Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Many aspects of Christianity have been given notice to quit by the modes of thought now prevalent in the West. None is more redundant than the traditional emphasis on "right belief" as a standard by which to assess people. Perhaps in reaction to this, moves have been made in various parts of the Church to discipline those who promote heresy.

The concept of heresy, though important to religious people in the past, has long since lost most of its strength. For many in the 21st century, it is now an invalid idea. One description of heresy is "The formal denial of any defined doctrine of a religious faith". Nowadays heresy is generally thought of in the sense of any resistance towards, or victimisation through, dogmas imposed by a coercive authority.

History is littered with the victims of groups which will not tolerate strange views or practices. One wonders if that will ever change. The Church of England has been noted for its capacity to harbour a wide range of views. Yet even in 2004 moves were being made to discipline and dismiss priests who teach unorthodox beliefs.

Christians are by no means unique in their persecution of difference. Socrates was forced to commit suicide because he poked fun at outrageous antics of the Greek gods.  The main charge was that he corrupted the youth by doing so. The Greek scientist and philosopher Thales was judged mad when he predicted a solar eclipse in 585 bce.

More than two millennia later the charge of heresy was still alive and well. Bruno Giordano in 1600 said that the universe is infinite. He was burned alive for speaking his mind. Galileo was threatened with excommunication in 1624 when he proposed that the earth revolves around the sun and is therefore not the centre of the universe. 

Today the theories of such men are looked upon as common knowledge. Some have observed that the heresy of one period often becomes the orthodoxy of another.

Islamic countries tend to treat people of other faiths beyond their borders as enemies, but with toleration if they live within an Islamic State. In Medieval Islam, Christians and Jews - described by Muslims as "The People of the Book" - were more free than they have been in modern totalitarian societies. But this tolerance does not usually apply to other religions and sometimes not even to offshoots of orthodox Islam such as the Baha'is.

As the 21st century begins there seem to be increasing tensions between Islam and other religions. Christianity in particular is gradually being demonised by a section of Islam. These difficulties revolve mainly around the application of the Islamic Shari'a law to secular society (as in recent bloody conflicts with Christians in Nigeria). In some cases they appear to be a State-directed effort to marginalise or even destroy non-Islamic communities (as in Indonesia in recent days).

Hindus, at least in the past, have characteristically been tolerant of other religions. They have taught that the underlying humanity of all is a fundamental unifying factor. Different people may require different expressions of religion at different stages of their lives. Even if a believer expresses faith in another God, Krishna himself is the one who fulfills his or her requests. The highest God does not perceive other gods as his rivals because they all exist only in and through him.

At the same time, worship through other gods should be only a temporary measure because only the highest God is perfect. Any idea of absoluteness is alien to the Hindu, if only because postulated truths cannot be irreconcilable. To think in terms of irreconcilable differences narrows the potential range and vitality of the human consciousness. The old is not discarded for the new, but added to it because truth is eternal and unchangeable. Nevertheless, there have been conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in the past, generally ignited and promoted by secular and political differences. Recently there have been acts of violence by Hindus against Christian communities in India.

Buddha is reported to have stressed the need for tolerance of difference, particularly in relation to other religions. In practice, Buddhists apply their various regulations mainly to monks. This leaves ordinary people free to pursue other pious practices if they are likely to help reach nirvana, the final salvation from suffering. Hans Kung writes: 

There is no room in Buddhism for religious persecutions, crusades or an Inquisition ... mystical religions seem to have an easier time with tolerance than do religions in which God's prophetic word demands a decision, provokes a 'crisis', and so virtually creates a division between those who listen and those who do not, between the chosen and the not-chosen, and finally between the saved and the damned [1].

And, of course, if all life is sacred then (at least in theory) violence is not an option. This is not to say that Buddhists have always avoided violent action.

Heresy was not a concept used by early Christians. The idea occurs only four times in the Bible, referring there to disagreeable teachings rather than to evil lies which warrant sanctions. But as the Church became more organised in the first three or so centuries, and as new thinkers began proposing revisions to traditional teachings, so the Christian hierarchy began to use the term more and more to mean "theological error". When the Roman State became Christian at the time of Constantine, the Church acquired the power to punish heresy and reward orthodoxy.

The Church usually punished heresy by excommunication - that is, labeling heretics as unacceptable to their congregation, refusing them entry into any church building, and not allowing them to be ministered to. In later years, from around 1200, the plight of a heretic became much more perilous. He or she could be hunted down, tried in an ecclesiastical court and then, having been handed over to a civil authority (because the Church was in theory not allowed to take life), be killed - often by being burned alive.

Most infamous for persecuting heretics is the Inquisition. It was begun by Pope Gregory IX in 1232 to prevent the then Emperor, Frederick II, from gaining too much power over the Church. The first Inquisitors were appointed from the Dominican and Franciscan orders of monks, supposedly because of their superior theological learning. From 1252 the Inquisitors were allowed to imprison and torture anyone they thought was not admitting to the error they were accused of.

Friedrich Schleiermacher in the 18th century argued that heresy is that which aims to preserve the appearance of being religious, a standpoint which in effect contradicts the traditional essence of Christianity as a way of life.

In the Roman Catholic Church today, the crime of heresy is still in force. It consists of willful and persistent error (as perceived by ecclesiastical authorities) in matters of faith by a baptised person.

This is considered a grave sin and can be punished by excommunication. The last 30 years have seen many Roman Catholic dissidents compelled by extreme pressure from Rome to recant, cease their ministries and generally comply with the directives of the Vatican Curia. Many have chosen to leave the Church instead.

There is now an increasing tendency to recognise a number of important ways in which society (in the West, if not in many other so-called less developed places) is changing:

  • A powerful religious teaching from the past is that truth, as distinct from knowledge, comes direct from God. It is revealed to humanity through holy people - and in Christianity, supremely through Jesus the Messiah. This requires that we think of the universe as an open system, one which can be penetrated and variously affected by God from a supernatural dimension. Because we learn certain truths direct from God, therefore, they can't be either denied or refuted.

A modern example of someone who has fallen foul of the revelation doctrine is the famous Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung. He has been persecuted by his ecclesiastical superiors for his views. He remarks that in revelatory religions such as Islam and Christianity, wide tolerance comes about only when revelation is no longer perceived as the sole source of truth. If, in contrast, Christians believe that salvation from sin comes only through Jesus the Messiah (who is defined as God), it follows that rejection of Jesus becomes rejection of truth. Thus heresy is not merely refusal to assent to certain absolutely true propositions, but also an inadequate or inauthentic expression of allegiance to ultimate truth [2].

But scientists, philosophers and many Christian thinkers have increasingly held that the universe is, in effect, a closed system. That is, there is no "outside" from which revelation can come. Even if there is some sort of non-material, supernatural universe other than ours, we are by definition unable to comprehend anything of it except in terms of the universe of which we are an integral part. Any revelation of God to humanity  must therefore by definition come from the natural order. It can be expressed only in and through that order.

If that is so, we have no way of knowing what is revealed knowledge and what isn't. There is no known way of validly differentiating between the two sorts. If one group maintains that they have a message from God that it's good to kill Jews, and another claims to have been told by God that killing any human being is wrong, by what characteristics are we to know which is correct? In addition, every system is a totally interlinked web of cause and effect. Thus any intervention into our universe as a system from "outside" would destroy its interlinking integrity. In such a situation we would never know which events were caused naturally and which directly and immediately by God. If that were to be granted we would have to give up the idea of human history since we could not distinguish between types of event.

This inability would encompass everything, including our thoughts and choices. We would not be able to differentiate between right and wrong behaviours, because we would not know when God had caused us to behave in this way or that, and when a behaviour was our own by choice. In this case it becomes impossible to sin. It follows that if there is no such thing as sin, that is if we can't choose freely between right and wrong, the entire structure of Christianity collapses. This is because salvation from sin is why God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (as traditional theology often puts it).

Those who cannot accept revelation usually rule out the supernatural as a dimension other than the reality we all know. They therefore tend to regard "truth" not as absolute, but as a body of conclusions about the universe and how people behave which are by their very nature always provisional. Any conclusion we hold, according to this point of view, may change if new data or paradigms come along.

Heresy to such thinkers is untenable, a contradiction of the changing nature of our understanding of the universe and ourselves.

  • It has been recognised by many that humans can't think in terms of any system which is of an order higher than their own. 

    That is, when attempting to describe "God" we are forced by our own limitations to use words and concepts which relate to what we know and understand. Such terms - metaphors and the like - are clearly limited in the scope of what they can refer to.

When we describe God as "judge" for example, we conjure up mental images relating to what we think a judge is like and then try to think of a "perfect" judge, one who applies the law without fear or favour, without error or bias. But it remains a description couched in human terms - no more, no less. It's clear that such descriptions, no matter how strongly supported by dogma, can't be regarded as absolute. Each and every one of us will have differing images of the "perfect" judge. Heresy in this context is at best a person's choice of poor descriptive parameters, at worst the choice of nonsensical ones.

  • The contemporary mind differs fundamentally from its predecessors. The latter regarded the past as the origin of, and authority for, all primary truths. It was therefore right and proper to appeal to the past for the standards of right belief and behaviour. In a society which was structured hierarchically, the authorities of the time - ecclesiastical and civil - were natural, God-appointed arbiters of truth.

In the 21st century (in the West primarily, but also increasingly in many other places) this way of relating to truth has changed dramatically. Where the traditional paradigm of authority remains, it is under constant pressure. More and more people begin the search for truth with scepticism and end with answers which may be unacceptable to traditional authority.

The autonomous person will maintain that even if something is asserted by an authority, it must be backed up with evidence or it runs the risk of being discounted. A powerful example of this today is the current Roman Catholic teaching about birth control. In the face of population increases, the poverty of large families, and the threat of HIV/aids, a total ban against the use of condoms makes so little sense that very few Roman Catholics obey it. Thus, just because an assertion was made by a so-called irrefutable authority in the past is no longer a good enough reason for an autonomous thinker to necessarily respond positively to it.

  • The attitude which seeks for evidence might also wonder if it is possible to find even two people who agree on every aspect of Christian dogma (defined as a religious truth established by divine revelation and faithfully guarded by the Church). It might be asked if even a roomful of bishops could agree with each other in every detail about a particular dogma. Similarly, it can be doubted that a properly conducted survey of doctrines would discover even a single person who agrees completely or even comprehensively with the Pope.

Today, mere assent to forms of words and official doctrines, though important, is unlikely to bear much weight of itself. Nevertheless, despite a generally more open ecclesiastical scenario, there are signs of a backlash in the corridors of official Christendom against current trends of adventurous Christian thought and research. 

As the power of the churches declines, and as the number of their adherents reduces, those who remain seem to be retreating into absolutism. The authorities of newer churches, often rooted in semi-secular societies, refuse to accept fresh doctrines on the grounds that truths revealed through the Bible don't change. In the older churches, fundamentalist approaches to Christian teaching appear to be gaining influence. In the Church of England, for example, a recent commission has recommended the establishment of a tribunal to sniff out and punish heretical clergy.

In short, heresy hunters are alive and well and living in your local congregation. The moves referred to above to root out heresy amongst the clergy in the Church of England are a good example. They are being carried out using formal mechanisms. A recent report from a Working Group proposed a Clergy Discipline (Doctrine) Measure for adoption by Church of England's General Synod. It was rejected only on the narrowest of margins. The Houses of Bishops and Laity passed it. The House of Clergy rejected it by 104 votes to 99.

A priest judged heretical could, had the Measure been passed, have been dismissed from his employment. The penalty would have been imposed for "publicly communicating" any belief incompatible with the teaching of the Church of England. This brief was so wide that even heresy published on the Internet (such as this essay) would have been penalised.

In summary: traditional Christianity finds itself in conflict with the prevailing mode of thought in the West, and increasingly elsewhere. Many Christians hold that they have access to God's truth, while a large secular majority understands truth in relative and provisional terms. Those who think they have grasped absolute truths can, in terms of their logic, insist that heretics accept such truths. Where they have access to formal power, they perceive that they have a duty to bring dissenters to heel - if not by violence, at least through the application of institutional force.

In contrast, those who think that all truth is finite and provisional must allow others the freedom to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions. Autonomy becomes a vital personal right. Only when practical co-operation is at issue can anyone demand compromise - though this may be attained without necessarily requiring formal denial of any truth or principle.
[1] On Being A Christian, Collins, 1977
[2] Alister E McGrath, Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1994

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