by the mainstream church), like practising homosexuals, atheists and addicts, regularly do suffer harsh consequences. Such people are often not very welcomed into church communities. They are marginalised. And I could imagine they are deeply hurt.
Beliefs are so important
I think all this shows that beliefs are really important to the church. Sure, I get that beliefs are somewhat important in life. Beliefs bind groups of people together. And I guess that's important. But why is there such a huge emphasis on beliefs in the church? As I sit here contemplating this question my mind quickly turns to history…
Historically, beliefs have been important in Christianity
By the second century CE Christianity was spreading like wildfire throughout Europe. Authorities decided that they needed to define the new religion and discredit opponents. In the process of doing this the word heretic began to be used. Soon it was in the vocabulary of the common people. Someone who believed the wrong beliefs was labelled a heretic.
By 380 CE the edict of Thessalonica made Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire. The boundaries between state and church were blurred. This gave religious leaders state power to execute heretics. So they did. The first heretic to be executed seems to have been Priscillan in 368, for sorcery.
From that point on the church was fanatical about persecuting and executing people for heresy. The infamous Crusades. The famous executions of Sir Thomas More and Cardinal John Fisher in the 16th century European Reformation. Even Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, sanctioned the execution of the heretic John of Saxony. The Catholic Inquisition in 1826 saw the last executions of heretics by the church.
The churches treatment of heretics throughout history was tragic. Abhorrent.
The church no longer persecutes heretics. But we all drink deeply from the cup of history. The church has a history full of hate. There's been no real counter reformation to object to hating and persecuting heretics. So does such hate still run through the church's veins? Has so many centuries of hate conditioned the church to still respond to heretics with judgement, vengeance, discipline and exclusion?
Thinking seriously about beliefs
So I want to get thinking seriously about beliefs. What does it even mean to believe something? Do I have to believe 100% of the time? 97% of the time? And how strongly should we hold our beliefs anyway? I mean dogmatic beliefs often seem to lead us far away from shalom. So should I hold my beliefs a fraction less than dogmatic? Besides, beliefs change rapidly. Many of the doctrines now involved in Protestantism didn't exist 400 hundred years ago. Really is it wise to hold onto our current beliefs as orthodox and right?
Then there's theology. Salvation. Beliefs are not what save us. God saves us (Titus 3 verse 5). The fact that children die should show us this. God: Apparently God exists outside of linear time (Psalm 90 verses 1-2). So at what point of time do my beliefs even matter? Jesus: It took Jesus a long time to believe in himself. Would Jesus have been accepted at church before he fully believed he was God? Besides, the gospel narratives tell us that Jesus' friends were often the village crazies who believed all sorts of stuff. Sanctification: And lastly in Christian thinking people are thought to be on a journey towards enlightenment. Life is about becoming. Not being. So doesn't that mean it's okay if my beliefs are not quite right yet?
Love renders beliefs less important
Sure, I think beliefs matter. Christianity has a cauldron of doctrines. Things to believe. And disbelieve. Christianity cannot reject all objective truths like post-modernism has a tendency to do. It's just that I don't think what people believe should matter so much. At least not as much as kindness, inclusion and grace.
The thing about Christianity is that it's about a God who is Emmanuel - God with us. It is about the God who tabernacled - pitched his tent - amongst us (John 1 verse 14). It's about a God who is with me although I gravitate towards heresy and unbelief. The Bible says if I go to the depths of Sheol, God is there (Psalm 139 verses 7-12). God is not just where there is the right belief's, in the right church. God is everywhere.
I think Christianity is the story of God forgiving over and over and over again. God's repeated forgiveness means that God's rules, God's truths and God's doctrines are all less important than God's love. God's love abounds. It's Christianity's meta theme; that over and beyond all else God loves me, loves us.
Throughout the history of the church this was often overlooked. Jesus was overlooked. So looking forward I hope that the church will be on a better trajectory, towards loving heretics.
(Church History in Plain Language, by Bruce L. Shelley)
(Reform and Conflict: from the medieval world to the wars of religion, A.D. 1350/1648, by Rudolph W. Heinze)
Danielle Carney lives on the Gold Coast. She has a degree in Theology and is now studying again. She is married and has a three year old daughter and two sons who live in heaven.
Danielle's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/danielle-stott.html