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.
6 thoughts on “Why I’m (not) a Heretic”
Great story. Hang in there.
My acquaintance with the Presbyterian Church is positive largely because I have had the use of an old Presbyterian seminary library for 30 years, in which I have found many older ‘liberal’ books (the kind of liberal that combines both the faith and the freedom of a son of God). This is a category I would simply call not-catholic, not-fundamentalist, not-evangelical. From the old nameplates in the front of the books it is clear that the depth of the library’s collection owes much to personal libraries donated by a great generation of men who taught there before the second world war.
And I like your point about the redeeming qualities of otherwise annoying evangelicals – at least they know scripture and will listen to the prophets, Jesus, and Paul. Most liberals can be every bit as frustrating as the fundamentalists when it comes to charting out real spiritual progress with a real God.
Thanks for the support, John. Which seminary are you close to?
The school is SFTS,, north of San Francisco. It’s about a 40 mile drive for me actually. But always well worth the trouble.
I grew up at the foot of ‘the hill’ and so went inside to look around as soon as I had my head turned by God (mid-70s). My ‘community patron’ borrowing privilege ($40 per quarter) gets me into the great consortium of collections at the GTU in Berkeley as well (when I’m in the mood for a longer drive).
As someone who has had the privilege of observing your journey for the past 15 years or so, I can only say it has been one amazing ride. I sit back and marvel at the man that pesky kid who badgered me to “disciple” him has grown into. Long ago conversations on the front porch over Guinness, guitars and pipes keep coming back to me. We are both a lot further in our journey than we were then. It was, is and will continue to be an honor to walk with you bro. Keep letting the scandal of grace work deeper into you.
Your journey and especially your willingness to testify in these spaces have kept me grounded. I took your example and took what God dealt me and looked at the means and the people God used to keep from falling into we v them thinking. As the son of a Methodist preacher (the 50’s in Michigan) I am tempted to see my own righteousness and not God’s hands. Still, it is hard when someone is so angry that spittle is flying to remember that we are brothers and that he is in his own pain and growing under the same Son.
God bless you for your courage to support same-gender-marriage. Your peaceful acceptance of the vitriol does more to promote peace than you know.
Thanks Bob, your friendship has been a support to me as well. Someday, we’ll find that magical halfway point between Westernville and Rochester and meet there (I just found an incredible new bookstore in Dewitt… they had a first edition Rudolph Bultmann, SIGNED, for a mere five bucks!) Be blessed and be a blessing.