I Guess I Might Be A Heretic?
I came across a couple articles this morning that trouble my heart. The first is by Ben Myers, whose views I respect without necessarily always agreeing. It deals with the concept of Christians “handing” others over to Satan, a concept lifted from St. Paul’s Epistles. The second, by Roger Pearse, concerns a quote from St. Jerome commenting on Amos: “God hates the sacrifices of these [i.e., heretics] and pushes them away from Himself, and whenever they come together in the name of the Lord, He abhors their stench, and holds His nose…”.
The content of Myers’s post is pretty typical for those familiar with his style. While admitting a deep Calvinistic distrust for humanity, he also admits an amazingly wide acceptance of human beings he meets. He then goes on to quote the verses from St. Paul, and admit that he has, twice, “handed” persons over to Satan. One was a preacher who insulted the suburb where Myers lived. The other was a professor who dared question the greatness of Shakespeare. Now, in each case, and both together, I cannot tell if Myers is being serious or not. The point of the piece, at least if one reads to the end, seems to be that Myers’s deep acceptance of human beings makes him distrust those who set themselves up as judges over humanity. At least, I think that’s the point. There certainly seems to be a pointed disdain for self-imposed pomposity and pretension.
In any event, setting to one side the question of whether a radical preacher expressing disdain for the suburbs or a theater scholar dismissing Shakespeare are worthy of the punishment of being cast to the outer darkness, I have to wonder about the whole “handing over to Satan” bit. I know it’s in the Bible and all; so is Joshua commanding the sun to stand still and Moses turning his staff in to a snake and back again trying to impress the Pharaoh. I don’t for one minute believe either of these things happened, as in they are actual events. I also don’t believe in an actual Satan/Lucifer/Devil as some metaphysical being who embodies all evil and whose entire purpose is destroying God’s creation by luring human beings to renounce God. In the first place “Satan” is Hebrew word that refers to a legal advocate before a court. The character of Satan appears in the Old Testament Book of Job, in the prologue, and plays his role of legal adversary by wondering how far human love for and faith in God will stretch over the loss of material wealth and the death of one’s household. In the New Testament, there are a couple references to “Lucifer”, a word that means “Light Bearer”. There are, of course, the Legion of Demons that possess a man, then enter a heard of pigs who race in to the sea and drown. Now, for the ancient Israelites, and probably for the Jews of Jesus’s time, the seas and oceans were the dwelling places of terrible creatures. It was, after all, the waters that were the primordial chaos that God tamed at creation. So for a bunch of possessed pigs, it might make some kind of sense to run to the sea; they’re just going home!
On a more serious note, I have to wonder – just how far, just how serious, should we go and be in appropriating Pauline, and in general Biblical, language, images, and stories that just no longer have any meaning for us? How do we approach this whole matter of “handing” someone over to Satan? I’m not sure I have any idea at the moment, except I am quite sure that doing so because an individual is a pompous, judgmental windbag probably shouldn’t qualify one for such a punishment.
Which leads me, of course, directly to the whole matter of St. Jerome insisting that God hates the sacrifices of heretics. As Pearce points out, this comes from a commentary on Amos, specifically a famous passage in which Amos, speaking for the LORD, declares that Israel is so corrupt that the burnt offerings from the Temple are no longer welcome and the smell stinks in the Divine nostrils. Jerome extends this Godly disdain to heretics, as well. Pearce goes on to say, toward the end of his piece:
The heretic has contempt for Christian teaching. Our Lord condemned such people in the strongest terms, and they are not absent from our own day, as anyone who has followed the sad story of the American episcopalian church will know. The problem is rather that we are far too reluctant to identify these infiltrators as such.
The ancient term still has value. It is a characteristic of these people today that they demand the name of Christian for themselves. In consequence they tend to scream at anyone who dares to suggest that some people might not, in fact, be Christians. In fact it is a fingerprint of the heretic that they refuse to allow anyone to suggest that someone else is not a Christian. More than one Christian has found himself censored, when responding to an attempt to point out that such and such a view – happily accepted by the heretics – is not Christian.
Worth remembering. The words of scripture do have a contemporary application, and we mustn’t let ourselves be intimidated in applying it when it is earned.
Now, of course, what Pearce doesn’t note is that Amos’s prophecy continues, and the LORD later wonders how it is possible for Him to say such things about Israel. Indeed, the LORD expresses eternal love for Israel, promising never to forsake it or break covenant with Israel, even as Israel breaks covenant with God. So, it might well be true that God hates the sacrifices of heretics, as St. Jerome claimed; does God not also declare eternal love and fealty to the covenant with Israel? In which case, does God not express love for the heretic, and a refusal to deny gracious acceptance even as the heretic – whether out of malice, ignorance, or misplaced love – continues in error in some manner? Just as the whole “handing” someone over to Satan thing troubles me, the notion that any contemporary church people should take the concept of heresy as seriously as Pearce seems to do worries me. Difference is not error; even error, when it is error, is nothing more or less than an extreme case of human limitation, sinfulness, and pride, something self-proclaimed orthodox share. I reserve the right, say, to disagree with non-Trinitarians, for any number of reasons. I will not, and would not, ever claim that non-Trinitarians are “heretics” and deserve the name. In fact, in our contemporary milieu, the word really doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning. Totalitarian regimes around the world, to this day, use the concept – if not the word itself – as a way of punishing those who do not agree with or accept the party line. The Soviets tossed such people in mental hospitals or prison camps above the Arctic Circle. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia just killed them, by the millions. If a person wore eyeglasses, that was heretical enough to bring on the death penalty. I would disagree with Pearce strongly that the word and concept “heresy” and “heretic” has any meaning for us today. Its continued use by some has caused nothing but trouble for our churches; self-appointed judges and juries of orthodox thought and practice are far too willing to toss miscreants out of communion with their fellow Christians.
So, I suppose that my refusal to use the epithet qualifies me as a heretic. An interesting thought, that. Just as I cannot wrap my brain around the whole “handing” someone over to Satan – even metaphorically, it just doesn’t work for me – I refuse to grant the word “heresy” any meaning for me, or anyone else. Taking the two together, I suppose I am a heretic. As the word means nothing to me, I guess folks can call me that all they want. I don’t mind. Tossing meaningless insults at others, now that’s Christian. Who knows, maybe one of those people might “hand” me over to Satan.
On a more serious note, I just want to end by saying that we Christians have serious work to do intellectually, missionally, and pastorally. Talking about handing pompous douchebags over to Satan just because they’re pompous douchebags, or calling someone a heretic because you disagree with that person’s approach to some topic or other is about as meaningful as wondering whether someone is a witch because of a mole on her cheek. The least we can do is to leave behind things that just have no meaning any more, all the while admitting they might once have had meaning, even value.