This post is a follow-up to my previous one (see ‘Internet Heretic Superstar‘). A former seminary classmate asked me over Facebook why I chose to use the term ‘heretic’ in describing myself in that post. This is my response to her question. Many thanks to Ahna Phillips for getting me to explore interesting questions!
I use the term heretic in a (somewhat) sarcastic way. Do I really think of myself as a heretic? No and yes. No, I don’t think that I’ve been deceived by lies and led away from the truth to the peril of my soul. On the other hand, the word ‘heretic’ comes from the Greek word for ‘choice’. As you know, it initially referred to those who embraced their own ‘chosen’ faith rather than orthodox tradition. In that sense, one could say there is a ‘heretical’ element to all Liberal, Evangelical, Reformed, Protestant, and Christian faith. Each of these broke with its mother tradition at some point in order to pursue a new vision of faithfulness. Jesus himself was once branded as an insane and demon-possessed terrorist/heretic. One could argue that being called a heretic is indeed a badge of honor insofar as it puts one in a position of solidarity with the Christ.
As for me personally, I use the term ‘heretic’ intentionally in order to describe a theological shift that’s been happening in me this past year. For the last decade or so, I’ve hovered on the very edge of the Evangelical world (in the territory generally occupied by the so-called ‘Emergent’ types). Over the last twelve months, certain events have transpired that lead me to realize that I cannot authentically or conscientiously continue to identify myself as an ‘Evangelical’ (even in the ‘Emergent’ sense).
I’ll discuss two of these events here:
First, I resigned from the priesthood in the Free Episcopal Church for various ethical, professional, and personal reasons. An unfortunate side-effect of this move is that I was cut-off from the more catholic expression of my faith, which had been a kind of anchor for me. Without that particular expression of worship, there was apparently little to keep me in conformity with traditional doctrine. I’ve continued my ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA), where the liturgical/sacramental aspect is not emphasized as much. There is considerable theological diversity in the PC(USA), ranging from conservative/evangelical to progressive/liberal. The colleagues with whom I associate and the presbytery in which I serve (Utica) are generally representative of the latter. Iron sharpens iron, as they say.
Second, I came under intense fire last summer when I went on local TV as a pastor in support of my state’s new same-sex marriage legislation. While many of my committed Evangelical friends and family were extremely understanding, respectful, and supportive of me, the backlash from the broader community was astounding. The Rescue Mission of Utica, where I had worked and volunteered for over five years banned me from preaching in their chapel services. An Orthodox priest I know is no longer on speaking terms with me because I supposedly “blasphemed the Holy Spirit” by supporting this legislation. Violent hate mail directed toward me poured in through newspapers and the TV station. I realized then that the Christianity they practice bears little resemblance to the Christianity I practice. Self-identifying as Evangelical would be both inaccurate and disrespectful to Evangelicals and to me.
On the other hand, I’m finding that personal distance from the term ‘Evangelical’ is allowing me to appreciate certain things about their tradition that I would otherwise miss because I was too busy trying to fight back and prove myself as ‘one of them’. For example, I’m finding that I respect the Evangelical commitment to studying the Bible, personal spirituality, and engaging in mission. These are gifts from which the larger Christian community can reap blessings. Too many folks in the progressive/liberal mainline are stuck in old patterns of institutional maintenance, dry rote, and biblical illiteracy. Evangelicals have something to teach me, even if I can no longer count myself as one of them.